Those of you who are familiar with Kevin Halloran’s articles in academic journals will know that he has a special interest in the political history of 10th century Britain. Kevin recently sent me his thoughts on a little-known event from this period: a Viking victory dated by the Irish annalists to the middle years of the century. In giving a summary of his views Kevin produced a useful and original piece of research which I think deserves a wider audience. As it relates to Scotland I’m publishing it here as a blogpost, with Kevin’s permission.
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A Small Matter Of Identity
by Kevin Halloran
In his excellent overview of early Scottish history, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070, Alex Woolf considered the identity of the victors in an obscure battle of 952. The event is mentioned in two Irish annals: the Annals of Ulster 952.2 and the Annals of the Four Masters 950.14. The entries are fairly similar, recording that ‘The foreigners won a battle over the men of Alba, the Britons and the Saxons.’ One question at issue is: were the ‘foreigners’ led by the Eric, son of Harold, who took over as king of York that year, by the ousted Amlaib Cuaran and his Irish-based Vikings or were they Vikings from elsewhere?
In both annals the Irish text uses the word Gallaibh to mean ‘foreigners’ and it is evident from many entries in both annals of the period that this term was used to describe the Vikings based in Ireland. The very fact that the event was mentioned in two separate Irish annals suggests strongly in my view that the victors were from Ireland. There is further support for this view. The AFM 940.9 records a battle between Irish-based Vikings and other ‘foreigners who came across the sea’ and is the only entry from either source in the period that refers to Vikings definitely based other than in Ireland. The Irish Vikings are as usual described as G(h)allaibh but their enemies are not, instead being called Goill dar muir. The annal’s use of Goill cannot be simply to differentiate between two groups of Vikings as there are many entries that depict conflicts between Irish Vikings where both sides are described as Gallaibh.
The annals give no context for the battle of 952. The fact that Alba, the Britons (presumably of Strathclyde) and the Saxons (again, presumably of Bamburgh) were in alliance suggests, as Woolf argues, that this was a north British event and also in my view that the alliance was a defensive one as I know of no precedent for such a coalition invading southern Northumbria or elsewhere. Four possibilities come to mind, although there may well be others. Firstly, that Amlaib left York to attack Lothian or Bernicia and Eric usurped the throne in his absence. Secondly, that the ousted Amlaib fought the battle after being driven from York. Thirdly, that supporters of Amlaib fought the battle en route to an attempt at reinstating him in York. Fourthly, that this was simply an unconnected large-scale raid by Irish Vikings into lowland Scotland.
The annal entries give no hint as to the cause of the conflict and, so far as we can tell, there appear to have been no significant or lasting political consequences. There are, however, two events in Ireland prior to the battle that might bear some relation to it. The first took place in 951 and is recorded in AU951.3, AFM949.10, Chronicon Scotorum CS951 and the Annals of Clonmacnoise under 946=951. These all record major raids against Irish churches by the Dublin Vikings under Guthfrith, son of Sihtric, in which 3000 captives and a great spoil of cattle, horses, gold and silver were taken. Similar attacks in Ireland preceded other Viking incursions into Britain and may well have provided the necessary finance for an expedition.
The other event occurred over the winter of 951-2 and is recorded in three of the annals, AU951.7, AFM949.15 and AClon 947=952. The first two refer to an outbreak of leprosy and dysentery among the Vikings of Dublin while the third states that ‘The pox ran over all Ireland’ and describes it as ‘Dolor Gentilium’. It is possible then that the Vikings abandoned Dublin temporarily and crossed over to Britain to escape the outbreak of disease.
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Kevin examines other aspects of the 10th century in these articles:
‘The Brunanburh campaign: a reappraisal’ Scottish Historical Review 84 (2005), 133-48
‘The identity of Etbrunnanwerc’ Scottish Historical Review 89 (2010), 248-53
‘Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956′ Welsh History Review 25 (2011), 297-313
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