Turtle Bunbury

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HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

SITRIC SILKBEARD, KING OF DUBLIN (c. 970-1042)

It’s not every day that your mother marries your greatest enemy and that you marry his daughter. But that’s precisely what happened to Sitric Silkbeard back in 999 AD and he thus became both father-in-law and son-in-law to no less a warrior than Brian Boru.

Sitric Silkbeard was one of the longest-ruling kings in Irish history, reigning over the Viking city of Dublin for 46 years. As well as being a survivor of the battle of Clontarf, he founded Christ Church Cathedral and Ireland’s first ever mint.

Sitric’s life came back into the spotlight in August 2015 when a hoard of 14 silver pennies discovered in north-west Wales was officially declared “treasure”. The 1000-year-old coins were minted in Viking Dublin during Sitric’s reign; eight dated from the 990s while the other six were minted in about 1018.

The hoard, which also contained fragments of pennies minted by the English king Cnut the Great, was found by Welsh treasure hunter Walter Hanks and his metal detector near Llandwrog in Gwynedd.

The coins appear to have been either hidden or lost by Viking settlers from Dublin whom Sitric had dispatched to set up a colony in Gwynedd in the decade after the battle of Clontarf.

At the time of Sitric’s birth in about 970, Dublin was one of Atlantic Europe’s preeminent trading cities, not least as a holding depot for slaves.[i]

His grandfather Sitriuc, for whom he was named, hailed from the formidable royal Norse dynasty of Uí Ímair, which controlled much of the Irish Sea board in the 10th century, including the west coast of Scotland, the Hebrides and parts of Northern England.

In 917, the elder Sitriuc seized control of the kingdom of Dublin, over which his son Amlaíb (also known as Olaf Cuarán) subsequently ruled. In 969 Amlaíb united with Murchad mac Finn, King of Leinster, against the O’Neills of Ulster, attacking the abbey of Kells, while fighting also raged in Monasterboice and Dunleer in Co. Louth, and Kilmona in Co. Westmeath.

As part of his alliance with Murchad, Amlaíb married Gormflaith, the Leinster king’s beautiful daughter, with whom he had one son, namely Sitric.

However, Amlaíb’s reign as king of Dublin ended dismally when his son-in-law Máel Sechnaill, the High King of Ireland, annihilated the Dubliners in a battle at the Hill of Tara in 980. Máel Sechnaill’s forces then occupied Dublin city while the victorious High King declared the city’s slaves free men and exacted a hefty tax upon its citizens.

Amlaíb appears to have abdicated in favour of his son Glúniairn Iron-knee. He retreated to the monastery on the Scottish island of Iona, founded by St. Columba over 400 years earlier, where he died soon afterwards.

As a boy Sitric Silkbeard watched his father’s reign collapse in disarray. Things did not improve under his drink-addled half-brother Glúniairn Iron-knee whose nine-year rule of Dublin ended when he was murdered by a slave called Colban.

It is thought that Dublin then became the stronghold of the powerful Olaf Tryggvason, a future king of Norway, who spent five years wearing down his various opponents around Leinster.

After Olaf’s return to Norway, Dublin was briefly ruled by Ivar, the Norse king of Waterford, but by 993 Sitric had claimed the kingship of Dublin for himself.

More warfare with neighbouring kings ensued; churches burned, warriors died, hostages, horses and cattle were exchanged. On one occasion, Máel Sechnaill entered Dublin and seized the sacred Ring of Tomar and the Sword of Carlus, two highly prized Viking heirlooms.

In about 995 Sitric founded the mint in Dublin, at which time some of the coins found in Wales this year were created. Realising that such coinage would draw further raids on his vulnerable kingdom, he began building the first city walls and made a strategic alliance with his uncle Máel Mórda, King of Leinster. The two men hoped that their union might put a halt to the rapidly advancing army of Brian Boru, King of Leinster, but their armies were crushed by Boru’s men at the battle of Glenmama in Co. Kildare, in 999, after which the Munster men stormed Dublin, burned the city down and expelled Sitric.[ii]

And then, to really rub the salt in, Boru married Sitric’s widowed mother Gormflaith. There may have been some compensation when, after he reluctantly submitted to Boru, Sitric was himself wed to Boru’s daughter Sláine.

Three years later, Boru marched north, overthrew Máel Sechnaill and claimed the High Kingship. At this time, Sitric and his men actually joined Boru’s army and, following a series of campaigns into Ulster, they cajoled the O’Neills into an unwilling acknowledgment of Boru as High King in 1011.

This was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Dublin. Archaeological digs have unearthed enough ships, gold, coins and clothing to justify the saga’s depictions of Dublin as a frenetic and booming port. When Sitric’s son Oleif was abducted, the ransomers demanded ‘seven score British horse’ which suggests Dublin was also a major centre for horse-trading in the early 11th century.

The good times didn’t last long. Even as the O’Neill’s were hailing Boru as High King, things were on the slide. The Annals blame it on a woman, namely Gormflaith, mother of Sitric, wife of Boru.

Gormflaith is consistently lambasted as a villain in Irish folklore. A typical sample from the 13th-century Icelandic Njál's saga, for instance, describes her as "a very beautiful woman [whose] best qualities were those over which she had no control, and it was commonly said that her character was evil insofar as she had control over it.”

In fairness to the woman, no record of her appeared on paper until six decades after her death. Her resurrection as the wicked femme fatale can be traced to ‘Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib’, a propaganda-heavy account commissioned by one of Boru’s descendants over 100 years after the events took place.

Nonetheless, the story runs that Gormflaith and Boru fell out and divorced, after which Gormflaith goaded Sitric and her brother Máel Mórda, King of Leinster, into their doomed battle against Boru at Clontarf.

Things had initially looked up for the Leinster-Viking alliance when Sitric’s son Oleif lead a fleet south which burned the Viking settlement at Cork and then attacked Cape Clear, destroying Boru’s naval authority.

However, on Good Friday 1014, the two sides met at Clontarf. Sitric appears to have sagely stood well back from the action while thousands of men chopped and stabbed one another to death with their implements of metal and wood. It was to be a convincing victory for the Munster men and their allies although the dead would include Boru himself and Máel Mórda.

As the dust settled, Sitric returned to his Dublin kingdom but hopes for a trouble-free future were dashed by a combination of a plague epidemic and the resurgence of Máel Sechnaill, the ousted High King, who burned the suburbs of Dublin to a crisp.

Sitric now turned maniac, blinding hostages and seeking to plunder his enemies. He wasn’t very good at it. The new King of Leinster pulverised his army at Delgany and his fleet was decimated by the O’Neill’s off the coast of Ulster.

Things did not improve for Sitric when, as the contest for the high kingship heated up, the wealthy port of Dublin became the must-have jewel in any aspiring king’s crown. The city was constantly raided and hostages taken.

In 1028 he went on a pilgrimage to Rome but his prayers didn’t help when, the following year, his son Oleif was captured and Sitric was forced to pay 1,200 cows, 140 ‘British’ horses, 60 ounces of gold and of silver and the Sword of Carlus, as well as returning most of the hostages he had.

The 1030s were better years, largely because he teamed up with Cnut the Great, aka Canute, the king of Denmark, England, Norway, and parts of Sweden. Their combined fleets raided Wales and Sitric established the Dublin colony in Gwynedd, which presumably accounts for the recent hoard of coins.

During this time, Sitric also made Dublin into a bishopric, based on the Roman model, and commissioned the first timber structure of Christchurch Cathedral, now Dublin’s oldest surviving building. (The cathedral was rebuilt in stone by the Anglo-Normans in the 1180s). Such developments were a massive step towards converting Viking Dublin away from a pagan city into a Christian one. It is notable that some of the coins Sitric minted bore the sign of the cross.

Not that Sitric was a good Christian to his neighbours. After a towering military victory at the Boyne in 1032, he let his psychosis prevail 3 years later when he burned 200 men alive in the stone church at Ardbraccan, Co. Meath, and took another 200 men as slaves.

He pushed it too far when he executed Ragnall, King of Waterford on his return from Ardbraccan. When Canute died soon afterwards, Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, King of the Isles, invaded Dublin and forced Sitric to abdicate. Echmarcach may have been King Ragnall’s son.

Sitric lived on until 1042 but his place of death is unknown. His only surviving son Oleif Sigtryggsson was slain by Saxons while on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1034. Oleif ‘s sole surviving child Ragnhild was the mother of Gruffudd ap Cynan, from whom the Welsh Kings of Gwynedd descend.

As of September 1st 2015, the National Museum Wales is seeking to acquire the hoard with grant funding from the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund.

With thanks to Victoria House, Colm Moriarty and Adam Green.

FOOTNOTES

[i] According to the Annals of Ulster, sub anno 871: ‘Amlaíb and Ímar returned to Áth Cliath from Alba with two hundred ships, bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts.’ With thanks to Seán Duffy FTCD, Professor of Medieval History, Trinity College Dublin.

[ii] Glenmama is part of the Lyons Estate & run by UCD ag science dept who have a big research centre there. Turn off the N7 at the Castlewarden / Kilteel Junction 6 (Blackchurch) and pass Arthur Guinness resting place in the cemetery at Oughterard. This means you’re heading up towards Lyons Hill. Windmill Hill is the big Roadstone quarry just on the Wicklow side of the N7 which you can see clearly from this road. See: https://goo.gl/maps/YMu3S

 

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