St Patrick’s Writings: Confessio and Epistola

St Patrick’s Writings: Confessio and Epistola by David Kelly by David Kelly

1. Foreword

St Patrick is a complex figure who continues to fascinate scholars and commentators as his yearly celebration comes round on March 17th. The saint is at once a fifth-century missionary bringing Christianity to the shores of Ireland and also a symbol of ‘Irishness’ (however we define the term) for people with Irish connections around the world. He has been appropriated for many different purposes and his image shaped accordingly to meet a diversity of needs. For instance, in the Ireland of the eighteenth century a variety of perceptions of the saint emerged that ‘were moulded by religious, political, intellectual and social circumstances’ unique to that century.1 Thus it was that the figure of Patrick emerged as an archetypal Irishman — a bearded bishop — on a copper halfpenny token coin issued by a mining company between 1789 and 1793, with his image also depicted on jugs manufactured by the English firm Wedgwood and a Belfast-based pottery company in the 1780s.2 Lives of Patrick were being reproduced by scribes and scholars at the same time, and these were considered a standard part of Gaelic tradition. Both Catholic and Protestant church commentators claimed Patrick as their own in debates current in the seventeenth century, and continued to do so in the century that followed. An Irish order of knighthood and a Roman Catholic national seminary ‘were established under his patronage by a royal patent and act of parliament in 1783 and 1795 respectively.’ 3

These perceptions of Patrick are mentioned here simply to highlight the fact that the figure that we have inherited is complex, with many historical, religious, and cultural layers of interpretation attached to him over time. So what of the Saint himself? Who was St Patrick? Can we get behind all the accretions of history, legend, and folklore to apprehend something of the ‘real’ St Patrick?

In this introduction we will travel back to the fifth century AD, taken as being the time in which Patrick lived. Through a consideration of the writings that are accepted as authentically his — the Confessio and the Epistola (or Letter) to Coroticus, both in Latin — we can discern something of the person of Patrick himself. We will examine first the apparent geographical and social context out of which Patrick emerges, namely Roman Britain, and then, in turn, some features of Patrick’s two writings.

2. Patrick’s probable background in fifth-century Roman Britain

The Britain into which we understand that Patrick was born had been part of the Roman Empire for over 350 years. The Roman invasion of Britain arguably occurred ‘because it suited the careers of two men.’4 The first of the two, Julius Caesar, having conquered Gaul in 55 BC, led an expedition consisting of two legions to Britain. He wanted a victory in order to re-establish Commius, king of the Atrebates, on his throne; he also wanted the silver that he believed awaited him in Britain. Caesar managed no more than a token victory on his first visit, but tried again in 54 BC, with five legions (this time more successfully as far as Commius was concerned); but he had to return to Gaul without any silver or other booty.

The next attempt at invasion, in 43 AD, was the initiative of the emperor Claudius. His motives were very similar to those of Julius Caesar: he needed the prestige that victory in Britain would bring him, enabling him to consolidate his hold on power after becoming Emperor in a palace coup. He sent four legions across the sea to Britain. They were successful, and Claudius himself arrived in Britain, entering the capital of the Catuvellauni at Colchester (Camulodunum) in triumph. Though he stayed in Britain for only sixteen days, and it took years more for the Romans to subdue most of the rest of the island (they were never entirely successful), Claudius’ political career benefited more than Caesar’s had. Nevertheless, ‛it has been said that Rome conquered an empire in a fit of absentmindedness. Britain is a case in point.’5

A succession of able Roman governors enlarged Rome’s newest province, first by taking what is now Wales, and then by pushing northwards into the south of present-day Scotland. The last of these successful pioneers was Gnaeus Julius Agricola (AD 77/8 – 83/4), who defeated the Caledonians in battle. Tacitus, in his work Agricola, describes the victorious governor looking across the sea from the Scottish west coast:

"The whole side of Britain that faces Ireland was lined with his forces. But his motive was rather hope than fear. Ireland, lying between Britain and Spain, and easily accessible also from the Gallic sea, might, to great general advantage, bind in close union that powerful section of the empire. Ireland is small in extent as compared to Britain, but larger than the islands of the Mediterranean. In soil, in climate and in the character and civilization of its inhabitants it is much like Britain. Its approaches and harbours are tolerably well known from merchants who trade there. Agricola had given a welcome to an Irish prince, who had been driven from home by a rebellion; nominally a friend, he might be used as a pawn in the game. I have often heard Agricola say that Ireland could be reduced and held by a single legion and a few auxiliaries, and that the conquest would also pay from the point of view of Britain, if Roman arms were in evidence on every side and liberty vanished off the map.6"

Agricola’s ambitions were never realised. Trading connections were established between Ireland and the west coast of Britain, but Ireland remained outside the ambit of Roman imperial rule.

The imperial annexation of Britain was on the wane when Patrick was growing up, more than likely somewhere along Britain’s west coast. He was born into a Romano-British family, his father being a decurion, one of the ‘long-suffering, overtaxed rural gentry of the provinces’.7 They may have paid their taxes, but what they expected in return — the protection of the Roman legions — was no longer available in a declining Roman administration. Patrick was therefore an easy target for capture and being taken into slavery in Ireland. He tells us this much about his family in his Confessio:

"My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. (C 1)"

Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the precise location of Bannavem Taburniae, with numerous speculative suggestions. Given the apparent ease with which Patrick was kidnapped from this place, one can reasonably suppose that it was somewhere near the west coast of Britain; but we simply do not know the exact location. The Latin term that Patrick uses for the family home, uillula, suggests that they had reasonable economic means and were of a particular social class. Calpornius’ combination of an ecclesiastical role (in his case as a deacon) with that of decurion was not unusual in the late fourth- or early fifth-century Roman empire: clergy were already ‘taking over some of the social roles that had been held by the cult-officials, the flamines, within the Empire. The clergy were rapidly becoming the administrative middle class of the provinces.’8 In addition, for a man to be ordained required that he be a freeman, since the ordination of slaves would have created an incompatibility between their place in society and their economic status — indeed, Patrick himself asserts in his Epistola that he ‛was born free, in that I was born of a decurion father’ (E 10).

Patrick was very close to his family. Indeed his enforced absence from them due to six years of slavery in Ireland would have served to strengthen family bonds. He tells us that, on his return to Britain, ‘they welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again’ (C 23). During his subsequent time as a missionary in Ireland, Patrick was very conscious of being cut off from those he knew, family and friends; and so he wonders about leaving the Irish and returning home:

"I could wish to leave them to go to Britain. I would willingly do this, and am prepared for this, as if to visit my home country and my parents. Not only that, but I would like to go to Gaul to visit the brothers and to see the faces of the saints of my Lord. God knows what I would dearly like to do. But I am bound in the Spirit, who assures me that if I were to do this, I would be held guilty. (C 43)"

Patrick’s acknowledgement of these feelings of homesickness makes for a very human portrait in his Confessio; at the same time he is a man committed to his mission, which he believes he received from God:

"And I fear, also, to lose the work which I began — not so much I as Christ the Lord, who told me to come here to be with these people for the rest of my life. (C 43)"

Patrick’s reference to his father Calpornius as a deacon and to his grandfather Potitus as a priest (patrem habui Calpornium diaconum filium quendam Potiti presbyteri) (C 1) implies married clergy in his ancestry. It also raises an interesting question: ‛was Patrick married with a family of his own?’9 Professor O’Loughlin points out that in the fifth century most bishops were married but that, from the later fourth century, a shift in Christian attitudes towards sexuality had been taking place — an attitude which began to see marriage and saintliness as somehow incompatible. Church Fathers such as Jerome had argued that those dealing with ‘heavenly’ things should be celibate, as opposed to being married and dealing with ‘earthly’ things. Augustine of Hippo had already adopted a monastic and celibate form of life along with his monks. Patrick does not tell us whether he was ever married or not but, given that in his writings he mentions with approval ‘monks and virgins of Christ’ (monachi et virgines Christi) (C 41; E 12), praises women who have remained virgins (C 42), and speaks of ‘the chastity of genuine religion’ that he has ‛chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord’ (C 44), it seems reasonable to presume that Patrick was a celibate bishop committed to remaining so until the end of his life.

Patrick, as the son of a Romano-Briton family of moderate wealth, would have been able to benefit from a Roman-style education and basic skills such as reading, writing and public speaking. Such an education would have been essential for people belonging to the clerical ordo or class. Patrick’s education would have been disrupted by his enforced slavery in Ireland but presumably, after his return to Britain and his eventual preparation to become a cleric himself, he would have been able to make good the deficit to some extent. True, Patrick does describe himself as rusticissimus (C 1) and indoctus (E 1) – a simple country person and one unlearnèd — in his writings; and he seems very self-conscious of his educational shortcomings as he seeks to answer criticisms of his ministry from his fellow-bishops back in Britain, people who (he suggests) would be better educated than he and more articulate and trained in rhetoric. Nonetheless, Patrick does manage to get his message across, using the Scriptures or scriptural allusions to help him in this regard. The language he uses has been described as a popular or vulgar form of Latin from the fifth century, like that identified in Gaul, by scholars such as the late Christine Mohrmann;10 but more recent work by David Howlett has discerned a level of sophistication in Patrick’s language, and in the literary structure of his writings, that resembles a type of parallelism found in Biblical texts such as the Psalms.11 This phenomenon is known as chiasm, which, according to Joseph Duffy, means that ‘words and phrases are repeated in such a way that they mirror each other at regular and predictable intervals and reveal balanced cross-references and complimentary echoes throughout the text.’12 We still await the emergence of a general consensus on the fruits of such research in regard to the literary style and structure of Patrick’s writings; in the interim the precise extent of Patrick’s education in Roman Britain and/or in Gaul must, according to O’Loughlin, remain an open question.13

At this point it is appropriate that we look at each of Patrick’s writings in turn, highlighting some features of their presentation and content as well as the circumstances that gave rise to their existence.

3. Patrick’s Confessio

What do we find in Patrick’s Confessio, more than a millennium and a half after its composition? In answering this question it is striking first to note what do we not find there — no reference to the shamrock, no indication of snakes’ being driven out, and no naming of the mountain where Patrick tended animals as a slave (neither Slemish nor Croagh Patrick nor, for that matter, Lough Derg is mentioned); nor is there any allusion to the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Tara, or to King Loíguire. All of these ingredients, which we have inherited as part of the wider narrative of Patrick, derive from later traditions and circumstances. Over time the cult and status of Patrick took on such proportions as to flow from straightforward historical narrative into hagiographical writing (the presentation of saints’ lives), popular folk-beliefs, and legends, all reflective of the times in which such traditions emerged.14

The standard English rendering of the title of Patrick’s longer writing is simply Confession, as adopted in (for example) Duffy’s translation; but other versions have adopted such expansions as Confession of Grace (Conneely) and Patrick’s Acknowledgement of God’s Dealings with him (O’Loughlin); in Irish we have Ó Fiannachta’s Dearbhú Grásta.15 These reflect the fact that the Latin term confessio can be understood in three basic ways within the Christian tradition — confessio peccatorum (confession of sins), confessio fidei (confession or testimony of faith), and confessio laudis (confession of praise) — and that a perusal of Patrick’s writing reveals the presence of all three of these modes. The opening line of the Confessio already announces who the writer is and how he evaluates himself: Ego Patricius peccator rusticissimus (C 1), ‘My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person.’ Referring to his slavery in Ireland and his lack of faith at the time, he says: ‘It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognised my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God’ (C 2). His confession or testimony of faith appears in his inclusion of a formal creed concerning the Trinity: ‘This is the one we acknowledge and adore — one God in a trinity of the sacred name’ (C 4). It seems that Patrick wants to set out the orthodoxy of his Christian beliefs; but had these beliefs been called into question? As for a confession of praise, throughout his writing Patrick goes out of his way to attribute any success that his mission has had to God and to the workings of God’s grace:

"For that reason, I give thanks to the one who strengthened me in all things, so that he would not impede me in the course I had undertaken and from the works also which I had learned from Christ my Lord. Rather, I sensed in myself no little strength from him, and my faith passed the test before God and people. (C 30)"

"I am greatly in debt to God. He gave me such great grace, that through me, many people should be born again in God and brought to full life. Also that clerics should be ordained everywhere for this people who have lately come to believe, and who the Lord has taken from the ends of the Earth. (C 38)"

Returning to the matter of whether Patrick’s beliefs or their orthodoxy had been called into question brings us to the further issue of the circumstances that gave rise to Patrick’s need to write this confession, testimony, and declaration of his faith and of God’s dealings with him. In his writing, Patrick tells us that he was subjected to criticism from others, including those whom he calls his seniors:

"One time I was put to the test by some superiors of mine. They came and put my sins against my hard work as a bishop. (C 26)"

The charge brought against Patrick referred to something which had happened in his past and which had been disclosed through a betrayal of confidence on the part of a close friend:

"They brought up against me after thirty years something I had already confessed before I was a deacon. What happened was that, one day when I was feeling anxious and low, with a very dear friend of mine I referred to some things I had done one day — rather, in one hour — when I was young, before I overcame my weakness. I don’t know — God knows — whether I was then fifteen years old at the time, and I did not then believe in the living God, not even when I was a child. In fact, I remained in death and unbelief until I was reproved strongly, and actually brought low by hunger and nakedness daily. (C 27)"

Patrick felt the pain of his friend’s betrayal long afterwards, and the memory of it was still fresh with him as he wrote his Confessio:

"But I grieve more for my very dear friend, that we had to hear such an account — the one to whom I entrusted my very soul. I did learn from some brothers before the case was heard that he came to my defence in my absence. I was not there at the time, not even in Britain, and it was not I who brought up the matter. In fact it was he himself who told me from his own mouth: ‛Look, you are being given the rank of bishop’. That is something I did not deserve. How could he then afterwards come to disgrace me in public before all, both good and bad, about a matter for which he had already freely and joyfully forgiven me, as indeed had God, who is greater than all? (C 32)"

These are the circumstances that appear to have prompted Patrick to write his Confessio; but it is more than a mere apologia. It is a testimony to Patrick’s personal faith and trust in God, to whom he attributes the entire success of his mission in Ireland. In effect he is saying to his critics: ‛Look at the outcome of my mission here in Ireland, judge it by its results, and realise that without God’s help it would not have come to fruition at all’.

Patrick was conscious of his own shortcomings in undertaking the task of writing the testimony of faith that is his Confessio, but his dogged perseverance and trust in God’s help kept him going and emboldened him to proclaim what the Lord had done for him:

"So I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure. (C 12)"

Patrick may be referring here to his awakening to conversion and to his new-found faith during the hardships of his slavery, or else to the criticisms of his seniors back in Britain. Either way, Patrick is convinced that his humiliations have been the fertile seed-ground for the effective working of God’s grace in his life. He goes on to challenge his critics in these words:

"So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end. (C 13)"

Patrick sums up his reasons for writing as follows:

"In the knowledge of this faith in the Trinity, and without letting the dangers prevent it, it is right to make known the gift of God and his eternal consolation. It is right to spread abroad the name of God faithfully and without fear, so that even after my death I may leave something of value to the many thousands of my brothers and sisters — the children whom I baptised in the Lord. I didn’t deserve at all that the Lord would grant such great grace, after hardships and troubles, after captivity, and after so many years among that people. It was something which, when I was young, I never hoped for or even thought of. (C 14-15)"

Motivated thus, Patrick’s Confessio highlights his own growth in faith and trust in a personal and loving God as the inner source of his strength, especially in his many difficulties, and as the author (as already stated) of whatever success his mission had accomplished. He records his fervour in prayer as a young man while in slavery in Ireland; his later spiritual experiences, such as an example of severe temptation by Satan as he (Patrick) lay asleep one night (C 20); his escape from slavery (C 21-22); his later receipt of a call by God to walk again among the Irish (C 23); and an experience of the Spirit praying within him (C 25).

This spiritual journey upon which Patrick embarked provided the inner strength for his mission to Ireland. It was a mission that had its difficulties, as Patrick makes clear:

"It was not by my own grace, but God who overcame it in me, and resisted them all so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the gospel. I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here. I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others. If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me. (C 37)"

Although Patrick uses the verb ‘to confess’ (confiteri) a number of times in the opening sections of his Confessio, it is only towards the end that he employs a form of that actual noun:

"Again and again I briefly put before you the words of my confession (confessionis). I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped, except the gospel and God’s promises. (C 61)"

His closing request at the end of his Confessio appeals to those who believe and revere God:

"I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die. (C 62)"

4. Patrick’s letter to the soldiers of Coroticus

Much of Patrick’s Confessio offers us a retrospective view of things: he probably wrote it in his later years, as an old man. From this it may be assumed that his other work, the Epistola, was written at some earlier period of Patrick’s mission in Ireland, though precisely when we do not know. The Epistola, or Letter, is shorter than the Confessio and, like the longer document, translations of it have been given a number of titles: Letter to Coroticus, Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, Letter Excommunicating Coroticus. For the Epistola is indeed essentially a letter of excommunication (whether authoritative or otherwise), addressed to Coroticus and his soldiers; these had attacked a number of Patrick’s newly baptised converts and had carried them off into slavery — a practice of which, of course, Patrick had had direct experience. As a matter of fact, Patrick is the only person that we know of from the fifth century who survived the ordeal of slavery and lived to tell his story. As mentioned earlier, that century was one in which Roman imperial rule was decaying, especially in Britain. Increasing disorder marked the period, as the Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain to help counter the barbarian forces threatening Rome — and indeed Rome fell to these tribes in 410 AD. With the legions gone from Britain, the stage was clear for warlords to emerge and grab whatever there was for the taking, including people, who were kidnapped and then held for ransom or sold into slavery.

It would appear from the letter that the marauders under Coroticus included some who were at least nominally Christian; this makes sense if the letter is intended to declare such people excommunicated from the Christian Church. Patrick roundly condemns the crime of Coroticus and his companions as a rejection of God’s gift of life and as a rebellion against God; hence they are to be treated as apostates. The crime is compounded in that their victims are fellow-Christians. The declaration of excommunication implied by Patrick’s letter is essentially a statement that the culprits have, in effect, excommunicated themselves by their own actions (a formal sentence of excommunication, such as we might understand it, belongs more properly to later canonical developments in the legislation of the western Church).16

Patrick, despite pleading that he is merely a sinner and untaught, stresses his credentials as a bishop from the outset of the letter, as it is with the prestige of this office that he sets out to condemn the actions of Coroticus:

"I declare that I, Patrick — an unlearned sinner indeed — have been established a bishop of Ireland. (E 1)"

Having explained his pastoral motivation for speaking out in the letter, he goes on to identify those to whom it is addressed:

"With my own hand I have written and put together these words to be given and handed on and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus. (E 2)"

Patrick is using a latinised form of the name here, and the precise identity and origin of this Coroticus have been a matter of debate among scholars. Some have seen him as the contemporaneous ruler of the Strathclyde region in what is now Scotland, while others have identified him with a certain Ceretic, a Welsh ruler.17 The suggestion that he was the Strathclyde man tallies with a chapter-heading in Muirchú’s seventh-century Life of Patrick in the Book of Armagh: this reads De conflictu sancti Patricii aduersum Coirthech regem Aloo (‛Of holy Patrick's stand against Coirthech, king of Ail’)18 The placename is taken to refer to Dumbarton, on the Clyde. This would suggest that Coirthech ruled a region close to the Picts; thus Joseph Duffy, for one, considers it most likely that ‘scholars have correctly identified Coroticus as the Coirthech referred to by Muirchú.’19 For Patrick goes on to group Coroticus and his soldiers with specific other evildoers:

"I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts. They are blood-stained: blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ. (E 2)"

The term Picti, ‘painted ones’, was the name given by the Romans to the tribes living north of the Clyde-Forth isthmus. As for the term Scotti, in the early Middle Ages this referred to Gaels in general but, given its context, Patrick is here using it to refer specifically to those who, partnered with the Picts in the slave-trading business, ‘were originally sea-farers from Ireland who gradually settled along the west coast of Scotland and who were evangelised in the sixth century by Colmcille’s monks from Iona’.20 As is clear from a second reference to them in the Epistola (E 15), the ‘apostates’ are seen by Patrick as renegade Christians and, together with Coroticus and his forces, they bear the brunt of Patrick’s fury because:

freeborn people have been sold off, Christians reduced to slavery: slaves particularly of the lowest and worst of the apostate Picts (E 15).

Patrick describes how some of the victims of Coroticus and his soldiers suffered an even worse fate:

"The newly baptised anointed were dressed in white robes; the anointing was still to be seen clearly on their foreheads when they were cruelly slain and sacrificed by the sword of the ones I referred to above. (E 3)"

Patrick adds that he had acted immediately on hearing the news of the tragedy, but to no avail:

"On the day after that, I sent a letter by a holy priest (whom I had taught from infancy), with clerics, to ask that they return to us some of the booty or of the baptised prisoners they had captured. They scoffed at them. (E 3)"

It would seem from this that our extant letter, the Epistola, is Patrick’s second communication to and about those guilty of the crimes against his neophytes. This time it is no longer a plea to spare prisoners; rather, it is intended to communicate Patrick’s judgement on Coroticus’ crimes against newly baptised Christians. This judgement is expressed forthrightly:

"So I don’t know which is the cause of the greatest grief for me: whether those who were slain, or those who were captured, or those whom the devil so deeply ensnared. They will face the eternal pains of Gehenna equally with the devil; because whoever commits sin is rightly called a slave and a son of the devil. For this reason, let every God-fearing person know that those people are alien to me and to Christ my God, for whom I am an ambassador: father-slayers, brother-slayers, they are savage wolves devouring the people of God as they would bread for food. It is just as it is said: The wicked have routed your law, O Lord — the very law which in recent times he so graciously planted in Ireland and, with God’s help, has taken root. (E 4-5)"

Patrick is not only addressing these judgements to the guilty, but is also using the occasion to warn the innocent, allowing them to ‘overhear’, as it were, what he is saying to Coroticus and his soldiers:

"Therefore I ask most of all that all the holy and humble of heart should not fawn on such people, nor even share food or drink with them, nor accept their alms, until such time as they make satisfaction to God in severe penance and shedding of tears, and until they set free the men-servants of God and the baptised women servants of Christ, for whom he died and was crucified. (E 7)"

Patrick laments and grieves over the loss of the newly baptised members of his flock, as he declares:

"Greedy wolves have devoured the flock of the Lord, which was flourishing in Ireland under the very best of care — I just can’t count the number of sons of Scots [in this case presumably Irish Gaels] and daughters of kings who are now monks and virgins of Christ. (E 12)"

This reference to ‘monks and virgins of Christ’ (monachi et virgines Christi) is one that we also find in the Confessio, where Patrick praises the great number of people, both men and women, who have embraced the monastic life despite opposition from relatives (C 41-42).

The ultimate fate of Coroticus and his soldiers is one that Patrick leaves to God:

"So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves — those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as a cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord. The just, however, will banquet in great constancy with Christ. They will judge nations, and will rule over evil kings for all ages. Amen. (E 19)"

Patrick has urged repentance upon those guilty of the crimes that he has railed against in the Epistola – even as he warns of dire punishments for them in the absence of any such repentance. He has spoken from his position as a bishop, defending his flock. Even as he does so, he also reflects upon his sense of isolation and the criticisms being directed against him, which may seem to detract from any authority he wishes to speak from (L 10-11). Perhaps it is this gnawing anxiety that prompts him to add greater weight to what he has said by appealing, ultimately, to the authority of God himself:

"I bear witness before God and his angels that it will be as he made it known to one of my inexperience. These are not my own words which I have put before you in Latin; they are the words of God, and of the apostles and prophets, who have never lied. Anyone who believes will be saved; anyone who does not believe will be condemned — God has spoken. (E 20)"

5. Conclusion

In this necessarily limited overview of Patrick’s two writings, we can discern something of the personality and character of the author: Patrick himself, in his humanity, comes to the fore. We read about his relationship with God and are presented with a humble acknowledgement of God’s grace at work in his life, from his conversion as a slave to his missionary accomplishments as a bishop. He appears as a man schooled in adversity and suffering but resilient and persevering nonetheless, strengthened by his robust and instinctive trust in God. He appears as one who was and still is hurt by the accusations brought against him, and by the betrayal of confidence that has undermined him in the eyes of his superiors. The Letter to Coroticus, in particular, shows Patrick to have been a robust, pastorally concerned shepherd of his flock. The Confessio and the Epistola are probably the only writings of their kind that are extant from any part of the fifth-century Christian Church; together they give us a man who was a flesh-and-blood saint, but no less a saint for all that.


14On the early stages of these developments see the contribution by Elizabeth Dawson to this Stack.^
17See R.P.C. Hanson, Saint Patrick: His Origins and Career, (Oxford, 1968), p. 11 for an assessment of this debate.^
18See paragraph 1 of Muirchú’s work in this Stack. ^