Power: 600-840


Kingship and Authority


The rites of inauguration used to invest power in a new king are symbolic statements of cultural values and ideals at the highest level of society. Textual descriptions of inauguration and secular power are only preserved in Gaelic sources from about the 7th century onwards in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland (the illustration below depicts the inauguration of Uí Néill in the late 16th century). There is little left to inform us about the inaugural rites of the early Brittonic or Pictish kingdoms.

Inauguration is referred to as rígad in Old Gaelic, although in some accounts the term banais-ríge (literally “king-marriage”) drew explicit attention to inauguration as a form of wedding between the leader and the sovereignty goddess of the territory. Although there was no single ritual of inauguration in Gaelic society, there are a number of common
elements which recur in accounts of these ceremonies in both Scotland and Ireland, from kings to clan chiefs:

  • A poet or cleric conducts the ceremony, enumerating the leader’s ancestry and invoking a blessing on him and his reign;
  • It is on or near a burial mound containing a ceremonial stone, and under or near a sacred tree;
  • It includes the leader’s horse or chariot (in reality or symbolically);
  • The leader’s garment or mantle is given to the master of the ceremony;
  • There is a single footprint, shoe or sandal into which the leader steps;
  • The leader is anointed;
  • The leader drinks alcohol from a ceremonial vessel;
  • The leader is presented with the rod of sovereignty (slat tighearnais), sometimes a wand cut from the sacred tree.

By the late 8th century, the church had inserted itself into the ordination of the kings of Ireland, as recorded in 793 at the inauguration of Artrí mac Cathail in Munster. Regardless, poets continued to play a central role in the validation of Gaelic rulers in both Scotland and Ireland up to the early modern era.

Class Discussion

What aspects of the inauguration ritual, and symbolism of kingship, are referred to by the poem “Aed oll fri andud nane”? How is the relationship between ruler and poet represented, especially in terms of what each one does for, or offers to, the other?


Whereas in the previous time period (400-600), we saw the development of the office of the king and the ideology of kingship in the Insular Celtic context, during this time period we see that the institutions of the kingdom were being consolidated and extending their reach. This is visible amongst all of the ethnic groups (Celts and Anglo-Saxons) and had as much to do with secular ambition as the extension of the authority of religious institutions and the ideals of Christian kingship.

As the king’s power grew, so did the size of his territory and retinue. It would have exhausted the estate of the king himself to feed and house his military retinue (aka comitatus), so the king travelled with them around the clients on his territories who took turns billeting the royal company. Such obligations of lodging and feeding were an integral part of the client-lord relationship and allowed clients the chance to curry favour with their leader.

Although originally, and in theory, each tuath in Ireland was a sovereign state impenetrable by overlords (or “overkings”), we can already see in the 8th century that some kings are being demoted in status to the lesser rank of “lord” (the title used in Latin sources is dux) due to the steady pressure of overkings. This title was used in Ireland of the ruler of the Delbna Ethra in 756, and the rulers of Luigne and Ciarraige in 771 and 796. The extension of Pictish overlord-ship over smaller kingdoms, and the consolidation of kingdoms in Wales, has already been discussed. The kingdom of Northumbria exemplified similar processes in the Anglo-Saxon(ized) sphere.

The instability of food resources – bad seasons, unpredictable harvests, etc – made conspicuous consumption at feasts all the more significant displays of status. High social status was closely related to good nutrition and health, as is apparent in many contemporary texts, though often expressed in formulaic language.

The Cult of Saints

Virtually all religions recognize certain places which are sacred, charged with special significance and power, often because of their association with particular events and people revered in the narratives of the religion. Initially Christianity had disavowed the cult of holy places, but by the end of the fourth century it had been reconceptualized and reintegrated into the religion. Empress Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, claimed to have discovered the Holy Rood in the mid-4th century, sparking a fashion for other “discoveries” of fragments of the cross on which Christ had died and pilgrimages of Christians to see these relics.

Popes of the late 8th and early 9th century sanctioned the practice of pilgrimage to the cemeteries of Rome, which encouraged other churches to create spaces where the remains of their own local dignitaries could be deposited and visited.

The cult of saints gave believers a tangible and local connection to the sacred. Rome was far away, and an almighty god in the heavens could seem equally distant: the cult of saints provided people with human intermediaries (saints with local connections) and physical objects (relics) which allowed them to participate in religious experiences rooted in their own localities.

The cult of saints born in Celtic regions, embracing the relics of those saints and the sites of their activities, was active in Scotland by the seventh century. Although Adomnán’s biography of Saint Columba (written by 704) may have further promoted the veneration of the saint, it is clear that Colum Cille enjoyed cult status by the time it was written. By the 8th century, the Virgin Mary also enjoyed special reverence by the Columban monastery on Iona. Adomnán’s book De Locis Sanctis “Of Holy Places” (about the holy places of Palestine) may have aided in spreading the practice of endowing hereditary keepers to safeguard holy relics in Gaeldom.

The cult of saints seems to have been a much more local affair in Celtic regions than elsewhere: many saints are known at only one site. It was taboo in Cornwall and Wales to relocate the remains of a saint, so the focus of the cult tended to be the site of the grave. In Ireland, by contrast, a saint’s remains could be broken into parts (finger joints, arm-bones, ribs, etc), making it easier to proliferate his/her cult.

Churches were closely connected to secular power: they were run by people who typically came from powerful dynasties and were financed by the patronage of local leaders. It was to the advantage of such rulers to promote the popularity of the saint(s) whose cult was centred at their church; this could bring them further status, prestige, and authority to justify their secular power; it could also bring in the wealth of other patrons and pilgrims.

Secular Legal Traditions

Law is one of the key elements in ethnic identity: the legal framework and traditions in Celtic communities continued not only to provide common standards of conduct and points of reference to those who shared it, but also provided a contrast with the alien legal systems of outsiders. It is thus no surprise that English kings made great efforts to impose English law on the Celtic peoples in the process of conquest and subjugation.

There is at least some small common core of customary law which had been practiced in early Celtic civilizations and survived in some Celtic communities into the medieval period, as evidenced by legal terminology inherited by the different Celtic languages. The Gaelic term for surety (a means of guaranteeing that all parties of a contract will fulfill their obligations) is macc, clearly related to Welsh and Breton mach.

One general pattern is that Celtic law placed more importance on restitution than on punishment: in other words, the victim of a crime (which extended to his kin-group) was to be compensated by the criminal (which again could implicate his kin-group). Punishment was reserved for special cases, as it could not usually heal the consequences of the crime or prevent another. However, the status of the individuals involved were also major factors in judgment, as these were societies based on rank, not on social equality.

The concept of honour-price [Common Gaelic lóg n-enech “face value”] is fundamental to Celtic law (as in many other law systems); this is the fine to be paid to a victim (or his kin) if any offense was done to him, whether to his honour (e.g., slander) or to his person (injury, murder, etc). Honour-price was generally directly related to social rank, with the king being highest. A person’s honour-price could be diminished if he behaved below his rank, or augmented if he upgraded his skill set or added to his wealth. A dependent (e.g., child, wife, disabled person) did not have an independent honour- price; it was, rather, a fraction of the legally-recognized person to whom they were attached, depending on age, gender, and nature of relationship.

Another common feature of Irish and Welsh law systems was the support for divorce initiated by the wife, a right which met with the disapproval of the church. Irish law allowed for polygamy and secular lawyers defended this pre-Christian practice by pointing out its use amongst the Jews in the Old Testament.

Irish/Goidelic Law

Unlike many legal systems in continental Europe, Irish law was not a legacy of the Roman empire and could not rely upon the help of scholars familiar with the Roman legal tradition; after all, Irish law was written in Gaelic, despite the existence of many contemporary Latin scholars, and draws upon native terminology and concepts (even if it also borrows from Christian texts). One of the truly remarkable aspects of early Ireland, at least from our surviving evidence, is that despite the proliferation of dozens of independently operating kingdoms and a lack of a central authority, the country was surprisingly uniform in both language and culture. Whether law (and associated cultural practices) was the result of this or the cause of this unity, early Irish law is a wonder of early European civilization.

By the 7th century, the Irish clergy were involved in the recording and refashioning of customary Irish law, which had been transmitted and practiced orally, into a sophisticated written textual tradition. This allowed for the development of Gaelic law in new directions, but it also provided the ability of literate churchmen to edit and interfere in the legal system. Irish law is often called “Brehon law” in English after the Gaelic word for judge (in plural form) breitheamhan.

There are a number of clues about the origins of Irish law which, if they are not actually rooted in the pre-Christian past, at least provide the veneer of antiquity and indigeneity. Many of the principles and precedents of Irish law are attributed to pagan characters, many of which were clearly gods and some of whom represent professions: Bretha Déin Chécht “the judgments of Dian Cécht” related to legal aspects of medicine, Bretha Goibnenn “the judgments of Goibniu” related legal aspects of blacksmiths, and so on. None of the fundamental principles or judgments are named after mere mortals, although Saint Patrick was said in the prologue to one law tract to help transform pagan Irish law to a written tradition. After this act of transcription, the secular poets (filid) were said to have been taken out of the legal profession (no doubt oral law relied upon mnemonic devices such as ornament poetry). Although we cannot read account this as literal historical evidence, it is an important symbolic endorsement of the results of the “harmonization” of Irish law with the Christian order and literacy.

There was a complex and sometimes fraught relationship between secular law traditions and the church, who were seeking to modify secular society to meet Christian standards. Some Irish lawmen tried to defend the older laws against the new law (sometime referred cryptically to as the “written law” of the “men of books”). By the 8th century, clerics were trying to impose capital punishment for extreme crimes, whereas the traditional Celtic law system had allowed for the payment of compensation, even for crimes like homicide (éraic).

Early Irish law abounds in detail and precision: there is a large number of tracts on very specific issues, although many of these tracts only survive in fragments. Over the generations, the bare statements of laws were elaborated and explained in longer texts which “gloss” the original texts, resulting in strands of interweaving texts (such as that shown in the Book of Aicill above). Our understanding of the laws is complicated by the fact that it evolved independently in different regions under the guidance of different schools of law; thus, variations in usage and terminology appear over the centuries in the surviving records.

The same dynasties that wielded secular power were also those that became the leaders of religious institutions, with succession of office determined in the same manner. The honour-price of members of religious orders was calculated by mirroring their position in secular society. Certain legal concepts and aspects of social organization were adopted in the church’s own structure and operation: free/unfree status and clientship, usually applied to people, were extended to churches and relationships between monasteries and churches.19 As it was involved in the creation and operation of law, the church ensured its own rights to wealth (it took a third of the fine paid by a client who neglected the obligations to his lord) and tried to inherit for itself land owned by a landowner who died without leaving male heirs.

The legal system included mechanisms for adding or changing laws. A specifically enacted regulation (as opposed to customary law) was originally denoted as cáin (pl. cána), a term which by the late 8th referred to the laws of the church (by the late medieval period it denoted taxes). By the late 8th century, all of the major monasteries were proclaiming their own cána and collecting fines from those who broke these laws.

Lawyers attempted to modify legal procedures in order to minimize conflict and disruption society. The practice of distraint (the seizure of property to force a person to comply with a legal ruling or obligations) was modified from the initial policy of an immediate seizure of goods without notice, to informing the offender that the goods were taken, to giving an advanced warning of the intention to seize the goods, to finally threatening that goods would be impounded and rewarded to the claimant if no resolution was made within a set period of time.

Class Discussion

What does Críth Gablach “Branched Purchase” § 61-2 say about the relationship between church and secular society?

How does the Prologue to the Senchus Már attempt to resolve pre-Christian Irish law with the new Christian order?

Welsh/Brittonic Law

The evidence of the Welsh law system, especially from what survives in the later Laws of Hywel Dda (codified in the mid-10th century), depicts Welsh society as

a stable, sedentary arable-based sector in which the extended family or clan-group lived in robust farm-steads. In terms of landholding, the general trend was for partible inheritance to nibble away at large estates (gwelyau) up to the mid-eleventh century.  Apart from the slave, who possessed no rights, there were three important categories: the king (brenin), the noble (breyr) and the villein (bilain), who was tied to both lord and land. Within these groups, claims to status depended on descent, kinship, and wealth. (Jenkins, A Concise History)

Like early Irish law, some texts in early Welsh law also appears to use the kind of linguistic features that would make it suitable for oral preservation and transmission, such as the use of triads. If this, and the evidence of shared terminology derived from a common Celtic source, were not enough to demonstrate that it has a pre-history which is now difficult to detect, there is the fact that some aspects of Brittonic law survived in the kingdom of Alt Clut to be later absorbed into Scottish law (discussed in a later unit).

Class Discussion

Read the Surexit Memorandum extract from the “Lichfield Gospel notes,” the earliest surviving evidence about Welsh law. What legal issues does this deal with? Why might this particular fragment have been recorded in a manuscript and preserved?


Clancy, “Kingmaking.”

Crick, “Nobility.”

Cubitt, “Pastoral care.”

Hall, “Of holy men.”

Kruta, The Celts.

Meek, The Quest.

Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland.