Most medieval and early medieval societies reckoned royal descent and inheritance through the male line (patrilineal descent). Surviving royal genealogies for the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdoms and Brittonic kingdoms claim to reckon descent from father to son*. Were the Picts an exception?
Bede recounts the following colourful origin legend for the Picts:
….the nation of the Picts, from Scythia, as is reported, putting to sea, in a few long ships, were driven by the winds beyond the shores of Britain, and arrived on the northern coast of Ireland, where, finding the nation of the Scots, they begged to be allowed to settle among them, but could not succeed in obtaining their request. Ireland is the greatest island next to Britain, and lies to the west of it; but as it is shorter than Britain to the north, so, on the other hand, it runs out far beyond it to the south, opposite to the northern parts of Spain, though a spacious sea lies between them. The Picts, as has been said, arriving in this island by sea, desired to have a place granted them in which they might settle. The Scots answered that the island could not contain them both; but "We can give you good advice," said they, "what to do; we know there is another island, not far from ours, to the eastward, which we often see at a distance, when the days are clear. if you will go thither, you will obtain settlements; or, if they should oppose you, you shall have our assistance." The Picts, accordingly, sailing over into Britain, began to inhabit the northern parts thereof, for the Britons were possessed of the southern. Now the Picts had no wives, and asked them of the Scots; who would not consent to grant them upon any other terms, than that when any difficulty should arise, they should choose a king from the female royal race rather than from the male: which custom, as is well known, has been observed among the Picts to this day.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch.1
The Pictish king-list
The Pictish Chronicle is a fourteenth-century manuscript, though the text may have been copied from an earlier original. It contains a list of Pictish kings and their reign lengths. Here is an extract covering the late sixth to the late seventh century:
Brude the son of Mailcon ruled for 30 years. In the eighth year of his rule he was baptised by Saint Columba.
Gartnart son of Dolmech reigned 11 years
Nechtan grandson of Uerb reigned 20 years
Kenneth son of Lutrin reigned 19 years
Gartnart son of Wid reigned 4 years
Brude son of Wid reigned 5 years
Talorc, their brother reigned 12 years
Talorcan son of Eanfrith reigned 4 years
Gartnait the son of Donald ruled for 6½ years.
Drest his brother reigned 7 years
Brude son of Beli reigned 21 years
There are two striking things about the list:
1. Fathers are never succeeded by their sons. This holds true across almost all the rest of the list, as well as the above extract.
2. Kings are identified by the names of their fathers, or occasionally the name of a grandfather or brother.
Bede’s story of the Picts requesting Irish wives may or may not be intended as an accurate description of a real historical event. For the Picts to have neglected to bring any women with them when they set out to colonise new land (like the rabbits in Watership Down) suggests a degree of bad luck or bad planning that is perhaps unlikely, and the story may be a reflection of some long-ago marriage alliance or an attempt to justify an Irish claim in the Pictish kingship. Bede’s use of the phrase “as is reported” suggests that he may not have been entirely convinced of its veracity either.
However, what is interesting about the passage is Bede’s comment that the Picts could select their kings from a female royal line in his own day. Bede was writing in 731 in Northumbria, so the Picts were his contemporaries and neighbours. At the time of writing he says there was a treaty of peace between the Picts and the English (Book V Ch. 23), so the two peoples were on speaking terms. It seems reasonable that Bede could have had accurate information about the customs of a neighbouring people.
The absence of direct father-to-son succession in the Pictish king-list is consistent with succession via the female line. If a man became king through his mother, then the obvious candidates for the succeeding king would be the previous king’s brother (son of his mother), nephew (son of his sisters, i.e. his mother’s daughters), or cousin (son of his aunts, i.e. his mother’s sisters). The one close relation who cannot succeed is the previous king’s son, unless the previous king contracted an incestuous marriage with his mother, sister or aunt. Since the absence of father-to-son succession continues unbroken after the Picts became Christians, when the Church would certainly have had something to say about it, we can reasonably rule out such a Ptolemaic practice.
However, since all the kings are identified as the sons of their fathers, the king-list doesn’t support a purely matrilineal system in which descent is reckoned exclusively through the female line. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘matrilineal’ is:
Of, relating to, or based on (kinship with) the mother or the female line; recognizing kinship with and descent through females.
The king-list shows clearly that the Picts recognised descent from the father, and thus were not purely matrilineal by this definition. This is not necessarily in conflict with Bede, since he says, “….when any difficulty should arise, they should choose a king from the female royal race rather than from the male…”. Unfortunately, Bede doesn’t say what constituted a “difficulty”, or how often one arose. Nevertheless, his statement implies that matrilineal inheritance applied in some circumstances but not necessarily in all. Examples of matrilineal inheritance in unusual circumstances are well known from other societies. For example, listing the Norman kings of England in the form of a Pictish king-list, we get the following:
William son of Robert (William I, “The Conqueror”)
William son of William (William II, “Rufus”)
Henry son of William (Henry I)
Stephen son of Stephen
Henry son of Geoffrey (Henry II)
Here we have one father-to-son succession, one brother-to-brother succession, and two kings who appear apparently out of nowhere. It doesn’t look so very different from the Pictish king-list, does it? Fortunately, we have the full family tree for the dynasty (see figure), so it can be easily seen that Stephen and Henry II both acquired the throne by matrilineal succession.
In the case of the Norman kings, maritime and biological accident meant that the throne happened to pass by matrilineal succession twice in two generations, although patrilineal succession was the norm. Perhaps all the Picts did was to apply the same principle more frequently than other societies.
Cummins (1995) makes a persuasive case for matrilineal succession as an effective method of maintaining a stable confederacy of different tribes. There seems little doubt that the Picts were composed of, or divided into, a number of sub-groups (see earlier post). Each sub-group had its own king, and these sub-kings were subject to a high king or over-king (for example, when St Columba visited the court of Brude son of Maelchon, King of the Picts, in 565, a sub-king of Orkney was a hostage at Brude’s court). Bede’s statement implies that the Picts could (to some extent) choose their king, so Cummins postulates a system whereby the leaders of the sub-kingdoms selected the high king from the adult sons of members of the female royal line. By precluding direct succession from father to son, matrilineal inheritance would reduce the chance of one family or tribe monopolising the high kingship, and thus reduce the risk of other members of the confederation finding themselves subjugated.
On the other hand, although the succession pattern in the Pictish king-list is consistent with matrilineal succession, it is not proof. We do not know who the Pictish kings’ mothers were, and with the exception of those who were brothers, we do not know how the kings were related. It is equally possible that the Pictish kings were not related to each other either through the male or female line. Compare the Pictish list with the other surviving list of high kings from early medieval Britain, Bede’s list of the English kings who “held sway over all the provinces south of the river Humber”:
Aelle, king of the South Saxons
Ceawlin, king of the West Saxons
Aethelbert, king of the Kentish folk [son of Irminric]
Raedwald, king of the East Angles [son of Tytila]
Eadwine, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aelle]
Oswald, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aethelferth]
Oswy, king of the Northumbrians [son of Aethelferth]
--Bede, Book II, Ch. 5
This list of English over-kings contains no example of father-to-son succession, and one example of brother-to-brother succession. In this respect it resembles the Pictish king-list. Fortunately, Bede’s history gives us rather more information about some of the kings on the list than we have about most of the Pictish kings. Oswald and Oswy were brothers. Eadwine was their maternal uncle, but they obtained the throne of Northumbria by military power, not by direct inheritance from him. Aethelbert, Raedwald and Eadwine were not related in the male line according to the information in the surviving genealogies, and there is no reason to think they were related in the female line either, since Bede had ample opportunity to mention any such relationship and does not (although the absence of evidence means this cannot be ruled out). There was probably a political connection between Aethelbert and Raedwald, since Raedwald was baptised in Kent (Bede Book II Ch. 15), and there was certainly a political and military connection between Raedwald and Eadwine (Bede Book II, Ch. 12). The relationships of the other kings are not known.
So, it seems that most of the English over-kings were probably not related to each other, and that the “position” of over-king (whatever it was) did not routinely pass from one incumbent to the next by means of inheritance. It is possible that the Pictish king-list reflects a situation like this, rather than one of matrilineal succession.
The Pictish king-list is consistent with a system of matrilineal succession, and the lack of father-to-son succession argues against a patrilineal system. It is equally consistent with a sequence of unrelated kings, as seems to be the case for the contemporary southern English over-kings mentioned by Bede.
Bede states clearly that the Picts employed a form of matrilineal succession in certain (undefined) circumstances. Since they were his contemporaries and neighbours, he was in a position to know something of their customs. While it is possible that he was mistaken or misinformed, I would be very reluctant to assume that we know more about the Picts than he did.
A form of matrilineal succession among the Picts is consistent with both Bede’s contemporary account and with the succession pattern visible in the Pictish king-list. It need not imply a society organised on dramatically different lines from its neighbours, since other societies also practised matrilineal succession to a limited extent when the male line failed. So, although not proven, it seems to me to be the simplest interpretation of the very limited evidence available.
Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Sutton, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.
* Note the word ‘claim’. Whether these genealogies are fictitious, legendary or real, or some combination thereof, is open to debate, but the point for the purposes of this post is that they all claim to reckon descent from father to son, indicating that that was the expected method of inheritance. Not one claims to reckon descent through the mother; indeed women are under-represented in the genealogies.