This week, as part of our series of features about the ‘Forgotten Kingdom’ of Man and the Isles, iomtoday takes a closer look at ‘Queens, concubines and ordinary people’ of Man.
Did you know that there are no women fighting for crowns, and very few women are named in the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles?
Women are not entirely absent from the record, but their description is often far from complimentary.
The Chronicles state that when rumours spread of an imminent attack on the church at Maughold, the ‘weaker sex with disshevelled hair ran about…uttering lamentations and crying at the tops of their voices’.
In the kingdom monogamy was not expected and although the church disapproved, many of the ruling elite took a liberal view to marriage.
Many of the kings had mistresses, or concubines, including Olaf I who, the Chronicles say ‘took a wife...and...had many concubines from whom he begat three sons...and many daughters’.
The religious origins of the Chronicles are reflected in the condemnation of one of Olaf I’s illegitimate daughters who married Somerled. She is said to be ‘the cause of the collapse of the entire Kingdom of the Isles’.
The marriage certainly encouraged Somerled to believe that he had a claim to the throne and so make a challenge. To blame this on one woman seems to be more of a judgement on her illegitimacy.
Each king still needed a queen if his dynasty was to continue legitimately and during the struggle for power between brothers Reginald Godredsson and Olaf II, the queen was to play a part.
According to the Chronicles ‘stimulated by bitterness and resentment, King Reginald’s wife, Queen of the Isles, sowed the seeds of all of the disharmony between Reginald and Olaf’. She sent a letter to her son Godred, instructing him to kill Olaf II, signing it from King Reginald himself. Godred’s attempt failed.
It could be argued that the seeds of disharmony were already sprouting before the Queen’s intervention, although the blame is laid squarely at her feet by the writer of the Chronicles.
Women of devout faith fared better, with ‘Margeret of pious memory’, ‘Affrica, who founded the abbey’ and ‘Christina the nun’ being mentioned. But the Chronicles mostly refer to women only in passing, or as instigators of some treacherous act.
The Chronicles tell the stories of the Kings of Man and the Isles but, like Queens, very little mention is made of ordinary people.
Whilst battles between kings were raging, normal lives continued. But without documentary sources, we rely on the archaeological evidence to tell their stories.
Life was based around agriculture and trade. The Isle of Man was one of the most fertile territories in the kingdom and this sustained not only the kings’ men, but also the Manx population. Faint traces of Medieval agricultural life can still be seen in the hills.
At Block Eary in the parish of Lezayre, there are a number of shielings. These were used as homes in the summer when livestock was taken to graze on higher ground, keeping them away from the cultivated crops lower down.
People also lived near the most important Medieval places such as Castle Rushen and St Patrick’s Isle, taking advantage of the crucial trading links the island controlled. Fragments of high quality foreign goods, such as French pottery, have been discovered, along with silver coins used to pay for such luxuries.
Despite power struggles, ordinary society seems to have been stable and largely untroubled. Hoards of silver coins have been found that were buried at the start and end of the kingdom, but so far no hoards have been found dating from the time in between.
This suggests that despite tales of battles and rebellion in the Chronicles, the trade and commerce sectors of the Manx economy did not feel under threat.
Ultimately people were under the control of the king.
The Chronicles say that after Godred Crovan had gained the kingdom, he granted lands to the people, but this was ‘on the condition that none of them should at any time dare lay claim to any part of the land for himself by right of inheritance…the entire island is the property of the king alone’.
Follow our next feature on ‘The Cultural Legacy and Medieval Games’ in next week’s Examiner and visit the Forgotten Kingdom Exhibition at the Manx Museum, sponsored by Lloyds TSB. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Admission free.