History of the Vikings
OF the Celtic lands Wales, the modern Wales, that is, without Strathclyde Wales in North Britain or West Wales (Cornwall), suffered not the least from the marauding vikings of the ninth and tenth centuries; for on their way to Ireland, whether Danes coming from the south or Norwegians from the north, Cambria lay open to their attack, and there can be little doubt that from Anglesey and from the monasteries and settlements of the north and south coasts the vikings took a full toll of life and plunder. Yet the records of the raids are scarce and there is no coherent history of viking Wales, the reason being that this is the Celtic country that most successfully withstood the attack of the Northmen in the early colonizing period, yielding less to them than did Scotland or Ireland, and showing to the invader a fiercer and a firmer front. Thus upon the first appearance of the vikings (they were Danes) in 795, when after ravages in England they came to Glamorganshire to lay that county waste with fire and sword, manfully rose the Cymry against them, routed them in battle, and, driving them back to the sea with heavy loss, saw them sail off to Ireland in search of an easier prey. And thereafter followed a period of peace, if the chronicles are to be trusted, until the '50s and '60s of the ninth century when Anglesey in the north and Gower in the south were attacked, though in Gower it is known that the Northmen, like the first viking invaders of South Wales, were repulsed.
That the foreigners made no permanent settlements of historical import in the south at this period when the Irish colonies were founded must be due to this resolute defence of the stalwart Cymry, and that they likewise failed to gain a lasting foothold in the north, so temptingly close to Ireland and to Man, may be owing in no small degree to the energy and example of a gallant Welshman, Rhodri Mawr, prince of Gwynedd, who, succeeding to the throne in 844, reigned until 878 and died as lord of the whole of North Wales. His best-known exploit in the wars with the vikings was the slaying of Orm (who perhaps gave his name to the Ormes Heads at
Llandudno), the leader of a great Danish invasion from Ireland that had been directed against Anglesey and that in 855 was terrorizing the mainland of North Wales. Yet though Rhodri was strong enough to prevent viking colonization of a serious kind, he was not always successful in his struggle with the Northmen inasmuch as a later viking attack in 877 forced him to take temporary refuge in Ireland.
It was not only the Irish vikings who menaced Wales, for in 876 came Ubbe, son of Ragnar Lodbrok, from Northumbria with his Danes to Pembroke, this just before the attack on Devonshire, and there put many of the Christian population to death; and Danes from England they were who in 894 plundered in North Wales (p. 244 ), and who in 896, upon the breakup of the force that had wintered at Bridgenorth, broke into and laid waste the south-eastern counties of the Principality. But more serious was an attack in 915 when a viking host from Brittany, after sailing into the estuary of the Severn, landed on the south coast of Wales and penetrated far inland to the neighbourhood of Hereford, capturing in their progress the Bishop of Llandaff whom they took as prisoner to their ships, later to be ransomed by Edward the Elder for 40 pounds. Yet they met with defeat, these vikings, at the hands of the men of Hereford, Gloucester, and the border towns, so that they turned away to attack the Devonshire coast, and then, by way of Pembroke, went off to Ireland.
In North Wales too, now that Rhodri Mawr was gone, the vikings appeared again, and there these Gaill from Ireland thirsted for a conquest of the land rather than for mere plunder, such an intending colonist being Ingimund who in 902, after a victory of the Irish over the Dublin settlers, crossed to Anglesey and there took land for himself and his followers. But in due course he was driven out of the island and next is heard of attacking Æthelfleda's newly repaired fortress of Chester. Thereafter Anglesey was left in peace until 915 when the Dublin Gaill once more attacked the island.
Yet there was no serious attempt to hold Anglesey as a Norse colony and a long period of respite from the viking raids followed. For this was a time when another great prince, much honoured of posterity, was already advancing to a fame and dominion such as few of the early kings in Wales enjoyed and to an authority that seems to have made his lands temporarily secure from foreign attack. Hywel dda (Howell the Good) was originally a king in Cardigan, but by the annexation of Pembroke about 920 he had become lord of all
south-west Wales and by 942 he had made himself master also of the north, overlord, indeed, of the whole Principality. Supreme over all Wales, founder of Welsh unity not less by his law-giving than by the strength of his arm, staunch friend of the English, Hywel made of Cambria a realm that only the rashest of adventurers dared attack, and so at this very period wherein vikings abroad were seeking land in which to settle rather than to plunder it could only have been by the peaceful admission of a few of them as well-disposed traders that the wandering Norsemen might hope for access into the stalwart kingdom of Wales.
But with Hywel's death in 950 his mighty kingdom collapsed, at once rent asunder by civil wars. And upon Wales thus weakened by internal strife the Gaill descended with a fury and persistence that makes the second half of the tenth century the period of the worst sufferings of the country at their hands. Four notable viking chiefs who plundered Wales in this half-century were Eric Bloodaxe, who twice raided Cambria, the great Orkney earl Turf-Einar, Olaf Tryggvason, future king of Norway, and Svein Forkbeard, the future conqueror of England, who after much victorious fighting in Wales was later captured and imprisoned by the Welsh. But most of the attacks came from the settlements near at hand in Ireland or in Man, and it was most of all upon Anglesey and Carnarvonshire in the north and upon Pembroke in the south that their onslaughts fell. Holyhead was plundered in 961, Towyn in Merioneth in 963, Penmon in Anglesey in 971 by Magnus Haraldsson of Man, and to Anglesey in 972 came Godfred Haraldsson (p. 310 ), his brother, who made himself master of the island. Not that he could have held it for long, for in 980 he returned, this time in league with a Welsh chieftain, to lay Mona waste anew and to march with fire and sword throughout the Lleyn peninsula of Carnarvon. In 982 this same prince of the Isles invaded Pembroke, and in 987 for the third time he turned against Anglesey, gaining a memorable victory over the Welsh in which he took two thousand prisoners. Next year his, or other, vikings despoiled five rich monasteries of the west and south coasts, and in 989 Maredudd ab Owain (986-999), King of Deheubarth and overlord of all Wales, paid to the foreigners a tribute of a penny per head to redeem the Welsh prisoners of the invaders. In 992, in the wars against the English, Maredudd bribed some of the Gaill into his own service, but here, as in Ireland, alliances of this kind were no guarantee of immunity from the attacks of other vikings. Thus on Ascension Day in 993 Anglesey was raided
once more, and in 999 most of the population of St. David's was either put to the sword or captured and its bishop murdered.
There cannot be much doubt that the period of the chief viking attack upon Wales, the half-century following the death of Hywel dda, must have witnessed something more than mere raid after raid, and it was at this time in all probability that many viking adventurers won some temporary power and status in the land, especially along the coast from Newport to Neath, in the Gower Peninsula and in Pembroke, where Scandinavian place-names are common. (1) Thus there is a King Sigferth, surely some Scandinavian Sigfrid, in Wales who with Welsh princes attested a charter of Eadred in 955, and it was not much later (960) that the Danish viking Palnatoki, on visiting Wales, found one Stefni, with a fosterson Björn and a daughter Alof, established there in possession of an estate of some size. (2) For in Ireland Celt and Northman were learning to live side by side in harmony, and it well may be that some Scandinavians, making their home in Wales, even in these days of frequent attack upon the Cymry, were allowed to settle down in unchallenged ownership of land, their presence perhaps attracting profitable visits to Welsh harbours of the trading-ships bound for Dublin and the Norse towns of Ireland. Indeed it was perhaps the busy Norse and Danish trade in the Bristol Channel preceding, or resulting from, this Scandinavian settlement upon its north coast that led to the development of such sea-ports as Cardiff and Swansea into towns of no small significance in the commercial system of the British Isles.
The viking attacks upon Wales continued in the first half of the eleventh century, and especially in the '30s and '40s the Northmen of Ireland and the Scottish Isles were still an ever-present danger to the Principality. Yet gradually conditions changed, for in Ireland the Gaill were already long-established and universally recognized members of the state, so that when Wales, later in the century, was in danger of English or Norman attack the Irish Gaill were as much the allies of the Cymry as were the native Irishmen themselves. Gruffydd ap Cynan, the king whose stormy and interrupted reign over Gwynedd lasted from 1075 to 1137,
1. There is no satisfactory evidence of vikings earlier established in Wales. Hring and Adils, kings in Bretland and vassals of Æthelstan who fought against their overlord at Brunanburh in 937 (Egils saga, LI, 4), were probably Welsh princes. Hring has not been identified, but Adils must have been Idwal, king of Gwynedd.
2. For an attempt to localize this in Pembroke, see Saga-book of Viking Club, III, 163.
was, in fact, brought up in the Scandinavian settlement at Dublin, and by the marriage of his father Cynan to the Dublin princess Ragnhild was great-grandson of Sigtryg of the Silken Beard, king of Dublin at the time of the Battle of Clontarf. Norsemen and Irishmen together fought for him at every one of his battles in Cambria, whether against Welsh usurper or Norman invader, and it was to the Irish Norse that he fled whenever, as often happened, he needed asylum or fresh recruits.
The Norse attacks, therefore, of this period, the second half of the century, were few in number and were made not so much by the Irish foreigners as by the turbulent vikings of the western isles. In the '70s, St. David's was pillaged twice, and Bangor once, by 'pagans' who came probably from the Nordreys or Sudreys, and, indeed, when in 1090 St. David's was sacked for a third time the chronicles expressly record that it was the doing of 'pagans of the Isles'. And so too from the north came the attack of King Magnus Barefoot of Norway in 1098 who in the course of an invasion of the western sea had reached Man and thence sailed south to Anglesey. He found the island to be in the hands of two Norman earls, Hugh of Chester and Hugh of Shrewsbury, and these he fought in the battle of 'Anglesey Sound' wherein Hugh of Shrewsbury fell and the Normans were put to flight. Thereat King Magnus made Anglesey his own, so says his saga, as far south as ever the kings of Norway of old had owned it, but his overlordship was of negligible import, his fleet sailing away almost immediately and leaving the island to the struggles between the English and the Welsh. Yet it is said that Magnus came a second time to Anglesey during a later raid upon the west in order to obtain timber for the rebuilding of three fortresses in Man that he himself had previously demolished. But this, it seems, was the last of the visits of hostile viking fleets to Wales, except for such minor attacks as those of the Orkney Svein, and Holdbodi of the Isles in the twelfth century.