St Patrick was a Briton of the 5th century, probably from the area around Carlisle, a man more commonly associated with the history of Ireland. But sometime, probably in the mid 5th century, he wrote a furious letter to a king called Coroticus, indicating that he was seriously upset, and that if MP’s had been invented by this date, he would have written to his MP in the strongest possible terms. Here is a short extract from said letter
With my own hand I have written and composed these words, to be given, delivered, and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus; I do not say, to my fellow citizens, or to fellow citizens of the holy Romans, but to fellow citizens of the demons, because of their evil works. Like our enemies, they live in death, allies of the Scots and the apostate Picts. Dripping with blood, they welter in the blood of innocent Christians, whom I have begotten into the number for God and confirmed in Christ!
It is a fascinating paragraph which has been picked over with more concentration than a 10 year old boy picks over a scab. Coroticus has been identified as an early British king of Alt Clut at Dumbarton rock. The fact that Patrick wrote from Ireland to the king at Alt Clut is evidence of early interaction between the Christians of Ireland and South West Scotland on which later evangelisation might be based. But the phrase “apostate Picts” is the particular scab everyone concentrates on; “apostate” of course implies that the Picts at some point as early as the 5th century had already been Christian, which given their later reputation as determined pagans, is interesting. The traditional history of the church is Scotland is built around a few names, and outstanding one is the founder of the monastery at Iona, the 6th century figure of Columba, who towers above all the rest. BUT St Patrick’s letter suggests at an earlier hidden process of conversion and evangelisation, before Columba came on to the scene. So as we go through the story of the names we do know, always we need to be aware of those who do not have a name, but whose work had probably been laying the foundations since the 4th or 5th centuries.
The process of Christianisation was probably very similar before and after the end of the Roman Empire. That is to say a largely top down approach, an approach which has an echo in the protestant reformation many centuries later, with cuius regio, euius religio, whose realm their religion. They’d go and convert the boss, and the boss would tell his direct reports to become Christian, and make darn sure their reports became Christian too, or there’d be no Christmas bonus. Largely on account of the fact that there would be, no Christmas. Of course, the boss is open to some discussion; in early societies, the kind of fully civil societies we talked about a few episodes ago, decisions were reached by consensus. These kind of societies may well have survived on the inner and outer Hebrides. None the less as we’ve seen, even here there are elites, the more influential members of society. It is their adoption that would drive wider conversion.
Throughout the period, after the arrival of Columba as well as before, the adoption of Christianity would have been a two stage affair probably; stage one would be to get the big noise on side, and get their advocacy and example, Stage 2 would then to get in front of the masses and make sure they fully understood what their boss had got them into. It’s a model of conversion that is rejected by your modern missionary. But at the time of communities with a very strong reliance still on consensus, and communities that needed to work together to survive, the idea of non compliance was deeply dangerous, against the basic culture and probably very rare indeed. Hate it or loathe it, this was the process.
It is very difficult to know what the extent of Christianity was in Northern Britain before the Romans left Britain as a whole. We know that largely northern British society was pagan. Pagan priests or Druid would likely have been part of the power structure of society, part of the retinue of kings. They would have been expected to have some control over natural and super natural powers; it was probably more than that though, Druids would probably have also been poets who retained oral traditions and geneaology, soothsayers who dispensed law, and leaders of ritual at the inauguration of kings and of public ceremony through the year. Some few hints have come down to us. It could well be that the famous foot print carvings at Dunadd represent the association of a king with mother earth.
Pagan Celts believed in a pantheon of Gods and a supernatural other world, where tress, hills, sun, animals were all sacred. There would have been an annual round of festivities closely tied to the agricultural cycle and with fertility. There is pretty much no remaining evidence, though there is a hint in placenames, in that the prefix aber, which we spoke of last time as being associated with river estuaries, are often associated with goddesses. The question is, then, how did Christianity come into this world?
Officially of course the Roman empire ended persecution of Christians early in the 4th century; it took until later in the 4th century, probably only a generation before the end of Roman Britannia for the Roman establishment to really adopt Christianity to the exclusion of pagan religious practices. So it’s highly likely that Britain was relatively lacking in Christianity at the start of the 5th century in comparison to other parts of the Empire. None the less, there is some evidence of the success of Christianity in Roman Britain; an example is the British theologian Pelagius, who British, and who was deemed by the church to be terribly, terribly naughty, so naughty in fact that he was declared heretical by the church. The question is, how far then did that extend beyond the wall before and into the 5th century, before Columba hit the shores of Scotland, and what was the process?
The extent is tricky to be accurate about, but it is possible to be reasonably definitive that Christianity came into the area latterly to be known Scotland. There are some 5th century stones which bear evidence of Christianity. There was a 5th century Christian community at a place called Whithorn in Galloway. It is possible the impetus came from Ireland, but more likely, as for Patrick, that it came from Roman Britain. It’s equally likely that the early Christian communities were very tied up with those Romanising tribes of Outer Brigantia; in the early years, Christianity became associated with elite Roman culture. The likes of the Damnoni and Novantae and the Votadini were interested, as we know, in elite Roman Culture, they liked its design values, it allowed them to keep up with or even lord it over the Jones’s. And so it was the area south of the Forth-Clyde line that was most heavily influenced by the end of the 5th century by Christianity, and was probably tolerably widespread. It could well be that as the wave of pagan Anglo Saxon invaders arrived, throughout Romano British societies, Christianity acquired the status of a symbol of resistance. However, Patrick’s letter also tells us just how difficult the process was – once again, apostate meant that the battle for conversion had apparently been won – and then once again lost. Or it at very least indicates that conversion was patchy, it might take 1 steps forward, but then, in the words of Valdimir Illyich take 2 steps back. But Christianity was a part of the north British scene. What we are not sure about is the situation north of the Forth Clyde line – in southern Pictland and Argyll.
There are two most famous saints with whom Scottish Christian conversion is associated – Ninian and Columba. We’ll come to Colomba later, but Ninian himself gives us problems now. He is a deeply engrained figure in the history of Scotland; the story goes that he established in the 5th century a church in Galloway at Whithorn, the so-called Candida Casa, the white house. He travelled to the central lands of the Britons and further north to the southern Picts. The story goes that Ninian was a deeply influential leader of the conversions, preparing the way for the great St Columba of the 6th century.
In fact now, the extent of his work and even his very existence are questioned. Seriously, is nothing sacred in early Scottish history? They’ll be saying the Scots won the battle of Bannockburn next. The evidence for the existence of Ninian has always fallen into the ‘a bit dicey’ category; the sort of area where historians mumble into their tea and biscuits and the percentage of crumb dispersal increases dramatically as their biscuit nibbling becomes nervous and slightly frantic. His existence really relies on Bede again who says that the southern Picts had received Christianity a long time before the northern Picts from a chap called Nyniau. In fact it is entirely possible that Nyniau was a mis reading and mistranslation from a British Bishop in Ireland called Uinniau, who would also be a teacher of Columba.
What we are left with before the arrival of Columba is a wide spread Christianity in the area south of the Clyde Forth line, but the job far from done. The Christianisation of Argyll, meanwhile, has always been assumed as something of a gimme, when the idea was that the Christian Gaels came over the sea and brought Christianity with them – with Columba essentially. Now that the migration idea is in doubt, it appears possible that actually Christianity came into Argyll not from Ireland, but from Britain, like the rest of Northern Britain. And that Christianity was well established in Argyll before Colomba hit the scene. But what of southern Pictland? Colomba’s reputation is that we went to both southern and northern Pictland to convert them.
And so let us come to Columba. He was actually originally called Crimthann apparently, an Irishman, born probably around 521, studying in Ireland under the aforesaid Uinniau. Colomba was no slouch in any walk of life by the looks of things. He was far from being a holy man who worked his way up through the ecclesiastical ranks purely through the piety and sanctity of his being; I mean he did the piety and sanctity thing more than admirably of course, but what I am clumsily trying to relate is that he was by no means a member of the great unwashed – he was a fully paid up member of the upper classes, a member of the ruling Ui Neil clan. His Neill credentials was to make a crucial connection that would serve Columba well. If the strategy was to convert the leaders first, the leaders needed to be impressed, and the leaders needed to invite you in to have that all important initial cold call. Columba had the social clout to open those doors.
But he was also an impressive scholar and monastic leader. These tend to get a little lost in the history of the man, the former in particular; the focus always tends to be on the founding of Iona and the mission to convert the northern Picts of Fortriu.
There was a tradition in Celtic Christianity by this time of peregrinnus. This is a word that’s not exile, because it’s voluntary; it’s not quite a pilgrimage; it’s maybe best described as voluntary exile. It is this that took Uinniau to Ireland for example. Columba himself might have represented his departure to Scotland in 563 as peregrinnius; certainly his biographer, Adomnan, says that he left, quote, ‘wishing to be a pilgrim for Christ’. Admonan, incidentally, write the Life of St Colomba about 100 years after Columba’s death, so it was probably written by 700. In presenting Columba’s departure from Ireland as voluntary exile, Admomnan might have been guilty of playing a little with the truth, or at very least telling the truth but playing fast and loose with the whole truth and nothing but the truth thing. Because we know of a lost battle by Colomba’s branch of the Ui Neill, there’s the suggestion of an excommunication of Columba – effectively, Columba may well have been forced to leave town ahead of the forces of law and order, rather than the voluntary exile thing.
Colomba came to the court of the Cenel Loairn, at that time the dominant kindred of Dal Riata, and ruled by the king called Conall. When he arrived, it is likely that Conall and the Gaels generally were felling under some pressure from the Pictish kingdom, particularly the northern Pictish kingdom of Fortriu, in the person of one Bridei son of Mailcon. Fortriu was effectively at the other end of the Great Glen to Loairn. So when this rather well connected chap called Colomba arrived in town Conall felt it well worth keeping him sweet; having the support of some part at least of the ui Neill would be handy – certainly sensible not to be rude. And as it happens back in Ireland at precisely this time, Coloma’s cousin there had made something of a comeback. So he looked like a good bet. And so he presented Colomba with the island of Iona off the island of Mull, and gave him permission to found a monastery, which Coloma duly did. Iona, as you may know, will be the spiritual centre of Scottish Christianity for many centuries, and indeed in northern British Christianity. Lindisfarne, the beacon of English Christianity until the coming of the Vikings, was to be a daughter house of Iona. For this alone, Colomba’s name will always be fundamental to the history of Scotland.
So, we have Colomba the scholar, Colomba the founder and indeed reformer of monasteries. But the tradition for which Colomba has always been best known I his apparent reason for coming to Scotland – that of evangelising and converting the pagan natives. Certainly, this is Bede’s approach, writing in the 8th century – that Columba came over to evangelise the Northern Picts. Adomnan is a little more circumspect, with his peregrennus story; he’s less explicit that Columba came over to evangelise and convert.
The story then is that Colomba travelled into the northern Pictish lands to evangelise among the Verturians. There, he demands entrance to the fortress of the powerful Verturian Pictish king Bridei, the first if many Bridei’s we will meet incidentally. He battles with the pagan shamans, he gains entrance through a voice that rolled round the hills like thunder and subdued Bridei’s druids. However, oddly, despite all these impressive performances, Bridei remained pagan.
Colomba supposedly then also travelled across Scotland to contend with a great and arrogant king, and put him right; possibly in southern Pictland.
And yet there are many inconsistencies in the story, as both relayed by Bede and Admonan. There is the stubborn paganism of the Verturian king. There is the rather suspect nature of Bede’s source. But then Bede got his information from a southern Pict, and we’ve seen elsewhere with the foundation stories, that his source applied a certain amount of sauce to his information – he had an agenda. And here he appears to be bigging up how much civilised and cultured were the southern Picts to their hairy northern neighbours. This appears to be a southern trait does it not?
In this case, Bede’s contact was probably reflecting a later period when the southern Pictish kings were dominating their northern softie Pictish neighbours. So Bede’s chronology is not necessarily to be relied on.
It is quite likely that the real story of Colomba’s triumph is not as an evangeliser, but as a monastic founder and reformer, and supporter of an existing movement. Just like Outer Brigantia, and Argyll, the liklihood is that Southern Pictland was actually at least partly Christian before Colomba arrived. There’s some evidence for this in place names, where the use of the prefix Eccles seems to suggest an early church, coming as it does from the Latin ecclesia. The prefix is well known in southern Pictland. Colomba probably did go to both southern and Northern Pictland – but he probably went as a reformer and teacher.
One of the things Colomba certainly achieved through the foundation of Iona was the engine room of foundations all over Scotland; and by the time of his death in 597, Colomba had already established Iona’s primary reputation, which would lead to many foundations, including Lindisfarne in Bernicia in 635. Recently, historians have begun to challenge the implicit view that the Christianisation of Scotland was driven from Dal Riata. As we’ve seen, dal Riata itself and the lands of old Outer Brigantia and southern Pictland owed their Christianisation to Britons from further south rather than simply from Ireland. Pictland itself proved perfectly capable of founding its own monasteries, and creating its own church, as its kings converted to Christianity, certainly by the 8th century. Having said that, there was without doubt influence from the Gaels in dal Riata; but the story is now much modified – the main impetus was from the Christians of Pictland, supported in their efforts from outside by the likes of St Colomba, buit also Admonan; and it’s probably that Adomnan was a greater apostle in Pictland that Colomba himself, and that Colomba’s main achievements lay in establishing and reforming monasticism.
Iona’s influence also seems to have survived one of the earliest challenges to its culture and self confidence – the kerfuffle over the dating of Easter, and the Synod of Whitby which resolved it. The Synod of Whitby occurred in 664, Whitby being of course in Yorkshire, and Christian leaders from all over Northern Britain met to argue and discuss the rights and wrongs of how the date of Easter should be calculated, and other elements of Christian dogma. It’s quite difficult to get worked up these days about when Easter should fall and how to calculate the date – or at least I find it so. And indeed, to understand why the Synod of Whitby should have been seen historically as such an important event. And yet it has been. Indeed, the Synod of Whitby, has been represented at times as a titanic struggle between a Celtic Church and a Roman Church. A sort of mini reformation if you like, when the noble aspirations of the Celtic church were crushed beneath the boot of the tyrannical church of Rome. Boo, and if you will hiss, down with the Church if Rome, long live the Celtic church.
Well, it’s true that clerics of the Colomban tradition were very upset at the decision. But no one at the time would have for a moment thought of this being an argument about the Celtic church versus the evil Roman church. This was a full and frank exchange of views about a specific issue, not an attempt to destroy a rival to the church of Rome.
By the early 8th century, the Ionan family of churches and monasteries was actively promoted by the Pictish kings, as well as the kings of Dal Riata. Now, there are probably many pagans among you all listening with your head in your hands wailing and wondering why all these generations of kings and leaders dropped their pagan religion in favour of Christianity. It used to be assumed of course that Christianity was innately superior; that all that was required, was for Christianity to roll up and of course, maybe after a bit of dithering for the sake of tradition, the pagan would roll over. Nowadays we take a different approach, and look for more practical reasons – though who knows, surely in many cases it may simply have been just that, a world view and spiritual view in Christianity which attracted individual kings.
But Christianity brought with it great gifts. One of these was writing; and the benefits for early medieval kings were obvious in recording rights and law, in recording history, tradition, in communication, in administration. The literate clergy became an invaluable asset to support an effective ruler – and clergy quickly gathered around kings as a sort of mandarin class. And of course, Christianity contributed the same support of magic as did paganism in a sense; it’s no surprise that early tracts are full of the miraculous.
Christianity came with an organisation which went well beyond what the traditional religions had been able to offer; and through the diocesan and pastoral systems, offered kings an unrivalled ability to communicate with their people they’d simply never had before. These early church leaders were not shy – they knew very clearly how important was the relationship with secular rulers, and offered this support freely and without let. Pictish kings for example from the early 8th century actively promoted the idea of a unified Pictish state – the church was an integral and essential part of this. The church got plenty in return; not just conversion, but rights and lands and rights and security. It was a symbiotic relationship.
To some degree, this contributed to tensions within the church, between the monastic and the secular clergy. The monastics, the regular clergy, frequently despised the worldly nature of the Bishops; Admonan has Colomba mock a Bishop who uses a carriage and encloses cattle in his land. But however hard it was for the clergy to reconcile the worldly with the spiritual, the success of the church in large part depended on their ability to be part of both worlds; this is a challenge to this very day is it not? Such a question is probably over my pay grade I have to say, I am feeling a little scared, so I’ll move on. But this will be a feature of the politics of Scottish kingdoms as much as any other in Europe – hate it or loathe it, both Abbots and Bishops were part of the political world as well as the religious. They were powerful men.
This desire to promote a single state, led to the promotion of a single church, and explains why, in 715 the Pictish king Nechtan consciously rejected the Colomban family of the church and promoted the Roman practice; we’ll talk more when we get to Nechtan, but the point for here is just to illustrate how the unified philosophy and organisation the Christian church brought was a massively powerful tool in achieving their supremacy over the old religions.
Just as Pictish kings learned about how to harness the potential of Christianity to strengthen their kingship, so the church had an impact on the nature of kingship. One of the most significant was the way in which the church offered kings a special status that no one else could offer. Kings began not just to be a lord to their people, to control and regulate laws and customs – they began to acquire saintliness themselves. It’s for this reason that Aedan mac Gabrain was so keen to have Colomba ordain him as king. Admonan clearly recognised the importance of this, and invented an inauguration ritual based on old testament models. The church therefore became intimately involved in the inauguration of kings, and provided kings with legitimacy – a phenomenon that will be seen all over Europe.
It is easy to be cynical about this, and see this purely as a matter for power and the destruction of the old religions. I get told off a bit for being too negative about the church, and to this I plead guilty and will reform. Point one is to remind everyone just how deeply the vast majority of churchmen and indeed their congregations believed in the messages they were giving; no doubt here were the cynical about, but the proportion was in all likelihood vanishingly small. But it is also impossible to imagine a secular ruler attempting, and succeeding, at what Adomnan managed – to get 90 secular leaders of Picyland, Dal Riata and Ireland to agree to his Law of Innocents. Adomnan had a vision of kingship more committed to the protection of its people, with a role to moderate the savagery of warfare. The law of inncoents protected women, children and monks in times of war:
Women may not be killed by a man in any way, neither by slaughter or by any other death, not by poison nor in water, nor fire, nor by any beast, nor in a pit, nor by dogs, but shall die in their own lawful bed
Now, the fact that this is a law in medieval time probably more notable for its transgression than observance, should not belittle the level of Adomnan’s achievement in articulating the concept, and of having at least theoretical agreement by rulers.
So there we go; I have skipped ahead in chronology a wee bit, so in the next HoS episode we’ll return to the narrative to the point where we can to some extent at least begin to talk about the political story in the 6th century, with Aedan Mac Gabrain. However, that may be a few weeks away, since I am conscious of the need not to forget the History of England. So next time we’ll be having a history of the Tournament, with a focus on England. Until then, have a hoot.