Excerpt from “Celt, Druid and Culdee”

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Free Chapter Preview from the book “Celt Druid and Culdee” on the history of the Culdees.


From the book

“Celt, Druid and Culdee” (1973)


Isabel Hill Elder

To trace the history of the Culdees from the days of St. Columba is a comparatively easy task; to find their origin is more difficult. In the minute examination which such an investigation involves the name Culdee is discovered to have quite a different origin from that usually assigned to it.
The obscurity of the origin of the Culdich (Anglicized Culdees) has led many writers to assume that their name was derived from their life and work. The interpretations ‘Cultores Dei’ (Worshippers of God) and ‘Gille De’ (Servants of God) are ingenious but do not go far to solve the problem. Culdich is still in use among some of the Gael, of Cultores Dei and Gille De they know nothing.(1)

John Calgan, the celebrated hagiologist and topographer, translates Culdich ‘quidam advanae’ – certain strangers(2) – particularly strangers from a distance; this would seem an unaccountable interpretation of the name for these early Christians were it not for the statement of Freculphus(3) that certain friends and disciples of our Lord, in the persecution that followed His Ascension, found refuge in Britain in A.D. 37.(4) Further, here is the strong, unvarying tradition in the West of England of the arrival in this country in the early days A.D. of certain ‘Judean refugees’. It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Colgan’s Culdich, ‘certain strangers’, were one and the same with these refugees who found asylum in Britain and were hospitably received by Arviragus (Caractacus), king of the West Britons or Silures and temporarily settled in a Druidic college. Land to the extent of twelve hides or ploughs, on which they built the first Christian church, was made over to them in free gift by Arviragus. This land has never been taxed. Of the twelve hides of land conferred by Arviragus on this church, the Domesday Survey, A.D. 1088, supplies conformation. ‘The Domus Dei, in the great monastery in Glastonbury. This Glastngbury Church possesses in its own villa XII hides of land which have never paid tax.(5)

In Spelman’s ‘Concilia'(6) is an engraving of a brass plate which was formerly affixed to a column to mark the exact site of the church in Glastonbury.(7) ‘The first ground of God, the first ground of the Saints in Britain, the rise and foundation of all religion in Britain, the burial place of the Saints.'(8) This plate was dug up at Glastonbury and came into Spelman’s possession.

From a ‘mass of evidence’ to which William of Malmesbury gave careful study, the antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury was unquestionable. He says:
‘From its antiquity called, by way of distinction, “Ealde Chirche”, that is the Old Church of wattlework at first, savoured somewhat of heavenly sanctity, even from its very foundation, and exhaled it all over the country, claiming superior reverence, though the structure was mean. Hence, here assembled whole tribes of the lower orders, thronging every path; hence assembled the opulent, divested of their pomp; hence it became the crowded residence of the religious and the literary. For, as we have heard from men of elder times, here Gildas, an historian, neither unlearned nor inelegant, captivated by the sanctity of the place, took up his abode for a series of years. This Church, then, is certainly the oldest I am acquainted with in England, and from this circumstance derives its name. Moreover there are documents of no small credit, which have been discovered in certain places, to the following effect: No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ erected the Church at Glastonbury …. for if Phillip the Apostle reached to the Gauls, as Freculphus relates in the fourth chapter of his second book, it may be believed that he also planted the word on the hither side of the channel.'(19)

The first converts of the Culdees were Druids. The Druids of Britain, in embracing Christianity, found no difficulty in reconciling the teaching of the Culdees, or ‘Judean refugees’, with their own teaching of the resurrection and inheritance of eternal life. Numerous writers have commented upon the remarkable coincidence which existed between the two systems – Druidism and Christianity. (Amongst the Druidic names for the Supreme God which they had in use before the introduction of Christianity were the terms: ‘Distributor’, ‘Governor’, ‘The Mysterious One’, ‘The Wonderful’, The Ancient of Days’, terms strictly of Old Testament origin.(10)

Taliesen, a bard of the sixth century, declares :

‘Christ, the Word from the beginning, was from the beginning our teacher, and we never lost His teaching. Christianity was a new thing in Asia, but there never was a time when the Druids of Britain held not its doctrines.'(11)

From ‘Ecclesiastical An Antiquities’ of the Cymry we learn that the Silurian Druids embraced Christianity on its first promulgation in these islands, and that in right of their office they were exclusively elected as Christian ministers, though their claims to national privileges as such were not finally sanctioned until the reign of Lles ap Coel (Lucius), A.D. 156. Even so all the bardic privileges and immunities were recognized by law before the reign of this king.

‘And those Druids that formerly had dominion of the Britons’ faith become now to be helpers of their joy and are becomethe leaders of the blind, which through God’s mercy hath continued in this Island ever since through many storms and dark mists of time until the present day.'(12)

A Welsh Triad mentions Amesbury (Avebury) in Wiltshire as one of the three great Druidic ‘Cors’ or colleges of Britain, and one of the earliest to be converted to Christian uses. In the church attached to this college there were two thousand four hundred ‘saints’, that is, there were a hundred for every hour of the day and night in rotation, perpetuating the praise of God without intermission. This mode of worship was very usual in the early Church.(13)

The Christian king Lucius, third in descent from Winchester, and grandson of Pudens and Claudia(14) built the first minister on the site of a Druidic Cor at Winchester, and at a National Council held there in A.D.156 established Christianity the national religion as the natural successor to Druidism, when the Christian ministry was inducted into all the rights of the Druidic hierarchy, tithes included.(15)

The change over from Druidism was not a mere arbitrary act of the king, for, according to the Druidic law, there were three things that required the unanimous vote of the nation: deposition of the Sovereign, suspension of law, introduction of novelties in religion.(16)

Archbishop Usher quotes twenty-three authors, including Bede and Nennius, on this point and also brings in proof from ancient British coinage.(17) So uncontested was the point that at the Council of Constance it was pleaded as an argument for British precedence.

‘There are many circumstances’, writes Lewis Spence, ‘connected with the Culdees to show that if they practised a species of Christianity their doctrine still retained a large measure of the Druidic philosophy, and that indeed they were the direct descendants of the Druidic caste….
The Culdees who dwelt on Iona and professed the rule of Columba, were Christianized Druids, mingling with their faith a large element of the ancient Druidic cultus. . . . But all their power they ascribed to Christ – Christ is my Druid, said Columba.'(18)

Toland says that:

‘…the Druidical college of Derry was converted into a Culdee monastery. In Wales Druidism cease to be practised by the end of the FIRST century, but long after the advent of St.Patrick the chief monarchs of Ireland adhered to Druidism… Laegaire and all the provincial kings of Ireland, however, granted to every man free liberty of preaching and professing the Christian religion if he wished to do so.'(19)

The cumulative evidence of early historians leaves no shadow of doubt that Britain was one of the first, if not THE FIRST country to receive the Gospel, and that the apostolic missionaries were instrumental in influencing the change whereby the native religion of Druidism merged into Christianity.(20)

It is a remarkable circumstance that while statues of gods and goddesses prevail throughout the heathen sites of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Hindu and other idolatrous nations, NOT A VESTIGE of an IDOL or IMAGE has been found in Britain.

If Mithraism is argued to contest this statement it should be observed that invaders were not free from idolatry. Mithra worship was a Roman importation. The British were entirely free from all forms of idolatry; they never adopted Mithraism. The Druids’ invocation was to ONE all-healing and all-saving power. Can we be surprised that they so readily embraced the gospel of Christ?

Further support for the early introduction of Christianity to Britain is gathered from the following widely diverse sources:

EUSEBIUS of Ceasarea speaks of apostolic missions to Britain as matters of notoriety. ‘The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Brittanic Isles.'(21)

TERTULLIUS of Carthage, A.D.208, the embodiment of the highest learning of that age, tells us that the Christian Church in the second century extended to ‘all the boundaries of Spain, and the different nations of Gaul and parts of Britain inaccessible to the Romans but subject to Christ.'(22)

ORIGEN, in the third century states: ‘The power of Lord is with those who in Britain are separated from our coasts.'(23)

‘From India to Britain’, writes St.JEROME, A.D.378, ‘all nations resound with the death and resurrection of Christ.'(24)

ARNOBIUS, on the same subject, writes: ‘So swiftly runs the word of God that within the space of a few years His word is concealed neither from the Indians in the East nor from the Britons in the West.'(25)

CHRYSOSTOM, Patriarch of Constantinople, A.D.402, supplies evidence in these words: ‘The British Isles which lie beyond the sea, and which lie in the ocean, have received the virtue of the Word. Churches are there found and altars erected. Though thou should’st go to the ocean, to the British Isles, there thou should’st hear all men everywhere discussing matters out of the Scriptures.'(26)

GILDS, the British historian, writing in A.D.542, states: ‘We certainly know that Christ, the True Sun, afforded His light, the knowledge of His precepts, to our Island in the last year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar, A.D.37.'(27)

Sir HENRY SPELMAN states: ‘We have abundant evidence that this Britain of ours received the Faith, and that from the disciples of Christ Himself soon after the Crucifixion’,(28)

POLYDORE VERGIL observes: ‘that Britain was of all kingdoms the first that received the Gospel’.(29)

The fact that Lucius established Christianity as the State religion excludes the claim of the Latin Church to that eminence. That this early establishment was acknowledged beyond the confines of Britain is well expressed by Sabellius, A.D.250. ‘Christianity was privately expressed elsewhere, but the first nation that proclaimed it as their religion, and called itself Christian, after the name of Christ, was Britain’;(30) and Ebrard remarks, ‘The glory of Britain consists not only in this, that she was the first country which in a national capacity publicly professed herself Christian, but that she made this confession when the Roman Empire itself was pagan and a cruel persecutor of Christianity.’

The writer of ‘Vale Royal’ states: ‘The Christian faith and baptism came into Chester in the reign of Lucius, king of the Britons, probably from Cambria, circa A.D.140.'(31)

Missionaries are said to have come from Glastonbury, only thirty miles distant, to instruct the Druids of Amesbury in the Christian faith. When the Druids adopted and preached Christianity, their universities were turned into Christian colleges and the Druid priests became Christian ministers; the transition was to them a natural one.

In the days of Giraldus Cambrensis (twelfth century), as a result of Roman Catholic doctrine, martyrdom and celibacy were much overrated, and it was thought a reproach to the Druids that none of their saints had ‘cemented’ the foundation of the Church with their blood, all of them being confessors, and not one gaining the crown of martyrdom.(32)

An absurd charge, blaming the people for their reasonableness, moderation and humanity, and taxing the new converts for not provoking persecution in order to gain martyrdom.

It is not contended that every individual Druid and bard accepted Christianity on its first promulgation in Britain Even after Christianity had become a national religion, petty kings, princes and the nobility retained, in many instances, Druids and bards. Druidism did not entirely cease until almost a thousand years after Christ.

Had the large collection of British archives and MSS deposited at Verulum as late as A.D.860 descended to our time, invaluable light would have been thrown on this as on many other subjects of native interest.

We read in an historical essay, ‘The Ancient British Church’, by the Rev.John Pryce, which was awarded the prize at the National Eisteddfod of 1876, these words:

‘In this distant corner of the earth (Britain), cut off from the rest of the world, unfrequented except by merchants from the opposite coast of Gaul, a people who only conveyed to the Roman mind the idea of untamed fierceness was beingprepared for the Lord. Forecasting the whole from the beginning and at length bringing the work to a head, the Divine Logos unveiled Himself to them in the person of Christ, as the realization of their searching instincts and the fulfilment of their highest hopes. It would be difficult to conceive of Christianity being preached to any people for the first time under more favourable conditions. There was hardly a feature in their national character in which it would not find a chord answering and vibrating to its touch. Theirs was not the sceptical mind of the Greek, nor the worn-out civilization of the Roman, which even Christianity failed to quicken into life, but a religious, impulsive imagination – children in feeling and knowledge, and therefore meet recipients of the good news of the kingdom of heaven.
To a people whose sense of future existence was so absorbing that its presentiment was almost too deeply felt by them, the preaching of Jesus and the Resurrection would appeal with irresistible force. There was no violent divorce between the new teaching and that of their own Druids, nor were they called upon so much to reverse their ancient faith to lay it down for a fuller and more perfect revelation.
Well has the Swedish poet, Tegner, in ‘Frithiofs Saga’, pictured the glimmerings of the dawn of Gospel day, when he described the old priest as prophesying
‘All hail, ye generations yet unborn
Than us far happier; ye shall one day drink
That cup of consolation, and behold
The torch of Truth illuminate the world,
Yet do not us despise; for we have sought
With earnest zeal and unaverted eye,
To catch one ray of that ethereal light,
Alfader still is one, and still the same;
But many are his messengers Divine.’

1. Rev. T. McLauchlan, ‘The Early Scottish Church,’ p.431.
2. Trias Thaumaturga, p.156b.
3. Freculphus apud Godwin, p.10. See Hist. Lit.,II,18.
4. Baronius add. ann. 306. Vatican MSS. Nova Legenda.
5. Domesday Survey Fol., p.449.
6. See Epistolae ad Gregorium Papam.
7. See Joseph of Arimathea, by Rev.L.Smithett Lewis.
8. Concilia, Vol.I, p.9.
9. Malmes., ‘History of the Kings,’ pp.19,20.
10.G.Smith, ‘Religion of Ancient Britain,’ Chap. II, p.37.
11.Morgan, ‘St.Paul in Britain,’ p.73.
12.Nath. Bacon, ‘Laws and Government of England,’ p.3.
13.Baronius ad Ann 459, ex. Actis Marcelli.
14.Moncaeus Atrebas, ‘In Syntagma,’ p.38.
15.Nennius(ed.Giles), p.164. Book of Llandau, pp.26,68,289.
16.Morgan’s ‘British Cymry.’
17.Ussher (ed.1639), pp.5,7,20.
18.’The Mysteries of Britain,’ pp.62,64,65.
19.Dudley Wright, ‘Druidism,’ p.12.
20.Holinshed, ‘Chronicles,’ p.23.
21.’De Demostratione Evangelii,’ Lib. III.
22.’Adv.Judaeos,’ Chap. VII. Def. Fidei, p.179.
23.Origen, ‘Hom. VI in Lucae.’
24.’Hom. in Isaiah,’ Chap. LIV and Epist. XIII ad Paulinum.
25.’Ad Psalm,’ CXLV, III.
26.Chrysostom, ‘Orat O Theo Xristos.’
27.’De Excidio Britanniae,’ Sect. 8, p.25.
28.’Concilia,’ fol., p.1.
29.Lib. II.
30.Sabell. Enno, Lib. VII, Chap. V.
31.King’s ‘Vale Royal,’ Bk. II, p.25.
32.Topograph. Hibern Distinct. III, Cap. XXIX.

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