The Battle of Clontarf

On Good Friday in the year 1014, A man travelling in Caithness saw a group of twelve women ride to a women’s shelter and go inside. He peeked through a window and saw the women with a great loom set up before them. Men’s guts were strung on the loom as warp and weft and men’s skulls weighted the threads. The women used a sword to beat the woven fabric and sang:

Blood rains
From the cloudy web
On the broad loom of slaughter.
The web of man,
Grey as armour,
Is now being woven…

The tweve women wove their bloody cloth, each keeping a piece, and rode off. The man later discovered that he had witnessed the fateful weaving of the Battle of Clontarf that, at the cost of perhaps 10,000 dead, saw the defeat of the last Viking power in Ireland at the hands of its great king, Brian Boru.

One of twelve murals done by James Ward for Dublin City Hall depicting Brian Bru and his triumphs. Here Brian readies for the battle of Clontarf.[http://www.brianborumillennium.ie/brian-boru/]

One of twelve murals done by James Ward for Dublin City Hall depicting Brian Boru and his triumphs. Here Brian readies for the battle of Clontarf.[http://www.brianborumillennium.ie/brian-boru/]

Brian  had been the most powerful king in Ireland since the 980s but was now more than eighty years old. He no longer fought with his troops but directed them from behind the lines, from behind a wall of shields, says Njal’s Saga, lying on his cot in a tent, say his detractors.

Brian’s foe was Sigtrygg SilkenBeard, king of Dublin and son of Brian’s ex-wife, called Kormlod by the Norse and Gormflaith by the Irish. Daughter of the king of Leinster, she had married Brian after the defeat of her husband Olaf Slipper, or Amblaith Cuaran to the Irish. He was a descendant of Ivar, a Norse ruler of Ireland in the 9th Century. After Ivar and his brother Olaf died in the 870s, Ireland was free from the Norse for a time, but the Sons of Ivar began raiding the island again in the early 10th Century. Olaf Slipper managed to gain control of Dublin, but the Irish under northern king Máel Sechnaill, who was Olaf’s stepson, defeated his forces around 980 and the aged man retired to a monastery. Gormflaith married Brian perhaps around 990 but he divorced her sometime after 1000 and she retired to Dublin, ruled by her son Sigtrygg.

Coin issued by Sigtrygg during his Dublin rule. [British Nation Museum via Wikipedia]

Coin issued by Sigtrygg during his Dublin rule. [British National Museum via Wikipedia]

Sigtrygg Silkenbeard became king of Dublin after the death of his half-brother(s) and began fighting the Irish around 995. Máel Sechnaill battled him a few times and, in 999, joined with Brian Boru to defeat Sigtrygg decisively. Sigtrygg was allowed to stay on as Dublin’s king so long as he pledged loyalty and paid tribute to Máel and Brian. A few years later, though, Brian re-opened hostilities against Sigtrygg. All these people were related in various degrees.

Máel was heir to the claims of the Ui Nialls for the high kingship of Ireland. But Brian Boru’s strength in the south caused the two to make a pact to share rule over the country. Still, there was unfulfilled ambition on Máel’s part and suspicion of him in Brian’s camp. The war for the high kingship, which was more a national myth than a political reality, caused various Irish factions to ally with Norse raiders over the two centuries of Viking interference in Ireland.

In 1014 the Norse were at their high water mark. The Danes had conquered England, the Swedes held Russia, there were Normans in France, and the Norse had settled Iceland, the Hebrides, and the Orkneys.  Now, it is said, Gormflaith got her son Sigtrygg to ask Earl Sigurd of Orkney to aid him in defeating her ex-husband, Brian Boru. Sigurd agreed, on condition that Gormflaith marry him afterward. Sigtrygg accepted this, then he went to Brodir on the Isle of Man and asked him to join the alliance. Brodir agreed, on condition that Gormflaith marry him. Sigtrygg accepted this, too. To aid in the coming struggle, Sigtrygg made a secret pact with Máel: the Norse would not attack him if he stayed out of the battle. Máel saw the possibility of becoming the lone king, the high king of Ireland, and agreed. Of course, Sigtrygg had ambitions greater than Dublin, too. And the King of Leinster, kinsman of Gormflaith, also agreed to join the Anti-Brian force.

So, on Good Friday, 1014 the two armies faced each other at a site north of present-day Dublin called Clontarf. The Cogadh, the history of The War of the Irish with the Foreigners, says that Sigtrygg’s force was

…violent, furious, unscrupulous, untamable, inexorable, unsteady, cruel, barbarous, frightful, sharp, ready, huge, prepared, cunning, warlike, poisonous, hostile, murderous, Danars; bold hardhearted Danmarkians, surly, piratical foreigners, blue-green, pagan; without reverence, without honour, without mercy, for God or for man.

And that is only a part of the adjectives hurled at the Norse. Vikings usually had better armor and weapons than the Irish during their struggles and the Cogadh says that their body armor at Clontarf was heavy triple-plated double-refined iron. Further they had

barbed, keen, bitter, wounding, terrible, piercing, fatal, murderous, posoned arrows which had been anointed and browned in the blood of dragons and toads, and water-snakes of hell

and of other venomous critters besides, which were meant to be shot at the brave and valiant chieftains. So things might look black for the Irish except that they were

brave, valiant champions; soldierly, active, nimble, bold, full of courage, quick, doing great deeds

and so on. Further, they had glittering, well-riveted spears which were poisoned and “terrible sharp darts”, as well as beautiful shields and crested helmets. More important, perhaps, they had axes of Lochlann — Lochlann (or Lothlann) being either the Hebrides or Norway, in other words Viking axes in the hands of “heroes and brave knights, for cutting and maiming the close well-fastened coats of mail”. And they had keen swords “for hewing and for hacking, for maiming and mutilating skins, and bodies, and skulls.” The descriptions may be excessive but the nature of the coming conflict is clear: this was hard, nasty, brutal close combat.

Re-enactment of the battle of Clontarf durinf the millenial celebration, April 2014. [Irish Independent]

Re-enactment of the battle of Clontarf durinf the millenial celebration, April 2014. [Irish Independent]

So the two sides closed in combat. Máel kept his forces apart but the battle raged on without him. Sigtrygg watched from the walls of Dublin, Brian knelt in prayer in his tent, or lay on a sickbed, or watched from behind a shield wall. There are many tales of heroic deeds, especially of Brian’s son Murchadh, who killed fifty men with the sword in his right hand and fifty men with the sword in his left. But Murchadh himself was killed that day, as was his son, who drowned while pursuing the enemy into the rising tide. Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, was killed. Many great warriors of north Europe — Irish, Norse, Saxon, Scot — were amongst the thousands of corpses that fed the ravens at Clontarf.

The battle raged from dawn until after six in the evening, when Sigtrygg’s forces broke and ran for the forest or their ships, but now the tide was in and they could not reach either one and were slaughtered in the water. Brodir of Man saw the battle was lost but charged at Brian’s retinue and killed the old king there. Brian Boru was eighty-eight when he died. Brodir was seized by Ulf Hreda, Brian’s step-son. Ulf slit open Brodir’s belly and nailed his gut to a tree and forced Brodir to walk round it until he disembowelled himself.

Sigtrygg remained as king of Dublin. Máel remained as king of Ireland. Both these rascals survived for years but the Norse power in Ireland was broken forever. The death of Brian’s sons and grandson meant a leadership vacuum that was difficult to fill. So the dream of an Irish high king also disappeared. Still, the Irish were left alone for a century and a half until the Anglo-Norman incursions of the 12th Century. It was around that time that the Cogadh, written for an early 12th Century Irish prince, was circulated as a patriotic rallying text. The lessons were plain: unite and hate the foreigner, the Gaill. The Norman lords were more or less assimilated as England dealt with other problems, such as civil war, for the next few centuries. But when Henry VIII decided not to be a Catholic, Ireland suddenly took on importance as a serious strategic threat. For if a Catholic nation, Spain for instance, should gain a foothold there, England would be troubled indeed. The Cogadh gained a new importance as Elizabeth oversaw various adventures in Ireland and the Irish people revolted against their overlords until the English replaced the Norse as the Gaill, the heathen foe, the terrible foreign enemy. And so it has gone over the last thousand years.

Notes:

Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill: Or, The Invasions of Ireland by the Danes and Other Norsemen is long out of print since James Todd translated it in 1867. However, various places come up with reprintings from time to time (mine was done in Germany in 1965) usually for about $50. This is a prime candidate for gutenberg.org or archive.org or some other Net book place.

Njals Saga is available in numerous editions. Quotes above are from the Magnusson/Pallson translation of 1960.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin is the current authority on the Norse in Ireland and has bits about Clontarf here and there on the Net and in The Vikings in Ireland, a collection of articles published by the Viking Ship Museium in Roskilde.

Wikipedia is your friend and also:

“The Battle of Clontarf in Irish History and Legend” from History Ireland
and the official millennium website for all things Brian Boru

 

 

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