Tag Archives: Alt Clut

Essential Sources: 2 – Fragmentary Annals

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in the 12th-century Cartulary of Abington Abbey

Unlike the better-known Irish chronicles (such as the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach) the text known as the Fragmentary Annals embellishes many of its year-entries with long passages of narrative saga. This is one reason why modern historians approach it warily. Another reason is its compiler’s obvious intent to write political propaganda for a particular dynasty, in this case the royal house of Ossory in south-east Ireland.

The text of the Fragmentary Annals survives in a seventeenth-century manuscript but analysis has shown that it was originally compiled in the mid-eleventh century. The compiler used various older chronicles, supplementing their year-entries with narrative tales of uncertain provenance. Without any means of tracing the origin of most of these stories, we cannot assess their accuracy or reliability, nor can we measure their historical value. Such uncertainty makes the Fragmentary Annals a controversial source indeed – and also a frustrating one. Many of the narrative passages offer unique, tantalising details about important historical characters and real events, but the very uniqueness of the data reduces its credibility.

The Viking-Age kingdom of Strathclyde appears twice. The first occurrence is slightly erroneous, because the context relates not to Strathclyde but to its predecessor Alt Clut. The event in question is the assault on Dumbarton Rock by a large force of Norse Vikings in 870. Although the eleventh-century compiler of the Fragmentary Annals knew of a kingdom called Srath Cluada in his own lifetime he seems to have been unaware that a political entity of this name did not emerge until after 870 when the royal dynasty of the Clyde Britons abandoned Dumbarton. The annal for the Viking raid is shown below. This is a scanned image from the definitive 1978 edition by Joan Radner, where the English translation appears on the facing page. Numbers in bold typeface are from Radner’s own editorial notation.

Dumbarton Viking siege 870

The besieging and plundering of Alt Clut was widely reported in contemporary chronicles, so the unique detail about the water supply is usually regarded as an item of authentic information. By contrast, Strathclyde’s second appearance in the Fragmentary Annals lacks a clear supporting context and thus invites scepticism. It occurs at the end of a narrative describing the military activities of Aethelflaed, ruler of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, against her Viking foes. Aethelflaed’s achievements as a war-leader are not in doubt but the Fragmentary Annals credits her with a deed that no other source mentions: an alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons:

Aethelflaed Strathclyde

Again, the text and translation are from Radner’s edition. I have added square brackets to the date 914 because, as Radner herself points out, the section in which the alliance occurs is more likely to relate to 917 or 918. Did the alliance really happen, or was it a fictional detail added by the compiler? Opinions are divided on the issue, with some historians taking a firmly sceptical stance. Personally, I see no reason to reject the passage outright. An alliance with Alba and Strathclyde would have been consistent with Aethelflaed’s defensive strategy, which was concerned with the defence of her borders. From other sources we know that she was particularly anxious about the threat posed to north-west Mercia by Viking forces operating in the Irish Sea. We also know that her policies were looking northward at the time of her death in June 918, for Anglo-Danish Northumbria was on the point of pledging allegiance to her when she passed away. Perhaps their overtures of peace were prompted by news of her alliance with Alba and Strathclyde – a development that would have seemed profoundly worrying to the Northumbrian elite at York.

* * * * *

Notes & references

Joan Newlon Radner (ed. & trans.) Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin: Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1978)

The difficulties of using this source were neatly summarised by Radner in her introduction:
‘Much valuable and unique historical information is contained in the Fragmentary Annals. But the uncertain date and provenance of the text, and its eclectic nature – myth and history, fancy and fact, rather erratically organized – have made modern scholars wary of trusting it as a historical source.’ [Radner 1978, xxxiv]

The extracts used in this blogpost were scanned from the following pages in Radner’s edition:
Siege of Alt Clut – p.142 [text], p.143 [translation]
Aethelflaed’s alliance – p.180 + 182 [text], p.181 + 183 [translation]

For more information on Aethelflaed, see my earlier blogpost.

* * * * * * *

Advertisements

The kings of Strathclyde (AD 870 to 1070)

Like my previous books, Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age has a chronological structure which guides the reader along a timeline. In this case, the chronology runs from c.750 to c.1150, with special attention being given to a 200-year period between 870 and 1070 – the ‘lifespan’ of the kingdom of Strathclyde.

In the first chapter of The Picts: a history, I stated that the narrative was structured around a medieval list of Pictish kings in which each is named in chronological order, with reign-lengths conveniently added by the compiler. No such list is available for Strathclyde, nor has the kingdom bequeathed a chronicle or set of annals that might otherwise have provided the framework for a linear chronology. The sequence of royal succession in Strathclyde is, in fact, difficult to reconstruct with any measure of completeness. This does not mean that the task of reconstruction should be dismissed as a pointless exercise. It simply means that the resulting sequence is punctuated by gaps where the line of succession is uncertain, or by a question mark where the name of a king is unknown.

Two landmark studies tackled these difficulties head-on. In 1993, Alan Macquarrie listed all the known kings of the Clyde Britons from the fifth century to the eleventh, giving brief biographies in those cases where reliable information can be gleaned from the sources. His task for the early part of this period was made somewhat easier by the survival of a royal genealogy for the kingdom of Alt Clut, the precursor of Strathclyde, which was ruled from an ancient fortress at Dumbarton. Although the Alt Clut genealogy gave no dates, Macquarrie found chronological information in other sources and was able to reconstruct a fairly complete king-list. This ends in the late ninth century with Artgal, the last king, who witnessed Dumbarton’s destruction by a Viking army in 870. The original genealogy ends with Artgal’s son Rhun (pronounced ‘Rhin’) who is usually seen as the first king of Strathclyde, the successor realm established in the strath or lower valley of the river. In the absence of a genealogy for Rhun’s descendants, Macquarrie collated fragments of information from a range of sources, such as the Irish annals, to continue the line of kings through the tenth century and beyond. He noted that the last king of Strathclyde named in any source is Owain the Bald who fought at the Battle of Carham in 1018.

Macquarrie’s study was cited by Dauvit Broun in an equally groundbreaking article published in 2004. Broun showed the sequence of kings from 870 onwards in table form, like a family tree, with question marks indicating gaps and uncertainties. Four years ago, I used Broun’s table as the basis for my own version which appeared in The Men of the North. More recently, I’ve used the same format in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. In both books, the table has been tweaked and polished by a professional designer who makes everything look neat and tidy. The image below is a working copy from my files.

Kings of Strathclyde

* * * * *

References

Broun, Dauvit: ‘The Welsh Identity of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900–1200’ Innes Review vol.55 (2004), 111–80

Clarkson, Tim: The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)

Macquarrie, Alan: ‘The Kings of Strathclyde, c.400–1018’, pp.1–19 in A. Grant and K.J. Stringer (eds) Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community (Edinburgh, 1993)

* * * * * * *

Ivar the Boneless

Dumbarton Rock

Dumbarton Rock. Illustration by T. Nelson (1892)

The kingdom of Strathclyde emerged from the wreckage of a much older kingdom whose principal fortress lay on the summit of Dumbarton Rock. Kings were residing at this fortress as far back as the sixth century and probably earlier. Archaeological evidence shows that they imported high-status goods such as wine from the Mediterranean. They identified themselves as Britons and, like their fellow-Britons in Wales, spoke a language similar to the ancestor of Welsh. Their imposing stronghold was known as Alt Clut, which means ‘Rock of Clyde’. It served as their main centre of power for hundreds of years until, in 870, it was besieged by a huge force of Vikings. The attackers came from Dublin, a major colony and pirate-base of the Norse or Northmen (Norwegians). The outcome of the assault was reported in the Annals of Ulster by scribes writing in Latin:

Obsesio Ailech Cluathe a Norddmannis, .i. Amlaiph & Imhar, duo reges Norddmannorum obsederunt arcem illum & distruxerunt in fine .iiii. mensium arcem & predauerunt.
(‘The siege of Alt Clut by the Northmen. Anlaf and Ivar, two kings of the Northmen, laid siege to the fortress and at the end of four months they destroyed and plundered it.’)

In Wales, the compilers of the Welsh Annals briefly mentioned the catastrophe that had befallen their fellow-Britons:
Arx Alt Clut a gentilibus fracta est.
(‘The fortress of Alt Clut was broken by the heathens.’)

More is said on the fall of Dumbarton in Chapter Three of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age where, for instance, the political repercussions are discussed. One small aspect not touched on in the book is the parentage of the Norse leaders Anlaf and Ivar. Irish tradition identified them as brothers, while the old Norse sagas mention a great warrior called ‘Ivar the Boneless’ who may be the historical Ivar of 870.

Ragnar Lothbrok

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok.

Being quite an avid viewer of the ‘Vikings’ series on the History Channel, it hasn’t passed my notice that the star of the show is the warlord Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Australian actor Travis Fimmel). The Norse sagas depict Ragnar as the father of Ivar the Boneless, a relationship that may or may not have a basis in fact. This is picked up by the TV show in Season 2, where Ragnar’s wife Aslaug gives birth to Ivar whose legs are deformed, thus explaining his nickname (other explanations are possible). Since Ragnar’s own historicity is sometimes doubted, we may be dealing here with semi-legendary figures anyway. If not, and if Ivar the Boneless was the Ivar who led the destruction of Alt Clut, the TV series may have a link with one of the key events in the history of Strathclyde.