The Viking slave trade

Archaeological evidence indicates that by 902 Dublin had begun to outgrow the longphort and become a true town rather than an armed camp. Significantly, following the Irish conquest in that year, Dublin was not abandoned: there is clear evidence of continuity of settlement through to its recapture by the Norse in 917. That there was an exodus of Scandinavians from Ireland at that time is not in doubt, so this is probably evidence that Dublin had a significant Irish population living alongside the Norse and that they were allowed to remain: they may even have been the majority because genetic studies have found scant evidence of Scandinavian DNA in the modern Irish population.

Dublin owed its transformation to a town to trade. Pre-Viking Ireland did not play a large part in international trade so it had no trading towns to compare with the likes of Dorestad or York. Coinage was not used either. Ireland was not poor, however. The hoards of magnificent gold and silver liturgical vessels from Ardagh and Derrynaflan stand testimony to the wealth of Ireland’s monasteries in the early Middle Ages. Major Irish monasteries like Armagh or Clonmacnoise were much more than communities of monks, they were also centres of political power and economic activity. Secular communities of craftsmen and merchants grew up around the more important monasteries and by the eighth century a few were becoming small towns. Kings, seeking the authority and safety that close association with the saints was believed to confer, often had residences, treasuries and garrisons in these monastic towns. All of this was more than enough to justify the Vikings’ attentions, but their main interest was in Ireland’s people.

Crude estimates based on a count of known settlements suggest that Ireland’s population was about half a million when the Viking Age began. Thanks to the country’s mild winters, cool summers and reliable rainfall, grass grew all year round so cattle and sheep did not have to be kept inside during the winter. The Irish did not bother to gather hay in the summer as it was so rarely necessary. Despite occasional famines caused by cattle epidemics and severe weather, the Irish population was generally well nourished and very few people were desperately poor. The Vikings rounded up these people in their thousands to be ransomed or sold as slaves according to their wealth and status. Slavery was rare in pre-Viking Ireland – it was used mainly as a form of debt bondage – so there was no slave trade. Plundering in wars between the Irish was usually confined to cattle rustling, so Viking slaving added a new form of suffering to the experience of warfare. Perhaps inevitably, Irish kings soon began to take captives during their wars and sell them to the Vikings. Irish captives who were not lucky enough to be ransomed by their relatives could expect to be sold abroad. Anglo-Saxon England and the Frankish kingdoms both had active slave trades but most Irish captives probably finished up in Scandinavia or the Moorish kingdoms in Spain and North Africa. Through developing the slave trade, the Vikings drew Ireland into fuller participation in the international trade networks. This is usually presented as one of the positive impacts that the Vikings had on Ireland, but it is unlikely that their victims were quite so sanguine about it.

We know enough about the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century to guess at the human misery Viking slaving must have caused. Its economic impact is harder to estimate but it is likely that Vikings targeted the young and healthy rather than infants and the elderly. The kidnapping and breaking-up of communities of learned monks must have had a far more serious impact on Ireland’s flourishing monastic culture than ever the destruction of books, sacred vessels and buildings did. As mere commodities, the voices of slaves are rarely heard in the historical record, but two remarkable accounts have survived about the experiences of Irishmen who were captured by Viking slavers. One relates to a Leinsterman called Findan whose sister was captured by Viking raiders some time around the middle of the ninth century. Findan’s father sent him to the Vikings to arrange his sister’s ransom, but they immediately clapped him in irons and carried him off to their ship too. After keeping him without food and water for two days, the Vikings discussed what to do with him. Luckily, his captors decided that it was wrong to capture people who had come to pay ransom, no doubt because it would discourage others from doing so, and they let him, and presumably his sister, go. A short time afterwards Findan got caught up in another Viking raid but evaded capture by hiding behind the door of a hut. For Findan it was third time unlucky, because in his next encounter with the Vikings he was taken prisoner and sold into slavery. After changing hands several times, Findan finished up on a ship bound for Scandinavia. Findan gained his owner’s confidence by helping the crew fight off some pirates and he was released from his leg irons. When his owner made a stop-over in Orkney, Findan seized the opportunity to jump ship and escape. Findan eventually made his way to Rome as a pilgrim and ended his life as a monk at the monastery of Rheinau in Switzerland: one of his fellow monks recorded his life story shortly after he died.

The second story concerns an Irishman called Murchad, a married man with a daughter, who was captured by Vikings and taken to Northumbria, where he was sold as a slave to a nunnery, with comical consequences. After he had seduced several of the nuns and turned the nunnery into a brothel, Murchad was expelled and cast adrift on the sea in a boat without oars or a sail as a punishment for his impiety. Murchad was rescued by Vikings, who took him to Germany and sold him to a roguish widow, who paid for him with counterfeit money. Murchad seduced her too, of course. After many more adventures, Murchad eventually returned to Ireland, was reunited with his family, and took up a career teaching Latin grammar. How much real history there is in this tale is hard to tell; perhaps it is really about making the best of hard times. It is unlikely that many captives were as lucky as Findan and Murchad but neither is it likely that all came to bad ends: most of the thousands of Irish slaves who were taken to Iceland later in the ninth century were eventually freed and became tenant farmers, for example.

Division is strength

By the early tenth century, Vikings had conquered and colonised substantial parts of England, Scotland and Francia, as well as the uninhabited Faeroe Islands and Iceland. Yet for all the fury of their onslaught, in Ireland the Vikings had not even been able to retain a toehold. Appearances can be deceptive. Ireland’s divisions might have been a handicap in combating plundering raids but they also made it all but impossible for the Vikings to conquer and hold territory. On the face of it, it would have seemed that Ireland’s disunity should have made it more vulnerable to conquest by the Vikings than England, which was divided into only four powerful centralised kingdoms. In fact the opposite was true. In early medieval Europe it was always the centralised kingdoms that got conquered most easily. After the ‘Great Army’ of Danish Vikings invaded England in 865, the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia both collapsed as soon as their kings had been killed in battle. Mercia too collapsed when its king decided he would prefer not to get killed and fled the country. Only Wessex survived to prevent England becoming Daneland. The centralised nature of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms meant that it was relatively easy for the Vikings to destroy the small ruling class and take over; just one battle might do the trick, as it did, more or less, in 1066. Little trouble would then be expected from the leaderless peasantry. Ireland, however, had dozens of kings and even more lineages from which new kings could be chosen. No victory, therefore, could ever have the decisive knockout effect it could in a country like England. Nor was there much chance of a lasting peace agreement with so many kings to negotiate with because what one agreed was not binding on the others.

The military resources of the Irish should not be underestimated either. Most Irish local kingdoms could raise armies of around 300 men. This was inadequate to deal with anything but a small Viking raiding party, but there were a great many local kingdoms. Local kings owed military service to their over-kings, so an over-king who could enforce the obedience of his vassals could raise a very large army indeed. However, in a clash of shield walls an Irish warrior was no match for a well-equipped Viking. The Irish fought almost naked without armour or iron helmets, armed with spears and using only bucklers (small round shields) for protection. The Irish recognised the superiority of the Viking warrior and they usually avoided formal battle in favour of irregular tactics, harassing raiding parties and wearing them down with sudden ambushes before melting away into the woods and bogs. In this kind of fighting, their lack of armour was an advantage to the Irish, making them more agile than a mail-clad Viking. A weary Viking raiding party returning home burdened with loot, captives and stolen cattle would have been particularly vulnerable to these tactics.

The Irish countryside was scattered with as many as 50,000 ringforts, but these were probably less of a hindrance to Viking raiders than Ireland’s warriors. Ringforts varied in size according to the status of their inhabitants. An over-king might have a substantial stone structure like the Grianán of Aileach in Donegal, a stronghold of the Northern Uí Néill dynasty. Built in the eighth century, the Grianán’s 15 foot (4.5 m) thick stone walls enclose an area 75 feet (23 m) in diameter. But although it is an impressive structure, modern experiments have shown that it would not have been at all easy to defend so it may have been built mainly as a ceremonial centre rather than to withstand a siege. Local kings and aristocrats had more modest forts, sometimes as little as 30 feet (9 m) in diameter, with earth ramparts and a palisade, containing its owner’s house and ancillary buildings. The ramparts of these small forts were primarily markers of status, for they were barely adequate for keeping livestock in, never mind keeping raiders out. More secure were crannogs, high status dwellings built on artificial islands in the middle of lakes. Communal fortifications like the English burhs, intended to provide refuges for the general population, were unknown.

During the course of the Viking Age, monks began to provide their monasteries with tall, slender, stone round towers. These were primarily used as bell towers and treasuries but they were also refuges against Viking raids. Over eighty round towers are known to have been built: the tallest surviving round tower, at Kilmacduagh in Galway, is 113 feet (34.5 m) tall. The towers’ entrances were set well above ground level so that they could only be entered with a ladder. The entrances of some towers show signs of fire damage, which is likely a result of Viking attacks. Having no source of water, or battlements from which to fight off attackers, round towers could not withstand a long siege but a small Viking raiding party could not really afford any delay.

The Vikings return

During Ireland’s ‘Forty Years’ Rest’, the bulk of Viking forces were busying themselves plundering England and Francia. By the first decade of the tenth century, the English and Franks were finally getting the measure of the Vikings so Ireland once more began to look attractive to them. In 914 Ragnald, a grandson of Ivar I, appeared in the Irish Sea and defeated a rival Viking leader in a sea battle off the coast of the Isle of Man before going to set up a longphort at Waterford in south-east Ireland. The Vikings were back and with a vengeance. In 917, Ragnald’s brother Sihtric Cáech (‘squinty’) recaptured Dublin and in 919 smashed an Irish counter-attack at Islandbridge, killing the Úi Néill High King Niall Glúndubh and five other kings. In 922, Tomar mac Ailche (Thormódr Helgason) re-established Viking occupation at Limerick and around the same time other Viking leaders established themselves at Cork and Wexford. As was the case in the ninth century, the Vikings made no extensive territorial conquests or settlements outside their heavily fortified towns. Dublin came to control the most extensive territory: known as Dyflinnarskíri or ‘Dublinshire’, it extended along the coast from Wicklow (Vikinglo) in the south to Skerries (from Old Norse sker meaning a ‘reef’) in the north, and as far inland as Leixlip (Old Norse lax hlaup meaning ‘salmon leap’) on the River Liffey. A dearth of Norse place-names in the countryside of Dublinshire supports the conclusion that there was little or no Viking settlement outside Dublin and its immediate environs.

The history of the revived Viking kingdom of Dublin is frequently entangled with that of the Viking kingdom of York across the Irish Sea. While the Norse had been exiled from Ireland, Ragnald had briefly held power in York and now he wanted it back. Using Dublin as a base to campaign in northern England, Ragnald recaptured York in 919. York must have seemed a greater prize than Dublin because when Ragnald died in 921, Sihtric gave up the kingship of Dublin to another brother, Guthfrith, and took up the kingship of York. An aggressive ruler, Guthfrith immediately launched a furious campaign of plundering and slaving raids against the Irish, culminating in a curiously respectful sack of Armagh in November. Guthfrith spared the monks, the sick and the monastic buildings, ‘save for a few dwellings which were burned through carelessness.’ It may be that Guthfrith was a Christian. If so, Guthfrith’s show of respect for St Patrick did him no good because he was intercepted on his way home by Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks (r. 919 – 43), the king of the Northern Uí Néill, and heavily defeated. This set the tone for Ireland’s second Viking Age: the days when Vikings might criss-cross Ireland without meeting serious opposition were gone. Muirchertach won another victory over the Dublin Vikings at Carlingford Lough in 925, when 200 of them were captured and beheaded, and the following year he killed Guthfrith’s son Alpthann (Halfdan) in another battle at Linn Duchaill. Muirchertach besieged the survivors in the longphort there until Guthfrith brought an army north from Dublin to rescue them. The longphort was afterwards permanently abandoned.

What had changed since Ireland’s first Viking Age? The shock of Viking raiding had forced change upon the Irish. Irish society became increasingly militarised and those kings who offered the most effective military leadership against the Vikings enhanced their status and power and, as they tightened their grip over their sub-kings, they could raise larger armies and enhance their power even more. It was the same virtuous circle of success that was driving political centralisation and state formation in contemporary Scandinavia. Irish kingship was gradually becoming more territorial and many local kings found themselves reduced to the status of local chieftains. At the same time, the Irish had learned from the Vikings, making greater use of swords and axes in battle. Though they still lacked armour, this went some way to evening the odds on the battlefield. War was also waged with a new ruthlessness, against both the Vikings and other Irish kingdoms. Ravaging and burning had been rare before the Viking Age, but now Irish kings used it routinely as a weapon against their foes irrespective of whether they were Irish or Norse.

After Sihtric’s death in 927, Guthfrith went to York, whether to claim the throne for himself or to support his brother’s son Olaf Cuarán is not known. Both were quickly expelled by Æthelstan of Wessex. Guthfrith returned to lay siege to York, but was forced to surrender to Æthelstan, who allowed him to return to Dublin, which he ruled until his death in 934. Guthfrith’s son and successor, Olaf Guthfrithsson, established dominance over all the Norse in Ireland when he defeated the Limerick Vikings in a naval battle on Lough Ree in 937. It was in the same year that he allied with the Scots and the Welsh of Strathclyde in another attempt to win the kingdom of York only to be defeated by Æthelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh (see p. 124). Muirchertach sacked Dublin the following year, taking advantage of its weakness after Olaf’s defeat in England. However, Æthelstan’s death in 939 finally gave Olaf the chance to seize York and unite it with Dublin in a single kingdom. Olaf did not enjoy his success for long: he died shortly after raiding the Northumbrian monasteries at Tyninghame and Auldhame in 941, a victim, it was said, of divine displeasure. A tenth-century Viking burial discovered in the monastic cemetery at Auldhame almost certainly belongs to a high-status Viking who was involved in these raids. It has been speculated that the burial was even that of Olaf himself. As Olaf was married to the daughter of King Constantine II of Scotland he must have been at least a nominal Christian. The king might therefore have been buried on consecrated ground as a posthumous act of penance. Following Olaf’s death his cousin Olaf Cuarán became king of York, while his brother Blácaire succeeded him at Dublin.

Blácaire was an active raider. On 26 February 943 he defeated and killed Muirchertach at the Battle of Glas Liatháin and five days later sacked Armagh. Muirchertach’s death was mourned by the Irish, the Annals of Ulster described him as ‘the Hector of the western world’ and lamented that his death had left the ‘land of the Irish orphaned’. Irish retaliation was swift. The following year, the newly acknowledged High King Congalach Cnogba captured and burned Dublin, carrying away a vast amount of booty. Four hundred Vikings were said to have been killed in the fighting and Blácaire fled into exile. In his absence, Congalach installed Olaf Cuarán, recently expelled from York by the English, as king of Dublin. Olaf’s dependence on Congalach was such that when the pair were defeated by a rival for the high kingship in 947, Blácaire was able to depose him and reclaim his throne. After his death in battle against Congalach in 948, Blácaire was succeeded by his cousin Godfred, another son of Sihtric Cáech. In 951 Godfred led an enormously successful expedition in the Irish midlands, plundering half a dozen monasteries including Kells. According to the Annals of Ulster, ‘three thousand men or more were taken captive and a great spoil of cattle and horses and gold and silver was taken away’. Divine vengeance followed swiftly, of course. A severe epidemic, described in the annals as dysentery and leprosy, broke out in Dublin on Godfred’s return and the king was one of its victims.

While Godfred had been plundering in Ireland his brother Olaf had briefly regained control of York before being expelled by the Norwegian Erik Bloodaxe in 952. Olaf now succeeded as king of Dublin but the dream of uniting Dublin and York was dead. The Dublin Vikings would never be a power in England again. It is doubtful that a Dublin-York axis was ever really viable in the long term. York is much more remote from Dublin than a casual glance at a map would suggest. As York could only be reached by ship from the North Sea, sailing there from Dublin involved a long, dangerous and time-consuming voyage around the north of Britain. The only alternative would have been to sail from Dublin to north-west England and then trek across the Pennine Hills to York. However, it is far from clear how much, if any, control the kings of York actually exercised west of the Pennines. And, fighting off the English and the Irish at the same time must have been way beyond the resources of the Dublin Vikings.

Olaf was not a peaceable king but neither was he a traditional freebooting Viking, as he rarely raided unless he was acting in alliance with an Irish king. Olaf was also closely linked to Irish dynasties by marriage – made possible by his baptism in England as part of a peace deal with king Edmund in 943. Olaf’s first wife was Dúnlaith, the sister of the high king Domnall ua Néill (r. 956 – 80) and, after her death, he married Gormflaith, daughter of Murchad mac Finn, king of Leinster. Olaf seems to have gained little, if any, political advantage from his marriages because his reign was dominated by conflicts with Domnall and with successive kings of Leinster (some of whom Olaf held hostage in Dublin). On Domnall’s death in 980, Dúnlaith’s son by an earlier marriage, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnall, the king of Meath, succeeded his uncle as high king. Máel Sechnaill clearly had no love lost for his stepfather as he had begun his reign as king of Meath in 975 with an attack on Dublin, in which he burned ‘Thor’s Wood’ (a pagan sacred grove) outside the city. Shortly after becoming high king, Máel Sechnaill heavily defeated a force of Vikings from Dublin, Man and the Hebrides in battle at the Hill of Tara, the traditional inauguration place of the high kings. Máel Sechnaill followed up his victory by laying siege to Dublin, which surrendered after three days. Máel Sechnaill imposed a heavy tribute on the citizens and deposed Olaf, who went into retirement as a monk on Iona, where he died soon afterwards. In his place, Máel Sechnaill appointed his half-brother Jarnkné (‘iron knee’) (r. 980 – 9), Olaf’s son by Dúnlaith, as tributary king. There was no disguising Dublin’s loss of independence.