Medieval Scotland: Kings and Bishops I

Church and State

The political changes that led to the foundation of medieval Scotland at the end of the first millennium began several centuries earlier. Gaelicisation of the Picts, for example, was not so much a ninth-century event as a process of interaction and assimilation which accelerated under the mac Ailpín kings. In a similar way, the shaping of today’s Anglo-Scottish border was not a one-off occurrence, represented by the formal cession of Lothian in 1018, but rather a later phase in a lengthy sequence of political relationships dating back to the sixth century. One important aspect of these relationships was the evolution of small kingdoms into larger hegemonies and, ultimately, into what we might call ‘proto-states’. By c.1000, both Alba in the North and Wessex-dominated England in the South were large kingdoms displaying some of the key attributes of statehood. Both were already starting to exhibit the kind of organisational sophistication seen in contemporary France and Germany, most notably in the delegation of royal authority to provincial stewards such as earls and mormaers. Neither tenth-century England nor contemporary Alba were true states in the modern bureaucratic sense, but nor were they simple political units of the type classified by anthropologists as ‘chiefdoms’. Both kingdoms had indeed evolved to become ‘complex chiefdoms’ moving confidently towards statehood. In this, their rulers benefited from close ties with the ecclesiastical elite – the abbots and bishops of major churches and monasteries – whose expertise in matters of administration and communication made them indispensable advisers to ambitious kings. We see an example of this increasingly symbiotic relationship between ‘Church and state’, between high priest and monarch, in a chronicle entry for 906. In that year, a great gathering of the elite of Alba took place at Scone, presided over by Constantine mac Áeda with Cellach the bishop of St Andrews at his side. Here, we may note the key role played in its proceedings by a senior cleric, no less than the chief bishop of the kingdom. As we saw in the cases of Columba and Adomnán, and as we shall see again direct intervention by ecclesiastical figures in the policies of kings was by no means a ninth-century innovation.

Priests and Kings

The renowned Adomnán, abbot of Iona and promulgator of the Law of Innocents, died in 704 at the venerable age of seventy-seven. In spite of all his great achievements, the conversion of his monks to the customs of Rome eluded him to the last. His passing was followed a year later by that of his friend and pupil, the scholarly King Aldfrith of Northumbria, whose young son Osred succeeded to the throne. In Osred’s time the most influential religious figure in the northern English realm was Ceolfrith, abbot of the dual monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow where Bede was then a senior monk. Ceolfrith had close connections with the Gaelic churches: he had conversed with Adomnán during the latter’s visits to Northumbria; he was a friend of Ecgbert, the Bernician cleric who dwelt among the Irish; and his own brother Cynefrith had served as a monk in Ireland. Ceolfrith was known throughout many lands as a man of great piety and as a staunch advocate of conformity with ‘Roman’ ecclesiastical practices. When the Pictish king Nechtan, son of Derile, decided to bring the churches of his realm into line, he sought Ceolfrith’s advice and assistance.

At that time, the Picts still largely relied on Columban clergy for spiritual leadership. Some Pictish clerics undoubtedly favoured conformity with the Roman Easter, but no major changes could be implemented without the assent of Iona. The impetus for religious reform in Pictland was thus initiated by Nechtan himself in his role as secular patron of all churches within his kingdom. Indeed, he emerges from the sources as a literate and well-informed monarch with a keen interest in religious matters. His initiative began with a letter to Ceolfrith in which he expressed a desire for information and guidance. The Northumbrian abbot was happy to help and the two men began to correspond. Bede included a copy of Ceolfrith’s first reply to Nechtan in his Ecclesiastical History. The detailed correspondence on spiritual matters ran alongside a foedus pacis, a peace pact drawn up between Picts and Northumbrians to end the simmering tensions still lingering in the wake of Brude’s victory at Dunnichen. Religious correspondence and secular diplomacy thus formed twin strands of a single peacemaking strategy designed to forge political and religious harmony between the two kingdoms. The ensuing negotiations yielded a positive outcome: the peace treaty which Bede described as still being in force when he completed his magnum opus in 731. As well as rejoicing at the cessation of frontier skirmishes, Bede was heartened by the successful religious negotiations in which he himself had undoubtedly played a part. It is likely, for instance, that he served as Ceolfrith’s chief letter-writer as well as providing detailed scriptural references employed by the abbot to bolster his arguments.

On the secular front, the foedus pacis held firm for many years. Hostilities along the Anglo-Pictish border did not break out again until the middle of the century. Meanwhile, among the churches of his kingdom, King Nechtan began a rigorous programme of reform. He soon met stubborn resistance from traditionalists who either rejected the changes or implemented them too slowly for his liking. There might have been additional resentment at such direct royal interference in ecclesiastical affairs. In 716, having become frustrated by the intransigence of anti-reformist clerics, Nechtan ordered them to leave his domains. Like Colman’s refugees from the synod of Whitby five decades earlier, these ecclesiastical rebels – perhaps a mixed group of Picts and Gaels – took the road back to Iona. Their defiance of the king was destined to be short-lived: in 717, Iona finally adopted the Roman Easter and the Petrine tonsure. This momentous change was ushered in by the Englishman Ecgbert after his appointment as Iona’s bishop in 716.

In 724, Nechtan relinquished his crown to enter monastic life. This happened at a time when dynastic strife was simmering among the Pictish royal kindreds and may have been his response to the growing uncertainty. It is equally possible that the decision was not his own but was forced upon him by rivals. The same could perhaps be said of Selbach, king of Cenél Loairn and claimant on the sovereignty of Dál Riata, who had likewise entered a monastery in 723. Since both kings returned to the secular stage as warlords within a few years, their respective sojourns in holy orders were perhaps either half-hearted or involuntary. In 733, Selbach’s son Dungal raided a number of northern Irish monasteries, violating the sanctity of the church on Tory Island by dragging the Pictish prince Brude out of it. At first glance, this looks like a blatant flouting of Adomnán’s Law of Innocents, which sought to protect monks and other non-combatants from the perils of war. However, the Law would only have applied to Dungal and his Cenél Loairn kinsmen if they had lain under the spiritual authority of Iona. Their plundering of Irish monasteries suggests that they did not feel bound by the Law and implies rather that their principal church and centre of worship lay outside the Columban familia. This church was almost certainly Lismore, the island monastery in the Firth of Lorn opposite the royal stronghold of Dunollie. Its abbot appears not to have been a guarantor of the Lex Innocentium in 697.

In the early eighth century, Lismore was not the only non-Columban centre still thriving in the western seaways. Applecross, Eigg and Kingarth all retained their independence of Iona and had sent no delegates to the Synod of Birr. Missionaries from Ireland were, in fact, still arriving on the shores of northern Britain. Some came to preach in peripheral districts where pockets of paganism were most likely to remain. Others sought places of sanctuary away from the cares of the secular world. In the early 700s, three members of a high-ranking Irish family are said to have sailed to Britain in the hope of finding solitude and spiritual fulfilment. These were Kentigerna, the daughter of a king, with her brother Congan and her son Faelan. After establishing a place of peace and contemplation in Strathfillan, in southern Perthshire, the trio went their separate ways. Kentigerna eventually settled on Inchcailloch (‘Isle of the Old Woman’), in Loch Lomond, where she died in 734. The similarity of her name to that of Saint Kentigern has not passed unnoticed, with some historians wondering if the two individuals might be one and the same.

Kentigerna’s death preceded by one year the passing of the Venerable Bede, who died in the monastery at Jarrow where he had spent almost his entire life. The renowned chronicler of Northumbrian Christianity departed at the age of sixty-two, having borne witness to some of the most important events in the spiritual history of his nation. As a contemporary of leading churchmen such as Ceolfrith, Ecgbert and the great Adomnán himself, Bede had seen some of these events at first hand. He was almost certainly present at Jarrow when Adomnán visited Northumbria, and he probably assisted Ceolfrith during the reform of the Pictish churches. Although he played no active role in the reform of Iona, the fact that this had taken place under the guidance of an English bishop gave him great satisfaction. His network of personal contacts was impressive. It included figures whose childhood memories reached back to the beginnings of Christianity in Bernicia and Deira, to the time of Aidan and Paulinus. At the time of his death, southern Scotland still had an English bishopric at Whithorn in Galloway. This would eventually fall out of Northumbrian control but, in the early eighth century, it testified to the English kingdom’s continuing political and ecclesiastical dominance between Clyde and Solway.

Before the Storm

By the middle of the eighth century, most of the native churches of Ireland and northern Britain had embraced reform, thereby rejoining the mainstream of European Christianity. In 768, the clergy of Gwynedd likewise adopted the Roman Easter. It is possible that those of South Wales had already made the change, perhaps copying the example of their Cornish countrymen who seemingly reformed before 700. The churches of the Strathclyde Britons may have followed those of North Wales in the 760s, unless their own acceptance of reform also came earlier. In Pictland, the impact of King Nechtan’s ecclesiastical policies remained graven on the landscape long after his death in 732. Many archaeologists and art historians attribute to his reign the first appearance of upright stone slabs inscribed with ornate crosses on the front face and Pictish motifs on the reverse. The oldest examples were produced in the early eighth century and are therefore contemporary with Nechtan’s reformist agenda. Their appearance coincided with the building of stone churches founded by Pictish royal patronage and dedicated to Saint Peter of Rome. Nechtan himself endowed the first of these churches and, according to Bede, invited Northumbrian masons to build it. Its precise location is unknown, but both Meigle and Aberlemno are plausible candidates: patronage by high-status individuals and a rich sculptural tradition are evident at both sites. A third candidate is Restenneth, now the site of a medieval priory close to the battlefield of Dunnichen. A lost place-name Egglespether (‘St Peter’s Church’) was recorded in later landholding documents relating to the area, but a similar name was also known in the vicinity of Aberlemno. The most northerly site proposed for Nechtan’s earliest stone-built church is Rosemarkie in Easter Ross.

Another Pictish foundation attributed to the eighth-century was Cenrigmonaid, now St Andrews, a site perhaps owing its origin to Nechtan’s successor Óengus, son of Fergus. Here was built the great royal church of St Andrew, dedicated to the Apostle whose bones were supposedly interred there. One version of the St Andrews foundation-legend tells of a monk named Regulus or Rule who, after experiencing a prophetic vision, brought the apostolic relics from Constantinople to Britain. At a place called Kylrimont, more correctly Cenrigmonaid (‘Head of the Royal Hill’), he allegedly met a certain ‘King Hungus’ who granted a portion of land for a church in which the sacred remains could be enshrined. Although the tale is largely fictional, the identification of Hungus as Óengus, son of Fergus, is consistent with other evidence. The Irish annals, for instance, include an entry noting the death of Tuathalan, abbot of Cenrigmonaid, in 747. This is the earliest reference to an ecclesiastical settlement at St Andrews and suggests that Tuathalan was the first abbot of a recently founded monastery. Óengus was the paramount Pictish king in the 740s and perhaps appointed Tuathalan to the abbacy. The corresponding archaeological data likewise seems consistent with this chronology, the oldest sculpture at St Andrews being attibuted to the second half of the eighth century. Foremost among a rich collection of Christian sculpture is a sandstone box-shrine or sarcophagus designed to contain the bones of an important individual. This superb example of Pictish craftsmanship, carved between 750 and 800, was set up in the church as a focus of veneration. The identity of the person whose corporeal remains were interred within it is unknown. Did it once hold the bones of the Apostle Andrew, or those of the mighty Óengus himself? Whatever the true purpose of the sarcophagus, the richness of its carving suggests royal patronage and a close connection between king and clergy. If the chief architect of ‘church and state’ relationships in Pictish territory was Nechtan, son of Derile, then the main beneficiary was a confident, independent religious elite in the time of his successors. The new foundation at St Andrews was home to Pictish monks who were no longer answerable to Iona.

An alternative interpretation of the St Andrews foundation-legend sees the royal patron ‘Hungus’ or Óengus not as Nechtan’s successor but as a namesake who died in 834. This was the Óengus who succeeded his brother Constantine as a Pictish overking in 820. Both siblings may have been involved in the founding or redeveloping of major churches in territory south of the Mounth. Given the presence of an abbot at Cenrigmonaid in the 740s, it seems unlikely that the later Óengus was responsible for its foundation, but he perhaps endowed it with gifts. Constantine, on the other hand, almost certainly founded the Pictish royal church at Dunkeld. This important religious settlement was established beside the River Tay, below the ancient Fort of the Caledonians, on a site now occupied by the medieval cathedral. Here, the modern visitor can observe two sculptured stones, both of which were probably carved in the ninth century. Within a few decades of its foundation, Dunkeld was earmarked as the premier church of the mac Ailpín kings.

South of Pictish territory and across the Firth of Forth lay Lothian, an area still under English rule in the eighth century. Here, the Northumbrian bishops of Lindisfarne held spiritual authority over a population descended largely from Britons but now thoroughly Anglicised. Among the satellite churches of the Lindisfarne diocese was a monastery at Tyninghame on the coast of East Lothian, eight miles north of the Bernician fortress at Dunbar. Tyninghame was founded by Saint Balthere or Baldred, an obscure figure whose Germanic name is suggestive of English origin. During his abbacy he frequently sought solitude on the Bass Rock, a precipitous feature rising out of the sea near the modern resort of North Berwick. He died in 756 and was buried at Tyninghame where, in later times, his tomb became the focus of a major cult. In the eleventh century, around the time of the cession of Lothian to the Scots, his body was disinterred by the Northumbrian priest Alfred, son of Westou, as part of an initiative to gather the remains of long-dead saints for reburial at Durham. This presumably happened around the time of the battle of Carham when the Anglo-Scottish border was finally fixed along the Tweed. At some point thereafter, Scottish ecclesiastical tradition tried to recast Balthere as a pupil of Saint Kentigern of Glasgow, hence the appearance of two ‘Baldreds’ in the documentary record. One of these has a a sixth-century context, the other belongs to the eighth. They are essentially one and the same, although the earlier is plainly an invention.