St Patrick’s Escape; lies or statistics?

Published in Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Medieval History (pre-1500), St Patrick, Volume 5

Patrick’s own writings, in the form of two documents, have survived the passage of time. One, the Confessio, is a defence against his critics. The other is an indignant letter to a man called Coroticus who had taken some of Patrick’s newly baptised followers into slavery. The problem with these writings, which amount to no more than eight thousand words (about seven pages of text in History Ireland), is that they provide no indication of when they were written, no reference to any known contemporary historical figure and no identifiable geographic location other than countries and provinces.

First or second half of fifth century?

One clue, however, allows us to date them very roughly. Patrick wrote about the Franks in terms of an unchristian people. In his letter to Coroticus, he tells us about the custom of the Roman Christians in Gaul paying a ransom to buy back believers who had been taken captive by the Franks. Clovis, their king, became Christian at the end of the fifth century and it is unlikely that Patrick would have written about them in these terms beyond that date. Therefore, it is assumed he wrote sometime before AD 500. It is difficult, however, to define more precisely the years to which the documents refer: was the bulk of Patrick’s career completed in the first or the second half of the fifth century? We cannot, therefore, be confident about any date associated with the life of St Patrick.
Patrick did not set out to write a history of his life and times. He uses his pen as a defensive shield, and weapon of criticism against his opponents. In the Confessio, which provides most autobiographical snippets, he tells us he came from Britain, was captured at the age of sixteen and was carried off into slavery in Ireland where he remained for six years until he made good his escape. The passages which deal with his escape are baffling. He tells us that after running away he boarded a boat, sailed for three days and, on coming ashore, he and the crew crossed a wilderness or desert for twenty eight days; they ran out of food and hunger overtook them. The captain, who was fearful of never seeing another human being again, approached Patrick and asked him to pray to his Christian god to rescue them and send food for their journey. Shortly after, a herd of pigs appeared in the way and the men killed many of them; they even found wild honey and had enough sustenance to continue their journey until, on the twenty-eighth day, they reached human habitation. The passages are of such a controversial nature that some scholars have reached the conclusion that they are false. ‘The blunt truth’, according to E.A. Thompson, one of the leading protagonists against Patrick on this point, ‘is that the story of the march through the vast desert, whether it took place in Gaul or in Britain, is impossible as Patrick tells it. It could not have happened.’ However, he goes on to say that to ascribe a theory which involves a deceit on Patrick’s part ‘seems to be inconsistent with everything else that we know of his character’.
Where was this uninhabited country, lying within the Roman Empire and within three days sail from Ireland? Did it exist only in the mind of Patrick? When re-examined in the light of a combined study of the ecological, geographical, demographic and historical aspects of north west Europe of the fifth century, these most controversial passages may, ironically, provide the clues to enable us to anchor Patrick’s life more precisely in the fifth century.
Assuming that Patrick is providing actual time data in his narrative, the first step is to find out how far he could have journeyed from Ireland in a medieval boat in three days. This is unlikely to have been exactly seventy-two hours; it may have included three consecutive days and parts of preceding and succeeding days but it is unlikely to have passed four days or ninety-six hours in total. A medieval Irish hide boat, of the type Patrick is likely to have used, could have attained 460 miles within four days if it sailed at its top speed for the duration (assuming winds and currents were in its favour at all times).
If it set out from the vicinity of Rathlin island in the north east of Ireland under these circumstances, it could have reached the environs of Aberdeen in Scotland. If it had started from Carnsore Point in the extreme south east, and sailed into the English Channel, it could have travelled as far as Dover on the south coast of England or Calais on the opposite side of the Channel. On the other hand, if it had sailed south, it could have passed the mouth of the Loire on the west coast of France (Map). These distances provide the outer possible limits of Patrick’s journey. However, it is highly improbable that the boat would have encountered winds and currents in its favour at all times; therefore, the actual distance achieved was likely to have been much less.

Pigs and wild honey

Patrick’s mention of pigs and wild honey and his additional reference in the Confessio to being provided with fire during his land journey, in which wood was likely to be the fuell, suggests that he spent at least part of the period in a woodland setting. Forest and woodland is the dominant natural ecological formation over most of the land surface of north-west Europe, except where moist or exposed conditions (possibly combined with man’s activities) are more conducive to the development of peatlands. In the fifth century England was not a well wooded country. It probably consisted of two type of terrain: regions where there was a patchwork of woodland and farmland and regions where all woodland had disappeared. Overall, it is estimated that about fifteen per cent of the land surface was under forest. Written evidence about Scottish forests of the middle ages is scanty but the impression is that forest and woodland cover was not unlike medieval England. Wales, on the other hand, provides an impression of a land which was less wooded than England. This is because half the region, especially the uplands, was moorland. Woodland was more concentrated and more prominent in the inhabited countryside than in England.
The Confessio gives the distinct impression that the party with whom Patrick travelled was lost. This would suggest a situation of impaired visibility, like woodland, or wild hicket and bushland through which there were no guiding paths nor outstanding topographical features. Had Patrick’s boat reached any point in Britain, he and the crew could have walked from the coast into the well developed interior, using landscape features as navigational aids. Nowhere were forests or woodlands, or any other inhibiting landscape features, of such an extent to cause a group of people to lose themselves for almost a month. The population in Wales was relatively high and Irish settlements dotted the west coast. Besides, it is likely that Irish sailors knew where they were at most points along the British coast. Conditions in the north west of France were totally different; the landscape was low lying, undulating and covered with vast forests and woodland which acted as a cultural divide from the rest of continental Europe. The road network was so underdeveloped that the transport systems looked seawards rather than inland. The population of the interior was impoverished, low in numbers and dispersed. The area had lapsed into isolation soon after the Romans defeated the Veneti about 200 years earlier. Only on the coast did a veneer of Roman civilisation exist.

Barbarian incursions

The crew with whom Patrick sailed were not on an exploratory expedition. They were heading for an inhabited area, either to sell wares or obtain goods through fair or foul means. They were surprised when they found no one on the coast or further inland. No matter how low the population was, it was unlikely, under normal circumstances, that there was no one on the coast. However, circumstances in north west Europe at the time were far from normal. The Roman Empire was weakening under incursions into its territory by Alaric the Visigoth and Radagasius the Ostrogoth. As a result, Honorius the emperor moved his imperial court from Milan to the safer confines of the remote city of Ravenna which offered the possibilities of escape by sea should the need arise. He withdrew troops from the Rhine to defend Italy. This was partly the cause of further barbarian incursions into the Empire. On the last day of December 406 a large host of German tribes crossed the Rhine near Mainz and poured into Gaul. Troops were withdrawn from Britain to plug the gaps left in these defences and to defeat the invaders. However, the new emperor, Constantine III, was more concerned with consolidating his power base in Italy and the Germans were left free to pillage and plunder throughout Gaul for the following two years.
Britain, with a much diminished military presence, suffered a peasant revolt in 409 and in like manner, the Armoricans (inhabitants of north west Gaul), took up arms and refused to pay taxes to Rome. Lack of information prevents a detailed reconstruction of the events of the Armorican revolt; however, the fact that Roman officials were expelled and citizens could no longer depend on the protection of the legions makes it highly probable that most loyal Romans followed their officials and abandoned the area. The coastal veneer of civilisation was stripped away from north western Gaul. Later observations about Armorican activities from Roman records concentrate on happenings in the Loire area on the landward side of the vast forests and woodlands of the region.
Devoid of people

To have caused the revolt in the first place, the local population must have come together and joined forces. An amalgamation of dispersed local inhabitants into revolutionary hordes and abandonment of coastal towns and villages by loyal Roman citizens would have left large areas of Armorica almost devoid of people. If Patrick happened to escape during or shortly after the revolt and wander through the area, dispersed individuals, if they did exist on the route he followed with the crew, may well have chosen to disappear into the shadows of the undergrowth than confront what to them might have been the first wave of the invading Germanic tribes which were still harassing Gaul at that time.
Details of the movements of the German tribes are confused but, even though they may not have invaded the heartland of Armorica, it was inevitable that they did influence the area, at least indirectly, by contributing to the general state of uncertainty and fear of invasion. The large scale famine they caused in 409 in central Gaul must have affected the region. Domestic supplies of food would have been used or taken away by the local Roman population before they left, as they would have been conscious of food shortages in Gaul, outside Armorica. The rebel population would have been equally covetous about remaining food supplies.
All of the details of the escape which Saint Patrick provides or implies in his narrative—the journey of three days from Ireland, lack of people on the coast where he lands, loss of the crew in an area of impaired visibility, lack of people in the hinterland and shortages of food—can be explained if they occurred in Armorica during or shortly after the revolt of 409. Before this date it is highly unlikely that the crew would have found the place deserted; after this date, word would have spread about the conditions prevailing in the area and would have discouraged Irish sailors from going there.


There is every reason, therefore, to believe Patrick. Far from lying, he has provided us with the vital statistics to anchor his chronology in history, for he tells us that when he was taken captive he was about sixteen years old. He spent six years in Ireland before escaping from slavery. Therefore, he was born twenty-two years earlier, about AD 387. On the basis of age alone it is likely that his career as a missionary in Ireland began and largely took place in the first half of the fifth century.

Raymond Keogh is currently working on behalf of Coillte Teoranta on a World Bank project in Kenya

Further reading:

E. A. Thompson, Who was Saint Patrick? (The Boydell Press 1985)

L. de Paor, Saint Patrick’s World (Dublin 1993).


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