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  • Writer's pictureJill Ball

To The West

At the limits of the known world lay some damp, cold islands, the northern edge of the Roman Empire. Beyond Hadrian's Wall was the land of the Picts, who painted themselves with blue woad and ran into battle naked. Roman soldiers who had been born around the civilised Mediterranean Sea must have dreaded a posting here.

But some of these soldiers came already believing in a new, minority faith: Christianity.

a photo of Hadrian's wall, snaking into the distance
Hadrian's Wall at the edge of the Roman Empire

In this new series, To the Ends of the Earth, we will look at how Christianity came to Britain, developed, was reformed and then taken around the world.

We will be concentrating on some of the remarkable and inspirational people

who were instrumental in making this happen.

The effects of the missionary endeavors of British Christians are still rippling around the globe today. So, the ancient religious history of a small, European nation continues to influence the world today.

Romano-British Christians

In AD325 the newly converted Emperor Constantine ordered the Bishops to agree a creed for the Christian faith, which was no longer illegal. It is possible that two bishops traveled from Britain to the Council of Niceae, which is just south of Constantinople (Istanbul), but we do know British bishops did travel to the Council of Rimini in Italy in AD359.

Then in 410AD, Emperor Honorious recalled all the Roman legions back to Rome and told the people of Britain that they must defend themselves. For the previous 350 years all the government, administration, taxes, defence in Britain had been by Rome.

The countryside of Southern England had been transformed with fortified cities - such as London, Cirencester, Winchester, with villas dotted throughout the landscape. The North and West were less Romanised or colonised.

a Romano- British mosiac of Jesus Christ
Mosaic from a villa in Dorset

For the Romano-British communities the Roman authorities leaving must have been a shock. Some of these groups were Christian and we will look at the extraordinary story of one man was from this minority.

His grandfather, Potitus, was a priest and his father Calpurnius, a deacon. His mother was Conshessa. (In the British and Celtic traditions priest were able to marry.)

His name was Magonus Succetus Patricius Cothirthiacus.

We know him as Saint Patrick.


Patrick wrote two books and I have tried to take his life story quoting from these, rather than the legends that have grown up around this founding father of the faith in Ireland, but there are many details he didn't include: for example we are not sure of the exact date or location of his birth. He was probably born near the end of the fifth century.

His family were wealthy. His father was a city councilor and they had a villa in the countryside, possibly in Cumbria. When Patrick was almost sixteen he was captured there by Irish pirates, taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. He looked after the animals, probably for a Druid household.

As a boy he was a nominal Christian, but when he was enslaved that changed.

He wrote of his time as a slave, that he prayed

in a single day up to a hundred prayers and in the night nearly the same.

He felt like a stone in mud but he learnt about the ancient Irish pagan culture and religion and he became fluent in Irish Gaelic.

After six years he was encouraged by a dream to escape. He heard a voice saying his ship was ready and he would soon go home. He walked 'two hundred thousand double paces', which is estimated to be two hundred miles. He found a crew who agreed to take him away from Ireland. It would have been an ancient Irish hide boat, or currach with cargo.

a model boat with two sails, a wooden frame covered with stretched cow hide
A Model of St Brendan's Currach

After three days they landed in Cornwall or Brittainy, and walked for twenty-eight days in the wilderness or moors. They were all faint with hunger, but after Patrick prayed, they came across some wild boars.

After a few years he returned home to his family, but then he had another significant vision

I saw a man coming, as if from Ireland. His name was Victorius, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: "The Voice of the Irish".
As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea - and they cried out, as with one voice:
"We appeal to you holy servant boy, to come and walk among us."

Patrick trained as a priest, although his Latin remained provincial.

He considered himself to be poorly educated.

Ego, Patricius, peccatot et rusticissimus
I am Patrick, a sinner and very uneducated

It took courage to return to Ireland, but after some years he set sail with several companions. They travelled up the River Boyne and started by telling the pagan Irish of Armagh, Northern Ireland the Good News.

It was his practice to go to the local king or clan chief first with gifts, but he didn't accept gifts from them, preferring to pay his own way and not to become indebted to others. His aim was to convert the king and his court, as well as asking permission to preach.

However his main ministry was among the ordinary folk. He walked to the small settlements of Ireland, preaching the Gospel of Christ Jesus. He baptised many young men and maidens, founding monasteries and convents, despite difficulties and opposition.

Was it without God or according to the flesh that I came to Ireland? Who compelled me? Men look askance at me. What shall I do, Lord? I am exceedingly despised.

It is believed that he died on March 17th, around 460 AD


He lived in the fourth century AD and after he died many legends about him sprang up. Sadly it is unlikely that he banished snakes from Ireland or confronted the druids at Tara. Also we don't know if he used the Irish shamrock to explain the trinity. However the early Irish Christians looked for precursors for The Faith in the earlier Pagan beliefs.

Even his breastplate may have originated at a later date, although it could have been inspired by his teachings.

Within hindsight we can still see that he was a remarkable man who was the most important founding father of the church in Ireland.

I hope to introduce you to many more inspirational Christians from Britain, who lives were significant for the development of Christianity in the English-speaking world.

To the Ends of the Earth

Wed 21st April To the West - Saint Patrick

I will mention the achievements of others and quote them where I can, but there are so many incredible, faith-filled people to consider, that I cannot tell all their stories.

I have had to concentrate on one or two characters in each article.

This is a blog, not a book!

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