Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Battle of Clontarf: Part Two

In a previous post I wrote about the prelude to the Battle of Clontarf. Click here to go to the previous post.

           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? (Did I mention I'm from Cavan? There may be some bias here.) 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 the 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 sides 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. 

Once again, this blog post is extremely long so I’ll cut it here and finish it in a final posting I promise.Click here to go to the final post about the Battle of Clontarf.

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