Philosopher-king: Nechtan mac Der Ilei

Philosopher-king: Nechtan mac Der Ilei

By Thomas Owen Clancy

Scottish Historical Review, Vol.83:2 (2004)

Introduction: Without doubt one of the more famous events in the progress of the controversy over the dating of Easter which chronically vexed the churches of Britain and Ireland between the late sixth and the late eighth centuries is the transferral of his kingdom by Nechtan or Naiton, who was king of the Picts roughly between 706×713 and 729, to the so-called ‘Roman’ system of calculating the date of Easter. It is famous partly because Bede devotes a great deal of attention to it, and we will return to his story shortly. For advocates of the confrontational narrative of seventh- and eighth-century insular church history, it also forms a climactic final episode. After the struggles and insults of the ‘Synod of Whitby’ in 664, Bede’s Naiton brings an end to the tale, spurning the Columban church, kicking them and Celtic Christianity out of his kingdom, and embracing the Roman system, with all its attendant evils. The Columban church, now isolated, has no option but to change also.

This explanation is dramatically satisfying, but historically less so. Like so much of the history of the early church in Scotland, it is bound up with modern political and religious factionalism. Was Naiton an English imperialist flunky? A Romanist stooge, allowing the authority of the Pope and St Peter into his realm? Or, conversely, a Pictish nationalist, rejecting the insidious Irish influences of the Celtic church? Or was he more a creation of Bede’s exegetical mind bringing an ‘end to history’ in a biblically satisfying way? This article does not set out to assess the effect of his actions on the church, or their motivations—that will have to await a separate occasion. Rather, it examines the king and his background, in order to get a firmer sense of the context, genealogical, cultural and political, in which his reform took place.

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