women leaders

Gormflaith ingen Murchada

This weeks Illustrated Women in History was submitted by Mice Hell @triggerthumblr for the Illustrated Women in History exhibition in April 2017 Swindon Central Library. 

Gormflaith ingen Murchada, c.960-1030

Medieval Irish noblewoman

Loathe as I am to just give a list of a woman’s male relatives while recounting her life, there is actually so little definitely known about Gormflaith herself that I will have to do just that.

Gormflaith’s father was Murchad mac Finn, King of Leinster. When she was quite young, she married Olaf Cuaran, Viking king of Dublin & York – Viking Dublin was big business by this time, there was a lot of intermarriage & trade between the Norse & Gaelic communities. She had a son with Olaf, who grew up to be King Sigtrygg Silkbeard of Dublin. So that’s 3 kings so far, & she’s probably barely in her 20s.

There are only vague reports about what Gormflaith got up to in the years following Olaf’s death. Olaf was defeated in battle in 981 against Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, king of Mide & left Ireland to finish his life in a monastery in Scotland. Some sources say she married Máel Sechnaill then. There’s not much information on this marriage at all, & some sources imply she married Máel Sechnaill after the death of her most famous husband, Brian Boru. It’s hard to tell. To complicate things further, Gormflaith’s brother Máel Mórda became king of Leinster in 972. Máel Mórda allied with his nephew Sigtrygg (now King of Dublin) & together they fought against neighbouring kingdoms.

Brian Boru was a king from what is now Co. Clare. He was enthusiastically collecting territory east of the Shannon by this time, encroaching on Gormflaith’s home kingdom of north Leinster. Máel Mórda rebelled against him, understandably, & this brought the wrath & full power of Brian & his many allies down on both Máel Mórdha & Sigtrygg.Gormflaith married Brian after he defeated her son Sigtrygg & brother Máel Mórdha in battle in the year 999. At the same time as Brian married Sigtrygg’s ma though, Sigtrygg married Brian’s daughter from a previous marriage. Nobody knows how anyone felt about any of this so let’s not assume or judge ok.

Gormflaith & Brian were married for 15 years & had at least one child, a son called Donnchad. During the years they were married, Brian managed to become High King of Ireland, which involved defeating Máel Sechnaill & (barely) subduing the kings of Ulster. However, in 1014, Máel Mórda rebelled against his brother-in-law once again, resulting in the Battle of Clontarf. Gormflaith actually gets the blame for starting the Battle of Clontarf in a text written 100 years later, by a man who most certainly was not there; she is said to have scolded her brother Máel Mórda for submitting so easily to Brian, then telling Brian that Máel Mórdha was bitching about him behind his back. She is then supposed to have promised to marry Brodir of Orkney in exchange for his support in the battle. This is the longest historical account we have of Gormflaith, the only one where her own words are reported, and it’s a gossipy piece of propaganda blaming her single-handedly causing one of the most important battles in Irish history.

Of course, when you think about the circumstances in which Gormflaith married Brian, it’s easy to see she might’ve secretly wanted him dead; at the same time, whoever wrote the account had no way of knowing what Gormflaith actually said in private to her brother & her husband. As much as I like the idea that she might’ve schemed to kill her (2nd? 3rd?) husband, unreliable historians are rife in Gormflaith’s life, unfortunately.

Anyway. Brian Bóru & a load of his mates fought the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 against an alliance of Norse & Irish forces (including Máel Mórda). Brian’s army won but he was killed. Gormflaith may or may not have married Máel Seachnaill after this & had a son with him called Conchobar; whatever happened, she lived for another 15-odd years &, as far as anyone can tell, did not spend her final years in a nunnery.

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