27 February 2016

The Norwegian Attack on Iona in 1209-10: The Last Viking Raid?


Medievalists.net featured this paper on February 17, 2016. It comes to us from the Iona Research Conference, where it was presented by Dr. Ian Beuermann, on April 11, 2012.

I have featured it today because it details the last known Norwegian Viking raid on Iona that they had attacked several times in history. However, this raid comes some 400-years after the last known Viking raid on the religious enclave. 

The reconstructed Iona Abbey as it appears today-photo from the website
Located in the Atlantic Ocean a short distance from the west coast of Scotland, here is everything you may or may not know about the island of Iona and the Iona Abbey of Scotland. (Ed.)

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The Norwegian Attack on Iona in 1209-10: The Last Viking Raid?
 Dr Ian Beuermann

The ‘Viking’ Sack of Iona in 1209-10
 
  ”... the counsel was adopted that in the following summer they should sail west to the Sudreys [Hebrides] for plundering to get goods and riches ... [So] with twelve ships, [they] went on a plundering trip to the west; and they plundered the Sudreys and the surrounding islands ... They pillaged the Holy Island [Iona], which Norwegians have always held sacred; then they fell out, and were defeated in various places, and those that came back to Norway were severely rebuked by the bishops for their pillaging.”


With these words, Bǫglunga Sǫgur (The Sagas of the Crosiers), a Norse saga compilation from the early thirteenth century, describes a Norwegian attack on Iona in 1209-10. It has usually been seen as just another, late, in fact the last such, viking raid in the area. And indeed, the description agrees with our common idea of a typical viking raid:

  • an attack by seaborne Scandinavian privateers; 
  • a surprise hit-and-run attack on an undefended target, with a monastery the most shocking example; in order to plunder: 
  • goods, animals and slaves. 
This is our classic understanding of a viking raid which we derive from the attacks in the late eighth and early ninth century, at the beginning of the Viking Age, when Scandinavians appeared off the coasts of Britain and Ireland to sack for example Lindisfarne in 793, and Iona in 794, 802, 806 and 825. And 400 years years later, in 1209-10, the Norwegians supposedly still went a-viking (fóru í víking) to Iona.

Doubts

But we should beware of believing first impressions and easy explanations. A closer look at what happened in and around Iona in the early 1200s, makes the interpretation that this was just another such ‘classic viking raid’ rather unlikely. We might also have to ask again what exactly a ‘classic viking raid’ was. And lastly, all of this makes us understand better what the Scandinavians did here for the better part of 500 years – also in the Hebrides they did not limit themselves to making surprise attacks for nearly half a millennium!

The Insular Context

In order to understand what was behind the Norwegian attack on Iona in 1209-10 we need to know what was happening in the Hebrides at that time. In the early thirteenth century, a number of important and typically medieval christian religious and political developments took place within this insular area and within the wider Northern European context.

The Foundation of the Benedictine Abbey and the Nunnery in 1203
Only a few years earlier, in 1203, ecclesiastical Iona was fundamentally reorganised. In that year, the Abbey of St Columba was reconstituted as a Benedictine monastery, and a new nunnery was founded on the island. Traditionally, although only based on the late evidence of the Book of Clanranald, these foundations are ascribed to Ragnall son of Somairle. He placed the nunnery into the hands of his own family: his sister Bethoc became the first prioress. The new Benedictine abbey kept its previous abbot, Cellach. But it was placed under direct papal subjection and received important economic and legal privileges, such as guarantees for current and future possessions and financial safeguards, including freedom from teinds, and the guarantee that the monks should elect their abbots without outside interference. Eventually, the abbot of Iona even received the right to mitre and ring. What was the reason behind all these changes in Iona? Scholars who have looked into Ragnall mac Somairle’s re-organisation of Iona have tried to explain why he chose the Benedictine order. With that, Ragnall seems to have had a completely different ecclesiastical taste than his father Somairle: Somairle is seen as an ecclesiastical ‘traditionalist’, because he had, in 1164, unsuccessfully attempted to move 3 the comarba Coluim Cille, the head of the Columban ecclesiastical familia, from Ireland back to Iona. (The comarba Coluim Cille, lit. the heir or successor of St Columba, had been based in Iona ever since Columba died, but had moved to safety in Ireland because of the viking raids in the ninth century.) Yet nearly forty years later, in 1203, Somairle’s son Ragnall would oust the Columban clergy from Iona, replacing them with Benedictines! Not surprisingly, Ragnall’s action was strongly resented by the Columban clergy and their political allies in Northern Ireland. But in order to understand what Ragnall was doing in 1203 we need to look at what these changes meant for Iona. By making Cellach into a Benedictine abbot, and by securing papal privileges for the new abbey, Ragnall was establishing a new powerful independent church prelate in Iona. Ragnall was creating a high-ranking cleric who would be acceptable in ‘modern’ international medieval society. For this the Benedictine order, chosen for whichever reasons, was fine – as any other ‘modern’ order would have been, but not a Columban house. And there are good reasons why a powerful independent church prelate in Iona was so important for Ragnall by 1203, that he risked warfare with the Columban clergy in Ireland.

The Western Seaboard and the Irish Sea until 1203
Politically, in the twelfth century, a ‘kingdom of the Isles’ encompassed the whole insular world from Lewis in the north to Man in the south. Since 1079 the Guðrǫðarson dynasty, descended from Guðrǫðr Crobán, of mixed native and Scandinavian stock, claimed the kingship of the whole area. Eventually, their main base was to be the Isle of Man. Their relatives, the meic Somairle, who descended from ‘Somerled’ (orig. Norse Sumarliði, then Gaelic Somairle), also claimed the title rex insularum, king of the Isles, from at least 1156 on. They were relatives, because Somairle married Óláfr Guðrǫðarson’s daughter Ragnhild, so Somairle’s sons were the cousins of Óláfr’s grandsons.

Eventually, the meic Somairle’s main base came to be on Islay. Yet we should not imagine these two competing families as firm blocks: both also subdivided into various warring branches and both entered into shifting alliances. But the Western Seaboard and Irish Sea area were to some extent shared out into zones of influence: generally, as indicated on the map, Man, Lewis and Harris, and sometimes Skye, remained with the Guðrǫðarsons’ kingdom of the Isles, while the Uists, Benbecula and Barra, and the Inner Hebrides including Iona, formed the meic Somairle kingdom of the Isles. This set-up remained in place until 1265. 

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