St. Patrick and His Letter to Coroticus

In the late Fifth Century, as St. Patrick was continuing his conversions of Irish pagans to Catholicism, traveling through the small towns and farms of Ireland, Roman rule in Britain and Western Europe was being challenged by Germanic tribes, moving further and further westward, On the continent, especially in Gaul, there was general harmony between Christians and the German barbarians, who respected and upheld much of prevailing Roman law.

Not so in Britain, where less civilized German warriors were in constant conflict, and warfare, with the Roman leadership, which itself became more and more tyrannical in defending their lands. Many such Roman leaders were Christians who saw themselves as defenders of "modern" civilization against heathen invaders from across the channel. The Church of England basically gave them a wide latitude, ignoring their abuses of power in order to keep the peace and ward off actual invasion. Several leaders rose to positions of significant power, including Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and in particular, the brutal warlord Coroticus.

St. Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus
Based in the western end of Great Britain close to the Irish Sea, Coroticus was only nominally a Christian, and gathered up Christians and pagans alike in slave raids. For decades, it had been the pagan Irish conducting slave raids in Britain (as in fact St.Patrick himself had become a slave as a teenager) but now it was the "collection of homicidal pirates"* working for Coroticus that would come to Ireland in search of their own slaves. One such raid across the Sea in Ireland in particular summoned the wrath of St. Patrick.

St. Patrick, then in his later years but still extremely active, had just before Easter, officiated over the Baptism of a large clan of Irish Christians, and the converts left, making their way home to Ireland's east coast. The next day, word arrived that the group had been attacked on the road, that most of the men had been killed, and that the women and children were kidnapped back to Britain, on their way to becoming slaves.

In response, St. Patrick prepared the famous "Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus", sent not just to Coroticus, but also to church leaders across Ireland and Great Britain. In his letter, said to be filled with "anger, fury, …[and] seething rage"* and described as "… at the same time a decree of excommunication, a heartfelt plea, a carefully argued sermon, a word of comfort to his fellow Irish followers, and a powerful prayer to God for divine justice"* St. Patrick rejected the idea of referring to Coroticus as a "fellow Roman", but rather referred to his as a "Citizen of Hell". The letter was written with the intent of shaming Coroticus, personally and in the eyes of church leaders. hopefully to the point of releasing his captives.

The letter also included a plea to the humanity of Coroticus' countrymen, imploring them to shun them - not to eat with them, not to drink with the, not even to accept their charity, and the letter included numerous condemning passages from the Old and New Testaments. His final condemnation was a comparison of Coroticus and his men to the German barbarians.

It has been speculated that perhaps at the back of St. Patrick's mind as he wrote his letter to Coroticus, that "by the grace of God go I", as after he himself and been kidnapped and forced into slavery and eventually made his escape, had he not turned to faith and the church, he too could have become as had Coroticus, a murdering Citizen of Hell.

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*"St. Patrick of Ireland", Philip Freeman, 2004, Simon & Schuster, p. 133


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