The ‘life & times’ of Sihtric Silkenbeard, King of Dublin


Sigtrygg III Silkbeard Olafsson (also Sihtric, Sitric and Sitrick in Irish texts; or Sigtryg and Sigtryggr in Scandinavian texts) was a Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin. The historical sources are a bit sketchy, given that some were written well after the 10th C, so they do not agree upon precise dates. Sihtric reigned from …

  • possibly as early as AD 989–994
  • then, was restored (or began) AD 995–1000
  • he was briefly deposed but was again restored in AD 1000
  • Sihtric ruled Dublin until AD 1036, when he abdicated for the last time

Sihtric was of Norse and Irish ancestry, so he truly was Hiberno-Norse (as his coinage suggests).

  • He was a son of Olaf Cuarán (also called Kváran), King of York, Northumbria & Dublin, and Gormflaith ingen Murchada.
    • Gormflaith was the daughter of the King of Leinster, Murchad mac Finn, and the sister of his successor, King Máel Mórda of Leinster.
      • She had previously been married to the King of Meath and High King of Ireland, Máel Sechnaill — the ‘first’ of her three husbands.
    • She was a beautiful, powerful and intriguing Irish woman, who according to the 13th-century Icelandic Njál’s saga, was “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”.

Sihtric, King of Dublin

There is some confusion over the date upon Sihtric first came to power in Dublin. Sihtric’s father, Olaf Cuarán, ruled Dublin from 952 to 980 – hence the name Sihtric Olafsson. Sihtric’s paternal half-brother was Glúniairn, “Iron-knee”, who ruled as King of Dublin from 980–989.

  • From about AD 950 onwards, hoard evidence suggests that Anglo-Saxon coins were being imported from England into Ireland. Sihtric’s father, Olaf Cuarán, was twice (maybe three times) ruler of Northumbria  & York and twice ruler of Dublin and its dependencies.
    • His intermittent reign over these territories spanned some forty years
      • His main rival for the Viking kingdom of York was Eric Bloodaxe
      • Eric Bloodaxe minted some spectacular coins in York
    • Olaf Cuarán was a renowned warrior and a ruthless pillager of churches, but ended his days in retirement at Iona Abbey.
      • He had coins minted in his own name in York during the 940’s
      • He is also known as Amlaíb mac Sitric, or Óláfr Sigtryggsson (in Old Norse), or Óláfr kváran in a hybrid form of Old Irish and Old Norse.
      • Sihtric’s father was probably one of the first Vikings to import coinage into Ireland, since the Vikings in the North of England had adopted coinage as a form of exchange via their dealings with the kings of Wessex and Mercia in the south. 
Hiberno-Norse Northumbria). Anlaf Sithtricsson (Cuaran). First reign, 941-944/5. AR Penny (19mm, 0.96 g, 11h). Triquetra type. York mint; Farmann, moneyer. + ΛNLΛF CVNVNC (inverted T), triquetra / + F·A·RH·A·H MONETA, fringed triangular standard bearing ‘X’ on cross-tipped pole. CTCE Group V, b-q; SCBI 30 (American), 278 var. (obv. legend); SCBI 34 (BM), 1249-52 var. (legends); North 540; SCBC 1020. Near EF, rich old tone, lightly creased with minor edge cracks. Very rare.

Hiberno-Norse Kingdom of Northumbria – Anlaf Sithtricsson (Cuarán). First reign, 941-944/5. Silver Penny / Triquetra type. York mint; Farmann, moneyer. + ΛNLΛF CVNVNC (inverted T), triquetra / + F·A·RH·A·H MONETA, fringed triangular standard bearing ‘X’ on cross-tipped pole. CTCE Group V, b-q; SCBI 30 (American), 278 var. (obv. legend); SCBI 34 (BM), 1249-52 var. (legends); North 540; SCBC 1020. Near EF, rich old tone, lightly creased with minor edge cracks. Very rare.

Sihtric may have succeeded his paternal half-brother Glúniairn as king of Dublin in 989, but it is just as likely his rival Ivar of Waterford came to power in the city then.

  • The Irish annals record little information about Sihtric, his family or Dublin during these first five years of his reign. 
  • Benjamin Hudson claims this was because of the arrival of the future King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, who took up residence in Dublin for a few years after marrying Sihtric’s sister Gytha.
    • Tryggvason had met Gytha while raiding along the coasts of the Irish Sea
    • The presence of a powerful Viking leader in Dublin was a deterrent to Irish raids
    • Trygvason may have weakened Sihtric’s foes by plundering them
  • Hudson argues that Tryggvason’s return to Norway in 994 coincided with the temporary expulsion of Sihtric from Dublin by his rival Ivar of Waterford.
    • Ivar may have already ruled there from 989 until forced out by Sigtrygg in 993.
    • Much depends on the interpretation.
    • Either way, Sihtric was back in Dublin within a year.

The Viking Settlement of Dublin

Beginning in the 9th and 10th century, there were two settlements where the modern city stands. The Viking settlement of c. AD 837 was known as Dyflin, from the Irish Duiblinn (or “Black Pool”, referring to a dark tidal pool where the River Poddle entered the Liffey on the site of the Castle Gardens at the rear of Dublin Castle), and a Gaelic settlement, Áth Cliath (“ford of hurdles”) was further upriver, at the present day Father Mathew Bridge at the bottom of Church Street. This Viking settlement experienced mixed fortunes during the 9th C.

  • AD 837 – sixty Viking warships appeared at the mouth of the Liffey.
  • AD 842 – the harbour of Dublin was taken by a Norwegian force, under the command of King Turgesius. They then ‘threw up a fort on the high ridge where Dublin Castle is today
    • They were expelled by the local Irish and their stronghold was burnt down.
  • AD 859 – the Vikings returned under the command of Olaf the White, with Danish colleagues and in greater numbers.
    • They used the old site and set up a permanent ‘longphort’ or ship camp, which became their pirate layer and their main centre for trading silver and slaves.
    • This quickly developed into a thriving organised settlement, the centre of their kingdom of Dyflinnarskiri – which stretched along the coast from Skerries to Wicklow and up the Liffey valley as far as Leixlip.
Viking Dublin, c. 1015

It is from this Viking town of Dyflinn (a corruption of Dubhlinn) that urban Dublin developed. It was divided into a network of streets, pathways, houses and plots, with industrial areas set aside for the manufacture of clothes and ornaments. Their market place appears to have been at the present junction of Castle Street and Werburgh Street and the King of Dublin’s house stood on the present Castle site.

The Dublin Vikings set about fortifying their new town, their chief settlement in Ireland, with encircling earthen banks topped with strong wooden palisade fencing. There were no Christian churches inside the pallisade because the Dublin Vikings did not convert to Christianity until after Sihtric returned from his pilgrimage to Rome in AD 1028.

  • Part of the town defences is on view at the ‘undercroft’ in Dublin Castle, where the facing stone revetments offered protection against erosion by the Poddle.
  • They controlled the Irish Sea with their powerful naval fleet.

Sihtric consolidates power in Dublin

More is known about Sihtric after AD 995 when he began a campaign to consolidate his power in Dublin and extend his influence into the surrounding hinterlands. With a population of under 500,000 people, Ireland had over 150 kings and many of these were very small – this made it easy for the Vikings to inter-marry and integrate with the Irish.

  • From about AD 995 onwards, Hiberno-Norse Phase I coinage was minted in Dublin by Sihtric
Hiberno-Norse. Sihtric III Olafsson. Circa 995-1036. AR Penny (19mm, 1.34 g, 9h). Phase II coinage, Long Cross type. Difelin (Dublin) mint; ‘Faeremin’, moneyer. Struck circa 1015-1035. Draped bust left; cross pattée behind neck / + FÆ REMI N MΘ DУFLI, voided long cross, with triple crescent ends; pellet in third quarter. Cf. O'S 10; cf. SCBI 32 (Ulster), 49-57; cf. SCBI 8 (BM), 64-6; D&F 23; SCBC 6122. Near EF, toned

Hiberno-Norse. Sihtric III Olafsson. Circa 995-1036. AR Penny (19mm, 1.34 g, 9h). Phase II coinage, Long Cross type. Difelin (Dublin) mint; ‘Faeremin’, moneyer. Struck circa 1015-1035. Draped bust left; cross pattée behind neck / + FÆ REMI N MΘ DУFLI, voided long cross, with triple crescent ends; pellet in third quarter. Cf. O’S 10; cf. SCBI 32 (Ulster), 49-57; cf. SCBI 8 (BM), 64-6; D&F 23; SCBC 6122. Near EF, toned

  • In AD 995, Sihtric and his nephew, Muirchertach Ua Congalaich, attacked the church at Donaghpatrick in Co Meath.
    • In retaliation, Máel Sechnaill (his mother’s first husband – King of Meath and High King of Ireland) entered Dublin and took the Ring of Thor and the Sword of Carlus
  • In AD 997, Sihtric then attacked Kells and Clonard
  • In AD 998, Máel Sechnaill and the King of Munster, Brian Boru, forced Sihtric to recognise their over-lordship by giving hostages

By this time, Sihtric must have realised that Dublin’s wealth made him a target, and that his city needed powerful allies and walls. The Dublin countryside did not provide sufficient resources for competition against powerful Irish princes.

  • Sihtric first allied with his maternal uncle, Máel Mórda mac Murchada, King of the Uí Fáeláin of North Leinster.
  • In AD 999, they defeated their cousin Donnchad mac Domhnaill (the King of Leinster) and imprisoned him in Dublin.

First Leinster revolt against Brian Boru

Later on in AD 999, the Leinstermen allied themselves with the Norse of Dublin and revolted against Brian Boru. This provided the opportunity for Sihtric’s second alliance with Máel Mórda mac Murchada.

  • Brian’s forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the united Leinster-Dublin army at the Battle of Glenmama, and followed the victory with an attack on the city of Dublin.
    • The 12th-century Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh gives two accounts of the occupation: Brian remained in Dublin from Christmas Day until Epiphany (6 January), or from Christmas Day until St. Brigid’s Day (1 February).
    • The later Annals of Ulster date the Battle of Glenmama to 30 December 999
    • The Annals of Inisfallen date Brian’s capture of the city to 1 January
  • Brian Boru plundered the city, burned the Norse fortress and expelled Sihtric.

According to the Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh, Sigtrygg’s flight from the city took him north, first to the Ulaid and then to Aéd of Cenél nEógain.

  • Both tribes refused to help him.
  • As Sithric could find no refuge in Ireland, he eventually returned, submitted to Brian, gave hostages and was restored to Dublin three months after Brian ended his occupation in February.

In order to ensure Sihtric’s loyalty and ensure no further rebellion against his rule, a double marriage was arranged:

  • Brian Boru’s daughter (Sláine, by his ‘first’ wife) was married to Sihtric
    • Brian’s first wife was Mór, daughter of the King of Uí Fiachrach Aidne of Connacht.
    • She is said to have been the mother of his sons Murchad, Conchobar and Flann.
    • Murchad’s son Tadc is recorded as being killed at Clontarf along with his father and grandfather
  • Brian Boru, himself, then married Sihtric’s mother, the now thrice-married Gormflaith, as his second wife

A Temporary Peace

Another part of the peace deal was that Sihtric’s vikings would serve in the in the armies of Brian and this gave Brian a powerful fleet. From then on, Dublin enjoyed a sustained period of peace.

It is said that Sihtric never forgot the Ulaid’s refusal of aid when he fled from Dublin, and in AD 1002 he had his revenge when his soldiers served in Brian’s campaign against the Ulaid and ravaged their lands.

  • His fleet raided Ulster, and he plundered Kilclief and Inis Cumhscraigh, taking many prisoners from both.
  • They served under Brian against the Ulaid again in AD 1005, and against the Northern Uí Néill in AD 1006 and 1007.
  • Cenél Conaill, the last of the Northern Uí Néill Kingdoms, submitted in AD 1011 and Brian was formally recognised as High King throughout Ireland.

A remembrance of Sihtric’s reign during these years is preserved in the late medieval Icelandic Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent’s Tongue. Only fragments survive of the verses in the Sigtryggsdrápa, a drápa composed by the skald Gunnlaug Illugason while visiting Sihtric’s court.

  • The verses praise Sigtrygg for his royal ancestry, and describe Dublin as a busy, thriving port.
  • Archaeological excavations of ships, gold, clothing, and pieces for games from around this time seem to confirm the description.
  • According to the prose, Sigtrygg considered rewarding the poet with ships and gold, but instead granted him a new suit of clothes.

Second Leinster revolt against Brian Boru

Some time after AD 1010, Brian Boru divorced Queen Gormflaith, and she began to engineer opposition to the High King. Apparently, Brian married his third wife (Echrad) around this time.

  • Echrad, was a daughter of Carlus mac Ailella, King of Uí Áeda Odba, an obscure branch of the southern Uí Néill. She was the mother of Brian’s son Tadc, whose son Toirdelbach and grandson Muirchertach later rivalled Brian in power and fame
  • Brian’s fourth known wife, Dub Choblaig, was a daughter of King Cathal mac Conchobar mac Taidg of Connacht

Around AD 1012, relations between Brian and Leinster had become so strained that revolt broke out among the Leinstermen. 

  • Sihtric aligned himself with the forces of Máel Mórda, leader of the revolt, and the chiefs Ua Ruairc, Ua Néill, and others.
  • Together, they defeated Brian’s ally Máel Sechnaill near the town of Swords, and Brian for the moment was unable to render assistance.

Sihtric sent his son Olaf to lead a fleet south to Munster to burn the Viking settlement of Cork. The fleet also attacked Cape Clear, crippling Brian’s naval power, which was concentrated in Cork.

A ‘new’ wife was not a good thing for the ex-wife (or wives, in this instance) as their sons would be disinherited by Brian Boru’s preference for the European form of inheritance, i.e. the eldest son of the ‘current’ wife.

  • It is also said that she was “remarkable for her beauty, but her temper was proud and vindictive”
  • Either way, she is portrayed as “the bitter divorcee” in the run up to the Battle of Clontarf

According to Njál’s saga, Gormflaith “willed her son Sihtric very much to kill King Brian”,  sending him to win the support of Earl Sigurd of Orkney, and Bróðir and Óspak of Man at any price.

  • Sigtrygg arrived in Orkney for Sigurd’s Yule feast, where he sat in a high seat between the two brothers-in-law, Earl Sigurd of Orkney and Earl Gilli of the Southern Isles
  • The saga also records that Sigtrygg was very interested in the Burning of Njáll Þorgeirsson at Bergþórshvolland what had happened since
  • Afterwards, Sigtrygg bade Sigurd to go to war with him against Brian
  • Despite Sigurd’s initial hesitance and against the advice of his men, he eventually agreed to arrive in Dublin by Palm Sunday with all his men, on the condition that if Brian was slain, Sigurd would marry Gormflaith and become King of Ireland
A modern sketch of Sigurd the Stout and his personal ‘Raven’ standard. Sigurd claimed rulership of Sodor (corruptions of the Norse ‘Sudreyjar’, or ‘Southern Islands’, i.e. those islands west and south of Scotland) and the Isle of Man, and held power until he died in battle in 1014. His son Thorfinn the Mighty (and heir to the Earldom of Orkney) was just a child at the time, but Godred’s surviving son Harold (now known as Harold the Black) had come of age, and with Sigurd dead, Harold successfully moved to reclaim his father’s kingdom in the isles

A modern sketch of Sigurd the Stout and his personal ‘Raven’ standard – the Vikings believed that no army flying this standard could be defeated in battle.. Sigurd of Orkney also claimed rulership of Sodor (corruptions of the Norse ‘Sudreyjar’, or ‘Southern Islands’, i.e. those islands west and south of Scotland) and the Isle of Man, and held power until he died in battle in 1014. His son Thorfinn the Mighty (and heir to the Earldom of Orkney) was just a child at the time, but Godred’s surviving son Harold (now known as Harold the Black) had come of age, and with Sigurd dead, Harold successfully moved to reclaim his father’s kingdom in the isles

Sihtric went next to the Isle of Man where he met the brothers, Bróðir and Óspak. Bróðir was a Christian that had recently re-converted to paganism, whereas Óspak was a shamen. Sihtric also persuaded Bróðir to be in Dublin by Palm Sunday, and he promised Bróðir too that, if successful, he would be allowed marry Gormflaith and become King of Ireland; the terms of this agreement were kept secret.

  • Óspak was dissatisfied with the arrangement, and refused to “fight against so good a king”.
    • On the day of the battle, Óspak fought with Brian Boru.

The two forces famously met at the Battle of Clontarf, on Good Friday in AD 1014, a battle that claimed the lives of the main commanders on both sides: Brian and his son Murchad on the Munster side; and Máel Mórda, Sigurd and Bróðir on the Leinster-Norse side.

According to Irish sources, Sihtric did not take part in the battle, but held his garrison in reserve in Dublin. The Cogadh Gaedhil re Gallaibh records that Sihtric was able to observe the progress of the battle and the movement of the battle standards from the ramparts of his fortress.

  • As the modern Irish medievalist historian Donnchadh Ó Corráin notes, Sihtric (Silkenbeard) Olafsson “wisely kept within the city and lived to tell the tale”.

Earlier Scandinavian sources (the Orkneyinga saga, Njál’s saga and the Darraðarljóð, composed soon after the battle) contend that Sihtric did actually fight at Clontarf.

  • The Darraðarljóð, showing the persistence of paganism among the Vikings of Dublin, describes the Valkyries as following the “young king” Sihtric into battle.
  • Njal’s Saga records that Sihtric was on the wing opposite Óspak of Man for the whole battle, and that Óspak eventually put the king to flight.

With the Viking fleet assembled off Howth, the Dublin Vikings marched out of Dublin to meet Brian’s army which had been sacking Fingall and Howth. Sigurd and Bróðir landed at Clontarf and joined the Dublin-Leinster forces.

  • Unable to break out from here, with their backs to the sea and unable to escape, they were forced back to the tidal mudflats and massacred.
    • Their leaders, Máel Mórda and Sigurd of Orkney were killed in the battle.
    • Another group were ambushed at Dubhgall’s Bridge (thought to be present day Ballybough) and also massacred
      • only 20 survivors are said to have made it back to the safety of Dublin city
  • In the rout that followed, it is said that Bróðir came upon Brian Boru in his tent and killed him, and his grandson. Bróðir was soon captured and executed
    • Brian’s son, Murchad and nephew Conaing are also killed in the battle
    • Thus the High King and his two direct successors were gone
    • This set up a power vacuum that would spill over into inter-necine warfare

After Clontarf, AD 1014

Since so many of the most powerful kings from either side were killed at Clontarf, it might be expected that Sihtric could emerge as a victor by way of being the last man standing but it did not work out like that – without the protection of Brian Boru, once again, Dublin and its wealth became a target for the surrounding Irish kings vying for power.

  • Máel Sechnaill, now again recognised as high king, was undoubtedly the battle’s main beneficiary, whereas Sihtric suffered somewhat mixed fortunes thereafter
    • In AD 1015, plague struck Dublin and Leinster
    • Máel Sechnaill seized the opportunity to march south to burn Dublin’s suburbs
  • It is thought that Hiberno-Norse Phase II coinage was minted in Dublin by Sihtric from approx. AD 1015 to 1036. 
    • The Phase II coinage gradually degrades over this period
    • The legends become less intelligible and the quality of the silver is reduced
    • This is thought to be indicative of a gradual decline in international trade
Ireland, Hiberno-Norse, Sihtric, penny, phase II (c.1015-1035), imitating long cross type of Aethelred II, + SIHTRC RE DIFLM, bust l., rev. + FÆ REMI NMO DYHI, long voided cross, pellet in each angle (S.6122; D&F.23), bottom edge very ragged, about very fine, scarce

Ireland, Hiberno-Norse, Sihtric, penny, Phase II (c.1015-1035), imitating long cross type of Aethelred II, + SIHTRC RE DIFLM, bust l., rev. + FÆ REMI NMO DYHI, long voided cross, pellet in each angle (S.6122; D&F.23), bottom edge very ragged, about very fine, scarce

  • In AD 1017, Sihtric allied with Leinster for an attack on Meath
    • This alliance was dissolved when Sihtric blinded his cousin Bróen, Máel Morda’s son and heir, in Dublin
  • In AD 1018, Sihtric plundered Kells
    • He “carried off innumerable spoils and prisoners, and slew many persons in the middle of the church”
    • These captives were either ransomed or sold into Dublin’s lucrative slave trade
  • In AD 1021, Sihtric raided south but was defeated at Delgany in Co Wicklow
    • It is said that the new King of Leinster, Augaire mac Dúnlainge, “made a dreadful slaughter of the foreigners”
  • In AD 1022, the Dublin fleet sailed north against the Ulaid, only to be destroyed in a naval battle against Niall mac Eochaid, after which the Norse crews and ships were taken prisoner

Later in AD 1022, fortune seemed to favour Sihtric again when his great enemy, Máel Sechnaill, died. With no likely successor (táiniste), the minor kings began to compete for the High Kingship.

  • The political situation became chaotic as there was no clear choice for supremacy
  • Accordingly, “Dublin became a prize for those who would rule Ireland and wanted the town’s wealth to finance their ambitions”
    • Hostages were taken from Sihtric by Flaithbertach Ua Néill, King of Cenél nEógain and the Uí Néill, and Donnchad mac Briain of Munster in 1025 and 1026 respectively, in support of their bids for the high kingship.
    • These hostages brought no security, and Dublin was raided in 1026 by Niall mac Eocada of the Ulaid in revenge for the naval attack of 1022.
    • Sihtric formed a new alliance with the men of Brega.
  • In AD 1027, Sihtric’s son Olaf joined Donnchad of Brega in a raid on Staholmock, Co Meath.
    • Sihtric and Donnchad’s army was defeated by the men of Meath under their king, Roen Ua Mael Sechlainn.
    • Sihtric rallied to the fight again at Lickblaw where Donnchad and Roen were slain.
  • In AD 1029, Sihtric’s son Olaf was taken prisoner by the new lord of Brega, Mathghamhain Ua Riagain.
    • Sihtric was forced to pay a ransom of 1,200 cows, 140 British horses, 60 ounces of gold and of silver, the Sword of Carlus, the Irish hostages of Leinster and Leath Cuinn, “four hostages to Ua Riagain as a security for peace, and the full value of the life of the third hostage.”
    • An additional 80 cows “for word and supplication” were to be paid to the man who entreated for Olaf’s release.
      • The incident illustrates the importance of ransoming noble captives, as a means of political manipulation, increasing one’s own revenues and exhausting the resources of one’s foes.

Sihtric’s fortunes improved in the 1030’s.

  • In 1030, he allied with the King of England, Cnut, and together their fleets raided Wales.
    • A Dublin colony was established in Gwynedd, and for the following years Sihtric was at the height of his power.
  • In 1032, without allies, Sihtric won a great victory on the Boyne estuary
    • Sihtric defeated a coalition of three kingdoms:
      • over 300 members of the Conailli, the Ui Tortain, and the Ui Meith were captured or killed at the Battle of Inbher Boinne
  • In 1035, he plundered the celebrated stone church Ardbraccan in Meath, burned 200 men inside, and carried another 200 off into captivity.
    • In revenge, the church at Swords was plundered and burned by Conchobhar Ua Maeleachlainn, who took away cattle and captives.
  • Meanwhile, in a renewal of ancient feuds that same year, Sihtric executed Ragnall (the Norse King of Waterford) in Dublin
    • Ragnall was the grandson of the Ivar, Sigtrygg’s earliest rival, who had contested for Dublin decades before.
  • Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, King of the Isles forced Sigtrygg to abdicate in 1036.
    • Sigtrygg died in exile, at an unknown place, in 1042
    • Some of the earlier Hiberno-Norse Phase III coins are thought to have been minted by Echmarcach mac Ragnaill
Hiberno-Norse. temp. Echmarcach mac Ragnaill – Murchad mac Diarmata. Mid 11th century. AR Penny Phase III coinage

Hiberno-Norse. temp. Echmarcach mac Ragnaill – Murchad mac Diarmata. Mid 11th century. Silver Penny, Phase III coinage. These coins are often referred to as the “Long Cross & Hands” issues, i.e. symbols on the reverse side are thought to represent a human hand

 

 

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