Constantine II (A.K.A Causantín mac Áeda) was king of Alba from 900 to 943. He was the son of Áed mac Cináeda and first cousin of the previous ruler, Domnall mac Causantín and also the grandson of Kenneth MacAlpin. Constantine’s reign is the second longest before the Union of the Crowns in 1603, exceeded only by William the Lion. He is also known as Scotland’s most successful Dark Age King.
Constantine’s life was to began in exile alongside his cousin Donald (who was to become Donald II of Scotland). His father Aed had been killed by Giric, son of Dungal in 878 AD. Constantine was taken for to Ireland while he was still a young boy with his cousin Donald. They were welcomed warmly by their Aunt who was married to a powerful Irish King. The cousins lived at Ailech which was a medieval kingdom (450 – 1617 AD) situated roughly around where County Donegal is today. The Grianan of Aileach was the royal fort where they grew up, they part of the royal household. It was a Gaelic court and they became immersed in it’s culture and language. They were educated at a nearby monastery and attended the Gaelic church. They were too young to challenge Giric and too young to challenge the Picts. Changes were happening in their homeland which must have felt like another planet it was so far away. But as each year passed and they got closer to adulthood the moment to avenge Constantine’s father edged ever closer.
In the 889 after a decade in exile the two cousins were finally old enough to challenge Giric. Donald and Constantine sailed homewards, revenge in their hearts. To win back their Kingdom they knew they had to dispose the usurper. Giric had seen this attack coming, so had his supporters, they fled to their stronghold at at Dundurn in Perthshire, a mighty hill fort with huge fortifications. This was not enough to deter the cousins, the chronicle tells of an eclipse, a bad omen of the times.
What happened next is not agreed on and there are conflicting reports. One chronicle reveals that ‘In Dundurn the Upright man was taken by death’. The archaeological evidence suggests a violent battle.
The Kingdom was at a cross roads, it could have gone either way; Pictish or Gaelic. Culture, Language and Religion was at stake. The Picts must have expected Donald and Constantine to reverse the Gaelic takeover. Girics rule had just lasted 10 years. Donald and Constantine had left as Pictish boys they returned as Gaelic Princes, now they viewed their homeland through different eyes.
The Chronicles of the Kings shows us what happened next. It is the first time Scotland is described as country Albanium, the Gaelic name for Scotland. Before this date Scotland had been a loose collection of regions with the two major players being the Picts and the Gaels. This is hugely significant and this document stating this is seen as the Birth Certificate of Scotland. This is backed up from the Chronicle from Ireland in 900 there’s an entry about Donald’s death; he is King of Alba, and he is followed by Constantine as a Scottish King.
Constantine became King in his early twenties.
Pictland was almost completely destroyed by the Vikings. In 902 Ivar the Younger of Dublin had returned to Scotland to seize Dunkeld, this is where Columba’s relics were being kept. Picts and Gaels came together shoulder to shoulder to defend their Kingdom. Constantine met Ivar Strathcarron in 904 AD and won a massive victory, Ivar and his Viking army were massacred.
Following this success Constantine’s focus fell on the regeneration of the kingdom and he went about this in the ways he knew, Gaelic ways and Scotland as a nation was launched, Pictland disappeared into the mists of time Constantine remodelled the church along Gaelic lines, he also brought in a system of mormaers (earls) to defend the kingdom more efficiently. The Kingdom was officially renamed Alba, which is actually means Britain in Gaelic.
Constantine pushed to greaten Alba’s influence across Scotland which he was very successful at. Although Constantine now appeared to hold sway over most of North Britain the young Kingdom’s future was touch and go from the outset as a new powerful force had come of age at almost exactly the same time.
The irrepressible force and power of the Vikings began to wane, Kings allied against them. But the new force to be reckoned with came from the Angles. Angleland (Or England as it became known) would prove to be Scotland’s most persistent foe of all. It was ruled by and Anglo-Saxon King called Aethelstan, he’d driven the Vikings out of Northumbria and by incorporating this territory had created a new northern boundary. But Angleland was not enough for Aethelstan he wanted to rule the whole of Britain. He marched north. Constantine faced the choice of meeting Aethelstan where he and his army would have been surely wiped out or give up the crown of Scotland. Constantine was clever and came up with a third option; the impenetrable fortress of Dunnottar Castle. Constantine and his army shielding themselves in Dunnottar Castle. Aethelstan and his army couldn’t break through the fortress walls, so he and Constantine came to terms. Constantine could keep his status as King of Scotland but Aethelstan would be his overlord. In agreeing to this Constantine saved Scotland, but to many of his court he had sold out and put pressure on Constantine. The next time Aethelstan told him submit Constantine refused to obey.
What happened next would have been unthinkable a decade before, he made peace with the pagan Vikings with the idea of united we stand divided we fall. The Viking king had lost territories to Aethelstan and he wanted them back. Together they formed a northern alliance and in 937 Constantine and the northern alliance headed south for a decisive confrontation. Aethelstan responded and headed north. Tens of thousands of soldiers clashed at a site known as Brunanburh. The location of this battle is unknown. This was to be known simply as ‘The Great Battle’. The was the largest by far of all dark age battles and would shape Britain for ever. It was a bloodbath. Amidst the bodies that littered the battlefield was Constantine’s oldest son. Aethelstan was victorious. But the network of the northern alliance had put an end to him conquering the whole of Britain. Constantine retreated back to his homeland with what was left of his army.
In 943 Constantine retires from Kingship and went to live out the rest of his life as a monk at St Andrews.