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.)

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.


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. 


20 February 2016

Pulling the Strings: The Influential Power of Women in Viking Age Iceland

An excerpt of a doctoral thesis on the importance of women in Viking Age Icelandic society is presented here as an interesting departure from the staid old archaeological digs I usually feature. The author did a great deal of research on his chosen topic to produce his theory on the subject. For full thesis details  I encourage the reader to click the link at he end of this excerpt. (Ed.)


Pulling the Strings: The Influential Power of Women in Viking Age Iceland

By Kendall M. Holcomb
Honour’s Thesis, Western Oregon University, 2015

Guðrún smiles at Helgi Harðbeinsson, right after he killed her third husband Bolli. – from an 1880 publication
Introduction: Icelandic women during the Viking Age managed households, raised their children, tended to the animals, and wove the cloth, along with a host of other duties overlooked by their male counterparts. These women were the unacknowledged strength within their societies. Through an examination of the culture that surrounded female Vikings in pre-Christian Iceland, historians present a more thorough understanding of the roles that these women played. This is especially evident in the study of female influences employed within pre-Christian Icelandic society. The women of Viking Age Iceland exercised power through their management of household and familial interactions, maintaining influence within a publicly male-dominated society.

Medieval Iceland was the home of Norse settlers from approximately 870 AD. The Era of the Viking Age began with their first overseas raid in 793 AD, at the monastery in Lindisfarne, in the kingdom of Northumbria. Northumbria is now a part of northern England and south-east Scotland. During their travels, Norsemen discovered Iceland for themselves in the 9th century. Originally settled by Irish monks, known as the papar, Iceland became inhabited by more Vikings as time went on. The majority of the ‘good’ land along the coastline was taken up by the Vikings within thirty years of settlement. As the monks did not appreciate the rowdy and non-Christian lifestyle of the Vikings, their migration to Iceland effectively ejected the monks from the island. A common school of thought among scholars is that the very first Norse settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, and that he arrived in Reykjavík where he built a homestead in 874 AD.

One of the most notable of the early Norse settlers in Iceland, however, was a woman named Unn the Deepminded. Found in Laxdæla Saga, Unn was the daughter of the powerful Ketil Flatnose, who fled to Scotland, rather than submit to Harald Finehair. After the passing of Unn’s male relatives in Scotland and Ireland, Unn sailed with her followers to Iceland. Throughout her story, she is portrayed as a woman of good standing who did what she thought was best for herself and her family Like Unn, women during the Viking Age held power that focused on interpersonal relationships within their communities and families.

13 February 2016

Berserkir: a re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life

Here is an excerpt of a Medievalist's article on an abstract written by a Doctoral applicant at the University of Nottingham last year that introduces another theory on the Norse berserker of legend.

It is an interesting and detailed thesis and I encourage those interested in medieval Vikings to click the link at the end to read the dissertation in its entirety. (Ed.)



Berserkir: a re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life
By Roderick Dale
PhD Dissertation, University of Nottingham, 2014

Iron helmet from a Vendel era (550-793 AD) boat grave in Vendel, Uppland, Sweden. Displayed at the Museum of History in Stockholm. Photo by Mararie / Wikimedia Commons
Abstract: This thesis discusses whether berserkir really went berserk. It proposes revised paradigms for berserkir as they existed in the Viking Age and as depicted in Old Norse literature. It clarifies the Viking Age berserkr as an elite warrior whose practices have a function in warfare and ritual life rather than as an example of aberrant behaviour, and considers how usage of PDE ‘berserk’ may affect the framing of research questions about berserkir through analysis of depictions in modern popular culture. The analysis shows how berserksgangr has received greater attention than it warrants with the emphasis being on how berserkir went berserk. A critical review of Old Norse literature shows that berserkir do not go berserk, and suggests thatberserksgangr was a calculated form of posturing and a ritual activity designed to bolster the courage of the berserkr.

It shows how the medieval concept of berserkir was more nuanced and less negative than is usually believed, as demonstrated by the contemporaneous existence in narratives of berserkiras king’s men, hall challengers, hólmgongumenn, Viking raiders and Christian champions, and by the presence of men with the byname berserkr in fourteenth-century documents. Old Norse literature is related to pre-Viking Age evidence to show that warriors wearing wolfskins existed and can be related to berserkir, thus making it possible to produce models for Viking Age and medieval concepts of berserkir.

The modern view of berserkir is analysed and shows that frenzy is the dominant attribute, despite going berserk not being a useful attribute in Viking Age warfare which relied upon men holding a line steady rather than charging individually.

The thesis concludes that ON berserkr may be best translated as PDE ‘champion’, while PDE ‘berserker’ describes the type of uncontrollable warrior most commonly envisaged when discussing berserkir.

06 February 2016

The Vikings in the British Isles

This excellent paper details the continuous strife associated with the medieval Vikings' invasion of the present day UK during their 300+ year history on those islands. The author has set it all down chronologically for those interested in such things. 

The ship below is a Norwegian reconstruction of a 115', 70-ton Viking warship, that has been appropriately named for King Harald Hardrada, killed in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, England on 25 September 1066. Should you like to read about this magnificent vessel, click the link below the photo to do so.

As a matter of interest in this excerpt, I also inserted the likeness of King Harald Sigurdsson (Hardrada) in the text below. (Ed.)

Draken Harald Hårfagre


Peter Sawyer

For 300 years from c. 790 Scandinavians, now generally called Vikings, were active in the British Isles, initially as raiders and later as conquerors and colonists. Until the middle of  the tenth century they also attacked the Continent and many Viking bands raided targets on both sides of the Channel. They were tempted by the great wealth of the Christian West, in particular the treasures held by high status monastic communities located on islands or exposed coastal sites.

The raids began suddenly in the 790s and by 800 several monasteries in northern Britain and Ireland had been plundered, apparently by Norwegians. By then English and Frankish rulers had begun to organize defences against raiders, mainly Danes and others from south Scandinavia, who threatened the coasts of south England and northern Francia. These defences prevented serious disruption for over 30 years; most reported raids in those years were on Ireland, where effective defence was hampered by competition between numerous Irish kings. Some of these early raids were probably by Vikings operating from bases in Orkney or the Hebrides.

In the 830s internal disputes in both England and Frankia weakened the defences and Vikings seized the opportunity to increase the extent and scale of their incursions.

At first most were on the continent, but in 862 Charles, king of West Frankia, began systematically to defend the heart of his kingdom. This encouraged many Vikings to concentrate on England. Several of their leaders joined forces in the hope of winning status and independence by conquering England, which then consisted of four kingdoms: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia. In 865 a fleet landed in East Anglia and was later joined by others to form what a contemporary chronicler described, with good reason, as a ‘great army’. Ten years later this army, by conquering Northumbria, East Anglia, and eastern Mercia controlled much of eastern England, from York to London; one kingdom, Wessex, remained intact and independent. The territory then under Danish control was later called the Danelaw, a misleading name since there were several rulers and the laws, although eventually influenced by the Danes, were certainly not Danish.
After 870 the Viking army made determined, but unsuccessful, efforts to conquer Wessex, and between 876 and 880 its leaders began to grant estates in the conquered areas to their principal followers, who in turn distributed land to any of their men who wished to settle. These colonists had a profound effect on dialects and place-names in the areas in which they settled. They also brought a great deal of treasure that they had acquired in their campaigns.

The break-up of the ‘great army’after its failure to conquer Wessex coincided with renewed succession disputes in Frankia . The Vikings were quick to take advantage of this dissension, and from 879 to 891 they acquired huge quantities of plunder and tribute, but they also suffered some defeats in pitched battles and in 892 returned to England to renew the attempt to conquer Wessex. They failed. The West Saxon king, Alfred, had reorganized his army, constructed a network of forts, and built a fleet. In 896 the Vikings, having failed to gain even a foothold in the areas of England not already under Scandinavian control, abandoned the attempt. In the words of a contemporary chronicle: ‘ The Danish army divided, one force going into East Anglia and one into Northumbria; and those that were moneyless got themselves ships and went south across the see to the Seine’.
Chronicles and other texts produced in Irish monasteries provide a great deal of information about Viking activity in Ireland. There is, however, very little reliable information about their activity in Scotland and its islands. Some late traditions, for example that the Norweigian king Harald Finehair conquered Orkney and Shetland in the late ninth or early tenth century, are exceedingly improbable. 

The fact that Norwegians established permanent bases in Ireland in the 840s from which they were able to mount raids makes it very likely that others did so earlier in the Scottish islands and possibly on the mainland. Some of the Scandinavian lordships that certainly existed in Orkney and the Hebrides in the eleventh century may well have been founded in the ninth. These lordships, like those in ninth-century England, provided opportunities for Scandinavian settlers. Archaeological evidence and place-names confirm that by the eleventh century many inhabitants of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides, as well as some of those in neighbouring parts of the mainland, were of Scandinavian descent.

The most important Viking base in Ireland was Dublin. It was ruled by a number of Norse kings, who led successful campaigns in Scotland against the Picts in 866 and the British kingdom of Strathclyde in 870-71.When one of them, Ivarr, died in 873, he was described as ‘king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain’, which has been taken to mean that he was overlord not only of the Vikings in Ireland but also of those in Scotland and the Hebrides and perhaps in Wales.  By then some Irish kings had begun to inflict serious defeats on the Vikings, and by 902 the Dublin Vikings, weakened by factional conflicts, were overcome by the Irish and expelled. Some of them settled in north-west England, but others sought plunder and power in Britain for a while before returning to Ireland. By 917 Ivarr’s descendants regained control of Dublin and figure prominently in the history of both Ireland and England for much of the tenth century.

After Alfred’s death in 899 the Danes invaded English territory several times but in 910 suffered a crushing defeat in a battle at Tetenhall in which many of their leaders, including two kings, were killed. Two years later Alfred’s son and successor, Edward, and his sister Æthelflæd, who ruled English Mercia, began yearly campaigns that by 920 forced all Danish rulers south of the Humber to submit. The Northumbrians tried to preserve their independence by accepting as kings of York a succession of Norse kings of Dublin who were, or claimed to be, descendants of the Ivarr who died in 873. In 927 Edward’s son and successor, Athelstan, completed the conquest of the Danelaw by seizing York and expelling King Guthfrith, who returned to Dublin. Ten years later his son and successor, Olaf, in alliance with the king of the Scots, challenged Athelstan who defeated them in a famous battle at Brunanburh. When, two years later, Athelstan died, Olaf returned and for a while gained control of the territory north of Watling Street but it was recovered by the English after Olaf’s death in 941. Northumbrians continued to resist the West Saxon dynasty and chose as king Erik ‘Bloodaxe’, an exiled Norwegian king, but after his expulsion and death in 954 the Danelaw was permanently incorporated in the united English kingdom.

In the 960s there was a remarkable revival of trade between England and the Continent, stimulated by a new abundance of silver in Germany. The English were then able to earn very large amounts of silver by selling wool, cloth, leather and other surplus produce. In the 970s English kings began to produce and control a very large coinage of high quality. The economy flourished as cash was increasingly used in small as well as large markets. The rapid expansion of towns soon made England a highly urbanized kingdom with at least ten percent of the population in towns. England’s growing wealth attracted a new generation of Vikings who soon discovered that the English under their king Æthelred were able and willing to pay large sums for the sake of peace, however temporary. In the 980s there were several raids, most of them in the west, probably by warriors from Dublin and other bases around the Irish Sea. The most serious threat was, however, posed by larger forces from Scandinavia whose main purpose was not to plunder vulnerable targets, but to cause such disruption that the English would pay large quantities of coins and treasure as tribute. According to the poem on the battle of Maldon in 991 the raiders demanded gold rings and bracelets, and three years later raiders were paid 22,000 pounds of gold and silver. Between 991 and 1016 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that raiders exacted tribute worth over 150,000 pounds.

The leaders of several independent Viking armies that invaded England are reported in contemporary chronicles and in Swedish runic inscriptions. The most important was the Danish king, Sven Forkbeard, who led the first major raids in 991 and 994 and returned at least twice to extort ever larger sums of tribute. During 1006 Tostig arrived with ‘a great fleet’ that caused widespread disruption before withdrawing after being paid 36,000 pounds and in 1009 an ‘immense raiding army’ led by Thorkell the Tall campaigned for three years before being paid 48,000 pounds. He then, together with a fleet of 45 ships, agreed to help defend England. To pay them Æthelred introduced an army-tax (heregeld). It is probable that Thorkell’s alliance with Æthelred was the main reason Sven Forkbeard invaded England in 1013 with the aim of conquest. After a swift campaign he succeeded in driving Æthelred into exil and was accepted as king by the English. He died soon after this triumph and Æthelred was recalled from exile. Sven’s son Knut returned in 1015 to regain what his father had won. By the end of the following year, after Æthelred’s death, he was recognized as king by the English. The fleet that Knut maintained proved to be an effective deterrent  to Viking raiders. No attacks are reported after 1018 when the crews of thirty pirate ships were killed by Knut’s forces.

Knut died in Winchester in 1035 and was succeeded in turn by two sons. In 1042, after both were dead, the English chose Æthelred’s surviving son, Edward, as king. Nevertheless, several later Danish and Norwegian kings believed that they had a claim to England. Many Scandinavians were were willing to encourage such ambitions and hoped at least to have the opportunity to gather some of England’s wealth as plunder even if conquest was not possible.

King Harald Sigurdsson (Hardrada) - YouTube
When Edward died childless in January 1066, his successor, Harold Godwinesson, was challenged by the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada,  He invaded England, but was killed in a battle at Stamford Bridge, near York, on 25 September. Three weeks later Harold Godwinesson  was himself killed in battle near Hastings against William, duke of Normandy, who was crowned king of the English on Christmas Day. It was, however, several years before he had firm control of the whole kingdom and the English magnates who were unwilling to accept him were prepared to support the claim of the Danish king Sven Estridsson. He arrived in the Humber in 1070, but William’s vigorous defensive measures were effective and Sven withdrew in the summer, although he and his men were able to keep some of their booty. Five years later a Danish fleet, led by one of Sven’s sons, Knut, set sail to support a rebellion against William, but it had been crushed before they arrived. The Danes returned home after plundering York and its neighbourhood. In 1085 Knut, now king of the Danes, planned to conquer England, a threat that William took very seriously, but the fleet never sailed. England never again suffered a large-scale attack by Scandinavians. Viking activity continued around the Irish Sea and the Norwegian king Magnus Barelegs gained recognition as overlord over Orkney, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man in 1098, but he was killed during a second expedition to Ireland in 1103. Norwegian kings had nominally sovereignty over the Isle of Man and the Hebrides until 1266 when it was ceded to the Scottish king, but Orkney and Shetland remained under Norwegian overlordship until 1469. 

Lit. Loyn (1977); Ó Corráin (1979); Sawyer (1987); Crawford (1987); Sawyer (1997)