• Christine Dorman

We Three Celtic Kings


Celts are known for their Druids, and mythic heroes, but Celtic history also includes some notable kings.
Celts are known for their Druids and mythic heroes, but Celtic history also includes some notable kings.

When you think about the Celts, what images come to mind? Fierce, blue-painted, kilt-clad warriors? White-robed, mysterious Druids? Gods and goddesses bedecked with golden necklaces and arm bracelets? Do you think of kings and royal courts? While monarchs may not immediately spring to mind when you hear the word “Celt,” the Irish, Scots, and Welsh had tons of kings. In fact, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were subdivided into numerous territories ruled by petty kings (as scholars would call them). Today’s post looks at three Celtic kings whose power was far from small.


Brian Boru


Ireland had several high kings who ruled over the entire island and commanded tribute as well as loyalty from territorial kings. The most renowned is Brian Boru. He is said to have reached legendary status during his own lifetime and his reputation continues to burn brightly in Irish memory. This is primarily because he got rid of the bloody Vikings. Well, he didn’t exactly banish them from the island like St. Patrick did with the snakes (which, sorry to say, didn’t happen either), but he did calm them and their raids down. Then he died and all bets were off!


Today, Vikings are romantic adventurers but to the Irish in the early Middle Ages, the Norsemen were viewed as bullies and terrorists.
Today, Vikings are romantic adventurers but to the Irish in the early Middle Ages, the Norsemen were viewed as bullies and terrorists.

The Vikings started raiding Ireland in the late 8th century AD. They liked the place and began moving in, establishing settlements, first on the coast in what is now Dublin, then across the island. The Irish, understandably, were none too pleased about this. But the Vikings or Norsemen, as the Irish called them, continued these invasions until Brian Boru routed them in the early 11th century.

Of course, Brian hadn’t appeared out of thin air like a superhero. For decades before his big victory against the Norsemen at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, Boru had been fighting to establish himself and gain power. He had a good lineage and connections. His mother was the daughter of the King of Connacht. His brother, Mahon, became the King of Munster.

When Norsemen murdered his brother, Brian set out to avenge the death. He accomplished this by killing Imar, the King of the Ostermen (as the Norsemen called themselves) of Limerick. Following this, Brian went to Munster, chased Norsemen out of there and established himself as King of Munster in 976 AD. Next, he took control of Leinster and began extending his rule throughout Ireland until, in 1002 AD, he had become High King.

Friction with the Norsemen continued for twelve more years until Boru’s final victory at the Battle of Clontarf. The Vikings were defeated so thoroughly at that confrontation that they ended up running from battle. Ironically, while this accomplishment is Brian Boru’s crowning glory, it is probable that he didn’t actually fight in the battle. By 1014, he was approximately 73 years old. Some scholars say, during the battle, he lay ill in his tent and relayed orders and strategy to his son, who was in the field, leading the military operation.

Warriors face off at a Battle of Clontarf re-enactment.
Warriors face off at a Battle of Clontarf re-enactment.

Brian Boru, his son, and grandson all were killed at Clontarf and a story about Brian’s death indicates that the theory of him not actually engaging in the battle may be true. According to one account, as the Norsemen fled, a few of them came across Boru’s tent. They defeated the guards, entered the tent, and murdered the High King. After Brian Boru’s death, Ireland descended into anarchy and, although chieftains and territorial kings managed to restore order, Ireland never again had a high king of Brian Boru’s stature and power.


Robert the Bruce


Anyone who has seen Braveheart will remember William Wallace’s fight to free Scotland from the English yoke but it was Robert the Bruce who gained political independence for Scotland.

Robert’s path to the throne was neither easy nor swift. When Bruce was a teenager, Scotland’s king, Alexander III, fell from his horse and died. His only living heir was a seven year old granddaughter, Margaret, who was in Norway. On her way back to Scotland to be crowned, she died. This threw Scotland into a crisis of succession as there were fourteen claimants to the throne.

In England, succession was determined by primogeniture, a system in which the closest relative automatically became the new monarch on the death of the previous king or queen. The Scots, however, had a system called tanistry. In this system, the Guardians of Scotland, a group of the most important members of Scottish nobility, voted to elect the next monarch. After Alexander’s sudden death, Scotland devolved into chaos as the rival claimants to the throne and their supporters battled one another. The two leading contenders were John Bailol and Robert Bruce, grandfather of Robert the Bruce.


When King Alexander III died without an heir, Scotland was thrown into chaos.  Scottish nobles turned to Edward I of England for help.  They soon regretted that decision.
When King Alexander III died without an heir, Scotland was thrown into chaos. Scottish nobles turned to Edward I of England for help. They soon regretted that decision.

In desperation, the Guardians called on Edward I of England to help with the succession issue. He backed John Bailol and agreed to assist in settling down Scotland’s warring factions. But he had two conditions. First, he extracted a private promise from Bailol and most of the nobles to let England act as Scotland’s overlord. Secondly, he demanded that the Scots aid him in England’s war against France, Scotland’s longtime ally.

This did not sit well with the Scots. Ultimately, after being crowned king, Bailol renounced Edward and declared the continued alliance between the Scots and the French. In response, Edward’s forces invaded Scotland and caused tremendous death and devastation until, at the battle of Dunbar in 1296, Bailol surrendered. Within a year, William Wallace had roused the Scots to rebel against the English, and he had some success, such as routing the English at Stirling Bridge. Nevertheless, by 1304, most of the Scottish nobles had submitted to Edward. Wallace didn’t submit and was executed as a traitor.

Robert the Bruce had fought with Wallace but somehow managed to avoid being labeled a traitor. In fact, in 1298, at the age of twenty-four, he was appointed a Guardian of Scotland along with his chief rival for the Scottish throne, John Comyn.


In 1306, Robert arranged a meeting with Comyn at the Greyfriars’ priory in Dumfries, Scotland. During the course of that meeting, the Bruce stabbed Comyn, who soon after died of his wounds. Edward I declared Robert the Bruce a criminal and Pope Clement V excommunicated him. Even so, he proclaimed himself King of Scotland and was crowned at Scone in March of 1306, six weeks after Comyn’s death.


Due to the movie, Braveheart, William Wallace is now associated with Scottish freedom but, historically, it was Robert the Bruce who wrested Scotland from England's political control.
Due to the movie, Braveheart, William Wallace is now associated with Scottish freedom but, historically, it was Robert the Bruce who wrested Scotland from England's political control.

Within a year, he was deposed by the English and had to flee to Ireland. While in exile, he gathered support. Returning to Scotland, he began a guerilla war against the English. In 1314, Robert’s forces confronted those of the new English king, Edward II, at the Battle of Bannockburn. He led the Scots to victory and re-established Scotland’s political independence.


Six years’ later, the Scottish aristocracy sent a letter (now known as the Declaration of Arbroath) to Pope John XXII. It proclaimed Robert the Bruce as the rightful King of Scotland. Four years later, the pope declared Scotland an independent nation and acknowledge Robert the Bruce as its king.

In 1327, the England renounced its claim as overlord of Scotland and made peace (temporary though it was) with Scotland. Two years later, Robert the Bruce died.


Gruffydd ap Llywelyn


Gruffydd ap Llywelyn is the representative of Welsh kings in this post for one simple reason: he is the only Welsh monarch to have become High King of All Wales. He was born in 1010. His father was king of Gwynedd and Powys, two of the major power centers in Wales. Gruffydd became king in 1039. Within two years, he was working on expanding his rule south by annexing territories to his own. Although he had challenges and setbacks, by 1056, he held enough sway to declare himself King of Wales. Within five years, even the English acknowledged him as king. But they weren’t content to let him stay King of Wales.

In 1062, Harold Godwinson (later of Battle of Hastings fame), obtained permission from the English king, Edward the Confessor, to attack Gruffydd’s court. The Welsh king escaped and fled to Snowdonia but there met his end at the hands of a Welshman. The son of a man Gruffydd had killed in his quest to expand his kingdom cut off the king’s head and sent it to Harold. Wales fragmented, governed once again by territorial kings and princes. Gruffydd’s son, David ap Gruffydd, Prince of Gwynedd, led a rebellion against the English but, after his death, Wales was ruled entirely by the English monarchy.


Gwynedd, Wales, the place Gruffydd ap Llywellan began his journey towards becoming King of All Wales.
Gwynedd, Wales, the place Gruffydd ap Llywellan began his journey towards becoming King of All Wales.

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Next week: Celtic Queens and Enchantresses!


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