Olaf The Black - Norwegian Intervention Into The Isles

Norwegian Intervention Into The Isles

The Chronicle of Lanercost states that a Norwegian fleet sailed down the west coast of Scotland in 1230 with a certain Óspakr Ögmundsson (d. 1230), who had been appointed King of the Isles by the King of Norway; also amongst the fleet were Óláfr and Guðrøðr. The Eirspennill version of Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar, the most authoritative version of the saga, gives a much more illustrative account; although it does not specifically state that Guðrøðr travelled with the fleet from Norway. The saga states that in the summer before the fleet left Norway, news of warring in the Isles reached the Norwegian king, Hákon Hákonarson (d. 1263). Óláfr is described as a faithful vassal of the Norwegian king, while two Hebridean noblemen, Donnchad and Dubgall—both sons of Dubgall mac Somairle (fl. 1175)—are described as unfaithful. The saga relates how the Norwegian king summoned an assembly that winter, appointed Óspakr King of the Isles, and decided upon a plan to give Óspakr a military force to command in the Isles.

It is suspected that members of Clann Somairle may have been attacking parts of the Crovan dynasty's island-kingdom, possibly taking advantage of the warring between Rögnvaldr and Óláfr. It may have been that they were also lending support to Alan's destabilising incursions into the Isles. Whatever the case, it is clear that the state of affairs in the Isles was chaotic and, because of Óláfr's inability to control of the situation, the formidable Hákon decided to pacify the region using Óspakr. In fact, the saga notes that Óspakr was also a son of Dubgall, and it is likely that his family connections would have made him a palatable over-king of the unruly Clann Somairle. Óspakr's kingdom was likely meant to encompass the territories of Clann Somairle, and control of the Crovan dynasty's domain may have been retained by the dynasty.

The saga states that, with the coming of spring, Hákon ordered the preparation of Óspakr's fleet. While preparations were under way Óláfr came to the king at Bergen, and reported the unrest in the Isles, noting that Alan had assembled a powerful army and was causing unrest in the region. When the fleet left Norway for Orkney, Óláfr accompanied it on-board Páll Bálkason's ship. When the fleet reached Orkney, several ship-commanders sailed to Skye, where they defeated a certain Þórkell Þórmóðsson in a sea-battle. The fleet then united at Islay, and was strengthened by Óspakr's brothers and their followers, and swelled in size to 80 ships. The fleet then sailed south and around the Mull of Kintyre to Bute, where the force invaded the island and took the castle whilst suffering heavy casualties. The fleet then sailed to Kintyre, and Óspakr fell ill and died. The Chronicle of Mann, however, specifically states that Óspakr was struck by a stone and killed, and later buried on Iona.

The chronicle continues by stating that Óláfr then took control of the fleet whereupon he led it to Mann, where he and Guðrøðr divided the kingdom between themselves—with Óláfr retaining Mann, and Guðrøðr controlling the Hebridean portions; in fact, it is possible that Hákon may have originally intended for Óláfr and Guðrøðr to split the kingdom of Mann and the Isles between themselves. According to the saga the Norwegians left in the spring, sailing north to Kintyre where they encountered and battled a strong force of Scots with both sides losing many men during the ensuing battle. The saga then recounts how the fleet sailed north to Lewis and displaced a certain Þórmóðr Þórkelson, before travelling to Orkney, from where most of the fleet sailed back to Norway. Páll, however, is stated to have remained behind, and to have been slain by Guðrøðr several weeks later. The saga notes that Guðrøðr was also slain in the Isles a short time after this. The Chronicle of Mann specifically places Guðrøðr's death on Lewis, although it does not cast any light upon the circumstances. Even so, what is certain is that it was only after Guðrøðr's death that Óláfr's kingship was safe from any rival claim.

Coffin-lid / grave-slab Although the Manx Sword of State is popularly linked to Óláfr, it dates only to the 15th century. The pictured grave slab dates to the 13th century, and may be that of Olafr, or his sons Rögnvaldr and Magnús.

The campaign is regarded to have been the gravest threat to the Scottish kingdom since John, King of England's (d. 1216) northern campaigning and invasion in 1216. Although Óláfr's restoration on Mann was claimed as a success by the Norwegians, it was probably accepted gladly by the Scots as well; considering Óláfr's familial relationship with Alexander's protégé Ferchar and the consolidation of the Crovan dynasty after years of chaos. Óláfr consequently ruled the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles peacefully until his death, seven years later. The chronicle states that he died on St Patrick's Isle on 21 May 1237 and was buried at St Mary's Abbey, Rushen. There is a possibility that a coffin-lid or grave-slab found at Rushen may be associated with Óláfr, or of two of his sons who are known to have been buried there (Rögnvaldr and Magnús).

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