The assassination of King Aed in 878 suggested that the Scottish kingdom was in turmoil after a decade of Viking raids but even the chroniclers seem to have been confused about what happened next. Was Giric king? Or was it Eochaid? Or maybe both! We take a look at what was going on and try to work out who was really king. Listen to the podcast episode here or read on for more information.
The Scottish nation was not yet fully formed as we would know it today in the late ninth century and this period showed that the future of the country was still very much in doubt. After a period of conflict between the rival kingdoms of Picts, Scots, Britons (in Strathclyde) and Saxons (in Northumbria), the Scots came to the fore under the rule of Kenneth MacAlpin. Kenneth was a powerful king who made alliances with the Strathclyde Britons and the most powerful kingdom in Ireland by marrying off his daughters. His brother, Donald I, continued to cement the new dynasty and things looked to be going pretty well for the Scottish/Pictish kingdom.
Unfortunately for the next king, Constantine I, in the 860s the Vikings became particularly Viking-y and invaded England, Ireland and Scotland under powerful leaders such as Olaf the White and Ivar the Boneless. Constantine’s tactics were essentially to keep his head down and encourage the Vikings to focus elsewhere – specifically, the Strathclyde Britons, who suffered a devastating attack on their capital (Dumbarton Rock) and then the murder of their king (Artgal) at Constantine’s instigation. When the Viking leaders all started dying off, it looked like Constantine might have played a tactical masterclass until in 877 he himself came a cropper. His brother, Aed, then came to throne but was killed the next later and his reign was so unremarkable that the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba declared that he “bequeathed nothing memorable to history”.
The sources are pretty slight when it comes to this period of Scottish history at the best of times, but the reign following Aed really is something of a dark age for sources. It is so confusing that there is even uncertainty as to who was king – some say Giric but others say Eochaid. This is not just a case of modern historians struggling to piece things together but was actually the cause of some head-scratching even for the medieval scholars. The Chronicle of the Kings (completed in roughly the twelfth century) acknowledged that the situation was not clear:
“On the one hand Eochaid, the son of Rhun the king of the Britons, grandson of Kenneth by his daughter, ruled for 11 years. Admittedly others say that Giric ruled at that time; because he became teacher and ‘prime minister’ to Eochaid.”
Other roughly contemporary sources do not even give us as much information as this. Neither the Irish chroniclers nor the Anglo-Saxon chronicle cover this reign or provide obituaries for either Giric or Eochaid. The reason for this is probably because a lot of the sources (particularly in Ireland) were biased towards the descendants of Kenneth MacAlpin. Indeed, the two young sons of Constantine I and Aed were spirited away to Ireland in this period and grew up at a royal court with their aunt, Mael Muire, who married two Irish high kings. It is probable that because of her prominent position in Ireland, she persuaded the chroniclers that the reign following Aed was a usurpation and thus whoever was on the throne should not be recorded by history. Powerful propaganda, but not much help for us!
To try to get to the bottom of this, we need to know a bit more about our monarchic candidates.
Eochaid has the credentials to make him a likely candidate to have been king in this period. We don’t know exactly when he was born but he was the son of Rhun of Strathclyde and a daughter of Kenneth MacAlpin – in other words, he was probably the king of Strathclyde (perhaps the last native ruler of the kingdom) and a grandson of Kenneth MacAlpin. The laws of succession in this period were pretty loose, so although Constantine I and Aed had sons, Eochaid had a perfectly decent claim as a grandson of K-Mac and if the Alpin boys were too young to lead an army then they did not stand much chance of success.
However, there is not a lot of support in the sources for Eochaid as king. Other than the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, he does not get much of a mention elsewhere. He also lacks a cool nickname from the Prophecy of Berchan (another near-contemporary source), his name meaning “Yew Warrior”, originating from pagan times and a cult around yew trees.
Unlike Eochaid, Giric’s origins are a total mystery. It was once thought that he was the son of Donald I (Kenneth MacAlpin’s brother) and thus a rival branch of the Alpin family. However, this is now thought to have been a scribal error (a 10th century typo) who should have written that he was the son of a man called Dungal rather than Donald.
Consequently, we do not know his origins and it is therefore probable that he was not of royal birth but probably a man on the make. Some historians have theorised that he was from the Scottish kingdom of Dalriata on the west coast of Scotland and was driven inland in the face of Viking raids during the reign of Constantine. Giric may have had a loyal band of supporters and had sufficient standing to have ingratiated himself with King Aed, at which point he either murdered the king through sheer ambition or, perhaps frustrated at Aed’s inability to deal with the Viking threat, took desperate measures and bumped him off.
Despite his obscure origins, Giric is much more commonly referenced as king in the sources than Eochaid. It is also curious that he is referred to in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba as a “Prime Minister” to Eochaid. Perhaps the most logical explanation is that Giric (for whatever reason) removed Aed as king but did not have any claim to the throne. Eochaid, the king of Strathclyde, did have a claim to the throne and after Constantine I had arranged the murder of their King Artgal (Eochaid’s grandfather) he may have been very happy for a chance to have some form of vengeance over the Scottish kingdom. So, an alliance was formed – Eochaid would wear the crown but Giric would be the real power.
For our perspective, it is probably easiest to assume that what we do know about the reign we should credit to Giric. Plus, unlike Eochaid, he had a cool nickname – MacRath (the Son of Fortune).
So, now that we know (or have made something up and decided just to go with it!) who was in charge in 878, what actually happened during the reign? Not surprisingly, there is not a lot of detail about this in the sources, but we are able to piece a few things together.
We know almost nothing about the previous reign of Aed, but it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that the kingdom was descending into chaos after the Viking raids under Constantine. By some means, Giric removed Aed and then established himself and his supporters at court. He seems to have made various reforms to the church in favour of the Scottish church (as opposed to the Picts) and engaged in warfare with the Anglo-Saxons in Northumbria.
The problem for Giric was that while Aed had been removed, the Alpin dynasty had not been destroyed. The young sons of Constantine I and Aed had been exiled in Ireland but it was inevitable that, once they were old enough, they would seek to win back their kingdom. Sure enough, in 889, they returned to Scotland and the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba suggests the following:
“on the very day of St. Ciricius, there was an eclipse of the sun. Eochaid, with his “foster-son”, was then thrown out of the kingdom.”
In fact, the nearest eclipse in this period in Scotland took place in 885, so it seems that the chronicler has used a bit of poetic license here. This is the only account we have of Eochaid’s fate, so perhaps he was forced to abandon the kingdom and return to Strathclyde. For Giric, however, we have a rather more violent and dramatic account of his end. The Alpin brothers are said to have returned to Scotland and pinned Giric down in the fortress of Dundurn. There are no descriptions of the battle, but the archaeological evidence at the site suggests heavy fighting culminating in the fortress being burnt down. Giric, then, is likely to have been killed at Dundurn, going down in flames as the Alpin dynasty was restored to power.
Giric does have a few things to boast about when it comes to battleyness. For one thing, he kills off the previous king – whether in battle or ambush is not clear, but clearly Giric must have had sufficient hardiness to shore up his position at court afterwards. Despite a general lack of evidence in this period, for some reason Giric became something of a legendary figure in the middle ages where he was known as “Gregory the Great” due to his military prowess. According to the Chronicel of Melrose, “He subdued to himself all Ireland, and nearly [all] England.” Impressive stuff, if true…
Obviously, this was not true. Certainly for Ireland there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Giric had any involvement in the country’s affairs. He also did not conquer nearly all of England, though it may be that he conducted raids on Bernicia (i.e. the northern half of Northumbria – modern day Bamburgh), which was probably nearly all of England that the Scots had reason to care about. Also, ultimately, he was defeated by his Alpin rivals at Dundurn, though deserves some credit for what sounds like a hard fought battle.
Giric seems to have been a capable military leader but a lack of reliable evidence for any major achievements makes it hard to give him much credit for this.
Score = 6/20
Many sources state that Giric killed the previous king, Aed, so a juicy spot of regicide is definitely a plus for scandal. It’s also suggested that he may have been considered part of Aed’s household, thus adding personal treachery into the mix.
Alternatively, it may be that someone else killed Aed and Giric just filled the power vacuum. Once king, we have nothing to go on for scandal.
Regicide is good scandal and Giric seems the most likely culprit, so credit where credit is due. A lack of subsequent scandal, however, prevents this from being a world-beating effort.
Score = 12.5/20
Despite his obscuity, Giric does seem to have had some fans among the Chroniclers. The Chronicle of Melrose praised his role in promoting the Scottish Church, stating that he “was the first to give liberty to the Scottish church, which was in servitude up to that time, after the custom and fashion of the Picts.” This suggests that the Scottish/Pictish identities were still very much in force at this time and that perhaps recent reigns had seen the Pictish church re-establishing its dominance over the Columban church (origination on the eastern island Iona and formerly Ireland). Other evidence for his good character are to be found in the Dunkeld Litany, a near-contemporary prayer for the souls of saints which ends with a plea to “protect and defend our king Girich and his army from all the intents of his enemies and concede to him victory and long life”.
While the Columban bishops may have been pleased with Giric, his reign nevertheless represents a usurpation. The Alpin brothers (the rightful royal princes) were forced into exile, Giric installed new bishops and (one must assume) his own supporters at court at the expense of the old order.
Giric may have been a capable ruler but a nice prayer and a few new bishops is not enough to make up for the usurpation and all that would most likely have entailed.
Score = 5.5/20
Giric was king from 878 to 889 – a reign of 11 years which, when converted into a score out of 20 (where 20 is the longest reign of all the monarchs), gives him a total of 3.81.
As far as we know, Giric left no surviving children (if he had any at all) so he does not score anything for Dynasty.
Total Score = 27.81
Giric suffers from being largely written out of history. He must have been an impressive individual to have not only removed the previous king but to have then ruled (seemingly without significant difficulty) for the next decade. However, his ultimate defeat and the lack of any real legacy means that he failed to make his mark while Eochaid was at best a figurehead for Giric, if indeed he was there at all.
Our Verdict: No, Giric and/or Eochaid do not have the Rex Factor.
What do you think – does Constantine I deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our poll below and tell us your views!