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Battle of Clontarf (1014 AD)

"Clontarf was too important to be left to the historians
so passed into the legendmaker's hand" -- Gwyn Jones

By Tim Donovan

The Battle of Clontarf has come down in legend indeed, as one of the most picturesque battles of the medieval period. Later legends include among the defeated "Foreigners of the World" Vikings from all over western Europe, sons of the King of Denmark, numerous Normans, Welsh, and even two sons of the French king. The reputation of the battle among the western nobility in the Middle Ages was so great that it was considered "infra dig" not to have had an ancestor killed on the plains of Clontarf.

The History

For all the powerful and courageous men that die a glorious and heroic death in this battle it is only "typically Irish" that we begin our narrative with the story of a remarkable women who watched this battle from the ramparts of Dublin. Ghormlaith was the sister of Maelmordha, the King of Leinster who supposedly sparked the flame of this revolt and was leading the rebel Irish in the battle. Maelmordha had married her off at a very tender age to Olaf, the Norse King of Dublin, to further enhance their long-standing alliance. She bore him a son, Sitrygg Silkybeard, who would later become King of Dublin when Olaf retired to a monastery following his defeat and the sacking of Dublin in 980 by the reigning High King Malachi Mor.

Malachi Mor then took Ghormlaith, reputed to be the most bewitching women in the Isles, as his own. She convinced him to place her son Sitrygg on the throne of Dublin to guarantee good relations. However it was to the south and Brian Boru that Malachi was forced to expend his energies. Boru, rising from obscurity to King of Munster had wrested firm control of his own province, subjugated the Vikings of Limerick, and then began to extend its influence far beyond its traditional borders. This brought Brian into eventual conflict with the High King, Malachi Mor, who was finally forced to acknowledge Boru's military superiority and divide Ireland between them. In 999 Brian and the High King set aside their animosity and united against a powerful coalition of the rebel Irish of Leinster and Vikings of Dublin and win a stunning victory. By 1002 however, Boru's power finally forced Malachi to give up not only his throne but somehow his wife (whom he may have already justifiably divorced) Ghormlaith, who promptly married Boru! She and Brian, neither young by this time, managed to produce a son from their union while Ireland enjoyed relative peace for twelve years.

The uneasy peace finally fell apart in 1013 when Maelmordha rose in revolt with his Viking allies. Legend tells us that Brian's oldest Son Murrough, who captured a cowering Maelmordha at the battle of Glenmama, insulted the King of Leinster while he was visiting the Royal Court to pay his annual tribute. Goaded by his sister Ghormlaith, who Brian set aside, Maelmordha returns home and raises the banner of rebellion while his ally Sitrygg Silkybeard appeals to the "Vikings and Foreigners of the World" to meet them at Dublin in the Spring of 1014 for an epic confrontation with the aging High King. He promises the High Kingship of Ireland and unbelievably the hand his mother in marriage to more than one Viking in return for their support.

Earl Sigurd the Stout of the Orkneys and the cruel pagan pirate, Brodir of Man, accept the offer and both bring over 2000 mail clad warriors to Dublin where they are joined, according to the legends, by nobles and warriors from all over the western world. To oppose this vast army Brian musters all of the strength of his home province of Munster and neighboring southern Connaught while a large contingent of Scots under Domnall of Mar and Ostmen under Ospak of Man and Wolf the Quarrelsome. Malachi Mor, the deposed High King, also rallies to Brian and brings a large host from his native province of Meath.

This is the "legend and myth" of the Battle of Clontarf as handed down by the sagas and chronicles of the time. It is a domestic squabble of epic proportions between the intertwined Nobility of Ireland and the ever-present Vikings. We are told that later legend and myth would add to this till it becomes an epic struggle of Christian Ireland against vicious pagans, and this is only heightened by the fact that the battle occurred on Good Friday and Brian, supposedly to pious to wield a weapon on this holy day, is killed while praying for victory. Modern historians subsequently discount all of this and simply write the battle off as larger but still insignificant continuation of the wars and rebellions of the divided realm.

However, if taken in context of the events in the whole of the British Isles at the time, the triumph can become staggeringly important. Sweyn Forkbeard, whose mother was Irish, had often harried the coast of Ireland and most recently conquered England. It is well established that Sitrygg Silkybeard, King of Dublin, offered the High Kingship of Ireland to Sigurd the stout of the Orkneys in return for his joining the attack on Boru. However Sitrygg had neither the power or authority to do so and the only person capable of making such a grandiose offer would have been Sweyn Forkbeard. If Sitrygg was an emissary to Sigurd, and the offer was the kingdom of Ireland in alliance with Sweyn's newly won Kingdom in England then the threat to the whole of the British Isles becomes immense. With Gilli, Sweyn's brother-in-law ruling the Hebrides and Sweyn and Sigurd in control of Ireland, England, and the Orkneys they eventually and almost assuredly could have put the rest of the British Isles firmly in the Vikings grasp. That winter though, Sweyn died. However the armies had already been put into motion and on Good Friday 1014 the Plain of Clontarf turned red in a mutual slaughter that saw all of the major Nobles of this drama, excepting the wily Sitrygg, perish.

In this context Clontarf becomes as important as Hastings with the exception that the native defender won. This could help explain the vast wealth of myth and legend that surrounds the battle and why the chronicles of the times refer to it as "the most famous of battles fought across the sea both because of the numbers who fought in it and the importance of the result." Regardless of its importance to historians and their agendas, it was and still is, "a battle best left to the legendmakeršs hand."

The Historic Battle

"That was the clashing of two bodies of equal hardness, and of two bodies moving in contrary directions in one place. And it is not easy to imagine what to liken it to; but to nothing small could be likened the firm, stern, sudden thunder-motion, and the stout, valiant, haughty, billow roll of these people on both sides," -- Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh

The battle was ferocious. It started in the heroic tradition as leaders and champions called one another out in numerous single combats to settle old grudges and garner personal fame and glory. As these combats intensified the armies slowly ground towards one another till they erupted in a stern, sudden, thunder-motion.

The initial crush saw the Vikings and rebel Irish drive back their enemy with the men of Leinster being in exceptionally high spirits and slaughtering their rivals from Munster in droves. The Vikings of Sigurd and Ospak, under Sigurd's magical raven standard, then began to decimate the Irish left flank under the command of Turlough, Murroughšs son, and the Ostmen Wolf the Quarrelsome.

Sensing the grave danger his army was in, Murrough and his personal warband of 140 Kingšs Sons then pull out of the center and fall on the flank of the foreign Vikings. They cut deeply into the stunned Viking ranks and this sudden vicious onslaught emboldens the Ostmen of Wolf the Quarrelsome, who personally beats down and stuns Brodir, while an inspired Turlough and his followers hack down all of Sigurd's raven standard bearers till none will risk raising it. The pagan Sigurd, no doubt greatly unsettled to have his banner fall, is then confronted by the full Celtic fury of the High King's son and is killed. Sigurd's men begin to waiver, but the Manx Vikings continue to fight on despite Brodiršs ignoble flight to safety in Thoršs woods.

While the foreign Vikings begin to waiver, the men of Leinster, sensing victory, continue to push on, driving the Irish of Munster further and further back. Then tragedy strikes for the Norse and Irish army. On their left flank the Manx Vikings, and Scots of the slain Domnall, break the shieldwall of the Dublin Vikings. The fleet footed Irish of Tad O' Kelly join in the pursuit cutting off the retreat of the Dubliners so that out of the 1000 who took to the field only nine survive.

The victorious Scots and Manxmen then fall on the exposed flank of the rebels of Leinster while Brian's nephew Coniang and Maelmordha slay each other in personal combat. This finally halts the till now victorious Leinstermen and the whole Norse and Irish army begins to stumble.

At this critical point Malachi Mor finally joins the fight. He had quarreled with Brian and Murrough just prior to the battle and refused to take to the field, preferring to take shelter behind a ditch and await the outcome. Sensing the imminent victory for Brian and Murrough he finally unleashed his 1400 fresh warriors and Danish mercenaries and the stumbling Norse and Irish army finally crumbles and breaks.

If the battle ended now it would have been a glorious victory. However the grudges and thirst for vengeance was too great and a ruthless pursuit began. Turlough would chase the enemy into the waters of Dublin Bay, for the tide had come in, stranding the fleeing Vikings from the refuge of their longships, and drowned while slaying those attempting to swim to safety. Murrough, exhausted but still in full Celtic battle-lust also continues the pursuit till he and Erik, Prince of Denmark, slay one another in personal combat. Lastly, Brodir of Man, who had fled to the safety of the woods gathers a few warriors and bursts through the thinned pen of shields guarding the seventy-two year old High King and decapitates him. He is instantly captured and subsequently suffers a very long, cruel, and grisly death.

Thus ends the epic battle. The Norse and Irish army was annihilated. Every one of their leaders, Sigurd, Brodir, Maelmordha, and Dubhgall, was slain and from an army of 6600 only 600 survived. The Irish paid dearly for their victory though with the death of Brian Boru, his son Murrough, grandson Turlough, brother Cuduiligh, and nephew Coniang. In addition Domnall of Mar, Tad O' Kelly, Mothla of Munster, seven lesser Kings and 1600 other nobles also perished along with 2400 common warriors so that from an army of 7,000 less than 3000 survived. It was a glorious black day for Ireland.

The Scenario

For all the drama of this battle I hate to admit it can make for a dull wargame. The personal drama and single combats are not easily portrayed. The armies diplayed an utter lack of tactical prowess and simply relied on strength and courage to beat down an enemy. The Viking army is undoubtedly one of the toughest in DBA and balancing it with the less than awe-inspiring Irish to create a balanced battle was the real challenge.

The method of my madness is to follow the lead of the sagas and chronicles and concentrate on the exploits of the Nobles and their personal followings. Nearly Every named leader will fight as a General (+1) with a preponderance on the Irish side to bolster the Noble Irish warriors (Ax) the common Hird (Bd) of the Vikings instead of relying on superior or inferior ratings as the DBM list does. If the leader element destroys an enemy in combat they further add to their bonus while being thrown back in combat (recoiling) will subtract from their rating. I have also modified my approach to Big Battle DBA by using the roster of forces involved so that each element represents approximately 100 warriors.

This is also the only scenario that I have provided a map for as the location of the battle is well known and documented. The board should be at least 2 x 4 for 15mm and 4 x 6 for 25mm.

As usual I have also included the army lists for a standard 12 element scenario for players desiring to fight a much smaller version of this epic battle, but they should be shamed to do so as buying and painting this massive horde is the only way to pay proper respect to the mighty warriors that fell this day.


The Irish of Brian Boru:

  • BB DBA:

    • Right Wing -- Domnall Of Mar (Wb), Ospak of Man (Bd), Tad Oš Kelly (Ax), 4 Bd (Ostmen), 4 Wb (Scots), 2 Ps (Scots), 6 Ax (Bonnachts), 4 Ps (Kern)
    • Center -- Murrough (Wb), Mothla (Ax), Conaing (Ax), 3 Wb (Kingsš Sons, Sons of Death), 12 Ax (Bonnachts), 6 Ps (Kern)
    • Left Wing -- Turlough (Ax), Cuduiligh (Ax), Wolf the Quarrelsome (BD), 4 Bd (Ostmen), 10 Ax (Bonnachts), 4 Ps (Kern)

  • Standard DBA:

    • Right Wing -- 1 Bd, 2 Wb (Ospak + Domnall)
    • Center -- 2 Wb, 2 Ax, 2 Ps (Murrough)
    • Left -- 2 Ax, 1 Bd (Turlough + Wolf)

Norse Irish:

  • BB DBA:

    • Right wing -- Sigurd of Orkney (Bd), Brodir of Man (Wb), 12 Bd (Huscarls and Hird), 2 Wb (Berserks), 2 Ps (Skirmish or Bow)
    • Center -- Maelmordha (Ax), 3 Wb (Gall Gaels), 10 Ax (Bonnachts), 4 Ps (Kern)
    • Left Wing -- Dubhgall (Bd), 12 Bd (Huscarls and Hird), 4 Ps (Skirmish or Bow)

  • Standard DBA:

    • Right Wing -- 4 Bd (Sigurd and Ospak)
    • Center -- 1 Wb, 3 Ax, 1 Ps (Maelmordha)
    • Left Wing -- 3 Bd (Dubhgall)

The Gaming Map

 -----------------------Irish Baseline------------------------
                                 w                  # # # #  #
   Malachi's Ditch                w                # Tomar's #
   ===============                 w               #   or #  #
                                    w            # # Thor's  #
                        Brian         w        # # #  Woods  #
                                       W         # # # # # # #
 Domnall   Mothla            Turlough    w          # #  # # #
 Ospak     Conaing Murrough   Wolf         w         # # # # #
                                            T            # # #
                                              O          # # #
                          # # # #              L          #  #
                              # # Woods  #       K         # #
                                 # # # #           A     # # #
                                  #                  w   # # #
                                                      w  # # #
                                                       w   #  
                                                        w  #  
 Dublin    Maelmordha  Sigurd Ospak                       w   
 Vikings                                                  w   
w Bridge w w Mouth of the Liffey w w w w Dublin Bay  w w w w w
  Dublin   w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w
  Dublin         w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w w
---------------------- Norse and Irish baseline ---------------

Terrain Notes: The woods marked as # are all considered rough going while the mouth of the Liffey and Dublin Bay are impassable.

The Tolka is a minor river and players should follow standard DBA rules except dice for the crossing at (-2) to the roll.

The bridge into Dublin should be 1 element wide, any element recoiling on or into it is destroyed.

Deployment: The location of each command is noted on the map. I suggest both sides dice with the low scorer placing the first command then alternate placing the additional commands.

Special Rules

Generals and Heroes: Each "named" element fights as a General element and is +1 in combat. For every enemy element they destroy, or assist in destroying, they receive an additional +1 modifier in combat. If forced to recoil in any combat they lose this additional bonus but never fight at less than +1.

Command and Control: The Irish roll 4 pip dice and divide the highest three dice (not the sum) among the commands. Murrough and any element or group of elements with him move for free. If more that 4 Irish "leaders" have been destroyed reduce the number of pip dice to three.

The Norse and Irish roll 1 individual pip die for each of their commands, they can not share, switch or lend pips.

Victory Conditions

Each command is treated as an army with its own breakpoint. An army is broken when 2 of its three commands break. Each "named" element counts as 2 elements destroyed. If Brian or Sigurd is killed, count this as 2 elements from each command, and furthermore subtract (-1) from each commandšs pip score.

Background Resources

Arthur and the Anglo Saxon Wars. David Nicolle, 1984 Osprey (#154)
Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: Middle Ages, Hooper & Bennet, 1996
Conquest of England, Eric Linklater, 1966, Doubleday & Company
Early Medieval Ireland, Daibhi O' Croinin, 1995, Longman History of Ireland
The Fury of the Northmen, John Marsden, 1993, St. Martin's Press
Historical Atlas of the Vikings, John Haywood, 1995, Penguin
History of the Vikings, Gwyn Jones, 1968, Oxford
Irish Battles, Hayes-McCoy, 1969, Barnes & Nobles
Kings and Vikings, P.H. Sawyer, 1994, Barnes & Nobles
Lion Of Ireland, Morgan LLywellyn, 1981, Tor
Medieval Historical Battles 732 to 1485, Peter Sides, 1993, Gosling
Medieval Ireland, Michael Richter, 1995, St. Martin's Press
Medieval Warfare Sourcebook, David Nicolle, 1995, Arms and Armour
Neglected Heroes, Terry Gore, 1995, Praeger
Njals Saga, Magnus Magnusson translated by Hermann Palson, 1960, Penguin
"Stern Sudden Thunder Motion" Guy Halsall, Miniature Wargames 1986
The Viking Art of War, Paddy Griffith, 1995, Greenhill Books

Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome, Phil Barker
Armies of the Dark Ages, Ian Heath,
Army Lists, Book Two, 55bc -1000 AD (for WRG Rules)
DBM Army Lists, Book 3 : 476 AD to 1071 Ad

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Last Update: March 17, 2000

My thanks to Tim Donovan for this scenario. Questions, comments and suggestions welcome. Send your feedback to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.