Hereditary Leadership Of Tribe And Church

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Hereditary Leadership in Celtic (Israel Descended) Nations

The following text is from the pages 176 to 180 from

“The Celtic Church in Britain”

by Hardinge. Bibliography included in the following excerpt.

More info on the married Clergy (and Abbots) of the Celts:



The founder or holy man to whom the original grant of land had been made was called the patron saint of the monastery or Christian community. The importance of his position can hardly be exaggerated. A gloss of the law tract Succession thus eulogized this person and office. He is one(24) who is the noblest; who is the highest; who is the wealthiest; the shrewdest; the wisest; who is popular as to compurgation; who is most powerful to sue; the most firm to sue for profits and losses. And: every body defends its members, if a goodly body, well-deeded, well-moralled, affluent, capable. The body

of each is his tribe. There is no body without a head. That this description applies with equal force to the leader of “the tribe of the church” is corroborated by the Cain Aigillne.(25)

The leader of the Christian settlement originally possessed the land, buildings, and the right of succession, which depended upon him and the tribe to which he belonged. Not only in Ireland but also in Wales abbatal tenancy was hereditary.(26) This tribal and hereditary occupancy was not solely of Celtic origin among Celtic Christians, it also had its authorization in the Liber ex Lege Moisi. Priests were chosen only from the tribe of Levi, and especially from the family of Aaron, and succeeded their fathers to holy office, and also to the possession of the sacred cities with their suburbs. This certainly looks like the authority for the Celtic Christians to continue the hereditary succession of druid and Brehon in their own Christian communities. But while hereditary laws applied, this did not preclude the aspiring Brehon’s fitting himself for his task through study. The

Christianized laws provided for almost every eventuality to ensure that a suitable successor be selected for the leadership

of each community.

The simplest application of this regulation of hereditary succession was to a suitable son of the original founder-abbot,

as is evidenced by this couplet from the law tracts:


The successor should be the son of the abbot in the pleasant church A fact established by sense.(27)


This successor was called a “coarb”. Later hagiographers went to great lengths to establish him as the “heir” of the founders.

This enabled all the wealth and prestige of the monastery to remain in the property of the heir. After the Viking period he was called the “erenach” or airchinnech. Giraldus Cambrensis noted that “the sons, after the deaths of their fathers, succeeded to the ecclesiastical benefice, not by election, but by hereditary right”.(28)

Should the abbot have no son, or be a “virgin abbot”, a suitable person was to be chosen from “the tribe of the patron saint who shall succeed to the church as long as there shall be a person fit to be an abbot of the said tribe of the patron saint; even though there should be but a psalm-singer of them, it is he that will obtain the abbacy”.(29) Coemgen “ordained that the erenagh in his church should be habitually of the children and posterity

of Dimma”.(30) But should neither the son of the abbot nor a suitable person from the tribe of the saint be forthcoming, the law provided for a third source:


Whenever there is not one of that tribe fit to be an abbot, it [the abbacy] is to be given to the tribe to whom the land belongs, until a person fit to be an abbot of the tribe of the patron saint, shall be qualified; and when he is, it [the abbacy] is to be given to him, if he be better than the abbot of the tribe to whom the land belongs, and who has taken it. If he [the former] is not better, it is only in his turn he shall succeed.(31)


It occasionally happened that junior members of “the tribe of the church” obtained grants of land on their own behalf in the neighbourhood, and set up subsidiary communities of Christian believers. These were regarded as extensions of the original church or monastery. On some occasions a foster-son of the Church settled with a few companions at a little distance, or perhaps even across the sea. All these ancillary houses were regarded as

being legally bound to the original settlement of the patron saint and were under the jurisdiction of his “heirs”. The law provided that:


If a person fit to be an abbot has not come of the tribe of the patron saint, or of the tribe to whom the land belongs,  the abbacy is to be given to one of the fine-manach class until a person fit to be an abbot, of the tribe of the patron saint, or of the tribe to whom the land belongs, should be qualified; and when there is such a person, the abbacy is to be given to him in case he is better.(32)


The term fine-manach grade described an inferior member of the “tribe of the church” who was a tenant on the ecclesiastical lands; or it might also indicate members of the Church who had established places for themselves, or it might even include the “people who give the church valuable goods”.(33) The law took care of all eventualities thus:


If a person fit to be an abbot has not come of the tribe of the patron saint, or of the tribe of the grantor of the land, or of the manach class, the “anoint” church shall receive it, in the fourth place; a dalta church shall receive it in the fifth place; a compairche church shall obtain it in the sixth place; a neighbouring till church shall obtain it in the seventh place.(34)


The “anoint” church was the one in which the patron saint had been educated, or in which he had been buried. The dalta church was one established by a foster-son or pupil in the monastic settlement. A compairche church was one under the jurisdiction of the patron saint, but situated at some distance.

A neighbouring church was one which, though not under the authority of the patron saint, was simply located at a not too great distance from it.


Should all these sources prove unavailing, the monks were to select a suitable person from among the “pilgrims”(35) who had sought sanctuary or hospitality among them, or even a responsible layman might temporarily rule until he found some one more suitable.(36) This practice gave rise to many anomalies through the centuries. The coarbs were not always bishops nor even priests.


In Kildare they were always females. There is also a record of a female coarb of St Patrick at Armagh. The one who inherited the rights of the patron saint was a chieftain of considerable power in the ecclesiastical community. The Annals contain a nearly complete list of the abbots or coarbs, but do not indicate successive bishops, who were more often than not in subjection to the coarb-abbot, and who did not succeed one another. The names

in the Annals of the successors of Patrick are often called abbots, while some are called bishops as well as abbots, and others are styled simply bishops, and still others merely coarbs of St Patrick. Nothing in this last title shows whether he was a bishop or not. It is therefore well nigh impossible to trace episcopal succession in Armagh. The coarbs of Patrick might be bishop, priest, layman, or even a woman.(37) In the eleventh century

this anomalous situation still existed in Ireland. Bernard wrote that:


There had been introduced by the diabolical ambition of certain people of rank a scandalous usage whereby the Holy See [Armagh] came to be obtained by heritary succession. For they would allow no person to be promoted to the bishoprick except such as were of their own tribe and family. Nor was it for any short period that this succession had continued, nearly fifteen generations having been already exhausted in

this course of iniquity.(38)


Before the time of Celsus eight of these coarbs had been married men. After Malachy had been elected to office by the Roman party, he strove to bring Armagh and its succession into line with canonical practice.




The composition of the early Celtic monastic household may be discovered from the sources. The Catalogue of the Saints of Ireland recorded that the original Christians, who were drawn to the faith by Patrick and his successors, were “all bishops, … founders of churches … They rejected not the services and society of women, because, founded on the rock Christ, they feared not the blast of temptation. This order of saints continued for four reigns,(39) that is, to 5. T. Olden long ago strove to establish that this introduction of women into monastic households was as consorts or spiritual wives.(40) It would seem less far-fetched to suggest that at the initial stage celibacy was not enforced. Communities of men and women living together as families were more likely in vogue. S. H. Sayce pointed this out when he wrote: “As in Egypt so in the Celtic Church the monasterium or collegium was an assemblage of huts in which the monks, both cleric and lay, lived with their wives and families.”(41) In the Irish laws provisions covering the various members of the monastic family are found. They recognized “virgin” and married clerics of all grades, even lay recluses:


There is a virgin bishop … the virgin priest … a bishop of one wife(42) … a virgin clerical student … a clerical student of one wife(43) … a lay recluse … of virginity … lay recluses who are without virginity, if they be beloved of God, and their works great, if their miracles are as numerous, or if they are more numerous, in the same way that Peter and Paul were to John, and in the same way Anthony and Martin were.(44)


So there were evidently in Irish ecclesiastical organizations “virgin bishops”, “virgin priests”, “virgin abbots”, and “virgin clerical students”, besides “virgin lay recluses”. There were also apparently married bishops, priests, abbots, clerical students, and lay recluses. A comparison of the status enjoyed by the “virgin” and married persons shows that virginity was held to be superior. But being the “husband of one wife” did not debar a

man from any clerical office, not even that of recluse. In fact the law goes out of its way to protect from censure or contempt “lay recluses who are without virginity if they be beloved of God”. And so the writers of the “Lives” noted that the steward of Cadoc had a daughter,(45) while Cadoc himself had a “son-in-law”,(46) and his father a “monastery”.(47) The laws deplored “the son of a religious without an hour for his order”.(48)


  1. ALI IV, 375.
  2. ALI II, 279-381.
  3. Life of Samson, xvi.
  4. ALI IV, 383.
  5. Giraldus Cambrensis, Gemma Ecclesiastica, Disert. II, 22; cf. H.C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy I, 347, 360-4.
  6. ALI III, 73.
  7. LSBL, 11. 815-18.
  8. ALI III, 73-9.
  9. ALI III, 73.
  10. ALI II, 345.
  11. ALI III, 75.
  12. AFM, 437, 441.
  13. TLP I, 69.
  14. For a discussion of this topic see W.H. Todd, St Patrick, 171-2, and W. Reeves, Ecclesiastical Antiquities, 136.
  15. Life of Malachy, 45.
  16. Skene, Scotland II, 12, 13.
  17. T. Olden, “On the sonsortia of the first order of Irish saints”, PRIA, 3rd Series, II, no. 3 (1894), 415-20.
  18. A.H. Sayce, “The Indebtedness of Celtic Christianity to Egypt”, Scottish Ecclesiological Society Transactions III (1912), 257; cf. H.C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy I, 96; II, 316.
  19. ALI IV, 363-5.
  20. ALI IV, 369.
  21. ALI IV, 367.
  22. LCBS, 343.
  23. LCBS, 348.
  24. LCBS, 356.
  25. ALI III, 63.

Relevant abbreviations: ALI (Ancient Laws of Ireland, ed. Hancock), LSBL (Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore, see WS), AFM (Annals of the Four Masters, ed. O Donovan), TLP (The Tripartite life of Patrick, ed. WS), WS (Whiteley Stokes), LCBS (Lives of the Cambro British Saints, Rees).


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