Battle of Clontarf: Brian Boru Defeats Rebels, Loses His Life
from www.irelandstory.com After his father died in 951, Brian’s brother Mahon became king of the Dal Cais. By the year 967, the Annals of Ulster refer to Mahon as the king of Munster. For the next decade, the Dal Cais vied with the O’Neils, the Eugenians and the Vikings of nearby Limerick for power and prestige among the Irish tribes. In 976, Mahon was lured to a meeting with his Eugenian rivals in hopes of reconciliation after a period of armed conflict. Mahon was captured and killed, apparently with the connivance of the Norse-Irish of Limerick. Brian was then declared lord of the Dal Cais and king of Munster. Brian then sought vengeance on the Eugenians and the Norse-Irish of Limerick. The Irish annals tell a particularly bloody story of how he killed Ivar of Limerick, the Viking ruler, in a monastery where he had sought sanctuary. Later, using river and naval forces to perfection, Brian brought the provinces of Munster and Leinster under his control. He also waged internecine warfare with Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, the reigning Ard Ri of Ireland. In 997 Brian made an arrangement with Máel Sechnaill: each man recognized the other as the ruler of their respective realms – Brian in Munster and Leinster, called the “Southern Half,” Máel Sechnaill in Meath, Connacht and Ulster, the “Northern Half.” A year later the king of Leinster was overthrown and replaced by Máel Mórda mac Murchada, who promptly rebelled against Brian’s overlordship. In late 999, Brian defeat Máel Mórda and his principal ally, King Sigtrygg Silkybeard of Dublin, at the battle of Glen Mama. In the aftermath of this victory, Brian’s forces captured, pillaged and burned Dublin, forcing Sigtrygg to seek refuge elsewhere. However, shortly afterward Brian recalled Sigtrygg to Dublin, restored his position, and arranged a marriage with Sláine, one of Brian’s daughters, to cement an alliance. It seems likely that around this time Brian married Gormflaith, Sigtrygg’s mother, who was also the sister of Máel Mórda and former wife of Máel Sechnaill. [Talk about your messed-up family relationships!] She described thus by Njal’s Saga: “She was endowed with great beauty…[but] was utterly wicked.” Two years later, in 1002 Brian Boru was declared the Ard Ri, after somehow forcing Máel Sechnaill to step down. One chronicle states that Brian challenged the reigning High King to a battle to decide the title. Máel Sechnaill supposedly asked for a month to gather his forces, to which Brian agreed. When the High King could not rally his under-kings to him, he relinquished the title to the ruler of the “Southern Half” of Ireland. While a bit fanciful, this sounds very out of character for Brian Boru. Anyway, by the year 1005, Brian began to consolidate his power, and was named “Imperator Scottorum” or emperor of the Irish, by one of the major monasteries of Ireland. [In mediaeval Latin, Ireland was referred to as “Scotia major,” while the land we know today as Scotland was called “Scotia minor.” Don’t ask me why!] Background to the Battle In the year 1012, Máel Mórda mac Murchada again rebelled against Brian Boru’s authority. One Irish annal says that one of Brian’s sons insulted Máel Mórda over a game of chess, spurring him to declare his independence. Máel Mórda promptly sought out allies, finding one regional ruler in Ulster who had only recently submitted to the Ard Ri’s authority. Together they launched an attack on the province of Meath, ruled by the former High King Máel Sechnaill, who appealed to Brian for assistance. The following year, Brian organized his forces and invaded Leinster. He sent some men under his son Murchad to ravage the southern part of the province, while the High King marched on Dublin, which had joined forces with Máel Mórda. Murchad’s men harried Leinster throughout the summer of 1013, joining his father’s forces outside Dublin in early September. For the balance of the year, they blockaded the Viking city, hoping to force its surrender. However, Brian’s army ran out of supplies first, and withdrew from Dublin around Christmastime. Máel Mórda knew that Brian would renew the conflict in the spring of 1014. Determined to end the reign of the Ard Ri at all costs, Máel Mórda began efforts to find troops throughout the British Isles, as most of Ireland was not responding to his rebellion. By this time, Brian Boru had divorced his wife Gormflaith, imprisoning her to essentially keep her out of his affairs. Nevertheless, she began to engineer her revenge against the Ard Ri. She encouraged her son Sigtrygg to find men to join the cause of Máel Mórda. Silkybeard journeyed first to Scotland, then the Orkney Islands, possibly even Normandy, then stopped at the Isle of Mann on the way back. As a result of his efforts, Sigtrygg recruited two very dangerous Viking-types for Máel Mórda’s army.
First, from the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland came Earl Sigurd Hlodvisson, also called “Sigurd the Stout.” He brought with him (according to the Orkneyinga Saga) a magical battle standard. It was the work of his mother, a noted völva, or sorceress. The saga describes the flag as "a finely made banner, very cleverly embroidered with the figure of a raven, and when the banner fluttered in the breeze, the raven seemed to be flying ahead." Sigurd’s mother told him that as long as the banner was carried forward he would win, but the person who actually bore it would not survive. Second, from the Isle of Man came Brodir, described as tall and strong, with hair so long he had to tuck it into his belt. Supposedly, he had once been a Christian, but, in the words of the saga, he had become "God's dastard, and now worshipped pagan fiends and was of all men most skilled in sorcery." Brodir and his brother Ospak gathered a fleet of 30 longships, intent on joining the fight against Brian. But, some event occurred that persuaded Ospak to desert his brother with ten ships, sail for Ireland and offer his services to Brian Boru. The Ard Ri had them all baptized and added Ospak and his companions to his forces.
It is interesting to note that both of these Viking leaders were persuaded to join Máel Mórda’s side with a promise from Gormflaith that she would be hard-pressed to keep. If the Ard Ri Brian was defeated and killed, Gormflaith had instructed Silkybeard to tell both Brodir of Man and Earl Sigurd that she would marry him and he would be proclaimed the new High King. She told Sigtrygg not to tell either man about the promises made to the other, for obvious reasons. Early in 1014, Brian Boru marshaled his forces, finally setting off for Dublin. He sent one of his sons ahead of his army to harry the lands of Leinster, tying down forces that Máel Mórda could have used. Brian’s army arrived on the north bank of the Liffey River opposite Dublin sometime in mid-April. The forces of Máel Mórda, including Earl Sigurd’s Orkneymen, were camped outside the walls of Dublin. At first, neither side was willing to instigate the fighting. On Palm Sunday, Brodir of Mann’s Viking fleet arrived, anchored in the Liffey estuary and crossed the single bridge connecting the northern and southern banks of the river. Still the two sides refused to come to blows. Then, on the evening of Holy Thursday, the Ard Ri received reports that both Brodir of Mann and Sigurd the Stout had embarked their forces and left the Liffey estuary. Brian rapidly made plans to attack the now-depleted Máel Mórda army the next day. Unfortunately, the High King was a victim of a subterfuge: once the Vikings had sailed out of sight of land, they reversed course and re-entered the Liffey River and came ashore once more. On the morning of April 23, 1014 – Good Friday – the High King Brian Boru saw the Vikings were once more deploying for battle among Máel Mórda’s army. He took all this in stride, and began his tactical deployment… Tomorrow: The Battle of Clontarf concludes; the "Lion of Ireland" falls...