St Patrick was a Cumbrian (Background: Waterhead)

The stone work at the West Gate of Birdoswald fort


St Patrick was a Cumbrian. But where exactly was he living when he was captured by those Irish slave-raiders? Ravenglass or Birdoswald?

Everyone knows the story of how St Patrick was captured and taken as a slave to Ireland, from where he later escaped, returned home, became a missionary, and converted Ireland to Christianity.  But where exactly was he captured from?  And when did all this take place?

What little we know about Patrick’s home life comes from his autobiographical Confessio, in Latin, which opens with: 

Ego Patricius peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium et contemptibilissimus apud plurimos patrem habui Calpornium diaconum filium quendam Potiti presbyteri, qui fuit uico bannauem taburniae; uillulam enim prope habuit, ubi ego capturam dedi. Annorum eram tunc fere sedecim. Deum enim uerum ignorabam et Hiberione in captiuitate adductus sum

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland.

So what does this tell us? First, although he describes himself as a humble countryman, in fact his father was a ‘deacon’ – but in another source, the 'Letter against Coroticus', he calls his father Calpurnius a ‘decurion’. Both terms imply his father’s membership of the local government of the place of his birth.  The date of the Confessio is late fifth century, so the probability is that Patrick was born around the time of the end of Roman rule in Britian, but when the institutions of Roman municipal organisation were still more or less in working order.  His grandfather, Potitus, was a priest (priests were not celibate in those days) – clearly a Christian priest, or Patrick probably would not have mentioned it – and serving the local community at a place called Bannavem Taburniae or Bannavem Taberniae.  It seems that place-name has got garbled since it was first written down by Patrick – it may better be read as Banna Venta Berniae – where banna means peak or horn in the British language, and venta means market-place in that language, while the third element, Berniae, may have been inserted later to distinguish it from the Roman town in Northamptonshire called Bannaventa (now Whilton Lodge)– which is  clearly far too far inland for Irish raiders, so can be dismissed at Patrick’s home.  But can we guess where his home was?

We can probably rule out anywhere north of the Wall, as being unlikely to have surviving Roman municipal administration by the early fifth century.  So we are left with two ‘best guesses’.  First, is the Roman fort at Ravenglass which was called Glannoventa – recorded as Clanoventa in the 2nd-century Antonine Itinerary, and Glannibanta in the 4th-century Notitia Dignitatum.  The name means ‘shore market’, suggesting that this was an important site before the arrival of the Romans.  There was later a civilian vicus outside the fort, but whether it would have had decurions and the like is not known.  It is not clear when the fort was abandoned, but it may have been in the late 4th century.  However, if the civilian settlement – and ‘shore market’ - outside the abandoned fort continued in use, it may have been an attractive, easily accessible, prospect for Irish raiders in the early-fifth century.

The other possibility is Birdoswald. whose Roman name was Banna.  It was occupied until the very end of the presence of Romans in Britain, and seems to have continued in occupation for the next century, possibly serving as a power-base for a local warlord.  To that extent, it seems exactly the sort of place that Patrick, his father and grandfather may have come from.  Rivet & Smith thought the ‘Berniae’ element referred to the Carlisle district (p.512).  But is it too far inland for an Irish raiding party?  

We will never know for sure, but in the absence of other evidence, forced to choose between Birdoswald and Ravenglass, I will settle for the former as Patrick’s birth-place.

There are a number of other sites associated with St Patrick in Cumbria – notably Patterdale, with a 14th dedication to the saint, and a medieval well:  St Patrick's Bampton, near Shap; and St Patrick's, Preston Patrick, south of Kendal.  Just outside the county, there is also the ruined 8th century chapel by St Peter's Church, Heysham.  None of these are likely to have direct connections with Patrick himself.

Text by Bill Shannon

 Photo of the stone work at the West Gate of Birdoswald fort, by Bill Shannon

For the full text of the Confessio, see

For place-name evidence, see A L F Rivet & Colin Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, (London, 1979)

For further argument in favour of Birdoswald see Charles Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500. London: Batsford (1981).


To find out more about the history of the Township of Waterhead, click here

To find out more about the history of the Township of Muncaster, click here