Black Turlogh O’Brien in England – Part One

All fans of Robert E. Howard’s work will know that his character Black Turlogh fought at the Battle of Clontarf, on Brian Boru’s side, against the Danes in 1014. Moody, given to wild battle-frenzy and fits of near madness, he hated the Danish invaders of his country with a bitter loathing, and killed them where he found them. Of all men, Turlogh would be the least likely to “intrigue” with them against his own folk. Yet shortly after Clontarf and the death of King Brian, he was accused of that very thing and driven from his clan to starve in the heather. Asked about it later – by the few who dared raise the subject – he’d growl, “Jealousy of a cousin and spite of a woman. Lies. All lies.”

Among the many interesting things about this Howard character is that he’s either intended to be a real, historical Turlogh O’Brien, or is very closely modeled on him. There were two Turloghs in the O’Brien clan in the reign of Brian Boru, both grandsons of Brian, and they’re both mentioned in the REH story, “The Grey God Passes.”  The younger Turlogh, son of King Brian’s son Murrogh, fought at the Battle of Clontarf when only fifteen. He was killed. The other, described by Howard as being his cousin, and “a few years older” had at birth been “tossed into a snowdrift to test his right to survive.”  Myself, I’ve taken “a few years” to mean four, making Turlogh nineteen at Clontarf, and thus born in 995 A.D. Robert E. Howard bears this out in “The Grey God Passes” by describing Turlogh as a formidable warrior “despite his youth.”

The same story features the historical Viking chief, Brodir of Man, in a sinister role. He was one of the Viking leaders at Clontarf, and he appears in the Burnt Njal, or Njal’s Saga. In section 156 of the “Njal”, the battle of Clontarf is described from the viecrovwpoint of Icelandic poets. Brodir, a noted warlock, is credited with divining the future and discovering by his magic that if they fight on Good Friday they will lose the battle, but their enemy Brian will die, while if they fight on any other day, they will still lose, but Brian will survive. In “The Grey God Passes”, REH has Brodir’s divination performed by a bloody human sacrifice in which the victim’s heart is ripped out and studied. Undeterred by the prediction, Brodir snarls that they will fight against Brian on Good Friday, “… fall fair, fall foul!”

Brodir, according to the traditional descriptions, was tall and powerful, with black hair grown so long that he could tuck it into his belt. He wore an enchanted mail shirt on which no weapon could bite. He had become enemies with his brother Ospak, and Ospak as a result was fighting on King Brian’s side. Brodir, like many other historical and literary characters, appears in John Myers Myers’ glorious book Silverlock. He fishes Shandon and Golias out of the sea and recruits them to fight on his side. Shandon mutters to Golias, “Why should I … I don’t even like the son of a bitch,” and Golias answers that they’d better. He cautions his companion, “I don’t know Brodir, but I do, too. When he can’t get men to do his will, he’ll murder.”

Silverlock also describes the battle, and the aftermath in which Brodir, having lost the day, leads a gang of Vikings into the aged King Brian’s tent and cuts him down. Shandon says of Brian, “For a minute there I looked upon greatness, until Brodir slew it.”

Before that, according to the Njal, Brodir had come against an Irish warrior the Vikings called Wolf the Quarrelsome, and been bested in a short, savage encounter. Only his impenetrable mail saved him, and he fled the field. Now, there wouldn’t have been too many warriors alive at the time that could make Brodir the Warlock run away. Further, when Brodir had killed Brian in his tent, this same Wolf the Quarrelsome discovered it, called a group of Irish warriors, and set out in pursuit. As the Njal tells it:

Then Brodir called out with a loud voice, “Now let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian.”

Then men ran after those who were chasing the fleers, and they were told that King Brian had fallen, and then they turned back straightway, both Wolf the Quarrelsome and Kerthialfad.

Then they threw a ring round Brodir and his men, and threw branches of trees upon them, and so Brodir was taken alive.

Wolf the Quarrelsome cut open his belly, and led him round and round the trunk of a tree, and so wound all his entrails out of him, and he did not die before they were all drawn out of him.

Brodir’s men were slain to a man.

That sounds to me as though the warrior the Icelandic skalds named Wolf the Quarrelsome was actually Black Turlogh, no other. Brian was Turlogh’s grandfather as well as his king; his vengeance for the killing would be awful, and even without a kinsman to avenge, Turlogh had at all times, REH attests, an “almost insane hatred” for the Vikings. In “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” he rages, “I hate your breed as I hate Satan!  Your wolves have ravaged my people for five hundred years! The smoking ruins of the Southland, the seas of spilled blood call for vengeance! The screams of a thousand ravished girls are ringing in my ears, night and day!  Would that the North had but a single breast for my ax to cleave!”

Yes, that’s an entrails-ripping avenger talking, and no mistake. Wolf the Quarrelsome is alleged – by men who were no more at Clontarf than I was – to have been King Brian’s brother. Break it down. Brian Boru was seventy-three by the time of Clontarf, which is why he wasn’t in the actual fighting. Even a half-brother a full generation younger than he could hardly have been less than fifty. I cannot picture a man fifty years old taking down the lethal Brodir in hand-to-hand combat. That was a job for a grandson of Brian’s, not a brother. How Turlogh became known to the Vikings as Wolf the Quarrelsome is a matter for speculation that I’ll get to later.

Howard doesn’t mention the parents of his fictionalized Turlogh. In real life they were Teige O’Brien, son of Brian Boru (in Gaelic Tadg ua Briain) and his wife Mor, of the Cenel Fiachach. The actual Turlogh is supposed to have been born in about 1009 or 1010, but of course that would have made him too young to fight at Clontarf, even in the live-fast-die-young era of Brian Boru’s Ireland. He’d barely have been housebroken yet. From a fiction writer’s point of view, the most convenient thing about this eleventh-century hard case is that nothing concrete is known about him before he turned forty, so REH could invent and write anything about him he pleased.

After King Brian’s death, Turlogh’s father Teige became a strong candidate for the kingship of Munster. He never attained it, though, since in 1023 he was murdered by his half-brother. Considering the way Turlogh had reacted to the slaying of his grandfather, he would have done extreme things indeed to his father’s killer. Not immediately, though. By 1023, Turlogh was far from Ireland, and wouldn’t have heard about the slaying for years.

A few years after the decisive Battle of Clontarf, he appeared as the protagonist of that great REH story, “The Dark Man.”  Single-handed, he sailed to the rescue of a kidnapped Irish princess in a requisitioned fishing boat. The fisherman he confronted as the story opens says that he’d last heard of Turlogh in the Wicklow hills, “preying off the O’Reillys and the Oastmen alike.”  Turlogh didn’t deny it, but merely answered, “A man must eat, outcast or not.”

That causes me to question where he went and how he lived between Clontarf and the Wicklow hills. The accusations that made him an outlaw would seem to have come very soon after Clontarf and Brian Boru’s death. As ever, there was no unity among the Irish. Turlogh says to the fisherman of the west coast, “All Erin is rocking under the Dalcassian throne since great Brian fell.”  Turlogh was probably discredited as a result of such bickering.

Where would he have gone initially?

I think to England.

Anywhere there were Danes to fight would have been congenial to him. England no less than Ireland had been assailed by Danes for generations. Olaf Tryggvason, King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, and Thorkel the Tall had all ravaged the country. In 1013 – the year before Clontarf – the battered, weary English had accepted Sweyn as their king. The lawful English king, Ethelred, with his wife and younger sons, took refuge in Normandy.

This was the notoriously weak “Ethelred the Unready.” That’s a poor translation of “redeless.” Rede is an archaic word for advice, or policy. “Without rede” in modern times would be “clueless”, “ill-advised”, or “indecisive.”  Ethelred seems to have been all of those.  He paid the Danes tribute instead of fighting them, though he did have a large number of Danes living in England massacred on St. Brice’s Day, 1002, an act which called down the vengeance of Sweyn. (Sweyn’s sister Gunhild was said to have been among the victims of the slaughter.) But oppose them consistently and strongly he did not.

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
– Rudyard Kipling

Sweyn Forkbeard ruled England for only five weeks and died there on 3rd February 1014 – a couple of months before the Battle of Clontarf. Sweyn’s son Canute became the Danish king, and claimed rule over England, but Ethelred returned from Normandy and managed to drive Canute out. Not permanently, however. Ethelred never managed to do anything permanently. Canute returned at the head of an invasion force.

King Ethelred may not have given determined leadership against the Danes, but his son Edmund did. Edmund was a different sort of fellow to his father, friends – so much so that he’s remembered in history by the nickname “Ironside.” He was Ethelred’s third son, his older brothers being Athelstane and Egbert. He was born around 993, which would make him a couple of years older than Turlogh Dubh, or REH’s Turlogh, at least.

It seems certain that Edmund and Turlogh would have got along. Both young, both brave and redoubtable warriors, they were also both opposed till death to the Danish invaders. Since REH describes Turlogh as “a strange, bitter man, a terrible warrior and a crafty strategist,” the outlaw Dalcassian would surely see that a strong warrior king like Canute, ruling both Denmark and England, might seek to conquer Ireland too.

Enter a character who was certainly the sly, relentless enemy of both – Eadric Streona of Mercia, otherwise Eadric “the Grasper.” The great twelfth-century historian, William of Malmesbury, describes Eadric as “the refuse of mankind and a reproach unto the English.”  Succinct and unambiguous, that. Eadric Streona was a traitor and turncoat whose double-crosses were unceasing. Inscribe his name with those of Alcibiades, Benedict Arnold and Lord Haw Haw. He may have been worse than any of those three.

Eadric became an ealdorman – a high-ranking royal official and chief magistrate of a region – under King Ethelred. Ealdormen were appointed by the king, and Eadric was advanced to that position in 1007. He’d gained the vacillating Ethelred’s favor in the first place by doing some very dirty work for him.  He was possibly the main instigator of the St. Brice’s Day massacre of Danes living in England (1002).

In Ethelred’s service, four years later (1006), Eadric murdered an important man named Alfhelm (ealdorman of Northumbria) and had his sons blinded. Ethelred preferred Alfhelm dead because he had failed to protect the city of York from a Scottish invasion. (Ethelred of all men could hardly condemn him for that, given his own shoddy performance, but hey, he was the king.) He wished to promote a younger, harder warrior, Uhtred, to be ealdorman instead, and once Alfhelm was planted six feet in the earth, he did. Eadric was doubtless happy to perform the killing; Alfhelm was a rival courtier.

It may have been Eadric’s doing that Earl Athelwold and his son disappeared in that same year.

In 1009 Ethelred, forceful for once, was intent on launching a great attack against the Danes. Eadric Streona persuaded him not to; taking Danish money even then, perhaps. Eadric’s brother Brihtric accused a Sussex noble named Wulfnoth of treason, also in 1009, and guilty or not, Wulfnoth apparently saw he hadn’t a chance of defending himself against these two  – not when Eadric was the king’s chief schemer and hatchet man. Wulfnoth lifted twenty ships from Ethelred’s navy before he could be seized, turned pirate, and plundered all England’s southern shores. Ethelred assured the rest of the navy that it could capture Wulfnoth with ease, if it looked sharp, since he had only a score of ships; whereupon Wulfnoth suborned other captains to join him and increased the size of his pirate fleet to eighty!

England didn’t need that kind of trouble at a time when the Danes were such a thundering menace.

Young Edmund, Ethelred’s third son, was sixteen then, hungry to fight the Danes, and events like those outlined above would have made him puke with disgust. His older brother Athelstane, to whom he was close, felt the same way. Athelstane didn’t like the influence the nauseating Eadric had over their father, either. Eadric would have known well enough that the brothers opposed him.  They were friendly with two leading thanes of the king’s, Sigeferth and Morcar, prominent men in the Five Boroughs of the east midlands, and they also detested Eadric. All four stayed in England when Ethelred fled to Normandy in 1013, in fear of Sweyn Forkbeard. Their courage in contrast to his timidity probably caused Ethelred to resent and mistrust them.

Then Athelstane died in June of 1014. While little is known of his career, he seems to have been a good warrior, and since he was no older than twenty-five, it wouldn’t be fatuous to wonder if he too was murdered by Eadric. Athelstane had willed his most prized possession, a sword which had once belonged to Offa of Mercia, to Edmund, and the prince must have thought bitterly that he was going to need it.

“The Grasper” most certainly arranged for Sigeferth and Morcar to be murdered in 1015 so that Ethelred could seize their lands. Sigeferth’s young widow, a lady named Aldgyth, was imprisoned. Edmund, who liked her, didn’t care for that or the murders, and became estranged from his father.

By then, Turlogh had arrived in England and reached an appreciation of what was what. He offered his services to Edmund. Edmund accepted. Besides having taken a liking to the brooding, violent Irish warrior who hated Danes so deeply, he must have felt he needed such a henchman. He’d have missed big brother Athelstane and felt quite alone. As for Turlogh, he may have had the same loneliness, whether he owned it or not; he’d become an outcast in Ireland. His clan had rejected him.

Then Canute invaded England, landing in Wessex in September. He arrived with a fleet of 200 dragon-ships and an army of about 10,000 assorted Danes, berserks, Jomsvikings and other very hard characters, including some wild Polacks. Boleslaw the Brave, Duke of Poland, was related to the Danish royal house and had loaned Canute some troops to help his war effort.  (Boleslaw was quite a fighter, strategist and statesman himself. He turned Poland into the biggest, most powerful state in eastern Europe in a series of campaigns west, south and east. He fought a sixteen-year war with the German Empire, which was just breaking out again in that year of 1015. Boleslaw emerged from that, in the end, a clear winner. He was a valuable ally even for a king as able and warlike as Canute.)

One character who appears again and again in the Turlogh O’Brien stories is Athelstane, the renegade Saxon. In “The Grey God Passes” he’s fighting at Clontarf on the Danish side. I’d assume he was with Canute when he invaded England. This isn’t the same Athelstane who was Edmund Ironside’s older brother. By then he was dead. Quite probably he’d died as one of the victims of Eadric Streona’s stealthy murders.

King Ethelred lay sick – possibly with fear – while Edmund raised an army. He released Aldgyth from prison and married her, too, in a great hurry, since he had to meet and oppose Canute’s conquering host. Letting Aldgyth out, wedding and bedding her, had been flat against his father’s orders, but it’s likely that Edmund didn’t give much of a stuff about his father’s commands at that point.

The shifty Eadric Streona raised a force too, pretending he did so to support the atheling Edmund. Instead he went over to Canute, taking forty ships and their crews to sweeten his coming. The famous Jomsviking chief, Thorkel the Tall, who had been in English service until then, defected with him. In fact the forty ships were probably Thorkel’s, from the Danelaw region of England. Mercia and Wessex both submitted to the Danes.

Edmund met with a further, and worse, setback. His army disbanded, melting like snow around him. This may well have happened because Ethelred hadn’t come to lead it, and the citizenry of London hadn’t given their support either. There Edmund was, friends, and Turlogh with him, desperate to come to grips with the Danish invaders, but with no army to prevent their doing as they bloody well liked.

Now, Howard describes Black Turlogh as “a terrible warrior and a crafty strategist,” so it’s likely that at this crucial time he’d produce a stratagem. Probably during a heavy drinking session with Edmund, he suggested going to the Danish camp and claiming to be a deserter from the English side himself. If he could only win Canute’s trust sufficiently to get close to him, he would see to it that the Danish king died, in the wild uproar of the first battle he fought against the English, if not before. Canute was a great king and statesman as well as a warrior; with his death the invasion force would lack a leader, or more likely, become split between several rival leaders, whose bands could be smashed piecemeal by the English. Boleslaw’s Polish fighters might well depart for home. Edmund would have concurred that it was a good plan, and would probably work in just that way, but in fairness would have reminded Turlogh that if he did kill Canute he wouldn’t survive five minutes afterwards.

Turlogh probably answered, “I’ve little to lose. Besides, if the Dane takes England, he’ll make an attempt on Erin before he dies. Send a fleet against us at least.”

But Turlogh wouldn’t feign to enlist under the Danish standard by his real name, even though he was said in Ireland to have entered into intrigues with them before. Enough men in Canute’s army would know that wasn’t true, and they would also know him as the man who had unraveled Brodir’s entrails around a tree. The name Turlogh Dubh O’Brien would get him nothing but the death of the blood-eagle.

Accordingly, I suspect, he left his distinctive Dalcassian war-ax behind, took a sword and shield, and set off alone to the Danish war-camp under the alias of Wulf. Which is the same as Wolf, of course. His difficulty in curbing the wild hatred he felt for all Danes would have earned him the epithet “Quarrelsome” soon enough. A plausible story to give the Danes would have been that he was the son of an Irish mother and Danish father (his stomach churning with nausea as he said it, doubtless) from Dublin, who had fought on the side of Sigtrygg Silkbeard at Clontarf, but later been outlawed. The Danes would have welcomed him without too many questions, at first, and Turlogh would have set about winning a name among them, with a view to getting sufficiently close to Canute to end his life.

It transpired that there wasn’t much time. Canute was planning a major assault for midwinter. Turlogh had expected that he might delay until spring. The Irishman had struck up an acquaintance with Sigvat Tordarson, a man his own age, an Icelandic skald who was one of Canute’s court poets, hoping to get near the king through Sigvat. He might have done. Unfortunately, two Jomsvikings taunted him with his supposedly mixed parentage, describing him as the “bastard whelp of an Irish bitch” and other courtesies.

Jomsvikings were a staunchly pagan cult of mercenaries or brigands whose fortress of Jomsborg was forbidden to outsiders. No women or children were permitted within it. They were expected by the rules of their brotherhood to be loyal to each other, avenge each other, and never to quarrel. Any feuds between them had to be mediated by the rules of the association, and the senior men’s decision accepted. The Jomsvikings may be a complete legend. Some think so. But Turlogh fought this pair together in a formal duel or holmgang, and killed them both. The Jomsviking leaders, including Thorkel the Tall, ruled that the matter should end there, since both they and Turlogh were at present hired by Canute.

Turlogh was recognized as the killer of Brodir, though, and that was a different matter. It was Athelstane, the huge Wessex renegade, who called out his real identity, since he was in Canute’s service and had no doubt as to Turlogh’s mission once he recognized him.  Among the aspects of Turlogh’s appearance that convinced him was doubtless the Dalacassian’s short hair. Among the wild shaggy men of the time, it was unusual enough to call for comment. Even the fisherman on the remote coast that Turlogh meets at the beginning of “The Dark Man” recognizes him by it.

“Clean-shaven and close-cropped in the Norman fashion,” he muttered. “And dark–you’d be Black Turlogh, the outlaw of Clan na O’Brien.”

Not being stupid, Turlogh would have stopped shaving before he went among the Danes, and let his hair grow unkempt, but time was short and he couldn’t allow his hair to lengthen much. He would have taken the chance because there was nothing else for it. In the event, dark stubble and untrimmed locks proved insufficient. That raises a question of where he learned the habit of such – in Ireland – unusual grooming. The habit was so strong that even as an outlaw on the heather he stuck to it, as the fisherman observed.

“In the Norman fashion,” he said. Besides, Turlogh wore full mail in battle, as other Irish warriors did not, a trait which also called for comment from several, like Dunlang O’Hartigan in “The Grey God Passes.”  Wearing full mail was another Norman practice. Turlogh must have spent time among them and been influenced by their ruthless pragmatism, though we’re never specifically told this in any of Howard’s stories or fragments that concern him. Maybe Turlogh had been a hostage of Normans as a boy, even for years. “The Dark Man” makes it clear that he had sailed the western seas from an early age.

In any case he was exposed in the Danish war-camp. The well-worn cliche of “Seize and bind him!” would have been heard, or else just, “Slay him!”  Turlogh, we may safely bet, reacted with his clan’s war-cry and cut his way out, taking wounds but nevertheless getting clear. Oh, Polish horsemen among others would have raced in pursuit, but this was Black Turlogh.  “Before his outlawry he could out-tire a horse, running all day long beside it. He had never wearied at swimming. Now, since the intrigues of jealous clansmen had driven him into the wastelands and the life of the wolf, his ruggedness was such as cannot be conceived by a civilized man” (“The Dark Man”).  Some of those Polish warriors of Boleslaw’s never saw home again, and Turlogh may have escaped on the mount of one of them, leaving the rider on the ground in a welter of blood. Certainly he’d have been wounded, but he still made it back to Edmund and recovered, grinding his teeth in fury over his failure.

That’s where space compels me to leave it for now, there with the New Year of 1016 approaching, and England being invaded. Only Prince Edmund and a few loyal supporters were game to do anything about it. The arch-traitor Eadric and King Canute of Denmark were smiling in their Yule-cups. King Ethelred the Ill-advised was groaning in a sickbed.

More next time.

Read Part Two here.