Kingship in the pre-Christian Gaelic world was a well established ritual and political institution, woven into the heart of social life. There were kings of individual tribes or túatha, and there were more powerful kings who had subjected several other kingdoms to their dominion in one way or another.
Of course, Christian scriptures regard kingship as natural and inevitable. One biblical king in particular, David, was one of the great heroes of faith and a prophetic figure of revelation, as well as being the ancestor of Christ. But native Gaelic kingship was both like and unlike the kind of kingship that Christian leaders expected. So when Christianity was absorbed into this new culture, there was - as there always is in such encounters - a process of negotiation in which the old institutions and the new faith have to work out a new way of co-habiting.
Native Irish kingship saw the king as a sacred figure, having undergone an inauguration ritual, the banfheis rígi or 'marriage of kingship', whereby he was united to the land, to its fertility, and to its 'sovereignty goddess'. We don't know exactly what this ritual entailed, but we shouldn't read the lurid account by Gerald of Wales in the 1180s as an accurate account. This is more of a traveller's tale, with its description of the king having sex with a horse, killing it, making it into a stew, and then sitting in a bath of the stew to eat it!
Christian kingship also saw the king as a sacred figure. Adomnán of Iona speaks of kings as 'ordained by God'. He even speaks of the sixth century king Diarmait mac Cerbaill as 'ordained by God as ruler of Ireland' even though Diarmait had undergone the ancient banfheis of Tara with all its supposedly pagan associations.
Actually, we shouldn't assume that the church would object to a conjugal or sexual symbolism of kingship. One only has to think of the ancient Easter Vigil, in which a large phallic object (a candle) is plunged three times into the waters of a font, alongside prayers that the Holy Spirit might make the font fertile (fecundet) and that people should be born again from it into a new infancy of innocence. Medieval bishops were sometimes consecrated in rites which described their new dioceses as their wives. There is nothing fundamentally unacceptable in Christian liturgy in the use of sexual or marital metaphor. Indeed, the true King of Israel was God himself, whose relationship with Israel is often described in the Old Testament as a marital union.
Sources of authority
Native Irish tradition held that kingship was established by a contract between the king and the people. So the tract Críth Gablach, written around 700 AD, states that 'it is the túath which ordains [or appoints, oirdnither] the king, not the king who ordains the people', and then goes on to describe the king's obligations to the túath and the túath's obligations to the king.
While not actually denying that the people in some sense made the king, Adomnán insists that it is God who chooses the king - and that must mean that the abbot of Iona, successor of God's servant Columba, is the key figure. The right of the abbot of Iona to make kings, and the sacred office of those kings, is one of Adomnán's central concerns.
Rites of Inauguration
Adomnán created a whole series of stories in his Life of Columba, in which the Church had a role in the selection of kings, in the success of kings in battle and in obtaining the right to rule. Most dramatically of all, he describes how Columba ordains Áedán mac Gabráin as king of Dál Riata in the monastery of Iona in 574. There is some evidence that the traditional place of inauguration for Dál Riata kings was Dunadd, but Áedán is ordained on Iona, the centre of ecclesiastical, not secular, power.
Dunadd rises sharply
Adomnán's authority probably also lies behind the Collection of Irish Canons, which assert a Christian version of kingship (Wasserschleben 1885, 76-82). First and foremost they insist that the king is ordained, and that anointing with oil is the sign of this divine choice. Some scholars believe that Adomnán is the first European writer to prescribe anointing for Christian kings, modelled on Old Testament precedent - a practice that would be adopted throughout Europe as the ancient institution of kingship was absorbed and transformed by the Church.
- Anderson, Marjorie (1973), Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, Edinburgh
- Binchy, D.A. (1979), Críth Gablach, Dublin
- Byrne, F.J. (1973), Irish Kings and High Kings, London
- Charles-Edwards, Thomas (1994), 'A Contract between King and People in Early Medieval Ireland', Peritia 8, 107-119
- Wasserschleben, Cap. 25, pp. 76-84
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