The Vikings in Medieval Welsh Literature
Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 07-02-2020
The Vikings were seafaring people who came over to the British Isles from around the 8th to the 11th centuries, mainly from the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Denmark. They brought with them violence and destruction, but they also brought with them their culture – their skills, their religion, and their language. They became part of medieval Welsh literature, including several manuscripts which are kept here in the National Library.
So what drew the Vikings from Scandinavia to Wales? It’s possible that the Vikings who came to Wales were searching for fertile land and goods to trade. The Welsh coast was part of a coastal route from Scandinavia travelling via Shetland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland, north-west England, and the Isle of Man to Wales. The first Viking raids in Wales targeted prominent points on the Welsh coast, and ecclesiastical centres quickly became popular targets. These raids were recorded in the late 13th/early 14th – century Welsh chronicle Brut y Tywysogion, which provided an apocalyptic description of how St Davids (Menevia) was destroyed in a raid in 810:
‘Deg mlyned ac wythcant oed oet Krist pan duawd y lleuad duw Nadolic. Ac y llos[get] Mynyw. Ac y bu varwolaeth ar yr ysgrubyl yn holl ynys Brydein.’
‘Eight hundred and ten was the year of Christ when the moon darkened on Christmas Day. And Menevia was burnt. And there was a mortality upon all the animals of Britain.’
(Brut y Tywysogion, NLW MS Peniarth 20, p. 67)
Over the next two centuries, Viking attacks by sea became increasingly common as Wales was put on the Norse map and permanent Norse settlements were established in Ireland. The Vikings were keen to claim land in Wales too. The Annales Cambriae, written in the early 12th century, tells us that that a Viking named Ingimundr came to Anglesey and seized land at a place called Maes Osfeilion; while the 12th-century Liber Landavensis (The Book of Llandaff) describes how the Welsh ruler Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (d.1064), resisted Viking attacks from Denmark, Orkney, and Ireland. By the late 11th century Hiberno-Norse connections were so well established that another of Wales’s rulers could attempt to claim Viking ancestry. Both the 13th-century Historia Gruffud vab Cynan and its Latin predecessor the Vita Griffini filii Conani attempted to trace the Welsh king Gruffudd ap Cynan’s (d.1137) genealogy back to the ancient kings of Norway. But Gruffudd himself had more than his fair share of trouble from the Vikings; in 1098 he was betrayed by his own Hiberno-Norse fleet after the Norman earls Hugh of Chester and Hugh of Shrewsbury invaded Gwynedd. At the same time, Anglesey was also attacked by the Norwegian king Magnús Berfœtr, who according to the above sources shot Hugh of Shrewsbury through the eye with an arrow.
Gruffudd ap Cynan was also prone to the odd Viking-style raid himself. The Vita Sancti Gundleii (The Life of Saint Gwynllyw), which was likely first compiled in the 12th century, described how Gruffudd gathered a Hiberno-Norse fleet for ‘the practice of piracy.’ Having made shore in the Usk estuary, they then attacked St Gwynllyw’s church, but upon their return the fleet was destroyed and Gruffudd was nearly killed in a violent storm, apparently sent by St Gwynllyw himself as a punishment. This notion of punishment matches the apocalyptic description of a Viking raid in Brut y Tywysogion, and it’s hardly surprising; monasteries, as both the main Viking targets and producers of written histories, did not have any reason to present the Vikings in a favourable light. Because of this, and the temporal gap between sources and the events they describe, we have to question their reliability.
This highlights one of the big cultural differences between the Vikings and the Welsh – that of religion. During the Viking Age, Denmark and Norway had not fully converted to Christianity, therefore many of Wales’s Viking visitors would have been followers of the pagan Norse religion. But common cultural ground can be found through examining other literary sources. The medieval poetic tradition of the skald in Norway was as old and as developed as the gogynfeirdd in Wales, and poets were often present during events giving contemporary accounts of the action. The poet Meilyr, for example, composed a eulogy for Gruffudd, Marwnad Gruffudd ap Cynan, an extract of which provides strong imagery of war:
‘Gwern gwygid, gwanai bawb yn ei gilydd,
Gwaed gwŷr goferai, gwyrai onwydd.’
‘Spears were shattered, each one rushed at the other,
The blood of warriors flowed, ash-spears drooped.’
(Marwnad Ruffut ab Kynan, NLW MS 6680B (Hendregadredd Manuscript), f1.r)
Similarly, Magnús Berfœtr’s poet Gisl Illugason gave an eye-witness description of the death of Hugh of Shrewsbury in his Erfikvæði (eulogy) for Magnús. The poets convey vivid imagery whilst also following a strict metrical order; Meilyr followed the cyhydedd naw ban of the cynghanedd, and Gisl the Norse fornyrðislag (‘ancient-words-form’) metre. The 18th-century Welsh poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg once complained that Old Norse poetry was full of ‘violent figures’, and ‘ferocious sentiments’, terms which could also apply to Meilyr’s poetry. It’s here perhaps that the Norse and the Welsh shared common literary interests.
According to the Brut, Magnús Berfœtr’s excursion to Anglesey in 1098 was one of the last Viking attacks in Wales. The literary traces of the Vikings in Wales are not always obvious, but their legacy has survived, not only in manuscripts but also in more familiar, everyday forms such as place-names. Despite their familiarity, it’s still fascinating to think that we live alongside this Viking heritage that was brought to Wales nearly a thousand years ago.
- Annales Cambriae, A.D. 682-954: Texts A-C in Parallel, ed. & trans. by David N. Dumville (Cambridge: ASNC, 2002)
- Brut y Tywysogion or The Chronicle of the Princes: Peniarth MS 20 Version, trans. Thomas Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1952)
- Historia Gruffud vab Kenan, ed. D. Simon Evans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1977)
- Jesch, Judith, ‘Norse Historical Traditions and Historia Gruffud vab Kenan: Magnús berfœtr and Harald hárfagri’, in Gruffudd ap Cynan: A Collaborative Biography, ed. K. L. Maund (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1996), pp. 117-148
- Vita Griffini filii Conani, ed. & trans. Paul Russell (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005)
- Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogie, ed. & trans A. W. Wade-Evans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1944)
- Williams, J. E. Caerwyn, ‘Meilyr Brydydd and Gruffudd ap Cynan’, in Gruffudd ap Cynan: A Collaborative Biography, ed. K. L. Maund (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1996), pp. 165-186
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