“With speed and daring and a knack for improvisation and organization, Strachwitz achieved near miracles in battle against overwhelming odds”
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
Count Hyazinth Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche and Camminetz’s incredible military career spanned two world wars and a civil war.
During World War I, the young Strachwitz served in the 1st Guards Cavalry Division:
“Leutnant Strachwitz exchanged his white Hussar dress uniform for field gray one and rode off to war at the front of his squadron. Soon the dashing Hussars found themselves stuck in clouds of dust, raised by thousands of infantry and supply wagons. Carrying out reconnaissance, Strachwitz impressed both his men and superiors. Because of his daring, the soldiers nicknamed Strachwitz the “last horseman.”
At the end of WWI, Strachwitz found his Silesian homeland torn by civil strife between Poles and Germans:
“Leading a counterattack, Strachwitz fought off eight Polish companies and retook his ancestral castle. During the ensuing fighting, Strachwitz captured an artillery battery and turned the guns the fleeing Poles.”
It was, however, during WWII, that Strachwitz’s military exploits made him a legend. Although assigned a rear-echelon position during the French campaign of 1940, Strachwitz could not be kept from the front. Setting out with on his own initiative, Strachwitz and his driver drove nineteen miles into French territory where he pulled up to a French signals garrison:
“Strachwitz got out of the car, calmly lit a cigarette, and demanded the surrender of the garrison in perfect French. He told the captain that his panzers were only minutes away. The bluff worked and 600 French soldiers surrendered.”
With the German attack on Soviet Russia in 1941, Strachwitz was granted front line command as battalion commander with the 16th Panzer division. On June 26, 16th Panzer got hit by Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos’ spirited counterattack:
“Amid deafening explosions, fountains of earth, and clouds of smoke, an adjutant reported to Strachwitz that they were T-26 light tanks. Strachwitz’s binoculars zeroed in on more Soviet tanks in the woods to the rear. He ordered the heavier Mark IVs to counter the Soviet outflanking attempt. Soviet infantry swarmed through the panzers. A bullet grazed Strachwitz’s arm. Roughly bandaged, the wound continued to bleed into the cloth. At dusk, after hours of fighting, the Soviets were thrown back but the regiment had been cut off from the division. It was only the first day of the largest tank battle in Barbarossa so far.”
By 1943, Strachwitz had been promoted to Oberst der Reserve (Colonel of the Reserve) and commanded the panzer regiment of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division. During the night of March 15-16, Strachwitz hid his panzers in a deserted peasant village west of Belgorod:
“Strachwitz remained calm, letting the whole Soviet column enter the village. With a Soviet command tank within 70 yards, Strachwitz’s hidden Tiger fired and blasted the turret right off the T-34. The other panzers let loose, knocking out 18 T-34s and KV-1s in a few minutes. Strachwitz climbed on top of his turret and watched the inferno. “The Russians have recognized us, they’re broadcasting, “Watch out, it’s Strachwitz,” exclaimed Strachwitz’s radio operator.”
When on August 1st, 1944, the Soviets reached the Gulf of Riga at Tuckum they cut off 30 German divisions in northern Latvia and Estonia. Someone needed to break through to beleaguered Riga. “If anyone can do it, it’s Strachwitz,” said Chief of Staff Heinz Guderian.
“Strachwitz entered Riga on August 21. Driving by cheering Latvians and German troops, the count’s Panther stopped in the marketplace right in front of a number of high-ranking officers. In his sweat- and dirt-stained overall, his face smeared in oil, Strachwitz emerged from the cupola. “Hurrah Leutnant, you busted the cauldron,” called out an officer. To astonished gazes, Strachwitz replied that he was a full-fledged general. In three days, Strachwitz’s small battlegroup had captured 18,000 prisoners and destroyed numerous artillery pieces, tanks and anti-tank guns.”
In a war and theater of operations that was characterized by a descending spiral of hatred and brutality, Strachwitz did his best to treat prisoners as best he could. He also helped ailing farmers, women and children. Often his men repaired local churches, further endearing him to the population. Unlike most senior commanders of the Third Reich, upon his death in 1968, Strachwitz was buried with full military honors:
“It was because of his bravery, which served as an example to all officers and soldiers, that he carried the highest decorations of the Knight’s Cross, the Oakleaves, the Swords and the Diamonds,” said General Heinz Georg Lemm of the Bundeswehr, himself a holder of the Oakleaves and Swords.”
Ludwig H. Dyck’s full article on Count Strachwitz is featured in Military Heritage Magazine’s July 2017 issue. Copyright L. H. Dyck.
Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest.”
Ludwig H. Dyck
Telamon, the Battle for Northern Italy;
“We can imagine how the Boii and Insubres ambassadors stood in the midst of the seated circle of the Gaesatae Kings, Concolitanus and Aneroestes, by whose sides sat their warrior champions and their druid advisors. With eloquent tongue, the ambassadors offered a large sum of gleaming gold, which was but a paltry amount compared to what could be looted from the rich and prosperous lands of the Romans. The Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae, proud allies, would honor the deeds of the Gauls who long ago crushed the legions at the River Allia and made themselves masters of Rome for seven months! The heroic tales roused the Gaesatae’s lust for war. “On no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike,” wrote Polybius (Polybius, The Histories, II. 27.)”
“Death March of the Legions,” The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest;
“Provisions of food were gathered, mainly millet, barley and livestock. Ordinarily meat was too precious to be eaten on a regular basis. Now, however, the warriors would need all the strength they could get. Those too old would stay behind, to look after the very young and the remaining farm animals. Aged grandparents bid emotional farewells to sons, grandsons and daughters-in-law, who they might never see again. They trusted in their gods to give them courage and good fortune. Priests took sacred emblems from their holy groves and carried them into battle. The Germanic warriors would fight side by side with their family members. Fathers, sons and brothers were comrades in arms, families were their squadrons and clans were their divisions. From thousands of tiny settlements, bands of warriors hungry for loot and vengeance gathered and followed in Arminius’ wake.”
Caesar against the Belgae, “The Bravest of the Gauls;”
As soon as the Roman baggage train appeared over the hillside, the entire Belgae army broke out of the woods. The Nervii formed the left wing, the Atrebates the right and the Viromandui in the center. The barbarians poured down the hillside like a human avalanche, unstoppable in its fury. The Roman cavalry and light troops were completely overwhelmed and scattered, barely even impeding the enemy charge. So fast were the barbarians that Caesar wrote, “almost at the same moment they were seen at the woods, in the river, and then at close quarters!” (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, II. 19). The three-foot deep river proved scarcely more of an obstacle than the Roman cavalry. In no time the barbarians gained the river’s farther side to continue with seemingly unbroken momentum up to the entrenching Romans.
“The barbarian ambush would have sealed the doom of almost any other army caught in the same situation. But this was not just any army; it was the Roman legion in its prime, under the generalship of one of the great captains of history.”
Viriathus, Hero of Hispania;
“Galba came to the first group and asked them to lay down their arms in a gesture of good faith. The naïve Lusitanians did as they were told. Women with babes in their arms, old couples supporting each other and young warriors who clenched their fists, watched in helpless apprehension, as Roman soldiers with spades moved around them. The Romans dug as only Romans could until a vast trench surrounded the Lusitani. Swords slid out of scabbards as the legionaries moved in. Children cried, frantic women screamed and clung to their men who cursed in anger. Roman soldiers pushed their way through the panicked mob to single out the able bodied men and cut them down like sheep. The others were “saved” for the slave markets. The slaughter was repeated with the other two Lusitani groups. Of the plunder, the greedy Galba kept most of it for himself and only gave a little to his soldiers, even though he was already a man of great wealth.”
Leader of the Lusitani resistance against the Roman Republic, Viriathus became Portugal’s First National Hero
Viriathus & the Lusitani surrender to Rome
The Lusitani were one of the large Celt-Iberian tribal groups of Hispania (Spain), the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. The Lusitani lands roughly equated with those of today’s Portugal. In 206 BCE, after Rome had appropriated the Carthaginian domains of southern Spain, the native Iberians rose up in revolt. The ongoing conflicts eventually spread to involve the free Celt-Iberian tribes to the north. The Lusitani started fighting the Romans in 194 BCE, raiding into Hispania Ulterior, (further Spain) the nearest of the two Roman Spanish provinces. When in 179 BCE hostilities finally ceased, it was largely due to the respect the Lusitani had gained for the Roman governor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (the Elder). It was around this time that Viriathus was born.
Viriathus spent his childhood tending sheep in the hills and wild lands. When he became a teenager Viriathus likely started to join in local raids. Like other young Celt-Iberian warriors, he sought to prove his valor in the banditry that was common among the tribes. As Viriathus grew to manhood he watched his tribe’s relations with Rome deteriorate. The governors that had come to take Gracchus’ place were men of greed, who oppressed the neighboring tribes. After Lusitani complaints to the Roman Senate failed to improve the situation, the Lusitani resumed hostilities with Hispania Ulterior in 154 BCE. Viriathus would have been in his twenties at the time. In 153 BCE, some of the Lusitani even crossed the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and struck into Africa. Two years later, the Lusitani inflicted a defeat on Hispania Ulterior’s Governor, Servius Sulpicius Galba. Probably Viriathus took part in at least some of these campaigns, his charisma and leadership gaining him a band of followers.
Although the Lusitani remained unbowed, the years of war had taken their toll. Almost certainly, Viriathus had lost relatives and close friends. Exhausted from having their homes burnt, their people killed or enslaved, the Lusitani sent envoys to Galba. He told them that he understood their reasons for making war. “Poorness of the soil and penury force you to do these things. But I will give my poor friends good land, and settle them in a fertile country, in three divisions” (Appian, Roman History, VI. X. 59, 60). Viriathus had heard of the great Gracchus from his elders. Perhaps Galba too was a man of his word.
Governor Galba betrays the Lusitani
Viriathus joined the men, women and children who gathered in the villages of Lusitania. They set out with their belongings, their carts, their livestock and their weapons, to meet up with others until scores became hundreds and hundreds became thousands. The year was 150 BCE and the Lusitani were surrendering to Rome. There were fully 30,000 of them when the Roman soldiers told the chieftains that the Lusitani should separate themselves into three groups. Escorted by legionaries and auxiliaries, the groups were led out of sight of each other.
Galba visited the first group, asking them to lay down their weapons to show their peaceful intentions. The Lusitani did as requested only to watch in apprehension as Roman soldiers dug a trench around them. The legionaries then forced their way through panicking Lusitani families. The Romans seized Lusitani of fighting age and killed them on the spot. A life of slavery awaited the others. Both the other tribal groups were dealt with in the same fashion. In what must have been a mad scramble to escape the slaughter, only a few escaped. Galba kept almost all of the loot and gave only a small amount to his soldiers. Back in Rome, the Senate was outraged at Galba’s disdainful behavior but were unable to reprimand him on account of his great wealth.
Viriathus leads the Lusitani to Victory
Among the survivors of Galba’s massacre was Viriathus, who swore vengeance on Rome. Viriathus became a young chieftain and in 147 BCE joined a Lusitani army raiding into Roman pacified Turdetania. Legate Gaius Vetilius responded vigorously, however, trapping the Lusitani against a river. Downcast, the Lusitani sent envoys with olive branches to Vetilius. They repeated their pleas for more fertile lands to settle on.
Vetilius agreed to the Lusitani demands but in turn demanded the surrender of their weapons. Viriathus would have none of it, reminding the tribesmen of Galba’s treachery. His words stirred their hearts and spirits so that they called upon Viriathus to take command of their entire army. Assembling the Lusitani cavalry, Viriathus led them in feint charges against the Roman lines. The skirmishing confused the Roman commanders and allowed the Lusitani infantry to flee the field.
At night, Viriathus and the cavalry slipped away to join his infantry. Vetilius came in pursuit but the heavily armored legionaries were unable to catch up with the lightly armed Lusitani. Viriathus kept just out of reach, drawing the Romans up the Barbesula River valley until the Roman column was strung out along a narrow pass, with a slope covered in thickets on one side and a cliff on the other. Here Viriathus sprung his trap, wheeling his cavalry around and attacking from the front while tribesmen hidden in the thickets stormed down the slope. The Lusitani threw javelins then closed in wielding short swords and the deadly falcata, the curved sickle-like swords that widened toward the tip. The Romans managed to fight their way out but not before losing over half their number. Vetilius was among the 4000 casualties.
As Viriathus’ renown grew, more and more tribesmen came over to his side. Here was a leader who even the Romans could not beat. Viriathus always divided the loot fairly, even distributing his own share to his bravest warriors. In a tale of his wedding, Viriathus was unimpressed by the gold and silver of his Romanized father-in-law. He leaned on his spear and ate little, offering sacrifices in the Lusitani way, then lifting his bride onto his horse and riding away into the hills.
In 146 BCE, Viriathus raided into the fertile Carpetani lands. Retreating before larger Roman forces, he wheeled back to strike at the strung out Roman column and inflicted severe casualties. The Romans named this feint and counter-strike method of fighting, the concursare. The same year Viriathus defeated another pursuing Roman army around Mt. Veneris (“Venus” mountain), harassed Roman garrisons in central Spain and captured Segobriga. Viriathus displayed the Roman standards throughout the hillsides. The Roman army commander, Claudius Unimanus left an account of the ferocity of the fighting:
“In a narrow pass 300 Lusitani faced 1000 Romans; as a result of the action 70 of the former and 320 of the latter died. When the victorious Lusitani retired and dispersed confidently, one of them on foot became separated, and was surrounded by a detachment of pursuing cavalry. The lone warrior pierced the horse of one of the riders with his spear, and with a blow of his sword cut off the Roman’s head, producing such terror among the others that they prudently retired under his arrogant and contemptuous gaze” (Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 5.4).
Attrition wears down the Viriathus
Rome’s victories in the Fourth Macedonian War (149-148 BCE) and the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE), freed additional resources up for the Spanish theater. In 145 BCE consul Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, of the renowned Scipio family, arrived in Hispania Ulterior with two green legions and allies totaling 15,000 foot and 2000 horse. Fabius took his time training his troops and limited them to skirmishes. In 144 BCE he engaged Viriathus directly, coming off the better and burning two cities to the ground. When Fabius was replaced by Quintus Pompeius the next year, Viriathus regained his winning streak, ambushing Quintus near Venus Mountain.
In 142 BCE, the fortunes of the war turned again when Fabius’ brother, consul Fabius Maximus Servilianus brought with him 20,000 troops and routed Viriathus near Itucci. In their next confrontation, Viriathus slashed back in one of his typical counter-strikes and inflicted 3000 casualties. Nevertheless, worn down by attrition, Viriathus fell back from central Spain to Lusitania. After him came Servilianus, who laid siege to the town of Erisana. Viriathus came to the rescue, trapping the Romans in a defile but then offering peace terms.
Viriathus’ only demand from Rome was that the Lusitani borders be respected and that the Lusitani become amici populi Romani -“Friends of the Roman People.” Although Servilianus accepted and the Senate ratified the terms, Roman pride found it hard to forgive a guerrilla leader who had humbled Rome. The Romans provoked the Lusitani until war erupted once more in 140 BCE. Servilianus’ brother, consul Q. Servilius Caepio, who took over in Hispania Ulterior, chased Viriathus through Carpentania, Lusitania and through the Vettones lands. The passage of the Roman forces was marked by destruction. When Caepio was further reinforced by Popilius Laenas from Hispania Citerior, the Lusitani were ready to plead for peace. Laenas was ready to grant it, but only if Roman deserters and all weapons were handed over. The Romans punished the deserters in Hispanic fashion, by chopping their rights hands off. Reluctant to turn over his weapons, Viriathus chose three close friends, Audax, Ditalco and Minuros to further negotiate.
The Murder of Viriathus
Viriathus, who for years had outwitted his foes, failed to recognize the enemy among those closest to him. After returning from the Romans, his three “friends” came to Viriathus’ tent at night. Telling the guard they urgently needed to confer with Viriathus, two of them held the sleeping Viriathus down while the third pushed a knife into his back. When the murder was discovered at daylight Viriathus’ followers were overcome with sorrow and anger. The three conspirators slipped away to the Romans. Having been paid a sum in advance, they now wanted the remainder of their payment but were told that Rome did not pay traitors. Back at the Lusitani camp, Viriathus body was dressed in rich garments and then burnt on a funeral pyre. Sacrifices were offered and warriors ran and rode around the pyre.
Although a warrior named Tantalus tried to reverse Lusitani fortunes, without Viriathus large numbers of Lusitani surrendered to Laenas in 139 BCE. Fortunately, Laenas proved a man of his word, allotting farmlands to some and deporting others to new regions. Lusitania, nevertheless, remained free of Roman dominion until the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), when the conquest of all of Hispania was completed.
Appian, Appian (Harvard University Press, 1913).
Dio Cassius, Roman History, Volume 2 (Havard University Press, 1914)
Dyck, L.H., The Roman Barbarian Wars (Pen and Sword, 2016).
Polybius, The Histories (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Wilcox, P., BARBARIANS AGAINST ROME Rome’s Celtic, Germanic, Spanish and Gallic Enemies (Osprey Publishing, 2000).
Written by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck, originally published on 07 April 2017 in Ancient History Encyclopedia under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms. The article above contains additional images.
Military Heritage Magazine & Military History Network
Brian Boru: Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
For more than six decades, Brian Boru was at the forefront of Ireland’s nearly endless wars. Clontarf, his ultimate victory, came at a heavy price.
In 941 AD, in the fortress of Kincora overlooking the River Shannon just south of Lake Derg, Queen Be Bhionn gave birth to a son, Brian Mac Cennétig. Brian’s father, Cennétig mac Lorcain, was a petty king of the Dal Cais clan of the district of Thomond, north of Munster. To the south of Kincora, another of King Cennétig’s fortresses, Béal Boruma, guarded a river ford. There the Dalcassians paid cattle tribute to the powerful Munster clan, the Eoganacht. It was from the name of the ford that the newborn received his surname Boru (tributes), a fitting moniker for one destined to receive the tribute of all Ireland.
The Brains and Brawn of Brian Boru
As a child, Brian sat at the hearth in his father’s great hall, listening to tales of ancient Irish heroes. Thus inspired, Brian began to practice with the throwing spear as soon as he was old enough to walk. It would take more than martial skills, however, for him to become a great lord. Young Brian was sent to the monks of Inisfallen, in the lake lands of Killarney, for instruction in religious matters, science, and law.
Ireland at that time was roughly divided into the regions of Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west, Meath in the middle, Leister in the east, and Munster in the south. Each region was dominated by a king and a major clan, but there were also numerous sub-kings and minor clans. Alliances were quickly made and unmade as the kings and clans constantly fought each other. Into this political cauldron were thrown the country’s longtime foreign occupiers, the Danes and Norwegians. First as Viking raiders, then as merchants and traders, the Norsemen had established coastal bases at Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, and above all at Dublin, the future capital of Ireland.
When Brian was 11, the Eoganacht allied themselves with the Danes to defeat the Dalcassians. The war claimed the lives of Brian’s father and mother. Four years later, the Danes not only attacked the Dalcassians again, but also turned on the Eoganacht. In Munster, the Eoganacht surrendered territory after territory. In Thomond, by contrast, the Dalcassians led by their new king, Brian’s brother Mathghamhain, refused to submit. The Danes drove the Dal Cais resistance farther and farther into the ancient forests and barren limestone uplands of the Clare wilderness. Brian, now 17, fought at his older brother’s side. It was during these troublesome times that Brian married the first of several wives, Mor, who bore him three sons.
Brian the Warrior
Viking ships pillaged up and down the Shannon’s shores at will, their Norse dragon ships pushing up waterways untried by the Irish. The ships’ shallow drafts, less than four feet, allowed the raiders to jump into the water and dash unexpectedly upon riverside villages. Defeat for the Dalcassians seemed inevitable until 962, when Osraighe, a tributary kingdom of Leinster, came to the rescue by inflicting a crushing defeat on the Norsemen. With his own forces worn out, Mathghamhain welcomed the opportunity to negotiate a temporary truce with the Vikings.
Brian, however, could not forget his slain parents and opposed any sign of weakness. With only a hundred followers, he carried on the war. From hidden mountain caves and woodland strongholds, Brian and his guerrilla fighters ventured forth, weapons ready, light bags of provisions slung around their necks. At night they sneaked up on Norse outposts along the Shannon’s banks. At Brian’s signal, javelins swooshed without warning into the Norse guards. Brian and his men sprang forth, wielding their fearsome battle-axes and cleaving off whole limbs at one blow. Others drew their short swords for close-in combat, often using one in each hand. The tall Norsemen fought back fiercely, their powerful blades swinging in great arcs to slice through the hide and tanned-leather armor of the Dalcassians.
Brian’s ambushes so unnerved the Danes that there were rumors of a large Dalcassian army massing in the hills. Brian and his hungry little band paid a heavy price for their successes, finding themselves hunted incessantly through the chilling, wet winter. Brian’s followers were reduced to only 15 men, but still he did not give up. Mathghamhain, meanwhile, rebuilt his power and subdued the Eoganacht. Eventually, Brian’s unbroken spirit won Mathghamhain back to his side. In 964, the two brothers took the fight to the Danes in Limerick.
There followed four years of war, culminating in the decisive Battle of Solchoid. The Irish held the higher ground and defended from behind the cover of low willow trees and shrubs. The Norsemen, under their leader Ivar, began their assault at sunrise, but the Irish lines refused to break. At midday, the Irish stormed down to slaughter their exhausted foes. Brian and Mathghamhain marched on Limerick in the dark. The city capitulated without resistance, and the Dalcassians butchered and burned without mercy. The spoils were plentiful, but Ivar escaped to the island of Inis Cathaigh.
Avenging the Death of his Brother
Solchoid paved the way for Mathghamhain’s inauguration as king of Munster in 970. The deposed Eoganacht smoldered with resentment and bided their time. Six years later, the Eoganacht king of Desmond, Maolmhuadh, ambushed Mathghamhain on a lonely mountain road and skewered his sword through Mathghamhain’s heart. When Brian heard of his brother’s death, he swore that Mathghamahain’s murderers “shall forfeit life for this deed, or I shall perish by a violent death.”1 First to feel Brian’s wrath was Ivar, whom Brian suspected had taken a hand in the murder. Ignoring the traditional sanctuary of St. Seanan on Inis Cathaigh, Brian killed Ivar in personal combat, then slaughtered two of his sons and looted his fortress and the surrounding islands. Brian killed two more of Maolmhuadh’s allies, the treacherous Donnabhan of Fhidhghinte and Harald, Ivar’s third son and the reigning king of Limerick. Limerick was sacked again amid much killing and looting. Maolmhuadh’s end came with his defeat at the 978 Battle of Bealach Leacht, after which he was tracked down and killed by Brian’s eldest son, Murchadh.
King of Munster
Brian rode to the seat of the kings of Munster at Cashel. Under the royal tree of Maigh Adhair, he took the white wand—the royal symbol of justice—in his hand, and the royal diadem was placed on his head. In an oath of obedience, the assembled nobles of Munster placed their hands between those of Brian. The beginning of his reign was filled with battles, plundering, ravaging, and general unquiet. To face such troublesome times, Brian consolidated his position among the defeated Eoganacht, making allies of his former foes by marrying his daughter to Cian, son of the late Maolmhuadh. The marriage was a wise diplomatic move on Brian’s part, for Cian proved to be an unwavering ally.
As king of Munster, Brian faced new and more dangerous rivals. Munster and the Danes of Limerick may have been subjugated, but to the north there were more Norse strongholds and other powerful Irish kings. In 979 Brian recorded victories over the Danes of Waterford and King Ua Faolain of the neighboring Decies clan. Brian then instigated war with Leinster by demanding an 800-year-old tribute that Leinster owed the king of Munster. When Leinster refused to swear allegiance to Munster or to pay the required 300 gold-handled swords, cows with brass yokes, horses, and cloaks, Brian invaded.
War with Maol-Seachlainn
Meanwhile, the new high king of Ireland, 32-year-old Maol-Seachlainn mac Domnall II, was determined to quash anyone who questioned his authority. In 983, before he defeated the rebellious forces of Leinster and Dublin, Maol-Seachlainn veered into Munster. To warn Brian to stay put in Munster, Maol-Seachlainn uprooted Maigh Adhair. Instead, Brian riposted with a raid into Maol-Seachlainn’s realm of Meath. For the next 15 years, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn were at odds with each other. Evenly matched, they at first avoided fixed battle, instead choosing to plunder each other’s lands and prey on neighboring Irish kingdoms and Viking settlements. In 988 Brian showed himself a true opportunist when he enlisted the help of his erstwhile enemies, the Vikings of Waterford, to inflict a devastating defeat upon the king of Connacht at Lough Ree. To establish ties with the defeated King Cathal, Brian took Cathal’s daughter Dubhchobhlaigh as his wife. In 992 and again in 994, Brian’s forces met Maol-Seachlainn’s army in battle, but Brian was routed each time.
In 998, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn concluded a peace treaty, and the following year they faced the alliance of King Sigtrygg ‘Silkbeard’ Olafson of Dublin and King Maol Mórdha of Leinster. The fact that Maol Mórdha was also Sigtrygg’s uncle, while Sigtrygg himself was Maol-Seachlainn’s former stepson, showed just how closely tied the warring factions were. Sigtrygg hoped to engage Maol-Seachlainn and Brian in the open plains of Kildare, where his superior cavalry would give him the advantage, but he underestimated the speed of his foes. Brian and Maol-Seachlainn force-marched their men to intercept the Dublin-Leister army in the hills of Gleann Mama. Holding the higher ground, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn emerged victorious. Brian, not Maol-Seachlainn, claimed the battle honors, and Dublin subsequently submitted to Brian. For a week the city was sacked, yielding much gold, silver hangings, and other precious loot.
Murchadh dragged Maol Mórdha from hiding in a yew tree. Maol Mórdha’s life was spared and he was allowed to remain king of Leinster. Sigtrygg fared even better. Not only did Brian allow him to remain king of Dublin, but Brian gave him his daughter in marriage. Brian himself married the alluring Gormfhlaith, Sigtrygg’s mother and the ex-wife of Maol-Seachlainn. Gormfhlaith became Brian’s fourth wife (he also had 30 concubines). Brian hoped that his generous treatment of the defeated king and his newly forged marriage bonds would ensure Sigtrygg’s loyalty in the future.
His victory at Gleann Mama showed the rest of Ireland that Brian’s star was on the rise while that of Maol-Seachlainn was on the wane. Brian immediately turned on Maol-Seachlainn and led a great host of chiefs and forces toward Tara, a stronghold that dated back to Neolithic times and was the traditional parliament of the high kings until the 6th century. Tara remained an easily defended military position, overlooking the plains of Meath. Sent ahead of his main army, Brian’s Norse cavalry prematurely clashed with Maol-Seachlainn’s army and was nearly wiped out. Brian ignobly withdrew. King Cathal of Connacht consequently rebelled against Brian, but a year later, in 1002, Brian defeated him once again. Brian struck for Tara and demanded the high throne. By now he had intimidated all the other Irish kings. None came to fight beside Maol-Seachlainn, not even Maol-Seachlainn’s own kinsmen, the northern Ui Neill clan of Ulster. Maol-Seachlainn had little choice but to yield. At Cashel, Brian took up the diadem of high king and emperor of the Gaels. Three quarters of Ireland was now under his control.
Maol Mórdha Rises Against Brian
To cow any potential challengers, Brian built fortresses, strengthened the fortifications of Cashel, took hostages, and sent Murchadh on punitive raids. Although Cashel was his capital, Brian preferred to rule from his boyhood home, Kincora. He was fortunate that his sons proved loyal and did not turn on each other—or on him. In the subjugated Norse towns, trade with Europe flourished in slaves, wine, walrus tusks, spices, furs, and silks. From Brian’s vassal kingdoms, a ceaseless tribute of cows, hogs, cloaks, iron, and wine flowed into Munster. Decades of raids by Vikings, by Irish lords, and even by Irish abbots had caused much damage to the land. Brian used his growing wealth to improve roads, build bridges, restore old churches and monasteries, and build new ones alongside schools. For nearly a decade, minor feuds aside, Ireland enjoyed untypical peace and a cultural renaissance.
Trouble brewed when Brian became estranged from Gormfhlaith, who left Kincora to return to Dublin. Consumed by hatred for Brian, she egged on her son, Sigtrygg, and King Maol Mórdha to rise against Brian. Brian responded with a severe new tribute that sent Leinster into near-starvation and summoned Maol Mórdha to Kincora for a show of obedience. Coaxed into an argument by Murchadh, Maol Mórdha stormed out of the castle before consulting with Brian. A messenger sent after him by Brian was later found with his skull smashed in.
Whether the threat was real or imagined, Maol Mórdha reforged his alliance with Sigtrygg. Maol-Seachlainn, however, stayed loyal to Brian. He even sent his army against Dublin, but suffered a crippling defeat. In 1013, Brian and Murchadh arrived to plunder Osraighe and southern Leinster before heading on to Dublin. Early in September, Sigtrygg watched as Brian and Murchadh’s army set up camp outside the city’s landward walls. This time, however, Sigtrygg wisely did not sally forth. The fortifications of the Viking strongholds were more formidable than those of the Irish forts and, when resolutely defended, were beyond Brian’s or any other Irish king’s power to overcome. After more than three months of blockade, Brian’s forces stirred with mutiny because supplies were running low and the foul winter weather was on the way. Sigtrygg jeered as Brian’s humbled army broke camp, but he knew that Brian would return. In search of allies, Sigtrygg set off to the hall of Sigurd Hlodvirsson the Stout, the Norse earl of the Orkneys. In return for bringing a few hundred half-heathen, half-Christian men as reinforcements, Sigurd demanded Gormfhlaith’s hand in marriage and an Irish kingdom to rule. Gormfhlaith was pleased with her son, but counseled Sigtrygg to gather an even greater force. He found more help in the pirates of the pagan Dane, Brodar of the Isle of Man. The cunning Sigtrygg promised Brodar the same reward he had promised Sigurd. Brodar and Sigtrygg reckoned that, at the comparatively advanced age of 54, Sigurd could well die in battle.
Preparing for Battle
In the coming conflict, Brian depended on his loyal Munster warriors, as well as the Danish stewards of Waterford and Limerick. Only a few reinforcements strode forth from Connacht, and none came from Ulster. Fortunately for Brian, Maol-Seachlainn promised to help, and a new ally was found in Brian’s son-in-law, King Malcolm II of Scotland, who sent a small force commanded by Domhnall, the great steward of Mar. It was also heartening to hear that southern Leinster had refused to aid Sigtrygg and Maol Mórdha. With his 5,000 warriors, Brian still held numerical superiority over Maol Mórdha and Sigtrygg, who barely commanded more than 3,000 Vikings and Irishmen between them. Nevertheless, Brian had to act quickly to wipe out Dublin’s and Leinster’s newfound independence before the neutral Irish kings could turn against him.
Brian’s youngest son, Donnach, took a few hundred men to keep an eye on southern Leinster. Brian set up his own camp north of Dublin on a hillock in the Wood of Tomar. From there he could see the city to the south, its harbor thick with Norse longboats, and between Brian’s camp and the city, the sprawling tents and campfires of his enemies. Maol Mórdha, Sigurd, Brodar, and Dubhgall, Sigtrygg’s brother, had set up their camps near the little fishing weir of Clontarf. Sigtrygg remained in Dublin with a reserve force.
On Thursday, April 22, 1014, Brian sat down to take council with his lords. Tempers flared, and as a result Maol-Seachlainn withdrew his forces to Meath. The hot-headed Murchad might well have been to blame. Brian now no longer held the numerical advantage. He immediately sent word for Donnach to hurry back, but there was little chance his son would arrive in time. Brian’s hair was now silver, and he was 73 years old. He longed for days long gone, when the vigor of youth powered his sword arm. Too old to personally lead his warriors in battle, Brian would have to depend on Murchadh, who was unquestionably brave but also reckless. That night, Brian’s mind was haunted by worries. According to legend, a banshee visited Brian and warned him that he would fall in battle, and that “this plain shall be red tomorrow with your proud blood.”2 On the Viking side, Brodar, who was widely believed to be a sorcerer, prophesied that should they fight on Good Friday, Brian would die, but his army would be victorious. Whatever the truth behind such tales, Maol Mórdha, Sigtrygg, Sigurd, and Brodar all knew that they had to strike before Donnach returned.
Praying for Victory
Brian had lost none of his regal bearing as he reviewed his army at dawn of Good Friday. He looked to his brave Dalcassians, who Murchadh would use to spearhead the attack. Ready to fight beside Murchadh was his 15-year-old son, the crown prince Tordhelbach, and Murchadh’s brothers, Conchobhar and Flann. Behind them fluttered the banner of Brian’s nephew, Conaing, king of Desmond. Also present that day were the Eoganacht lords Cian and Domhnall, Domhnall, the great steward of Mar, King Tadhg of Connacht, and an array of lesser kings and princes. On his wings, Brian stationed his 10 Danish stewards and their troops.
Brian’s army followed Murchadh’s blue banner to meet the oncoming Dublin-Leinster coalition at Clontarf. The latter advanced with Sigurd and Brodar’s Vikings in the lead, followed by the Danes from Dublin and, behind them, Maol Mórdha and his Leinster men. Murchadh recklessly initiated the attack by bolting ahead of the main army. Alarmed, Brian called for him to fall back into line. Murchadh replied that he would not retreat one step backward. Inspired by Murchadh’s valor, the rest of Brian’s army surged forward. Meanwhile, Brian knelt down before his pavilion to pray for victory. Below him the two armies collided in a deafening crescendo of clashing arms and battle cries. From behind their large round shields, protected by leather and ring-mail byrnies, the Danes slashed and thrust their axes, spears, and swords. Their Irish foes lacked armor but not spirit, and fought back with unbridled fury. There were few lulls in the fighting.
Engulfed in a semicircle, the Dublin and Leinster men slowly gave way to Brian’s battle-crazed Irish and Danish troops. Although their army fled around them, Sigurd and his guard stood like an unbroken bastion, the legend-shrouded Raven banner of the Orkneys fluttering at Sigurd’s side. One Viking warrior after another took up the banner, only to be cut down again by Murchadh’s relentless assault. The last hands to grasp the fateful Raven banner were those of its lord. Sigurd wrapped the banner around himself before he was decapitated by Murchadh with two powerful blows to the neck. Scarcely had Murchadh caught his breath from slaying Sigurd than there appeared the fierce Norse champion, Amrud, who had carved a bloody path through the Dalcassians. Murchadh grappled Amrud to the ground and tore away his sword. Murchadh leaned the pommel of the sword against his own breast and drove it three times into Amrud, piercing the earth beneath him. Gurgling blood, Amrud plunged his dagger blade into Murchadh, killing him simultaneously.
Panicked Norsemen and Leinstermen threw themselves into the ocean, hoping to reach their longboats. Heedless of their own safety and hungry for blood, their pursuers followed them into the waves. The high tide carried both to their doom. His hands locked upon the hair of a Dane, Murchadh’s son Tordhelbach was washed upon the Weir of Clontarf. A stake shot through his body, and he drowned. The number of men killed on both sides was great. Conchobhar and Flann, King Tadhag of Connacht and Domhnall of the Eoganacht were among the 30 Irish chiefs and kings who died that day. Except for Sigtrygg and Brodar, all the Norse-Leinster leaders were slain among their annihilated army. Maol Mórdha and Conaing, king of Desmond, fell by each other’s hand.
From Dublin’s ramparts, the Danish women anxiously watched the battle. Brian’s proud daughter stood there too, and at sight of the Norsemen rout she mocked her husband Sigtrygg. “It appears that the foreigners have gained their their natural inheritance—the sea,”3 she scoffed. In anger, Sigtrygg hit her in the face, knocking out one of her teeth. Sigtrygg rode forth too late to rally his men and was lucky to flee back into Dublin alive.
“Now Let Man Tell Man That Brodar Felled Brian”
On the battlefield Brodar stood panting, the muscles of his tall and powerful frame exhausted and his long black locks thick with sweat. The cuts and dents in his splendid coat of mail and crimson axe bore silent witness to the havoc he had inflicted on the Irish. Only two of Brodar’s men remained at his side, and on a whim he decided to lead them not to the sea but northward instead. Brodar hoped to circumvent the battle and reach his ship in safety that night. His route led him to the Wood of Tomar and Brian Boru’s camp. Brian, grieving over his sons’ fallen standards, had given up all hope and was dictating his will to his only companion, a page boy. Finding Brian, Brodar could scarcely believe his luck. Below them the Norse and Leinster pavilions lit up the darkening sky in flame. Brodar caught his breath—now was his chance for revenge. As Brodar fell upon him, Brian barely managed to draw his sword and slash its blade across Brodar’s leg. Ignoring the wound, Brodar smashed his axe into Brian’s skull. With a spurt of blood, Brian fell dead, and Brodar cried out, “Now let man tell man that Brodar felled Brian.”4 A second blow of his axe struck down the hapless page boy. Brodar did not survive Brian’s assassination for long. Found hiding in the wood by Brian’s men, his belly was cut open and he was wrapped around the trunk of a tree by his entrails.
When Donnach arrived from southern Leinster on Easter Sunday, only Cian of the Eoganacht remained alive to tell him of his father’s death and those of his older brothers. Brian was buried in a marble coffin at Ireland’s chief church, St. Patrick’s at Armagh, and for 12 days masses were held for Brian and Murchadh throughout the country. The Battle of Clontarf was immortalized as a heroic feat of Irish arms and the doom of the Vikings in Ireland. In reality, although Clontarf ended any chance of Norse dominance over Ireland, neither the Norse lords nor their trade disappeared from Ireland after the battle. In Dublin, Sigtrygg managed to stay in power until his death in 1042.
Clontarf did, however, spell the end to the ascendancy of the Dalcassians. Without the leadership of Brian and Murchadh, the weakened Dalcassians were unable to maintain their hold on Ireland. Maol-Seachlainn became high king again but was too old and weak to build on Brian’s final success. For the next 150 years the Irish reverted to their old habit of infighting. When the Normans invaded in the 1160 AD, there was no second Brian to rally the tribes. Ireland fell to the invaders, and Scandinavian influence too dwindled away. Brian’s death ended his dream of a united Ireland, but the memory of Brian Boru, Ireland’s mightiest warrior-king, remains unforgotten and unforgettable.
1. The Four Masters, edited by John O’Donovan, Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Dublin: Hoges, Smith and Co. 1856),p. 703.
2. Newman, Roger Chatterton, Brian Boru King of Ireland (Anvil Books: Dublin. 1983), p. 168, 169.
3. Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh CII.
4. Njal’s Saga 156. Brian’s Battle.
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