SSP: On Patrician Chronology

This post is part of an ongoing series on the Scriptures of Saint Patrick of Ireland.

saint-patrick-2Apart from the general statements about Patrick noted in my previous post, although much has been written concerning the saint’s life, little has been satisfactorily concluded. This is especially true on the two issues which Charles Thomas terms “The Patrick Problem”: chronology and geography.[1] On the question of chronology, T.M. Charles-Edwards writes, “Not a single date can be given to any event of Patrick’s life. Even relative dates are difficult to find.”[2] For historians, of course, such ambiguity cannot stand. Using a variety of reconstructive methods,[3] scholars have come to three basic positions concerning the dates for Patrick’s death: c. 491 CE, the “Duo-Patrician” Theory, and c. 461 CE.

The first of these, 491 CE, represents the traditional dating of Patrick’s death. This dating was first seriously questioned by J.B. Bury in 1905 and has largely fallen out of favor during the past century.[4] More recently, however, Charles Thomas has argued that Patrick died around 490 CE, suggesting that dates for Patrick have been inaccurately swayed by confused traditions surrounding the arrival of Palladius in Ireland (c. 431 CE).[5]

The “Duo-Patrician” Theory advocated by Binchy, T.F. O’Rahilly, and James Carney posits that there were actually two Patricks active in Ireland during the course of the fifth century, two men whom posterity conflated into a single figure.[6] As Charles Thomas explains, in this view “The real Patrick—the Briton from Banna Venta Berniae who was enslaved, escaped, and came back as bishop, roughly at the time of ‘Old Patrick’s’ death—himself died later, on 17 March 493, St Patrick’s Day. O’Rahilly’s choice for the first Patrick was Palladius—the 432 is really the 431 of Palladius’ arrival. Carney’s was a Gaulish bishop called Secundinus.”[7]

lifeofsaintpatri00cusa_0226Nonetheless, the most common dating of Patrick’s death among contemporary scholars comes around 461 CE. Such is the perspective of Egan, Lynch, Cross, Morris, Hanson, and Bieler.[8] In this view, Patrick was born c. 385-390 CE, endured captivity in Ireland in the early 400’s, returned to Ireland around 432 CE (shortly after Palladius’ death), and evangelized Ireland for some thirty years before his death in 461 CE.[9] For my own reconstruction of the historical Patrick, the c. 390-461 CE date range seems to best fit the context and general outlines of the saint’s life.[10] As we will see below, this lifespan also accords with the contents and form of Patrick’s Biblical witnesses.


[1] Thomas, 308.

[2] Charles-Edwards, 219.

[3] Thomas helpfully outlines three of the most common methods of reconstructive chronology: “The first, and least satisfactory, is to use the conflicting evidence of the various Irish annal entries, not one of which (wherever first set down) was committed to writing until considerably after Patrick’s time and death. The second, recently favored by Professor Richard Hanson, is to construct a framework of dates contextually and inferentially; to some extent, but with other results, this was also Bury’s method in 1905. The third, attempted below, is to produce a relative chronology from the clues contained in Patrick’s writings, and then to attach this if possible to some estimated absolute date at one or more points.” See Thomas, 314-15.

[4] Thomas, 315.

[5] Thomas, 341-346. According to Thomas’ chronology, criticisms came to Patrick through an envoy of British clergy, whose offer to bring him back to Britain Patrick refused, sending instead a written rebuttal which subsequently exonerated him of all charges. At a later date, the substance of this response was incorporated into Patrick’s end of life Confessio, which was written between 470 and 480 CE. For Thomas, “The confusion of later reckonings, the Mosaic span of 120 years, the two obits, the two Patricks, stem from the irreconcilable gap between the year after Palladius’ coming (which is not a Patrician event) and the time of his death, which is.”

[6] Thomas F. O’Rahilly. The Two Patricks: A Lecture on the History of Christianity in Fifth-Century Ireland. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1981. 5. Binchy, 30-1. See also James Carney, The Problem of Saint Patrick (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1961).

[7] Thomas, 316

[8] Egan, 53. Lynch, 113. Cross, 1025. John Morris. “Historical Introduction.” In St. Patrick: His Writings and Muirchu’s Life. Totoaw, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978. 1. Hanson, Life and Writings, 25. Bieler, “Libri Epistolarum”, 5.

[9] Bieler argues that, if “Confessio 19 refers to the state of Gaul between 407 and 409, Patrick, then in his twenty-second year, was born ca 385.” See Bieler, “Libri Epistolarum”, 5.

[10] To help explain the traditional date of 491 CE, it may be that later hagiographic tradition assigned Patrick an advanced age like other notable saints such as Moses or Anthony.

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3 thoughts on “SSP: On Patrician Chronology

  1. Thank you for a very helpful, and measured, summary of an often fractious debate.
    My own personal approach to this vexed question is to remain firmly agnostic: the only sure chronological hook I think we have is Patrick’s reference to the paganism of the Franks (in Epistola, §14), allowing us to identify his mission as already active before the baptism of Clovis (c. 500).
    I would also be much more hesitant than you in accepting the “quick death” of Palladius as presented by the seventh-century hagiography. This serves a very definite purpose for these writers – to clear the stage of all potential rivals to their “national apostle” – and so it seems, to me, a little … suspicious.
    I also think the slim surviving evidence does signal the presence of a significant mission, originating from the Continent, on Ireland’s east coast: the plethora of Gaulish clerics associated with Patrick in the later hagiography have to come from somewhere; and the fact that two of the most senior – Secundinus and Auxilius – made a significant enough impact to be remembered by local communities (in the names of Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath, and Kilashee, Co. Kildare) suggests that they are more than mere fictions or inventions. Given Palladius’ potential connections with Auxerre, I think it reasonable to posit that this may be some echo of a remembrance of a lasting Palladian mission on Ireland’s east coast.
    (In this regard, I’ll also note my conviction that the date of 432 is entirely Palladian: either a complete fiction derived directly from the 431 date of Palladius’ commission, or, just perhaps, an echo of a remembrance of an arrival – for someone who departed Rome (or Gaul) in 431 might well have arrived in Ireland in 432 …)
    Patrick’s work is more clearly associated with the west coast of Ireland – the only geographical location on the island of which he makes mention – and perhaps also the north (depending on how much weight one places on the Armagh traditions): both areas also better fit his account of travelling “where nobody ever went to baptise and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfilment” (Confessio, §51), both being more remote from the Christian coasts of Britain and the Continent, and thus further from their Christian influence.
    Thus I do subscribe to a ‘Two-Mission’ (if not quite a ‘Duo-Patrician’) theory: although there is no reason – other than those odd entries in the annals, and one lone note in the Book of Armagh – to assume that those missions had to be sequential; they may just as well have been contemporary.
    And I can’t finish without turning to those dates in the annals, because … I do think it is significant that we have these two sets of dates, one set very definitely orbiting around c. 460 and another set very definitely orbiting around c. 490. Of course, all dates in the annals prior to c. 600 are, in the usual phrase, “unreliable,” but … there has to be some reason there are two competing dates for Patrick’s death! It reminds me of the criterion of embarrassment: if they were just making it up, they wouldn’t have done it this way! Again, I’m inclined towards agnosticism – we have absolutely no criteria by which to judge whether _either_ tradition may be remotely reliable – but still … there’s something underlying that discrepancy. Alas, while it might be declared that “tempus, locus, et persona” are required from every book, when it comes to Patrick, we may very clearly see the persona, but the tempora and loci will probably never be tied down!
    Thank you once again for such a great summary of the little we do know.

  2. Thank you for a very helpful, and measured, summary of an often fractious debate.
    My own personal approach to this vexed question is to remain firmly agnostic: the only sure chronological hook I think we have is Patrick’s reference to the paganism of the Franks (in Epistola, §14), allowing us to identify his mission as already active before the baptism of Clovis (c. 500).
    I would also be much more hesitant than you in accepting the “quick death” of Palladius as presented by the seventh-century hagiography. This serves a very definite purpose for these writers – to clear the stage of all potential rivals to their “national apostle” – and so it seems, to me, a little … suspicious.
    I also think the slim surviving evidence does signal the presence of a significant mission, originating from the Continent, on Ireland’s east coast: the plethora of Gaulish clerics associated with Patrick in the later hagiography have to come from somewhere; and the fact that two of the most senior – Secundinus and Auxilius – made a significant enough impact to be remembered by local communities (in the names of Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath, and Kilashee, Co. Kildare) suggests that they are more than mere fictions or inventions. Given Palladius’ potential connections with Auxerre, I think it reasonable to posit that this may be some echo of a remembrance of a lasting Palladian mission on Ireland’s east coast.
    (In this regard, I’ll also note my conviction that the date of 432 is entirely Palladian: either a complete fiction derived directly from the 431 date of Palladius’ commission, or, just perhaps, an echo of a remembrance of an arrival – for someone who departed Rome (or Gaul) in 431 might well have arrived in Ireland in 432 …)
    Patrick’s work is more clearly associated with the west coast of Ireland – the only geographical location on the island of which he makes mention – and perhaps also the north (depending on how much weight one places on the Armagh traditions): both areas also better fit his account of travelling “where nobody ever went to baptise and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfilment” (Confessio, §51), both being more remote from the Christian coasts of Britain and the Continent, and thus further from their Christian influence.
    Thus I do subscribe to a ‘Two-Mission’ (if not quite a ‘Duo-Patrician’) theory: although there is no reason – other than those odd entries in the annals, and one lone note in the Book of Armagh – to assume that those missions had to be sequential; they may just as well have been contemporary.
    And I can’t finish without turning to those dates in the annals, because … I do think it is significant that we have these two sets of dates, one set very definitely orbiting around c. 460 and another set very definitely orbiting around c. 490. Of course, all dates in the annals prior to c. 600 are, in the usual phrase, “unreliable,” but … there has to be some reason there are two competing dates for Patrick’s death! It reminds me of the criterion of embarrassment: if they were just making it up, they wouldn’t have done it this way! Again, I’m inclined towards agnosticism – we have absolutely no criteria by which to judge whether _either_ tradition may be remotely reliable – but still … there’s something underlying that discrepancy. Alas, while it might be declared that “tempus, locus, et persona” are required from every book, when it comes to Patrick, we may very clearly see the persona, but the tempora and loci will probably never be tied down!
    Thank you once again for such a great summary of what we do know.

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