The Gospel to Britain #2
Christianity in the first centuries AD in Britain
From the book “Celt,
Druid and Culdee”
Isabel Hill Elder
THE EARLY BRITISH CHURCH
THE name by which the British Church was first known in these
islands was the Culdee Church, the natural result of Christianity
having been introduced by the Culdich or ‘refugees’. The
ecclesiastics of this Church, composed chiefly of Christianized
Druids, became known as the Culdees, and not until the Latin
aggression, five centuries later, were they referred to as the
British clergy in contradistinction to the clergy of the Roman
Church. The fact is well established from the testimony of early
writers and councils that through the Culdee church, the National
Church of Britain is the Mother Church of Christendom.
The Culdees established Christian churches, monasteries and
colleges, chiefly in remote places, where they fled from
persecution by the Romans Enlii (i.e. Bardsey), off the coast of
Wales, once afforded shelter to twenty thousand Christians.
Lindisfarne, Iona and many of the islands off the west coast of
Scotland, and inaccessible parts of Ireland, were all inhabited
in the early days of Christianity by the Culdees.
Eurgan, daughter of Caradoc and wife of Salog, Prince of old
Sarum, founded a college of twelve Christian Druids (Culdee
initiates) at Caer Urgan(1) or Llantwit Major. This college must
therefore have been established in the first century.
The Culdee Church was ruled by bishops(2) and elders – elder and
priest (from presbyteros) being synonymous terms.(3) From an
ancient authority we learn that the Culdees made no alteration in
the terms used by the Druids; and they retained the white dress
of the Druidic priests.(4) A superintendent among the Druids
in Britain was a ‘deon,’ i.e. a ‘dean.’
The clergy of the early Church came into office hereditarily; the
principal of hereditary succession ran through the whole Celtic
polity. The crown was hereditary with certain modifications
peculiar to the Celts themselves. The bards were hereditary
without much reference to qualification. In Ireland there was a
hereditary succession in the bishopric of Armagh for fifteen
Giraldus Cambrensis, Bishop of St. David’s, in the twelfth
century, a strong supporter of the Latin Church, complains of the
Celtic Church that ‘the sons after the deaths of their fathers,
succeed to the ecclesiastic benefices, not by election, but by
Monasteries, or more correctly, colleges, were attached to the
early British churches;(6) seats of learning were styled Cathair
Culdich – the Chair of the Culdees.(7) The mode of life in these
monasteries, however, was very different from that of the
generality of those institutions that have been called
monasteries in later ages. In each college there were twelve
brethren, and one who was ‘provost’ or ‘abbot’; wherever the
Culdees formed a new settlement or college of presbyters, the
fixed number of the council was twelve, following the example of
the apostles of Jesus Christ.
GILDAS states that in old phraseology – ‘sanctorum speluncae’ –
the monasteries, were the caves of the saints;(8) this makes
intelligible the old records of the Culdees that they lived in
kells or caves in Britain. Kings and nobility frequently passed
their declining years in the peace and seclusion of these
According to Jamieson there is a general tradition in the
Highlands of Scotland that the Culdees immediately succeeded the
Druids as the ministers of religion.(9) The tradition is
supported by a circumstance of an interesting nature, which has
been mentioned by several writers, that ‘Clachan’, the name still
given in the Highlands to a place where a church stands, belonged
originally to a Druidical temple. Hence it is still said, ‘Will
you go to the stones?’ or ‘Have you been to the stones?’; that
is, ‘Will you go to church’ or ‘Have you been to church ?’ At the
end of the seventeenth century there was in a Highland parish of
Scotland an old man who, although very regular in his devotions,
never addressed the Supreme Being by any other title than that of
‘Archdruid’, accounting every other derogatory to the Divine
Toland states that two Druids acted as tutors to the two
daughters of Laegaire (Leary), the high king of Ireland, in whose
reign St.Patrick conducted his great revival; that Ida and Ono,
Lords of Roscommon, were Druids and that Ono presented his
fortress of Inlleach-Ono to St.Patrick who converted it into the
religious house of Elphin, later an episcopal see; this writer
also states that the Druidical college of Derry was converted
into a Culdee monastery.(11)
Adamnan, the successor and biographer of St.Columba, states that
Columba was wont to say of the Lord Jesus, ‘Christ the Son of God
is my Druid.'(12)
Every fragment of such evidence is valuable, inasmuch as it
manifests the true character of the Druids, and indicates the
esteem in which even their memory was held long after Druidism
had ceased as the national religion and had become merged in
Arch con Munro, who made a tour of the Western Isles in 1549,
begins his narrative with the Isle of Man ‘which sometimes, as
old historiographers say, was wont to be the seat first ordained
by Fynan, king of Scotland, to the priests and the philosophers,
called in Latin “Druids”, in English “Culdees” which were the
first teachers of religion in Albion.'(13)
The Culdee, or British Church flourished increasingly from the
first to the seventh century; kings and rulers of provinces
united in enriching the Church.
Sir James Dalrymple observes that the common practice of the
Culdees was to dedicate their principal churches to the Trinity,
and not to the Virgin or any saint.(14) Sometimes, however,
churches were named after their living founders.(15)
An account of the simplicity of the mode of service in the early
Christian Church is found in the writings of Justin Martyr. He
says: ‘We offer up prayers in common for ourselves, for the
baptized person, and for all men. . . . Then there is brought to
the presiding brother a loaf of bread and a cup of water and
mixed wine; he takes it and offers praise and glory to the Father
of all, through the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and
returns thanks to Him at great length for having vouchsafed to
give us these things. When he has made an end of the prayer and
the thanksgiving the people answer “Amen”, which in Hebrew
signifies “So be it.” Then those who we call deacons give to each
person present a portion of the bread, wine and water, over which
the thanksgiving has said; and they also carry away to the
absent. This food we call the Eucharist which no one may receive
except those who believe in the truth of our doctrines, and who
have also been baptized for the remission of sins and who live
according to the commandments of Christ.’ Later, in a
communication to the emperor, this ancient writer states: ‘On
Sunday, as the day is called, the inhabitants of town and country
assemble together, and the memoirs of the Apostles and the
writings of the Prophets are read as long as time permits. When
the reader has finished, the presiding brother makes a discourse,
exhorting us to an imitation of those worthies. Then we stand up
and pray, and when the prayers are done, bread and wine are
brought as I have just described; and he who presides sends up
thanksgivings and prayers as well, and the people answer
(I have not a clue as to why Elder brought this in here, for
Justin Martyr was a member of what became known as the Roman
Catholic Church. Elder is her telling us about what is recorded
as how a service in what became the RC church was at the
beginning conducted like. All of this has NO bearing on the
subject at hand…the early church of Britain, and the Culdee
church services – which was not Roman Catholic at all in those
early centuries in the gatherings of the Culdees. And further
more, it is a recorded historical fact that the Roman Catholic
faith did not come to Britain until about 500 A.D. and when the
RC leader arrived, being sent by the then Pope, he found a
Christianity that was as he himself sent word back to the Pope,
“heretical” for they were “Jewish in practice” – they observed
Saturday not Sunday and observed not Easter, but Passover – Keith
Writing of the early church, Thomas Fuller 1608-1661) says: ‘Most
of these men seem born under a travelling planet, seldom having
their education in the place of their nativity; oft-times
composed of Irish infancy, British breeding and French
preferment; taking a cowl in one country, a crozier in another,
and a grave in a third. Neither bred where born, nor beneficed
where bred, but wandering in several kingdom.’
These ‘Wandering Scholars’, as they were often termed, were
learned in the classics as well as in Holy Writ. The Church
continued to teach the classics; only for the Church the memory
of them would have vanished from Europe…. The Church inherited
the Roman respect for eloquence. ‘The Holy writings do not teach
the art of eloquence,’ said Socrates, the historian, ‘and by
eloquence a man defends the truth.'(17) Clement I insists that
‘secular learning is necessary to the right understanding of Holy
Writ’.(18) Moses was learned in the wisdom of the Egyptians;
Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets, was a gentleman and a
scholar; St.Paul, the Apostle par excellence, was as versed in
secular letters as afterwards in spiritual. It is to be
remembered, however, that in spite of the greatness of the
Vulgate its Latin prose is not such a masterpiece as the English
of the Authorized Version’.(19)
Surprise is sometimes expressed that there are so few records of
the early British Church. The savage edicts of Roman Emperors
were directed not alone to the destruction of individuals who
confessed the Christian faith, but also to the literature and
records of the Church.
There were ten ‘high power’ persecutions of the Christians under
these tyrants, extending from A.D.66 to A.D.303; the last being
that of Diocletian which began in A.D.290.(20) Bede says: ‘The
Diocletian persecution was carried out incessantly for ten years,
with the burning of churches, outlawing of innocent persons and
the slaughter of martyrs. At length it reached Britain in the
year 300, and many persons, with the constancy of martyrs, died
in the confession of the Faith.’ The records of the Church had
now to be written not with pen and ink but in blood and the
flames of martyrdom. In the edict of Diocletian the Scriptures
were to be carried away or destroyed, being regarded as books of
magic; in this he was following older methods of suppression.
The British Church at this time lost the following by martyrdom:
Amphibalus, Bishop of Llandaff; Alban of Verulam; Aaron and
Julian, citizens and presbyters of Chester; Socrates, Bishop of
York; Stephen, Bishop of London; Augulius, his successor;
Nicholas, Bishop of Penrhyn (Glasgow); Melior, Bishop of
Carlisle; and above ten thousand communicants in different
grades of society.(21)
After the Diocletlan persecution had died out, the churches in
Britain were rebuilt,(22) and Christianity flourished to so great
an extent that at the Council of Arles, A.D.314, the British
Church was represented by three bishops and a presbyter, and
again at the Council of Sardica and Ardminium in the fourth
century. It is interesting to note that the three bishops who
represented the British Church at the Council of Arles came from
York, London and Caerleon-on-Usk,(23) the former seats of the
three Archdruids of Britain.
Against the British Church no charge of heretical doctrine has at
any time been made, though the very prince of heretics, Pelagius,
was one of its most prominent and learned abbots.
The Pelagian heresy, originated by Morien,(24) better known by
his Latin name, Pelagius, twentieth Abbot of Bangor-on-Dee,
Flintshire, was nothing more than an attempted revival of
Druidism, and of the old Druidic ideas with regard to the nature
and free-will of man. The beauty of the Latin compositions of
Pelagius, his extensive learning and reproachless life,
facilitated the spread of the heresy everywhere; it was quickly
suppressed in Britain.
St.Hilary of Poictiers, in the latter part of the fourth century,
wrote to the British Church: ‘I congratulate you on having
remained undefiled in the Lord, and untainted by all the
contagion of damnable heresy. Oh, the unshaken steadfastness of
your glorious conscience! Oh, house firm on the foundation of the
faithful rock. Oh, the constancy of your uncontaminated
During the storm which the Pelagian heresy caused in Britain, one
of the brightest lights of the Culdee Church, St.Patrick, was, in
the providence of God, being prepared for his great work of
revival among the Irish people, Christianity, according to
Gildas, having been planted in Ireland before the defeat of
Boudicca (otherwise spelling – Boadicea – Keith Hunt) A.D.61.
Maelgwyn, or Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland and of the Isle of
Man, born at Llantwit Major, Glamorganshire, A.D.363,(27) from
whence he was taken prisoner and carried to Ireland, was, by
tradition, a Culdee and the son-in-law of a bard;(28) by his own
statement the son of a presbyter,(29) and grandson of a deacon,
both of the British Church, St. Illtyds, Llantwit Major, to which
was attached a college.(30)
Patrick’s father, Calpurnius (not Patrick himself, as frequently
erroneously stated), would appear to have been principal of this
college, acting at the same time as an official of the Roman
Empire, probably as broveratius, ‘district justiciary and chief’.
Patrick would, in such case, have early opportunity of acquiring
a knowledge of Roman law and British Church government.
Niall of the Nine Hostages, so-called because five provinces in
Ireland and four in Scotia delivered hostages to him, changed the
name of North Britain from Albania to Scotia at the request of a
colony of the Dalriada, the Irish colonists who had been led by
Fergus from Antrim to Argyllshire. Niall, in one of his raids,
took Patrick prisoner from Llantwit Major to Ireland in A.D.379.
The captive escaped to Gaul, returning to Ireland nearly fifty
years later as a missionary revivalist.
St. Patrick is said to have introduced the use of the Latin
language,(31) the previous missionaries having used chiefly
Greek.(32) Latin, did not, however, rapidly supplant Greek.
Professor H. Zimmer states: ‘It is almost a truism to say that
whoever knew Greek on the Continent in the days of Charles the
Bald (tenth century), was an Irishman or was taught by an
Bede does not mention Patrick for the very obvious reason that
the Culdee hierarchy, with its hereditary succession, was
obnoxious to Bede as an earnest adherent of the novel Papal
Church introduced in A.D.664, but he speaks of his contemporary,
Palladius,(34) a Caledonian and a Culdee, who became like
Ninian(35) an emissary of the Roman See, which was now resolutely
setting itself to grasp the sceptre of universal dominion in the
Baronius states: ‘The bishops of Ireland were all schismatics,
separated from the Church of Rome.'(36)
Many saints of the British Church were, at a later date, claimed
by the Latin Church, and legends undeserving of the slightest
credence grew around their names. Those who owed nothing to Rome
in connection with their conversion, and who long struggled
against her pretensions, were later claimed by the Latin Church
as though they had been her most devoted adherents. This is
especially noticeable in the case of St. Patrick, whose
conversion was the result of training in a British home, who was
all his all his life a Culdee, yet is now given the greatest
prominence in Roman Catholic hagiology.
Deliberate confusion was created by the Papal Church between the
Culdee St.Patrick of the fifth century and a later Patrick of the
ninth century, who, according to the ‘Chronicles of Ireland’,
was, in the year 850, Abbot of Ireland, Confessor. For there were
two Patricks, the first a very learned and godly man, the second
an abbot, given to superstition and founder of the fabulous
Purgatory, which goes in Ireland under the name of St.Patrick’s
Purgatory. During a great rebellion in Ireland, Patrick the Abbot
was compelled to flee the country. He fled into Britain and lies
buried at Glastonbury. The Martyrology of Sarum reports that in
Ireland they kept the feast of Patrick the Abbot on the 24th of
August.(37) It was to this second Patrick that the Pope sent the
pallium as a reward or his Romanizing zeal, its first appearance
The great St.Columba fourth in descent from Niall of the Nine
Hostages, born A.D.522, about fifty years after the death of St.
Patrick, was associated with the Church of Iona for thirty-two
years, where he arrived from Ireland with his twelve disciples on
Pentecost Eve in the year 565. We are here given another instance
of the faithfulness of the Culdees to first foundations in the
formation of a new settlement.
‘Many of the Continental monasteries owed their foundations to
Irish scholars. When St.Columba turned his back on Derry with the
lament that is one of the loveliest of the ancient Irish poems,
and founded the monastery at Iona, it was but the beginning of a
movement which brought so many scholars to the Irish schools. But
the claim of the Irish schools is not so much in the intricate
treasure of their manuscripts, as in the other pattern which they
wove into the history of Europe. Bangor was where Columbanus
learnt his lighter Greek metres and the secret of his exquisite
and melancholy prose.'(38)
The ancient service book of the Abbey of Bangor is still extant
in the Ambrosian Library at Milan: it is entitled ‘Antiphonary of
Bangor’. The primitive church was fundamentally monastic; there
was no papal jurisdiction in the primitive church in Ireland.(39)
‘There was episcopacy in the Church but it was not diocesan
In ‘The Primitive Church of St. Peter’ a bold attempt has been
made by the author to ‘Vaticanize’ antiquity.(41)
The island called Inis-pan-Druidneach (Isle of Druids), the
native name for Iona, was the abode of Druids whose predecessors
had fled there from Roman Imperial persecution.(42) That
eventually St.Columba and his disciples settled down with these
Druids is a matter of history. They built a monastery for their
own accommodation, and then with his missionary disciples St.
Columba turned his attention to Scotland where Culdee
missionaries had already taken the Gospel.
Of St.Columba his friends tell of him that ‘he was angelical in
look, brilliant in speech, holy in work, clear in intellect and
just in council’
St.Columba did not recommend long fasts (any more than long
faces), but would have the brethren eat every day, that they
might be able to work and pray every day.
One of his disciples and successors, Baithen, was distin-
guished not only for his holy life but for his learning . ‘Know’,
said a learned man of his time, ‘that there is no one on this
side of the Alps who is equal to him in knowledge of the
Scriptures, and in the greatness of his learning.'(43)
Montalembert said also: ‘I do not compare the disciple with his
master. Columba is not to be compared to philosophers and
learned men, but with patriarchs and apostles.'(44)
‘He (Columba) established the little kingdom of the Scots and set
upon the throne the king – Aidan – whose lineal descendant today
occupies the throne of Great Britain. Although only a presbyter,
he reigned supreme over all the churches of his order. His power
was absolute, and for many years after his death the Abbot and
Culdees of hyona[Iona] gained so much favor and esteem of the
people that even in their cloistered retreats they were at the
head of all civil as well as ecclesiastical matters.(45)
Surrounded by the stormy Atlantic a more desolate abode could
hardly be imagined than Iona, and were it not for the ruins of
the monastery, and the graves of the Norse kings around it, the
traveller would never guess that it had once been the resort of
princes from distant lands and had echoed to the sound of
prayers, psalms and anthems. For two hundred years Iona was the
lighthouse for the western nations, whence missionaries went
forth in all directions.
It is known that in Iona in ancient times a great collection of
books was made, and it is an interesting fact of history that
Fergus II Scotland, who in his youth assisted Alaric the Goth at
the sack of Rome, A.D.410, brought away as part of the plunder
some valuable ‘geir”(46) and a chest of books which he afterwards
presented to the monastery of Iona. This presentation was made
164 years before St.Columba’s date – clear evidence that St.
Columba’s famous library was founded by the Druids.
AEnius Silvius, afterwards Pope Pius II, sent a legate to
Scotland to ascertain if the lost books of Livy should be found
among them. At a later date (1525) Master John Campbell,
Treasurer to the King, found five old books which then consisted
of nothing but broken leaves which were very difficult to read.
Boece says that ‘the reading sounded more like the eloquence of
Salustius than of Livy.'(47)
Fergus 11 is not to be confused with Fergus MacEarc, sixth
century, who with his followers from Reland settled in
Calendonia. Fergus 11 (grandson of Ethodius, who was banished
from Scotland and received by the King of Denmark) succeeded in
recovering his birthright possessions and the crown of
An acquaintance with our ecclesiastical history will enable us to
discover what we should naturally expect to find – that the
government of the ancient Church of our land was the same as that
of all other churches planted by the apostles, with whom it was
in full communion.
1. Iola MSS., p. 343
2. Tertullian terms Bishops “Presidents”, De Corona, Milit. 111,
3. Cyprian in Ep. II, applies the term Levite to a Presbyter.
4. McCallum, History of Culdees, pp.158,159.
5. Book of Llandav, p.279. Topograph. Hebern. Distinct, III, Gap.
6. Dugdale, Monasticon, Vol. I, p.2. D. McCallum, ‘History of
7. Jamieson, ‘History of Culdees,’ p.35, note.
8. De Ex. Brit., CC. XXXIII-XXXVI.
9. James Macpherson, Fingal (Dissertation), p 7. McCallum,
‘History of Culdees,’ pp.158,159.
10.Jamieson’s ‘Culdees,’ p. 25.
I1.’History of the Druids,’ pp.86,91.
12.Reeves, ‘Life of Columba,’ p.74. ‘Tare Hill,’ pp.205 208.
13.’Miscellanea Scotica,’ Vol. II, p.133.
14.’Historic Collections,’ p.121.
15.F. E. Warren, ‘Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church,’
16.Justin Martyr, ‘Apology for the Christians.’ A.D. 140.
17.Soc. History Eccles, III, 16.
18.Clement I. Epist. 4, quoted by Gratean. Decret I, 37, C.14.
19.See Helen Waddell, ‘The Wandering Scholars,’ XI and XVI.
20.Tillemont, Vol. IV, pp.508ff. Allard, ‘La Persecution de
21.Haddon and Stubbs, Vol. I, p.32. Zosomen, ‘History Eccles,’
Vol. I, p.6. Fuller, ‘Ch. History Britain,’ Vol. I, p.20.
22.Gildas, ‘De Exced Brit.’ Sect. 10, p.10.
23.Mansi Conciliorum Nova et ampliss. Collectio II, p.476 (new
ed.). Eusebius on Secrates, V, 23. Concelio Compiled (i)
24.Iolo MSS., pp.42,43.
25.Rev.R.W.Morgan, ‘St. Paul in Britain,’ p.161.
26.Hilar Pictav, ‘De Synodis.’
27.See Fryer’s ‘Llantwit Major’.
29.Styled “Presbyter” in ‘Book of Durrow,’ Vit Reeves ed., p.
30.Cottonian MSS. Vespasian A, XIV, printed in Rees’ ‘Cambro
31.Scoll, ‘De Eccles Brit. Scotor History Fontibus,’ p.17. Haddan
and Stubbs, ‘Councils,’ Vol. I, p.175, note. Tripartite ‘Life of
32.Reeves, ‘Adamnan,’ p.354.
33.’Celtic Church in Britain and Ireland,’ p.92.
34.’Eccles. History,’ Chap. XIII.
35.’Vita Ninian’ (Aibred), Cap. II, Bede 11, 4,5.
37.Meredith Hanmer, A.D.1571.
38.Helen Waddell, ‘Wandering Scholars,’ p.33.
39.See ‘The Celtic Church in Ireland,’ by James Heron, D.D., pp.
40.Skene’s ‘Celtic Scotland,’ Vol. II, Bk. II, Chap. II, p.44.
41.Rev. Luke Rivington.
42.’Ency. Brit.’ (eleventh edition), Vol. XIV, p.727. Llwyd,
‘Isle of Mona,’ p.49.
44.’Monks of the West,’ Vol. III, p.93.
45.Fiona McLeod, ‘Hist. of Iona.’
46.Celtic for treasure, usually armour or rich clothes.
47.Boece, ‘Scotorium Historiae,’ ed. J. Bellenden, 1531, p.252
Next I will bring you the full account in Bede’s “A History of
the English Church and People” on the famous “Synod of Whitby” –
which show that right up to 664 A.D. the Culdee ot British Church
was observing the Passover (celebration of the Lord’s death) on
the Jewish date and NOT on Easter as the RC church was doing. It
is a very interesting part of English “church history.” The
British church had LOST some of the original truth over the time
of six centuries, but the ground of truth can been seen in this
Synod of Whitby “church debate” that took place between the
Church of Rome and the British (Culdee) Church.