Continuation: Iceland and Norway, and Denmark

The same desire to consolidate power and to convert everyone to Xianity that had caused the Norwegian settlers to emigrate and found the Icelandic Republic continued to make kings resent them. According to the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason in Heimskringla, sometime in the second half of the tenth century, Harald Bluetooth had a wizard send his hamingja out to Iceland in whale form to scout it out for invasion. He saw landwights (landveittir) crowding every fell and hollow, "some large and some small." He swam up Vapnafjörd, intending to go ashore, but a great dragon came flying down the valley toward him, followed by many snakes, insects, and lizards, all spitting poison at him. So he went back and continued around the coast westward to Eyjafjord, where he again swam inland. This time he was met by a great bird, so big its wings brushed the hillsides on either side, with a host of other birds large and small following it. Retreating again and continuing southward, he swam into Breiđafjord. There a huge bull waded out into the water to meet him, bellowing horribly, with a host of landwights following it. He retreated again, continued south around Reykjanes, and tried to come ashore at Vikarsskeiđ, but this time he encountered a mountain giant, his head higher than the hill-tops, with an iron staff in his hand and followed by many other giants. He continued along the south coast but saw nowhere else where a longship could put in, "nothing but sands and wasteland and high waves crashing on the shore." The king had to give up; Iceland was too well protected. The passage ends by saying that the four great creatures were four Icelandic magicians: Brodd-Helgi in Vapnafjord, Eyjólf Valgerđarson in Eyjafjord, Ţórđr Gellir in Breiđafjord, and Ţórodd gođi in Ölfuss. But they have come to be known as the four landwights or guardians of the four quarters of Iceland: the dragon (Dreki) in the northeast, the eagle or griffin (Gammur) in the northwest, the bull (Griđungur) in the southwest, and the Rock-giant (Bergrisi) in the southeast. They have been on the coat of arms of Iceland since 1919 (the same time as the red cross on a silver cross on a blue background was introduced as the flag) and are on the obverse of Icelandic coins.

First version of the Icelandic coat of arms with the 4 guardians. Notice they are in their geographical positions and drawn in the old style.

By Uploaded by Kjallakr (Originally uploaded by Kjallakr) [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

However, Iceland had also had an internal problem from the start, rivalries between the scions of chieftainly families who made up much of its population. From one point of view, the sagas paint a sad picture of bloody intrigues. This eventually led to its downfall.

By the start of the 13th century, power had come to be concentrated in the hands of a few families. Snorri Sturluson was born into one of these families but raised from early childhood in the household of a relative of the King of Norway. In 1215 he rose to become Lawspeaker, the highest position in the country, but three years later resigned and went to Norway. There he became close to the young King Hĺkon - the same who had been rescued as a baby and was reunifying the country after its long civil war - and in 1220 wound up receiving the chivalric title of skutilsvein . . . and swearing fealty to him. Nonetheless, after he returned to Iceland he again became Lawspeaker. His oath is usually reckoned to be the start of the Age of the Sturlungs, the term for Iceland's civil war, but Snorri himself was extremely ineffectual as an agent for the king, succeeding in alienating most of his Sturlung relatives and getting his son and his allies killed. However, in 1235 his nephew Sturla Sighvatsson also became a vassal of the Norwegian king. He drove Snorri out and at Örlygsstađir he and his father Sighvatr, Snorri's brother, fought the largest battle ever on Icelandic soil against the other powerful clans. They lost and were killed. Meanwhile in Norway, Snorri became involved in a failed coup against Hĺkon on behalf of the king's former guardian. He fled back to Iceland but in 1241 was murdered in his home on the king's orders by a gang led by Gissur Ţorvaldsson, yet another Icelander who had become his vassal. (Gissur had first tried to kill him at the Althing; then someone sent Snorri a warning message in runic cypher, but he couldn't read it.) Hĺkon said he would have been spared if he had submitted. It must now have been obvious to all that those major Icelanders the king had not had killed had become his puppets and he was pulling their strings ruthlessly. Ţórđr kakali (probably "stutterer") Sighvatsson came back from Norway spoiling for revenge against Gissur and his allies for the deaths of his father and his brother Sturla and for the next four years they tore the country apart, including the only naval battle in history with Icelanders on both sides (Flóabardagi, 1244) and the bloodiest battle ever in Iceland (Haugsnes, 1246 - about 110 dead). During all this time, Ţórđr and Gissur never engaged each other directly, since they both served Hĺkon. In 1247 they asked the king to mediate between them and he chose Ţórđr, who ruled Iceland for a relatively peaceful three years; but then the king sent Gissur to demand the Icelanders submit to him. Ţórđr's partisans objected and burned his house down; he was unable to find the ringleader and returned ignominiously to Norway. The king sent him back again, with the title of Jarl. Finally, after Hĺkon had also sent a special emissary, the Age of the Sturlungs came to an end: between 1262 and 1264, the gođar signed the Gamli sáttmáli ("Old Covenant") subjugating Iceland to Norway and ending the Commonwealth their ancestors had left Norway to found.

Iceland became a vassal state. The king guaranteed peace and reliable shipping, and Norwegians and Icelanders were nominally to have equal rights in each others' countries, but the laws of the Commonwealth were superseded by a new law provided by Norway, called Jónsbók. The Lawspeaker was replaced by two legal administrators; as in Norway, royal commissioners and district commissioners ensured royal control and collected taxes. The Lögrétta made laws subject to royal assent, although laws proposed by the king had to be voted in by the full Althing. But in 1800 the Althing was dissolved and the Lögrétta replaced with a new high court. The power of the chieftains faded away, much of it to the two bishops, who had tithe money with which to buy their lands.

Meanwhile, the climate was worsening with the onset of the Little Ice Age, and it became impossible for Iceland to grow enough grain to feed itself, while animals required considerably more fodder than they had. It helped that the church increasingly enforced fast days, including Fridays, and Iceland did have large supplies of cod; in fact dried cod also became a major export. But the 14th century was also the height of the Black Death. Norway was hammered - between 1348 and 1350, over 60% of the population died. This destroyed the advanced system of local governance and taxation that the kings had relied on, and the crown became too poor to do much, including guarantee trade with Iceland. Then in 1387 the child king Olav IV died and the temporary regency of his mother eventually became the Kalmar Union, under which Norway, Denmark, and Sweden (including its Finnish territories) were all united (although the 1397 treaty formalizing it was partially forged and never properly ratified). In practice, Denmark had the upper hand in the union: Copenhagen was the capital, and while the Swedes rebelled again and again and ultimately broke away in 1523 when they elected their own king, Gustav Vasa, in contrast in 1536 Norway got declared a Danish possession by decree of the Danish Privy Council. This headstrong act was overruled and Norway's independence reaffirmed, but it was required to remain in the "personal union" and its possessions - Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroes - were placed directly under the crown, so that they were ruled from Denmark, not Norway, and retained by Denmark after the Treaty of Kiel in 1814, after the Napoleonic Wars, separated Norway and Denmark and gave Norway to Sweden instead. (The Kalmar Union explains why Scandinavia is uniformly Lutheran: after a two-year struggle between Catholic and Lutheran factions over who would be King of Denmark, Christian III ascended to the throne and enforced the changeover on all the countries by an edict in 1536.)

All of this led to neglect of Iceland. The Danes never had as much use for dried cod, or wool, as the Norwegians. The Greenland colony dwindled and died out, in part because the Icelanders no longer had either the resources or the mercantile motive to build oceangoing ships and so did not keep supplying it. From 1602 to 1854, Denmark banned trade between Iceland and any other country. In the 18th century, the Icelandic climate was the coldest it had been since the settlement of the country, and then in 1783 the volcano Laki erupted. 75-80% of the cattle were killed by poisonous fumes, or roasted by lava in the fields. The Danes refused to send any assistance; ultimately a fifth to a quarter of the population, nine to ten thousand people, died, most of starvation. During the nineteenth century large numbers of Icelanders emigrated, particularly to Manitoba. Only in 1874 did Denmark grant Iceland home rule; it eventually declared itself an independent republic in 1944 while under wartime occupation by the allies (first the British, who were treated as guests, then the Americans). Denmark was under occupation by the Germans, but King Christian X sent congratulations to the Icelanders.

[1. Iceland's coat of arms image from]


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