The People of Gibraltar
859 - Björn Ironside – The Booty-free Mountain

Björn Ironside and Hastein disembarking their troops on the Rock of Gibraltar in the 9th century . . . or are they?    (Unknown engraving )

In the 859 a series of never-ending raids on the towns and cities of the western coast of Spain were carried out by the Viking leaders Björn Ironside and his side-kick Hastein. The former was a Danish Prince and is a much commented upon historical figure – not so Hastein who is variously described as Björn’s younger foster brother or simply as a soldier. There are even various alternatives spellings to his name including that of Hasting. Nevertheless the most likely relationship is that they were just brothers.

According to Arabic historians there were no less than six Viking expeditions against al-Andalus during the 9th and 10th century. The first in 844 consisted of a Danish fleet of fifty-four ships. Their first target was La Coruña where they landed and lay waste to the entire coast. They then moved on to Lisbon taking it and the surrounding countryside and stayed for 13 days.

Next were Cadiz, Sidonia and Seville where they stayed for 40 days. They were eventually forced to leave the city after one of their detachments was slaughtered. They attempted to return home the same way they came after which they seem to have more or less disappeared from history. 

Fifteen years later came the second raid on Hispania with Björn Ironside and Hastain taking the leading roles. According to one source they were the sons of the legendary Ragnar Lodbruk - "shaggy breaches - Sigurdsson one time King of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Ragnar was father to an enormous number of children including Björn Ragnarsson “Ironside” and Hastein Ragnarsson – to give them their full Scandinavian names.  Both Björn’s mother was Ragnar’s third wife – Aslung Kráka Sigurdsdotter - a rather mythological figure.

Ragnar Lodbrok and his wife Aslung Kráka Sigurdsdotter

Aslung Kráka Sigurdsdotter   ( Marten Eskil Winge )

Ragnar’s main claim to fame – and there are a few to choose from is that he led an invasion of the Kingdom of the West Franks with a fleet of 120 longships and actually managed to sack Paris in 845.

The sack of Paris ( Unknown )

Following in their father’s footsteps, Björn Ironside and Hastein set off in the middle of the 9th century for another bout of Viking invasions and harassment. Like their countrymen before them they worked their way along the French Coast causing havoc wherever they went.  The Vikings were by now making a habit of overwintering on the island of Noirmoutier on the western coast of France making life easier for themselves and more difficult for everybody else. 

A contemporary monk of Noirmoutier named Ermentarius described the calamitous effect that these Viking invasions were having on their victims much better than I ever could:
The number of ships grows: the endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase. Everywhere the Christians are victims of massacres, burnings, plunderings: the Vikings conquer all in their path, and no one resists them: they seize Bordeaux, Périgueux, Limoges, Angouleme and Toulouse. Angers, Tours and Orleans are annihilated and an innumerable fleet sails up the Seine and the evil grows in the whole region. Rouen is laid waste, plundered and burned: Paris, Beauvais and Meaux taken, Melun’s strong fortress levelled to the ground, Chartres occupied, Evreux and Bayeux plundered, and every town besieged.
From Noirmoutier the Vikings sailed towards Spain but were relatively unsuccessful – raids in Galicia and in the mouth of the River Guadalquivir were beaten off but the Vikings were not to be discouraged. 

In 1859 Björn and Hastein arrived at the beautiful bay that lies to the north of the Norfasund – the Straits of Gibraltar. They ignored the imposing but more or less uninhabited and almost certainly booty-free mountain that dominated the east side of the Bay - and turned their attentions towards the town of Al Jazira Al-Khadra – today’s Algeciras - on the opposite shore. 

A Viking Drakkar in bad weather – Could that be Gibraltar on the left?  ( David Seguin )

The town was a relatively new one. It had been founded in the early 8th century on the ruins of the old Roman town of Iulia Traducta which had been destroyed by marauding Visigoths and Vandals during the 6th century. Tradition has it that the men who settled there were Moorish soldiers who had come over with the Umayyad Emir Musa bin Nusayr in 711 at the start of the Arabic conquest of Spain. (See LINK)

Not that Björn and Hastain cared overly about the history of the place. The important thing was that it looked both prosperous and easy to plunder. They anchored their 62 drakkars near the offshore Isla Verde and besieged the town for three days eventually forcing the inhabitants to move away towards the safety of the nearby mountains allowing the Vikings to enter the town unopposed. 

Long-ships were known as Dragon-ships or Drakkars because of they had dragon-shaped bows   ( Edward Moran )

They looted the wealthier looking quarters and in an act of ill-conceived contempt set fire to the two main mosques – De las Banderas and the Aljama. The first had a curious history which was of great importance to the inhabitants of Al Jazira Al-Khadra. When Musa first arrived and set up camp in Algeciras he ordered a meeting with the leaders of all the different tribes that had taken part in the invasion. It was consultation exercise on how the Arab would proceed and a symbol of a united sense of purpose as each leader carried his own tribal “bandera” – or banner.  The mosque is traditionally reputed to have been built on the spot where the meeting was held.

Nevertheless it was the sight of the Aljama mosque going up in flames that caused the inhabitants the most anguish. The Aljama, probably built over the remains of an even older Byzantine church was the town’s principle mosque. The inhabitants decided that enough was enough and moved back into the main Medina and managed to drive the Viking invaders out of town capturing two of their longboats in the process. When the mosque was rebuilt, wood taken from these Viking drakkars was used for the doors and beams of the building.

Ruins of the Aljama mosque in the grounds of the Hotel Reina Christina in Algeciras     ( With grateful thanks to Marilo Marb )

To finish the story, Björn and Hastain managed to cross over to Barbary and from there through the Straits after which they continued to raid the south of France and western Italy including Pisa and Luni which they wrongly believed to be Rome. On their way back home they were confronted near Gibraltar by an Umayyad fleet armed with Greek fire and lost 40 of their longships.

A Byzantine ship fitted with Greek fire in 821. Invented by a 7th century Syrian, the knowledge as to how to make it quickly spread across the Mediterranean - despite horrendous threats of eternal damnation

Whether at least some of the above is myth or history I am not at all sure - but one thing seems certain – neither Björn Ironside nor his Viking colleagues ever set foot in Gibraltar. A pity - it would have been nice to say that they had.