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What the last Viking raid on Wales can tell us about the complexities and connections of our medieval history

20 Mar 2022 9 minute read
Viking helmet. Picture by Piqsels

Owain Jones, lecturer in history at Bangor University

On 28th October, 1209, the inhabitants of the Welsh borough of Llanfaes at the mouth of the Menai Strait would have seen six longships sailing towards them. In an act reminiscent of the warfare of previous centuries, the town was then burned by these hostile raiders, but this would prove to be the last recorded Viking raid on Wales.

Investigating the historical context of this dramatic event reveals a web of political connections which stretched across 13th century Europe. While the attack of 1209 can in some ways be seen as the end of an age in the history of Wales, it was by no means an isolated or random event.

The ‘Viking Age’ – a term disliked by many scholars but too ingrained in our culture to be dismissed – is often thought of as coming to an end in the eleventh century. This is, however, a fairly Anglo-centric interpretation, seeing the failure of Harald Hardrada’s conquest at Stamford Bridge in 1066 as the closing act of Norse attempts to subjugate England.

In other parts of Britain and Ireland, the kingdoms of Hiberno-Norse (Gaelic and Norse speaking) rulers continued, as did their connections with Scandinavia, and this is particularly true of the Irish Sea zone of which Gwynedd formed a part.

It is in this context of Irish Sea politics and political links to Scandinavia that we should understand the last Viking raid on Wales. Our source for the event is O Oes Gwrtheyrn, a short Welsh-language chronicle probably written at the Abbey of Aberconwy within five years or so of the events described (I have edited and discussed this chronicle in a recent book, The Chronicles of Medieval Wales and the March: New Contexts, Studies and Texts).

The chronicle notes that in the year 1209, on October 28th, six herwllong or raiding ships came to Llanfaes on Môn and burned the town, but that the raiders were eventually repulsed and their leader was killed. This leader is named as Herlant Pic, ystiwart llys brenin Llychlyn, ‘steward of the court of the king of Norway.’

Although a small village now, Llanfaes in the thirteenth century became the most important port and town in Gwynedd, its gateway to the trade of the Irish Sea. This was until, as a result of the Edwardian conquest of 1282, its townspeople were forcibly moved across Môn to Niwbwrch, the ‘New Borough’. The chronicle entry of 1209 is our first reference to Llanfaes as a town, which despite its destruction would go from strength to strength over the subsequent decades. But what were Herlant Pic, his followers, and his raiding ships doing there? To answer this we must turn towards Norway.

Norway in the twelfth century had undergone a bloody and long-running civil war, between two sides which became known as the Baglar and the Birkibeinar. By the first decade of the 1200s, they had fought each other to a standstill. A peace treaty in 1208 led to a joint expedition to the west a year later, containing representatives of both sides in this civil war.

It seems that this expedition had several aims: to re-establish the authority of the Norwegian king over the Norse kingdoms and settlements in Orkney and the Hebrides; a symbolic end to the conflict through redirecting aggression beyond their borders; and to secure funds for these former mutual enemies by raiding places in Britain, Ireland, and the other islands around.

A team-building and fund-raising exercise. A joint campaign by former enemies with ill-defined aims. What could go wrong?

Welsh troops

It is because of the last of these aims – the raiding – that we are able to call this campaign a ‘Viking’ one. I initially noted the complexity of the term ‘Viking Age’, and one of the reasons for this is that ‘Viking’ is not an ethnic term, but rather one used to denote raiding.

Our Norse source for the expedition, Böglunga sögur, sagas of the Norwegian civil wars, describe it using this term viking. In addition, it tells us that they set forth in twelve ships, and offers a list of the men involved. This includes under the list of the Baglar the name ‘Erlendr Pikr’. This Baglar supporter must be the same man recorded in our Welsh source under the Cambricised name Herlant Pic – so half of the twelve ships that set forth from Norway came to Llanfaes with Erlendr in October.

We know that this campaign achieved its political aims – the rulers of both Orkney and of Man and the Isles made their way to Norway to pay tribute to the Norwegian king. But Böglunga sögur goes on to tell us that the participants in the expedition “plundered the Hebrides and the neighbouring islands… [and] pillaged the holy island, which Norwegians have always held sacred; then fell out, and parted. And so their men were slain in various places. And those that came back to Norway were severely rebuked by the bishops for their piracy.”

The ‘holy island’ here is Iona, the great abbey of St Columba off the coast of Mull. Had the expedition gotten out of hand, leading to the plundering of a monastery and infighting? Whatever the reason, it seems certain that it was after this attack on Iona and the split of the expedition that Erlendr Pik made his way southwards to Llanfaes.

There is the potential to offer a more complex political explanation for these events. Erlendr Pikr was on the Baglar side in the Norwegian civil wars, and the compromise king of Norway at the time, Ingi Bárðarson, was from the rival, Birkibeinar, faction. Erlendr Pikr’s side of the 1209 expedition therefore had far less to gain from the fact that the rulers of Orkney and the Hebrides had agreed to subject themselves to the Norwegian king, until recently this faction’s enemy. More interested in plunder than tribute, this is probably the reason that half of the expedition’s twelve ships came down to raid Llanfaes in October – the growing port of Gwynedd proving a tempting target now that Man and the Hebrides had made their peace with Norway.

This may be sufficient explanation for the Llanfaes raid, but there are also other factors. When the Norwegians reached Llanfaes, the ruler of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, had just accompanied King John of England on campaign to Scotland. While John and Llywelyn’s political relationship was to deteriorate significantly in the next two years, in 1209 the relationship between the prince of Gwynedd and the English king was still a strong one.

King John himself was involved in the Norwegian civil wars, having given strong support to the Birkibeinar side. He sent corn, money, and even Welsh mercenaries from his lordship in Glamorgan to help Ingi Bárðarson’s predecessor, King Sverre of Norway, against his Baglar enemies. These Welsh mercenary troops are even mentioned as a distinct force in a contemporary Norse saga, Sverris Saga.

One of the main reasons for John’s support of the Birkibeinar in Norway was the support his great rival, Phillip Augustus of France, gave to the other side in these wars, the Baglar. As so often in civil wars, larger powers backed their own favoured sides and had an interest in perpetuating the conflict.

It is not implausible to suggest that in attacking a current close ally of King John, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, in 1209, Erlendr Pikr and the Baglar were remembering the support John and his own Welsh troops had given to their rivals in Norway years before. Llywelyn himself was also involved in the politics of the Irish Sea – the rulers of Gwynedd held lands around Dublin which they inherited from their ancestor Gruffudd ap Cynan, himself born in the Hiberno-Norse city of Dublin.

Political loyalties

The attack these men made on Iona appears in some ways a throwback to the Viking Age – this ancient monastery had been raided by Vikings several times during the ninth century. However, there may also be more to this event. Iona itself had been attacked a few years previously, in 1204, not by Vikings but by the bishop and monks of Derry and other monasteries in Ulster. They objected to the refoundation of Iona as a Benedictine abbey, supplanting the older-style monastery which was part of a monastic family founded by St Columba in the sixth century. In this period, reformed monasteries were taking over from older monasteries in Wales as in Ireland.

This was part of an European-wide process of church reform, but it often went hand-in-hand with the spread of Anglo-Norman political and cultural influence. In response to these attacks, the abbot of Iona may have travelled to Rome, since he secured the Pope’s protection for the new monastery on Iona. While the raid on Iona in 1209 may have shocked the Norwegian bishops, it was little more than had been done some years previously by Irish churchmen, and it may have had similar motives.

The attack on Llanfaes in 1209 proved to be the last Viking raid on Wales. But rather than an isolated throwback to a distant and barbarous age, these violent events were part of networks of political loyalties and conflict that stretched across Britain, Scandinavia, and Europe.

Understanding these events in context reveals some of the complexities and connections of medieval Wales and Europe. While the inhabitants of Llanfaes were probably terrified by the appearance of Viking ships over the horizon, their own horizons were not narrow ones.

Owain Jones is a lecturer at the School of History, Law and Social Sciences.


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George Bodley
George Bodley
6 months ago

Regarding Vikings in South Wales apparently they only visited twice according to Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett they had their boats destroyed and ended up stranded on glatholm I believe not really a success

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
6 months ago
Reply to  George Bodley

If that is true how is it that many islands around Wales have Norse names as well as Swansea and Tenby? If the Vikings had just visited no one in Wales would know what they called them.

John McDougall
John McDougall
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Owen

Good point!

Rich
Rich
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Owen

I believe “Tenby” is an anglicisation of Welsh “Din bych” -little fortification.

Erthygl difyr dros ben.

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
6 months ago
Reply to  Rich

It could well be, however that does not account for all the other place names of Norse origin such was Swansea, Caldey, Holm, Ramsey, Skomer, Skokholm, Fishguard, Milford, Bardsey and more.

Pricey
Pricey
6 months ago

Fascinating, thank you.
Isn’t it interesting to discover history that isn’t framed by the centuries following the rise of the English and dominance of the Normans.?

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