Tynwald: a Manx cult-site and institution of pre-Scandinavian origin?

George Broderick


Tynwald is the legislative body and government of the Isle of Man. It comprises the House of Keys, the Legislative Council, and the Lord of Man. [1] Tynwald meets in open-air session once a year on Tynwald Fair Day, held usually on Old Midsummer Day 5 July, [2] on Tynwald Hill at St. John’s, at which (the titles of) laws enacted since the previous 5 July are promulgated in English and Manx Gaelic and any petitions for redress of grievance received. The whole is preceded by a church service in St. John’s Chapel. The proceedings are attended by a fair-like atmosphere, with stall-holders, brass bands, Manx traditional music and dancing, tea and bonnag (Manx soda bread), etc, all of which lend an air of excitement and entertainment to the occasion.

Tynwald Hill itself, situated at Ordnance Survey map reference SC28SE SC27758189, [3] is an artificial mound set in four tiers approximately 25m in diameter at its base, some 6m across at the top and 3.6m high (photo 1). It is believed (but not yet proven) to be of considerable antiquity. A broad flight of steps has been cut into the east side, giving access to each of the tiers. Tynwald Hill is linked by a ceremonial pathway to St. John’s Chapel 115m to the east (photo 2). Both the Hill and the Chapel are set within a dumb-bell shaped walled enclosure, around which is an open space used as the Fairfield.

This complex lies near the western end of a flat-topped natural gravel plateau between two branches of the River Neb near their confluence by Ballaspit under the shoulder of Slieau Whallian. This plateau is usually referred to as St. John’s Plain and is known to be rich in archaeological sites (photo 3). [4] This plain stands about 15m above the general level of the Neb valley, and covers some 7 hectares within the definable plateau broadly above the 45m contour. The fairly steep slopes of the plateau are somewhat hidden by modern development. However, a short steep climb on to the plateau is discernible as one approaches from the north, west and south; the slope is less noticeable from the east.

St. John’s Plain is surrounded by much higher hills, notably Slieau Whallian (333m high) to the immediate south and Beary Mountain (311m) to the north-east, with other mountains visible beyond them. The site is fairly central and accessible from all parts of the island, and lies in the central valley between Douglas and Peel, about 4km from Peel. The main attraction of St. John’s Plain is Tynwald Hill itself, around which are features of varying antiquity. However, much of what is visible today dates from the late 18th, the mid-19th, and the 20th centuries. [5]

The oldest known feature is a stone cist known as ‘The Giant’s Grave’ or ‘Follagh y Vannin’, [6] now reconstructed, which lies some 30m north of Tynwald Hill on the west side of the Follagh y Vannin Road to Glenmooar (photos 4 and 5). This cist is of probable early Bronze Age date (c. 2000 BC) and would originally have been covered with a mound of turf, soil and stone. [7]

The subject of Tynwald and its history, origins and symbolism have occupied the interest of academics and others over the years. [8]

The name Tynwald derives from Scandinavian thing-völlr ‘assembly field’. It appears on two occasions in the Chronicles of Man, [9] in the first instance solely as a place-name: [10]
[…]. Factumque est in quarta decima die mensis februarij, in festo scilicet sancti ualentini martyris, uenit olauus rex ad locum qui dicitur tyngualla cum populo suo & ibi paululum expectabat. Appropinqua[n]te autem reginaldo fratre eius ad locum & populum per turmas disponente ut cum fratre dimicaret. accessit olauus cum suis obuiam eis & subito irruens in eos fugau[it] eos quasi oues. […](CM1257 f.44r, s.a. 1228).

‘On the fourteenth day of the month of February, that is on the Feast of St. Valentine the Martyr (1228), King Olaf came with his host to the place called Tynwald and there waited a short while. As Reginald his brother approached the place he arranged his host in battle array to meet his brother in combat, Olaf came forward with his men to meet them, and making a sudden charge against them put them to flight like sheep’.

[…]. In sequenti autumpno misit haraldus tres filios nel: dufgaldum thorquellum, molmore, & quondam amicum suum ioseph nomine ad manniam & applicuerunt apud insulam sancti patricii. Facta est igitur in uicesima Quinta die mensis octobris que fuit tercia dies aduentus filiorum nel ad manniam congregatio totius mannensis populi apud tingualla. Ad quam congregationem uenerunt tres filii nel cum omnibus uiris quos secum de in insulanis partibus adduxerant. Uenit & predictus loglennus custos mannie cum omnibus amicis suis & uniuersis quos ipsa die sibi associare potuerat ad locum contionis; timebat enim filios nel eo quod inimicicie essent inter eos. In ipsa igitur contione cum diu in alterutrum inimicicie uerba iactarent & acri uerborum certamine litigarent, nec ullatenus ad concordiam flecti possent, de conuentu popli exilierunt & in alterutrum hostiliter irruerunt. Preualuerunt quoque uiri qui cum loglenno fuerant & occiderunt in eodem loco duos filios nel, dufgaldum & mormore [molmore] & predictum ioseph amicum haraldi Regis; ceteri uero fugerunt. Quo facto contio popli dissolute est & unusquisque in domum suam reuersus est […]’ (CM1257 f.45r. s.a. 1237).

‘(…) In the autumn following (1237) Harald (i.e. King Harald of Man (1237-1248)) sent Neil’s three sons, Dougal, Thorburnkel and Molmore, and a certain friend of his called Joseph to Man, and they landed at St. Patrick’s Isle. On the twenty fifth day of the month of October, which was the third day of the arrival of Neil’s sons in Man, an assembly of the entire Manx populace was held at Tynwald. To this assembly came Neil’s three sons with all the men whom they had brought with them from the Isles. The aforementioned Lochlann, guardian of Man, came with all his own friends and all those whom that day he had been able to persuade to come along with him to the place of assembly, for he feared Neil’s sons because unfriendly feelings existed between them. Then at the assembly itself, when for a long time they had hurled hostile words at one another and engaged in a bitter verbal contest, as no reconciliation seemed possible, the two factions leapt out of the meeting of the people and attacked each other with hostile intent. The men who had been with Lochlann gained the upper hand and they killed on the spot two of Neil’s sons, Dougal and Molmore, and the aforesaid Joseph, King Harald’s friend; the rest fled. After this incident the assembly of the people was dissolved and each man returned to his own home (…)’.

The Scandinavian presence in Man lasted from the early/mid 10th to the mid-13th centuries, during which time Man, along with (some of) the Hebrides, formed the ‘Kingdom of the Isles’, with its seat in Man. The Kingdom of the Isles, nominally under the suzerainty of the King of Norway, was ceded to Scotland by Norway in the Treaty of Perth of 1266 for 4000 marks. [11] The Kings of Man [12] for the most part were bound in treaty or service of some sort to another head of state (the identity of whom varied [13]), making clear that they were an independent force in the area, offering their fleets for hire either for attack or protection, according to requirements. [14]


Read further: http://dbweb.liv.ac.uk/Manninagh/sm/articles/gb.htm#1