Bath House at Vindolanda; one of several Roman military sites in Northumberland with links to the family of St. Patrick (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In spite of the fact that when most people think of the distant beginnings of the English Church the name that springs most immediately to mind is that of St. Augustine of Canterbury, the true origins of Christianity in Durham and Northumbria originate with St. Patrick’s Mission to Ireland in the early Fifth Century. Although the Northumbrian Church traces its foundation to St. Aidan’s response to King Oswald’s request that missionaries should be sent from Iona some twenty-seven years after St. Augustine’s arrival on the Island of Thanet, monastic life on the Island of Iona began at the instigation of St. Columba; whose ecclesiastical background is firmly rooted in the Irish Church founded by St. Patrick.
Early hagiographic sources accredit St. Brigid, who lived between 451 and 525, Patrick, and Columba with being the three joint Patron Saints of Ireland. St. Brigid, who has featured already in some earlier postings on this blog, is generally represented as the daughter of a Pictish slave girl named Brocca, who had been converted to Christianity by Saint Patrick, and a Prince of the Royal House of Leinster named Dubhthach. Columba, on the other hand, was the great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose son Lóegaire mac Néill is believed to have been an important royal convert of St. Patrick. This considered, it is perhaps highly significant that direct evidence appears to exist for Patrick’s own family connections to a number of Roman Military officers on Hadrian’s Wall, in a region that would one day become part of the early See of Northumbria.
According to early hagiographic legend Easter 433 saw a major confrontation between St. Patrick of Ireland and a group of Irish Druids. The story goes that the episode took place when Easter is supposed to have coincided with the Pagan Festival of Beltane: a Celtic Fire Festival associated with the beginning of Summer. The controversy at the heart of the matter supposedly arose when Patrick lit a Paschal Fire on top of the Hill of Slane where the remains of a Christian abbey now stand. The story goes that Patrick did this in defiance of the then High King, Lóegaire mac Néill, who had previously decreed that no other fires should be lit whilst a Beltane Fire still burned on the Hill of Tara, where he himself had his royal capital. In spite of this, no action was taken against Patrick and the Christian Mission was permitted to continue; much to the consternation of some of the Pagan priesthood.
Nowadays this key event in Patrick’s Ministry is almost entirely forgotten, as it has been largely superseded in terms of importance by the great bacchanal that now dominates St. Patrick’s own Holy Day on March 17th. March 17th may be an excuse for binge drinking among Irish communities across the globe, but the real life Saint who inspired Ireland’s National Day was in reality a Roman with military connections. What’s more, he was born in Britain of all places. And, as if that wasn’t enough, in all probability the only drink he would have approved of, apart from watered down communion wine, was water from the sacred spring at Struell Wells near Downpatrick in County Down. An ancient Holy Well close to where he himself lived. So who was the real Patrick and where did he come from?
Inscribed Roman Stonework in the Anglo-Saxon Crypt at Hexham Abbey where a lost inscription linked to St. Patrick’s Family was unearthed in 1725. (Wikimedia Commons)
A Roman military inscription on a buff sandstone altar, officially lost since 1860, may hold the key to some still obscure hagiographical facts relating to the life of Ireland’s patron saint. The inscription, which first came to light in 1725, when the Anglo-Saxon crypt, built entirely out of Roman worked stones, was first opened at Hexham Abbey in County Northumberland, may also contain a guarded reference to the God of the Christians, thus shedding further light on the true origins of Christianity in Britain.
Beginning with a partially damaged reference to what is generally perceived to have been the Second Legion of Augustus, ‘LEG A…’, the original Latin text is believed by scholars to have read as follows: ‘Quintus Calpurnius Concessinius, prefect of cavalry, after slaughtering a band of Corionototae, fulfilled his vow to the god of most efficacious power.’
Born somewhere close to the Western Seaboard of Britain to Roman parents, the young ‘Magonus Sucatus’, later to be known as Magonus Sucatus Patricius, spent his early years in and around the obscure Roman settlement of Bannavem Taberniae. It is generally believed that Bannavem Taberniae was once located somewhere in Cumbria, close to the modern town of Ravenglass. Although some have sought to identify Patrick’s birthplace with Banwen in South Wales, the contents of this inscription make their argument increasingly unlikely, particularly in the light of a number of new discoveries in the field of archaeology; which appear to put certain obscure references in some of the earliest surviving biographical material relating to him into greater textual perspective.
Ludwig Bieler, editor of what is largely recognized as the ‘canonical version’ of the reconstructed original Latin text of St. Patrick’s own autobiographical ‘Confessio‘ was the first to identify Quintus Calpurnius Concessini as an ancestor of St. Patrick’s Mother Concessa; whose family were also closely related to St. Martin of Tours. Martin’s Father appears to have been a cavalry officer serving in a contingent of cavalry generally referred to as ‘palatini’, which have been described as elite units, ‘normally part of the exercitus praesentales‘ or ‘imperial escort armies’; which came into being after the reorganization of the Imperial armies during the reign of Constantine the Great.
Previous to this, many such units were attached as Auxiliaries to larger formations such as the Legio II Augusta: the very unit whose name appears at the head of the inscription on the now vanished altar recovered from the Anglo-Saxon crypt at Hexham Abbey. And, following recent excavations carried out by the Vindolanda Trust at the nearby Roman fort of Vindolanda, a whole range of artifacts directly associated with such units, including some of the best preserved examples of complete Roman cavalry swords so far excavated in Britain, have been unearthed in the vicinity; along with a number of children’s toys which almost certainly belonged to members of the military families of those serving along the northernmost Roman Frontier.
Some of the finds date back to about A.D. 120 according to the archaeological team responsible for the excavations led by Dr. Andrew Birley, which would appear to date them to the very time when we know that the Legio II Augusta was directly involved in the construction of Hadrian’s Wall: around 122 A.D. or thereabouts. If the inscription dates from the early Second Century, which it probably does, given the abundance of archaeological evidence we now have linking the kind of military activities that Quintus Calpurnius Concessini would have been involved with in the vicinity to this very period, then there may be a direct connection to what is generally believed to be one of the earliest known surviving Christian monuments in Britain; which is said to date from the same era.
The monument, which was found in a cemetery close to the Roman Fort of Arbeia at South Shields, located on the furthest Eastern extremity of Hadrian’s Wall, appears to have been set up by one Barates, a merchant from Palmyra in Syria, in honour of his native British wife. Another tombstone, inscribed with a dedication to either Barates himself or else another Palmyrian of the same name, has been recovered further along the Roman Wall at Corbridge, a site with connections to both Vindolanda and nearby Hexham, where the altar inscription associated with Quintus Calpurnius Concessini was originally found. Indeed, wooden Roman writing tablets, which were also among the artifacts unearthed at Vindolanda, suggest that the Roman garrison may have known the location in question as either ‘Corstopitum’ or ‘Coriosopitum’, and that it may likewise have been referred to subsequently as ‘Coria’ by elements of the local population: a name denoting that it was a tribal centre of some kind.
In addition to being the most northerly town in the Roman Empire, Corstopitum, Coriosopitum or Coria was quite possibly the tribal capital of the Corionototae: the self same tribal group that appears to feature in the Latin inscription of Quintus Calpurnius Concessini; whose victory over the Corionototae it records. Although some have suggested that the Corionototae ‘may not have been a specific tribe, but a war-party resisting Roman authority, since the name derives from Indo-European’ word ‘*koryos (war band, army)’ and ‘teuteh (people, nation)’, others have explored a number of other possibilities. The Corionototae feature in Carl Waldman and Catherine Mason’s ‘Encyclopedia of European Peoples‘, and it has also been suggested that they were either a sub-tribe of the Brigantes, a tribal confederation whose territory appears to have stretched as far south as the River Tees in North Yorkshire, or else linked with the Irish Coriondi. Their name has also been compared to the Gaelic Cruthin, which is normally interpreted as referring to the Picts: another large confederation of tribes whose territories were centred around Morayshire in Northern Scotland and Wigtownshire to the South West.
These latter claims may well shed further light on the early life of St. Patrick, in that the territory of the Southern Picts is known to have bordered on the furthest western extremity of Hadrian’s Wall, close to the Roman fort of Aballava, at Burgh-by-Sands, which was part of a chain of forts specifically constructed to hold the Southern Picts at bay. Close at hand, another Roman fort, referred to as Maia, stands directly adjacent to the village of Bowness-on-Solway: which may well turn out to have been the ‘Bannavem Taberniae‘ of Patrick’s birth. The word ‘Bannus’ in Latin generally refers to a legal proclamation of some kind, whilst the word ‘Taberna’ refers to a hut, a stall, a booth or shop; which may in fact denote the presence of some sort of customs or immigration office close to the military settlement. Given the fact that Patrick’s Father, Calpurnius, was a Decurion, a senior civil administrator, probably denotes that he may have had some sort of connection with local officialdom at a very high level; which makes the original location of Bannavem Taberniae close to Bowness-on-Solway all the more likely.
Some obscure biographical anecdotes in a ‘Life of St. Patrick‘ by the Medieval Cistercian hagiographer Jocelyn of Furness (fl. 1175-1214), which may be based on oral traditions intergenerationally preserved contemporaneously by the local Cumbrian population among whom he himself worked and wrote, suggest that Patrick’s birthplace was directly adjacent to a Roman military camp. An equally obscure reference in the text to a location referred to as ‘Empthor’ by the author in question may likewise be a corruption of the word ‘Imperator’; and could in fact refer to an Imperial Roman inscription of the type found on milestones such as the one at Harraby Bridge just outside of Carlisle; the ‘Lvgvvalivm Carvetiorvm‘ of the Roman ‘itinera’ or administrative records. The fact that his Father is on record as having been a Decurion, a member of an administrative class which was not only responsible for public contracts and the maintenance of public order, but also supervised the collection of taxes at local level, may also connect Patrick’s family with the regional capital at Carlisle where his Father’s rank would have ensured his membership of the local city senate.
The forts at Carlisle, Corbridge and Vindolanda are all located along the so called Stanegate, or “stone road”, a Roman military road which derives its name from an Old Norse term for a paved highway. Close at hand is another former Roman military installation at what is now Carrawburgh, but which in Roman times was referred to as Brocolitia. The site is unusual because although comparatively small by Roman standards the fort was served by no fewer than three religious sanctuaries. The first of these, a Third Century Mithraeum, a shrine dedicated to the God Mithras, the second, a ‘Nymphaeum’, a sanctuary dedicated to the ‘Nymphs and Genius Loci’, and the third, a sacred spring known as ‘Coventina’s Well’, have all been extensively excavated. The most significant of these three shrines in relation to our particular line of enquiry, however, is the Mithraeum, due to the fact that, according to a newly published scientific paper by Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, a physics professor at the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, it is directly oriented to the Rising of the Sun on what is now Christmas Day.
The Mithraeum at Brocolitia which is aligned to the Sun Rise on Christmas Day. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Of further relevance is the additional fact that one of the altars inside the Mithraeum is clearly dedicated to the Cult of Sol Invictus, an aspect of the Victorious Sun God whose specific cult day was December 25th. More significant still is the fact that the fort which the Mithraeum was built to serve lies just west of the northernmost point of Hadrian’s Wall, at Limestone Corner. To the Ancients, who would have observed the Sun’s path from East to West across the Southern Horizon as a sacred journey taken by the Deity itself in its symbolic ‘Sun Chariot’, depicted here at the Mithraeum on the most North Westerly of its three altars, the North was the region of the Divine Sun’s death and subsequent rebirth. A fact which would almost certainly make this one of the most culturally significant Mithraeums within the Empire, if not its largest or most artistically embellished.
This considered, it may also be of some significance that Tírechán’s seventh-century Collectanea gives Patrick’s full name as follows: ‘Magonus, that is, famous; Succetus, that is, god of war; Patricius, that is, father of the citizens; Cothirthiacus, because he served four houses of druids.’ Although a number of different theories have thus far been developed specifically in relation to the name Cothirthiacus, the reference to Patrick having served ‘four houses of druids’ may refer just as easily to his ancestral background as it does to his period of servitude in Ireland before his Christian Mission: a time when he himself had been sold as a slave by marauding pirates. Indeed, his father, Calpurnius, in addition to being decurion, was also a deacon, an important position in the early Roman Christian Church; whilst his grandfather, Potitus, is also on record as having been a priest. There were after all four specific cults being worshipped within the confines of this multi-shrined sanctuary, which would most probably have been served by a caste of hereditary priests to which Patrick’s own family may well have been related.
In view of these facts, and the transitionary period that organized state religion is known to have undergone during the reign of Constantine the Great, when the Pagan Cult of Sol Invictus gradually transformed itself into the Catholic, or ‘Universal’, Christianity of the Early Church, it is by no means impossible that Patrick’s Paternal ancestors would have been connected in some way with the service of the three military shrines at Brocolitia: which, as I have already attempted to make clear, appear to have been associated with no fewer than four separate religious cults. Should this turn out to be the case, and in view of the newly discovered link between the so called Carrawburgh Mithraeum and the December 25th alignment previously referred to, it is by no means impossible that they themselves were in some way involved in this gradual transition process, from Pagan to Christian. Exactly at what level though is at present unclear.