From the book "Celt, Druid
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
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
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
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 become
the 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
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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
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 being
prepared 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
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.
30.Sabell. Enno, Lib. VII, Chap. V.
31.King's 'Vale Royal,' Bk. II, p.25.
32.Topograph. Hibern Distinct. III, Cap. XXIX.
TO BE CONTINUED
Next chapter by Isabel Hill Elder is "The Early British Church"