Sitric ‘Silkbeard’, Family Fireworks, and Viking Age Ireland: When Blood Kin, In-Laws, and Outlaws Read Like a ‘Who’s Who in the Royal Zoo’ of Queen Gormlaith
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. (James 3:16)
If a Viking ruled over Ireland’s busy port of Dublin, for more than 40 years, one might expect that Viking had good connections – political networks and family dynasty links. True enough, but those royal connections also came with a lot of family conflict baggage! This mix of family politics, applied to Viking-style conflict resolution processes, is repeatedly illustrated in the family life and political career of Dublin’s Viking ruler Sitric “Silkbeard” (a/k/a “Silkenbeard”) Olafsson.(1)
Of course, Vikings in Ireland are known by both their Irish and their Norse names, and variants abound when spelling those names — so Sitric’s name appears in variants including Sigtrygg, Sigtryg, Sigtryggr, Sihtric, and Sitrick. Sitric was not an uncommon Viking name, but history only knows one Viking nicknamed “Silkbeard” (or “Silkenbeard”), so that is how he will often be identified here.
Silkbeard had political connections, as well as family ties, directly, both by his birth and by his marriages, as well as indirectly, because his blood kin and in-laws themselves were very interconnected with the geopolitical networks of Ireland Viking Age, both inside and outside of Ireland.
This short study will show that Silkbeard’s family ties, which overlap with his political networks, help to explain just how interconnected personal relationships were in Viking Ireland, especially during Silkbeard’s unusually long career, as well as during the times immediately before and after that illustrious career.
FAMILY FEUDS: DIVORCE COURT BATTLES, WRIT LARGE?
To specifically illustrate Silkbeard’s interconnectedness with notable players in his world, consider how his career was traumatically challenged when his own mother (Gormlaith ingen Murchada, whose name in Old Norse is Kormloð – since the Old Norse use K for both “G” and “K” consonants) urged him to war against her ex-husband (Brian Boru), who was Silkbeard’s former stepfather.
Besides her son Silkbeard, Gormlaith incited others, especially her brother Máel Mórda, plus 3 other warriors whom she appeared willing to marry (if Brian was defeated), to go to war against her ex, Brian Boru. How did ex-queen Gormlaith become so heavily involved in plotting a military coup against her royal ex?
But Silkbeard’s mother, Gormlaith, was not new to politics in Viking Age Ireland.
Firstly, Gormlaith’s father was Murchad mac Finn, king of Leinster (in southern Ireland); her brother Máel Mórda (a/k/a Máel Mordha) mac Murchada, became the successor king when their father (Murchad) died.
Secondly, it is important to notice that Gormlaith’s brother Máel Mórda fought against Brian Boru (Gormlaith’s ex-husband, so Máel’s ex-brother-in-law) at the Battle of Clontarf in AD1014, where many brave warriors breathed their last. (2)
Thirdly, as wife of Dublin-York’s king Olaf Cuaran (a/k/a Kváran(3)) Sitricsson, she mothered Silkbeard (who later became king).
Fourthly, as wife of Munster’s king Brian Boru, she mothered Donnchad (who later became king of Munster).
And, fifthly, it seems that her third and last marriage was to Meath’s king Máel Sechlainn mac Domnall(4) (who once defeated Olaf Cuaran in AD980), — and who once fought on December 30th of AD999 with Brian Boru, and later against him in AD1002, and against him again in AD1014), for whom Gormlaith mothered Conchobar (who appears to have died during AD1030). This part of Gormlaith’s life is less documented (i.e., the evidence for this third marriage is not as sound and thorough as the historical evidence of Gormlaith’s first and second marriages), yet that is to be expected (or at least it is not unforeseeable) because her political relevance apparently faded soon after the Battle of Clontarf.
BRIAN BORU FLIPS THE FAMILY DYNASTY SEESAW
Silkbeard’s mother, years after becoming a widow (when Silkbeard’s father died in AD981) married Brian Boru, who had previously fathered children.
One of Brian Boru’s preëxisting children, in AD1000, was a daughter named Sláine ingen Briain (i.e., Brian’s-dottir), whom Silkbeard (Gormlaith’s son) then married.
In other words, Gormlaith’s marriage to Brian Boru (who was already the father of Sláine), when combined with Silkbeard marrying Sláine (both occurred shortly after the Battle of Glenmama, though Gormlaith’s marriage to Brian preceded Silkbeard’s marriage to Brian’s daughter), meant that Silkbeard was then married to his own mother’s stepdaughter — in order to doubly tie the dynastic family of Brian Boru to that of Gormlaith and her son (by Olaf Cuaran) Sitric “Silkbeard”.
As a result, Olaf Sitricsson, the son of Silkbeard (and thus part of the Olafsson family dynasty, which apparently descends from the original Norse-Danish Viking dynasty – called by the Irish Uí Ímair (“descendants of Ivar”) — that established Dublin, led by Ivar, Halfdan, and others) and Sláine (and thus part of Brian Boru’s family dynasty) — could claim Gormlaith as both his paternal grandmother and as his maternal step-grandmother.(5)
This double marriage alliance was no romantic accident or lucky coincidence. Rather, this double marriage alliance was a strategic reaction to the outcome of the Battle of Glenmama, where all 4 belligerent parties had a tie to Gormlaith.
BATTLE OF GLENMAMA, December 30th A.D. 999
Before considering who fought against whom at the Battle of Clontarf (in April of AD1014), it is helpful to notice who fought whom during the earlier Battle of Glenmama (on Little Christmas Eve, AD999). The Glenmama (Irish: Ghleann Máma) battle climaxed a rebellion in Leinster (southern Ireland).
Four Irish kingdoms were involved at Glenmama’s showdown:
(1) Kingdom of Leinster, headed by King Máel Mórda (Gormlaith’s brother);
(2) Kingdom of Munster, headed by King Brian Boru (who became Gormlaith’s 2nd husband);
(3) Kingdom of Meath, headed by “High King” Máel Sechnaill II mac Domnall (a/k/a “King Malachy”, who appears to have been, at some point, Gormlaith’s husband, — most likely her 3rd husband, soon after the Battle of Clontarf, although some say they were a pair before Gormlaith married Brian — perhaps both suggestions are true); and
(4) Kingdom of Dublin, headed by Norse-Viking King Sitric “Silkbeard” (Gormlaith’s son by Olaf Cuaran, Gormlaith’s 1st husband).
Brian Boru has thus defeated Gormlaith’s brother (Máel Mórda), and Gormlaith’s son (Sitric “Silkbeard”), at Glenmama. Two politically coërced marriage alliances soon follow: (1) Gormlaith marries Brian Boru; and (2) Gormlaith’s son Silkbeard marries Sláine, one of Brian’s daughters.
Now to consider the later controversy — about 14 years later — when Gormlaith has been prodding her son (Silkbeard) to help lead a war against her ex-husband (Brian Boru), Silkbeard’s former stepfather.
Unsurprisingly, the rejected ex-queen/now-divorcée, Gormlaith sought revenge against Brian Boru. This hostile alienation led, in short time, to what history calls the Battle of Clontarf, a major event in Irish history, on Good Friday of AD1014. Geographically, Clontarf is a coastland on Dublin Bay’s north side (see map below, on page 8).
Gormlaith was determined to support a worthy challenger who could (and would) defeat her ex-husband, Brian Boru. But who would that be?
Actually the “who” was not just one warrior! The Viking Age histories (especially the Icelandic sagas) indicate that Gormlaith “diversified” the risks involved, i.e., she chose not to put all of her matrimonial “eggs” in one basket.
Gormlaith instructed her son Silkbeard to tell Sigurd “the Stout” Hlodvirsson (earl of Orkney, grandson of Thorfinn Skull-splitter Einarsson) that she would marry Sigurd Hlodvirsson if Brian Boru (her ex) was defeated, plus Gormlaith would use her political power/influence to establish Sigurd as High King in Ireland.
However, Gormlaith likewise instructed her son Silkbeard to similarly tell Bróðir (a/k/a Bróðir of Man, i.e., a warrior from the Isle of Man) that she would marry Bróðir if Brian Boru (her ex) was defeated, plus Gormlaith would use her political power/influence to establish Bróðir as High King in Ireland. (Ironically, Óspak, the brother of Bróðir, refused to fight Brian, choosing rather to fight for him – and thus Óspak’s men fought for Brian Boru while Bróðir’s men fought against Brian.)
Unsurprisingly, Gormlaith instructed her son Silkbeard to avoid telling the Orcadian earl Sigurd what she was promising Bróðir; likewise, she told Silkbeard to keep secret from the Manx warrior Bróðir what she was promising Sigurd!
BATTLE OF CLONTARF, April 23rd A.D. 1014
Several Irish kingdoms, plus many mercenary “neighbors”, clashed at Clontarf:
(1) Kingdom of Leinster, headed by King Máel Mórda (Gormlaith’s brother);
(2) Kingdom of Munster, headed by King Brian Boru (who was Gormlaith’s 2nd husband, but now divorced from her) and militarily led by his son Murchad (born of Brian’s 1st wife Mór, daughter of a king of Connacht), with help from Brian’s son Tadc (born of Brian’s 2nd wife Echrad), and from Brian’s grandson Turlough (only 15) and grandson Tadc (son of Murchad);
(3) Kingdom of Meath, headed by “High King” Máel Sechnaill II (of the Irish Uí Néill family dynasty, who apparently became Gormlaith’s 3rd husband, after the battle — it appears that his forces “showed up”, but did not seriously engage in the early fighting, until it was clear that the defenders were winning; only then did the Meath men join the fight, chase down and slaughter the fleeing Manxmen and Orcadian attackers, and soon afterwards claim victory);
(4) Kingdom of Dublin, headed by Norse-Viking King Sitric “Silkbeard” (Gormlaith’s son by her 1st husband; Silkbeard was aided by his brother Dubgall Olafsson);
(5) Earldom of Orkney, headed by Sigurd “the Stout” Hlodvirsson (whom Gormlaith promised to marry, and to help establish as Irish high king, if Brian was defeated)
(6) Isle of Man mercenaries (linked to Sigurd the Stout), represented by Bróðir (whom Gormlaith also promised to marry, and to help establish as Irish high king, if Brian was defeated); and others, of course.
But what happened to those who fought at Clontarf, on Good Friday of AD1014?
Battle of Clontarf, A.D.1014 [image credit: Sean Duffy, History Ireland, 22(2):30-31 (2014)]
Estimates of casualties suggest many thousands fought: maybe 13,000 to 14,000 men total, with Brian’s coalition forces comprising perhaps 7000 or 8000 of that number.
Of those myriads of warriors, most died in battle. Most died on or near the battlefield, or drowned in tidewaters while trying to flee to their Viking ships, or died from their battle wounds. Records suggest that the attacking allies lost 80% to 90% of their numbers, the defenders lost ¼ to ½ of their numbers — its bloodiness is somewhat comparable to the bloodshed at Antietam in America’s Civil War, although that Western Maryland battle exceeded 23,000 casualties in one day, whereas the Battle of Clontarf suffered somewhat close to half that number.
During the Battle of Clontarf the Manx Viking Bróðir killed Brian Boru, bragging about it immediately: “Now, let man tell man, that Bróðir felled Brian!”
Fame flees fastly, though: Bróðir himself died later that day, captured then disemboweled, with his intestinal tract literally wrapped around a tree by Wolf the Quarrelsome (no more details are needed!).
Also, Orkney’s earl Sigurd Hlodvirsson was killed by Brian’s son Murchad; soon afterwards Murchad himself (the main leader of Brian’s forces) also died.
Leinster’s king Máel Mórda (Gormlaith’s brother) was also killed that day.
Obviously Gormlaith never had a problem explaining her simultaneous proposals of marriage to Sigurd and to Bróðir — because both men died then at Clontarf.
In the end, the Dublin Bay defenders (Brian’s army and its coalition forces, including Silkbeard’s army) “won” the battle – even though Brian Boru himself, and his son Murchad, died in the defense, as did Murchad’s son Tadc (i.e., Brian’s grandson). However, the House of Brian (Uí Briain, a/k/a O’Brien) itself was not a dynastic “winner”, as political power shifted back to the Uí Neill (O’Neill) high-kingship, which then was represented by Máel Sechlainn II.
Accordingly, Máel Sechlainn II, king of Meath, who usually had opposed Brian Boru more than he had helped him, survived the Battle of Clontarf – and so it was Máel Sechlainn II who would take much of what Brian and others had lost.
Donnchad mac Briain (son of Brian Boru and Gormlaith) also survived the Battle of Clontarf. Donnchard returned to Munster, soon ruling there, in lieu of his deceased father. After eliminating a competitor (his half-brother Tadc mac Briain, whose father was Brian and mother was Echrad) in AD1023, Donnchad established his rule as Munster’s king for 40 years afterwards, a feat comparable to the resilience of his half-brother Sitric Silkenbeard.
The other notable survivor (besides Gormlaith herself(6)) was Sitric Silkbeard, who some say fought valiantly, but others say he stayed close to the Dublin fortress walls, as its military defender (to prevent looting, etc.).
Likely, Silkbeard did some of both.
Politically, the strongest survivor of the battle was Máel Sechlainn II, so he “mopped up” much of Brian’s realm, reimposing the Uí Neill (O’Neill) high-kingship dynasty in central Ireland. Under Máel Sechlainn II’s overlordship, therefore, Silkbeard continued to rule Dublin. In AD1036, after more than 40 years of ruling Dublin, Silkbeard finally retired – abdicating his throne to his nephew Echmarcach. Silkbeard traveled widely for 6 years, dying in AD1042.
Clontarf Battle Viking reenactor (image credit: Irish Times)
So what was the key to Sitric Silkbeard’s longevity as Dublin’s ruler, amidst all the family fireworks and turf-grabbing turmoil in Viking Age Ireland?
One wise habit Silkbeard practiced was the pragmatic virtue of not trying to be “top dog” in rank or power. If it was tolerable, Silkbeard submitted to an overlord, what the Irish called a “high king” (i.e., a king who also overruled other kings, what continental Europe called an “emperor”).
The result, for Silkbeard, was survival with less-than-complete autonomy for his Viking port-based kingdom of Dublin, an international commerce giant. Meanwhile, others, who stretched for greater lots, often died trying to overreach. Contentedness (i.e., appreciating what you have, when it is enough) has its rewards (see 1st Timothy 6:6).
Covetousness is a cruel slavemaster, and greed for glory (and/or for other kinds of gain) has ruined many an ambitious men and women. ><> JJSJ firstname.lastname@example.org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. James J. S. Johnson (JD, ThD, CPEE, CNHG, MSHist, MSGeog) often researches, writes, and speaks on Viking history, serves the Norwegian Society of Texas, and has taught aboard 9 international cruise ships (by which he visited Dublin in AD2002). A lifelong learner, he may be reached at email@example.com .
(1) As surprising as it may be to some, Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin (Ireland), was originally established by King Silkbeard around AD1028 — it now belongs to the (Anglican Protestant) Church of Ireland. Silkbeard died in AD1042.
(2) Both Máel Mórda (Gormlaith’s brother, as king of Leinster) and Brian Boru (Gormlaith’s 2nd husband, who divorced her) died during the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday of AD1014, along with thousands of other Norse and Irish warriors.
(3) Olaf Cuaran was king of Northumbria/Jórvík (York) 2 or 3 times, plus king of Dublin twice. Olaf was known as Óláfr Sigtryggsson in Old Norse, and in old Irish Gaelic as Amlaíb mac Sitric or as Amlaíb Cuarán (meaning Olaf “Sandal”). Olaf was a direct descendant of “Ivar the Boneless”, one of the Great Heathen Army heads. Regarding the Great Heathen Army’s contribution to creation apologetics, see James J. S. Johnson, “Something Fishy about Radiocarbon-Dating Viking Bones”, Creation Research Society Quarterly, 54(3):213-216 (winter 2018). Olaf’s sister (some say “daughter”; Brian Tompsett says “sister”; maybe ½-sister?), Gytha (a/k/a Gyda), after becoming widowed, married Christian Viking Olaf Tryggvason, himself then a widower; for a few years Olaf Tryggvason lived in both England and Dublin, likely helping Olaf Cuaran, his royal brother-in-law in Dublin.
(4) It also seems that Máel Sechlainn II mac Domnall (a/k/a “Malachy”) previously married Dublin/York’s king Olaf Cuaran’s daughter named Máel Muire ingen Amlaíb (the latter 2 words meaning “Olafsdottir”, i.e., “daughter of Olaf”). This Máel Muire was half-sister to Dublin’s king Sitric “Silkbeard” Olafsson, as well as sister (or half-sister) to Gytha Olafsdottir (who married Olaf Tryggvason, who later became Christian Viking king of Norway and its possessions). Assuming that Gormlaith eventually married Máel Sechlainn II, who previously had married Olaf Cuaran’s daughter Máel Muire (who once was Gormlaith’s stepdaughter), that would mean Gormlaith was marrying the ex-husband of her own stepdaughter!
(5) Would Olaf Sitricsson call Gormlaith “Farmor” (meaning “Father’s mother”), or “Mormor” (meaning “Mother’s [step]-mother”), or just “Bestemor” (meaning “grandmother”)? [AUTHOR’S PERSONAL NOTE: my son’s sons (i.e., my biogenetic grandchildren) call me “Farfar”, Norwegian for “Father’s father”. ><> JJSJ ]
(6) Some sources suggest that Gormlaith married king Máel Sechlainn II (“Malachy”), after her 1st husband Olaf Cuaran died — yet before she married Brian Boru. Other sources strongly disagree, suggesting that Gormlaith was married only to Olaf, then Brian, then a third time to Máel Sechlainn II, king of Meath.