From the Digital Innovation Lab of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
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In 841 the Norse began to form permanent settlements on the east coast of Ireland. The creation of bases where they could spend the winter gave them greater range and flexibility in their attacks, for they could now access any part of the British Isles during raiding season. Ironically, this also made it easier for their victims to retaliate, for their entire community was now also within reach. The most famous and important of these new settlements was at Dublin.
The Norse attacked southern Britain in 841 and by 851 they were spending the winter in parts of England. Continued Viking assaults across the British Isles brought about social turmoil and an almost complete reconfiguration of political structures. The kingdom of Northumbria collapsed in the chaotic conditions of the ninth century and the Picts of the far north seem to have been completely overrun and conquered by Norse invaders.
In the mid-9th century the Norse were also colonizing the southern Hebrides, displacing Gaelic communities and effectively shutting down the kingdom of Dál Riata. The impact of Viking activity is visible in many spheres: previous settlement and social patterns in the Irish Sea region were disrupted, old fortified royal sites abandoned, and there was a decline in élite art and patronage in the 9th and 10th centuries. The inland Pictish kingdom of Fortriu was exceptional in being relatively unscathed by Viking aggression.
The Norse were not, themselves, a unified, homogenous society, and internal divisions began to appear. Some 160 warships were sent to impose Danish rule on the Norse in Ireland in 849. In 851 the Danes (called in Gaelic Danair or Dub-Gaill “Black-foreigners”) attacked the Norse settlements of Dublin and Linns.
In 853 a three-day battle between Danes and Norse happened in Carlingford Lough. At about this time, Oláfr (Gaelicized as Amlaib), the son of the king of Laithlind arrived in Ireland, and all of the Norse seem to have submitted to him as overlord. He took control of Dublin and established an alliance with the Norse leader Ivarr.
This Ivarr (Gaelicized as Ímar, † 873) established the first Norse dynasty to dominate the Irish sea province; this ruling kindred, the Uí Ímair, formed a loose federation of lordships from the late-ninth century and into the early tenth century which included the Outer Hebrides, Islay, the coast of Antrim, the Rhinns of Galloway, the Isle of Man, and Dublin.
Now starting to “settle down,” the Norse began to be drawn into Gaelic affairs. By 859 the Gaels began to use Norse forces as allies or mercenaries, as when king Cerball mac Dúnlainge of Ossery used Norse warriors in his struggles against the southern Uí Néill.
The Norse of Dublin seem to have been riven by internal conflict in 893, for reportedly half of the inhabitants sided with the sons of Ivarr and left for a year. These problems seem to have weakened the colony enough for the Irish to retake Dublin in 902 and drive the Norse out. This must have made other Norse settlements in Ireland feel insecure about their positions, for many others joined them. They scattered over northwest England and southwest Scotland; the evidence demonstrates that there were many Gaels amongst them and that their dialect of Norse had been influenced by contact with Gaelic.
Ivarr’s dynasty (the Uí Ímair of Dublin) re-established their dominance in a naval battle in 914 near the isle of Man, defeating the Vikings of Waterford (Ireland).
In 917, Sitriuc, the grandson of Ivarr, retook Dublin with a large host and built a new and larger settlement, demonstrating a well-crafted urban plan not modeled on Scandinavian styles. The new Norse city of Dublin became the hub of a wide-ranging Norse trade network connecting the European continent to the Northern Isles. Relations between Gael and Gall became much easier as the Norse converted to Christianity during the 10th century; when Godfrith, grandson of Ivarr, attacked Armagh in 921, he spared the holy men and sacred buildings.
Even the ambitious Norse-descended leaders needed the approval of their Gaelic peers: Óláfr Sigtryggsson (†981, Amlaib Cuarán in Gaelic), the king of Norse Dublin, married Gormlaith, the daughter of the king of Leinster and his daughters had Gaelic names. He was rewarded a poet for a Gaelic eulogy sometime between 945 and 980 and was a supporter of the Columban church. When he died in 981, he was buried in Iona. The Gaelic language enjoyed a resurgence by the eleventh century as the descendants of the Norse assimilated to Gaelic linguistic and cultural norms.
What do the following texts say about the identity of the Norse (and Celts) at different time points? What cultural perceptions, and social and political processes, do these indicate?
Merfyn Frych (reigned c.825-44) founded a second powerful dynasty in the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd (besides that of Cunedda) at a time when Wales was externally threatened by the power of Mercia and internally divided by rivalries within the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys.
Although little is known of his reign, his son Rhodri Mawr began his rule in Gwynedd upon his father’s death in 844, inherited rule of Powys from his mother in 855 and married into control of the further territories of Seisyllwg in 872. This gave him power over half of Wales, earning him the epithet Mawr “Great.”
Rhodri fought against Vikings in battles in 854, 856 and 876, but was forced into exile in Ireland in the last case. He returned to Wales after a year and was killed in battle against Anglo-Saxons in 878.
Although his son Anarawd inherited the kingdom of Gwynedd, he was not able to recreate his father’s degree of success. Anarawd’s nephew Hywel (c.880-950, the grandson of Rhodri Mawr), on the other hand, ruled nearly all of Wales during his reign and is referred to as “King of the Britons” by the Annales Cambriae and the Annals of Ulster.
He came to the throne of Dyfed through his marriage to the heir at some unknown date; he inherited the throne of Seisyllwg in 911, ruling jointly with his brother Clydog until the latter died in 920. He created the kingdom of Deheubarth by uniting these two smaller kingdoms.
In 928 Hywel became the first Welsh ruler to set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. After returning, he paid a visit to the court of King Æthelstan of Wessex, allowing himself to submit to the English king. This enabled his Welsh kingdoms to enjoy a period of peace with the English; Hywel visited the court from time to time; common accomplishments suggest that they may have shared ideas or at least been under common influences.
Hywel became known as Hywel Dda “the Good” because of his creation of a law code, commonly known in English as “The Laws of Hywel Dda,” which provided an effective cultural glue for Wales for some six centuries; this was a particularly important feature in a society which lacked a centralized political authority.
Had the diverse systems of law which existed within the tribal society of the time been allowed to haemorrhage away in the tenth century, rather than being deliberately brought together to form a well-regarded legal repertoire, Wales would have been greatly impoverished and its future could conceivably have been very different. At a time when political and administrative unity was at a premium, the Welsh laws symbolized the otherness of Wales and provided a robust, Welsh- language jurisprudential substructure of government. (Jenkins, A Concise History)
Hywel was also the first Welsh king to mint his own coins.
Hywel’s cousin Idwal Foel, king of Gwynedd, rebelled against English overlordship in 942 and both Idwal and his brother were killed in battle. Rather than allow Idwal’s sons to inherit the throne, Hywel took Gwynedd (as well as Powys, which then recognized the overlordship of Gwynedd) for himself.
The peace and unity of Hywel’s reign was broken by his death in 950: Wales once again fragmented into a number of rival kingdoms and rulers, and over the next 113 years some 35 rulers of kingdoms within Wales died, largely due to the machinations of their Welsh peers.
The greatest Welsh leader to emerge in this period was Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (c.1007-1063x4), the great-great-grandson of Hywel Dda and the son of the king of Gwynedd and Powys. Gruffydd seized control of his father’s kingdoms from its ruler, Iago ab Idwal, in 1039 and demonstrated a dogged resolution to remain free of English overlords. Shortly thereafter he defeated a Mercian army in a surprise attack at Battle of Rhyd y Groes and then went on to harass the neighbouring kingdom of Deheubarth. In 1055 he killed its leader, Gruffudd ap Rhydderch and took control of Deheubarth for himself. Soon thereafter he reclaimed Welsh territory east of Offa’s Dyke, and took over Morgannwg.
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was the first and only native ruler to unite Wales. Having done so by deposing rival princes and even a bishop made him many enemies, however. He was assassinated in 1063, probably by the son of a king he had killed. His sons were too young to inherit his rule and Wales was left fragmented and vulnerable at a crucial time in its formation.
Although Vikings did not go inland to raid in Wales often and did not form any large settlements there, they did plunder coastal targets there as elsewhere. In 987 they abducted 2,000 people from Anglesey and sold them as slaves, which drew particular disgust from churchmen. Vikings raided the cathedral of St David’s four times that decade, and the bishop there was killed by them in 999.
There is little to say about the history of Cornwall in this period and it is not cheery. In 875, the last recorded king of Cornwall was drowned, possibly by Vikings who had been spending their winters in Dyfed and Devon. In 936 King Æthelstan of Wessex fixed the border between Wessex and Cornwall at the River Tamar.
What does the poem Armes Prydein say about the “cultural memory” of the Britons and their claim to the territory of Britain in the fact of Anglo-Saxon conquests? How are the Anglo-Saxons represented? Who are called to join the “Celtic coalition”? How does the poet reassure his audience that victory is certain?
Irish leaders defeated the Norse of Dublin in 980 and 1014, ensuring that the settlement would not threaten the Gaelic community as it had in the past. Rather than seeing Norse Dublin as an alien outpost which had to be reclaimed and cleared, the Irish came to an accommodation with the Gaelicized Norse living there, seeing them as generating important wealth that could be brought into the rest of Ireland.
Sitriuc of Dublin (r.989-1036) minted the first coins used in Ireland, basing them on English pennies. The design of the coins incorporates a Christian cross.
Nonetheless, polarization between native and alien invader – Gaedhal and Gall, in Gaelic terms – was a pattern well established by the Viking experience and further entrenched by literature. One of the classic texts that perpetuated this simplistic opposition was Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib “The War of the Gaels with the Foreigners,” which represented Brian Bóraime (aka “ Brian Ború”) of Munster as a liberator of the Irish from Viking oppression at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, driving them once and for all out of Ireland.
In reality, Brian was married to a Norse princess of Dublin whose son was Sitriuc (mentioned above). There were Gaels and Norsemen on both sides of the battle: Brian’s forces included the Norse of Limerick, while his enemies were the Norse of Dublin and the Gaels of Leinster. Brian and his family paid dearly for his involvement in the Battle of Clontarf: not only did Brian himself die, but his family was nearly wiped out. His descendants (named the “Uí Briain” after him) barely managed to their retain power in Munster after his death.
His rival, Maél Sechnaill of the southern Uí Néill, was then able rose to power as the most powerful king in Ireland until 1022. The text of Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib “The War of the Gaels with the Foreigners,” written a century after the Battle of Clontarf was a piece of political propaganda which was used to bolster the Uí Briain’s later efforts to gain the High Kingship of Ireland by drawing an inspirational, and creative, account of their efforts on behalf of the Gaelic nation.
Brian’s rise to power was also more prosaic than the later literature might allow, but is indicative of the changing nature of politics and military might during this era: he used his army to make war on rivals and force them to surrender hostages. He even took hostages from monasteries to secure their cooperation.
How does Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib “The War of the Gaels with the Foreigners” §34-109 represent the sides fighting the Battle of Clontarf?
The kings of Gaelic Dál Riata and Pictish Fortriu joined forces in a massive battle against the Vikings in 839. They and their followers were defeated by the Norse and slaughtered in great numbers. Dál Riata was effectively overwhelmed by the Vikings and Gaelic refugees likely fled west into Ireland and east into Pictland.
Cináed mac Ailpín (aka “Kenneth MacAlpine” in English) seized the Pictish kingship c. 848. Cináed transferred holy relics associated with Columba from Iona to Dunkeld, an ancient stronghold of the Picts; this act confirmed his territorial claims to Pictland and his commitment to the Columban church. Cináed chose as his royal palace Forteviot, a location with the most impressive landscape of prehistoric monuments in eastern Scotland. This further signified his control of locations symbolic of Pictish sovereignty and his desire to be associated with the deep past of Pictland.
Important shifts in political power, dynastic pretensions and cultural perceptions are visible in the records of the ninth and tenth centuries: Pictish leaders and scholars had been assimilating to Gaelic language and culture, even as they dominated Gaelic communities politically.
Domnall mac Custantín (r. 889–900) was the first king described with the Gaelic title Rí Alban. The use of Alba, the older name for the island of Britain which had been preserved in the Goidelic languages, signified his aspirations to claim a large territory, indicated that he (and his dynasty) had relinquished exclusive identification with the Picts, and signals the ascendancy of Gaelic language and culture. The population of this kingdom were accordingly referred to in contemporary Gaelic sources as Albanaig or fir Alban:
Presumably the Gaelic-speakers of ‘Scotland proper’ in the tenth century were the first people to think of themselves as ‘Scots’ in any way ancestral to today’s sense. (Broun, “Defining Scotland”)
Folkloric elements took the place of factual details as the Picts were Gaelicized and receded into the historical horizon. The Irish tale Braflang Scóine records that Cináed mac Ailpín slaughtered the Pictish nobility during a banquet to which he invited them, but this is a retelling of a legend first recorded by Herodotus in the fifth century BCE and reused in many later stories about peoples who were conquered and assimilated. Later legends make them out to be brewers of heather ale, or small and secretive people, which again are folklore motifs commonly attached to the dim recollections of vanished peoples.
The terms for the territory claimed by the dynasty of Cináed mac Ailpín were changing during this era as well. Since the term Scot(t)i was used for Gaelic speakers in Latin texts, the term Scotia refers to the territory associated with them. In Latin texts written in the early middle ages, “Scotia” refers to the island of Ireland. The first surviving example of “Scotia” being used to refer to the north of Britain occurs in the entry for the year 934 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A notice of the death of King Mael Coluim written c.1059 (although the king actually died in 1034) in Latin described him as rex Scotiae. This marks a growing trend to associate the territory known in Gaelic as Alba with the term Scotia in Latin and “Scotland” in English.
The Gaelicized dynasty of Cináed mac Ailpín was secure in former Pictish territories, but the Norse were settling the Gaelic territories of the west coast and Hebrides by the middle of the ninth century. Most Scottish areas had a less dense population than Ireland and so the relative impact of the Vikings was greater: Norse settlement was heavy enough in the Northern Isles to replace Pictish; much of the Western Isles and west of Scotland, on the other hand, seems to have retained at least some Gaelic population. Even so, the Outer Hebrides was renamed Innse Gall “the Isles of Foreigners” due to the dominance of the Norse there. Regardless, those who settled in the Irish Sea region soon began to intermarry with Gaels and exchange fosterlings, creating a hybrid Gaelic-Norse culture described by the term Gall-Ghàidheal “foreign Gael.”
Ironically, it is these “foreign Gaels,” who had become linguistically and culturally Gaelicized, who brought the Gaelic language to many margins of Scotland in the 10th century and thereafter, including Galloway (named after the Gall-Ghàidheal), the Hebrides, and the western Highlands. Although the kings of Norway claimed the Western Isles (until 1263, and the Northern Isles until 1468-9) for themselves, these islands were effectively within the cultural and political orbit of the Gaelic world.
In 845 Nomenoe rebelled against King Charles the Bald of West Francia (the son of Louis) and defeated him at the Battle of Ballon as he was attempting to enter into Brittany. Nomenoe also demonstrated his independence within Brittany by ejecting the bishops of five dioceses in 849 and replacing them with his own candidates. He died in 851 after leaving a lasting impression mark on Breton history and culture. His descendants Erispoë and Solomon successfully fought the Carolingians (notably at Jengland, 851) and forced them to recognize Brittany as an independent kingdom, which they did in 863.
The Vikings created problems for the Bretons, as they did for other peoples. The Vikings attacked Nantes in 843 and began to settle around the margins of Brittany; they defeated Nomenoe in battle in 847. When Viking leader Rollo became the vassal of king of the West Franks in 911, the province of Normandy – directly to the north and east of Brittany – was formally granted to him as a fiefdom. The name “Normandy” reflects the dominance of the Norsemen in that region.
Having the advantage of a land-base, the Norse overran Brittany in 919 and established a Norse capital at Nantes in 921. It was probably these invasions that sent Breton leader Alain II “Barbetorte” into exile in England. He returned to Brittany at Dol in 936 and spent the next three years expelling the Norse from Brittany. Even though he was Duke of Brittany until his death in 952, he was unable to effectively unite the Breton nobility.
In the 10th and 11th centuries the duchy of Brittany was contested by the counts of Nantes and Cornouaille on the one hand and those of Rennes on the other. At the same time, Brittany was drawn into the politics of the powerful neighboring principalities of Normandy, Anjou, and Blois. It was subject to Norman and Frankish cultural influence, especially as the dukes and other nobility were marrying into and becoming allied with Norman and Frankish families.