I was thinking about early references to baptisms in the British Isles which led me to Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. As far as I can recall, Patrick’s letter is the earliest reference to baptism (yes / no?). Patrick’s letter is written to a Christian society in Britain, and he further claims that Coroticus is an ally of the Scots and apostate Picts. Keeping in mind that Patrick is writing in the second half of the 5th century, say c. 475 this is very interesting. Oddly Patrick doesn’t actually make a statement about whether or not the Scots are Christian, although grouping them with apostate Picts may suggest pagan. Scots here probably means Dalriada and they are apparently an ally of Coroticus, who is believed to be a king of Strathclyde. According to Patrick, Coroticus is also an ally of the “apostate Picts”. What does this mean in c. 475? At the very least it means that Patrick is aware of the ebb and flow of evangelism among the southern Picts.
The main Christian center in northern Britain seems to be around Whithorn in the Rhinns of Galloway north west of Carlisle around the bay (quite close to Ireland across the bay). There are archaeological remains of a large Christian center that go back to the 5th century. More information about Whithorn can be found here. This Saturday, September 13th will be the annual Whithorn lecture, more information can be found here, and its sounds very interesting.
It was not the only Christian center in the region. Remains of Christian churches have been found along Hadrian’s Wall. Patrick’s knowledge of Coroticus and his allies has suggested that he knew the area and may have lived in this area.
Getting back to what apostate Picts means in c. 475… the southern Picts are usually said to have been converted by St Ninian. Traditionally Ninian is dated to right after Martin of Tours based on Bede’s account of his life, placing him it c. 400. Modern historians tend to push Ninian forward in time to match that of St Finian of Moville, after Patrick in the first half of the 6th century. It is quite possible that earlier evangelism had occurred and ultimately not lasted. It is also possible that Ninian was credited with evangelism that occurred before his time, but clearly Patrick knows about some evangelism that has gone on presumably before he came to Ireland. Does Patrick’s knowledge of missionary work among the Picts support an early Ninian? I don’t know, probably not.
Who the Picts are is another question. I think we could probably say the southern Picts, in part because they are assocaited with the Scots. Given the early Dalriadans are associated with the area along the Firth of Forth, I would guess Picts living near Britons and Scots on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth.
So what do you make of Patrick’s claim that Coroticus’ allies are apostate Picts?