Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Ungraceful Start To The Voyage Of Hernán Cortés

In 1518, Governor Diego Velazquez of Cuba chose Hernán Cortés to command a Spanish expedition into Mexico. In a vague series of events that even 16th-century historians hotly debated, Velazquez soon reneged on his choice of Cortés as expedition leader, but the charismatic and politically savvy Cortés used his network of powerful friends to maintain control of the expeditionary forces. Despite no longer having Velazquez’s blessing, Hernán Cortés was able to pull together a fleet of eleven ships and sign more than six-hundred men up for his expedition, of which over five-hundred were conquistadors willing to fight on land. For much of his preparations, Cortés had his headquarters in the city of Trinidad, but by the first two months of 1519, Cortés decided to gather his ships and troops in a southern Cuban port called Havana (not to be confused with the modern-day city).

For whatever reason, Cortés led his fleet out of Trinidad at night, with the leader of the expedition proudly spearheading the convoy from his large flagship. As the fleet floated through the darkness, the ships began to lose sight of each other. Nevertheless, each ship knew the way and they were able to anchor in Havana separately. Yet, when the light of morning arrived, the expedition quickly realized something was wrong. A single ship was missing from their fleet and it happened to be the most important vessel in the whole convoy—the large flagship of the expedition (and Hernán Cortés) was nowhere to be seen. For at least seven days, the expeditionary force worriedly waited in Havana without any sign of their commander. As every day passed, new claimants tried to position themselves as possible replacement captains of the expedition if Cortés remained missing.

Unbeknownst to the fleet, their embarrassed leader was not far away. Hernán Cortes, the mighty leader of the expedition that would eventually topple the Aztec Empire, had run his flagship aground on a shallow bar of sand near one of the islands off the southern coast of Cuba. No matter what Cortés did, he could not sail or row or push his ship free. Therefore, he eventually started filling the flagship’s smaller rowboats with his cargo and ferried the supplies to the nearby island. After rounds of paddling back and forth from the ship to the island, Cortés finally reduced the weight of the flagship enough for it to float free of the obstacle. Although his ship was unstuck, his troubles were not over—all of his cargo was still on the island. Therefore, Cortés anchored the ship in deeper water and hopped into his rowboat to begin the frustrating task of ferrying all of his cargo back onto his flagship. Finally, with his ship free and his cargo restored, the much-delayed Hernán Cortés resumed his voyage to Havana and destiny.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Shipwreck painted by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963. 

The Fatal Bad Luck Of Kotkel And His Family In 10th-Century Iceland

According to the Laxdæla saga, a man named Kotkel moved with his whole family from the Hebrides to Iceland sometime during the 10th century. Kotkel had a wife named Grima and two sons, Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye and Stigandi. These new immigrants brought with them some covetable skills—Kotkel was apparently a masterful horse breeder, or at least had an instinctively keen eye for choosing the best horses out of a herd.

Kotkel attempted to set up a new life for his family in the region of Skalmarfjord. There, the immigrants gained the support of a local leader named Hallstein the Godi and, with his help, they were allowed to settle in Urdir. Although Kotkel and his family were given protection by Hallstein, other settlers in the Skalmarfjord region never warmed to the newcomers. A contributing factor to the region’s cold reception of Kotkel (at least in the family’s portrayal in the Laxdæla saga) was the stereotype that Hebrideans were mischievous and treacherous people, often with nefarious knowledge of sorcery. With this stereotype always on their minds, the people of Skalmarfjord used the Hebridean immigrants as scapegoats for any famine, bad weather, or sudden and unexpected deaths in their region.

The downfall of Kotkel and his family began when a prominent lawyer named Thord Ingunnarson began to boast to his fellow Icelanders that he planned to try the Hebridean family with charges of theft and sorcery during the next Althing (the national assembly of Iceland). Yet, before Thord could bring his case to court, his ship sank during a storm and he drowned.  The Icelanders, rather than attributing Thord’s death to faulty shipbuilding, poor seamanship or horrid luck, claimed that the cause of Thord’s death had to be the sorcery of Kotkel and his family.

Hallstein the Godi, who had long been a protector of the Hebridean immigrants, began to waver in his support of them after the death of Thord Ingunnarson. As public pressure mounted, Hallstein eventually banished Kotkel and his family from the Skalmarfjord region. Forced from their land, the refugees fled to the Hvammsfjord communities of Laxardal and Kambsnes in Iceland. According to the Laxdæla saga, they finally found shelter with the well-connected Thorleik Hoskuldsson, who was impressed by Kotkel’s talent with horses. In exchange for Kotkel’s impressive animals, Thorleik let the Hebrideans settle in Leifdolfsstadir, Laxardal.

In Leifdolfsstadir, the sad cycle began to repeat for Kotkel. The locals distrusted the new Hebridean settlers, but put up with their presence because Kotkel had an influential patron—Thorleik Hokuldsson. Yet, although Thorleik was powerful and well-connected, he was also known to feud from time to time with other members of his wealthy family. As Kotkel was now in Thorleik’s entourage, he was in danger of being drawn into the family drama of the Laxardal region. As it happened, relations broke down between Thorleik and his uncle, Hrut, soon after Kotkel settled in Leifdolfsstadir. Thorleik’s prominent half-brother, Olaf Peacock (so-called because of his pride and gilded clothing), backed Hrut in the dispute and family tensions heightened to threatening levels. Yet, before kin began to attack kin, tragedy struck and diverted Hrut’s wrath away from Thorleik.

In the midst of the feud between the prominent men of Laxardal, Hrut’s beloved twelve-year-old son, Kari, died suddenly without any forewarning symptoms, and the 10th-century Icelanders could find no explanation for his unexpected death. The grief-stricken Hrut and his nephew, Olaf Peacock, came to believe that Kotkel had killed young Kari with sorcery on behalf of Thorleik. Spurred on by this theory, Hrut and Olaf gathered a posse and invaded Leifdolfsstadir to capture the Hebrideans.

Kotkel and his family were able to see the posse of Icelanders approaching in the distance and the hunted Hebrideans attempted to run away toward the mountains. Nevertheless, Hrut and Olaf intercepted them and only one of Kotkel’s sons, Stigandi, was able to escape capture. The rest of the family suffered horrid fates. According to the Laxdæla saga, the less fortunate son, Hallbjorn Slickstone-eye, was caught first. Hrut and Olaf reportedly tied a stone around his neck, rowed him out to sea and pushed him overboard to drown in the dark, cold depths. As for Kotkel and his wife, Grima—the two were reportedly stoned to death and buried in a shallow grave, which was covered in rock and called the Sorcerers’ Cairn.

Stigandi, the only survivor of the ill-fated family, understandably had a grudge with Iceland and the prominent local families for the rest of his life. After successfully escaping from Hrut’s posse, Stigandi reportedly became a bandit based out of Hundadal, Iceland. There, he became something of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from the landowners and giving away his loot to slaves and other less fortunate inhabitants of the region. According to the Laxdæla saga, Stigandi fancied a slave-woman in Hundadal, and much of his stolen wealth ended up in her hands. Unfortunately for Stigandi, the news of banditry had caught the attention of Olaf Peacock, who then came to the region to investigate.

After hearing from witnesses, Olaf was convinced that the bandit was none other than Kotkel’s last surviving son. Therefore, Olaf Peacock tracked down the slave-woman who had come into unexplained wealth and he offered to buy her freedom in exchange for her help in capturing the bandit. She agreed to the proposal, and the next time Stigandi arrived at her home with more gifts, he was immediately arrested by Olaf Peacock. As had happened with his parents, Stigandi was reportedly stoned to death and buried in a shallow grave. His fate was remarkably different than Kotkel’s patron, Thorleik Hoskuldsson, who was forgiven by Olaf Peacock and allowed to go into exile.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (A scene from the Laxdæla saga by Andreas Bloch (1860–1917), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Laxdæla saga by an unknown 13th century Icelander, translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Æthelred The Unready Lost A Large Portion Of His Navy Due To His Feuding Vassals

Æthelred the Unready (r. 978-1016) ruled England during one of its darkest ages. As early as 980, he was faced with an influx of Viking activity the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). Yet, unlike Alfred, who was eventually able to adapt his forces to effectively combat the Scandinavian threat to his kingdom, Æthelred the Unready seemed hopelessly incapable of utilizing his resources in a way that could defeat his enemies. As portrayed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelred’s style of defense was evidently to let his regional ealdormen defend their own domains against the Vikings, and if the ealdormen failed, Æthelred would pay the Vikings money in hopes that they would leave. The king apparently mobilized his army on very few occasions, and when he did personally go on the march, it was often a punitive mission against his own people. Æthelred did, however, raise fleets against the Viking threat, yet something always seemed to go wrong when the English ships were gathered together.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was as late as 992 when Æthelred the Unready decided to make a concerted effort to mobilize his navy against the Vikings. That fiasco ended with the admiral in charge of the English fleet defecting to the Vikings (read about this in more detail HERE). After that incident, Æthelred the Unready apparently reverted to his previous strategy of paying money to the Vikings, especially when too many of his ealdormen began to die in battle. Yet, in 1007, after numerous ealdormen had been slain in Viking raids and after four payments of tribute had been made to the invaders, Æthelred the Unready finally announced a kingdom-wide edict commanding that new ships and armor be built across England.

By 1009, enough ships had been constructed to make some of the Englishmen feel hopeful of their future. Yet, as had happened the last time Æthelred raised his fleet against the Vikings, something bizarre occurred to thwart the unlucky king’s plans. Unfortunately for Æthelred, two of his powerful vassals decided to start quarreling in 1009. The two people in question were Ealdorman Brihtric and a certain powerful lord of Sussex called Wulfnoth Cild. Æthelred failed to reconcile the two noblemen, and, even worse, the king openly gave his support to Brihtric. Infuriated, Wutlfnoth Cild commandeered twenty English ships that were docked in his domain and used them to raid southern England.

When news of the raids spread, Ealdorman Brihtric quickly offered to hunt down his rogue rival and the king agreed to the plan.  In addition to his vocal support, King Æthelred the Unready also put Brihtric in command of eighty newly-built ships. Now at the helm of a large armada, Brihtric sailed off to capture or kill his enemy. Yet, the battle between the foes never occurred—in a tragic twist of fate, Brihtric’s fleet was ravaged by a massive tempest that left all eighty of his ships damaged or sunk. When Wulfnoth heard of his rival’s distress, he reportedly sailed to the shipwrecks and set fire to all of the vessels that happened to still be afloat.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the naval disaster between Brihtric and Wulfnoth was a breaking point in the reign of Æthelred the Unready. With the destruction of Brihtric’s eighty ships and the other twenty ships of Wulfnoth still on the loose, Æthelred the Unready apparently abandoned his shipbuilding project and England fell into a state of overwhelming depression. The chronicler in charge of recording the events of 1009 wrote, “When this was thus known to the other ships where the king was, how the others had fared, it was as if all counsel was at an end, and the king, and the ealdormen, and the high ‘witan’ went home, and thus lightly left the ships” (ASC, 1009).

The English ships lost that year were sorely missed. Before 1009 had ended, the general regions of Kent, Hampshire, Berkshire, Sussex and Essex faced Viking activity, while the more specific locations of Sandwich, Canterbury, Chiltern, Oxford, Staines and London were also mentioned as having been targeted by raiders. With such a combination of bad luck and ineffective defense, it is unsurprising that the Danes overran England by 1013 and forced Æthelred the Unready to flee to Normandy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Bayeux Tapestry. Scene 39, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

One Way Ancient Romans Attempted To “Nail Down” The Origin Date Of Their Republic

According to ancient historians such as Polybius (c. 200-118 BCE) and Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), the grand Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus was dedicated within one year after the monarchy was abandoned in Rome in favor of a republic. As can be guessed from the title of the temple, Jupiter was the main focus of the structure, but there were also shrines to Juno and Minerva on the compound. According to Livy, there was a practice of driving a ceremonial nail or spike into the temple wall near the shrine of Minerva that dated back to the inaugural year of the religious complex. In a convoluted and confusing passage, Livy wrote that this apparently annual practice was passed down from generation to generation and from government to government. He stated, “the consul Horatius dedicated the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in the year following the expulsion of the kings; from the consuls the ceremony of fastening the nails passed to the Dictators, because they possessed greater authority” (History of Rome, 7.3).

Although the ceremonial practice of placing nails into the wall of the temple had not been created specifically as a way to tally years, Livy and others recognized the possibility of using the temple as a way to determine the age of the Roman Republic. For Livy, it was poetic that the nails were watched over by Minerva. He wrote, “The nail is said to have marked the number of the year—written records being scarce in those days—and was for that reason placed under the protection of Minerva because she was the inventor of numbers” (History of Rome, 7.3).  Minerva apparently did her part and kept the temple wall intact until an unknown curious Roman calculated the number of nails, a task which was hopefully done before the Gallic sack of Rome around 386 BCE and the destruction of the temple around 83 BCE, during the civil war of Sulla. The calculation of the nails in the temple wall was reportedly one of the ways that the traditional date of 509 BCE (give or take a few years) was set as the year the Roman Republic was born.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (a scene from Virgil (Book I), c. 400, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Zhang Tang’s Disturbing Campaign Of Justice Against A Thieving Rodent

Zhang Tang was born in the region of Du (modern Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China) sometime in the 2nd century BCE. His family was humble, but had ample possibilities for mobility. This was in large part due to his father’s work as an aid to a government official in Chang’an, the Capital City of the Han Dynasty. While his father was away, young Zhang Tang was tasked with watching over the family home.

Even with the passage of time, great leaps in technology and significant cultural changes, the children of ancient eras played and behaved almost the same as the children of today. Therefore, just as modern kids enjoy using their imaginations to pretend to be doctors, or soldiers, or super-heroes, so too did little Zhang Tang enjoy acting out his dream job—an imperial law official of the Han Dynasty. According to peculiar pieces of folklore preserved by Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), young Zhang Tang was disturbingly serious about his play sessions as a pretend judge.

One bizarre tale about Zhang Tang’s childhood was set during one of those spans of time when he was appointed as the honorary man of the house while his father was off working in Chang’an. In particular, the commuting father was strict about the security of his pantry—if anything was missing from the larder, nothing would save Zhang Tang from his father’s wrath.  Unfortunately, although young Zhang Tang had obsessively learned everything he could about imperial law, he was in no way a skilled watchman or guard. Therefore, to the boy’s horror, a stealthy rat had sneaked into the home and had made off with a prized cut of meat while he was distracted.

When the exhausted father returned home, he immediately realized that something was missing. He must have been really looking forward to eating the stolen morsel, for the father was reportedly so furious that he cruelly gave Zhang Tang a beating for his negligence. Later on, the boy was clearly still dwelling on the rat and the beating when he decided to play his next session of imaginary lawman. Fully throwing himself into the role, young Zhang Tang devoted himself to hunting down the greatest criminal living in the confines of his family’s estate—the thieving rodent.

Acting as an investigator, Zhang Tang tracked down the hole where the rat lived. To the horror of his family, the boy then excavated the rat den and captured the thief. He even discovered evidence of the crime—there were still scraps of the prized meat that were uneaten. With the rodent and evidence in his possession, Zhang Tang had everything he needed to launch the greatest make-believe law case of his bizarre childhood.

Following imperial law and court etiquette to the letter, the boy charged the rodent with committing a heinous crime and put it on trial. It was an incredibly thorough procedure. According to the tale, he even interrogated the rodent and recorded its squeaks as a confession. Sima Qian brilliantly and vividly described the uncanny, disturbing scene: “He then proceeded to indict the rat, beat it until it told its story, write out a record of its words, compare them with the evidence, and draw up a proposal for punishment. After this he took the rat and meat out into the yard, where he held a trial, presented the charges, and crucified the rat” (Shi Ji 122). When the boy’s father heard of his son’s odd trial and subsequent execution of the poor rodent, he was not concerned in the least. Instead, according to the peculiar piece of folklore, the father was extremely impressed.

As Sima Qian presented it, this was the event that set off Zhang Tang’s career in law. When the boy’s father saw his son’s interest and skill in court proceedings, he sent Zhang Tang to study legal documents. As he grew up, Zhang Tang went on to become a successful member of the Han court, reaching positions such as commandant of justice and imperial secretary to Emperor Wu. He gained a reputation as a wise, albeit manipulative, government official. Zhang Tang became one of the emperor’s favorite counselors, but he ultimately committed suicide in 116 BCE after being accused of corruption.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Funerary Sculpture of an animal (rat) of the Twelve-Year Chinese Zodiac (Shengxiao), c. Yuan Dynasty, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Did Ancient Greeks And Romans Explore Iceland?

Iceland did not become a permanent place of settlement until the 9th century. The first inhabitants that built a long-term community on Iceland predominantly came from Norway, and later descendants of the original settlers were convinced that their ancestors’ exodus from the old homeland was a form of protest against the growing authority of King Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940). It is clear that the Norsemen were the first settlers to turn Iceland into a long-term home. Yet, the question of if they were the first people to discover the island is another story. In fact, it is possible that Iceland may have been located by a Greek explorer as early as the 4th century BCE and that Romans had this information at their disposal during the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.

The debate revolves around Pytheas, a 4th-century BCE citizen of the Greek settlement at Massilia (Marseilles) in ancient France, then known as Gaul. During the last decades of the 4th century, Pytheas set sail from Massilia and sneaked his way through the Carthaginian strait of Gibraltar to enter the Atlantic Ocean and began thoroughly exploring the lands far to the north of the Mediterranean Sea. During his travels, Pytheas kept detailed notes on the geography he encountered and the people that he met. When he returned from his expedition, he published a text that was reportedly titled, On the Ocean.  Unfortunately, his original version of the book has been lost. Nevertheless, numerous Greek and Roman historians attested to the existence of the Pytheas and his book. Through these later scholars, pieces of the lost text were preserved through quotation, critique and summary. By piecing together the commentary of historians such as Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Timaeus and Eratosthenes, we know most of the regions where Pytheas was said to have traveled.

According to the fragments and summaries of Pytheas’ journey, he began by leaving the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. He then traveled up the Iberian Peninsula and continued along the French coast, eventually rounding Brittany. Pytheas then crossed the English Channel and traveled along the west coast of England, Wales and Scotland. On that stretch of the journey, he also reportedly explored the smaller islands of Britain, such as the Hebrides and Orkney.

It is around this time that Pytheas may have discovered Iceland. From somewhere on the north tip of Britain, the Greek explorer set sail and traveled toward Arctic waters for six days. His exact trajectory is not known, but after the six days, Pytheas sighted land near a “congealed” or “sluggish” sea, terms that possibly suggest icy water or the North Atlantic Current. Based on this evidence, scholars believe that Pytheas either reached Iceland or Norway at the end of his six-day trek from Britain. Whatever he found, Pytheas labeled it “Thule” and eventually departed the mysterious landmass for the British Isles. If he had not already seen Norway by this point, then he possibly saw Norwegian land on the next phase of his journey. Pytheas allegedly sailed into the Baltic through the North Sea and perhaps explored the coast of what is now Poland. At this point, however, Pytheas decided to start his return-trip home to Massilia and did not venture farther into the sea.

When the Romans began their conquest of Britannia under Emperor Claudius in the year 43, their maps were still influenced by Pytheas’ discoveries. Leading up to and during the time that Julius Agricola was governor of Britannia (r. 77-84), Roman influence had spread over England and Wales, as well as into significant portions of Scotland. In the year 83, Agricola sent a Roman fleet to explore the north of Britain. In their travels, the Roman sailors explored Orkney (which they called the Orcades) and found another island that they believed was Pytheas’ Thule. Yet, most scholars do not believe that the Roman expedition of 83 ever reached Iceland or Norway. Instead, it is thought that the Romans found Shetland and misidentified it as Thule.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (detail of a cup interior showing a frieze of five boats in contest. Attic black-figured cup, ca. 520 BC. From Cerveteri. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


Monday, February 18, 2019

The Revenge Of King Theuderic I Against Clermont

Theuderic I and his brothers, Chlodomer, Childebert and Chlotar jointly ruled the empire of the Franks after the death of their famous father, King Clovis (r. 481-511/513). Although they were co-rulers of the empire, they operated from separate kingdoms and, despite their coordination together in military campaigns against foreign threats, the brothers were also known to be quite conniving when it came to internal politics in the Frankish Empire. This was made most clear by the fate of King Chlodomer’s children after his death in 524—two of his sons (Theudovald and Gunthar) were murdered and a third (Chlodovald) was forced into a monastery so that Theuderic, Childebert and Chlotar could divide their late brother’s kingdom amongst themselves. Miraculously, the brothers rarely took up arms against each other, but that did not stop them from being paranoid. Additionally, as each brother was covetous of the brothers’ domains, a false rumor of a monarch’s death was a very serious affair and could be deadly for the king’s children.

One such false rumor of a regal death apparently occurred in 531, while Kings Theuderic and Chlotar were campaigning against Thuringia. Although the war was going extremely well and both kings were safe, troubling gossip began to spread that Theuderic had died. In the event of the king’s death, Theuderic’s kingdom was supposed to pass to his son, Theudebert. Yet, many knew that succession could be a tricky subject and that the late king’s last will and testament might not be respected.

Spurred on by the rumor of Theuderic’s death, the region of Clermont-Ferrand decided to prepare for the inevitable political struggle. Surveying their option of lieges, the leadership in Clermont apparently did not rank Theuderic’s son, Theudebert, high on their list of preferred rulers. Therefore, the people of Clermont were said to have invited King Childebert to take control over the Clermont-Ferrand district.

Childebert had not been involved in the Thuringian campaign with his brothers and therefore had no information to disprove the gossip that Theuderic was dead. Consequently, he eagerly took the bait and agreed to take control of Clermont. Childebert reportedly traveled to the district and was on the verge of occupying the city when messengers arrived with news that Theuderic was still very much alive and had just returned home from Thuringia. After discovering the truth, Childebert slipped away from Clermont as quickly as he could and spent the rest of his year attacking Visigoths in the south of France.

When King Theuderic learned of Clermont’s attempted defection, he was extremely angry. In fact, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) reported that Theuderic raised his army and launched a punitive campaign against the disloyal district in 532. The furious king and his army entered Clermont and hunted down the leaders who had invited Childebert to take control. He then was said to have attacked fortresses in the region that had garrisons of questionable loyalty. Among his targets were the fortress of Vollore and the forces at Chastel-Marlhac. Along with besieging local forts, Theuderic reportedly let his army ravage the district. Gregory of Tours wrote, “The army ran riot through the whole region, attacking everything, destroying everything” (History of the Franks, Book III, section 12). When Theuderic had finished meting out revenge on the local population, he placed a trusted kinsman named Sigivald in charge of a loyal garrison and tasked them with keeping an eye on Clermont.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (15th-century depiction of Childebert and Clotar from BL Royal 20 E I, f. 47, [Public Domain] via and Creative Commons).

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Julius Agricola's First Year As Governor In Britannia And The Submerged Invasion Of Mona

Roman Britannia was ruled by a succession of three great governors in the 70s and early 80s. The first was Petulius Cerialis (r. 71-73), who had some success in curtailing the power of the Brigantes, one of the most powerful peoples in Britain. Although he could not force the Brigantes to fully submit, Cerialis’ governorship was considered a great success. Next, came Julius Frontinus, who governed Britannia between the years 73 and 77. He was something of a polymath and wrote various texts on subjects such as engineering and warfare. He was known to have campaigned in England and Wales during his tenure as governor and his most notable feat was the conquest of the Silures of southern Wales. With such leaders setting the stage, the next governor of Roman Britannia would have a tough act to follow.

In the year 77, Julius Agricola arrived in Britannia to take up the office of governor. Agricola had a decorated résumé—he was the governor of Aquitania from 74-76 and had held the office of suffect consul of Rome in 76 before being sent to govern Britannia. Agricola also had plenty of military experience in Britain. He had served with Governor Suetonius Paulinus during the devastating revolt of Boudicca in 60 or 61. Later, Emperor Vespasian sent Agricola back to Britannia to take up the command of the Twentieth Legion, a post he held from 69 to 73. With such administrative experience, as well as his knowledge of Britain’s geography and people, he was an ideal pick for the job of running Roman operations in Britannia.

For his inaugural year as governor of Britannia, Agricola was eager to prove that he was just as able a warrior as his predecessors. Therefore, he immediately picked up where Governor Frontinus had left off and launched an invasion into Wales soon after taking up his governorship in the year 77. Whereas Frontinus had conquered land in the south of Wales, Agricola targeted un-subdued peoples in central and northern Wales, most notably the Ordovices. Spurned on by reports that the latter group in Wales had annihilated a Roman cavalry squadron, Agricola marched his forces into the territory of the Ordovices and, according to the historian Tacitus, “slaughtered almost the entire nation” (Agricola, section 18).

Despite the subjugation or destruction of the Ordovices in 77, Agricola was not yet done with his inaugural campaign. Instead of marching back to the more secure regions of Roman Britannia, he moved his forces to the northwest. When his army reached the shoreline, only the narrow Menai Strait separated Agricola from his goal—the troublesome island of Mona, now known as Angelsey. Yet, there was a problem. Agricola had begun his campaign as purely a land invasion of Wales and his decision to attack the island came as an impromptu afterthought. Consequently, he had no ships with him when he reached the shores of the Menai Strait. Although Agricola was determined to subdue the rebellious island of Mona, he had no way to transport his troops over the strait.

Unfortunately for the islanders, Agricola found a solution to his dilemma. As the legionnaires and auxiliaries serving in Roman Britannia were drawn from various regions of the empire, Agricola had at his command warriors with all sorts of diverse backgrounds and specializations. One such community that was represented in Agricola’s auxiliary forces was the Batavi, a Germanic people from the Netherlands region who were known to excel at swimming and aquatic warfare.

While the bulk of Roman forces loitered on the shoreline, distracting the nervous inhabitant of Mona, Agricola gathered the Batavi warriors, as well as any other strong swimmers in the army, and gave them a special task to accomplish. While the Roman camp drew the gaze of Mona’s spies and defenders, the elite swimmers of Agricola’s army stealthily plunged into the Menai Strait and swam across to the island. They successfully made landfall without being discovered and crept toward their oblivious opponents. As the warriors of Mona had not taken their eyes off of Agricola’s camp, the islanders were irrecoverably shocked when a force of drenched Roman auxiliaries launched a surprise attack on the unsuspecting defenders. The sudden auxiliary charge caused such chaos that the islanders were said to have immediately surrendered to Agricola.

With the conquest of the Ordovices and the surrender of Mona, Agricola completed his first campaign as governor of Britannia. It was the start of a long and successful tenure that would last until 84, when he was recalled to Rome by Emperor Domitian. During his governorship, Agricola pushed Roman Britannia to the height of its power and he is often remembered as the greatest governor of the province.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A statue of Julius Agricola cropped in front of a Roman Legion from Trajan's Column), c. 16th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Disappearance Of Jarl Paul The Silent

According to the Orkneyinga Saga (written around 1200), the earldom of Orkney was often co-ruled by multiple jarls. This was made even more complicated during the reign of St. Olaf of Norway (r. 1015-1028), when the Norwegian crown reportedly claimed direct rule of one-third of Orkney. As portrayed in the sagas, the other two-thirds of Orkney was thereafter often ruled by two jarls, who both competed in befriending the Norwegian crown in hopes of gaining the right to administer the king’s portion of Orkney. In some cases, however, a single jarl claimed sole rule over the earldom by outliving or killing his co-rulers. One such person was Jarl Thorfinn Sigurdsson the Mighty (d. 1064), who outlived his brothers and executed a nephew to become sole ruler, although Orkney was once again split among his sons.

If the genealogy of the Orkneyinga Saga is correct, Jarl Paul the Silent was a great-grandson of Thorfinn the mighty. Paul came to power in Orkney sometime after 1117 and shared power with his half-brother, Harald Smooth-Tongue, until Harald mysteriously died at an unknown time. After Harald Smooth-Tongue’s death, Paul the Silent became sole ruler of Orkney and several members of his family were sent into exile. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Harald’s son (Erlend), mother (Helga), aunt (Frakokk), and sister (Margaret) were all banished from Orkney or otherwise decided to stay in exile.

Although Jarl Paul the Silent had managed to become sole ruler of Orkney, he had several potential rivals who could claim a piece of the earldom. Two were nephews: the aforementioned Erlend and also Harald Maddadarson, the son of Jarl Paul’s sister, Margaret, and an earl of Atholl. Another threat was Rognvald Kali Kolsson, a Norwegian nobleman who was living the life of a merchant and adventurer. Rognvald Kali was related to the ruling family of Orkney through his mother, Gunnhild, who was a granddaughter of Jarl Thorfinn the Mighty. Rognvald Kali’s uncle was also Jarl Magnus of Orkney, who had been executed by the father of Paul the Silent in 1117.

With his lineage and powerful connections in Norway, Rognvald Kali became the predominant threat to Paul the Silent. King Sigurd the Crusader of Norway (r. 1103-1130) reportedly recognized Rognvald Kali’s claim to a piece of Orkney and elevated him to the rank of jarl around 1129. Before Jarl Rognvald Kali could launch an expedition to Orkney, he was delayed by the death of King Sigurd in 1130 and the chaotic politics of succession. Upon King Sigurd’s death, Norway was divided between the late king’s son, Magnus IV, and a self-proclaimed half-brother of Sigurd named Harald IV. Rognvald Kali joined the camp of the latter and did not return his gaze to Orkney until after Harald IV defeated, captured and blinded Magnus IV in 1135.

After receiving King Harald’s blessing, Rognvald Kali set off for Shetland with five or six ships. He also reached out to the nobles that had been exiled by Paul the Silent, such as the late Harald Smooth-Tongue’s sister and aunt, who were both reportedly powerful women in Scotland through marriage. These women were said to have agreed to help Rognvald Kali and mustered around 12 ships from their domains, which they sent off to Orkney. Yet, the target of all these conspirators was no pushover. Jarl Paul the Silent was said to have raised his own fleet of 17 ships and quickly put to use the tried-and-true strategy of divide and conquer. Jarl Paul defeated the ships from Scotland before they could unite with Rognvald Kali’s force. He then sailed for Shetland, where he defeated the Norwegian ships with a surprise assault. Rognvald Kali survived the attack and reportedly returned to Norway with the help of some merchants.

Around 1136 or 1137, Rognvald Kali returned to Shetland with a reported fleet of 14 ships. This time, the invaders took more time to plan their strategy. One such ploy was to target Jarl Paul’s network of signal fires set up on various islands in Orkney. Rognvald Kali had some of his ships sail up to the islands to trigger the lighting of these signal fires, then retreat without causing any damage. After repeatedly triggering the signal fires over a long period of time, the annoyed men responsible for igniting the signals began to neglect their duties. Taking advantage of this negligence, Rognvald Kali successfully landed his forces on the island of Westray, in northern Orkney, and did so without any signal fires being lit.

Before any bloodshed occurred between Rognvald Kali and Paul the Silent, the local bishop arranged a truce while the different factions negotiated the fate of Orkney. The truce was accepted by both parties, but Jarl Paul’s enemies used it to their own advantage. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Paul’s sister, Margaret, hired Svein Asleifarson, one of the ablest men then living in the Scandinavian-controlled regions of the British Isles, and sent him on a mission to abduct Jarl Paul the Silent. Svein and the kidnappers successfully infiltrated Orkney and captured Jarl Paul in 1137. They did such a masterful job that no one in Orkney knew what happened next.

The Orkneyinga Saga provided two or three possible outcomes. One version was that Svein Asleifarson brought Jarl Paul to Margaret in Atholl, where she convinced her brother to freely give up his claim to Orkney so that her son, Harald Maddadarson, could become a jarl of Orkney. In this cheerful ending, Paul the Silent lived a quiet life in exile, possibly in a monastery. Yet, the author of the saga also wrote that Jarl Paul may have been imprisoned for life or executed by his captors. With no clear answer, the saga concluded its account of Paul’s life with an eerie statement: “We can’t say which comes nearer the truth, but this much is known, that he never came back to Orkney and he never gained power in Scotland” (Orkneyinga Saga, section 75). With the timely disappearance of Paul the Silent, Rognvald Kali (r. 1137-1158) claimed sole rule over the islands. Yet, not long afterwards, he accepted Margaret’s son, Harald Maddadarson (r. 1139-1206), as a co-ruler of Orkney.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Social media crop of a Viking Funeral by Carl Schmidt (1858-1923), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously approximately c. 1200, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981.
  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.