St Patrick may have been a slave trader

2012-03-17 09:30

London - St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, may well have been a tax collector for the Romans who fled to Ireland where he could have traded slaves to pay his way, according to new research by a University of Cambridge academic published on Saturday.

The generally accepted account of the saint's life, albeit based on scant evidence, says Patrick was abducted from western Britain as a teenager and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years during which time he developed a strong Christian faith.

Afterward, the account continues, he escaped his captors and went back to Britain before eventually returning to Ireland as a missionary.

But Roy Flechner, from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, believes there are reasonable grounds to question the popular version which is based partly on Patrick's own words in his Confessio.

"The problem with this account is that he was telling this story in response to accusations levelled against him that he fled to Ireland for financial gain," Flechner said.

"It's an inference that has been made long before in conventional scholarship."

Unwelcome task

According to the study, published on Saturday to coincide with St Patrick's Day, the saint may have wanted to leave Britain in the early 400s to avoid the "onerous" duties of a "Decurion", or Roman official responsible for collecting taxes.

Patrick's father was a Decurion and, when he decided to rid himself of the post by becoming a cleric, his responsibilities would have fallen to his son.

At a time when Roman government in Britain was in decline, collecting and underwriting taxes would have been an unwelcome task, enough to prompt Patrick to emigrate, Flechner said.

"It is likely that at least for a while he [Patrick] held an imperial office. One way or another, I think this would have been the catalyst for him leaving for Ireland."

The academic also questioned Patrick's own account of escaping slavery in Ireland.

"Once you escaped from slavery you lacked any legal status and anyone could imprison you and kill you, and this conflicts with what he said - that he broke loose, crossed Ireland and then the Irish Sea to get back to Britain," he explained.

"He might not even have been acknowledged as a free man in his native Britain and could have been enslaved again there."

Reliable material

If Patrick had left Britain for Ireland of his own free will, the best way to take his wealth with him would be in the form of slaves, Flechner argued.

Patrick himself said his family owned slaves, which was common for aristocratic families in this period.

"Your property would have been hereditary and in the form of land, but if you had wanted to transport the value of the property, it is more likely you would have traded a more 'liquid asset', in this case slaves.

"In a slightly later period where we do have more sources, slaves had become a very important social institution and quite ubiquitous in Ireland."

Flechner conceded that it was difficult to be sure of any theory about a period of British history covered by so little reliable material.

But he added that his study had the advantage of being "free from the more reverential accounts of St Patrick that have been handed down in legend through the generations".

"In this case we are seeing Patrick through the eyes of Roman law which offers a new perspective.

"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."

  • ivana.rudman - 2012-03-17 09:37

    What a laugh. St Patrick was one of the most disciplind, religious, solid and kindly minded, brilliant and great people ever to have lived, look up "St Patrick's Breastplate" prayer to see for yourself, most people have never even heard of it, google it to see the type of person he was and get to know the "true and real, St Patrick"

      colin.dovey - 2012-03-17 10:35

      "draft" as in wind....or "draught" as in a serving of drink (usually alcoholic) drawn from a keg....or...a current of air (usually coming into a chimney, room or vehicle)....or....The depth of a vessel's keel below the surface (especially when loaded), because "draft" could also mean: to draw up an outline or sketch for something OR.....engage somebody to enter the army So....English is such a quirky language is it not :-0

      bluzulu - 2012-03-17 10:45

      Judging by the way St. Patrick's day is currently celebrated ( orgy of alcohol till you's hit the floor). Not much culture illustrated here!!

      goyougoodthing - 2012-03-17 11:05

      The queen? In 400ad... I know she is old but you are confused. A man of the 'cloth' in 400ad was no doubt the vilest of the vile. Money and power and faith were used to keep people in poverty. St Patrick was probably a complete bastard.

      Cosmos O'Ndebele - 2012-03-17 11:09

      Well i am not suprised by the study or myth comes from Oxford in England!!! In the Republic of Ireland this just another party day full of parades

      Matthew Patrick - 2012-03-17 11:11

      There was no monarchy in England in 400 AD, the 1st king came 600 years later. In fact there wasn't even a unified England to rule then.

      goyougoodthing - 2012-03-17 11:41

      Matthew is quite right, there were tribal chiefs, that were numerous throughout the land with the withdrawal of the Romans, but it took about 300 years (±700Ad) before there was any sense of a real 'Kingdom'. Ethelberht Was king of Kent... he married a French queen and converted to Christianity. And it all went downhill from there.

  • Johannes - 2012-03-17 09:42

    And so was all the religious leaders of those times. Either frauds or crooks. Look at old st Francis. We must stop honouring these ancients.

      colin.dovey - 2012-03-17 10:36

      "those ancients" - like it or not, were your forefathers :-)

      David - 2012-03-17 11:01

      Then we must stop honouring your ancestors also. The irish have the right to celebrate this day, just like you celebrate your freedom day and so on. What about your ancestors, they also stole and commited fraud. Dont let the pot call the kettle black, because this is a fight you will lose. @bluzulu your culture is also made up of drunks and idiots and other things we wont mention so rather be quite.

      Jacques Jacobs - 2012-03-17 11:17

      Our leaders today (religious and political) are still a bunch of 'frauds and crooks' so what exactly is your point?

      bluzulu - 2012-03-17 11:35

      @ David,I was talking about how this day is celebrated. It' all about the next drink, It's laughable to me. What you are ranting to me about makes no sense.

      bluzulu - 2012-03-17 11:39

      Any colour/ Culture moron legless due to Acohol consumption is laughable to me as they display no disipline in life or respect for themselves....@DAVID

      David - 2012-03-17 11:56

      @bluzulu and how do you celebrate your freedom day. Oh let me guess, get drunk, fall over and so on. Not all irish people celebrate it in this way. Dont judge a culture, by a few idiots who do what you implied, then i wont judge a culture, DO YOU NOW UNDERSTAND WHAT I AM SAYING.

      bluzulu - 2012-03-17 14:32

      I do not consume any Alcohol so your determination regarding my behaviour is unfounded.

      Wall - 2012-03-17 14:57

      It's one thing for the Irish to celebrate their heritage that way, but I could never understand why on earth South Africans (and other countries) celebrate it as well... it's just another excuse to get drunk. I agree with bluzulu on this one.

  • Matthew Patrick - 2012-03-17 09:44

    This allegation that he may have been a slave trader is not a new theory. The fact is that so little is known about him that we'll just never know the full story.

  • John - 2012-03-17 09:44

    why do people make up this sort of crap.

      Leroy - 2012-03-17 10:08

      so people will dig to find the truth, rather than except what they are told or read in ancient material.

      goyougoodthing - 2012-03-17 11:11

      What crap? About as truthful as anything you will find in that book of spells called the bible

  • Christo - 2012-03-17 09:49

    Do not take away my excuse to enjoy myself today.

  • Anthony - 2012-03-17 09:53

    @Editor, Hahahaha, you are a master in stirring sh.t !!!!

  • stuart.steedman - 2012-03-17 10:04

    Well, I don't see the problem. The Bible repeatedly advocates and promotes slavery, so really old Paddy was just doing what his Lord and Master told him to. I believe we've slipped into moral decline because we're no longer allowed to legally enslave people, just like the Bible tells us to. And who of us dares to question the moral authority of the Bible, right? Right? /trollface

  • robbieyahu - 2012-03-17 10:10

    yip stop honouring all these fake entities whom you dont even know ...honour the ones alive now ...ones you know or that can be questioned personally ...ones who are not far back in history that has been altered and tampered with .... start loving your family friends and neighbors ..... and keep this up ...most of these old "good-guys" were very evil .... not all ...but many peace4peace

  • - 2012-03-17 10:21

    The depths people will sink to to sell newspapers or website hits has sunk to a new low. :(

      Mari Theologo - 2012-03-17 11:43

      I so totally agree with u people out their must be soo flippen board they must always dig and spoil!! They should get a life and if that is not possible try a hobby! Dig up your garden or something!

  • Gregory Jurgens - 2012-03-17 10:26

    Do we really need this presumptuous article, considering the racial tension in this country.

      Wall - 2012-03-17 14:58

      I might be having a blonde day, but what does this have to do with racial tension in SA?

  • Shirley - 2012-03-17 10:52

    Its a theory-which may or may not be true. The irony however is that by this theories publication it stirs more anger,hatred amongst people. No one will EVER know for SURE if its true or not and what matters is what we do in the here and now. One person doesnt define a country-its citizens do. What we do know is he did a lot of good. Lets accept the things we do know and create good strong legacies for tomorrow!

  • Jacques Jacobs - 2012-03-17 10:52

    I'd sell a few of my slaves in turn for not having to read this bull on this beautiful day... :-)

      bluzulu - 2012-03-17 11:37

      So you have slaves Aay?

  • Kathleen - 2012-03-17 11:25

    @Matthew - there were kings and queens before 1000 AD. Queen Boudicca was one who led a revolt against the Romans in 60-61 AD. Ethelred the Unready was an early king.

      Matthew Patrick - 2012-03-17 13:33

      Ja, I know that there were earlier tribal monarchs but what I meant was that there was no ruler of a unified England before about 1000 AD. Historians don't have a universally accepted answer for this but the estimates range between 800AD and 1000 AD (Egbert to Harold 1, I think).

  • william - 2012-03-17 12:08

    OH, PLEASE COME BACK FROM THE DEAD ST PATRICK,and trad Malema as a slave he wokes very well with the undisciplined DO US ALL A FAVOUR!!!!

  • david.roets - 2012-03-17 12:22

    So he was a Labour Broker!

      Dmitri - 2012-03-17 14:00

      @David - the best comment of the day. Brilliant!!!!!

  • Bob - 2012-03-17 14:37

    I'm still getting hammered tonight regardless :D

  • John - 2012-03-17 14:49

    I don't mind who he was either way... lets go out and celebrate..

  • An observer - 2012-03-17 17:27

    I have it on good authority that St Patrick got his name from a Blarney Brother who saw this. I swear with my hand on the dictionary, that everyone saw it, though they are long dead. He was able to make people feel better about themselves by a pat on the head, even though he was not present. he thus became known and famous for his "pat trick". He later died and the common folk would drop a stone on his grave, and his grave became known as the "sham rock" I swear on the Blarney Stone and the Thesaurus. 'Tis true.

  • pfantis - 2012-03-17 23:17

    Happy St Patrick's day to all the heathens at Reuters...

  • James - 2012-03-18 00:17

    "Flechner conceded that it was difficult to be sure of any theory about a period of British history covered by so little reliable material". The writer of this article may have been involved in buggering Flechner and his schnauzer for the past 2 years. This can be said with the same amount of certainty and evidence in support as St. Patric's slave trading. Patric's family estates were likely destroyed in the raid in which he was taken as a teen. In Roman society a minor son was owned property himself and could hold no slaves. This and the fact that his only option was to turn holy orders upon escape meant that he was probably orphaned and in poverty once back in Christendom. This is a much more reasonable interpretation of the history than the baseless biased blarney of Flechner and haters of his ilk.

  • msbrendahill - 2012-03-19 15:39

    Whatever the truth, St. Patrick's worldwide celebration is a wonderful, positive uplifting institution, promoting fellowship among all races. EVERYBODY is Irish on St. Patrick's Day. Why would anyone in this day and age want to demonize it? Folklore is great, whether true or false.

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