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Battle of Clontarf
(Fought on Good Friday, April 23rd, 1014 AD)

By Peter Murray

The BattleIn 1012 Irish lords in the north began to rise up in revolt against the Irish High King Brian Boru of Dal Cais. Seizing the opportunity at hand, Mael Morda, King of Leinster and King Sygtrygg of Dublin laid plans and Sygtrygg sent word to his Norse allies Sigurd and Brodir for aid in the rebellion.

As word of Sygtrygg's plans reached King Brian Boru, he made his own preparations in the winter of 1013 to attack the bases of the rebelling Irish and their Norse allies. In addition to his own native army, King Brian Boru recruited his own Norse mercenaries and called upon his subject lords to join him as he marched towards viking Dublin to deal with the army of Mael Morda and Sygtrygg.

As Brian laid plans to attack the city, Sigurd and Brodir sailed out to sea with their men, apparently leaving Sygtrygg exposed and alone. In fact, this was a clever ploy to catch the Irish off guard. As soon as they were out of sight of land, the longships turned back towards Dublin. On the night before the battle, the longships came ashore on the strand north of Dublin, between the city and the army of the Irish.

The leader of the foreign Vikings on the field was the renowned Earl Sigurd of the Orkneys. He had brought with him the Raven Standard, a banner marked with the symbol of Odin's raven given to Sigurd by his mother. The standard reputedly brought victory to those who marched behind it, but death to the one who carried it.

At dawn, the two armies were drawn up opposite each other. Each army's flank was held by their best warriors. The Irish were hampered by the decision of the former High King Malachi not to commit his body of warriors, who remained to the right rear of the Irish line until the very end of the battle. Both armies adopted a shieldwall formation, and pressed towards one another.

The battle began with individuals calling out for specific opponents, and the fighting turned fierce as clan feuds were settled and years of animosity between the Norse Irish and the Irish came to a head. Brodir fled ignominiously and hid in a wood from the Irish warrior Wolf the Quarrelsome.

The Irish center was pounded by the Orkney Vikings and Sigurd. Some of the heaviest and most brutal fighting took place in thick woods, where it is said "the trees dripped with the blood of the slain."

However, Sigurd was watching the prophecy of the banner come to pass, as a succession of warriors took up the banner and were slain. When Sigurd ordered the chieftain Thornstein to pick up the banner, he refused. Sigurd himself took the banner, but put it under his cloak. Sigurd suffered the same fate as the previous bearers, as he was slain by Brian Boru's son Murchad.

Without a leader and with the tide turning in favor of Boru's Irish, the Norse line began to waver, and then broke. Seeing the battle was decided, Malachi finally committed his warriors to the field As the army fled back to Dublin, they were caught by Malachi's fresh troops and destroyed almost to a man. Some Vikings were caught between the Irish and the sea, and fled into the ocean.

Brodir, who was still hiding in the woods, saw Brian Boru just beyond the treeline, and ambushed the High King. Brodir cut down the Boru, saying "Now let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian!" Brodir's victory was short-lived as he and his men were taken by Wolf the Quarrelsome, and Brodir was sentenced to die a coward's death (being tied to a tree with his own intestines).

The battle of Clontarf was a hollow victory for the Irish. High King Brian Boru, many of his sons including Murchad and Murrough, and his grandson Turlough had all been slain. Malachai once again declared himself High King, and few resisted him. King Sygtrygg, who had watched the battle from the walls of Dublin, was permitted to live, but the Norse would henceforth be subjects of the Irish High Kings.

Of the 7000 to 8000 warriors who fought at Clontarf, it is thought that as many as 6000 were slain, including most of the leaders of both sides.

Battle Map

Clontarf Map

High King Brian Boru Irish army and their Norse allies are at the top of the map. The Norse Irish under Earl Sigurd are at the bottom.  General's elements are indicated in red (I apologize for the anitaliasing problems), camps in brown. Army composition is somewhat arbitrary, and represents the author's particular idea as to how the army should be fielded. Deployment roughly corresponds with records of the battle, although the Ps are more-or-less randomly located since no record of their deployment could be found. The Irish Aux element occupying the camp represents the army of Meath, under Malachi, who were unwilling to commit at the opening of the battle.

The body of water on the right is Dublin Bay and is impassible terrain subject to the normal rules for trying to retreat into the ocean. The green area to the left is the wood which "dripped with blood", and counts as Bad Going.

Alternate Rules

The ferocity of both sides at Clontarf is prominent in depictions of the event. For added ferocity and simulated animosity, one might consider treating all Aux elements as Wb for the battle.

Furthermore, the hideous losses suffered by both sides cannot be adequately captured by conventional DBA rules. Instead, random break points or a high fixed break point (like 7 elements) should be considered. If these rules are adopted, the general's element and the army's camp is treated as a normal element in terms of element loss.

Additional sources

The Battle of Clontarf


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Last Update: March 17, 2000

Original page located at http://php.indiana.edu/~pemurray/clontarf.html and reproduced with author's permission.

Questions, comments and suggestions welcome. You can contact the author Peter Murray or send your feedback to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.