Encyclopedia > Culdee

  Article Content


The Culdees formed an ancient monastic order with settlements in Ireland and Scotland. It was long fondly imagined by Protestant and especially by Presbyterian writers that they had preserved primitive Christianity free from Roman corruptions in one remote corner of western Europe, a view enshrined in Thomas Campbell’s Reullura:

Peace to their shades. The pure Culdees
Were Albyn[?]’s earliest priests of God,
Ere yet an island of her seas
By foot of Saxon monk was trod.

Another view, promulgated like the above by Hector Boece[?] in his Latin history of Scotland (1516), makes them the direct successors in the 9th to the 12th century of the organised Irish and Iona monasticism of the 6th to the 8th century. Both these views were disproved by William Reeves[?] (1815—1892), bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.

As found in the Irish manuscripts the name is Céle Dd, i.e. God's comrade or sworn ally. It was latinized as Coli dei, whence Boece’s culdei. The term seems, like the Latin vir dei, to have been applied generally to monks and hermits[?].

Very few trustworthy ancient sources of information survive, but it seems probable that the Rule of Chrodegang[?], archbishop of Metz (d. 766), was brought by Irish monks to their native land from the monasteries of north-eastern Gaul, and that Irish anchorites originally unfettered by the rules of the cloister[?] bound themselves by it. In the course of the 9th century we find mention of nine places in Ireland (including Armagh, Clonmacnoise[?], Clones[?], Devenish[?] and Sligo[?]) where communities of these Culdees were established as a kind of annexe to the regular monastic institutions. They seem especially to have had the care of the poor and the sick, and were interested in the musical part of worship.

Meanwhile in Scotland the Iona monks had been expelled by the Pictish king Nechtan in 717, and the vacancies thus caused were by no means filled by the Roman monks who thronged into the north from Northumbria. Into the gap, towards the end of the 8th century, came the Culdees from Ireland.

The features of their life in Scotland, which is the most important epoch in the history of the order, seem to resemble closely those of the secular canons of England and the continent. From the outset they were more or less isolated, and, having no fixed forms or common head, tended to decay. In the 12th century the Celtic Church was completely metamorphosed on the Roman pattern, and in the process the Culdees also lost any distinctiveness they may formerly have had, being brought, like the secular clergy, under canonical rule.

The pictures that we have of Culdee life in the 12th century vary considerably. The chief houses in Scotland were at St Andrews[?], Dunkeld[?], Lochleven[?], Monymusk[?] in Aberdeenshire, Abernethy[?] and Brechin[?]. Each was an independent establishment controlled entirely by its own abbot and apparently divided into two sections, one priestly and the other lay[?] and even married. At St Andrews about the year 1100 there were thirteen Culdees holding office by hereditary tenure and paying more regard to their own prosperity and aggrandizement than to the services of the church or the needs of the populace.

A much-needed measure of reform, inaugurated by Queen Margaret, was carried through by her sons Alexander I and David I; gradually the whole position passed into the hands of Turgot and his successors in the bishopric. Canons Regular were instituted and some of the Culdees joined the new order. Those who declined were allowed a life-rent of their revenues and lingered on as a separate but ever-dwindling body till the beginning of the 14th century, when, excluded from voting at the election of the bishop, they disappear from history.

At Dunkeld, Crinan[?], the grandfather of Malcolm Canmore, was a lay abbot, and tradition says that even the clerical members were married, though like the priests of the Eastern Church[?], they lived apart from their wives during their term of sacerdotal service.

The Culdees of Lochleven lived on St Serf’s Inch[?], which had been given them by a Pictish prince, Brude[?], about 850. In 1093 they surrendered their island to the bishop of St Andrews in return for perpetual food and clothing, but Robert, who was bishop in 1144, handed over all their vestments, books, and other property, with the island, to the newly founded Canons Regular, in which probably the Culdees were incorporated. There is no trace of such partial independence as was experienced at St Andrews itself, possibly because the bishop's grant was backed up by a royal charter.

In the same fashion the Culdees of Monymusk, originally perhaps a colony from St Andrews, became Canons Regular of the Augustinian order early in the 13th century, and those of Abernethy in 1273. At Brechin, famous like Abernethy for its round tower, the Culdee prior and his monks helped to form the chapter of the diocese founded by king David I in 1145, though the name persisted for a generation or two.

Similar absorptions no doubt account for the disappearance of the Culdees of York, a name borne by the canons of St Peter’s about 925, and of Snowdon and Bardsey Island[?] in north Wales, mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1190) in his Speculum Ecclesiae and Itinerarium respectively. The former community was, he says, sorely oppressed by the covetous Cistercians. These seem to be the only cases where the Culdees are found in England and Wales.

In Ireland the Culdees of Armagh endured until the dissolution[?] in 1541, and enjoyed a fleeting resurrection in 1627, soon after which their ancient property passed to the vicars choral of the cathedral.


  • W. Reeves, The Culdees of the British Islands (Dublin, 1864)
  • W. F. Skene, Celtic Scotland (1876—1880), especially vol. ii.
  • W. Beveridge, Makers of the Scottish Church (1908).

For the older view, see J. Jamieson, Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees (1811).

Original text from http://1911encyclopedia.org (http://1911encyclopedia.org). Please update as needed.

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article

...   Contents 242 Centuries: 2nd century - 3rd century - 4th century Decades: 190s 200s 210s 220s 230s - 240s - 250s 260s 270s 280s 290s Years: 237 238 239 240 ...

This page was created in 29.7 ms