Battle of Clontarf

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Battle of Clontarf
Part of: Attempt to establish an Irish high kingship under Brian Boru
Battle of Clontarf;  Oil painting by Hugh Frazer, 1826
Battle of Clontarf; Oil painting by Hugh Frazer , 1826
date April 23, 1014
place Clontarf , Co Fingal , Ireland
output Pyrrhic victory of the Hochkönig's coalition
Parties to the conflict

Army of the Irish High King and allied Scandinavian contingents

Leinster-Irish, Scandinavian contingents from Dublin, the Orkney Islands and von Man


Brian Boru
Murchad MacBriain
Tordhelbach MacMurchada
Máel Sechnaill MacDomnaill

Mael Mordha
Sigurd Lodvesson
Brodir by Man
Sigtrygg Seidenbart  ?

Troop strength
7,400 men 7,000-8,000 men

1,600–4,000 men

6,000 men

The Battle of Clontarf (Gäl. Cluain Tarbh = "meadow of the bull" - "Bullenwiese") took place on Good Friday, April 23, 1014 , near the place of the same name, today a district of Dublin northeast of the Dublin harbor. The army of Brian Boru , the King of Munster and Irish High King , and the allied forces of the King of Leinster , Mael Mordha , faced each other. The latter consisted of his own people and a rebel king from the province of Ulster from Scandinavian associations from Dublin and the Orkneys , led by Sigurd Lodvesson and Brodir von Man . The battle ended with the defeat of Mael Mordha's army, but also with the death of Brian Boru, who was killed by fleeing Scandinavians in his tent. After the battle, Ireland split again into rival kingdoms.

Historical background of the battle

Based on his military might, Brian Boru ( Brian MacCenneidigh ) ruled large parts of Ireland as the Irish high king since 1002. Nevertheless, there were still partial kings who were not ready to recognize his supremacy, especially since the Hochkönig had previously been more of a kind of honorary title that had hardly ever been associated with the actual exercise of political power over the entire island. Brian had changed this for the first time and tried to actually unite Ireland under his rule. In 997 Brian Boru and Máel Sechnaill (Malachy) II, the king of Leinster, met in Clonfert and agreed to recognize the respective rule over half of the country. Brian attacked Máel Sechnaill's territory several times, forcing him to cede much of his land to him. In 1012, Máel Sechnaill II rose. His plans were thwarted by Brian, who arranged a series of marriages. So he gave his daughter to the leader of the Dublin-based Norsemen, Sigtrygg Seidenbart, in marriage. Brian himself married Gormlaith , she was Sigtrygg's mother and Mal's sister. But these alliances did not last. In 1013 Màel again turned to Sigtrygg for help after Gormlaith had warned him to recognize Brian's supremacy. This time Sigtrygg was ready to fight and the leaders of several Irish clans joined him.

Brian captured Gormlaith and carried out a series of raids in the Dublin area to prevent Irish insurgents from joining the Northmen. Meanwhile, Gormlaith had managed to turn to Sigurd Lodvesson, ruler of the Orkneys, for help. He responded positively to her request and convinced Brodir from the Isle of Man to join the alliance. Sigurd and Brodir planned to kill each other after a victorious campaign in order to ascend the throne of the High King themselves. Sigtrygg, on the other hand, tried to form alliances with as many of the participants as possible in order to secure his power over Dublin. In 1014 Brian had gathered his army and was moving against Dublin. During the march, Meath forces , under the command of the former High King Máel Sechnaill, refused to admit him . Brian remained 7,000 men against Sigtrygg's 2,000 men, but they were better equipped. The night after his arrival outside town, Brian received word that the Northmen had boarded their ships and set out to sea. But this was a ruse. They turned around during the night and landed near Clontarf , about two kilometers north of Dublin. From there, the Nordmanns wanted to undertake a surprise attack on Brian's army the next day.

The battle

The Scandinavians formed five battle formations for battle, while Sigtrygg apparently stayed in Dublin with 1,000 men. His son commanded the left flank, occupied by 1,000 men. Mael Morda divided his 3,000 Leinster soldiers into two divisions. However, these were poorly armed compared to the Scandinavian fighters. Sigurd's Orkney warriors occupied the center of the battlefield, while Brodir's 1,000 men took over the right flank on the beach.

Brian arranged his forces in a similar order of battle. On his right flank were 1,000 mercenaries and the Scandinavian fighters from Manx. Alongside them, 1,500 Connacht clan members gathered under their respective kings. Over 2,000 warriors from Munster followed to the left under the command of Brian's son Murchad . The left flank was formed by 1,400 Dal Caissans led by Murchad's 15-year-old son Tordhelbach and Brian's brother Cuduiligh . Several hundred yards behind the front stood Máel Sechnaill's 1,500 men.

The fight was opened on both sides by insulting individual fighters. As the two formations slowly moved towards each other, there were individual duels between these men in the middle of the battlefield. When the two armies finally came into action, the Scandinavian troops, as expected, dominated the action with their better armament and manly armor. So Brian's Scandinavian mercenary contingents managed to slowly push back the Irish troops facing them. On Brian's left flank, Brodir personally led the attack and gained ground until he encountered the warrior Wolf the Belligerent , allegedly a brother of King Brian. Although Wolf was unable to penetrate Brodir's armor with his weapons, he was able to knock him to the ground and ultimately put him to flight. The now leaderless Scandinavians held out for a while, but fled to their ships in the afternoon.

In the center, Sigurd and Morda's men were initially superior and brought the troops from Leinster into dire straits. According to legend, Sigurd's troops carried a magical banner that caught the attention of Irish warriors. They fought their way to the bearer of the banner and killed him. Supposedly, the banner guaranteed victory for the troops that carried it. The price for this was the death of the wearer. When Sigurd took the banner lying on the ground, he was killed in battle shortly afterwards.

Towards the end of the day, the two flanks of the Scandinavian army collapsed. With the stretch of beach in front of which their ships lay was already lost, many Scandinavians tried to swim to their ships and drowned while the fighters from Dublin tried to flee into the city as Brian's victory began to emerge. Only now did Máel Sechnaill, who apparently had waited with his men, decide to intervene in the battle and cut off those fleeing to the city to the only bridge over the Liffey . Most Scandinavians lost their lives in the carnage that followed. Meanwhile, the fleeing Brodir came across Brian's tent. With some of his fighters he stormed the tent and killed Brian, who according to tradition prayed. According to an Icelandic saga , Brodir was pursued, captured and eventually cruelly killed by Wolf the Belligerent.

According to an Irish source, 6,000 of the 7,000 to 8,000 Leinster Irish and Scandinavian allies fell in the battle, including almost all of the leaders. The losses on the side of the Hochkönig's coalition amounted to at least 1,600 men (estimates go up to 4,000), among them the Hochkönig himself, his son Murchad and his grandson Tordhelbach.

Consequences of the battle

The defeat shook the Scandinavians' remaining political power in Ireland. Within Brian's clan, his death and that of his son created a power vacuum without clear leadership. Brian's surviving sons were unable to play such a politically strong role that they could easily have succeeded their father, not least because of the high losses their clan suffered in the battle. Since the period of Brian's high kingship was too short to also consolidate it institutionally, bloody power struggles soon broke out again between the individual candidates for this title. Sigtrygg, who may not have taken part in the battle at all, but had watched the action together with Gormlaith from Dublin, was perhaps the only winner of the battle next to Máel Sechnaill. He ruled in Dublin until his death in 1042, while Máel Sechnaill, as a former High King, was initially able to succeed Brian for the reasons mentioned above.


  • Patrick Cudmore: The Battle of Clontarf. BiblioLife, 2010, ISBN 1-175-46186-5 .
  • Albertus J. Goedheer: Irish and Norse traditions about the battle of Clontarf. Willink, Haarlem 1938.
  • John Ryan: The battle of Clontarf. Royal Society of Antiquaries, 1938.