Celtic Kingship

The Gaelic word translated as “king” is righ or ri, and its meaning is not quite the same as the English word. There was a righ of each Mortuath, or Great Tribe, and in this context the word is sometimes translated as the Latin subregulus or English sub-king. Then there was the ard righ, the over-king or High King of the Scots.

A righ was a warlord, and most of his status depended on his battle prowess, from cattle raids on his neighbors to fighting off Vikings to taking Lothian from the English. Each flath, or tribal leader, owed to the righ a “hospitality rent” called conveth. This might be paid by quartering the righ and his entourage (often his warband) for a certain number of days each year, or by sending cattle, grain, and other goods to the righ, similar to Roman tribute. The same principle applied to the ard righ, the High King, who collected conveth from the righs and client kings under his suzerainty. However, if a warlord thought his righ was weak or ineffectual–or simply distracted–he might decide not to pay, and then the righ had better be able to come and take his due.

But perhaps the most important thing to note about the Celtic office of righ or ard righ is that it was not automatically inherited in a patrilineal fashion, as we think of kingship today. Anyone could be righ who was within four degrees (relationship) of a previous righ: brother, uncle, son, etc., depending on who could gain the most support for his claim. By the 11th century, this selection was subject to the approval not only of the nobles who would serve him, but also of the Church. Furthermore, there were traditionally two royal houses, and the kingship was supposed to be passed back and forth between them.

The Celts employed a system of tanistry, wherein each king would name his intended successor, his tanist. Presumably, this was a way to keep the king on his toes, knowing someone from a rival house was waiting in the wings, itching to take over his job. The effect was to make sure the strongest warlord ruled, for if the king could be challenged and beaten, he usually was.

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