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Sunday, 24 August 2014

24 August 1103: Magnus ‘Bare Legs’, the King of Norway, was killed by the Irish in battle on this day. Magnus Barelegs or 'Barefoot’ got his name apparently by dressing like the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland who kept their legs uncovered. To the Irish though he was Manus Mór - ‘Big Manus’.

King Magnus reigned as King of Norway from 1093 until his untimely death in 1103. He was an ambitious man who sought to emulate his famous grandfather Harald Hardrata, the Viking warrior king. He had died at the battle of Stamford Bridge, fighting the Anglo Saxons in 1066, rather than his more placid father Olaf the Peaceful. His military campaigns were fought in Sweden, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and along the eastern coastline of Ireland. He was described as being very tall with bright yellow hair and bright blue eyes.

Magnus in his western campaigns moved along the coasts of the North Channel and the Irish Sea through Galloway, to the isle of Man and to the island of Anglesey enforcing his sway of the Norsemen in those places. He then sailed across to Dublin and took the submission of that city. At that time the most powerful man in Ireland was Muirchertach O'Brien, King of Munster and High King of Ireland (1086 - 1119). He played a long game with Magnus. He knew that outright opposition would be dangerous on a king who had naval supremacy and could strike anywhere. On the other submission to him was out of the question. Muirchertach therefore struck up an alliance with Magnus that saw them campaign together against Muirchertach’s Irish enemies. By 1103 his greatest enemy was King Domhnall Ua Lochlainn whose base was at Aileach, just outside Derry.

Their sanguine arrangement being formalised by the marriage of Magnus’ son Sigurd (12 years old) to O'Briens' 5 year old daughter, Blathmin. The deal was for Magnus to supply man power to O'Brien to assist him in his on going local wars, and in return Magnus was to receive cattle, to feed his men and to provide much needed provisions for his homeward to Norway.

But by August of 1103 Magnus and Muirchertach had parted ways and it looks like Magnus was on his way home to Norway, stopping off in stages to draw in supplies. Whether he met his end through treachery or an opportunist ambush by the local Ulaid (Ulster) cannot now be known. Though no doubt the news was greeted with a sigh of relief in Muirchertach’s camp. His only loss being that the marraige of his daughter to the son of Magnus was broken as the boy was brought back to Norway.

Having sailed his long boats in from Strangford Lough, up the river Quoile, and beaching them on Plague Island to the present day Down Cathedral along the Ballyduggan Road, Magnus impatiently waited for the cattle to arrive on the agreed day St. Bartholomew's Day, 23rd August 1103. Evening came and no cattle had arrived, and against the advice of his commander Eyvind Elbow he decided next morning to leave the safety of his ships and seek out the missing cattle, believing that O'Brien had broken his promise.

Marching along the side of the tidal marshes he came to a high hill, possible to site where Dundrum Castle now stands, looking west-wards he saw a great dust cloud, the cattle were on their way and soon he and his men would homeward bound. Perhaps in a joyous mood and letting their guard slip, suddenly 'the trees came alive,' they had been ambushed, by the 'men of Ulster.' However it is possible that Magnus expected a battle and just hoped that the dust cloud was indeed the cattle he was supposedly promised.But in the ensuring battle that raged across the mud flats of the Quoile Estuary, now in total confusion, the Vikings, led by Magnus were slaughtered. Some of the Vikings made it back to their boats, leaving King Magnus and a few of his loyal guard to fight to the death.

"King Magnus had a helmet on his head; a red shield, in which was inlaid a gilded lion; and was girt with the sword of Legbiter, of which the hilt was of tooth (ivory), and handgrip wound about with gold thread; and the sword was extremely sharp. In his hand he had a short spear, and a red silk short cloak, over his coat, on which, both before and behind, was embroidered a lion in yellow silk; and all men acknowledged that they never had seen a brisker, statelier man."
Magnus before the battle acc to Snorri Sturluson

The Norse King receiving a javelin thrust through his body and then struck in the neck with an axe, he died. However his famous sword 'Legbiter,' was retrieved and brought home to Norway, but the remains of its Loyal Master, and those of his loyal guard lie in a common grave on the marshes of Down.

King Magnus believed "That Kings are made for honour and not for a long life". He was right for he was not thirty years of age when he died.