2014 sees the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. Brian Ború of late and glorious memory saw off the Vikings (but died doing it) and we all lived happily ever after, right?
Eh, no but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, back to Brian. He had a wife who has been all but forgotten about and yet she supposedly played an enormously important part in the politics around 1014. In fact, she is blamed for the Battle which killed Brian but made Ireland safe from Viking depredations according to various sources. Her name was Gormlaith and she was the daughter of the King of Leinster Murchad Mac Finn. What was she like? Your guess is as good as mine. She is supposed to have been beautiful/desirable etc but with a bit of an evil edge.
Njal’s Saga in the thirteenth century called her ‘the fairest of all women, and best gifted in everything that was not in her own power, but it was the talk of men that she did all things ill over which she had any power‘. Oh yeah and she was supposed to have had red hair (Danger!!)
So she was beautiful and deadly – yes that old trope rears its head once again in a depiction of a medieval woman but I think it would be fair to imagine that Gormlaith could take care of herself politically. She did have a habit of marrying powerful kings, so political machinations would have been an essential skill.
Her marital history (in an age of secular-law led marriages) was referred to as her ‘three leaps‘. Her first husband was probably Amlaíbh Cuarán, the Norse king of Dublin and he was a lot older than her. We don’t know dates of birth of course but Gormlaith died in the 1030s and this marriage took place in the 970s so, it can be pretty much worked out that she was very young and he was an old man. He retired to Iona in 980.
She had a son by this marriage and his name was Sitric (Silkbeard) a famous king of Dublin whose name and image are flogged to visitors to the capital still.
Her second husband would seem to have been Brian Ború and her third was possibly to Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill maybe after she and Brian were divorced. Divorce and multiple marriages were options available to people (especially the noble class) in Gaelic society. So she was the daughter of a king and she married kings…story of a thousand medieval lives I know. But this one, this woman is different. She has been blamed for the death of the greatest king Ireland has ever had!
Her notoriety comes from her role in the build up to one of the defining moments of Irish history, the Battle of Clontarf. So what was that all about? Well, it’s complicated and it’s about jockeying for power within Ireland in a land of many kingships and it’s about new cultures (Hiberno-Norse) rubbing against old ones (Gaelic)and so on.
Essentially in 1013, Mael Mordha (Gormlaith’s brother) the king of Leinster went into revolt against Brian who claimed a type of overlordship over him and joined forces with the Vikings in Ireland, led by Sitric of Dublin. Gormlaith’s brother and son attacked her ex-husband. Together, they attacked the kingdom of Mael Sechlainn of Meath who summoned the help of King Brian and a battle took place at Clontarf in Dublin. Eventually Brian’s army drove the Vikings back towards the sea. Here is what the CogadhGaedhail re Gallaibh says about it
‘It was at the full tide the foreigners came out to fight the battle in the morning, and the tide had come to the same place again at the end of the day when the foreigners were defeated; and the tide had carried away their ships from them, so they had not at last any place to fly to, but into the sea; after the mail-coated foreigners had all been killed by the Dal Cais….and the foreigners were drowned in great numbers by the sea, and they lay in heaps and in hundreds’.
Brian himself was murdered in his tent. A period of relative peace followed where the Gaelic kings and the Hiberno-Norse rulers managed to carve out a co-existence of sorts.
Gormlaith has been blamed for the whole thing. Forget the build up of tension, the political flurries leading up to it, the political plotting…no, this is all down to a woman feeling rejected apparently.
In Njal’s Saga her part in the lead up to battle at Clontarf is seen as very significant. She is represented as scheming with her son, Sitric. In the Saga, Gormlaith is presented as a sort of Lady MacBeth, controlling the actions of her son and continuously urging him to kill Brian and she is blamed for sending him to Earl Sigurd of Orkney to seek support. When Sitric was forced to promise the earl not only the kingship of Ireland but also marriage to his mother in return for such support, Gormlaith was said to be delighted (showing enthusiasm for marriage and sex was, of course, unseemly). Moreover she also told her son to form a similar pact with two other powerful Viking leaders moored off the Isle of Man and to also promise her hand to one of them. (obviously she was calculating that not everyone could survive a battle).
She also can be found in Irish literature. In one instance (in the Cogadh) she is described as taunting her brother (the King of Leinster) for accepting gifts from her ex, Brian Ború, and of throwing one such gift, a silken tunic into the fire. Interestingly she also states that Brian’s offspring will outstrip those of her brother in power. Seeing as she is said in some sources to have had a son with Brian, Donnchad, this is enlightening about the strength of Gormlaith’s continuing identification with her birth family. In Gaelic society, a woman’s ties with her natal family were never fully severed after marriage and Gormlaith’s behaviour here illustrates this very vividly.
Why did she want to cause a war?
Well, the answer according to the Saga is that she had become so angry at Brian after their divorce that she wanted him dead. Her thirst for revenge is contrasted to that of her ex-husband who is portrayed as being far more Christian (i.e.good) and so, I think, the reasons assigned to her must be taken with an extra-large dose of salt. She is depicted as a devil-woman, out of control and giving in to violent emotion. She is a cipher, a literary device and if she did actually get involved in politics in 10th and 11th century Ireland then her real reasons remain hidden. In the sources where she can be found, one thing is clear-a woman such as she needs an atavistic reason to get involved in politics and war and thus, act like a man. She can’t possibly just be clever or desperate enough to compete with the big boys can she? Remember her family was at war with each other, I imagine her behavioural options consisted of trying to stay alive in the most beneficial way possible. When reading the Saga it is noticeable that she is portrayed as the anti-Brian; the evil Queen to his saintly King and furthermore she is associated with pagan elements in the Saga. She is an independent force and so is frightening and desirable all at the same time. By goading men to violence, by being portrayed as a sexual being are there shades of the Morrigan and Medb in her depiction? She seems to incorporate some of their attributes, her beauty, her wantoness, her destructiveness – it is a potent mix.
Beautiful and Evil Queen/Goddess or Eternal Scapegoat?