23rd April 2014 will be the thousand-year anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf.
Many Scandinavians decided to settle in the lands they originally raided. They set up coastal cities and towns in Ireland in places like Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The initial setting up of these kingdoms was done in a warlike fashion, as they subjugated the original inhabitants but once the kingdoms were set up the new arrivals were quite happy to trade with the Irish inland kingdoms. Often they went to war but the Irish kingdoms (and pretty much every other European kingdom at the time) fought each other perpetually so the Viking raids were normal. Monasteries were attacked by the Vikings for plunder but monasteries were also attacked by the Irish on a much more frequent basis and were occasionally burned down by the armed forces of other monasteries. So Ireland was not in the thrall of the Vikings. The danger caused by the Dublin Vikings had been crushed thirty-four years before the Battle of Clontarf by the High King Mael Sechnaill in the Battle of Tara. Many of the Vikings had in fact learned to speak Irish and are more correctly referred to as Hiberno-Norse.
At the time Ireland was not a single state and was divided up into a number of kingdoms. Brian Boru came from a small tribe called the Dalcassians. These had a power base around Clare and through good alliances and tactics came to assume a dominant position in Connaught and Munster by controlling the city of Limerick (a Viking town) and controlling the southern reaches of the Shannon River. In the year 1002 AD Brian Boru outmanoeuvred the King of Meath, Mael Sechnaill, who was abandoned by his Ulster allies, and forced him to acknowledge Brian as High King instead of himself.
Brian Boru now set about consolidating his reign. He fought an inconclusive campaign in Ulster (the northern part of Ireland) that saw him use a navy extensively and he had earlier made an important dynastic marriage to the King of Leinster’s sister, Gormflaith and married his daughter, Slani to the king of Dublin Sitric Silkbeard. To complicate matters Gormflaith was also Sitric’s mother.
According to our sources a dispute arose between Brian and the King of Leinster, Mael Morda – Gormflaith’s brother. Gormflaith had divorced Brian Boru and now was one of his enemies as well as the mother of one of his sons. Attempts to resolve the dispute failed and Brian mustered his armies. The forces of Munster and Connaught rallied to his call along with the Limerick Vikings. The armies of Meath under the previous High King (who understandably held a grudge against Brian) arrived but stayed firmly under the control of their own commander. The Ulster kings refused the summons.
Mael Morda, King of Leinster, rallied his own armies and the armies of his Dublin allies but they did not have sufficient troops to face the High King. So they sent a summons abroad desperately looking for troops. To sweeten the deal Sitric and Mael Morda offered the hand of Gormflaith in marriage to any kings or lords who answered the call. Mercenaries and Viking adventurers from abroad gathered at Dublin on Easter Sunday including the renowned Earl Sigurd of the Orkney Islands. Earl Sigurd’s forces were strengthened by the arrival of Icelandic outlaws and they held a supposedly magic banner of a raven that reputedly gave victory to any army that would carry it. Two mercenary Viking brothers, Brodir and Ospak and their armies were also hired from the Isle of Man. The story goes that Brodir had converted to Christianity but had recently reconverted to paganism, whereas his brother Ospak was a pagan shaman.
Brian’s armies advanced on Dublin, which was an urban centre and had to be held, whereas an attack the province of Leinster would have had no target that would force the enemy to fight. The armies of Munster and Connaught burned Howth and were within striking distance of Dublin but the mercenary reinforcements for the city had begun to arrive and Brian no longer had superiority. To make matters worse, Mael Sechnaill, the disgruntled ex-High King had withdrawn his sizeable forces from the camp and refused to fight. Without the reinforcements from Ulster the armies of the High King looked to be in trouble.
But at the last minute it appears that Ospak, the pagan shaman, abandoned his brother and his cause, converted to Christianity and brought his troops over to Brian’s side. The armies of Breifne (a kingdom that was roughly centred in the west of Cavan) arrived on the eve of battle and, according to some Irish sources; they brought with them a magic banner of their own that Brian's armies hoped would defeat the banner of the Orkneys.
Both armies now had around seven thousand men each, heavily armed, but under commanders with extremely varying motivations. The armies of Leinster, Dublin and the Orkneys advanced against the High King’s forces on Good Friday on the 23rd of April in the year 1014.
On the 23rd of April in the year 1014 the Battle of Clontarf took place. Most of the Leinster and Dublin troops left from the city of Dublin and marched north a few miles to cross the Tolka River and join their Viking allies near Clontarf. This was presumably very near Brian’s camp and Brian’s army mustered for battle. Brian himself, who was very old, watched the battle from his camp. Tradition states that, as it was a holy day, that he spent time praying in his tent.
The Scandinavian troops were better equipped than the Irish soldiers. The Irish source “The War of the Irish and the and Foreigners” (also known as the Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib in Irish) describes the armies opposing Brian as having “…triple-plated, heavy, stout corslets of double refined iron, and of cool, uncorroding brass, for the protection of their bodies, and skin, and skulls, from sharp terrible arms and from all sorts of fearful weapons.” (This is a very old translation by the way) By contrast the forces of Brian Boru are complimented on their tunics and their shields, suggesting that they generally lacked the body armour of the soldiers from the Orkneys and elsewhere. There was extremely heavy fighting in the centre of the field. Brian’s son and heir Murchad died fighting in the centre of the line, as did the King of Leinster, Mael Morda.
You may have wondered what happened to the magic flags? Which would prevail: Orkney or Cavan? Well according to the "War of the Irish and the Foreigners", the O’ Rourke contingent from Breifne suffered severe casualties and only around a hundred of them survived from a contingent that may have originally numbered near a thousand, however, the survivors had killed the chieftains of the forces that opposed them and these troops were merged with Brian’s Dalcassians, with the flag of Breifne the only of their standards that still flew.
At first the Vikings of Orkney were very successful and their heavier armour allowed them to smash into the armies of the High King, however, the prophecy about the raven flag was not simply that the army that carried it would win but also that whoever bore the flag would perish. Earl Sigurd was a tested military leader but he was a deeply unpopular man among his own people, probably because he imposed very high taxes on his people but also possibly because he had acquiesced in the forced conversion of the Orkneys to Christianity by King Olaf I of Norway (also known as Olaf Tryggvason). So, as man after man was cut down bearing the raven flag, eventually his own troops refused to carry the standard. According to the sagas, he attempted to force Icelandic outlaws who did not know the flags reputation to carry it but his own troops warned the outlaws that the flag was death. With his standard foundered and the battle hanging in the balance, Earl Sigurd took the flag and was almost immediately killed. With the flag abandoned and their leader dead the Orkney Vikings began to crumble and, as the day wore on, the tide of battle turned towards the High King’s forces.
It is unclear what the King of Dublin, Sitric Silkbeard., was doing. Some sources place him in Dublin, while others have him fighting in the fray. We do know at some point that Sitric abandoned the battle. At a late stage in the battle Mael Sechnaill of Meath either had a change of heart or decided to join the winning side and decided to attack the failing Leinster armies. The armies of Dublin and Leinster broke and fled. The battle had lasted for the better part of the day and had seen high casualties but in antiquity, most casualties were inflicted upon a defeated army when they were in flight so it was vital for the defeated to escape quickly before they were annihilated.
The Manx and Orkney Vikings presumably tried to flee to their longships but these had been left too near the scene of the battle to be safe from pursuers and the rising tide may put some ships out of reach, so the defeated fled southwards towards Dublin. But the Meath armies had taken the crossings and the shallow Tolka river, which had been in low tide when the armies had marched out in the morning was now at full tide, leaving the defeated armies to either be killed on the riverbanks or drown under the weight of their own armour. It seems that some foreign mercenaries may have been shown mercy but by and large the victors took few prisoners.
In the confusion of the aftermath of battle, the Manx Viking (probably Viking; it’s hard to be sure) mercenary, the apostate Brodir roamed around the battlefield. Most of Brian’s forces had left the field in pursuit and Brodir, with a small guard, broke into Brian Boru’s camp. Finding the aged high king in his tent Brodir killed him with an axe blow to the head and immediately tried to proclaim the news and reverse the battle, but it was too late. Brian’s forces had won even though their leader was dead. If one wants to read the account of the battle in the Icelandic text Njal’s Saga one can read the gruesome description of the end that Brodir was allegedly put to once Brian’s forces returned to camp and captured him.
While, technically, it was a victory for Brian Boru, in actual fact the losses were pretty destructive. It’s extremely difficult to get real figures for the battle but some estimates put the forces for both sides at around seven thousand men each. The losing Dublin, Leinster and Viking forces lost around six thousand men, nearly their entire army, as well as the leaders of their Manx, Orkney and Leinster forces. The winning side had lost over half their force, with around four thousand dead, as well as their king and his heir. Even allowing for slightly inaccurate figures, that puts the winning side’s losses as proportionally far higher than Allied casualties in the Battle of the Somme and possibly higher absolute casualties than the Battle of Hastings, making it a costly victory indeed.
In the aftermath of the battle, Mael Sechnaill of Meath took back the title of High King and ruled successfully from Meath. Sitric Silkbeard. survived into old age and built the original Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Brian Boru’s dynasty survived and eventually retook the High Kingship but never controlled all of Ireland and never had a leader as successful as Brian Boru. The Viking kingdoms in the Orkneys and the Isle of Man survived but after 1066 when the Normans conquered England and set up a powerful state, the old Viking kingdoms declined. Ireland remained in a state of disunity and was eventually invaded by the Normans over a century after the Battle of Clontarf.
There are four sources about the battle. Firstly there is a long document called the War between the Irish and Foreigners, which was probably written by Brian’s descendants with all the biases that this entails. Then there is the Icelandic saga about the Burning of Njal (Njal's Saga) that describes the battle and favours Brian, referring to him as “good King Brian” and describing him as a saint. Then there are the sagas of the Earls of Orkney, which contain a brief entry describing the battle in fairly neutral terms. Then there are the annals of the Irish monasteries that also contain records. None of these are particularly good sources per se, as they are either blatant propaganda or written about other subjects (or both) but this is history and we have to deal with the sources we have.
One thing that I think is clear is that the tale taught in Irish primary schools, that Brian Boru threw the Vikings out of Ireland, is not really useful in understanding events. The man who threw the Vikings out of Ireland was relying on the Vikings of Limerick in his own army and the Viking Ospak from the Isle of Man. The “Viking” army was led by the Irish king of Leinster with a large Irish army and the Irish army of Meath only joined when the battle was nearly won (and the Irish Ulster armies didn’t bother showing.) A simple “us vs. them” scenario is simply not accurate.
I think we may have bought into this legend because of later history, which can be seen as a struggle of Irish against foreign invaders (although that’s not an uncontested version by any means). The propaganda work written by Brian’s descendants also contains a lot of references to this theme but when you consider that (like most of our sources for the battle) it was written possibly a century after the events and was written by people trying to bring all of Ireland under their rule, you have to take this account with a grain of salt and scepticism. The fact that the Icelandic source Njal’s Saga rejoices so wholeheartedly over the outcome of the Battle of Clontarf (probably because the Orkney Vikings were not liked) shows that a simple traditional interpretation is probably wrong.
The real motivations of the protagonists will never be known. Pride, status, dynastic marriage or advancement are all possible motivations for the players. But there is an intriguing entry in the Annals of Ulster (a monastic record) for the Battle of Clontarf (taken from a translation posted on Cork University website). It reads…
“Of the Irish moreover there fell in the counter-shock Brian son of Ceinnétig (Brian Boru), over-king of the Irish of Ireland, and of the foreigners and of the Britons, the Augustus of the whole of north-west Europe, and his son Murchad, and the latter's son, i.e. Tairdelbach son of Murchad,…”
The title given to him (Augustus of the whole of north-west Europe) is quite extraordinary and, although Celtic Studies scholars might correct me, seems to be unprecedented in the annals. This might suggest that those around Brian Boru and possibly Brian Boru himself, believed himself to be more than a High King but to be the founder of a real kingdom, an empire, that would control all of Ireland and possibly beyond. In and around 1000 AD Europe was undergoing a revival, there was a new Pope in Rome who was trying to reform the church, a new kingdom had been founded in Hungary. Rulers such as King Olaf Tryggvason in Norway or King Sweyn Forkbeard in Denmark were solidifying their kingdoms or forging empires abroad, while Hugh Capet in France and Otto III in Germany were strengthening their dynasties.
It is a possibility that Brian Boru had caught this European vision of state-building, of a unified monarchy of a country that transcended the minor rivalries of the tribe and clan. So the Battle of Clontarf was a terrible defeat for Brian's vision, as his son and grandson passed away and his armies were too depleted to carry on his plans after his death. In this scenario, Mael Morda of Leinster could be seen as fighting for the traditional rights of the independence of the small kingdoms. This interpretation probably stretches beyond what was actually thought back then but, as stated earlier, we can never really tell these things conclusively.
The names used throughout the text are somewhat arbitrary. Some of the common variants of the names are given here in case anyone is interested.