The Chronicles are the earliest Manx document to describe the history of the Isle of Man. Much of the story of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles is taken from these writings, but how can we be sure that the events recorded actually happened and the people named actually existed?
For the early part of the text about Manx history, the scribes would have used stories from eye-witnesses, passed down after the events.
But for events that happened away from Man, there were other written sources. Equally detailed accounts were kept elsewhere and by cross-referencing to these, the stories told by the Chronicles can be verified.
In the Scottish border town of Melrose, a chronicle of events had been kept since the late 1100s.
This manuscript was probably used to add non-Manx information from the start of the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles in 1016 upto 1193.
Later events from 1237 to 1275 may have been taken from the Chronicle of Lanercost, written at a priory just outside Carlisle.
The stories in the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles also match up with parts of the Annals of Ulster including King Magnus of Norway coming to Man with a ‘great fleet’ in 1102. The legendary Scandinavian sagas can also be used to corroborate the stories.
The Orkneyinga Saga, written in Icelandic around 1230, describes King Magnus regarding Kintyre as being ‘better than the best isle in the Southern isles, save Man’.
This complements the Chronicles account of the same king choosing to live on the Isle of Man because of its ‘great beauty’.
The Chronicles are trustworthy but biased. A lot of the text is devoted to emphasising the legitimacy of the line of kings from Godred Crovan onwards, especially the episode between the brothers Olaf II and Reginald Godredsson. There is always value in comparing the information to other contemporary sources.
How and why the Chronicles were written
The creation of any manuscript in medieval times was a long and labour-intensive process.
The paper, or parchment, was made of animal skins from sheep or goat, or, if higher quality was needed, from calves. The skins had to be washed, scraped clean, stretched and dried, eventually giving a good white surface on which to write.
Medieval manuscripts are important. The parchment and natural inks used were not waterproof and, as they are organic materials, they remain vulnerable to decay.
That such effort went into creating the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles suggests that it was an important document then, as now.
The reason why it was written is less clear. Most of the story of the kings had been written by 1262, five years after the fifth anniversary of King Magnus taking the throne of the Kingdom of Man.
The Chronicles could have been a commission to celebrate that anniversary and to reinforce King Magnus’s ancestry back to Godred Crovan.
The year 1257 was also the year that the church of St Mary’s, at Rushen Abbey, was dedicated.
Most manuscripts were created in monasteries because monks were among the most educated people in medieval times.
Were the Chronicles a souvenir booklet for the grand opening of Rushen Abbey and a celebration of the king’s rule and heritage?
Long after the Kingdom of Man and the Isles disintegrated, the Chronicles survived.
At some point after the closure of Rushen Abbey in 1540, the manuscript was taken to England and remained in private collections until 1701 when it was donated by manuscript collector Sir John Cotton to the British nation, along with the rest of his extensive library.
That the Chronicles survive today is remarkable. In 1731, there was a great fire where they were stored and some early manuscripts were destroyed. The Chronicles escaped destruction, but not damage. On some of the pages you can still see scorch-marks from the fire.
Extraordinary events recorded
In addition to all the stories about people and lands of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, the Chronicles also mention some extraordinary natural events that occurred during the Medieval period.
An eclipse of the sun was recorded on August 2, 1133, and another in 1185. The kingdom was shaken by a ‘sudden, violent and tremendous’ earthquake on June 29, 1171.
In 1098, a comet was seen and described as follows: ‘A comet is a star which appears occasionally, but particularly at the death of a king or at the destruction of religion.’
That same year saw civil war between the Manx, and at the battle of Santwat, the leaders of both sides were ‘cut down’.
As would be expected in a maritime kingdom, the sea and the weather played their parts in Manx history too.
In 1238AD, the Chronicles tell of a mighty storm in the Irish Sea which claimed the lives of Lochlann, a guardian of Man, and Olaf, his foster son in a shipwreck off the coast of Wales.
They had no chance of survival as the Chronicles say that the ‘entire ship was so full of water to its upper decks that the ship seemed not so much to be in the waves as the waves in the ship’.
Another severe storm reported from 1249 off Shetland shipwrecked and drowned Harold, King of Man and the Isles. Many noblemen were lost a year later in 1250 off St Michael’s Isle due to another great storm.
But it wasn’t all non-stop excitement in the period of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles.
In among all the tales of astronomical events and terrible storms, there was a quiet period reported in the Chronicles . . . ‘In the years 1036, 1037, 1038, 1039, 1040, 1041, 1042, 1043, 1044…nothing to record’.
Read previous articles from this series here:
1/ The Forgotten Kingdom
2/ The Kings of Man Start of a Dynasty
3/ Queens Concubines and Ordinary People
4/ The cultural legacy and medieval Games
5/ Heroes and villains
6/ The medieval church
Follow our next feature on ‘The Lewis Chessmen’ in next week’s Isle of Man Examiner and visit the ‘Forgotten Kingdom Exhibition at the Manx Museum, sponsored by Lloyds TSB. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Admission free.