Somerset has given the world Cheddar cheese, the Glastonbury Festival and some of the finest ciders. Now an academic says the English county can also claim Ireland’s patron saint for its own.
According to Saint Patrick’s autobiographical “Confession”, he was abducted from his home in Britain by Irish raiders as a teenager. He was forced to tend sheep in Ireland but escaped after six years and made it back to his parents — who pleaded for him to never leave them again. However, he was later called to return to the land of his captivity as a missionary.
It is clear that Patrick evangelised in Ireland during the fifth century, against the backdrop of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. However, more precise dating and the location of his childhood home are disputed. The new study from philologist Dr Andrew Breeze claims that both can be pinpointed, with significant implications for understanding his life and times.
As he puts it: “All the evidence seems to fit.”
There are clues in Patrick’s own words. In his “Confession”, he describes himself as “a simple country person” and says: “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. I was about 16 at the time.”
Scholars agree that the place name is garbled and should be Bannaventa Tabernae or Bannaventa Berniae. However, they disagree on its location, with some suggesting South Wales, southwestern Scotland or close to Carlisle, in today’s northwest England.
In his paper, in the Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture, Breeze, of the University of Navarre, argues that the question has been resolved and Patrick’s Bannaventa was in fact today’s Banwell, near Weston-super-Mare in North Somerset.
He cites 1990s research by local historian Harry Jelley, which, he believes, has been overlooked by scholars. Jelley suggested that Bannaventa was a Latinisation of a Brittonic name that included banna, for a bend, crook or peak — and venta, for an area of local administration. In his analysis, Banwell is a compound name that also incorporates wylle from the Old English for “pool” or “spring”.
Jelley proposed that, while it was lost in the name of Banwell, the venta element was preserved in that of Winthill, a hamlet of the same village. And he argued that the Berniae element may have derived from the Brittonic bern, meaning a gap or pass. This, in turn, could have been preserved in the field names Bairn’s Green, Bairn’s Combe, and Little Bairn at Winthill, as recorded in an 1841 map.
Potentially supporting these arguments, Banwell is overlooked by a hill known as Crook Peak and lies close to the Churchill Gap, a pass in the Mendips. The remains of a Roman settlement and at least one villa have been identified around Winthill. Moreover, archaeologists have suggested that Irish raiders travelling up the Severn Estuary were responsible for fourth-century attacks on North Somerset villas.
Local archaeologist JW Hunt previously linked Banwell and Winthill to Patrick’s Bannaventa as far back as the 1960s, gaining little recognition.
Breeze said: “It all started to make sense, because Banwell is in an area that has many remains of Roman villas. It was a prosperous agricultural area and we know Patrick’s father was a decurion, which means he held a municipal office. So there must have been a big city near to the estate. In this case, it would have been Bath. The important thing about this part of Somerset is it has a very low-lying coast, which means that it was open to raids by the Irish.”
The mention of Patrick’s father’s status comes from the saint’s letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, a British ruler of Strathclyde who Patrick accused of enslaving and killing Irish converts to Christianity. In the letter, Patrick — whose Latin name was Patricius — alludes to his own Roman identity and his “exile” among the non-Roman Irish.
Breeze believes the letter holds the key to fixing Patrick’s dates. He writes: “If we can date Coroticus, we can date Patrick.”
Traditional accounts held that Patrick was born in the late fourth century, kidnapped in the early fifth, embarked on his mission in 432, and died in 461. Revisionist accounts, now widely accepted, put his birth in the early fifth century, his mission in the second half of the century and his death in 492/3.
Breeze argues that dating evidence from Welsh genealogies strongly favours the older view. He cites a genealogy published in Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts (edited by PC Bartrum) that lists Coroticus as five generations back from Rhydderch the Old — a king of Strathclyde active in the 580s.
The genealogies date from the later medieval period but draw on lost early sources. “They provide a chronology and when we can check them, they can be shown to be surprisingly reliable,” Breeze said. “In 1911, Sir John Lloyd, a wonderful Welsh historian, pointed out that if we estimate 25 to 30 years for each generation, this takes the reign of Coroticus back to the 450s.
“This fits with the chronology we can establish for Patrick on other grounds. For example, Patrick never makes any reference to the Anglo-Saxon onslaught on Britain of the 440s onwards — which suggests that he was writing before its effects had become particularly obvious.”
If Breeze is correct, Patrick may have been a captive in Ireland when Roman rule of Britain ended, around 410. His return to his parents’ home and his use of Latin and Roman self-identity decades later, all illustrate continuity with the Roman past. As Breeze writes: “A comfortable and even luxurious existence might end with a terrifying barbarian attack; even so, life went on, as Patrick discovered on his homecoming years later.”
Yet he cautions: “His writings are evidence for Britain up to the 450s. They thus tell us nothing about later periods, which were dominated by the Saxon invasions of 449 and later, but are never mentioned by Patrick.”
He notes a tradition that Patrick was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. Given that Banwell is only 13 miles from the religious site, he said his findings brought “new life” to the alleged association. He suggests Patrick might even have prepared himself for the priesthood there. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is, as yet, no evidence for a monastery there at this early date.
If his dating of Patrick is right, the prevailing scholarly view must be wrong. The idea that Patrick died in the 490s is based largely on claims in Irish annals. Like the Welsh genealogies, these date from centuries after the events but draw on older material. Breeze argues that evidence from the annals is weak in this instance. For example, some claim Patrick died in the 490s, but others say 457 or 461.
Likewise, there is a reference to a disciple of Patrick called Maucteus dying in 535. This certainly jars with the earlier date for Patrick but is possible if Maucteus died in his 90s. In any case, Breeze argues that Patrick’s association with Maucteus is questionable, while the link to Coroticus is certain.
As for why a difference of a few decades matters, Breeze said: “The more precisely and clearly we see, the more we will see in future. If we can see the letter and confession as authentic documents of the mid-fifth century, and not the late fifth century, we understand them better. The chronology is crucial, and things start to make more sense.”
“Apart from natural pride in feeling that Patrick was one of them, there is the added point for people in Somerset that his writings give a rather vivid picture of what life was like in that region in the early fifth century. It is a window on very late Roman Britain when the empire was beginning to collapse.”
Andrew Breeze’s latest book is The Historical Arthur and the The Gawain Poet (Lexington Books). The photograph at the top of the article shows a statue of Saint Patrick at Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo. Photo: Alamy