The DIB and Christ Church cathedral: Sitriuc Silkbeard

16 September 2019

This coming Friday Terry Clavin will be speaking at Christ Church Cathedral on the many DIB lives connected to the institution throughout its rich history. To mark this event read the DIB entry on Sitriuc Silkbeard, by Howard Clarke, below.

Sitriuc Silkbeard (Sitric, Sigtryggr Ólafsson Silkiskeggi) (d. 1042), king of Dublin, was born probably in the mid 950s. His Norse father, Olaf (Óláfr), known in Ireland as Amlaíb (qv) Cuarán, had returned from England in 952, having failed to establish himself as king of York. Thereafter Olaf resided in Dublin, committing himself to its development as Ireland's first genuine town with an economy based primarily on craft-working and trading, both locally and internationally. Sitriuc's Irish mother, Gormlaith (qv) (d. 1030), was the daughter of a future king of Leinster, Murchad son of Finn, who represented the Uí Fháeláin branch of the dominant Uí Dúnlainge dynasty, based at Naas. Sitriuc appears to have been fourth of six recorded sons by two wives, and had at least two sisters. Their names suggest a family background that was bilingual and culturally diverse in other ways. During Sitriuc's lifetime the kingdom of Dublin underwent a dramatic transition from viking to Hiberno-Norse. The old value system is reflected in the first contemporary reference to the young Sitriuc, when in 969 he accompanied his grandfather Murchad on a plundering expedition to a favourite target of Dublin Vikings – Kells. The joint raiding party was overtaken and defeated by an army of the current high-king, Domnall Ua Néill(qv). Much more decisive, however, was the crushing defeat, at the battle of Tara (980), inflicted on Sitriuc's father by the new high-king, Máel-Sechnaill (qv) son of Domnall, of the Southern Uí Néill, and which claimed the life of the old king's son Ragnall (= Røgnvaldr). The victor would remain a redoubtable political presence for more than four decades, and one of several interfamilial ironies in Sitriuc's life is that, at an unknown date, Máel-Sechnaill became for a time his stepfather as a result of marrying Gormlaith. 

Accession under the aegis of Máel-Sechnaill Sitriuc came to kingship in suitably dramatic circumstances. On Amlaíb Cuarán's abdication (980) and brief retirement to Iona in the Inner Hebrides, the oldest of his sons, Glúniarainn (Jarnkné), succeeded him. He in turn was murdered, reportedly while drunk, by one of his own slaves in 989. At that point it would appear that the stepfather, Máel-Sechnaill, intervened forcefully as king-maker. Having defeated the Norsemen outside their town, he then caused the inhabitants to surrender for lack of fresh water and to pay a tax of one ounce of gold per tenement. In addition, there can be little doubt that he installed Sitriuc as his preferred candidate for kingship. Then perhaps in his mid thirties, Sitriuc may have expressed a willingness to do his stepfather's bidding, yet he comes across to us equally as an independent spirit. One of the characteristics of his long reign, as of his father's earlier years, is engagement in English affairs and with English ways of doing things. Of this, the first indication takes the archaeological form of the largest finds of English coins in Dublin, dated collectively to between c.991 and 997. Overseas trading, then as now, tended to be competitive, and rivalry seems to have been building up in particular with the Hiberno-Scandinavians of Waterford, whose king Ímar (qv) (Ívaar) belonged to a junior branch of the same Scandinavian dynasty. In 994 Sitriuc was expelled from Dublin by Ímar, who installed his own son Ragnall as its king. In traditional viking fashion the new ruler made a forceful if fateful political gesture by plundering a major church, at Donaghpatrick near Teltown, under Máel-Sechnaill's patronage. The latter reacted with commensurate decisiveness, capturing Dublin for the third time and removing from it trophies that are said to have included the ring of Thor. If this was a heavy, oath-swearing ring of a type known from other Scandinavian contexts, it suggests that a significant proportion of the warrior-merchants of Dublin, including quite possibly Sitriuc himself, was still practising pagan observances. Two other outcomes were that Ragnall was killed and that Sitriuc was restored to his kingship. 

Máel-Sechnaill and Brian Bórama; the first royal coinage in Ireland The remaining years of the tenth century were marked by a rise in the political temperature brought about by two native Irish rivals – the existing high-king, Máel-Sechnaill, and an upstart from Munster, Brian Bórama (qv). In such circumstances Sitriuc's political skills were put to a severe test; if he was found wanting, he did what he always did best: he survived. First, however, having resumed control, he made an unmistakable gesture towards the king of England, Æthelred II (the Unready). Probably in 997 Sitriuc initiated a regular silver currency modelled on the contemporary crux pennies of the English king. These were high-grade imitations, made almost certainly by moneyers brought over from England. The coins are inscribed SIHTRIC REX DYFLINN (and variants): they were intended, like coins elsewhere, to proclaim the ruler's authority. The obverse bears a conventional, left-facing (and beardless) profile and bust; Sitriuc was the first king in Irish history to have his name and image broadcast, at home and abroad, in this manner. The country's biggest power-brokers, of course, had other means at their disposal. That same year the two rivals for the high-kingship agreed to share influence equally, Máel-Sechnaill in the northern half of the island (Leth Cuinn) and Brian in the southern half (Leth Moga). This meant in turn that Dublin, together with the rest of Leinster, now found itself subject to Brian's hegemony. Unsurprisingly, there was restiveness at the idea of a Munster takeover. The revolt was spearheaded by Sitriuc's maternal uncle, Máel-mórda (qv), the future provincial king (1003–14), and supported by Sitriuc himself. Brian's response was to lead an army towards Dublin and, in the valley of Glenn Máma near Saggart, he inflicted a heavy defeat on the rebels on the penultimate day of the year 999. Sitriuc's brother Aralt (Haraldr) lay among the dead. The Munstermen celebrated the first days of the new year by stripping the town of its wealth before burning it to the ground. Sitriuc fled by sea to the north of Ireland. There was, however, a family connection in that Brian, like Máel-Sechnaill before him, had married and subsequently divorced Sitriuc's notoriously unuxorious mother, Gormlaith. Sitriuc presumably sued for peace with his erstwhile stepfather, one condition of which was that he should instead become Brian's son-in-law by taking as his (second) wife the Munster king's daughter Sláine. 

Munster dominance; the battle of Clontarf Within two years Brian Bórama had displaced Máel-Sechnaill as high-king, and Sitriuc's career appears to have entered its most stable phase. He now had as his protector the most powerful man in the country. The annals report regularly on the presence of warriors from Dublin accompanying the new high-king on his hostings round Ireland, including the famous visitation to Armagh in 1005. Three years earlier Sitriuc had indulged in an old-fashioned naval expedition, raiding the Strangford shoreline and bringing back prisoners. In so doing he may have been acting at the behest of his father-in-law, if the intention was to put pressure on the Ulaid. Back home, Sitriuc's immediate task would have been to organise the reconstruction of Dublin, including more effective earth-and-timber defences of the kind known as Bank 3 at Wood Quay and dated archaeologically to c.1000. Once his uncle, Máel-Mórda, assumed the provincial kingship in 1003, Sitriuc would have had to balance family pressures coming from different directions. He evidently managed to hold the line for a full decade till the political situation, always inherently unstable, began to unravel with dramatic consequences in 1013. Near at home we find him, again in alliance with his uncle Máel-Mórda, dealing decisively with one of Máel-Sechnaill's foraging parties in the act of plundering Fingal; their joint forces killed between 150 and 200 of the raiders, including the king of Mide's eldest son, Flann. That same year Sitriuc dispatched a naval expedition to another of Dublin's trading rivals, Cork, which was burned. The local king, however, then won a victory over the aggressors, in the course of which a son and a nephew of King Sitriuc met their death. The real challenge came from the high-king, whose troops invested about three months in the autumn of 1013 seeking to capture the redefended town of Dublin. Understandably enough, Brian's men wanted to go back home for Christmas and duly did so. Knowing full well that this would be but a temporary respite, Sitriuc spent the following winter recruiting allies along the old viking seaways as far north as Orkney. The climactic outcome was the famous confrontation between the grand alliance and a substantial Munster army at Clontarf on Good Friday (23 April) 1014. Reputedly King Sitriuc watched the proceedings from inside the defences of his town; he may quite legitimately have decided to remain in command of a defensive garrison in the event of a Munster victory and a renewed attempt at a siege. In the event all of the leaders on both sides of the battle were killed; among the dead were Sitriuc's remaining brother Dubgall, a nephew Gilla Ciaráin, and his uncle Máel-Mórda. Once again Sitriuc himself survived, having lost in the warfare of 1013–14 a son, a brother, two nephews, an uncle, and his father-in-law. 

Final phase Four themes can be detected in the final phase of Sitriuc's career. First, from time to time we hear about local political entanglements, most predictably a hostile visitation on the part of his old nemesis, Máel-Sechnaill, who resumed the high-kingship on Brian's death. In 1015, apparently without difficulty, the men of Mide took Dublin and burned it, together with all of the houses outside the main enclosure. This circumstantial detail suggests that, since the previous destruction in January 1000, the town had been flourishing under Sitriuc's rule. The archaeology of Dublin has demonstrated that the building and rebuilding of typical post-and-wattle houses was a regular feature of life. The potential wealth of Dublin is hinted at in 1029 when Sitriuc's son Amlaíb (the second of that name) was captured and the ransom demanded was expressed as 1,200 cows, 120 Welsh ponies, sixty ounces of gold, and the same amount of silver. Secondly, regular trade with Wales was mixed with warfare in a typical viking combination: in the following year the fleets of Dublin and of Sitriuc's new-found ally, King Cnut of England, Denmark, and Norway, were raiding in Wales, and one outcome appears to have been a Dublin colony in Gwynedd. Amlaíb was killed in mysterious circumstances in England in 1034, but his descendants would later constitute the ruling dynasty of Gwynedd, starting with Sitriuc's great-grandson, Gruffudd ap Cynan, in 1081. The last of Sitriuc's remaining sons, Gofraid ( = Gu∂rø∂r), was killed in Wales in 1036. Thirdly, one of the more positive developments of Sitriuc's advanced years evinced yet another personal dimension to this remarkable man – a well-publicised pilgrimage to Rome in the company of the king of South Brega. The arduous return journey, probably via Cologne where he acquired relics and a martyrology, was completed within the compass of the year 1028. On his return, it may reasonably be assumed, Sitriuc achieved his most enduring legacy: in association with a young Irish priest, Dúnán (qv), he founded a cathedral in the heart of Dublin. Christianity, long tolerated in and around Scandinavian Dublin, was at last accorded official recognition. Sitriuc's personal contribution seems to have been adequate rather than generous: a site in the expanding town, land at Grangegorman, and a quantity of gold and silver to help pay for the actual building. His cathedral's religious orientation is highly significant and reminiscent of earlier initiatives that placed Dublin in an English milieu: the dedication was to the Holy Trinity and the byname became Christ Church – precisely those of Archbishop Æthelnoth's cathedral at Canterbury, by which Sitriuc had very probably passed on his way to and from Rome. 

Local politics, Welsh politics, and the politics of giving his royal blessing to a critical mass of Christian adherents are three of these late recurrent themes. The fourth would lead to Sitriuc's ultimate defeat – a resumption of the feud with the Hiberno-Scandinavians of Waterford. Their king, Ragnall, a grandson of the Ímar who had expelled Sitriuc back in 994, was murdered when on a visit to Dublin in 1035. In the following year the old man was forced to abdicate by a representative of an insular dynasty, Echmarcach (qv) son of Ragnall, and went ‘across the sea’ into permanent exile. His death is recorded at 1042 but not his final resting-place, which may reasonably be assumed to have been in Gwynedd. In effect the dynastic line established by Ímar the Boneless nearly two centuries earlier was coming to an inglorious end. Sitriuc had had no shortage of sons by his two wives, but such were his own longevity and his capacity for survival in an unrelentingly treacherous and turbulent political environment that the last of his children, Caillech Finnén, would die in the very same month as her father. The name of Sitriuc's first wife (or presumed partner) is unknown, but at least two sons were born of this union: Artalach (d. 999) and Amlaíb (d. 1013). His sons by Sláine appear to have included Glúniarainn (d. 1031), another Amlaíb (d. 1034), and Gofraid (d. 1036). Such names bespeak a mixed Gaelic and Norse cultural interface. As in the case of his own father, Sitriuc's cultural ambivalence appears to have been accompanied by a deeper-seated personal ambivalence. This may be illustrated by an incident recorded in 1031. At Ardbraccan, south-east of Kells in Southern Uí Néill territory, Sitriuc and his fellow warriors committed a major atrocity, in which an estimated 200 people were burned, alive, inside their stone church and an equal number taken away into captivity. Even as his cathedral church was being built, old viking values inherited by King Sitriuc were still capable of being resurrected. Such unworthy deeds, however, were commonplace in contemporary Ireland: four years later Sitriuc plundered the same place and in revenge Conchobar, a grandson of Máel-Sechnaill son of Domnall, did likewise to an important church under Sitriuc's patronage, that at Swords. In an age when so many kings died violently and young, Sitriuc Silkbeard was endowed, amply it would seem, with a deviousness and a ruthlessness that were matched only by an extraordinary ability to come through so many vicissitudes. 

AFMChron. Scot.Cog. GaedhelAUAnn. Tig.; John Ryan, ‘The battle of Clontarf’, RSAI Jn., lxviii (1938), 1–50; Ann. Inisf.; Patrick Wallace, ‘The archaeology of viking Dublin’, H. B. Clarke and Anngret Simms (ed.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe (2 vols, 1985), pt 1, 103–45; H. B. Clarke, ‘The bloodied eagle: the vikings and the development of Dublin, 841–1014’, Ir. Sword, xviii (1990–92), 91–119; B. T. Hudson, ‘Knútr and viking Dublin’, Scandinavian Studies, lxv (1994), 319–35; Charles Doherty, ‘The vikings in Ireland: a review’, H. B. Clarke, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, and Raghnall Ó Floinn (ed.), Ireland and Scandinavia in the early viking age (1998), 288–330; H. B. Clarke, ‘Conversion, church and cathedral: the diocese of Dublin to 1152’, James Kelly and Dáire Keogh (ed.), History of the catholic diocese of Dublin (2000), 19–50; Stuart Kinsella, ‘From Hiberno-Norse to Anglo-Norman, 1030–1300’, Kenneth Milne (ed.), Christ Church cathedral Dublin: a history (2000), 25–52; Colmán Etchingham, ‘North Wales, Ireland and the Isles: the insular viking zone’, Peritia, xv (2001), 145–87; Ailbhe Mac Shamhráin, ‘The battle of Glenn Máma, Dublin, and the high-kingship of Ireland: a millennial commemoration’, Seán Duffy (ed.), Medieval Dublin II: proceedings of the Friends of Medieval Dublin symposium 2000 (2001), 53–64; Ruth Johnson, Viking age Dublin (2004); Seán Duffy, ‘The royal dynasties of Dublin and the Isles in the eleventh century’, id. (ed.), Medieval Dublin VII: proceedings of the Friends of Medieval Dublin symposium 2005 (2006), 51–65; R. Ó Floinn, ‘The foundation relics of Christ Church Cathedral and the origins of the diocese of Dublin’, S. Duffy (ed.), Medieval Dublin VII(2006), 89–102; Pádraig Ó Riain, Feastdays of the saints: a history of Irish martyrologies (Brussels, 2006); Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Brian Boru: Ireland's greatest king? (2007); Clare Downham, Viking kings of Britain and Ireland: the dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014 (2007)

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Details of the talk can be found here.

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