Queen Gormlaith, Brian Boru and the Northmen of Dublin

Author: Howard B Clarke

Dublin City Hall Lunchtime Lecture Series, 8th April,2014


1.             Bed-leaping.

I should like to start with a quotation, courtesy of Dáibhí Ó Cróinín:

Three buck-leaps (trí lemend) were made by Gormlaith

Which no other woman shall do until Domesday:

A buck-leap into Dublin, a leap into Tara,

A leap into Cashel, the plain of mounds above all.


Who has heard something to this effect before?

  • who remembers anything else about this lady, and was she in fact a lady at all?


The source is a quatrain embedded in mid-12C genealogical material in the Book of Leinster

  • this was borrowed much later by the Four Masters in the 1630s and added to her death notice for the year 1030


In Modern Irish the word for a leap is léim

  • in Old and Middle Irish contexts it is associated with fish and with horses, with connotations of rapid or precipitate motion
  • in this human context of the quatrain there is a Modern English parallel in the idea of leaping into someone’s bed, whether one’s own or that of another man or woman


Apparently our mid-12C author disapproved of Gormlaith’s actions, but this is only to be expected in an age of church reform

  • Donegal-based Franciscans in the age of the Counter-Reformation would naturally have been equally disapproving
  • their death notice includes a piece of demonstrable misinformation, not in the original
  • this is to the effect that Gormlaith bore for her second husband, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill of Mide, a son called Conchobar
  • in reality Conchobar was Máel Sechnaill’s grandson – and by the way a son of the abbot of Clonard!
  • he became the Clann Cholmáin king of Mide in 1030, the year of Gormlaith’s death, and ruled until 1073


2.               The legal status of women


So did Gormlaith engage in more bed-leaping than anybody else at that time?

  • in order to answer that question it is necessary to examine the legal status of women in contemporary Ireland

In many ways this was similar to that in other patriarchal societies

  • at the social level of a typical farmer, his wife was expected to bear and to rear children
  • she minded the hearth and home; she partook in certain tasks related to domestic animals such as butter-making
  • practical skills associated with the making and mending of clothing were assumed as standard


Over in Anglo-Saxon England at that time, a typical húsbonda, ‘householder’ (hence husband) would have had a pliant wifmann, ‘weaving person’, ‘woman’ (hence wife)

  • as in England, however, the lifestyle of high-status Irish women was presumably different, at least in some ways


The legal texts have a lot to say about the marital arrangements of such women, who had no independent legal capacity

  • as young girls they were subject to the authority of their father; as married women to that of their husband; and as widows to that of a son or, failing that, a brother or other senior male relation


Most women got married at least once and they married young, commonly in their teens

  • indeed, later on in the MA, the legal age of marriage in feudal society was settled at 14 for a boy and 12 for a girl


At the level of kingship and queenship, medieval politics was dominated by two principal concerns

  • first the acquisition and retention of power and influence
  • secondly the acquisition and retention of landed property and movable wealth
  • in order to achieve these ends, one avenue was the marriage market


To exploit that market to maximum effect, two vital social mechanisms were prevalent:


a)              serial marriage, for both men and women

  • three or four marriages in a single lifetime, short as it often was, were commonplace
  • the maximum number recorded for both sexes in Ireland is six, compared with Charlemagne’s nine!


b)             polygyny, a form of polygamy in which a man had a chief, official wife and one, or sometimes more than one, secondary wife or concubine

  • this was more complicated in its management by the husband
  • apart from mere sexual gratification, there was an entirely practical justification for polygyny, since the first wife might not produce a son at all, or one who survived into adulthood


From a king’s point of view, male succession was crucial, hence the widespread practice and indeed social acceptance of polygyny

  • in this, Ireland was in no way unique, for polygyny was usual in Anglo-Saxon and Frankish royal lineages


Accordingly the Irish lawyers obligingly provided for most eventualities

  • for example, the chief wife was permitted to inflict any non-fatal injury on the second wife for a period of three days (presumably after her husband’s second marriage)
  • on the other hand, in retaliation the second wife could only scratch, pull hair, speak abusively or inflict other minor injuries
  • needless to say, all of this was of course dreamt up exclusively by men!


There was one other mechanism that had multiple political and social consequences – entitlement to divorce, on the part of both husbands and wives

  • high-status Irishmen appear to have divorced their wives more or less at will
  • but wives were accorded at least a dozen grounds in customary law for divorcing their husbands
  • these included the predictable ones, such as being sterile, impotent or homosexual, or becoming a monk or a priest
  • other grounds were subtler: blabbing about what went on, or did not go on, in the marriage bed (regarded as breach of privacy), or becoming so fat as to make sexual intercourse physically impossible (was there an obesity problem in early medieval Ireland?)


A radically different set of legal constraints was embedded in canon law, which of course discouraged current social norms such as serial marriage, polygyny and divorce

  • to all appearances, it failed both c. 1000 and for many centuries to come, at least in Gaelic Ireland and in the upper social circles thereof
  • thus Gormlaith’s socio-political world would have moulded her as it did most women of her class

 3.              Gormlaith’s first marriage bed


Into whose beds did Gormlaith allegedly leap, or more likely was propelled?

  • in terms of being married, her first was that of the Norse king of Dublin, Óláfr Sigtryggsson, nicknamed Kváran, ‘sandal’
  • a likely and chronologically possible date would have been the late 960s, after her father Murchad had become the king of Leinster (966)


Then in her mid-teens, Gormlaith was Óláfr’s second wife and he was probably at least thirty years her senior

  • Óláfr was having trouble with the reigning high-king, his former brother-in-law Domnall ua Néill
  • in those circumstances he may have been seeking a powerful and not-too-distant political ally
  • Murchad (and Gormlaith) belonged to the Uí Fáeláin sept of Uí Dúnlainge, based at Naas
  • part of the deal could have been that Norse Dubliners were exempted from paying tribute to the provincial king


Culturally it was a mixed marriage, a Norse-speaking and allegedly apostate Scandinavian matched with an Irish-speaking and presumably Christian Irish woman

  • there are hints that Óláfr knew Irish and it is possible that Gormlaith went to the trouble of learning Old Norse, or was even obliged to do so
  • the language or languages of the marriage bed are unknown, though her husband in Irish sources becomes Amlaíb (cf. McAuliffe), suggestive perhaps of mutual bilingualism


Nor do we know whether this marriage lasted for its natural course

  • eventually, in 980, Óláfr suffered a major military defeat at the battle of Tara
  • he then retired as a penitent to the monastic island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland
  • he died there in the following year, apparently a committed Christian


 4.              Gormlaith’s second marriage bed


By 980 Gormlaith was an abandoned queen and by the following year a widow

  • by any standard, even canonical, she was free to remarry and, of course, any ambitious young man (or even older man) could in his turn seek her hand in marriage
  • after having been married to Óláfr as a teenager, she was probably hoping for someone younger, and she may have succeeded


Gormlaith’s possible second royal marriage is not, however, recorded or even hinted at in any source that can be regarded as contemporary

  • nor is this marriage alluded to in the text known as the Banshenchas
  • rather it occurs first in the quatrain with which we began


An association between Gormlaith and Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill of Mide may have some connection with events that took place in the year 989

  • at the start of that year the king of Dublin was Járnkné Óláfsson (gaelicized as Glúniarainn mac Amlaíb), a son by Óláfr’s first marriage
  • he was murdered by his own slave, while drunk, the slave’s name being given as Colbain (Norse Kolbein)


As the relatively new and forceful high-king, Máel Sechnaill intervened, leading his army to Dublin and winning a battle fought somewhere outside the fortified main settlement (aerial view; map)

  • he and his men then set siege to the latter for nearly three weeks, making the defenders surrender for lack of fresh water
  • the punishment was sophisticated if not very practical: the householders were obligated to pay a tax of one ounce of gold each Christmas night, ‘for ever’ as Chronicum Scotorum says


A new king of Dublin had to be chosen from Óláfr’s three surviving sons, Haraldr (Aralt), Dubgall and Sigtryggr

  • it was the latter, Gormlaith’s son, who was elevated and there can be little doubt that Máel Sechnaill was the king-maker
  • though we cannot be certain, the other (older) sons were probably the children of Óláfr’s first wife, in which case Gormlaith’s son was given preference over them
  • one explanation may be that she and Máel Sechnaill were then married to, or otherwise associated with, one another, or at least had been in the past
  • these events, by the way, were employed by the city authorities to justify Dublin’s pseudo-millennium back in 1988

 5.              Gormlaith’s third marriage bed


One of the great historical themes of the 990s in Ireland is the intense political rivalry that developed between Máel Sechnaill and that better-known southern upstart, Brian Bóruma

  • by 997 they had agreed to carve up the island between them as two hegemonies
  • Máel Sechnaill kept the northern half and Brian took the southern half, including crucially the kingdom and town of Dublin


Wife-swopping may not been an altogether modern phenomenon: at any rate, at some point Gormlaith took up with, or was taken up by, Brian, becoming his second wife

  • she was still young enough to bear him a son, Donnchad, who would in due course become his successor as king of Munster
  • a Munster takeover of the whole of Leinster was not welcome, as Gormlaith presumably discovered


Her relationship with Brian was probably fairly short-lived, for by 997 he had taken another woman as his third wife (chart)

  • rebellion was in the air (long before 1014), starting in Dublin and conceivably spurred on by a rejected Gormlaith
  • on the penultimate day of the year 999 the Dubliners fought and lost the battle of Glenn Máma with an expeditionary force led by Brian
  • its location is highly uncertain, but perhaps near Newcastle Lyons
  • Haraldr was killed, Sigtryggr expelled from Dublin and the town burnt to the ground


As always on such occasions, a political settlement was reached, though with fairly extraordinary terms

  • Sigtryggr was restored as king of Dublin and was provided with a new (?) wife, Sláine, a daughter of Brian Bóruma by another marriage
  • accordingly Gormlaith’s son (Sigtryggr) by her first marriage (to Óláfr) was married to her step-daughter (Sláine) who was born to a wife (unknown) of her third, though former, husband (Brian)


Family relationships became even more complicated when in 1003 Brian, now high-king himself in enforced succession to Máel Sechnaill, deposed the Uí Dúnchada king of Leinster, Donnchad (984–1003)

  • Donnchad was replaced by none other than Gormlaith’s (Uí Fáeláin) brother, Máel Mórda
  • was this done at the request of, even out of respect for, his own ex-wife, whose son, Sigtryggr, was now his recently acquired son-in-law?
  • conceivably so, for Donnchad’s father was the man who had treacherously murdered the father of Gormlaith and Máel Mórda back in the year 972


6.              Gormlaith’s reputation


The political settlement of both kingdoms, Dublin and Leinster, in the opening years of the new millennium brought stability for ten years

  • but relations soured again in 1013, for obscure reasons, and the dramatic outcome was the climactic battle fought at Clontarf in the following year


The machinations leading up to that event are the context for the other dimension of Gormlaith’s reputation – that of a wicked queen stirring up hatred for her ex-husband

  • she allegedly incited either her brother Máel Mórda to rebel against his overlord Brian or her son Sigtryggr to kill Brian


The two sources for this characterization are literary and considerably later in date

  • one is the Munster propaganda text Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh, composed in the time of Muirchertach Ua Briain, Brian Bóruma’s great-grandson, in the early 12C
  • this is the basis for most of the myths and misimpressions associated with the great battle


The other source is part of a lost Norse saga, putatively called Brjáns saga

  • this survives embedded towards the close of one of the best-known Icelandic family sagas, Brennu-Njáls saga, composed c. 1280
  • the ‘burnt’ refers to his fate of being deliberately burnt alive by his enemies in his own house, a real-life occurrence in medieval Iceland


Whereas the scene is set at Kincora in Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh, Dublin is the implied location in Brennu-Njáls saga

  • the details surrounding the role attributed to Gormlaith (Kormlo∂) are not identical, but their general import is the same
  • she allegedly brought about the downfall of her ex-husband as a Christian martyr, on the day of Christ’s Crucifixion
  • in part she inflamed the passions of her brother and in part she encouraged her son to conspire with pagans from the Viking outback in the Isle of Man and the Scottish isles


Can we believe any of this? I think not

  • the literary characterization looks very like Shakespeare’s treatment of English history
  • Gormlaith was known to have existed, as a daughter, as a wife and as a mother; authors felt free to do what they liked with her character
  • a strong-willed woman as an inciter of violence is a recognized literary topos


Donnchadh Ó Corráin has suggested, tentatively, that the lost Brjáns saga was composed, in Old Norse, in Dublin c. 1100

  • this was when an Ua Briain (Muirchertach) was the town’s and the kingdom’s effective overlord
  • would it have been acceptable, supposing this to be true, to blacken the name of a wife of Muirchertach’s famous great-grandfather?
  • the answer is that it probably was, because Muirchertach was descended not from Gormlaith’s son Donnchad, but from his older half-brother Tadc


Nevertheless the real Gormlaith was presumably living in Dublin in 1014, as a familiar figure from her days as Óláfr’s queen

  • she may well have witnessed from a distance the progress of the great battle, in company with her son Sigtryggr and her daughter-in-law Sláine
  • her brother and her ex-husband were both killed that day, whereas Gormlaith lived on for another 16 years


We can only assume that Gormlaith continued to reside in Sigtryggr’s household, occupying an honourable social position

  • nothing is known for certain of her physical appearance, though the Dublin excavations have yielded an impressive collection of female head-coverings in the form of caps and scarves made of silk or wool
  • we know, too, that brehon law placed a higher value on the veil worn on the head of a queen


In conventional saga style, Gormlaith ‘was endowed with great beauty and all those attributes which were outside her own control’

  • on her death in 1030 three contemporary annalists recorded that event, mainly in terms of her motherhood of two kings (Sigtryggr and Donnchad) and without any element of judgement


7.               Brian Bóruma’s reputation


To be fair, then, how should we judge the character of her third husband, Brian Bóruma?

  • to all appearances, no one saw fit to compose a quatrain on the theme of his serial marriages, one more than Gormlaith’s
  • hers, on the other hand, were the more remarkable in that all of her husbands were kings and two of them were high-kings of Ireland
  • perhaps in effect the original poet was a latterday admirer rather than a hostile critic


Apart from Gormlaith, whom did Brian permit to leap into his bed in Kincora?


a)     wife no. 1 was Mór, a daughter of Eiden mac Cléirig, from a relatively minor but suitably neighbouring dynasty in southern Connacht

  • Seán Duffy suggests that this marriage was arranged for the young Brian for political reasons as the Dál Cais sought both advancement and protection
  • it produced three sons and may have ended with Mór’s early death


b)    wife no. 2 was probably Gormlaith, who gave him one son, Donnchad, before being rejected


c)     wife no. 3 was Echrad, a daughter of Carlus mac Ailella, representing an obscure dynasty within the lands of the Southern Uí Néill

  • probably this marriage was related to Brian’s policy of pressurizing Máel Sechnaill in the late 990s
  • it has been suggested that this would have given Brian a strategic resting place within striking distance of Dublin


d)    wife no. 4 was Dub Choblaig, a daughter of Cathal mac Conchobair, the king of Connacht (973–1010)

  • to all appearances this was a political alliance and helps to explain why men from Connacht were fighting on Brian’s side at Clontarf
  • she predeceased Brian in 1009 and thus he was a widower at the time of his death


It is possible to reconstruct the trajectory of Brian’s marriages in other ways, but there can be little doubt that their motivation was at least as political as those of Gormlaith

  • similarly Brian disposed of his three known daughters, including Sláine, with political imperatives in mind


8.              Conclusions


The story that I have told has many complications; the story that I have not told has many more complications

  • accordingly numerous conclusions can be drawn from all of this, of which I shall mention four:


a)              Traditionally men make history and in this context Brian Bóruma is presented as the central character

  • yet I hope to have demonstrated that in this context a woman, Queen Gormlaith, played a role that was arguably at least as central as his
  • whereas Brian has been made out to have been a saviour of Ireland, Gormlaith has been made out to have been a latterday Jezebel
  • this viewpoint is not only unfair; it is unhistorical


b)             During Gormlaith’s lifetime, say from the early 950s to 1030, ‘Viking’ Dublin was undergoing important developments as a town

  • in broad terms it was ceasing to be a Viking emporium dominated by the slave trade and by periodic raids on monasteries
  • it was becoming a regular urban community engaged in craft-working and in local and overseas trade
  • its king, Sigtryggr, initiated the first currency ever produced in Ireland in the mid-990s
  • that same king, around the time of his mother’s death, cofounded the diocese of Dublin and the cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Christ Church)
  • a distinct possibility is that the first cathedral was built as a kind of mausoleum for Gormlaith by her devoted son and a near certainty is that she was buried in it
  • a new culture was emerging, which archaeologists and historians call Hiberno-Norse


c)              Brian Bóruma, like Gormlaith, was not completely detached from members of the Viking world

  • during the reign of his older brother Mathgamain, Viking Limerick had been taken over by the Dál Cais and its ruling dynasty eliminated
  • at Clontarf, Brian had Limerick-based ‘Vikings’ fighting on his side
  • one of his chosen sons-in-law, Sigtryggr of Dublin, was half Norse and Norse-speaking
  • during the period of peaceful co-operation Dublin ‘Vikings’ went on tour with Brian’s Munstermen
  • after his death, the Hiberno-Norse kingdom of Dublin and the Gaelic kingdom of Munster were ruled for the next 22 years by half-brothers, Sigtryggr and Donnchad (both sons of Gormlaith)
  • thus the idea that Brian, by his supposed victory at Clontarf, prevented a Viking conquest of Ireland is complete nonsense
  • originally it was a figment of the imagination of the utterly and outlandishly biased author of Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh
  • latterly it has been borrowed and propagated by nationalists of various hues and even by some historians


d)             As you will all have understood and as I have stated, this piece of Irish history is enormously complicated, as well as enormously fascinating

  • such history cannot easily be written and, in the hands of amateurs, can equally easily be distorted
  • for the rest of this month, and even of this year, you will hear more of Brian Bóruma
  • be careful what you take from what you hear!