Saint Catroe or Cathroe was abbot of the monastery at Metz in Lorraine in the tenth century. His patrons were Frankish royalty and nobility, among them King Otto who later became Holy Roman Emperor. Catroe himself, however, came from Scotland, probably from Perthshire which at that time was ruled by a Gaelic-speaking dynasty founded by Cinaed mac Ailpin (‘Kenneth macAlpine’) in the 840s. Contemporary annals call Cinaed ‘king of the Picts’ but we don’t know if he himself was a Pict or a Scot. He ruled from centres of power in Perthshire where most of the population were Picts.
Catroe died at Metz in c.971 and, within a few years, a vita or ‘Life’ was written about him by one of the monks. From this we learn that the saint was born in c.900. As with Cinaed we don’t know his ethnic affiliation (if indeed it mattered much by then). His father Fochereach bore a Gaelic name and was presumably a Gaelic-speaking Pict, or perhaps a Scot whose family had migrated westward to Perthshire in Cinaed’s time. The name Catroe is either Brittonic (the language of the Britons) or Pictish (itself a branch of Brittonic) or Gaelic and therefore doesn’t tell us much about Catroe’s ethnicity.
At around forty years of age, in c.941, Catroe embarked on the long pilgrimage that would eventually take him to the Frankish kingdoms. Along the way he stayed with King Dyfnwal of the Strathclyde Britons, described in the ‘Life’ as Catroe’s kinsman, and also with a king called Eric who ruled the Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom of York. Eric’s wife (name unknown) was another relative of the saint. Can these two alleged kinships give us any useful clues about Catroe’s ancestry?
The author of the ‘Life’ calls Catroe’s mother Bania, a name we cannot assign to any particular ethnic or linguistic group. She came from a wealthy family of high status and, like her husband, was a pious worshipper of Saint Columba. Religious devotion to the patron saint of the Scots might seem to suggest that she herself was a Scot but we should remember that Columba was an iconic figure in Pictish Christianity too. Bania could therefore have been a Pict, and not necessarily from a Gaelic-speaking family. Her devotion to Columba may even have begun after her marriage to Fochereach. So who was she, and where did she come from?
King Dyfnwal of Strathclyde was Catroe’s kinsman but the ‘Life’ does not pinpoint the nature of their kinship. The author used the Latin term propinquus which is a very general term for a relative. It carries no implication of ties by blood and could be used, for example, of links by marriage alone. Since Dyfnwal and Catroe were roughly the same age they may have been first cousins (by blood) or brothers-in-law, or related even more distantly (e.g. cousins once or twice ‘removed’). One possibility is that the link between them came via the mysterious Bania, who might then have been a Briton of Strathclyde and a close relative of Dyfnwal. Was she, for instance, Dyfnwal’s aunt? Another possibility is that Catroe’s kinship with Dyfnwal was due not to Bania but to Fochereach, via a marriage alliance between his family and the Strathclyde royal house.
Either Bania or Fochereach might be the link between Catroe and the unnamed wife of Eric, king of York. This Eric is unlikely to be the famous Viking warlord Erik Bloodaxe whose first reign as king at York began four or five years after Catroe’s pilgrimage. Maybe a different Eric ruled during the years 941 to 943 when Catroe most likely visited the city? Whoever this king was he was apparently married to a relation of the saint. Was this lady linked to Catroe through his father’s family? Or was she a kinswoman of his mother Bania? If Eric was a Viking then his wife may also have come from the same stock, in which case Bania could also have been a Scandinavian.
The possible permutations and speculations are almost limitless. In so far as we possess any ‘evidence’ of Bania’s origins her devotion to Columba should carry considerable weight in hinting at a Perthshire origin. Her favoured place of worship is unknown but if it was Dunkeld, where Cinaed mac Ailpin established a cult of Columba, then she may have been a member of the local Pictish aristocracy.
Alan Macquarrie, The saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish church history, AD 450-1093 (Edinburgh, 1997)
David Dumville, ‘St Cathroe of Metz and the hagiography of exoticism’, pp.172-88 in J. Carey, M. Herbert & P. O’Riain (eds) Studies in Irish hagiography: saints and scholars (Dublin, 2001)