The Culdees (Irish: Céilí Dé, lit. "Spouses of God") were members of ascetic Christian monastic and eremitical communities of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England in the Middle Ages. Appearing first in Ireland and subsequently in Scotland, attached to cathedral or collegiate churches, they lived in monastic fashion though not taking monastic vows.[1]


According to the Swiss theologian Philip Schaff, the term Culdee or Ceile De, or Kaledei, first appeared in the 8th century. While "giving rise to much controversy and untenable theories", it probably means servants or worshippers of God. The term was applied to anchorites, who, in entire seclusion from society, sought the perfection of sanctity. They afterward associated themselves into communities of hermits and were finally brought under canonical rule along with the secular clergy. It was at the time the name Culdee became almost synonymous with secular canon. [2]



In the course of the 9th century, nine places in Ireland are mentioned (including Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Clones, Devenish and Sligo) where communities of Culdees were established.[3]

Óengus the Culdee lived in the last quarter of the 8th century and is best known as the author of the Félire Óengusso "the Martyrology of Óengus". He founded Dísert Óengusa near Croom in AD 780. Maelruan, under whom Oengus lived, drew up a rule for the Culdees of Tallaght that prescribed their prayers, fasts, devotions, confession, and penances, but there is no evidence that this rule was widely accepted even in the other Culdean establishments. Fedelmid mac Crimthainn king of Munster (820–846) was said to have been a prominent Culdee.[4]

According to William Reeves, they were analogous to secular canons and held an intermediate position between the monastic and parochial clergy. In Armagh, they were presided over by a Prior and numbered about twelve. They were the officiating clergy of the churches and became the standing ministers of the cathedral. The maintenance of divine service, and in particular, the practice of choral worship, seems to have been their special function and made them an important element of the cathedral economy.[5]

However, after the death of Maelruan in 792, Tallaght is forgotten, and the name Ceile-De disappears from the Irish annals until 919, when the Four Masters record that Armagh was plundered by the Danes but that the houses of prayer, "with the people of God, that is Ceile-De", were spared. Subsequent entries in the annals show that there were Culdees at Clondalken, at Monahincha in Tipperary, and at Scattery Island.[1]

The Danish wars affected the Culdee houses. Clondalken and Clones disappeared altogether. At Clonmacnoise, as early as the eleventh century, the Culdees were laymen and married, while those at Monahincha and Scattery Island, being utterly corrupt and unable, or unwilling, to reform, gave way to the regular canons. At Armagh, regular canons were introduced into the cathedral church in the twelfth century and took precedence over the Culdees, six in number, a prior and five vicars. These still continued a corporate existence, charged with the celebration of the Divine offices and the care of the church building: they had separate lands and sometimes charge of parishes. When a chapter was formed, about 1160, the prior usually filled the office of precentor, his brethren being vicars choral, and himself ranking in the chapter next to the chancellor. He was elected by his brother Culdees and confirmed by the primate, and had a voice in the election of the archbishop by virtue of his position in the chapter.[1]

As Ulster was the last of the Irish provinces to be brought effectually under English rule the Armagh Culdees long outlived their brethren throughout Ireland. The Culdees of Armagh endured until the dissolution in 1541 and enjoyed a fleeting resurrection in 1627, soon after which their ancient property passed to the vicars choral of the cathedral.[5]

The principal actors of the Roman side were the West Saxons, Agatho and Wilford Coleman with some of his ministers, Culdees maintained that their rule for celebrating Easter was prescribed by St. John the beloved disciple. The Romanist affirmed, with equal confidence, that theirs was affirmed by St. Peter the prince of apostles, the doorkeeper of heaven. Osway, struck with this circumstance, declared he would not disoblige his celestial porter, lest he should turn his back on him when he came to the gate of heaven, gave his opinion in favour of the Romanist. Coleman, foreseeing the violent opposition of the Benedictines, which soon burst forth with great cruelty upon the Culdees, retreated with his Culdees and students to the island of Iona where they completed their education returning to Ireland later. Osway, the king of Northumbria, expelled the Culdees everywhere in favour of the Roman Benedictine monks. Not content with this triumph the Roman clergy urged Elfred a few years later to wreak vengeance upon the dissident Irish from Northumbria. The expulsion from Cumberland and Northumbria, and other parts to Ireland did not quell their hostility, it only increased their jealousy and malice to such an extreme that the entire religion being decimated regardless of who got slaughtered would barely satisfy. They insisted upon Egfrid to pursue the Culdees to Ireland, whom he persecuted and drove cruelly to Ireland.[6]


In Scotland, Culdees were more numerous than in Ireland: thirteen monastic establishments were peopled by them, eight in connection with cathedrals. The Ionan monks had been expelled by the Pictish king Nechtan son of Derile in 717. There is no mention of any Culdees at any Columban monastery, either in Ireland or in Scotland, until long after Columba's time: in 1164 that Culdees are mentioned as being in Iona but in a subordinate position.[7] The Culdee of Loch Leven lived on St Serf's Inch, which had been given them by a Pictish prince, Brude, about 700.[8] In 1093 they surrendered their island to the bishop of St Andrews in return for perpetual food and clothing but Robert, the bishop in 1144, handed over all their vestments, books, and other property, with the island, to the newly founded Canons Regular, in which the Culdees were likely incorporated.[9]

The Culdee chapel in St Andrews in Fife can be seen to the north-east of its ruined cathedral and city wall. It is dedicated to 'St Mary on the Rock' and is cruciform. It is used by the local St Andrews churches for their Easter morning service. In the early days there were several Culdee establishments in Fife, probably small rude structures accommodating 30 or 40 worshippers, and possibly such a structure stood at or near the present church. In 1075 AD the foundation charter of Dunfermline Church was granted by King Malcolm III, and amongst the possessions, he bestowed on the church was the Shire of Kirkcaladinit, as Kirkcaldy was then known.[10] Crínán of Dunkeld, the grandfather of Máel Coluim III, was a lay abbot, and tradition says that even the clerical members were married, though unlike the priests of the Eastern Orthodox Church, they lived apart from their wives during their term of sacerdotal service.[11]

The pictures that we have of Culdee life in the 12th century vary considerably. The chief houses in Scotland were at St Andrews, Scone, Dunkeld, Lochleven, Monymusk in Aberdeenshire, Abernethy and Brechin. Each was an independent establishment controlled entirely by its own abbot and apparently divided into two sections, one priestly and the other lay and even married. At St Andrews about the year 1100, there were thirteen Culdees holding office by hereditary tenure and paying more regard to their own prosperity and aggrandizement than to the services of the church or the needs of the populace. At Loch Leven, there is no trace of such partial independence.[11]

A controversial reform was inaugurated by Queen Margaret and carried through by her sons Alexander I and David I. Gradually the whole position passed into the hands of Thurgot and his successors in the bishopric. Canons Regular were instituted and some of the Culdees joined the new order. Those who declined were allowed a life-rent of their revenues and lingered on as a separate but ever-dwindling body till the beginning of the 14th century when excluded from voting at the election of the bishop, they disappear from history. In the same fashion the Culdee of Monymusk, originally perhaps a colony from St Andrews, became Canons Regular of the Augustinian order early in the 13th century, and those of Abernethy in 1273. At Brechin, famous like Abernethy for its round tower, the Culdee prior and his monks helped to form the chapter of the diocese founded by David I in 1145, though the name persisted for a generation or two.[12]

By the end of the thirteenth century, most Scots Culdee houses had disappeared. Some, like Dunkeld and Abernethy, were superseded by regular canons: others, like Brechin and Dunblane, were extinguished with the introduction of cathedral chapters. One at least, Monifieth, passed into the hands of laymen. At St. Andrews they lived on side by side with the regular canons and still clung to their ancient privilege of electing the archbishop. But their claim was disallowed at Rome, and in 1273 they were debarred even from voting. They continued to be mentioned up until 1332 in the records of St. Andrews, where they "formed a small college of highly-placed secular clerks closely connected with the bishop and the king".[13] Before the Reformation they had finally disappeared, and in 1616 the lands they once held were annexed to the See of St. Andrews.


Similar absorptions no doubt account for the disappearance of the Culdees of York, the only English establishment that uses the name, borne by the canons of St Peter's about 925 where they performed in the tenth century the double duty of officiating in the cathedral church and of relieving the sick and poor. When a new cathedral arose under a Norman archbishop, they ceased their connection with the cathedral, but, helped by donations, continued to relieve the destitute. The date at which they finally disappeared is unknown. These seem to be the only cases where the term "Culdee" is found in England.[11]


The term "Culdee" is rarely found in Wales. We do not know the fate of the Culdean house that existed at Snowdon and Bardsey Island in north Wales in the days of Giraldus Cambrensis, mentioned (c. 1190) in Speculum Ecclesiae and Itinerarium respectively. The former community was, he says, sorely oppressed by the covetous Cistercians. [11]


Hector Boece in his Latin history of Scotland (1516), makes the Culdees of the 9th to the 12th century the direct successors of the Irish and Ionan monasticism of the 6th to the 8th century. Some have suggested that these views were disproved by William Reeves (1815–1892), bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore. James A. Wylie (1808–1890) makes a strong case that the Culdees (Keledei) of Scotland are related to the Celtic Christian spirituality of the monks of Iona.[11]

Reeves suggests that Maelruan may have been aware of the establishment of canons in Metz by Archbishop Chrodegang, (d. 766), as an intermediate class between monks and secular priests, adopting the discipline of the monastic system, without the vows, and discharging the offices of ministers in various churches.[14]

A conflicting interpretation

The term Culdee has been improperly applied to the whole Celtic church, and a superior purity has been claimed for it. It has also been asserted, that the Kelts or Culdees were the forerunners of Protestantism. Protestant writers alleged that the Culdees had preserved Celtic Christianity, free from supposed Roman corruptions, in one remote corner of western Europe. This view was enshrined in Thomas Campbell's Reullura:

Peace to their shades. The pure Culdees
Were Albyn's earliest priests of God,
Ere yet an island of her seas
By foot of Saxon monk was trod.[11]

However, Schaff maintains, "...this inference is not warranted. Ignorance is one thing, and rejection of an error from superior knowledge is quite another thing. ...There is not the least evidence that the Keltic church had a higher conception of Christian freedom, or of any positive distinctive principle of Protestantism..."[2]

"Culdee" in fiction

  • In The Railway Series by Rev. W. Awdry there is a rack railway called the Culdee Fell Railway. One of the steam locomotives is named Culdee. In the Island of Sodor's fictional language of Sudric, 'Culdee' is said to translate as 'Companion of God', the mountain being named for the island's Patron Saint, Machan. The Rev. Awdry often used names from religion and the Anglican Church as placenames in his books. The island of Sodor where the series takes place, for example, is named after a Church of England Diocese, the Diocese of Sodor and Man.
  • Geoffrey Moorhouse's 'Sun Dancing', the fictional sections feature an account of a particular ascetic Culdee
  • Stephen Lawhead's novels Byzantium, Patrick, and the Celtic Crusades trilogy focus on the Cele De.
  • J.P. Moore's short story "Useful Visions" is set in a Culdee monastery.
  • A colony of Culdees in Iceland appears in H. Warner Munn's fantasy novel, Merlin's Ring.
  • Culdees are a prominent part of the story of the "Tile Cutters' Penny" by Caiseal Mor
  • In Proinsas Mac a' Bhaird's Tairngreacht a modern sect of Céile Dé or 'Culdees' engage in a conspiracy against the Vatican. [15]

See also


  1. D'Alton, Edward. "Culdees." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 13 April 2015
  2. Schaff, Philip. "The Culdees", History of the Christian Church, Vol.IV
  3. "Culdees." Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1910. p. 7.615. Retrieved 1 November 2016.
  4. Byrne, F. J., Irish Kings and High Kings, pp. 211–212, London, 1973
  5. "Reeves, William. "The Ancient Churches of Armagh", Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. IV, no. 4, p. 213, July 1898". Archived from the original on 19 March 2016. Retrieved 30 November 2014.
  6. a historical essay on the parish and temple Patrick, S.M. Stephenson, 1824
  7. D'Alton, Edward. "Culdees.".
  8. Sir Archibald Lawrie, Early Scottish Charters Prior to A.D. 1153, (Glasgow, 1905), no. iii.
  9. "Culdees." Encyclopædia Britannica.
  10. Extract from "St Bryce Kirk" (Kirkcaldy Old Kirk Building) Archived 8 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  11. "Culdees." Encyclopædia Britannica.
  12. Culdees. Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 615.
  13. Barrow, G. W. S., The Kingdom of the Scots, Edinburgh University Press, 2003 ISBN 9780748618033
  14. Reeves, William. "A Memoir on the Culdees of Ireland and Great Britain", The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, vol.XXIV, Dublin, 1867
  15. Mac a' Bhaird, Prionsias (2018). Tairngreacht. 47 Sráid Harrington, Baile Átha Cliath 8: LeabhairComhar. ISBN 978-1-9998029-6-7.


  • B. Olsen, Sacred Places North America, CCC Publishing, Santa Cruz, California (2003)
  • J. A. Wylie "History of the Scottish Nation" (London: Hamilton/Adams, Edinburgh: A Elliot, 1886–1890) vol. ii and especially vol. iii, chapters 17 and 21
  • W. Reeves, The Culdees of the British Islands (Dublin, 1864)
  • W. F. Skene, Celtic Scotland (1876–1880), especially vol. ii.
  • W. Beveridge, Makers of the Scottish Church (1908).

For the older view, see J. Jamieson, Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees (1811).

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Culdees". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Further reading

  • Rule of the Céli Dé, ed. E.J. Gwynn. In The Rule of Tallaght. Hermathena 44, Second Suppelement. 1927.
  • Follett, Westley. Céli Dé in Ireland. Monastic Writing and Identity in the Early Middle Ages. London, 2006. ISBN 978-1-84383-276-8
  • MacKinnon, Donald. "The Culdees of Scotland." Society of Friends of Dunblane Cathedral 3:2 (1939): 58–67.
  • O'Dwyer, Peter. Célí Dé. Spiritual reform in Ireland, 750–900. Dublin, 1981.
  • O'Dwyer, Peter. "The Céli Dé reform." In Irland und Europa – Ireland and Europe. Die Kirche im Frühmittelalter – the early Church, ed. Próinséas Ní Chatháin and Michael Richter. Stuttgart, 1984. 83-8.
  • Rumsey, Patricia. "A Study of Community in Eighth-Century Ireland Based on Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis and the Céli Dé Rules." American Benedictine Review 58:2 (2007): 121–36.
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