Magnus Barelegs and the Annadale Vikings

On the Hill of Down I stood at the funeral of Ian Julian McCartan Hill with two Annadale Grammar School Vikings, Jim McDowell (Son of the Dark Foreigner) and Erskine Holmes (Isles Man) looking towards the Mournes. I thought not only of the burial of St. Patrick, St. Columba and St. Bridget (Brigit or Brigantia) there, but also of the death of Magnus Barelegs, the great Viking King, on St Bartholomew’s Day 24th August, 1103.

Albert William Kelly Colmer tells the story well in County Down History Secrets. It was said that the sea-god Manannán Mac Lir, in a grief induced rage over the killing of his son Mongan by Arthur, son of Bicour the Briton, forced an outburst of water over the land of Brena forming Lough Cuan – the Lough of the Harbour and Dundrum Bay. We now use, of course, the Viking name for Lough Cuan, Strangford, 'the Wind Inlet'. We have written that the Vikings plundered Bangor in AD 823. In 839 they reached Lough Neagh (Loch n Echach—Lake of Eochu, god of the Underworld or Lake of the Iveagh Cruthin) and used this as a base to raid the churches of Ulster. Nendrum was plundered in AD 974. But also they settled, for example, at Ulfrek’s fjord (Wulvricheford or Larne). Viking dominance over the area stretched for over a two hundred year period from the ninth to eleventh century.

But their most poignant story perhaps is that of Magnus Barelegs or Barefoot (Old Norse Magnús Berfœttr, modern Norwegian Magnus Berfǿtt), who was King of Norway (Lochlann) from 1093 until 1103 and King of Mann and the Isles from 1099 until 1102. Magnus was the son of King Olaf Kyrre and grandson of King Harald Hardrada who was defeated by the English King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, prior to the latter’s own defeat by William the Conqueror.

Magnus seems to have been influenced by the clothing worn by the men of the Hebrides. During this period people would have worn long tunics which would have reached the ankle but Magnus decided to wear a tunic which barely reached the knees, giving him the name Barefoot or Barelegs. In 1098, he successfully brought under Norse control the Viking settlements in the Orkneys, the Western Isles and the Isle of Man and in that year he built his Hall on St. Patrick’s Isle near Peel from where he set out on his final journey for Ireland. He formed an Alliance in 1102 with Muirchertach Ua Briain (Old Norse Mýrkiartan), grandson of Brian Boru (Middle Irish Bóruma) and self-styled King of Ireland (1086 to 1119). This arrangement was formalised by the marriage of his twelve year old son Sigurd to Ua Briain’s five year old daughter Biadmonia. Together the two Kings conquered both Dublin and the surrounding area (Dyflinarskiri) Magnus was then able to over-run large areas of Ulster (Uladstir), weakened as it was by the Battle of Craebh Tulcha (Crew Hill near Glenavy) in 1099.

When I was a little boy I regularly visited my Uncle Johann and Aunt Isabel van Helmond in Scotland. Uncle Johnny was a Dutch Catholic whose family had a long tradition of military service to the House of Orange, which stretched back to the Dutch Blue Guards, who fought with William lll at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. He had escaped to England during the Second World War to continue his fight against the Nazis. Uncle Johnny gave me a course in Norwegian and I have maintained an interest in the Icelandic and Norse sagas ever since. Later my father bought me a little book named Earl Rögnvald and his Forbears by Catherine Stafford Spence (London 1896) which gave me glimpses of life in early Norse times in Orkney and Shetland This was the first book to tell me the story of the death of Magnus Barelegs at the Battle of Ulster (Uladstir).

I further followed it in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Sagas of the Norse Kings. This was written in Icelandic between 1233 and 1235. The author Snorri Sturluson, besides being a great Chieftain, Lawyer and Poet, was a historian deeply versed in the Icelandic and Norwegian historical tradition, written and unwritten. He was possessed of a keen psychological insight and was a master of the art of narrative prose. My own edition was that of the Everyman’s library, published by J.M. Dent & Sons of London, which I bought it in 1968. Interestingly enough a beautiful copy of this was presented to David Trimble by Fred Olsen, Shipping magnate, in his offices in Oslo, Sweden, when Kerry and I accompanied Trimble on the occasion of his award, along with John Hume, of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. I think that Gerry Adams was also originally to get the Prize, but this did not materialise and he appeared at the ceremony only by video link.

However my favourite account is in the Orkneyinga Saga, which is the history of the Orkneymen, Earls and Odallers of Norwegian extraction who established an Earldom of Norway in the Northern Scottish Isles a thousand years ago and whose descendants for several centuries held sway over the Hebrides and Northern Mainland of Scotland. I bought a facsimile of the 1873 edition, published by Edmondson and Douglas, and republished by James Thin, the Edinburgh bookseller, in 1981.

Magnus Barelegs made a deal with Mýrkiartan to supply manpower for him in return for much needed provisions of cattle for his homeward journey to Norway. He sailed his longboats in from Strangford Lough up the River Quoile and beached them near the present day Down Cathedral along the Ballyduggan Road. There he waited patiently for the cattle to arrive on the agreed day of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, 23rd August, 1103.

When evening came and no cattle had arrived, against the advice of his commander Eyvind Olboge, he decided the next morning to leave the safety of the ships and seek out the missing cattle, believing that Mýrkiartan had broken his promise, “know ye that the Irish are treacherous”. Marching along the side of the tidal marshes he came to a high hill, possibly where Dundrum Castle now stands. Looking out he saw a great cloud of dust and believed that he had not been betrayed. Dropping his guard he ventured out, to be immediately ambushed by the men of Ulster. When the ensuing Battle of Ulster reached across the mud flats of the Quoile Estuary, the Vikings led by Magnus were slaughtered. Some made it back to their boats leaving Magnus and a few of his loyal guards to fight to the death.

King Magnus received a wound, being pierced by a spear through both thighs above the knees. The great King grabbed hold of the shaft between his legs and broke the spear in two, saying “Thus we break spear-shafts, my boys; let us go briskly on. Nothing hurts me”. But a little while after Magnus was struck in the neck with an Ulster axe and this was his death wound.

Then those who were behind him fled. Vidkunn Jonsson, his bodyguard, instantly killed the man who had given the King his death wound and retreated, having received three wounds. He brought the King’s Banner and his sword Legbiter to the ships. He was the last man who fled.

There were others who stayed to the last, Sigurd Ranesson and Dag Eilivsson fell along with King Magnus. So the men who fled from Ireland came to the Orkney Islands, and when the young King Sigurd heard that his father had fallen, he set off immediately, leaving the Irish King’s daughter behind, and proceeded in the Autumn with the whole fleet directly to Norway.

According to the Chron. Manniæ, Munch’s edition, page 59, Magnus was buried in the Church of St Patrick at Down. There I stood with my two friends Jim McDowell and Erskine Holmes, both Annadale men, in whom the blood of the Vikings still runs strong, at the grave of Ian Julian McCartan Hill, a descendant of the Cruthin people of Iveagh who had killed at this place one of the greatest of all the Viking Kings. We remember Magnus for the words which he said when his friends observed that he proceeded incautiously when he was on his expeditions abroad- “that Kings are made for honour not for long life”. Magnus had barely reached 30 years of age when he fell.

Code: Picts

Blog link

The Two Heroes and the Belgae: Part 3, by Cllr Dr Ian Adamson, Thursday, August 5. 2010

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