The Benedictine Shift

In this month’s blog I would like to explore a ‘factoid’ – a commonly held view which is not entirely supported by evidence – about the monastic history of Iona. It is quite clear that the monks of Iona adopted the Rule of Saint Benedict as their guiding text at some point in their history.  It had certainly happened by the year 1203, when Pope Innocent III issued a bull in which he confirmed the monastery’s possessions and granted papal protection to the monks from any improper interference. The bull states that the monastery is established secundum Deum et beati Benedicti regulam (‘according to the will of God and the Rule of Blessed Benedict’).  I reproduce the entire bull below, together with my translation of it. But there are all kinds of questions we might ask about this development:

  • when did it happen?
  • how big a change was it in the practice of their daily monastic life?
  • whose decision was it?
  • what resistance might there have been to the decision, and from whom?
  • why did they choose the Rule of Benedict rather than, say, the Rule of Augustine?
  • how did it relate to the wider patterns of monastic reform going on around Europe in general, and in Scotland and Ireland in particular?

The adoption of the Rule of Benedict on Iona raises all these questions, and more. And we might imagine that by adopting a new rule to guide their common life the Iona monks might have absorbed new terms with which to name the various parts of their monastery. It might also have involved physical changes in the buildings and the spaces between them, which would have required new names. Does the platea mentioned by Adomnán continue to bear that name, or does the adoption of a new rule imply a new microtoponym for that space?

I am currently working towards a more substantial exploration of the ‘Benedictine shift’, as I call it, and even looking at some ‘Benedictine tendencies’ that may have preceded it by some centuries.  But for this blog I want to think about just one piece of evidence which may help me to take a step along the road to understanding the shift.

One of my reasons for exploring this question is that the shift to the Rule of Benedict is probably best understood in the context of other events that took place in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Among these are (from the Annals of Ulster, unless otherwise indicated):

1137: Malachy, archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, was the great promoter of Cistercian and Augustinian reform all over Ireland. In this year he resigned his see in favour of Gilla Meic Liac, abbot of Derry.[1] We must ask ourselves how likely it would be for this to happen had Gilla Meic Liac not shared Malachy’s reforming zeal.  Was Derry already Augustinian at this point, or moving in that direction? It certainly must have been committed to the reforming principles which the Augustinians sought to enact.

1150: Flaithbertach Ó Brolcháin, abbot of Derry, was styled comarba Coluim Cille, head of the Columban familia in Ireland.[2] Evidently the headship of the familia has moved from Kells to Derry.

1155: Flaithbertach, abbot of Derry and comarba Coluim Cille, built a new door for the church there. We might bear in mind that new building projects are often signs of the reform of a monastery. Was Derry already turning to the Augustinian rule?

1162: The houses of Derry were separated from the church complex by the comarba Colum Cille, Flaithbertach Ua Brolcháin and the king. Eighty houses were demolished. A stone wall was built round the centre, and a curse uttered against anyone who crossed it (presumably without due authority). Again, this looks the kind of re-establishment of monastic order which would be characteristic of the Augustinian movement of reform.

1163: A huge lime kiln was built at Derry, 60 feet square, presumably for making lime mortar for building purposes.

1164:  A new church is built at Derry, ninety feet long, by Flaithbertach and his community, and by Muirecertach Ua Lochlainn, king of Ireland.

1164:  Select members of the community of Iona came to Flaithbertach Ua Brolcháin, the head of the Columban familia in Ireland, with the support of Somerled and the men of Argyll and the Isles, to urge him to accept the abbacy of Iona. If Flaithbertach is a reformer, what does this say about the intention of Somerled and the Iona community? Are they seeking his support to bring reform to their own monastery?

1164: The death of Somerled, ‘king of the Isles’

1204:  A monastery was built by Cellach (i.e. the Celestinus addressed in the bull of 1203), in the centre of the enclosure of Iona.  A host of Irishmen, including several from Derry, came to Iona and razed the new monastery. Amalgaidh, abbot of Derry, then took the abbacy of Iona by selection of Foreigners and Gaidhil.

1212: Thomas, son of Uchtred,[3] with the sons of Raghnall, son of Somairle, came to Derry of Colum-cille with seventy-six ships, and the town was greatly destroyed by them and Inis-Eogain was completely destroyed by them and by the Cenel-Conaill.

What these annal entries suggest to me is that the raid on Iona in 1204 was not a conflict between old-style ‘Celtic’ monasticism and a reform movement inspired by contintental orders. As the annals suggest, Derry was quite committed to the reform movement, and was probably already following the Augustinian rule when it entered into conflict with Benedictine Iona. This is a conflict not about what style of monasticism should be observed on Iona.  It was about rival claims to power. Derry was recognised as the chief house of the Columban familia but Iona probably wanted to claim authority too – it was after all the principal foundation of Columba and the place of his burial. There was conflict also – and this may have been an even more significant factor – between the Irish rulers, whose chief churches were Derry and Armagh, and Hebridean rulers (Somerled and his son, Raghnall, and grandsons, together with their allies in Galloway) who sought to make Iona their ecclesiastical power centre, the chief church of the Hebridean kingdom. It is likely that those power struggles are the real reason for the building of a new monastery on Iona as an expression of Raghnall’s political ambition, and for its demolition by Irishmen as an attempt to suppress that ambition. That seems much more likely than an argument about which monastic rule should be followed.

Paying the pope
A significant feature of the papal bull of 1203 is that, in acknowledgement of papal protection, Iona is required to pay two bezants a year (duos bizantios … annuatim) to the pope. But this annual payment is not a new thing in 1203. A document of 1192, eleven years earlier than the papal bull, lists bishoprics and monasteries which owe some dues to the Holy See and therefore make payments to the pope. The Liber Censuum lists various bishoprics and the monastery of Iona which are part of the pope’s Norwegian administration, and for Iona it says:

Ecclesia sancti Columba de insula Hy . ii . Bisancios annuatim.[4]
The church of St Columba of Iona, two bezants per year.

We should not be surprised to find Iona listed among Norwegian churches. Our island monastery was in the diocese of the Isles which at this point was part of the metropolitan jurisdiction of Nidaros, the medieval name for Trondheim in Norway.

But the fact that this payment of two Bezants is associated with the protection of the pope in 1203, but was already being paid in 1192, makes one wonder if the Benedictine character of the monastery in 1203 was also already present in 1192.

A formulaic document
Finally it is important to note that this bull is a very unoriginal document. It is written in conformity to a model which is reproduced more or less verbatim in many other documents taking other monasteries into papal protection in the same way. So for example, the same model was followed almost verbatim in a bull of papal protection by Honorius III in 1214 in favour of the Cistercian monastery of S. Maria de Caritate of Ripalta in Italy.[5] Likewise a bull of Honorius III to Whitby Abbey, in the time of Abbot Roger (thus 1222 x 1227), had virtually identical phrasing. But Whitby had been a Benedictine foundation since its restoration as a priory circa 1076, and an abbey since the 1080s. The ancient abbey of St Albans received a near-identical bull of papal protection in 1157 from Pope Adrian IV.  But St Albans had adopted the Rule of Benedict in about AD 870, nearly three centuries earlier.[6]  Closer to Iona, a similar charter was given by Pope Alexander III to the Benedictine monastery of Dunfermline in 1163, about a century after its foundation as a Benedictine house, with long passages of the same phrasing.[7]  Given the long time which could elapse between the adoption of the Rule of Benedict and the receipt of a papal bull of protection, we cannot imagine that the bull tells us anything at all about when a monastery adopted that rule. We should no longer use the date of 1203, the date of Iona’s bull of protection, to tell us anything about when she took on the Rule of Benedict, except that it provides a terminus ante quem.

The text of the bull and translation
The bull of 1203 was edited by Munch in his Chronica Regum Manniae et Insularum (Christiana, 1860), 152-53. I reproduce it in full below, followed by my translation. Note that there are some lands held by, and confirmed to, Iona, whose names are lost. This is not the place to produce a long essay about where they might be.[8]

Innocentius episcopus servus servorum Dei dilecto filio Celestino abbati
sancti Columbe de Hay insula eiusque fratribus, tam presentibus quam
futuris, regularem uitam professis inperpetuum.  Salutem et apostolicam benedictionem.

Religiosam uitam eligentibus apostolicum conuenit adesse presidium ne forte cuiuslibet temeritatis incursus aut eos a proposito reuocet aut robur quod absit sacre religionis eneruet. Ea propter dilecti in domino filii uestris iustis postulationibus clementer annuimus et prefatum monasterium sancti Columbe in quo diuino mancipati estis obsequio sub beati Petri et nostra protectione suscipimus et presentis scripti priuilegio communimus.

In primis siquidem statuentes ut ordo monasticus qui in eodem loco secundum Deum et beati Benedicti regulam institutus esse dinoscitur, perpetuis ibidem temporibus inuiolabiliter obseruetur.

Preterea quascunque pos(s)essiones quecumque bona in presentiarum iuste et canonice possidetis aut in futurum concessione pontificum liberalitate regum largitione principum oblatione fidelium seu aliis iustis modis prestante domino poteritis adipisci, firma uobis uestrisque successoribus et illibata permaneant.

In quibus sub propriis duximus exprimenda uocabulis. Locum ipsum in quo prefatum monasterium situm est cum omnibus pertinenciis suis. ecclesias de Insegal. de Mule. de Coluansei. de Cheldubsenaig. de Chelcenneg. et de Ile. I(n)sulas Hy. Mule. Coluansei. Oruansei. Canei. et Calue. Terras de Magenburg. de Mangecheles. de Herilneam,[9]  de Sotesdal. Terras Abberade. in Yle. de Markarna. et de Camusnanesre.[10]

Sane noualium uestrorum que propriis sumptibus colitis, de quibus aliquis hactenus non percepit, siue de uestrorum animalium nutrimentis nullus a vobis decimas exigere uel extorquere presumat.

Sepulturam preterea illius loci liberam esse decernimus, ut eorum deuotioni et extreme voluntati, qui se illic sepeliri deliberauerint, nisi forte excommunicati et interdicti fuerint, aut etiam publici usurarij, nullus obsistat, salua tamen iustitia illarum ecclesiarum, a quibus mortuorum corpora assumuntur.

Obeunte uero te nunc eiusdem loci abbate uel tuorum quolibet successorum nullus ibi qualibet subreptionis astutia seu uiolentia preponatur. nisi quem fratres communi consensu uel fratrum pars consilij sanioris secundum dei timorem et beati Benedicti regulam prouiderint eligendum.

Ad indicium autem huius a sede apostolica protectionis percepte duos bizantios gratis oblatos solueris nobis nostrisque successoribus annuatim. Decernimus ergo ut nulli omnino homini liceat prefatum locum temere perturbare aut eius possessiones auferre uel ablatas retinere minuere seu quibuslibet vexationibus fatigare, sed omnia integra conseruentur eorum pro quorum gubernatione et sustentatione concessa sunt vsibus omnimodis profutura. Salva sedis apostolice auctoritate et diocesanorum episcoporum canonica iustitia.

Si qua igitur in futurum ecclesiastica secularisue persona huius nostre constitutionis paginam sciens contra eam temere venire temptauerit secundo tercioue commonita si non reatum suum congrua satisfactione correxerit, potestatis honorisque sui dignitate careat reamque se diuino iudicio existere de perpetrata iniquitate cognoscat et a sacratissimo corpore et sangine Dei et domini redemptoris nostri Iesu Christi aliena fiat atque in extremo examine districte ultioni subiaceat. Cunctis autem eidem loco sua iura seruantibus sit pax domini nostri Iesu Christi. quatenus et hic fructum bone actionis percipiant et apud districtum iudicem premia eterne pacis inueniant. Amen. amen. amen. Datum Anagnie per manum Johannis sancte Romane ecclesie subdiaconi et notarii v. Idus Decembris. Indictione viia. Incarnationis dominice anno mo cco iijo pontificatus uero domini Innocentii pape iii anno sexto.


Innocent, bishop, servant of the servants of God (i.e. Pope) to his belove son Celestine, abbot of St Columba of the isle of Iona and his brothers, both present and to come, who are vowed to the regular life for ever.  Greetings and apostolic blessing.

It is fitting that apostolic protection should be present to those choosing the religious life, lest perchance some bold assault should turn them away from their purpose, or – God forbid! – diminish the strength of holy religion.  And so, beloved sons in the Lord, we mercifully approve your just requests, and we receive the aforesaid monastery in which you have bound yourselves to the service of God into the protection of St Peter’s protection and our own, and we strengthen it with the privilege of the present written document.

First of all we decree that the monastic order which is known to be established in that place, according to the will of God and the Rule of St Benedict should be kept inviolate for all time.

Furthermore, whatever possessions and whatever goods you justly and canonically possess at present, or may be able to obtain in the future, by the grant of popes, by the generosity of kings or princes, the offerings of the faithful, or in any other just way, the Lord permitting, shall belong firmly and inviolably to you and your successors. 

Among these properties we have judged it right to give name the following.  That place in which the said monastery is located, with all its pertinents; the churches of Innsegall,[11] Mull, Colonsay, Kilmashenachan,[12] Kilchenzie[13] and Islay; the islands of Iona, Mull, Colonsay, Oransay, Canna and Calva; the lands of Magenburgh, Mangecheles, Herileam, Sotesdall; the lands of Abberade in Islay, Markarna and Camusnanesre.

Certainly, let no one presume to exact or extort from you teinds which he has not hitherto received from your ploughed fields which you cultivate for your own needs, nor from the produce of your animals.

We grant that there be free burial in that place, so let no one obstruct those who have chosen out of devotion to be buried there in their final will, unless they are excommunicate or under interdict or are public usurers, safeguarding of course the rights of those churches from which the bodies of the dead have been taken.

When you, who are now abbot of that place, or any of your successors, shall go out of office, let no one be appointed there by any kind of cunning trickery or violence, but only him whom the brethren by common consent, or a group of the wiser brethren, shall choose to elect, fearing God and adhering to the Rule of Blessed Benedict.

As a token of receiving this protection from the apostolic see, you will pay to us and to our successors an offering of two gold coins yearly.  We therefore decree that it is lawful to no person at all to audaciously disturb the said place, or to take away its possessions, or to keep things which have been taken away, or to diminish them, or to wear them out with any kind of annoyance, but all and whole their goods shall be kept for the future control and support of them for whose uses they wre granted, saving the authority of the Apostolic See and the canonical right of the diocesan bishops.

If therefore in the future any ecclesiastical or secular person, knowing of this our document, shall rashly attempt to contravene it, and if he does not correct his fault by a fitting satisfaction after a second or third warning, let him be deprived of the dignity of his power and honour; and let him know that he will stand guilty in God’s judgement for the evil he has done, and he will be cut off from the most sacred Body and Blood of our Lord and God, our saviour Jesus Christ, and at the last judgement he will be laid under strict vengeance.  To all those who protect the rights of the place, however, the peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and may they receive the reward of their good action here (on earth), and from the Just Judge may the receive the rewards of eternal peace.

Amen, amen, amen.  Given at Anagni by the hand of John, subdeacon and notary of the holy Roman church, on the fifth Ides of December, the seventh indiction, the year of our Lord 1203, and in the sixth year of the pontificate of the lord pope Innocent III.




[1]  AU 1174 says that he had been 37 years as bishop of Armagh when he died in 1174.

[2]  Annála Rioghachta Éireann: The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, ed. J. O’ Donovan (Dublin, 1951), s.a. 1150,

[3]  In fact he was the son of Lochlann, king of Galloway, and grandson of Uchtred. He was the brother of Alan, Lord of Galloway. Alan had been granted a great territory of land in Ulster by John, King of England, probably in 1210 or 1211, and Thomas’ presence there was presumably part of an attempt to enforce his brother’s claim there against other claimants.


[5]  Hubert Houben, ‘Un Inedito Privilegio de Innocenzo III per I Cistercensi di S. Maria di Ripalta in Puglia, Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia 56 (2002), 149-157.   Of course, the name of the monastery being granted papal protection, and the names of the churches and lands being confirmed to it, varies from case to case.

[6]  Michaell Still, The Abbot and the Rule: Religious Life at St Albans (London, 2002).  The text of St Albans bull, Religiosam vitam elegentibus is in Walter Holtzmann, Papsturkunden in England Band 3, 118, 258-61

[7]  Registrum de Dunfermlyn: Liber Cartarum Abbatie Benedictine S. S. Trinitatis et B. Margarete Regine de Dunfermelyn (Edinburgh, 1842) no. 237.

[8]  They have been thoroughly discussed by Janet MacDonald in her unpublished PhD thesis, ‘Iona’s Local Associations in Argyll and the Isles, c. 1203-c.1575’ (University of Glasgow, 2010).

[9] Or Herilneam.

[10]  Or Camusnamesre.

[11] ‘The islands of the foreigners’, i.e. the Norse, referring to the Outer Hebrides.

[12] In the island of Sanda, at south end of Kintyre.

[13] Towards the south of Kintyre.