The Sons of Raghnall: Clan and Crown

By the early eighteenth century, the MacRaghnalls were the only European royal dynasty of any importance that could still trace its origins to medieval times. Only the Venetian republic could claim a similar longevity of continuity as a political entity, but its ruling families had come and gone, each taking center stage for a decade or perhaps three, then vanishing into the undifferentiated mass of riches hombres from which it had arisen. Russia, though still nominally a republic of similar antiquity, had in effect become a monarchy elective within the Golitsyn family. As for the other kingdoms, empires, and sultanates of Europe, their ruling families had all been replaced several times, with an average dynasty longevity of, as the saying went, “barony to barony in four generations”.

What, then, accounts for this unusual continuity? It is, of course, possible that we are the victims of selection bias; perhaps, in a Europe of eight or ten monarchical dynasties, one was bound to be the lucky one that survived for seven centuries. Naturally that dynasty would then draw the attention of scholars seeking to “explain” its luck in terms of their favourite theory. Lacking the opportunity to rewind European history to 1066 and see if the MacRaghnalls survive a second time, we cannot dismiss this theory; but we can note that the MacRaghnalls did, in fact, organise themselves in ways that were unusual in Europe, and that these organisational traits plausibly would lead to additional stability.

First, the “North Sea Empire”, though culturally and linguistically united, divided itself for purposes of nobility and royalty into its historic kingdoms: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and (mostly theoretically) Scotland. Thus, at any given time there were five crowned MacRaghnall heads with genuine administrative responsibility: The emperor, and four kings – the crown of Scotland being generally folded into the emperorship, or given as a ceremonial title to his eldest son. Consequently new Emperors – the succession being by designation from among the Kings – were always experienced men, with an existing power base among the nobility and bureacracy. One might say that, where other monarchies had the sovereign as a single point of failure, the redundant MacRaghnall organisation ensured that a monarch’s death was, at most, a 20% discontinuity – only one-fifth of the top level would be lost in any one death.

Second, although the kingship of Scotland, belonging to the royal branch of the family, was nominal, the MacRaghnall presence in Scottish internal politics was very real; in particular, the clan – as opposed to the Norwegian royal family – extended far and wide over the (relatively) wealthy Lowlands. By one estimate [1] they could, in the 1730s, mobilise as many as 5000 fighting men, most armed with a musket as well as the more traditional claymore and targe, and another 500 mounted men; probably the largest single force in Scotland, although the McDonalds of the Isles came close. This private army was not significant on a European scale, and indeed never fought outside of interclan scuffles within Scotland; but the clan lands were important as a second center of prestige and wealth connected to the MacRaghnall name, but separate from Norwegian politics. The MacRaghnall lairds – two earldoms, the clan chief (who might or might not be one of the earls), and several lesser titles – formed a reserve, so to speak, of plausible heirs, men with noble blood and experience of war and command. No Scots laird ever rose to the Norwegian throne, but the possibility was a stabilising influence: The kings and their heirs were sharply aware that too harsh a competition might awaken interest from their cousins, and moderated their ambitions accordingly. On several occasions the clan chief, as a neutral party with authority, was called in to mediate in intractable disputes, an option which further calmed the internal politics that roiled in other dynasties.

The third source of unusual stability was the large number of offshoot families, what came to be called the “Norwegian septs”. The royal family, as such, was not large, consisting of the emperor, the kings, and their immediate heirs and their heirs; outside of a few traditional jarldoms, there were no MacRaghnall nobles. But being closely related to a royal family, even if of a collateral branch, was always an advantage; and, borrowing from their Scottish cousins, the collaterals gave themselves the name of a “clan” and considered individual lines of descent, from male MacRaghnalls who had not acquired a noble title, to be “septs”. Legally speaking this was fictitious; Norwegian law, unlike Scottish, did not recognise or grant privileges to any such entity – not even heraldic ones. But in terms of facts on the ground it mattered a great deal; to have a surname like “Ragnvaldsen”, “Randall”, “FitzRandolf”, or any of the other hundred variants that the septs created for themselves, was an enormous advantage to anyone seeking a naval or bureaucratic career in Norway. Around 1710, in fact, the advantage became so noticeable that the septs had to create their own college of genealogy, which kept records to ensure that the man claiming the surname “Randale” was not the son of a man called, say, “Guldvædder”. To be sure, having friends in high places was not without its dangers; of the five Herrer Admiraler hanged in the Purge of ’42, one was a MacRaghnall with a noble title and two were of the septs. But generally, a Radnell or Ranson was reliably wealthier, more politically powerful, and further along in his career than a Fredriksen or even a Lejonhofvud of the same age.

The members of the Norwegian septs thus formed a patronage circle; but the ultimate source of patronage, as in any monarchy, was the court, and without MacRaghnall preference for Ragnvald septs, the mutual-aid circle would lose much of its influence. Consequently, the dynasty had an unusually wide base of support among the “middle class”, which in other kingdoms saw its advantage in opposition to noble privilege. England, with its unusually open peerage (at least at the level of knighthoods and baronetcies) had something of the same advantage; but even so, England was very visibly run for the benefit of something like a hundred high-aristocratic families, with perhaps a few thousand members all told. The Norwegian septs numbered in the tens of thousands, in a much smaller overall population than England’s; and they saw themselves as beneficiaries of the Norwegian monarchy, not just the state. Most monarchies operated with the genuine support of an astonishingly small fraction of their population – certainly, any crofter might give the loyal toast, but as for real, non-symbolic sacrifice and planning to keep the King in power, that wasn’t his business. The MacRaghnall dynasty’s relatively wide base of real economic support – perhaps as much as ten percent of the population, as opposed to three in England and one in most continental kingdoms – gave it a huge advantage in times of turmoil.

With all this, we should not forget the role of luck. The MacRaghnalls were lucky to be geographically isolated; lucky to dominate a relatively poor kingdom, with few powerful nobles to dispute the throne; and lucky, in some sense, to have the above institutions supporting them – for it is not as though their supposed common ancestor sat down at dinner one day and designed the support structures he wanted his descendants to have; it all grew organically, from self-interested decisions made by individuals over centuries. But luck is not to be despised. Among the shorter-lived dynasties of Europe, we find many who have fought their way up from obscurity to the heights of power; their judgement, surely, carries some weight on the subject. And, from the pen of no less a warrior of fortune than Charles VII of France – of the Laskaris dynasty, the First; and, not unrelatedly, a successful general – we find perhaps the surest summing up of MacRaghnall longevity: “They were lucky, yes. But I’d rather be lucky than good.”

— From Clan and Crown: Royal Authority in Scandinavia,
Henrik Ragnarson and Edward Raunvale,
(C) Bergenhus University Press, 1985.


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One response to “The Sons of Raghnall: Clan and Crown

  1. Pingback: The Sons of Raghnall: Two Revolutions, part II: Study War no More | Ynglinga Saga

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