Thursday, August 8, 2019

Drest I - A Pictish King

By Shaun Green

If I was to say this article refers to a formidable warrior king of the fifth century, Arthur would spring into most readers minds. Some argue his existence, others suggest several influential figures have been conflated into one mythical legend.

The many legends of mythical King Arthur are widely known

However, there is considerable evidence that many legendary warlords existed during this period that could equal the popularised mythical man. Recently whilst reading about the Saxons who first came to Ebbsfleet, their first settlement, I discovered a fable in British history I had not come across. The importance of one man stood out.

The Saxons had been invited by a Briton King, Vortigern, as mercenaries to help dispel an invading horde led by King Drest I of the Picts. He was possibly the first man to hold this title, and certainly the first noteworthy King of Pictland. This region is also recorded as Pictavia in some documented sources.

He was a man revered above all peers, a leader with no equal. A Chieftain who not only united all the clans of his people but had ambitions of dominating all of Britannia. The Pictish chronicles, a historic record of Scottish kings dated somewhere in the ninth century, states that he 'reigned for one hundred years and triumphed in one hundred battles.'

A surviving copy of the ninth century Pictish Chronicles

John of Fordun, a fourteenth-century priest, records Drest as having reigned for forty-five years. This is a much more believable period than the earlier suggestion. Yet this is still a lengthy rule during such a time of unrest after the Romans sudden and complete withdrawal.

Sovereignty may not have passed from father to son, with some sources stating the Picts exercised a matrilineal heritage. The eldest male of the leader's daughter would inherit command so grandsons would succeed their mother's father. This ensured the legitimacy of the bloodline when true paternity could never be known.

However, other sources suggest the most formidable warrior would assume command. The Picts may have co-existed in smaller clans, or kin, presiding over little pockets of land. The most formidable warrior led rather than a sovereign inheriting the position through royal lineage.

They would have fought between each other, quelling their abilities to expand or conquer. With this in mind, any man skilled in swordplay could have challenged Drest during his rule, which probably would have occurred as he conquered more territories, stretching his loyalties.

An image of the legendary barbarian-esque Pict Warriors

He took control over a vast part of Northern Britain, from the Scottish North West coast, to disputably, as far south as Lindum. (A Roman settlement of great authority during this period, now known as Lincoln.)

A map showing the extent of this fabled conquest

Various sources state that it was this conquest into Briton that forced King Vortigern, possible High King of Briton, to hire two exiled Saxon chieftains to help fight against the Picts. These Brothers, Hengest and Horsa, helped push the Picts back into Pictland. The Angles never went back across the Channel, thus starting the conquest which would, in four hundred years, create England.

His existence is supported by Christian records, which place him around the time of Saint Ninian, Palladius, and Saint Patrick. The Pictish chronicles state that Saint Patrick left Scotland for Ireland in the nineteenth year of Drest's reign, which places him somewhere in the middle of the fifth century. However, the Picts left no personal written records, although a few stone carvings have been attributed to them.

Example of Pictish stone carvings

Another formidable figure during this time was Drest's brother, Nechtan. He was banished to Ireland during Drest's reign but returned a few years after his death to become King of the Picts.

There is a little more information about Nechtan, but the most interesting fact may also be an explanation for this. He is recorded to be the King when Christianity was first introduced to Scotland, quite possibly a Christian himself, so more noteworthy for Christian recorders. Sources dispute the cause for Nechtan's banishment. His faith may have been enough for Drest to disown him, or a failed coup for the throne may have been led by Nechtan. The fact he later reigned, coupled with several Christian landmarks bearing Nechtan's name, suggests it could have been either or both.

The lack of specific detail makes it difficult to confidently, or accurately, suggest Drest's period of reign, or his achievements. The few surviving records were written centuries later, mainly by Christian chroniclers as a way to record and synchronise the success of missionary work. 

The boast of reigning for one hundred years is unlikely, but any lengthy rule could have meant he outlived most of his original followers, many of whom would have fallen in battle. Thus no one who lived after his death could remember just how long he had ruled. One hundred triumphs also sound like an exaggerated boast.

However, if he was the chieftain that united the various Pictish clans before turning his attention to other kingdoms, it becomes less of a stretch of the imagination. One thing the majority of conflicting sources agree on is his numerous victories over Scots, Britons and Angles and that he is a legendary and noteworthy King.

Despite all of the above, I struggled to find much about this man, except for confirmation of his existence and the banishment of Nechtan. This factor reputedly coincided with the Saxon mercenaries challenging the Picts which resulted in the invasion being quashed, with Drest dying a few short years after the forgotten conquest.

Drest I may not have 'reigned for one hundred years and triumphed in one hundred battles', but the truth is, we will never know... 


Shaun Green was born in Peterborough. He studied at the University of Wolverhampton, gaining a BA (Hons) degree in criminal justice. He served in the Royal Navy for eight years as a submariner and then part of the commando helicopter force. He then pursued a lifelong ambition of being a prison officer.

Shaun has always loved to write and create. His imagination always took him to wondrous places with his wandering mind landing him in trouble on regular occasions, especially in childhood. Now he begins another ambition of putting his world into the realms of reality, for others to enjoy.

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  1. An excellent post, Shaun thank you for enlightening us about this hithertoo not known historic figure! Fascinating indeed!

  2. Totally agree with Paula Lofting. Certainly a figure to rival Arthur. Thanks for bringing him to our attention.


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