Kings, Nobles, and Warriors of Iceland, Norway, Greenland & the Arctic Isles

Norwegian Society, Icelandic Society, Society of Greenland and the Arctic Islands, Society of Vinland, Notable Kings, Elites, and Warriors.

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Kings, nobles, and warriors without question ruled the highly-stratified Viking societies. Usually, but not always men, the elites of the Viking world were the movers and shakers of the time. The raids, wars, feuds, and exploits of Viking elites helped shape the history of Europe. This page deals with Norway and the Viking Arctic settlements of Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland.


Norwegian Society
Norway is the northernmost country in Scandinavia, and the poorest in terms of arable land. [1] Like it's sister-countries Sweden and Denmark, it utilized a kingship system, though the first King of Norway was not crowned until Harald Fairhair won the title in 874. Before this, areas of the country were ruled by chieftains. Beneath the King were the jarls, the wealthy chieftains and nobility. Carls, land-owning free men, could be warriors but did not usually rise to the role of nobility. Thralls, or slaves, had very little social status. [2]

Icelandic society
Iceland was originally settled by Viking explorers from Norway, as told in the Icelandic Sagas. Iceland offered a harsh, but unclaimed land. Issues brought about with climate change and harm to the local ecosystem through farming and deforestation were mitigated by Iceland's many volcanoes. The volcanic soil allowed the land to remain fertile and stabilized the ecosystem.[3]
Unlike in the rest of Scandinavia, the Icelandic settlements were not ruled by kings, but by local chieftains. The divisions of thrall, carl, and jarl still remained, but Iceland never had a King until much later. The small, island-bound population created strong bonds between families and clans. Rather than have any one individual rule by force, clans met once a year at an assembly called the Allthing to sort out all legal disputes. [4] Official chieftains were always elite males, who were generally at the top of Icelandic society. However, women could and did demand respect as elites, and powerful women were easily seen as the social equals of powerful men--for proof of this we have only to look at Unn the Deep-Minded.

Society of Greenland
Greenland had native settlers already, but the Vikings nevertheless carved out a settlement that lasted for several hundred years. They were organized according to local chieftains. Eventually, their inability or refusal to adapt their ways to Greenland's harsh climate led to an abandonment of the settlement. Climate change brought about by Norse farming techniques contributed by making it difficult to grow crops. The Little Ice Age that lasted throughout the middle ages also played a part. [5]

Society of Vinland
Vinland, known as Vinland the Good) was named because of the wild grapes growing there. [6] It is in modern-day Newfoundland, Canada. The Icelandic exploresrs were the first European peoples to reach North America. The settlement was only temporary, however, and the Vinland settlers soon returned to Iceland, driven out by the climate and by unfriendly indigenous peoples. [7]
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Notable Kings, Nobles, Elites, and Warriors

This is a small sampling of the many, many fascinating characters in Viking history. The list contains not only the most important figures, but several lesser members of Viking nobility but who nevertheless played important roles in the history of the Scandinavian peoples or who epitomize the ideal of a Viking noble or warrior.

NorwayHarald Halfdansson (Harald Fairhair)First King of Norway 872 until his death in 930. He was Norway's first King and the first person to unite all of Norway under one ruler. His sons, Erik Bloodaxe and Haakon the Good, were also Kings of Norway. [8]
Flateyjarbok_Haraldr_Halfdan.jpg
Harald accepting the crown from his father. From the Flateyjarbok. Public domain because the copyright has expired.



Harald Hadrada
(c. 1047-1066) King of Norway. His name is translated as "Harald hard-ruler". He was the half-brother of Olaf II. His firs battle was fought with his half-brother at age 15, the Battle of Sticklestad against the forces of King Cnut, which he lost. Harald traveled extensively in the East, spending time in Russia, the Mediterranean, Sicily, and Asia Minor. Eventually, he ended up in Miklagard, the Norse name for Constantinope. He was the leader of the Varangian Guard, the private bodyguard of Queen Zoe the Great. He became quite wealthy during his time in the East and eventually returned home to become King of Norway. He invaded England in 1066 in an attempt to regain his birsthrightand was defeated by Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. His death marked the close of the Viking Age.[9]

Erik Bloodaxe
King of Norway. As his name suggests, he was a ferocious warrior who managed to fight his way into ruling as the King of Norway, as well as Northumbria in England. His rule was turbulent, and he spent much of his time travelling with his armies. He had a long-standing enmity with Egil Skallagrimson, the hero of Egill's Saga, brought on by Egill's murder of one of his men whom both he and his wife Gunnhild Gormsdottir (later known as Gunnhild Mother-of-Kings) was fond of. Gunnhild convinced her husband to try and kill Egill, which he tried and failed to do several times. He was killed in battle in England in 933. [10]
Gunnhild Konungamóðir (Gunnhuld Mother-of Kings, Gunnhild Gormsdottir)(c. 910-980.) Gunnhild was the wife of Erik Bloodaxe with whom she had seven sons and a daughter. Along with her husband she was a great enemy of Egil Skallaagrimson, the hero of Egil's Saga. There are varying accounts of her parentage. According to the Heimskringla, she had been trained in Finland by two great wizards and was a powerful magician herself, using her power to help her husband succeed in his political machinations. Her magical ability often set her as a foil against Egill, also a character who could wield powerful magic. [11]In reality, while she undoubtedly advised her husband and her sons a great deal, any help she gave them was most likely due to her own intelligence and keen grasp of politics. She ruled alongside her husband as Queen of Norway, York, and Orkney. She spent her final days after the death of her husband and sons as an exile in Denmark. She was so infamous that, rather than being called the Eirikssons after their father, her sons were known as the Gunnhildssons. [12]

Olaf Haraldsson (Olaf II, Olaf the Holy, Olaf the Fat, St, Olaf)King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. While he was originally known as "Olaf the Fat," he was later canonized as St. Olaf by the Roman Catholic Church. He is credited for converting Norway to Christianity, though the Heimskringla suggests he did this largely by force and coercion, not through peaceful means. [13] While he was known for his harsh and cruel treatment of his subjects, he is nevertheless now the patron Saint of Norway. He was killed in the Battle of Swold. He was the half-brother of Harald Hadrada. [14]
Sigrid Storada (Sigrid the Proud, Sigrid the Haughty)While born in Sweden, Sigrid played an important role in thistory off Noway while never once stepping on a battlefield. Olaf's Saga states that "Sigrid was an exceedingly clever woman and prescient about many things." [15] After her first husband, Svein the Victorious of Sweden, was killed, Olaf II himself proposed to Sigrid, as she was wealthy and prominent woman who ruled over several large estates in Sweden. He made it clear that he expected her to convert to Christianity. She responded in carefully neutral terms, "I do not mean to abandon the faith I have had, and my kinsmen before me. Nor shall I object to your belief in the god you prefer." In response, Olaf slapped her and called her a dog. Needless to say, the marriage did not take place. Sigrid nursed a private grudge against Olaf. In fact, Sigrid actively turned her next husband, Erik Segeersoll, against Olaf. The enmity that resulted from this eventually led to Olaf's death in 1028 at the Battle of Swold, proud Sigrid's carefully-planned revenge finally taking place. [16] She was the stepmother of King Cnut the Great, a king who was ironically known for his devout Christianity. [17]

Ketil FlatnoseNorwegian nobleman, father of Aud the Deep Minded. He fled from Norway when Harld Fairhair defeated his forces the Battle of Hrafrsfjord, deciding he did not want to live under Harald's rule. For a time he ruled several Western Scottish islands, including the Hebrides with which his rule is most strongly associated. He had an independent, stubborn streak not uncommon in Vikings and refused to pay tribute to Harald. As a result he was eventually forced out by Harald's forces. [18] He is possibly the same Cattail the Fair whose deeds are recorded in the Annals of Ulster. [19]
Iceland

Egill SkallagrimsonOutlaw, berserker, main character in Egill's Saga. Egill was not only a warrior, but also a wizard and a talented poet, a highly-honored skill among the Vikings. His daughter Thorgerd married Olaf the Peacock, though he would not give her away without her own consent, illustrating the unique freedom and status of elite Viking women. Egill was often in conflict with Eirik Bloodaxe and his wife Gunnhild
Konungamóðir, the King and Queen of Norway and Northumbria. They are his principal enemies throughout Egill's Saga.[20]


Olaf the PeacockIcelandic chieftain who was originally the son of an Irish thrall or slave woman. He became one of the waealthhiest and most successful men in Iceland. He was said to have an ostentatious wardrobe and to take a lot of pride in his physical appearance, hence his moniker "peacock". He married Thorgerd, daughter of the renowned Egill Skallagrimsson. [21] His story illustrates that, while noble birth was highly regarded, anyone with wits, wealth, and luck could rise to high status.

Aud the Deep-Minded (Unn the Deep-Minded)Daughter of Ketil Flatnose. As told in the Laxardal Saga, Unn settled Iceland after her husband, Olaf the White, and her son, Thorstein the Red, were killed in battle in Ireland. Once in Iceland, she claimed an enormous amount of land for and consolidated her power by distributing it to her followers. She ruled in Iceland as a chief in all but name. [22]
Greenland

Eirik Ruada (Eirik the Red)Led first Norse expedition to Greenland. Supposedly, he named the settlement "Greenland" to encourage people to settle there in spite of its unforgiving environment. [23]
Vinland


Leif the Lucky (Leif Eriksson)
Leif was the son of of Erik the Red and the sister of Freydis. He travelled to Greenland when he was banished from Iceland. From there, he established first Norse settlement in Vinland, modern-day Newfoundland, Canada. He led the first expedition of Europeans to ever reach the land. He was responsible for converting Greenland to Christianity. [24]

Freydis EiriksdottirFreydis was a daughter of Eirik the Red, sister of Leif the Lucky. She was the co-leader of an expedition to Vinland. Though pregnant, she participated fully in the expedition, including driving off some attacking Skraelings. Freydis is one of the few examples of a woman warrior in Viking society--or at least a woman displaying martial tendencies. While many women wielded only political power or fought battles through their male relatives, Freydis actually picked up a sword. It was a largely symbolic gesture, but it rallied her retreating fellow settlers and frightened off the attackers. Viking women were not trained as warriors as the men were, but Freydis' example makes it clear that they could and would wield a sword if the need ever arose. [25]
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Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Laxdale Saga.
1880 English, trans. Muriel A. C. Press, from the original 'Laxdæla saga'. http://sagadb.org/laxdaela_saga.en
Saga of Erik the Red.
1880, English, transl. J. Sephton, from the original 'Eiríks saga rauða'. http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en
Sturrulson, Snorri. Heimskringla. 1179-1285. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/

  1. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 13.
  2. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 16-17.
  3. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. xiv.
  4. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, pp. 329, 336.
  5. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 346.
  6. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 349.
  7. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. xiv.
  8. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010,p. 28, 434.
  9. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 321-322.
  10. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 3104-105.
  11. Sturrulson, Snorri. Heimskringla. 1179-1285. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/
  12. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 130.
  13. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 434.
  14. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 393.
  15. Sturrulson, Snorri. Heimskringla. 1179-1285. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/
  16. Sturrulson, Snorri. Heimskringla. 1179-1285. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/
  17. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 403.
  18. Laxdale Saga.1880 English, trans. Muriel A. C. Press, from the original 'Laxdæla saga'. http://sagadb.org/laxdaela_saga.en
  19. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 290.
  20. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 163-165, 362.
  21. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 146.
  22. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 126.
  23. Saga of Erik the Red.1880. English, trans. J. Sephton, from the original 'Eiríks saga rauða'. http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en
  24. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, pp. 347, 75, 89.
  25. Somerville, Angus, and R. Andrew McDonald. The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, pp. 133-37.