Was St Patrick a slave-trading Roman official who fled to Ireland?

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The classic account of St Patrick’s life tells us that he was abducted from Western Britain in his teens and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years before escaping, during which time his faith developed.

However, a new article looking at Patrick’s own writings in their historical context argues that the saint may have in fact fled to Ireland deliberately to avoid becoming a ‘Decurion’ – a Roman official responsible for tax collection.

“In the troubled era in which Patrick lived, which saw the demise and eventual collapse of Roman government in Britain in 410, discharging the obligations of a Decurion, especially tax-collecting, would not only have been difficult but also very risky,” says Dr Roy Flechner of the University of Cambridge.

Flechner’s article, “Patrick’s Reasons for Leaving Britain”, appears in Tome: Studies in Medieval Celtic History and Law in Honour of Thomas Charles-Edwards, edited by Fiona Edmonds and Paul Russell (Boydell, 2011)

The position of Decurion was hereditary, and by the time of St Patrick it was a far from desirable administrative post to hold in this part of the Roman Empire. As well as tax-collecting (for which any shortfall came from the Decurion’s own pocket), there was road maintenance and the recruitment of soldiers to contend with.

Patrick’s own father Calpornius exploited a bail-out clause in Roman law that allowed him to leave his post as a Decurion by joining the clergy – on the proviso that the role got passed to his son Patrick.

The heir of a Decurion would instantly qualify for the role, as they possessed by default the necessary wealth. According to Flechner, once Patrick was faced with the obligation to become a Decurion following the void left by his father, he chose to emigrate overseas. Ireland would have been a natural choice, given its proximity and links with western Britain.

Patrick would have had to find a way of retaining at least some of the family estate, in order to initially fund his way in Ireland. In the late-antique British Isles this normally came in the form of land.

Ireland did not have a monetary economy at this early stage, so exchanging land for money would have been pointless. Slaves, however, were a highly valued commodity and Patrick mentions that his family owned several, as did all aristocratic families in Britain at this time.

Slaves were also relatively easy to transport, and in the historical context it makes sense that Patrick would have converted his family wealth to slaves. So was St Patrick, the freed Christian slave of legend, actually a slave owner and trader?

“It may seem strange that a Christian cleric of Patrick’s stature would own slaves, but in late antiquity and the early middle ages the church was a major slave owner – early medieval Irish legal texts regulate the church’s ownership of slaves,” says Flechner.

“The only objections to slavery in this period were cases in which Christian slaves were owned by non-Christian masters. Patrick is known to have attempted to free enslaved captives, but only those that were Christians he had converted himself.”

“The traditional story that Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, forced to work as a slave, but managed to escape and reclaim his status, is likely to be fiction: the only way out of slavery in this period was to be redeemed, and Patrick was never redeemed. The traditional legend was instigated by Patrick himself in the letters he wrote, because this is how he wanted to be remembered.”

Dr Flechner, who is a Research Fellow at the university’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, adds, “Escaped slaves had no legal status and could be killed or recaptured by anyone. The probability that Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, at a time when transportation was extremely complicated, is highly unlikely.”

“None of this is to say that Patrick was not a bishop or that he did not engage in missionary activity, but his primary motives for moving to Ireland were most likely to escape the poisoned chalice of his inherited position in Roman Britain.”

Source: University of Cambridge

Sharan Newman