Denmark’s Queens

Denmark has the longest continuous rule by a single family of any European nation, tracing its lineage back to at least Gorm the Old, who reigned in the mid-10th Century. Yet, in all its history, Denmark has been ruled by only two queens. Margrethe I ruled in the 14th Century, Margrethe II has been on the Danish throne since 1972.

Margrethe I was born in 1353 in prison where her mother was confined, possibly for adultery, by her father, Valdemar IV of Denmark. At this time Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were embroiled in a struggle with German princes over control of the Baltic. Marriages, births, depositions, and occasional battles were part of this ongoing struggle. At the age of six Margrethe was betrothed to the Crown Prince of Norway for political reasons which shifted causing the engagement to be cancelled, then shifted again, resulting in Margrethe’s marriage at the age of ten to her original betrothed, Haakon VI, King (then) of both Sweden and Norway. She was raised by a Swedish noblewoman and was more or less an adult by contemporary standards when she finally consummated her marriage. She bore Haakon a son, Olaf, when she was eighteen. By that time Haakon had been ousted as King of Sweden by a German noble from Mecklenburg. Meanwhile, Haakon had a stormy political relationship with his father-in-law that ended with Valdemar’s death in 1375. Margrethe did manage, then, to ensure that her son, Olaf, was named heir to the Danish throne. This was a tricky matter since Margrethe’s elder sister was married to the Duke of Mecklenburg and she also had a son. Valdemar’s only son had died before the throne became vacant and, succession being what it was then, only a male could inherit the crown. Margrethe also pressed for Olaf’s claim to the Swedish crown, a claim that later bore fruit.

Margrethe I, tomb effigy. [Wikipedia]

In 1380, Haakon died. Margrethe took over as regent for her son, Olaf, now the child-king of both Norway and Denmark. Margrethe proved an adept and popular ruler, taking back some territory held by Germans. In 1387, teen-aged Olaf suddenly died, but Margrethe stayed on as Regent (or one of a number of other titles that were invented to fit her status). Denmark was then aiding the Swedes in removing their unpopular king, Albert of Mecklenburg. The Mecklenburg line had long been a problem for Margrethe, who Albert sneered was “King No-Pants”. The Germans were unhappy about losing Sweden, of course, and a decisive battle was fought in 1389 between Albert of Mecklenburg’s forces and those of Margrethe (which were led by a Mecklenburgian general). Margrethe’s victory made her ruler of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, which was formalized as the Kalmar, an alliance directed against the German Hanseatic League. Eventually, she was called Queen of Denmark, especially by foreign potentates, such as the Pope, though the title was not exactly official in Denmark itself. Margrethe never re-married but trained an heir from her father’s bloodline. She remains an important monarch of the day, vastly superior to those male kings who were her contemporaries. She died in 1412.

WikiMedia Commons

Sarcophagus of Danish Queen Margrethe I, Roskilde Cathedral. [WikiMedia Commons]

Margrethe II was born in 1940, one week after the German invasion of Denmark. Her father, then the Crown Prince, became King Frederick IX in 1947. Frederick had three daughters and no sons. Immediately on taking the crown he began working for constitutional reform that would allow a woman to ascend the throne of Denmark. The Act of Succession passed in 1953 said that women could reign if there were no immediate male heirs. Frederick died in January, 1972, and Margrethe became Queen of Denmark.

The Danish Royals, last April, on the occasion of Margrethe’s 77th birthday. Crown Prince Frederik at far right, Prince Joachim at left, Prince Consort Henrik to Joachim’s right, then the Queen, God bless her. [copyright Getty Images. via]

Margrethe had married a French diplomat, Count Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, now known as Henrik, Prince Consort, and the couple has two sons. Margrethe has been a popular queen, one seen as an example of Denmark’s acceptance of feminism. But therein lie complications. Henrik has never been completely happy with his secondary role as Prince Consort. Sometimes he has thrown a hissy-fit or two about this problem. Margrethe has always cajoled him back into public acceptance of his secondary status. When Margrethe celebrated her 75th birthday, Henrik was not present at the celebrations, apparently relaxing in Venice instead. But, on Margrethe’s 76th birthday, Henrik was right there, waving at the crowd like any dutiful member of the monarchial establishment. When the Heir Apparent appeared as Crown Representative in 2002, while Margrethe was ill,  Henrik refused to attend, saying publicly that he was used to being number two, but being demoted to three was too much. He complained that he had to beg for pocket change and cigarette money (whatever that means to someone at this level of wealth) and won an official allowance. “I should be King,” he says.

Tapestry by Nørgaard depicting the marriage of Margrethe and Henrik. Hey! That’s an apple. And a tree! Does this have anything to do with that old anti-feminist myth? You know the one I mean… [via]

Margrethe was trained as an artist (she illustrated the Danish translation of Lord of the Rings after corresponding with Tolkien) and is today very involved in design, both stage design and her own clothing. Sometimes this draws criticism, because a woman is judged by how she dresses. Henrik is a poet and much of the domestic turmoil around the two might be explained by the problem of having two artists in the house. Who gets recognition? Hollywood is full of such problems. In 2009, Margrethe gave a commission to Bjørn Nørgaard to design her final resting place. See, she knows how important commissions are to artists and handed this plum to the guy who has done other great Danish works including a series of tapestries that depict Danish history — the marriage of Margrethe and Henrik is the final hanging in the series. A model of the sepulchre has been produced; it is a lavish design that would have Margrethe’s silhouette encased in crystal or glass and raised on marble pillars decorated with silver elephants. (This sarcophagus would actually stand above the place where the bodies are interred.) There is space for Henrik, who is 83, to rest there, too, but he has publicly refused and said that he wants to be buried somewhere else, maybe France, maybe another part of Denmark. Margrethe says that she understands. The Press is indignant and calls Henrik “petty” and “grumpy”. It may or may not be relevant that Henrik is just back from a stay in hospital.

Margrethe’s sarcophagus. The base is layers of sandstone, possibly a reference to Henrik’s France. The pillars are stone from Greenland, the Faroes, and Bornholm. Silver elephants. Glass made to look as though someone is there even though they aren’t — Margrethe will be buried in the floor below. The whole thing topped with gilded bronze bric-a-brac. [Photo:  Mikkel Møller Jørgensen © Scanpix. via]

This might be a joke, one of those squabbles between old folks over issues meaningless to the young, or another of those silly problems created by the ridiculous institution of monarchy, which is certainly in the mix. Consider that several Danish royal family members and their progeny were cut out of the succession because they married commoners, succession being what it is now. (Margrethe has made certain that her sons’ children have rights to succession, despite both princes marrying  commoners. The future Queen is Australian, for goodness’ sake!) And consider that when Henrik complained that women’s rights didn’t seem to mean human rights, at least for guys like him, some feminists replied that this was not about men and women, it was about royalty and the law around that: “The law on gender equality does not apply to the royal court.” Others suggest that Henrik is a model of male feminism, who had been chief caretaker of the Royal children back in the day. Then consider that it took six centuries for Denmark to allow a woman to rule officially and now, perhaps, the Danes are still in the process of working out what that means. Consider as well, that it is only in the last century, less than sixty years ago, that human beings decided that they should be able to control their reproduction and the entire status of women everywhere changed. No other species has ever attempted to manage this kind of change. Everyone is walking a new road. Henrik’s discomfort is the new reality.



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.[]

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.[]

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.


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 or 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



The Saga of Colm the Slave

colm_cover2This is my new book. Colm is an Irish slave in 10th Century Iceland. He struggles to win freedom, the Welsh slave Gwyneth, and a place in society. This is a land where slaves might be sacrificed to the gods or killed on a whim. Violence is the foundation of social order and justice belongs to the strong. Some of this book first appeared as stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Available now for Kindle. Tablet users will have to download a free app from Amazon.

Heaven’s Maps

Sibusiso Mthembu, who lives near Durban, South Africa, has drawn a map of the way to heaven on the wall of his home. Pilgrims troop by to view this marvel and newspapers are reporting this as yet another weird event, something to chuckle over. But maps of heaven have been common throughout human existence and they are usually quite serious affairs.

Sibusiso Mthembu in front of his map to Heaven.

Sibusiso Mthembu in front of his map to Heaven.

Heaven is not necessarilly Paradise; it may be simply the Land of the Dead, the place human beings go after death. Still, it is a place and places are located by maps. Sibusio Mthembu is unusual, though, in that he has managed to return from Heaven. Usually this is a place that people only glimpse in dreams.

Journey of the Dead to Dhuwa, Land of the Dead for the Jiridja Australians, by Binyinyuwuy, 1948.

“Journey of the Dead to Dhuwa”, Land of the Dead for the Jiridja Australians, by Binyinyuwuy, 1948.

Humans have made maps for thousands of years but one culture’s version may be unreadable by other humans from other cultures. Maps derive from concepts of the World and people’s place in it. Medieval European maps used to place Jerusalem in the center and the known continents were arranged around it. The medieval concept of Heaven has to do with concentric rings of spheres of existence. Heaven is in the outermost sphere.

A map of Existence according to Dante. [via Kinkanon]

A map of Existence according to Dante. [via Kinkanon]

As Western concepts have become more technical, so Heavenly maps have become more diagrammatic:

Chart of Heaven by Clarence Larkin, about 1895.

Chart of Heaven by Clarence Larkin, about 1895.

But ecstatic visions still occur and are recorded by those who do not fear social judgment.Brenda Davis paints what she dreams. “I can’t help it. God knows I can’t read or write, so he tells me the stories.” Here is her “Map to Heaven”:


The most exact maps to Heaven are possibly those made by Athapaskan tribes in northeastern British Columbia. Hugh Brody has written of this in his great Maps And Dreams. Hunters, some of them, would dream of the hunt they would have and the game they would take. This was a special gift of a few. Amongst these, some would also dream of Heaven and the way to get there. The maps that are made from dreams are very special and not to be seen except on special occasions, such as when the Beaver people were trying to convince certain bureaucrats that they did indeed understand their area in geographic terms and had mapped it. They brought a moosehide bundle into the meeting place:

…they untied the bundle’s thongs and began very carefully to pull back the cover. …the contents seemed to be a thick layer of hide, pressed tightly together. With great care, Aggan took this hide from its cover and began to open the layers. It was a magnificent dream map.
The dream map was as large as the table top, and had been folded tightly for many years. It was covered with thousands of short, firm, and variously colored markings. …Up here is heaven; this is the trail that must be followed; here is a wrong direction; this is where it would be worst of all to go; and over there are all the animals….all of this had been discovered in dreams.
…it was wrong to unpack a dream map except for very special reasons. But…the hearing was important. Everyone must look at the map now. …They should realize, however, that intricate routes and meanings of a dream map are not easy to follow. There was not time to explain them all. The visitors crowded around the table, amazed and confused.
A corner of the map was missing…someone had died who would not easilly find his way to heaven, so the owner of the map had cut a piece of it and buried it with the body. With the aid of even a fragment…the dead man would probably find the correct trail, and when the owner of the map died, it would all be buried with him. His dreams of the trail to heaven would then serve him well.

But the bureaucrats did not understand the map nor the Beaver people’s claim to the land. Their mindset was biased toward the geological survey maps being used by the companies who wanted to build a pipeline through Beaver territory. So it is: we are unable to understand the maps of others and we lose our way to heaven.

The Saga of Unn the Deep-Minded

Some sources call her Aud the Deep-Minded but that seems to be a name she adopted in old age. Her sisters were Jor-Unn Wisdom-Slope and Thor-Unn Horned and I think it fairly obvious that whoever named these girls had a plan in mind. Jor and Thor have pagan religious connotations and I suspect that Unn dropped a pagan prefix to her name after she became a devout Christian before she moved to Iceland. The father of these three was Ketil Flat-Nose who moved from Norway to the Hebrides sometime in the 9th Century. There he went a-viking from his base, probably at Barra, into Ireland, the British Isles, and back into Norway — something the Norwegians would later punish him for.

Modern reproduction of "tortoise style" brooches found in a grave on Barra Island. These attached over-the-shoulder straps to the front bodice of a woman's outer dress. []

Modern reproduction of “tortoise style” brooches found in a grave on Barra Island. These attached over-the-shoulder straps to the front bodice of a woman’s outer dress. []

South of the Hebrides is the great island of Ireland, a rich source of booty and a beautiful prize for anyone who could capture it. In the first half of the 9th Century there was at least one serious attempt to do just that but the expedition’s leader, who the Irish called Turgeis (possibly = Thorgeis or Thorgils), only lasted a few years before Irish resistance, led by the Ui Niall clan, brought him down. Then followed a period of conflict between different groups of Norse invaders complicated by the presence of a growing number of Gall-Gael — Norse/Irish métis who were struggling to find their own place in the world. But in 853, the Hebridean Norse launched a well-conceived plan to conquer Ireland.

The leaders of this invasion were, the Irish say, brothers called Ivar and Olaf the White. Ivar sailed up the Shannon river to the heart of the island and anchored a fleet on the large lakes there. Olaf set up shop at Ath Cliath on the coast, the place we now call Dublin. The country south and west of Dublin, Osraighe (now Leinster), was ruled by the Irish king Cearbhall or Kjarval, as the Norse called him. Kjarval wished to be king of all Ireland and the Norse promised to help him. So Kjarval, Olaf, and Ivar began their campaign to bring the country under their sway. [see map here]

The alliance between these three was forged, in the fashion of the time, through marriage. Kjarval married Jor-Unn Wisdom-Slope. His grandson, Helgi the Lean, married Thor-Unn Horned. Helgi’s father, who had married one of Kjarval’s daughters, was a Swede who led Kjarval’s forces. Unn the Deep-Minded married Olaf the White. The fact that Ketil’s daughters were the unifying threads of this peace-weaving is an indicator of his importance in the area.

Viking artifacts from Dublin area. Swords, spearheads, shield bosses, brooches, and gaming pieces. [Watercolor by James Plunkett, ca. 1847]

Viking artifacts from Dublin area. Swords, spearheads, shield bosses, brooches, and gaming pieces. [Watercolor by James Plunkett, ca. 1847]

The Hebridean invasion prospered. Tribute was collected and churches raided. Local Irish clans sometimes fought the Norse, sometimes fought with them against Irish. Except, that is, the Ui Niall of the north who maintained an implacable resistance to the foreigners and fought with them constantly. In 857, Ivar won a decisive victory over the Gall-Gael and from time to time the brothers had to take out some outsider vikings who invaded their patch, but generally things went well. Kjarval’s troops took on a great deal of the fighting and the Norse brothers occasionally found things settled enough so that they could raid across the sea into Pictland or Strathclyde or Wales.

Around 863 the brothers began looting the tombs of Irish kings on the Boyne. This roused the Irish and for four years or so the battles between the Norse and the Irish grew fierce but soon the fighting settled back into a pattern of desultory skirmishes with the resistant Irish and military incursions into areas that the Norse wished to control. In 870, the brothers left Kjarval in charge and mounted a cross-sea expedition against the Britons of Strathclyde. For four months they besieged the fortress at Dumbarton before taking it and returning to Ireland with, the Annals say, “a great prey” of captives. These would be sold into slavery, a great source of wealth to viking Norse over their two centuries of depredation.

But after 871 the Hebridean venture began to unravel. Ivar died in 873. Olaf in 875. The cause of these deaths are unknown but, also around this period, King Harald Finehair of Norway ran out of patience with Hebridean vikings and sent a punitive expedition that struck at their home bases. The Sagas say that he harried as far south as the Isle of Man and, on the way home, installed one of his followers as the first Jarl of Orkney, who was meant to keep an eye on things in this part of the world.

The daughters of Ketil Flat-Nose suddenly found themselves adrift. Sometime in the next few years, Thor-Unn and her half-Swedish husband sailed to Iceland. Once Kjarval understood how the winds of change were blowing, he repudiated the Norse and teamed up with the Irish. He probably turned Jor-Unn out, but she may have stuck around until his death in 888 before she, too, emigrated to Iceland. Unn the Deep-Minded went to see her dad, Ketil, and introduced him to her son, Thorstein the Red. Grand-dad and grandson got on well and the old pirate instructed the youth in the ways of extracting wealth from the poor and defenceless. So Thorstein set up in Scotland. His wife, Raferta (or maybe Thurid), was a grand-daughter of Kjarval’s and so a sister to Helgi the Lean. These two had a bunch of children — five or six daughters, depending on which source you read (possibly one or two were by other wives of Thorstein) and a son named Olaf, the youngest of the brood.

Excavated longhouse site at Quoygrew, Orkney. [photo: Donna Surge]

Excavated longhouse site at Quoygrew, Orkney. [photo: Donna Surge]

Thorstein managed very well in Scotland. He allied with the Orkney Jarls and between them, the Picts and other peoples were squeezed for everything they had. The Sagas say he was king over half of Scotland, which may be a bit of an overstatement, but he was a force in the area. Eventually, though, Thorstein was killed — via Scots treachery, the Sagas say.

Now Unn was in a tough spot. Her father was dead by this time and she had no real holdings in the Hebrides. Her grandson was very young, tweve or thirteen, and not able to take over his father’s enterprise. Nevertheless, Unn asked him for his counsel and he replied, “Whatever you think best, Grandmother.” This, in fact, was more or less what anyone who confronted Unn wound up saying. She was a formidable woman.

Unn hatched an audacious scheme. She went to the chief of her slaves, a man named Koll, and asked for his assistance. “Koll” might be a Norse version of a fairly common name in Irish or any of the Briton languages. It may be that he was one of that “great prey” captured in Strathclyde in 870. He seems to have been fairly well on in years at this time — forty, say, at a time when boys became men at fifteen or sixteen, when they could wield a sword, and girls became women at thirteen or fourteen, when they could bear children. Unn offered Koll a deal: if he would help the other slaves to build a ship, so that they could all sail out of Scotland for Iceland, she would give him his freedom, land, and one of her grandaughters as a bride. Koll agreed.

That winter, the slaves put together a ship. It was important that they leave in the Spring, before the Picts and Scots discovered their weakness and attacked. Sources vary on the exact number of men and women on board when Unn’s group set sail, but let’s say fifteen to twenty-five people. The ship sailed around to the Orkneys, where more skilled craftsmen refurbished it for the voyage to come. There, Unn gave away one of her granddaughters in marriage “and from this line all the Jarls of Orkney descend”. Then she sailed to the Faroe Islands, where another granddaughter was married off and from her “stems the greatest family line in the Faroe Islands”. Then Unn sailed west to Iceland.

…it is generally thought that it would be hard to find another example of a woman escaping from such hazards with so much wealth and such a large retinue. From this it can be seen what a paragon among women she was.
[Laxdaela Saga]

Unn had two brothers. One, Helgi Bolan, was a Christian who lived in the southwest. The other, Bjorn, lived on the north side of Snaefellness. He was called Bjorn the Easterner because, while the rest of his family found fortune in the Hebrides, he travelled east to the Baltic where he made his fortune. When he returned west to the Hebrides, Bjorn found that the rest of the family had become Christians. He thought it “weak-minded of them to have renounced the old belief of their forefathers… so he refused to make his home there.” Bjorn sailed on to Iceland, the first of the family to do so, and remained a pagan after settling there.

Unn landed, or possibly wrecked her ship, in the south of Iceland. She sent to her brother Helgi, who invited her and nine of her group to spend the winter with him. Unn was incensed at his meanness for inviting only nine and left immediately to see her brother Bjorn. Bjorn knew that his sister was “large-minded” and sent out a large party to welcome her and everyone with her to spend the winter.

The next spring, Unn set sail to find the location she wished to settle. Various places in Iceland get their names from this voyage: Dogurdarness (= Breakfast Point) where she had a meal, Kambsness, where she lost a comb, and so forth. Finally, she took up land, a lot of land around Breidafjord in the west of Iceland. Her own home was at Hvamm. To the south was the Laxardale, one of several Salmon River valleys in Iceland. This she granted to Koll as a wedding-gift when he married her grand-daughter, Thorgerd. Her remaining granddaughters married prominent Icelanders.

The slaves that had come to Iceland with Unn were all freed. Amazingly, it turned out that every one of them was descended from kings, not just common folk swept up in a violent struggle. One such, of noble descent, was the slave Vifils who had to ask Unn for his freedom. She replied that it was of no importance, that Vifils would be a man of quality wherever he was. But she granted him land at Vifilstead. That farm did not prosper and Vifil’s sons got on by marrying rich widows. One of them was the father of Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir who was part of the Norse attempt to colonize North America and bore the first child of European descent born in North America. Unn’s ex-slaves played a great part in the settlement of Iceland and few were ever made to feel ashamed for having been enslaved. It was a matter of pride for an Icelander to be able to claim descent from someone who had sailed with Unn in the voyage from Scotland.

Everyday viking items unearthed in Dublin. [Walter Pfeiffer/National Museum of Ireland]

Everyday viking items unearthed in Dublin. [Walter Pfeiffer/National Museum of Ireland]

Now that Unn was settled there was another matter of great importance to deal with. She called her grandson, Olaf Feilan, to her and said, “It is time you were married.” “Whatever you say, Grandmother,” was his reply and Unn sent an emissary, the peg-legged Onund Tree-Foot, to the Hebrides to ask his wife’s cousin, Alfdis, to be Olaf’s bride.

Unn’s plan is clear: she tied her family to the great families of the Orkneys, the Faroes, Iceland, and now back to the Hebrides. If there was to be a renaissance of Hebridean Norse supremacy, her kin would be major actors. Of course, that was not to be. All these islands — the Faroes, the Orkneys, the Hebrides — faded into insignificance as the Scandinavian and Scottish kingdoms coalesced. Even Iceland lost its independence to Norway in the 13th Century. The great viking sea kingdom vanished.

Olaf’s wedding was a grand affair. Unn invited all her kin and most of west Iceland’s notables. Koll was a guest as were others of Unn’s freed slaves, now Icelandic grandees. Helgi the Lean and Thor-Unn attended, as did Helgi Bolan and Bjorn the Easterner. Jor-Unn Wisdom-Slope could not make it and people said What a shame! Though one wonders if this is the understated Saga way of hinting that Jor-Unn, last to leave Ireland, was a bit estranged from her sisters. The festivities were well underway when Unn announced that the house and all inside it now belonged to her grandson, Olaf. Then she said it was her bedtime.

By now, old age was weighing heavilly upon Unn; she never rose before noon and always went early to bed. …she would give an irate reply if anyone asked about her health. [Laxdaela Saga]

Unn urged her guests to enjoy themselves and then retired. Here we have the only physical description of Unn:

Unn was tall and stoutly-built. She walked briskly down the length of the hall and those present remarked how stately she still was. [Laxdaela Saga]

The next morning, when Olaf looked in on her, she sat erect in her bed, dead. Everyone remarked on Unn’s forethought, to arrange her funeral feast in conjunction with her grandson’s wedding. Unn was given a ship-burial and was interred with many valuables. Her grave is undiscovered to date.

Viking ship-burial in Orkney. [from Graham-Campbell and Batey, [em]Vikings in Scotland[/em] ISBN 0-7486-0641-6

Viking ship-burial in Orkney. [from Graham-Campbell and Batey, <em>Vikings in Scotland</em> ISBN 0-7486-0641-6]


The primary source for Unn is Laxdaela Saga. Quotes above are from Magnus Magnusson’s translation. This saga tells the story of Koll’s descendants who also figure in other works, such as Njal’s Saga.
There is more on Unn, called Aud, in Eyrbyggja Saga, now available in Gisli Surssons Saga And The Saga Of The People Of Eyr. Translation used above was that of Hermann Palsson.
Orkneyinga Saga is the story of the Jarls of Orkney and speaks of both Unn/Aud and her son, Thorstein.
Grettir’s Saga tells of the marriage embassy of Onund Treefoot and also has a great deal to say about Eyvind the Easterner, Swedish warlord in the pay of the Irish king Kjarval.
The Vinland Sagas tell of Vifils and his granddaughter, Gudrid, who is the main character in the two sagas. The version used here was translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson.
The Book of Settlements: Landnamabok is the earliest extant source for all of the people named above who made it to Iceland.
The Irish Annals may be examined at CELT, a very valuable resource.
A detailed look at the Hebrideans who invaded Ireland: “The Vikings In Scotland And Ireland In The Ninth Century” by Donnchadh Ó Corráin

Ulfberht’s Swords

Thousands of swords from Europe’s early Middle Ages have been recovered. Many of these are too corroded to show any detail but 19th Century archaeologists noticed that some had markings on the blades. Further investigation showed that many of these had the name Ulfberht on one side and geometric markings on the other.

Drawing by Norwegian archaeologists, published 1889.

The archaeologists believed that they had discovered the work of a master swordsmith and, since these swords were often found in Scandinavia, they were thought to be of Viking manufacture. A bit later, scholarship held that Ulfberht was a Frankish name. Later still, more rigorous dating showed that the swords were made over a period of two hundred and fifty years or more — from 850 – 1100 AD. Now the theorists held that Ulfberht was the medieval equivalent of a tradename, possibly the place where the swords were turned out. Ulfberht was the sign of quality — like Porsche, one archaeologist suggested.

An example from the Netherlands dated 950 – 1000.

Iron isn’t that easy to turn into a good finished tool or weapon. It must be heated to 1500° Celsius — difficult in Europe a thousand years ago — and that’s only the beginning. The molten iron must be cooled and worked and reheated, each time resulting in a slightly different composition of iron. The goal was steel: steel that was hard, but not brittle, steel that could strike a hard object and neither bend nor shatter, steel that could hold a sharp edge.

Bog iron isn’t that difficult to find in northern Europe and it can be melted to a stage where it can be worked, although it may only be the slag ingredients, not the iron, that is truly molten. Archaeologists do this kind of reconstruction all the time, locating bog iron and melting it and forming it a bit. Probably there were a lot of swords made this way. These were not great weapons and there are accounts of men straightening bent swords with their foot in the midst of a battle.

Somehow, at the end of the 8th Century, the Franks began turning out good swords, ones much easier to produce than the old pattern-welded blades. The Carolingian monarchs tried to forbid their export so that the weapons could not be used against Frankish troops but was unable to stop the traffic in arms.

Allen Williams has examined some forty-four Ulfberht swords and discovered that the earlier-made weapons were forged from fine crucible steel possibly from Persia or Afghanistan. In this process, iron was smelted in a sealed crucible and slowly allowed to cool. The resulting steel is of good quality with enough carbon content so that its melting point had lowered and it could be finished by local craftsman into excellent swords. Many Ulfberht swords have been found east of Frankia all the way into present-day Russia, possibly along Viking trade routes. But not all the Ulfberht swords are of good quality — many, especially the later-made weapons, are brittle and might shatter when struck by the real thing. Even so, some have very decorative hilts, finely worked with silver or other inlays, so they probably were made for wealthy customers. And they are still marked “Ulfberht”.

Imitation Ulfberht with silver wire worked into the hilt and pommel.

Mind you, the markings differ slightly. The original swords are marked “+VLFBERH+T” where the “+” is a cross. Later versions have the cross after the T, or two crosses, one quite fancy, on either side of the name. This is the equivalent of those “Rollex” watches that guys try to sell you from the trunk of their car.

An Ingelrii sword from the London Museum.

So far, only a dozen or so of forty-four examined Ulfberht swords are entirely of crucible steel, though some of the knock-offs are of pretty good quality and some have crucible steel edges. There were other swordmakers who signed their work — Ingelrii, Cerolt, and Ulen, for example — but only Ulfberht, whether he was a smith, a guy who owned a shop, or a patron of the swordmaker’s art, was famous enough to attract this kind of imitation, one of history’s great trademark thefts.


Anne Stalsberg, “The Vlfberht Sword Blades Re-evaluated”. A hundred and sixty-six Ulfberht blades are listed with geographic distribution and considerable speculation on just who Ulfberht might have been.

Alan Williams,”A Metallurgical Study of Some Viking Swords” (PDF). Williams’ paper shows the difference between original and knock-off Ulfberht swords. There are a lot of photos at the article’s end.

An Ulfberht auctioned by Christie’s. It realized more than $18000, even though it’s broken. Real or imitation? At this distance, it probably doesn’t affect the value.

A swordmaker looks at Ulfberht’s work. Here and here.

Hamelin’s Children

Everyone knows the story: Hamelin has rats, a pied piper calls the rats into the River Weser, the town won’t pay the piper, he calls all the town’s children (except one lame kid who can’t keep up) into a cave in a mountain, the cave entrance closes up and the town learns a lesson. That’s more or less the legend set to poetry by Robert Browning in the 19th Century and collected by the brothers Grimm in the 18th. The legend is based on something real that happened in 1284, but no one is certain what that was.

In 1300 the town of Hameln, Germany put up a stained glass window in the church to commemorate the loss of 130 children. That window disappeared around 1660 but not before some of its details were copied by a painter and its inscription noted by several people. The inscription reads:

In the year of 1284, on the 26th of June, the Day of St. John and St. Paul, 130 children, born in Hameln, were led out of town by a piper wearing all kinds of colors. After passing the Calvary near the Koppenberg they disappeared forever.

The taking of these children is also mentioned in several print sources including some of Hameln’s town records for 1384, “It is a hundred years since our children left.” So what happened in Hameln on June 26, 1284?

The first thing to note is that there are no rats mentioned. You can forget all those theories about bubonic plague, too, because the plague didn’t hit Hameln for another sixty years. “Children” does not necessarilly mean very young people, either. These were townspeople possibly young and unmarried but maybe in their teens — anyway, people of Hameln of indeterminate age.

Painting made 1592 by Augustin von Moersperg -- piper, children, cave, are those rats in the river?

What is the “Calvary near the Koppenberg”? Some translate “calvarie” as place of execution, i.e., the same as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. “Koppen” may mean “forest” and “berg” = “mountain”. There’s a lot of forested mountains about. One scholar suggests that “koppen” is slang for “head” and translates the line as “the jaws of Hell”. He says that the children were led up a nearby mountain and sacrificed in pagan ceremonies. This seems a little unlikely; 130 children being killed all at once isn’t so much a sacrifice as a massacre. The notion that a pedophile serial killer done it is not credible either.

A more likely thesis has it that people were led away by some kind of recruiter. The Children’s Crusade has been mentioned but that was in 1212. But there was another kind of recruiting going on in 13th Century Germany, that of settlers for land opening up in the east.

The Baltic coast of what is now Germany and Poland was once populated by Slavic tribes known collectively as Wends. These tribes were attacked by Franks, Danes, and each other. In 1168 the Danes finally subdued that last Wendish army and began to occupy the coastal area. By 1202, Denmark held a wide swath of territory from Holstein in south Jutland to Pomerania in north Poland. German princes pushed back and, in 1227, drove the Danes out of the region. Now this area was open to settlement and local rulers began recruiting people to come live there.

Jurgen Udolph noted that many place names in the newly opened Danish lands are German and reflect a Westphalian or Saxon origin:

Professor Udolph surmises that the children were actually unemployed youths who had been sucked into the German drive to colonize its new settlements in Eastern Europe. The Pied Piper may never have existed as such, but, says the professor, “There were characters known as Lokator who roamed northern Germany trying to recruit settlers for the East.” Some of them were brightly dressed, and all were silver-tongued.

Another version of this idea has been promoted by Hans Dobbertin who thinks that the new recruits were taken on board a ship that sank and all were drowned. Dobbertin believes that “koppen” refers to Kopahn, a town on the coast of north Poland.

Then there is Wolfgang Wann’s theory that the recruits went to Moravia rather than the Baltic, possibly to a place once named Hamelingow, now Olomouc in the Czech Republic. Family names from Hameln are found in Olomouc from the 13th Century on. Some versions of the legend have the children winding up in Transylvania which is not so very far off.

In the Hameln play, the piper charms the rats.

Whatever happened in 1284, Hameln is milking the old legend for as many tourist dollars as it can. There is a play, a musical (Rats, of course), and walking tours that include the Steet of No Music — the place where the children were last seen and no musical instruments (especially pipes!) may be played.


“The Lost Children of Hamelin” by Maria Cuervo is a good roundup of theories.
Browning’s poem
Grimm’s Legend

Good Books: Gisli’s Saga

If Hollywood ever decides to make a movie based on Icelandic saga, Gisla saga is the one they should pick. The saga is direct with a simple structure compared to other sagas. It follows one man’s life from his upbringing in Norway and move to Iceland, where he murders his chieftain, through his years of outlawry to his inevitable death at the hands of his enemies. Gisli is brave, indomitable, and doomed. But also, the saga is permeated with Sex: pre-, post-, and extra-marital sex, men who may like each other over much, and a whiff of incestuous feelings — Gisli’s Saga touches many bases. There is already an Icelandic movie about Gisli, Útlaginn Outlaw — but it isn’t available on DVD.

The oldest extant version of Gisli’s Saga, from about 1400.(Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik)

The saga begins, as most do, with the forebears of the main character. In this case, though, we only go back to Gisli’s father and uncles and only for one chapter. One of Gisli’s uncles, Ari, is killed by a berserk. Now the berserk means to take his farm. Ari’s widow goes to his brother, also named Gisli, and tells him that she would as soon be married to him as anyone and that one of her slaves has a famous sword, Greyflank, that will always kill. Gisli persuades the slave to loan him the sword and kills the berserk with it. The slave asks for the sword back but Gisli wants to keep it. They quarrel. Gisli kills the slave but is mortally wounded in the process. Greyflank is broken in two, but the pieces are saved.

Ari and Gisli have a surviving brother, Thorbjorn, who takes over the family property. He marries and has children: a daughter, Thordis, and sons, Thorkell, Gisli, and Ari. Ari is fostered to another family and plays no part in the saga until the very end. A man courts Thordis. She seems willing and her brother Thorkell is in favor of the match but her father doesn’t like him. Gisli takes his father’s part and kills the man. This is the first of several of Thordis’ suitors to be killed by Gisli and there is a suspicion that he may like her a bit too much. Gisli kills enough people so that the family is attacked in their home by men who try to burn them alive in the house. Gisli and his father dip cloth into barrels of whey — sur, sour in Old Norse — and put out the flames. They escape and go on to kill their attackers. After, Thorbjorn becomes known as Sur and Gisli and his siblings are Sursson and Surssdottir. To the reader, who knows that the family resides in Surnadale, it seems more probable that Sur derives from the placename than from whey, but perhaps the saga author is making a point about the souring of a family.

Around 950, Thorbjorn Sur and his wife and children leave Norway and travel to Iceland where Thorbjorn buys a holding in a small valley, Haukadal, off Dyrafjord in the far northwest of the country. Iceland is very much a frontier community at this time and the West Fjords are the most isolated area of the country. The family builds a farm, Saebol, and begin to prosper. Thorbjorn and his wife die and are howed in proper burial mounds.

Looking down the valley toward the fjord. The historical marker is near the site of Holl. (photo:Ólafur Ólafsson )

Thorkell marries a local girl, Asgerd; Gisli marries Aud, sister toVestein, Gisli’s good friend and son-in-law of the man who has sold Haukadal to the family — Asgerd and Aud have property of their own that they bring to the marriages. Thorgrim, an important goði, falls in love with Thordis and asks to marry her. This time, Gisli does not intervene. Thorgrim and Thordis move into Saebol and Gisli and Thorkell build another farm at Holl a few hundred meters away. Everyone seems to get on well. [goði, literally something like the “god-guy”, the chieftain responsible for sacrifices in his goðorð. Every free man in Iceland is required to give allegiance to a goði. Thorgrim is heir to the Thorsness goðorð, a famous and prestigious Assembly.]

Thorkell and Thorgrim fit out a ship to try a season trading. Vestein has trading connections and he and Gisli also set out sailing. On the way home Vestein has to go to England. Gisli makes his great friend swear that he will return to Iceland and not leave until Gisli gives him permission. Vestein swears. Gisli has a coin made from an ounce of silver then has the coin cut apart by a smith. He gives one half to Vestein. “If I send you a message, it will come with my half of the coin. Fit the two together and you will know that the message is from me.” They part.

Back in Iceland, Thorkell does little work around Holl. He is sleeping in, late in the morning, and overhears Aud, Gisli’s wife, and Asgerd, his own wife, chatting in the next room. Asgerd asks Aud for help cutting out a shirt for Thorkell. “You wouldn’t ask if the shirt was for Vestein,” says Aud, and Thorkell hears that his wife has had an affair with Vestein. “Anyway,” says Asgerd, “What about you, Aud, and your carrying-on with Thorgrim?” “That was before I was married,” says Aud, “There has been no one but Gisli since.” The implication is that Asgerd has slept with Vestein even after her marriage. Thorkell stalks out of the house and the women suddenly become aware that he has overheard them. “What will you do now?” Aud asks Asgerd. “Tonight, in bed, I will throw my arms around Thorkell’s neck and say it’s a lie and he will forgive me,” she says, “What will you do?” Aud says, “I will tell my  husband everything that is unsaid and whatever I can find no help for and leave it to him.” Continue reading

Grace O’Malley, Pirate

She was born Gráine Ní Mháille in 1530, anglicized now to Grace O’Malley, though Gráine and Grace are nothing like the same name. It is said that Grace cut off all her hair as a girl in order that she might disguise herself and ship out with her father. There are various tales about how this might have happened and how she became known as Gráine Mahol (Bald Gráine) or Granuaile. (There are many different versions of this woman’s name.) Her father was a clan chief of the Malleys or Mháille in what is now County Mayo in northwest Ireland. The O’Malley clan was a seafaring sept who built a string of fortresses along the coast. Their main income came from the tribute they demanded from local fisherman and merchants who passed through their waters and from shipping to the continent. Their overlord was a Bourke, descendant of an Anglo-Norman family that had taken the area in the 12th Century. By this time the Bourkes were completely Irish.

Statue of Grace O'Malley at Westport, County Mayo.

When Grace was sixteen, she was married to Dónal O’Flaherty — Dónal of Battles, as he is called — who stood to inherit much of what is now Connemara. Grace bore him three children, Owen, Margaret, and Murrough. Dónal was a particularly bellicose individual in a very battle-ridden time and place. He was killed in a struggle with the Joyce clan who seized his castle in Lough Corrib. Grace gathered his forces and took the castle back. Some time later, she moved to Clare Island in her own family holdings. Many O’Flahertys went with her.

Rockfleet Castle. Wedding prize?( via

Around 1566, Grace married a Bourke, Iron Richard as he is called, but some say she did so only to gain his castle at Rockfleet. The story is that she divorced him and kept the castle. On the other hand, the English saw them as married and apparently that is how Grace represented herself to them. The couple had one son, Tibbot. Iron Richard was “a plundering, warlike, unquiet, and rebellious man, who had often forced the gap of danger upon his enemies” according to his 1583 epitaph in the  Annals of the Four Masters, and it is a little hard to see him as the weak, hen-pecked husband that legend has him, but real-life characters do not get to write the script of their movies. Grace is not mentioned in the Annals.

Grace developed a shipping trade to Spain and other places on the continent and continued to squeeze the locals in the traditional O’Malley protection racket. The great harbor at Galway was a major shipping destination. Merchants were taxed for anchoring there and Grace saw no reason not to demand a share of this trade as well. This brought her into conflict with those who controlled the Galway traffic and Grace was involved with constant fighting. In the mid-Sixteenth Century Tudor subjugation of Ireland was under way but the northwest was far distant from the Dublin Pale where English power was concentrated. For a time, the O’Malleys of Mayo found other Irish clans to be their chief foes but this soon changed.

The castle on Clare Island. Home sweet home. (via

Around the time of Dónal’s death, members of the Irish Council in Dublin began complaining to their English overlords about the rampant piracy around Galway Bay. An English force attacked Grace in the castle at Lough Corrib that she had wrested from the Joyce clan and she defeated them. It is said that she stripped the lead from the castle roof and either poured it molten on the heads of the English or, more likely, molded it into bullets to kill them. This was the first clash between Grace O’Malley and the English.

By 1575, Grace and her husband, Iron Richard, could see which way the wind was blowing and began tending toward siding with the English. Richard in fact, could only take over as head of the Bourke clan under the new English rules of succession. By 1577, the couple came to agreement with the English. Soon after, Richard received a grant of nobility.

The Englishman in charge of Ireland at this time was Henry Sidney (father of Sir Philip Sidney), It is surprising to read in many accounts that he was an enlightened governor that wished to pacify Ireland through friendship rather than war since the Irish accounts of his administration recount hangings, slaughter, and treachery as commonplace in his term of office. Sidney met Grace in 1577:

There came to me also a most famous femynyne sea captain, called Granuge I’Mally, and offered her services unto me wheresoever I would command her, with three galleys and two hundred fighting men. She brought with her her husband, for she was as well by sea as by land more than master’s-mate with him. He was of the nether Burkes, and called by nickname Richard in Iron. This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.

So Henry Sidney judged Grace the more important of the couple. Philip, a very young man, had met Grace the year before and recommended her to his father. Grace may have smiled for the English but she turned a different face toward her old Irish enemies. Soon after her meeting with Sidney, she attacked the Desmonds, who were allied with the English. This time the English army prevailed and Grace was imprisoned for eighteen months. Justice Drury said of her that she was “a woman who had impudently passed the part of womanhood and been a great spoiler and commander and chief director of thieves and murderers at sea…” But he also noted that Grace was “famous for stoutness of courage and person”. Grace emerged from prison and rejoined her husband in time for his knighting and accession to power. But Richard died only a few years after becoming a noble and things took quite a turn for the pirate queen.

Sir Richard Bingham. Boo! Hiss! (via Wikipedia)

Grace called herself Lady Bourke and assumed control of her late husband’s clan. A new governor, Sir Richard Bingham, came into Ireland. His strategy was to destroy Irish resistance by wasting the country, reducing the clans to starvation, and replacing them with English lords. Such was a policy advocated by many of the English such as Edmund Spenser. Bingham thought Grace the “nurse of all rebellions” and attempted her destruction. He murdered her son Owen and seized his lands; he made an ally of Grace’s son Murrough, which caused Grace to battle him; he executed her step-sons; he drove Grace from her own lands and took or destroyed all her crops and cattle; he kidnapped her son Tibbot and imprisoned him. At one point, Bingham captured Grace herself and proceeded to build the gallows on which he meant to hang her but her son-in-law, husband to her daughter Margaret, offered himself as a hostage and Grace was freed. She fled north and began battling the English; Bingham turned south and destroyed her ships. Now Grace was truly destitute.

Grace O’Malley came up with an ingenious scheme: in 1593 she wrote to Queen Elizabeth I, asking for a meeting, then some while later, slipped away from Ireland and made her way to London, belly of the beast of the day. Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil, Lord Burghley, had been studying Ireland for twenty years (he advocated a policy of English rule over all the territory of Britain and Ireland) and was fascinated to meet the now legendary pirate queen. Meanwhile, Bingham’s indignant missives to Court were ignored or shifted from the Queen’s notice. Burghley gave Grace a questionnaire, asking about her marriages, her employment (Grace said she was but a simple farmer), and so on. This must have been done through a translator since Grace spoke little or no English. Finally, after confiscating her dagger, Grace O’Malley was given an audience with Elizabeth the Great around 1599.

Meeting with Queen Elizabeth. Undated picture but probably 18th Century. (via Wikipedia)

The two met cordially enough and conversed in Latin, the only language they had in common. The childless Elizabeth seemed very interested in Grace’s relations with her sons and particularly the war she had with Murrough. They parted and Elizabeth wrote Bingham to “have pity for the poor aged woman”. Grace was only three years older than the Queen. Soon after returning to Ireland, she took up her old ways and began attacking ships off of Galway Bay. One of the last mentions of Grace O’Malley is a note by an English captain who managed to overcome a vessel “that belongs to Grany O’Malley”. She was 71 at the time. It is thought that Grace O’Malley died in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth I.

Subsequent generations have rediscovered Grace O’Malley and written plays, novels, songs, and poetry about her. Anne Chambers, Irish historian, wrote Grace O’Malley’s sole biography in 1979 (new edition 2009). It was Chambers who discovered Burghley’s questionnaire among the English State Papers and her book is the single essential source on Granuaile, Ireland’s Pirate Queen.

Grace meets the Queen in a recent drama. Astonishing how well-preserved she is for a 67-year-old woman.

Dolmen Chapel: A Repurposed Holy Place

Portugal is the site of many ancient dolmens constructed thousands of years ago. Dolmens — called anta in Portugal — are stone structures built by Neolithic peoples undergoing a megalithic phase. The  best-known megaliths include Stonehenge, but structures made of stone slabs occur all over the world and have been erected in historic times by some peoples.

The anta at tapadao, possibly the largest in Portugal. The entrance is low and worshippers would have to crawl inside. (via

The Portugese anta are dolmens of the type known as passage tombs, although not all of them may have served a burial function. In fact, no one knows exactly what the purpose of these structures were and they may have served different roles in different places at different times.

The chapel of St.Denis at Pavia. (photo: John Sakura)

The chapel of St. Denis in Pavia is one of many anta that were converted for Christian use. This one was made into a chapel in 1625. Here is a late example of the practice of Christian missions in Europe repurposing an ancient holy place. Pope Gregory the Great explicitly lays out this policy in a letter of 601 AD  recorded by the venerable Bede in his History of the English Church and People:

…we have been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English, and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars to be set up in them, and relics deposited there. (Bede’s History, translation by Leo Shereley-Price)

This is pretty much a reversal of an earlier letter of Gregory’s (also recorded by Bede) in which he tells King Ethelbert to “suppress the worship of idols and destroy their shrines”. But, upon careful thought, Gregory has determined that it is best to have the people worship at their customary places.

They are no longer to sacrifice beasts to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the praise of God, and give thanks to the Giver of all gifts for the plenty they enjoy. If the people are allowed some wordly pleasures in this way, they more readily come to desire the joys of the spirit. For it is certainly impossible to eradicate all errors from obstinate minds at one stroke, and whoever wishes to climb to a mountain top climbs gradually step by step, and not in one leap.

Interior of the chapel. (photo: John Sakura)

So, a thousand years after Gregory’s letter, the chapel at Pavia became one more step toward the mountain top.

Note: good photos of the chapel may be found here.