Two Pictish princesses

In recent years a major archaeological project has unearthed evidence of an important Pictish monastery at Portmahomack in Easter Ross. The story of the site can be seen in the nearby Tarbat Discovery Centre and in Martin Carver’s book about the excavations (see reference below).

Visitors to the Discovery Centre are greeted by the life-size bronze image of a Pictish princess. Here she is….

Whenever I look at this evocative sculpture I consider how little we really know about Pictish noblewomen, many of whom were the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters of great warrior-kings. As a supporter of the matrilinear theory of Pictish royal succession I find it regrettable that the historical significance of these women was disregarded by the contemporary sources. Regrettable, yes, but not altogether surprising: such disregard was the norm in societies where literacy and the recording of history were controlled by patriarchal elites. Indeed, females of the Pictish royal kindreds would have been astonished if their names and deeds had appeared in contemporary chronicles.

Our main documentary sources for Pictish history are Bede and the Irish annals. Bede mentions Pictish royal women in passing but does not refer to any of them individually. To locate a specific female Pict we have to turn to the annals, where we find the following entry:

AD 778: Eithne, daughter of Cinadhon, died.

The name Eithne has a proud heritage. It was borne by a pagan lady whom Saint Patrick converted to Christianity and also by the mother of Saint Columba. These two women were Irish princesses and both were later elevated to sainthood. A famous bearer of the name today is the musician Eithne Brennan who uses the phonetic spelling Enya for the benefit of non-Gaelic speakers such as myself. But who was the Eithne of 778? Why was her death noted by the annalists?

The first question can be answered by going back three years to an earlier entry:

AD 775: The death of Cinadhon, king of the Picts.

In the Welsh Annals and in the Pictish king-list Cinadhon is called Ciniod, a variant of the name Cinaed (Kenneth). He is usually regarded as the Cinadhon mentioned in 778. His daughter Eithne was therefore a Pictish princess. She may have borne a Gaelic name because of her ancestry: her paternal grandfather was an exiled Scot from the Lorn dynasty of Argyll.

The second question is less easy to answer. Why did the Irish annalists mention Princess Eithne? The Picts had no ruling queens so she was certainly not mentioned because of some Boudicca-like achievement on the battlefield. She might have been the mother of a renowned king but so were other Pictish women and this would not have been enough to get her noticed by the annalists. Perhaps a solution can be found by considering the primary purpose of the annals?

First and foremost, the annalists were keen to record important events affecting the great monasteries of Ireland and North Britain. They were accustomed to note secular items such as major battles and the deaths of kings but they themselves were monks and their primary interests were therefore ecclesiastical. They rarely mentioned women but those whom they did identify by name were usually noted in religious contexts. An example is Kentigerna, daughter of an Irish king, who went to Scotland and who eventually became a devout Christian hermit on an island in Loch Lomond. The annalists noted her death in 734 and later Scottish tradition made her a saint. Could the Pictish princess Eithne have followed a similar path of religious devotion, perhaps as a nun renowned for her piety, and been accorded the honour of an obituary notice in the annals?

Book reference: Martin Carver, Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh, 2008)

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14 comments on “Two Pictish princesses

  1. Michelle says:

    What is that suppose to be on her head?

    Anyway, she could be an abbess. Do we know the names of any Pictish abbesses? I think Ælfflaed was listed in the Irish annals as simply Ælfflaed daughter of Oswiu, not mentioning Whitby. I suppose should could have also given a lot of land to the church. Listing her as the daughter of Cinadhon must mean that she never married.

    It is possible that there are other Pictish women in the annals as queens of other kingdoms.

  2. Tim, your theory sounds pretty plausible to me. I might say anchoress rather than abbess, Michelle, because I don’t know when we first know of actual organised convents in Scotland but it’s not till later, is it? But I agree that if she’s mentioned at all, it must be because she was important to the Church. I forget now, it’s been so long, when the Irish Annals are supposed to split up from Iona; is it 741? So this would be after that, and which house was concerned would only be deducible from which Annals Tim is actually quoting and how many others the notice appears in.

  3. […] Senchus does. Go read about the little we know about Pictish Princesses. Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: blogs, […]

  4. Michelle says:

    There was a convent near Iona and, I believe, the annals claim that another early convent was founded by a follower of St Bridget. Besides one could have come and gone before records exist.

    I suppose she could have been an anchoress who was supported/cared for by a male monastery. What is the different between a hermit/anchoress with several servants and a small convent?

    Interesting that Æthelthryth was also said to be a hermit before she married Ecgfrith. It may have been why she considered herself vowed to God before her marriage.

  5. Tim says:

    The source for Princess Eithne’s obit is the Annals of Ulster (AU) which, as Jonathan points out, incorporates Scottish/Pictish data via the Iona scriptorium until c.740. Eithne was perhaps mentioned in the Annals of Tigernach (AT) which often mirrored AU but, unfortunately, AT’s entries for 767 to 973 are lost. Her presence in AU is significant for our understanding of how Pictish information was transmitted from North Britain to Ireland in the late 8th century – unless she was residing in Ireland at the time of her death.

    • Haydyn Williams says:

      Dia dhuit Tim.Could it be that there is a succession crisis here?? Cinadhon was succeeded by his brother Alpin. Could Alpin have even been a regent,until Eithne’s death in 778,after which he becomes de facto sole ruler,and his sons continue after him??

      • Tim says:

        Sounds possible, Haydyn. It would presumably mean Eithne inherited some kind of royal authority from her father. If this was the case, we might be looking at something analogous to the situation in tenth-century Mercia when a princess briefly held power after both her parents were dead, before being shoved aside by her uncle (the West Saxon king Edward the Elder).

  6. Michelle says:

    Which annals are her father listed in? I noticed that Ciniod is mentioned in the Annals Cambriae.

    • Tim says:

      Not sure why it’s taken me two years to answer your question, Michelle, but here it is.

      Ciniod’s death is noted in the Annals of Ulster. It may have appeared in the Annals of Tigernach too but the entries there for the final third of the 8th century are lost.

  7. Tim says:

    I edited this post today, to remove an ambiguity. In the original version I suggested that Princess Eithne was the only female Pict named in the annals. By ‘Pict’ I meant ‘probably or certainly a full-blood Pict’ but this was not made clear. Today I considered adding the necessary clarification, but then decided to remove the statement altogether. Deleting it seemed the simplest solution. I do, however, still think Eithne might be the only 100 percent Pictish female mentioned in the annals. How much her ethnicity matters to us (and how much it mattered to her) is another question.

    Two other women who can perhaps be identified as Picts are Coblaith and Mael Muire, both of whom appear in posts elsewhere on this blog.

  8. tsmorangles says:

    Do not feel bad about Pictish princesses. It seems that most royal women of Britannia Major were ignored, Was it because they lived as you say in a patriarchal society? Or was it because the people who recorded the births, deaths, obituaries were monks like Bede for whom the ideal of feminity is Ethrldreda, Anna’s daughter who gets his approval because hold and behold she remained a virgin despite two marriages and possibly caused havoc in the Northumbrian bloodline as not providing the necessary male heir?
    Bede as Bede and his British/Pictish/etc counterparts are curiously silent on the other half of humanity though we know Oswiu had 2 wives plus an illegitimate son (otherwise he would have bypassed Echfrith, right?) Which meands some women were clearly not saints.
    And we know it is not down to ‘being of the cloth’. Gregory of Tours and the Fredegars bishop and clerks as they may be are literarily popping out queens and princesses like it was the next best thing. And these women are for most certainly not saints. Clothilde’ attitude to her grandsons is not exactly sweet.

    Aethelthryth or Etheldredra is compared to Radegunde. I should mention that if Radegunde left her husband; Chlothar had made good the consommation of marriage and probably she was quite young at the time (yes, Chlothar was not a nice person). Bede saus an ideal queen is nothing short that a dedicated nun; the Frankish chroniclers say the first duty of a queen is to beget sons.

    I wonder if the British as in British Isles silence about women is simply not to do with priests with lofty ideals about what is the goal: if all we enter convents and have no children, the end of times will come sooner than later and possibly the Pelagian monachism while Frankish priests were favouringa more wordly possibly horribly sophisticated POV where man is supposed to enjoy life on Earth

    • Tim says:

      Yes, it’s useful to draw comparisons with Frankish royal women, whose careers in politics or religion are sometimes well-documented. I imagine there must have been at least one or two Pictish equivalents of Clothild, and it’s a pity their stories are lost.

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