Join iomtoday as we take a closer look at ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’, a new exhibition at the Manx Museum featuring the Lewis Chessmen and the Isle of Man’s most important manuscript, the Chronicles of Man.
Follow the story of the Kingdom in our series of eight special features on this fascinating exhibition brought to you by Manx National Heritage with the support of Lloyds TSB.
A thousand years ago, a powerful sea kingdom was formed in the Outer Hebrides, Skye, the Inner Hebrides, Argyll and the Irish Sea. The seat of power was the Isle of Man.
From this small island, the kings of Man and the Isles ruled both the land and the vital sea route that ran through the heart of what we now know as the British Isles.
This trade route brought riches to and from the kingdom.
Exquisitely-carved rare chess pieces, silver coins with images of kings, and precious symbols of religious power have all been left behind.
From this time we have the Isle of Man’s first storybook, a book that tells of battles fought, indulgent kings and scheming queens.
We can read legends of haunted chieftains, political skulduggery and brutal revenge.
These stories are not just tall tales – they are the true account of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles.
Manx National Heritage’s latest exhibition at the Manx Museum invites you to step into the Chronicles of Man and the Isles. They will be your guide to the three hundred years between 1000 and 1300 AD that left the Is le of Man with a new political organisation, iconic buildings and a distinct national identity.
Three hundred years of a kingdom now forgotten, but whose legacy affects everyone on the Isle of Man today.
The time of the Vikings was over. Their raiding parties of the 700s and 800s AD were history.
They had settled and become part of the local Christian society in areas that were vital to their trading activities, although the settlers were not seeking a quiet life. Their descendants installed their own systems of government.
They gained control of the maritime trade routes around the Irish Sea, up towards the north Atlantic and down to the English Channel.
By 1000 AD, the Gaelic rulers of Ireland, western Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man found their influence had faded.
Communities in areas settled by the Scandinavians had become a mix of cultures.
The native Gaelic languages were spoken, alongside Old Norse, and place names could be from either language.
Marriages between the Scandinavians and local women from influential families had secured dominant and powerful positions for their children.
The Gaelic-Scandinavian children grew up to be rulers of a sea kingdom at the heart of which was the Isle of Man. But this wasn’t a time of multi-cultural harmony.
Throughout the kingdom, including the Isle of Man, violent Gaelic uprisings against the ruling Gaelic-Scandinavians were frequent and even the rulers fought, often viciously, amongst themselves.
The different players in this particular game of thrones are the people both celebrated and condemned by the history writers of the day.
The Character of the Kingdom
At the northernmost point of the kingdom, the long sandy beaches of the island of Lewis were ideal for pulling boats ashore.
Despite the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles describing Lewis as ‘mountainous and rocky...almost completely untilled’, the discovery of the exquisitely carved ‘Lewis Chessmen’ indicates that there were people on Lewis wealthy enough to purchase top quality items.
At the southern end of the kingdom, the Isle of Man lay at a key strategic point on the trade routes to and from Scandinavia, and adjacent to England and Ireland.
In 1098 AD King Magnus of Norway landed on the Isle of Man and ‘seeing the great beauty of the island...he chose to live in it’.
In addition to its fertile soil the Isle of Man had sheltered natural harbours and so was a very desirable part of the kingdom.
In between Lewis and Man were numerous small islands, each with their own character.
The kingdom had its own Tynwald, a 32-seat parliament with representatives from all of the islands.
But the Isle of Man was the most influential, contributing half of the assembly.
Relations between islands were not always friendly, but the threat of a mutual enemy could bring a form of unity.
The Chronicles tell us that in 1097 AD, the king of Norway sent a representative called Ingemund to seize the kingdom.
But, the behaviour of Ingemund and his followers, who ‘devoted themselves to every...pleasure of the flesh’ so outraged the chieftains of the Isles, that they ‘came upon him by night...they killed him and all his men, some with sword and some by burning’.
Ultimately the Kingdom of Man and the Isles unravelled due to internal warring factions.
The islands that once formed a powerful sea kingdom eventually became subjects of the lands around.
What did the Kingdom Do for Us?
The stories told by the Chronicles are more than just lurid tales of a forgotten kingdom.
They are based on the actual events that happened in and around the Isle of Man 1,000 years ago.
Although the kingdom itself is now part of history, it left tangible and relevant influences on the island that was at its heart.
Most significant is the Tynwald parliamentary system.
Twenty four members are still elected from the Isle of Man.
This number comes from the later period of the kingdom, when sixteen members represented Man and eight represented the ‘Outer Isles’ of Lewis and Skye.
Lewis and Skye became part of Scotland as it expanded, but the number of elected members in the House of Keys remains at 24.
Writing about the kings of Man and the Isles in his book The Little Manx Nation in 1891, Hall Caine wrote: ‘They were our only true Manx kings and when they fell, our independence as a nation ceased.’
Whilst the period after the end of the kingdom was turbulent for the Isle of Man, this may have actually enabled Tynwald to continue.
The fighting over Man between Scotland and England and the subsequent rule by the Stanleys and Atholls meant that Man was never fully subsumed within a larger kingdom.
Tynwald provided the stability for local governance and administration for a strategically important place and so has been largely left to govern.
Despite the tales of violent battles and brutal revenge, the period of the kingdom was one of relative stability for the people of Man.
The kings, largely from one single dynasty, were strong and influential and were widely acknowledged throughout Europe as being true kings and rulers. The Isle of Man itself was elevated to be the seat of power of a hugely significant maritime kingdom.
Towards the end of the kingdom, the kings became less influential and more influenced, especially by the court of the English kings.
But the legacies of Gaelic, Scandinavian and English cultures were absorbed by the people in the Isle of Man.
What emerged after the kingdom was a Manx nation, combining outside influences, with unique political and cultural identity.
The Kingdom of Man and the Isles may now be forgotten, but its legacy still remains.
• Follow the story of the Kingdom in our next feature on ‘Kings of Man’ in next week’s Examiner and visit the ‘Forgotten Kingdom Exhibition at the Manx Museum, sponsored by Lloyds TSB.