Sticks and stones do break bones, and during the early medieval period, it appeared that words were just as hurtful. 

One of the most famous, and bloody, duels of the era was said to have taken place between Eric Bloodaxe, a King of Norway and King of Northumbria, and a Hiberno-Norse ruler of the northern British Isles, Maccus Haraldsson, better known as Maccaus mac Arailt. 


The story of the Viking expansion, from the late 8th century CE onwards, so often focuses on the invasion and settlement of southern parts of the British Isles and the Frankish realms. However, though more well-known, this is just one piece of the Viking puzzle. 

It was not only coastal communities throughout England and the Frankish realms who suffered the plunder and pillaging of Vikings from the late 8th century CE. Further west, the first recorded Viking raid on the island of Ireland took place in 795 CE. 

By the mid-9th century CE, the Vikings had not only started to overwinter on the emerald isle but had established a rudimentary settlement at the mount of the river Liffey for slave trading. 

This small settlement was named for its black pools of water, Dyfflin in Old Norse, which was translated into Gaelic as Dubh Linn, the origin of the etymology of Dublin.

Yet the Vikings were not interested in merely establishing trade and towns. They would soon usurp the local Irish kings and rulers (the island of Ireland was said to have more than 150 different rulers making it one of the politically fragmented regions of early medieval Europe) to establish themselves as a new elite, not unlike what the Normans would do in the same region more than two centuries later. 

The Vikings, however, began to assimilate with their newly conquered subject, and a Hiberno-Norse ruling elite soon appeared.

Leader of the Mac

The man who was said to have killed Eric Bloodaxe was one such member of the Hiberno-Norse. 

Maccus Haraldsson, or to use his Gaelic name, Maccas mac Arailt (Maccus, Son of Harald), was said to have been one of the sons of a Hiberno-Norse King of Limerick, Harald Sigtrysson. 

Little is known about his origin until his family appears in contemporary Irish annals, compiled in the 970s CE, regarding events two decades before. 

Here it is believed that, during the mid-10th century CE, they controlled strategically important routes in the Irish Sea between Limerick and some of what the Vikings called "The Southern Isles," the Hebrides and Orkney Islands.

Whilst Maccus appears to have been the beneficiary of a powerful family, half a world away, Eric Haraldsson was busy murdering his to earn the nickname, Bloodaxe. 

What is interesting about Eric's rise to the throne of Norway and Northumbria is that so little is known other than the bloody method of his acquisition of power in contrast to the volumes of biographical detail we have on his father (Harald Fairhair, aka the original unifier of Norway) and his half-brother (Håkon the Good). 

Nonetheless, little is known about Harald's rule in Norway other than that during the late 940s CE, he was forced to flee across the North Sea to the Viking kingdom of Northumbria, centered on Jórvik (modern-day York in England).

An excerpt from folio 59r of Oxford Jesus College MS 111, concerning Maccus mac Arailt, King of the Isles (fl. 971–974). The excerpt reads: "Marc uab herald". Photo: Early Manuscripts at Oxford University website / Jesus College MS. 111 / Public Domain

A center of Viking political intrigue

There is scant historical evidence about how Bloodaxe came to the throne in Jorvik, but it is here that he would eventually meet his own bloody end. 

Since the Great Heathen Army had invaded Anglo-Saxon England over half a century before, the Vikings had controlled this strategically important and large area of northern England. However, the kingdom was the literal frontline of an ongoing battle between the West Saxons and the Hiberno-Norse elite, of which Maccus was very much a part of.

This was an area that saw hordes of West Saxon, Hiberno-Norse, and Viking armies plunder, pillage, and occasionally hack each other to death. 

As such a strategically important part of England, it saw only the best military leaders, and biggest egos, descend upon it. The general thinking of the day was that one could not win all of England without first conquering this northern part and securing the important city of Jorvik.

By the late 940s CE, Maccus and his father had been campaigning throughout the Irish Sea region, including forays into what is now Wales and western England. 

In later Irish annals, he is sometimes credited as being a "King of the Isles," ruling over both the Orkneys and Hebrides, yet this may well just be Irish hyperbole with little historical accuracy. 

Nevertheless, it appears that Maccus threw his hat into the ring of trying to seize the mighty prize of Northumbria.

According to the Norse sagas, certain slurs were made by Bloodaxe against the parentage of Maccus. In an era of hot heads and sharp swords, a slur against one's family was not a thing to be taken lightly. 

Maccus was said to have marched his men across northern England to meet Bloodaxe in a duel for his family's honor.

A bloody duel

Like all good entertainment, the Norse sagas are never too bothered about the truth getting in the way of a good story. 

There is simply no historical evidence to back up the claim that Maccus and Bloodaxe met to fight a personal duel in hand-to-hand combat somewhere near the modern English town of Stainmore, in northern England. 

However, a quick glance at geography and one will notice the town's proximity to the Pennine Mountain range. Any would-be invading army, from the west, would have to cross this mountain range on the way to York. 

Conversely, anyone defending York would want to meet an invading enemy before it crossed these mountain ranges to get to the wide expanses, and moors, of northern England.

The Norse sagas, and later 13th century CE English annals, go into great detail about the bloody duel that took place between Maccus and Bloodaxe in which Maccus ultimately won. He not only defended his family's honor but also his life against the legendary Viking warrior. 

Regardless of whether it happened, the locals seemed to think so hence the name of the town, which traces its origins back to this bloody event in 954 CE.

Following this supposed event, Maccus reappears in the historical records two decades later when he is still campaigning in Wales and northwestern England. 

The last record is 974 CE, when modern historians have concluded that Maccus died with one of his brothers taking over the rule of his kingdom.

For more on Yorkshire's Viking history, visit The Yorkshire Post website here

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