The Irish annals include the following entries dealing with conflict in northern Ireland during the late 7th and early 8th centuries:
682: The battle of Ráith Mór Maigi Lini against the Britons, in which Cathasach son of Mael Dúin, king of the Cruithin, fell, and Ultán son of Dícuill.
697: Britons and Ulaid wasted Mag Muirtheimne.
702: Írgalach grandson of Conaing was killed by Britons in Inis Mac Nesáin.
709: The battle of Selg in Fortuatha Laigen against the Uí Cheinnselaig, in which fell two sons of Cellach of Cuala, Fiachra and Fiannamail, and Luirg with Cellach’s Britons.
Who were these ‘Britons’ and where did they come from? Why were they involved in the wars of Ireland?
The Irish annals of this period were written at the Hebridean monastery of Iona by monks who were, in many cases, themselves of Irish origin. It would appear from the above entries that an indication of where the British warbands came from was regarded by these monks as unnecessary. Perhaps they felt that they had already provided this information by describing the warbands as ‘Britons’? In the period 682-709 there was indeed only one North British kingdom capable of waging war in Ireland. This was based at Alt Clut, Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde, and was the last surviving realm of the Gwyr y Gogledd (‘The Men of the North’). The Clyde Britons had seen their compatriots fall one-by-one to the inexorable advance of English Northumbria. By c.670 the Northumbrian kings held sway over large tracts of what is now southern Scotland, having conquered major British realms such as Rheged and Gododdin. Some measure of imperium or overkingship was exercised over Alt Clut by the English king Oswiu (died 670) and by his son Ecgfrith (died 685) but the Dumbarton dynasty endured throughout this troubled period and in fact outlived the Northumbrian royal house by more than a hundred years.
Given Alt Clut’s status as the only functioning political entity of the northern Britons between 682 and 709 we might logically deduce that the warbands who campaigned in Ireland came from this kingdom. The annalists on Iona would have felt little need to call them anything other than ‘Britons’ because it would be generally assumed that they came from the Clyde. Any Scot, Pict, Irishman or Englishman of the late 7th century would have known that the Dumbarton kings were the only Britons who still commanded armies in the North.
Some historians, however, prefer an alternative explanation for the presence of North British warriors in Ireland by seeing them as “part of the exiled warband of Rheged” (Smyth 1984, p.26). According to this theory, the English conquest of Rheged left its military forces leaderless and penniless, driving them “to seek their fortune at the courts of Irish kings always in need of warriors for their own incessant warfare” (ibid.). Why these men should travel to Ireland rather than seek gainful employment in Britain is explained in simple economic terms: Irish kings apparently had the ability to “more richly reward them for their services” (Evans 1997, p.110). At this point it might be useful to note that there is no reference to Rheged in the Irish annals, not even in entries relating to the late 6th century when its kings reached the zenith of their power. The monks of Iona who wrote the earliest annals retrospectively were probably aware of Rheged’s existence through their contacts with Northumbrian monasteries but they chose not to mention the kingdom. By contrast they mentioned Alt Clut many times. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Clydesiders were the only Britons in whom Iona had any interest.
I have always been puzzled by the ‘Rheged mercenaries in Ireland’ theory. Why was it devised at all, and what purpose does it serve? The history of Rheged is mysterious enough without complicating it even further. Instead of weaving imaginative sagas around fragmentary information presented by medieval texts we should examine the fragments more closely to see what they say about the political biases of monastic writers and their secular patrons. By looking at the Irish annals from Iona’s viewpoint we might find ourselves better equipped to understand what role the annalists assigned to the Clyde Britons in the late 7th century. This kind of approach was adopted by James Fraser during an insightful study of secular and ecclesiastical contacts between Scots and Britons. Fraser examined the annals of 682 to 709 in the context of Iona’s political loyalties and offered a plausible hypothesis to explain the presence of Dumbarton warbands in Ireland. He envisaged a period of close co-operation between the Clyde kings and a royal dynasty of Scots in nearby CowaI, a relationship which produced “a tendency to share enemies and allies” (Fraser 2005, 109). Among the Cowal dynasty’s rivals were the Scots of Kintyre who, for more than a hundred years, had been in a symbiotic relationship with Iona. Fraser suggested that the Cowal Scots received strong military support from Alt Clut in pursuit of dynastic interests in Ireland. This led to Britons fighting alongside Cowal’s Irish allies against other Irish factions allied to Kintyre. The activities of these Britons were duly noted by the annalists because the interests of Iona’s patrons – the royal kindreds of Kintyre – were affected by the course of events. I will not delve any further into the complex web of 7th century politics – this post is long enough already – but Fraser’s article is certainly worth reading. The main point I wish to make here is that the idea of Rheged’s exiled warriors campaigning in Ireland does not stand up to scrutiny. The annals of 682 to 709 surely refer to the political affiliations and military obligations of the kings of Alt Clut.
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Alfred Smyth, Warlords and holy men: Scotland AD 80-1000 (Edinburgh, 1984)
Stephen Evans, The lords of battle: image & reality of the comitatus in Dark Age Britain (Woodbridge, 1997)
James E. Fraser, ‘Strangers on the Clyde: Cenel Comgaill, Clyde Rock and the bishops of Kingarth’. Innes Review 56 (2005), pp.102-20.
* I am grateful to Michelle of Heavenfield for drawing my attention to James Fraser’s article soon after it appeared in print.
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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: