Patrick’s Youth

Patrick’s Youth

Patrick lived in Britain as a boy where he grew up in a place called Bannavem Taberniae. We think Bannavem was not far from the sea on the west coast, perhaps in what is known as Cumbria. His birthplace was probably a village rather than a large town. It has not been possible to find the exact spot on the map. Others thank that Bannavem might have been near the coast of Wales. However, Patterdale, in the Lake District, recalls in its name a well of Patrick; perhaps this was where he was born. We do not know. We have to make many guesses about places and dates when little has been written down about them.

We guess that he lived not far from the sea because he was snatched away from by a ship’s crew from Ireland. Quite often ships would cross the Irish sea to trade with Britain. Sometimes pirates rather than merchant sailors would raid the coast in search of plunder. The narrow strip of water between Ireland and the region near Carlisle and the famous wall erected by the Roman Emperor Hadrian made these invasions a common occurrence.

Before Patrick was born, Britain had been an outpost of the great Roman Empire. Rome, the capital city, was attacked and destroyed in the year A.D.410. The Empire was no longer so great. Its ‘decline and fall’ began after invading armies of Goths swept across from the south-east of Europe to win victories over Rome’s imperial armies.

In Britain, however, life went on despite these shattering disasters. All was changed. Britain and Gaul (France) had been governed together as one province by the Roman powers. Now instead of being ruled by an emperor, and others authorised by him, from the distant capital city, the citizens in Patrick’s home district were governed by officials appointed locally. Patrick’s father was one of these officials.

Life At Home

Patrick’s parents lived in a villa. There was a farm attached to the home. His father, Calpurnius, belonged to a group of leading citizens who made sure that the laws were kept and the taxes paid. Order had to be kept on the roads and in the market place. The official name for each of these keepers of the peace was decurio, a Latin title used in the Empire.

The Last Days of the Empire

Britain was very fortunate to have good roads throughout the country. There were many thorough-fares, running in straight lines, expertly planned by engineers and soldiers. They linked city with city, and one fortified camp with another. There are still great stretches of road without a bend or a turn in England today. The Great North Road and the famous Watling Street remind travellers of Britain‘s early history.

The city of London owes much to the builders and developers of the great days of the Roman Empire. For some four hundred years, fine buildings were constructed in many parts of the country. Theatres, baths, handsome archways and stately villas were built in the beautifully designed towns. Recent excavations have shown how skilful artists as well as expert architects were at work in centres such as York in the north and St. Albans near London. Mosaic floors of great beauty and finely sculptured statues survive to recall the grandeur of those days. After the severe bombing of the city of London during the Second World War (1939-1945), many traces of the Roman occupation of the first centuries of the Christian era were found. When the rubble of the shattered buildings removed, fragments of pillared temples and decorated houses were uncovered.

He Left School Too Early

Patrick was probably educated at home by his parents and perhaps also by one of the servants who worked on the estate. He seems to have been very much attached to the life on the farm in those early days. He mentions men-servants and women-servants, all of whom he counted as part of the larger family, belonging to the household at the villa. The servants were, in fact, slaves. They had little personal freedom. As citizens, they had no share in the decisions that had to be made in the public affairs of the village. They were not given a vote. However, we do know that slaves were often treated very well by their masters. We get the impression that Patrick’s home was a happy one. The villa may not have been as large or luxurious as some other homes, but it was comfortable and there seems to have been a friendly feeling among all in the house.

It was a Christian home. Calpurnius was not only a civil servant (decurio), he also had an official position in the life of the Church as a deacon. He undertook duties during the Church’s services of worship. He would also visit the faithful when they were sick or in any kind of need. He was in a position to give them help and advice when they had problems and worries.

Patrick’s grandfather, Potitus, was a priest (presbyter in Latin). Evidently there had been organised Church life in that part of Britain for more than one generation. In later days, Patrick hinted that his Christian faith meant much more to him when he was on his own, away from home and feeling the pain of loneliness.

A Name to Remember

No one is quite sure of the meaning of the name Bannavem Taberniae, but some guesses have been made. Banna might refer to a rock, rising up steeply from the plain. Vem may be a Celtic word for a marketplace. The bern in Taberniae could stand for a gap (bearna in Irish) in the hills. There are several places along Hadrian’s Wall which divides present-day England and Scotland where standing rocks at the head of a valley act as landmarks at which people used to gather.

The name of his hometown indicates that this was Celtic-British country, where a local Celtic language would be used by the people in ordinary conversation. Patrick’s lessons as a schoolboy would have been given in Latin, the language of the Empire. The Romans had brought their language with them as well as their roads, their buildings, their laws, their system of coinage and their skilled engineers and builders

Patrick wrote very modestly and humbly about his knowledge of Latin. He had a strong feeling during his life that he had not been as well educated as many of his friends and neighbours. He mentions several times in his Confession that he had only a very rough-and-ready way of putting down in writing what he wanted to say. He felt that this was a real handicap. There is the feeling, nevertheless, when we read what he wrote, that in fact Patrick was certainly most intelligent. He would have progressed very well with his lessons had he not been cruelly prevented from continuing his education at a very important moment in his career. An interruption occurred which was to change his whole life.