The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III.

VOYAGES AND DISCOVERIES TO 1066.

H. W. Wilson.

Pre-Roman voyages of the Britons—Early ships—Agricola's voyages—Intercourse with Ireland—With the continent—The Saxons—Irish voyages—Evidence—Cormac MacArt—Niall—Irish ships—Two kinds of voyages—The mythical—The religious—To the Orkneys—To Iceland—Irish discovery of America—Evidence of Sagas—Ireland the Great—Story of Bjorn Asbrandsson—Testimony of Edisius—Were the Mexicans Irish?—Offa and his ships—Athelstan—The Vikings—Othere—Wulfstan voyages to the Baltic—The Norsemen on the British coast—The Orkneymen—Their manner of fighting—Ravages of the Norsemen—The Manxmen.

THE history of British voyages and discoveries must of necessity begin with Cæsar. The stories of Brutus' or Brute's sailing to Albion in the days of Æneas, with the attendant fables, may be dismissed as the figment of some ingenious monk's brain. They appear to have had little basis in legend and none in history. The visit of Pytheas of Marseilles to the British Isles in the fourth century B.C., and the casual mention of the Phœnician tin trade with the Cassiterides—which may or may not be some part of England—are the only references to our history in these dark ages. The indirect evidence of British seafaring in these times is, however, considerable. A cork plug, discovered in a canoe of very early date disinterred from the silt at Glasgow,[1] points to intercourse with Spain; Italian earthenware has been discovered in Lanarkshire; the red amber, so largely found in early barrows, indicates a trade with the Baltic countries;[2] whilst torques of gold and strings of bright-coloured glass beads, which cannot have been made in the island, are equally good evidence of commerce with the Phœnicians and the land of the south.[3] Strabo alludes to the fact that the Romans imposed customs duties upon the British imports from Celtica, which consisted of ivory, bracelets, amber, and glass.[4]

It is not quite certain that the Britons of this date voyaged themselves, though it is on the whole probable. They were not all savages; on the contrary, the inhabitants to the south of the Thames appear to have been civilised, and to have made considerable progress in the arts. It is, of course, possible that these various imports were conveyed to them in the ships of Venetan or German traders. This is the supposition of those who doubt whether the early Britons had ships at all, or anything more than the coracle.[5] But some coracles, as we shall see, were capable of long voyages.

The Latin writers never explicitly state that the Britons had ships; on the other hand, they constantly mention the Britons as using coracles. Cæsar, when he had to cross a river in Spain, remembered the coracles he had seen in Britain, and ordered his soldiers to make them.[6] Lucan[7] and Pliny[8], and the later Festus Avienus[9] are as positive. That the British had ships of stout construction may, as hinted in a previous chapter, be inferred from the passage in Cæsar, where he says "the Veneti obtained help from Britan,"[10] as well as from a mention in the Welsh Triads of "roving British fleets," and from the fact of the building of a ship with sail and oar by one Ceri. Surer testimony is afforded by the two boats discovered at Glasgow, both of which are built of planks, apparently clinker fashion, and fastened together with oaken pins and nails of metal. The more elaborate of these boats were 18 feet long.[11] Vegetius, in his treatise on military art, tells us that the British ships were painted blue, in order that they might escape notice.[12]

On the subjugation of Britain by the Romans, which followed the expeditions of Claudius and Agricola, a considerable trade, as we have seen, existed with Gaul.[13] Agricola sent his fleet as far as the Orkneys, which he discovered and subdued. "Thule" was seen in the distance, but was not approached,[14] and Great Britain was circumnavigated. He may have sent his ships to the Isle of Man, as inscriptions and remains testify to the presence of the Romans there.[15] At the same time he made preparations to attack Ireland, where, he had learnt from traders and merchants, there were excellent harbours. It is thus to be inferred that there was, at this date (A.D. 81), intercourse between Ireland and Great Britain. London is noticed by Tacitus as now very much frequented by traders, which again is evidence of travel. The commerce was apparently in oysters, slaves, dogs, tin, and lead, and was carried on from the ports of Southampton and Richborough, besides London. Strabo tells us that the favourite ports in France for the traffic with England were Boulogne, and the mouths of the Rhine, Seine, Loire, and Garonne.[16] To reach the last two some very difficult and dangerous navigation would be necessary past Ushant and the Raz de Sein, demanding seaworthy ships. In the reign of Julian (A.D. 360) we are told that there were eight hundred ships engaged in the corn trade between Briton and Gaul. The Britons of that time had, however, to suffer terribly when the Romans withdrew.

The budding civilisation of the island was abandoned to barbarism and outer darkness. There is the scantiest historical record for the years which followed. The Comes Littoris Saxonici and the Comes Britanniæ could no longer protect the island from the inroads of Saxon and Celt. Commerce would necessarily decline and the sea be abandoned by the weaker Britons, who fled to Brittany, or were driven from the British coasts by the depredations of the northern pirates.[17]

The new arrivals were expert seamen. They came from the Saxon islands near the Elbe mouth in "ceols,"[18] and were in the strictest sense pirates or adventurers. Besides these "ceols," which seem to have been small ships built of wood, they had also skin boats. Whilst they harassed the east the Irish were equally busy on the west burning and plundering. To their early voyages we may now appropriately turn.

The Celtic inhabitants of Ireland appear to have been bold navigators at a very early date. Unlike their kinsmen the Welsh, and like the Bretons, Cornishmen, Menevians, and West Coastmen of Scotland, they have always shown a taste for the sea, which has declined, but not disappeared, with the lapse of time. A large proportion of the sailors serving in our fleet during the great French war were Irishmen,[19] and the fishermen of Connaught are good seamen to this day. They are, in fact, very similar in character and daring to the Bretons.

Of Irish voyages in the early Roman and pre-Roman times we know absolutely nothing. There is, however, evidence of intercourse with the Roman Empire in the Roman coins which have been found along the east coast of Ireland. They date from the time of the Republic to A.D. 160.[20] Whether they came from Gaul in Irish boats, or whether from Britain, cannot be determined. There is in Spain a tradition of voyages from the Basque country, about 200 B.C., to Ireland,[21] the ships employed being made of tree-trunks hollowed out and covered with leather. This may be reflected in the Irish story of the "Milesian" invasion. The dark complexion of the west coast population gives some countenance to the story, and a careful comparison of Basque and Irish skulls has further confirmed it.[22] There is some slight interest to the student of naval evolution in the glimpse of early Biscayan ships which it affords.

In 222 A.D., according to the 'Annals of the Four Masters,' a large fleet went from Ireland over sea, and did not return for three years. During that time Cormac MacArt, its commander and the titular king of Ireland, was ravaging the coasts of England. The grip of the Romans on Britian had been weakened by the failure of Severus to quell a Celtic insurrection between the years 208-211 A.D., and this probably was what encouraged Cormac's inroads. By 369 the Irish ships had become so dangerous that Theodosius, on his reconquest of Great Britain, appointed a Comes Britanniarum, besides a Dux Britanniæ and a Comes Littoris Saxonici, to protect the western coast from the Irish.[23] The victories of Theodosius are commemorated in Claudian's verses when the poet sings of "icy Ierne lamenting the heaps of slaughtered Scots," "the Orkneys reeking with Saxon gore," and Thule "growing warm with the blood of the Picts."[24] If this be anything more than poetic licence, the fleets on either side must have gone far afield. Less than a half century later, Niall of the Nine Hostages, a direct ancestor of our Queen, as it is claimed, was plundering in the English Channel, and fell in battle, probably off Boulogne.[25] The Saxons and Scots, as the inhabitants of Ireland were called at an early date, were often confused by the Romans, which may explain why we do not hear even more of the Irish.

Sidonius Apollinaris mentions these pirates as "ploughing the British sea in a skin, and cleaving the grey waters in a sewn skiff."[26] These phrases can only refer to coracles, which were the earliest form of boat known to have existed in this country. At the same time, it is difficult to suppose that the Irish Celts had coracles and nothing else. The 'Tripartite Life of S. Patrick,' which is of the tenth or eleventh century, mentions several kinds of ships: "noe," or ship; "curach," or coracle; "ethar;" "long," or vessel; and "coblach";[27] whilst Adamnan, in his 'Life of Columba,' which was certainly written in the seventh century, and which is therefore older and so much the more valuable, mentions nine kinds of ships: "alnus," "barca," "caupallas," "curuca," "navis longa," "navis oneraria," "navicula," and "scapha."[28] From this it is perfectly clear that by 650 A.D. the Irish had made considerable progress in the art of ship construction. They were a civilised race, and must not be confused with the painted barbarians of the early Roman writers.

There are two distinct sets of Irish voyages. The first, which are fully narrated, mythical; the second, true, but only to be inferred from facts which are not recorded in connection with the voyages themselves. In addition, the claim of Ireland to the discovery of America must also be considered, as it has been put forward of late years with renewed energy. It stands somewhat apart from the other two classes of voyages.

Of the mythical voyages—which all point vaguely to a dim knowledge of land beyond the Atlantic—the best known are those of the sons of Ua Corra, who, three in number, sailed with five others forty days and forty nights out into the Atlantic, till they came to a land of men moaning and lamenting.[29] After many wild adventures and a visit to an Odyssean inferno, they at last arrived at Spain. The date given for the voyage is 540. A little later St. Brandan, Abbot of Cluainfert, was visited by a friend, Barontus, who told him of an island far off in the ocean, which had been promised to the saints. For this island St. Brandan set sail with seventy-five monks and spent seven years in seafaring and adventure. He found the island, which was no sooner seen than it vanished.[30] Though not so named in the narrative, this was identified with the fabulous island of Brazil or O'Brazile, which was supposed to lie to the west of Ireland, and which is marked in all early maps. The St. Brandan story is a late legend and cannot be traced in early Irish history. So also Maildun, in the eighth century, sailed to the west in a triple-hide coracle with sixty men, and saw many marvels, sea monsters, demon horses, red-hot animals, burning rivers, speaking birds, and submerged cities. But these tales savour rather of fairyland than of fact.

Secondly come the true or probable voyages, which are for the most part connected with the missionary enterprise of the Irish. Nothing is more remarkable than the rigour and energy of the Irish church in the seventh and eighth centuries, before the Norsemen's coming. Irishmen went everywhere, preaching the gospel. We hear of them in South Italy, France, Lower Austria, Switzerland, and Germany.[31] The centre of activity was the lonely little island of Iona, from which bold monks crossed in boats to Lismore, Gairloch, Tiree, Eigg, Skye, and Applecross, voyaging fearlessly upon tempestuous seas. A peculiar feature of this early Irish Church was the asceticism which led its votaries to seek silence and solitude. They spread up the west coast of Scotland and reached the Orkneys at so early a date as Columba's time. Thus Adamnan relates how Columba bids the ruler of the Orkneys treat the Irish pilgrims gently.[32] He also gives the voyage of Cormac, who was nearly put to death in the Orkneys, and afterwards was driven from his course by a south wind fourteen days' and nights' voyage northwards to land, which may have been the Faroes or Iceland. On the way he was nearly lost, as "foul and dangerous beasts smote his coracle so hard that he thought they would pierce the skin covering of the boat." Through the prayers of Columba he was saved.[33] With this fourteen days' voyage in a coracle may be compared one of seven days' length, mentioned in the Saxon Chronicle. Three "Scots," we read under the year 891, came to Alfred in a hide boat without oars, from Iceland, after a seven days' passage on a stormy sea. They went on to Rome and Jerusalem, being probably Munstermen, who about this time pilgrimaged much to Rome. Possibly the use of the coracle may have been required to satisfy asceticism.[34]

But the Irish monks did not stop short at the Orkneys. Dicuil,[35] an Irishman, who wrote in the ninth century, tells us, "There are many other islands in the northern British Ocean which can be approached from the north of Great Britain with full sail and fair wind in two days and nights. An upright monk told me that in a small boat he made his way to one of these. The islands are small ... and our anchorites sailed to them from Scottia and dwelt on them ... but they are now deserted, because of the Norse pirates." These islands are probably the Shetlands and Faroes, and in the latter still survives a tradition of holy men who dwelt there before the Norsemen.[36] In the Shetlands the names Papa Stour, Papa Litla, and Papa Sund recall the Norse word for a priest—"Papa." The Norse settlers appeared in the Faroes about the middle of the ninth century, and this would place the voyages of the Irish about the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century.

So, too, if we may believe the 'Íslendíngabók,' at the coming of the Norsemen there were Irish priests or anchorites in Iceland.[37] "There were there," says Ari, its compiler, "Christians of those whom the Norsemen call 'Papas'; but they straightway retired because they did not wish to abide there with Pagans. They left behind them Irish books and bells and crosses, whence one may gather that they were Irish." Ari is equally emphatic in another passage: "Before Iceland was settled by the Norsemen ... there were Christians there, and it is thought that they came from countries to the west, for Irish books, bells, and crosses have been found ... at Papey and Papýle in the west [of Iceland]." Finally Dicuil asserts that "monks have dwelt thirty years in the Isle of Thule between February and August."[38] He speaks of the shortness of the summer nights, denies that the island is surrounded by ice, and mentions a frozen sea one day's sail to the north. It appears from his words that the monks voyaged to Iceland even in winter. The strength of this testimony finds corroboration in what we read elsewhere of the Irish anchorites, and it is difficult to refuse them the credit of discovering Iceland during the eighth century.

Whether they went farther still afield is a matter for speculation. From Iceland to Greenland is only a short passage—not very much longer than that from the Shetlands to the Faroes or from the Faroes to Iceland. There may too have been land at some time between, as the early Norse voyagers mention "Gunnibjorn's" skerries, whilst an early map marks a terra quae fuit totaliter combusta. There are hints and stories of earlier white settlers, both on the Greenland coast and farther south towards Winland, in the Norse Sagas. On these has been based the Irish claim to the discovery of America. It does not appear to the writer that there is intrinsic improbability in such a claim, but the evidence with the lapse of time must necessarily be vague, shadowy and inconclusive.[39]

The passages in the Sagas which may refer to these Irish missionaries or settlers are as follows: "Leif Eriksson sailed to Greenland, and found men upon a wreck at sea, and succoured them[40] ... Then likewise he discovered Winland the Good." This is probably the event to which allusion is made elsewhere—"Leif found Winland ... and he then found merchants in evil plight at sea, and restored them to life by God's mercy." There is nothing whatever to show that they were not daring Norsemen; indeed, the Flateybook would lead us to suppose this. Karlsefni, sailing south on a later voyage, discovered—if we can believe the Saga—new-sown wheat in Vinland,[41] and also came upon the keel of a ship on the coast.[42] Thorwald, brother of Leif, saw in the same place a "wooden shelter for grain."[43] In "Markland," he captured five "Skrellings," or probably Eskimos, of whom one was bearded. "They told him that there was a land on the other side over against their country which was inhabited by people who wore white garments, and yelled loudly, and carried poles before them to which rags were attached; and people believe that this must have been White-man's-land, or Ireland the Great."[44] In the 'Íslendíngabók' comes a story of Ari Marsson, who, in the tenth century, "was driven out of his course at sea to 'White-man's-land,' which is called by some people Ireland the Great: it lies westward in the sea near Winland the Good: it is said to be six days' sail west of Ireland. Ari could not depart thence and was baptised there. The first account of this was given by Rafn ... who sailed to Limerick, and abode a long time at Limerick."[45] And Thorkill states that Icelanders reported Ari had been recognised there and was not permitted to leave, but was treated with great respect."[46]

In the Eyrbyggia Saga,[47] which is of far less historic value, is a tale that has usually been connected with Ireland the Great. According to this, a certain chief, Bjorn Asbrandsson, sailed from Iceland in a ship and vanished. Some years later, early in the eleventh century, Gudleif was "engaged in a trading voyage westward to Dublin, and when he sailed from the west it was his intention to proceed to Iceland." Sailing west from Ireland, north-east winds caught him and his men, and drove them far from their course to the south, and all trace of land was lost. The summer was nearly over when they came in sight of a great country, which they did not know, and entered a good harbour, and men came to them who seemed to them to speak Irish. They were seized and carried inland, when a council was held to determine their fate. But whilst the council was being held, a body of men rode up with a chief and a banner in their midst. This chief was tall and war-like, advanced in years and white of hair. The people honoured him greatly. He accosted the Northmen in their own tongue and showed a knowledge of Iceland. Finally he permitted the Norsemen to go, with the warning that they had better leave the country and never return. He gave Gudleif a gold ring which, when he went back to Iceland, the people to whom it was shown knew to be Bjorn's, who had vanished years before.[48] In this passage there is nothing to identify the strange land with Ireland the Great, except the allusion to the Irish tongue. The identification has been the work of later scribes, and the story has much of the fabulous and improbable about it; for example, the portentous length of the voyage, and the presence of horses on the American mainland.[49]

With these Norse passages may be given the vague tradition, said to be recorded in the early Irish chronicles, that "Ireland the Great was known to the west, a great country"; and the mention in the Arabian geographer Edrisius in the twelfth century of "Irandah-al-Kabirah," or Ireland the Great, as lying a day's sail beyond "Rslandah," which is assumed to be a copyist's error for "Islandah."[50]

Enthusiasts for the Irish discovery have made the most of these passages, and there has been the usual attempt to find philological resemblances to the Gaelic in the languages of the American natives. Ireland the Great has been variously assumed to lie about the mouth of the St. Lawrence, south of this on the Floridian coast, in Mexico, in Cuba, Brazil, and the Azores. There is no ground in history for any of these identifications. Beauvois, indeed, has seen in the Mexican Quetzalcoatl, who came from Tula, some allusion to Irish missionaries from Thule, and has found in Mexican rites traces of Celtic Christian ritual.[51] But all this is guess-work, however ingenious. It is sufficient to know for certain that the Irish, about the time when the Norsemen were beginning to appear on their coast, or even earlier, had sailed to the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes, and Iceland, and that there was a general tradition amongst the Norsemen, and even in Ireland, long before the voyages of Columbus, to the effect that beyond the Atlantic lay a country peopled with white men, who spoke a tongue which sounded like Irish. Some have argued that Ireland the Great was only Spain, but this is hardly probable: others have seen in the legend a reflection of the Gaelic voyages to Iceland, with which they would identify Ireland the Great. The story of the Zeni has been called in as testimony, and "Estotiland" has been converted into "Escotiland," or Scotland, the old name for Ireland. The white-robed priests waving banners, chanting, and carrying with them bells and books to these far distant shores, have shared the common fate of the bulk of mankind and vanished without leaving a trace of their name or race in Ireland the Great. Their names still abide in the lonely Orkneys, where also may be seen to this day their cells, and in far Iceland. It may even be that their blood flows in the fast-vanishing Red Indian of to-day. But guesses and conjectures can ill supply the place of historical record and evidence, though if the Irish could sail to Iceland in coracles there are few feats of navigation which we could pronounce impossible for them.

It is a curious fact that when the Saxons had settled down in England they appear to have lost their skill in seamanship.[52] The influence of Christianity, to which they were rapidly converted, was in some degree against the ferocious piracy of those days, which alone made sea-faring profitable. None the less, they held trade in high honour, and all through the centuries of their domination the wealth of England was increasing. Offa, King of Mercia, endeavoured to end the reliance upon foreign transport and encouraged his people to build ships and carry their goods themselves.[53] He also concluded treaties of reciprocity for the protection of his merchants; but quarrels with Charlemagne interfered with his objects.[54] Alfred greatly improved the art of shipbuilding, constructing larger and more serviceable vessels;[55] whilst Athelstan ordained that any merchant who made three successful voyages should be a Thane.[56]

In Alfred's reign[57] the presence of the Danes and Norwegians,

who were appearing on the coast, plundering and burning, as the Saxons had done centuries before, reawakened an interest in geography and exploration. Alfred's anxiety to learn of distant countries led him to send for two hardy Danish sailors, Ohthere, or Oddr, and Wulfstan. The former was a nobleman of great wealth and power. He told the king that he lived farthest to the north of all Norsemen. "The land thence is very far to the north, but it is all waste. And on a certain time he wished to find how far to the north land lay. So he sailed north as far as whale hunters ever go and thence north again three days. Then the land bent east, and he sailed along it four days till the land bent south, and he sailed also to the south five days till he came to a great river, up which he dared not sail, for it was all inhabited."[58] On a second voyage he went to "Sciringesheal,"[59] and thence to Haddeby [in Schleswig]. On this voyage he passed Iceland on the right and then the islands which are between Iceland and Britain.

Wulfstan[60] said that he went from Haddeby to Trusö in seven days and nights, and that the ship was running all the way with sail. He had Weonodland (Mecklenburg and Pomerania) on the right, and Langland Falstey and Sconey (Skanör, S. Sweden) on his left. Then he passed Bornholm, the people of which had their own king, Bleking, Oland, and Gotland, which belonged to Sweden. Next he came to the land of the Wends and the great river Vistula, near which lies Witland of the Esthonians. He notes that the Vistula runs in the Frische Haff, and gives the dimensions of the latter correctly, showing clearly his personal knowledge. Esthonia is described as very large, with numerous towns and a king in each. There is much honey, and no stint of fish, whilst the nobles drink mare's milk and the poor mead. The dead are burnt after days or months of wassail.[61] The relatives preserve the bodies during this period by "bringing the cold upon them," or by the use of ice.[62]

Alfred is also said to have sent Sighelm, apparently a layman of distinction, to the tombs of SS. Thomas and Bartholemew in India. He had, according to the Saxon Chronicle, made a vow to this effect,[63] probably when England was in possession of the Danes. Sighelm, with Athelstan, carried royal gifts to Rome, and then must have taken ship for Egypt. After that they would follow the eastern trade route through the Red Sea. No details of the voyage survive, except that the ambassadors returned safely, bringing rich presents of gems and spices to Alfred. Evidence of increasing navigation is afforded by Alfred's laws, of which the thirtieth lays down certain regulations for passengers arriving in England.

Throughout the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries the Norsemen and the Danes, a terrible race of freebooters, were arriving and settling on our coasts. The boldest and most successful of navigators, for whom the sea had no terrors, it is to them perhaps that the England of to-day most owes its love of the sea. As they successively occupied the Orkneys, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, and the fairest spots on the coasts of England and Ireland, and became dwellers in Britain, their feats concern us. They were of two races, dark and light; the first, the Danes proper; the second, the Norsemen or Norwegians. They fared over-sea from the iron-bound and barren coasts of Norway, or from the flat sandy plains of Denmark, guided by the stars, as the compass was then unknown; and when near, but out of sight of land, loosed birds to know in which direction to steer.[64]

The first attacks of the Norsemen were directed mainly against the religious houses. They took Lindesfarne in 793; in 794 parties were in the Wear, whilst others were wasting the Western Isles and South Wales. In 802 and 806 they burnt the monastery at Iona; in 807 they were on the west and south coast of Ireland; in 815 they had planted a settlement at Armagh; in 835 they were on the Cornish coast, and thenceforward their irruptions were continuous. The Orkneys became practically part of Norway: this was their base, whence they sailed to Iceland, Ireland, England, and France. The voyages of the Orkneymen fill the Sagas, and these islanders sailed with the Viking fleets to Barcelona, Pisa, Rome, and Constantinople in the ninth century.[65] Rolf, who led the Northmen in their conquest of Normandy, was himself an Orkneyman, son of Rognvald, Earl of Orkney.

The Norseman and Dane, when in course of time they settled down and were absorbed into the population, must have imparted something of their enterprise and skill in navigation to the Anglo-Saxon. Commerce between the Scandinavians in England and the Scandinavians of Norway and Iceland would arise. Chester and Bristol began to trade with Dublin and the Far North, though the insecurity of the seas, which were infested by vikings, probably not too careful to spare their own countrymen, must have at first restricted the volume of commerce. The Christian Northmen, too, voyaged to the Holy Land; a journey of Canute's to Rome is mentioned in the Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 1031, but it is not said whether he travelled overland.

A fine picture of an Orkney voyage and fight in the last year before the conversion to Christianity is given in the Earl's Saga. Thorfinn of Orkney and King Karl of Scotland had a feud, and Thorfinn harried Karl's land, but was surprised by Karl with eleven long ships when he had only five. The eleven ships rowed up against the five, when, as the poet sings—

"With war snakes five the wrathful chief
Rushed 'gainst eleven of the king,
And hating flight, himself held on
His course with constant heart.
The seamen laid their ships aboard,
Along the thwarts the foemen fell.
Sharp-edged steel in blood was bathed,
Black blood of Scottish men."


Thorfinn's men when they landed were not gentle to their enemies. "They so fared amongst thorpes and farms, and so burned everything that not a cot stood after them. They slew, too, all the fighting men they found, but women and old men dragged themselves off to woods and wastes with weeping and wailing. Much folk, too, they made captives of war, and put them in bonds, and so drove them before them." This same Thorfinn harried Ireland, Galloway, and even North England; where, however, the English captured a band of his men and slew all but the runagates, whom they considerately returned. Thorfinn took to peace and the fear of God in his old age. The Norsemen of the Orkneys and the Südereyar, or Hebrides, and Western Isles appear to have been the boldest and most warlike of their race; whilst in the Isle of Man was a powerful Norse colony, the king of which, Hakon, is said in the Chronicles to have sailed round Britain with three thousand six hundred ships. The Manxmen are not mentioned during these early years as pirates or voyagers, though they must have been both.[66] They were soon converted to Christianity, which may have interfered with the profession of plunder.[67]


The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 3 -Ship2.jpg

  1. Elton, 'Origins of Eng. Hist.,' 2nd ed. 231; Burton, 'Hist. Scotland,' i. 51.
  2. Ib., 63.
  3. Ib., 111.
  4. iv. 4, circ. 180 A.D.
  5. For descriptions of the coracle, see page 3 and 60, n.
  6. 'Bell. Civil.' i. 54.
  7. 'Pharsal.' iv. 131, thus translated in Nedhalm's 'Selden':

    "Of twigs and willow boord
    They made small boats, covered with bullock's hide,
    In which they reached the river's further side.
    So sail the Veneti if Padus flow,
    The Britons sail on their calm ocean so."

  8. iv. 30, uitilibus nauigiis.
  9. 'Oræ Marit.' v. 103:

    "Non hi carinas quippe pina texere
    Acereve norunt, non abiete ut usus est
    Curvant phaselos, sed rei ad miraculum
    Navigia junctis semper aptant pellibus."

  10. 'Bell. Gall.' iii. 9. The word for "help" is "auxilia," which might perfectly well mean "troops," not ships. The ships of the Veneti are described by Cesar as flat-keeled, of light draught, built of strong oak with high foc'sles and poops. The banks for the oars had beams a foot square, bolted at each end with iron pins as thick as a man's thumb. Elton, 'Origins,' 231; Burton, 'Scotland,' i. 308; Cæsar, 'Bell Gall.' iii. 9-13. Cæsar asserts that Great Britain was almost unknown to the Gauls—only merchants went here. The Gauls may, however, have concealed their intercourse with Britain from him.
  11. Elton, 'Origins,' 231. The stem of the larger boat was a triangular piece of oak, fitted in as in our day. In one boat was a fine axe of greenstone. The prow of the larger vessel was galley shaped. Early representations of ships are also found on Scotch sculptured stones. In these the rigging is quite complicated. Burton, 'Scotland,' i. 308. No such early representations are, however, to be found in the 'Spalding Club Book.' Jas. Stuart, Aberdeen.
  12. 'De Re Militari,' iv. 37.
  13. Claudius gave by law privileges to those who built ships of 10,000 modii, or about 60 tons burden. Suet. Claud. 18.
  14. Tacitus, 'Agricola,' 10. "Thule" was probably the Shetland group. Tacitus alludes to the strong tides and races thus: "The waters are heavy and yield with difficulty to the oars; they are not raised by the winds as on other seas."
  15. Train, 'History of the Isle of Man,' i. 43.
  16. The passage is given. 'Monumenta Britan.' Scriptores, Gr. atque Lat. vi.
  17. In this period fall the voyages of Arthur, which are probably mythical, reflecting the tradition of the Irish anchorites' travels. He is said by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose chronicle has no historical value for this period, to have subdued Ireland and Iceland, and to have extorted homage from the kings of Orkney, Gotland, Norway, and Denmark. Lambarde (temp. 1568; see Hakluyt, B.L. i. 3) adds Greenland to the catalogue of his possessions. It is significant that contemporary writers never mention Arthur or any of these truly remarkable voyages. Malgo, whose voyages are also recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, is probably not more historical.
  18. Or "keels."
  19. Lecky, 'Hist. England.'
  20. Stokes, 'Ireland and the Celtic Church' (London, 1886), p. 16. Skene, 'Celtic Scotland.' (Edinburgh, 1890), iii. 115, doubts their historic existence.
  21. Alvarez de Colmenar, 'Annales d'Espagne,' ii. 55 (1741).
  22. Skene's 'Celtic Scotland,' i. 169-174.
  23. Cf. Elton, 'Origines,' 2nd ed. 338; Nedham's 'Selden,' 211; Skene's 'Celtic Scotland,' i. 101.
  24. Claudian, Flinders and Petrie, 'Mon. Brit.' xcviii.
  25. Stokes, 38.
  26. Sid. Apoll.
  27. 'Tripartite Life of S. Patrick' (Chronicles and Records Series), vol. i. cxlix.
  28. A full description of this kind of ancient coracle is to be found in the early 'Life of S. Brendan,' quoted in Reeves, W., 'Vita S. Columbæ Auctore Adamnano' (Dublin, 1857), pp. 169, 170. This coracle was made of greased skins fastened to an osier frame. Large coracles had two or even three thicknesses of skin. They carried masts and sails, which shows they must have been of tolerably stout construction.
  29. O'Curry, 'Manuscript Materials for Irish History,' 289.
  30. This vanishing island was in later years often reported to have been seen from the Canaries, and very numerous expeditions were sent in search of it. See also page 63.
  31. Bryant, 'Celtic Ireland,' 55; Stokes, 'Celtic Church,' 131. Columbanus even ascends the Rhine, and voyages on Lake Constance.
  32. Adamn. 'Vit. Columb.' ii. 42. Columba was born 521, and died 597 A.D.
  33. Op. cit.
  34. Cf. Sax. Chron., year 891, and the poem quoted in Reeves' 'Adamnan,' 285:

    "Delightful to be on Benn-Edar
    After coming o'er the white-bosomed sea,
    To row one's little coracle
    Ochone! on the swift-waved shore.
    How rapid the speed of my coracle,
    And its stern turned upon Derry."

  35. Dicuil, author of 'De Mensura Orbis,' circ. 825 A.D.
  36. Beauvois, 'Compte Rendu: Congrès des Américanistes' (Nancy, 1875), p. 68.
  37. The 'Íslendíngabók' was written about 1120, or a little later, by Ari Froði, vide Chapter 1.
  38. 'De Mens. Orbis,' vii. 2.
  39. Beauvois is the most devoted apostle of the Irish claim. Reeves, the most recent authority, considers the stories puzzling, and not to be readily explained away. Torfæus, Rafn, Zesterman, and De Costa are amongst the other believers. Winsor, 'Hist. America,' i. 83, appears sceptical, as also is Laing, editor of 'Heimskringla.' Cunningham, W., 'Growth of English Industry' (i. 86), is favourable.
  40. Saga of Eric the Red. Reeves, 'Finding of Wineland,' 37.
  41. Ib., 47. Reeves translates "self-sown wheat," and believes it to have been wild rice.
  42. Ib., 43. Reeves supposes it was the remains of one of Red Erik's ships carried south by the current.
  43. Ib., 68.
  44. The Saga of Red Erik is probably as old as the thirteenth century in its present form. Op. cit. 23, 24. The discovery of Winland by the Norsemen took place about 1000 A.D.
  45. Limerick was at an early date the seat of a Norse kingdom.
  46. 'Íslendíngabók,' 10, 11. 'Landnámabók,' ii. xxii.
  47. The Eyrbyggia Saga dates from the middle of the thirteenth century, and contains much that is evidently fabulous. It covers the period from the colonisation of Iceland by the Norsemen to the middle of the eleventh century. It contains the history of the notable men of the Thorsness peninsula in West Ireland, and of the Eyrbygges who were the lords of Eyre.
  48. Op. cit. 84-87.
  49. Efforts have been made to evade this difficulty by supposing that Bjorn and his companions rode or were carried in litters.
  50. Beauvois, 'Compte Rendu: Congrès de Américanistes' (1875), p. 81. "Three days' navigation from the northern point of Scotland is Rslandah, 400 miles long and 150 broad; thence to Irlandah-el-Kabirah is one day's sail."
  51. Beauvois, 'Comte Rendu: Congrès de Américanistes' (1883), p. 86.
  52. Northumbria had a considerable fleet, which, under Edwin (circ. 620), subdued the isles of Anglesey and Man. See Bede, 'Eccl. Hist.' ii. v.
  53. Lindsay, W., 'Merchant Shipping,' i. 341.
  54. Matt. Paris, 'Chron. Majora,' Chron. and Rolls Series, i. 348; Lappenberg, 'England,' 231, 232.
  55. Sax. Chron. A.D. 897.
  56. 'Anct. Laws,' 81; cf. Strutt, 'Chronicles,' i. 337.
  57. The "voyages" of Arculf and Willibald about 690 and 720 are interesting—though a great part of their journey was certainly performed on land—as showing the early lines of navigation in the Mediterranean. Arculf was not certainly English; he was a bishop, and perhaps a French bishop. He visited Adamnan, Abbot of Iona (see p. 60), who wrote his travels. It appears that he was a pilgrim to the Holy Land. He sailed from Palestine—how he got there is not stated—to Alexandria, Crete, Constantinople, and thence by Sicily to Rome. Willibald, Bishop of Eichstadt, obiit 786, was a native of Hampshire, and father of S. Walpurgis. In 718 he travelled overland to Rome, and thence went to Palestine, voyaging in a ship from Gaëta to Naples, Reggio, Catania, Samos, and Ephesus. Thence he went on foot to Patera, where again he took ship for Miletus, Cyprus, and Tarsus. He proceeded to Palestine on foot, and returning embarked at Tyre, whence he sailed for Constantinople, Sicily, and Naples. No interesting details are given of the voyage, for which, see 'Early Travels in Palestine' (Bohn, 1847), pp. 13-22.
  58. Alfred's 'Orosius' (Bohn), 249. He evidently sailed into the White Sea and the mouth of the Dwina.
  59. Not certainly identified. Possibly Christiania.
  60. Bosworth, J., 'Alfred the Great's Description of Europe' (London, fol. 1855), pp. 18-24 of the translation.
  61. It is known that the ancient Prussians burnt their dead. Bosworth, p. 23, note 32. This truth shows that Wulfstan was not romancing.
  62. Wulfstan is called an Englishman in Hakluyt, but this appears to be only an assertion.
  63. Sax. Chron., A.D. 883. Cunningham, W., in 'Growth of English Industry,' i. 81, gives Sigeburt, Bishop of Sherbourne, for Sighelm. The credibility of the voyage has been questioned, but unjustly it would seem. It is not mentioned in Asser. A close intercourse with Rome was kept up in Alfred's days; travellers, of course, going overland. Æthelhelm was sent 887, Beocca 888; vide Saxon Chronicle. The Northmen at an early date had a trade route to the East, as a great number of Arabian coins have been dug up in Sweden. Cunningham, 84.
  64. Forster, 'Voyages and Discoveries in the North,' considers that the Norsemen discovered the art of sailing near the wind (pp. 77, 78).
  65. Hardo Sigurdsson sailed to Micklegarth.
  66. In 973, says Oswald. 'Vestigia Manniae insulae antiquiora.' (Douglas, 1860, p. 117.) Macon, King of Man, was appointed Edgar's admiral on the British seas, and sailed on them with three hundred and sixty ships. This is not noticed in the Saxon Chronicle, unless Macon were one of the six kings who came to Edgar at Chester, and no authority is given.
  67. It must be remembered, however, that the term "pirate" carries no reproach as late as the sixteenth century, and that the most pious Christians reconciled robbery of the stranger with their facile consciences in the days of Elizabeth.