The Sons of Raghnall: Empire of the North Sea

By the early fourteenth century, the MacRaghnalls were, never mind the form of their patronymic, very clearly a Norwegian dynasty. Except for the brief reign of Queen Agnes, a reign which in any case rested on her husband’s English spears, they had been out of royal power in Scotland for more than a century. Moreover, with the two largest crowns of the British Isles united on the head of Agnes’s son Theobald, there was clearly very little prospect of regaining an independent Scotland; while on the other hand, between Gilpatrick and Trond, half a century had been spent in almost constant bloodshed to establish MacRaghnall rule in Scandinavia. Trond is not even known to have spoken any Scots dialect, although the early Norwegian of the time retained, for simple matters, a rough mutual comprehensibility with the Lallans.

In spite of these undoubted facts, however, the MacRaghnall kings considered themselves kings in exile, “Kings over the Water”. Gilpatrick had even managed to actually set foot in Scotland and raise the MacRaghnall lairds – a different branch of the family, but still important landowners and nobles – in his support, although his sister Agnes turned out to have the better army. Trond, on the other hand, never got any closer to Edinburgh than Bergen, on the west coast of Norway. Nonetheless, it was Trond who achieved his father’s ambition and was crowned King of Scots.

Although Trond was a warrior king, he did not achieve his dream by calling out the leidang and crossing the North Sea in dragon-headed ships. Rather, he waged a diplomatic and political campaign, firstly within Scotland itself, and secondly within the Catholic periphery of Europe.

While few medieval kings ruled with anything approaching absolute power, the centrifugal tendencies of feudal kingdoms were particularly strong in Scotland. Even the title, King of Scots, implied a ruler who was first among equals, as against, for example, the King of England, who technically speaking owned every acre of English ground and merely rented it out to his feudal subjects. Even after Red Harlaw established that the lairds were subject to the King’s peace and could not make private war at their pleasure, the writ of Edinburgh did not run very far into the mountains. If the clans no longer raised regular armies and fought set-piece battles, raid, razzia, cattle-rustling, and sheep-stealing remained national sports. These lawless tendencies were only aggravated when the King was in York rather than Edinburgh; although the Kings of England – and later the Emperors of Britannia, no less! – certainly had at their disposal far more armed men than any King of Scots had ever mustered, that did not much impress the unruly Highlanders. “Sassenachs,” they might have sneered, “ony guid Hielant crofter can beat ten Sassenach sodjers. Wi’ his left hand, mind.” More to the point, Scotland was never a real priority for the kings in York, busy with conquests in France and wars in Germany. The Highlanders, trusting in their mountain strongholds, might have been surprised at how unpleasant a punitive expedition could make their lives, if he had ever gotten around to launching one; but – canny buggers, as even their enemies were wont to admit – they carefully kept their depredations just short of what would provoke real retaliation.

Still, as the thirteenth century ended, the lawless conditions of, not just Scotland, but the Border, was becoming a real worry. A constant rondo of sheep-stealing within the Highlands did not much worry anyone; the sheep were valuable and therefore rarely killed, so the net effect was merely to redistribute the wealth to whoever had got lucky last, and to keep the Highlanders busy. When, however, the MacRaghnall lairds – tired of playing zero-sum games with their neighbours and not averse to tweaking the tail of their Sassenach overlords – began to raid south of the Border, that was a different matter. York is not so far distant from Northumberland; when sheep and cattle began disappearing, men of actual influence, with friends at court – some of them, indeed, were at the court – had their oxen gored.

Theobald had, however, larger worries; his army had to be held in readiness to defend the Alps and the Pyrenees against, respectively, the heretic and the infidel. A resurgent Rome, fresh from its theological victory in recapturing the See of St Peter, was on the march, overawing the Lombard kingdom and pushing north into Germany; while in Spain, the Muslims muttered about jihad. Thus, while he certainly had the raw power to overcome any number of unruly half-bandit chieftains in his hinterlands, Theobald desired nothing so much as peace and quiet on his northern flank; a punitive expedition in his own domains was the last thing he needed. He was, therefore, ready to listen when his ally (and kinsman – Trond was the son of Theobald’s mother Agnes’s brother Gilpatrick, making them first cousins), the King of Norway, suggested a solution.

If the Scots wanted a king at Edinburgh, the suggestion ran, why not give them one? Theobald, after all, was Emperor of Britannia. The direct rule of a bunch of hairy Hielant savages was beneath his dignity. Trond, on the other hand, would be happy to have, if worst came to worst with his own savage vassals, a bolthole separated by several hundred miles of water from any possibility of revenge from former inmates of his infamous dungeons. Theobald, then, had only to graciously grant his good and leal kinsman-ally the least important of his crowns, for which Trond would gladly do homage (while diplomatically making it clear that Norway remained free, indivisible, and inalienable), and Trond would answer for the Highlanders.

As face-saving compromises go, it was an excellent one: Theobald got, in effect, a lightning rod on his northern flank, to absorb any grievances the Scots might have with their government. Trond, on the other hand, fulfilled his father’s dream. For a man who had spent most of his life fighting endless wars merely to hold together what his father had conquered, actually surpassing Gilpatrick was clearly a welcome triumph. The MacRaghnall lairds got one of their own, at least nominally, on the throne, and ceased troubling the Border; the degree to which Trond had quietly been encouraging their raids is now impossible to reconstruct, but seems likely to be nonzero. Finally, the Norwegians got both their old dream of a North Sea empire – even if its Scottish lands were rather minuscule in practice – and a welcome distance from their king; like a bickering couple who know each other’s sore points too well, the jarls and the king both benefited from physical separation.

The new state was, by modern standards, an odd sort of construction, jury-rigged and fragile-looking. Trond was King of Scots, a title for which he did homage to Theobald as Emperor of Britannia; but while he reigned in Edinburgh, the actual taxes and fighting men passed straight through his hands to York. Trond was also King of Norway and Sweden, titles for which he did homage to nobody but the Pope (and that had been a tenuous legal theory even when the the successor of St Peter ruled in Rome), and his writ ran in most of Denmark and Finland. As far as actual power went, his Scots title did not come into it. Edinburgh was the capital of the realm only in the purely formal sense of containing the King’s residence; the economic, political, and military center was very clearly in the Scandinavian peninsula. Indeed, if you ignored the royal residence, you would see a Baltic realm with Edinburgh as an anomalous outlier, more important than the similarly-situated Orkneys, but integrated into the British, not Baltic, economy.

By feudal standards, however, there was nothing odd about it; it was a dynastic, not a national, state, and medieval dynasts thought nothing of adding land on the other side of Europe to their possessions. After all, the Icelandic republic acknowledged, of all people, the Byzantine Emperor as their overlord; having a King who was merely across the North Sea was nothing by comparison, especially for a seafaring people like the Norse. It wasn’t as though anyone in Norway had been likely to travel overland to court even before it had been moved to Edinburgh.

Apart from its oddness, however, the salient feature of what would become the Northern Empire, or formally the Empire of the North Sea, was that it worked. Trond had, at last, beaten down the resistance to his rule within Scandinavia. The Scottish title was the outward recognition, by the other Catholic powers, of this fact. A formality, perhaps; but formalities are important in matters of state. In this case, the crowning at Scone was formal recognition that, where Gilpatrick had held together a collection of squabbling principalities by force of personality, Trond ruled a unified state by a monopoly of violence. And not before time; for the Catholic kingdoms had larger problems than the squabbles of savage mountain peoples. The Legions were again on the march.


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One response to “The Sons of Raghnall: Empire of the North Sea

  1. Pingback: The Sons of Raghnall: Clan and Crown | Ynglinga Saga

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