“Have you heard what they are saying?” Fusi asked. He was cutting grass.
“No, I haven’t time for gossip,” Bergir replied.
“The king is coming to Iceland.”
“The king? What king?”
“The king of Denmark. He’s bringing us a constitution.”
“I wish he’d bring me a better blade for my scythe.”
“Do you know what a king looks like?”
“No. We’ll find out when he comes, won’t we?”
And so they did. It is 1874. A king is coming to Iceland. It is the first time such a thing has happened. Christian IX is coming to present the Icelanders with a constitution. This is the culmination of years of work by Jon Sigurdsson and his followers.
This is no small occasion. By the time five Americans, including Bayard Taylor and Samuel Kneeland arrive on the yacht, Albion, there are one German, two French, one Swedish, one Norwegian and one Danish frigate in the harbour. Frigates are warships, mounting a lot of cannon. Closer to shore there are twenty smaller sailing ships.
Iceland is a world of dull colors, dark browns and blacks, greys. People are poor and brightly coloured European cloth is expensive. Houses are small and dimly lit. There is little in the way of pomp and ceremony. There are no castles. The houses of the wealthy are described as good quality farm houses in England or Scotland.
In anticipation of the arrival of the Danish king, flags have been raised on all the larger buildings. A new dock is being got ready and workmen are building a crimson canopy over it. This is where the king will come ashore. It wouldn’t be dignified for him to be carried ashore and he hardly can be expected to wade ashore.
Although the rest of the country in 1874 is still isolated with some people never having seen a foreigner, Reykjavik is used to having sailors and traders come to stay for short periods of time. Now, a “few officers and sailors from the foreign men-of-war are mixed with the crowd.”
Half an hour after the Albion arrives, the foreign frigates are all in a flutter of brilliant colors. People crowd the beach. The masts of the king’s ship make their appearance above the low western head-land. Then French, German and Swedish officers come on deck in full uniform, boatswains and gunners take their stations, and—it begins to rain. It will continue to rain for the king’s entire visit. The Icelandic weather is no respecter of royalty.
The king’s ship appears from between the islands.
The foreign frigates in recognition of his arrival fire their cannons. Some frigates carry twenty-eight guns. It is no wonder that Bayard Taylor says “flash, smoke and thunder follows in rapid succession from the five hulls, the rocky shores send back their echoes and the whole harbor rings.” The Icelanders “standing in a dark line in front of the houses, silent and motionless” will never have seen or heard anything like this extravagant greeting.
This cannon greeting is replied to by the king’s ship. To add to the noise the sailors on the foreign frigates cheer loudly as the king’s ship passes between them.
The king and the prince and their party are rowed to shore. Here, there is a royal pier that “slopes down to a platform, between a double row of Danish flags hung
with green garlands.” The king’s party and the greeting party stand on the platform. Speeches of welcome are made and replied to. However, in 1874 there are no microphones, no loudspeakers, so no one more than thirty feet away can hear what is being said. Those close enough to hear, cheer from time to time, but the two thousand people who can’t hear what is being said, stand silent. The welcoming takes ten minutes. When it is over, the Governor leads the way up the pier. He is followed by the king and prince. Although there is resentment toward Denmark because of trade restrictions that have caused a lot of hardship and favored a few well connected Icelanders at the expense of the many, the crowd is polite and the King and prince look very cheerful and friendly.
What follows is as close to a parade as the Icelanders have ever experienced. The Governor, all decked out in his finest, the King and Prince in impressive uniforms, then important officials, the “the bishop in velvet and satin, a snowy Elizabethan ruff, and a high hat, the clergyman,” and the members of the official Icelandic committee. These are described by Taylor as being strong, wind burned men who look like farmers. They are wearing heavy brown coats and Taylor notes that the white gloves they have been given don’t go together with their clothes. The parade has about forty people in it. When they have passed, the curious crowd falls in behind them and follows them to the Governor’s residence.
When they arrive at the Governor’s house, the door opens and Madame Finsen, the Governor’s wife, appears, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descends the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsies at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanies them to the door. Taylor is impressed by Madam Finsen. It is not often that someone, even a Governor’s wife, has the king drop by to visit. She handles the greeting admirably.
The curious crowd waits and watches. The Bishop, members of the official committee, and other officials wait at the bottom of the garden, until summoned by a chamberlain in a red coat, when they are led inside. The crowd has seen enough already to talk about for years to come. The Icelanders have now seen what a king looks like, a prince is added as a bonus, and vanity and self-importance are on display in the garden. The word poppinjays comes to mind, or a Halloween costume ball but my sympathies are with the sturdy farmers who have been decked out in white gloves. Were the gloves a way of identifying them as being part of the official greeting party or were the gloves because there might have been the risk that they would touch the king or prince with those rough farmer’s hands?
The next day at eight o’clock, a gun from the King’s frigate booms. Lines of linked flags are run up to the peak of the masts and yard-arms. Taylor says that “the gleam and sparkle of the linked flags…is something glorious to behold.” On the hills, long lines of people on horses are still only specs but they reveal that people are coming. All transportation is by horse, riding horses, pack horses, spare horses and soon Reykjavik will be crowded with the small Icelandic horses.
This day is a busy one. There will be a commemorative service at the Cathedral, an evening banquet in a hall of the university and, in the evening, a festival on the hill of Austurvelli. The hill is a mile from town.
At the banquet, the king mingles with the guests. When dinner is announced “the King gives his arm to Madame Finssen, the band blows its trumpets, and the guests march into the large hall of the University, which is decorated with flags, pyramids of rifles, stars made of swords, and other warlike ornament.”
The evening is Danish. The flags, the rifles, the swords are symbols of Danish power. They have an army. Iceland does not. Everything about the dinner is Danish. According to Taylor, the silver plate and porcelain, with the royal arms, the wine glasses, cakes and bonbons—everything except the snipe and salad, are Danish. There is duck and venison, green peas, truffles, but the rarest thing for the Icelanders are the black Hamburg grapes which come with the dessert. Few Icelanders would ever have seen grapes, never mind tasted them.
After the banquet, the king and his party and the dignitaries walk to the hill nearly a mile away, where there are flags, tents, and two thousand people. An area large enough to accommodate five thousand people has been cleared but Taylor says that only two thousand people have come to celebrate in the wind and the rain. It may be the weather that has kept people away, or the expense and difficulty of traveling to Reykjavik on horseback but Taylor is one of five Americans who have come to see Iceland free itself from a monarchy and he interprets the small turnout as an expression of Icelanders dislike of the monarchy and their desire for a republic.
Iceland in 1874 is poor. The population has been repeatedly devastated by bad weather, epidemics, and oppressive political and business practices. The Icelanders do not have storerooms of gold. What they have is their singing. The singing in the cathedral was impressive. Now, there is singing before the formal program begins. Between the presentations, the admirable male choir of Reykjavik sings.
The king now leaves for the geysers. The Great Geyser is one of the wonders of the world. His party requires 180 horses. The Americans also go to the geysers. The king waits at the geysers for three days but there is no eruption. The geysers are as stubborn as any Icelander.
Having been disappointed at the geysers, the king and his party return to Thingvella.
When the Americans arrive at Thingvella around eight o’clock on Thursday evening, the wild valley had undergone a complete transformation since they left it three days before. Both Taylor and Samuel Kneeland describe the valley. The steep green slopes along the foot of the Allmannagja are dotted with little tents ; four large pavilions, with several smaller one’s, have been erected along the bank of the river ; on the Mount of the Law a flagstaff is planted, from which floats the ancient banner of Iceland, a white falcon in a blue field ; while on the opposite side, towards the Axar cataract, on a mound, there is a decorated shelter with the standards of the nations represented at the Festival. On the right floats the colors of Norway, England and the United States; on the left those of Denmark, Sweden, and the German Empire. Taylor says groups of people are scattered all over the valley, or on the rocky, grass-topped heights; there are flags everywhere, smoke rises from camp-fires. Instead of the usual silence of Thingvella, there is shouting, people greeting each other, and singing, always singing.
Taylor describes the King’s arrival in such a way that it makes me wish I could go back in time and be at Thingvella for this moment. Oh, to have a movie camera as all this takes place. The natural setting is spectacular. A group of twelve Icelandic bonder, or farmers, selected for their appearance ride forward to meet His Majesty at the farm of Skyrcot. It is described as a little oasis in the lava-field, about a mile distant. They escort the king to the site of the festivities. Just before they get to their destination, the farmers split into two groups with six on each side of the path.
The Chairman of the Committee, Fredriksson, makes a short speech, welcoming the king. The crowd which has gathered cheer so loudly that some of the horses become frightened. Gov. Finssen is thrown off his horse. The King, who is an accomplished rider, sits firmly, patting his horse on the neck. “Then twenty-four girls come forward, scattering the native flowers of Iceland—thyme, anemone, saxifrage, and geranium—in the Royal path, while the choir, posted on the lava rocks, strike up one of their solemn, soul-stirring chants.” The Royal camp is pitched, as before, on the little hill in front of the church, but there is now quite a village of
tents around it.
What an incredible scene, the great chasm, the horses, the tents, the farmers on their horses, the king and his party, twenty-four beautiful young women in their traditional Icelandic costumes spreading flowers before the King.
The next day there is a light but steady rain. Everyone, except the Icelanders, goes to the area where the official ceremonies are to take place, wearing waterproof coats. Having read this I immediately think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People when he says “I’ve been wet all my life.”
A bridge of planks has been built across the river. After crossing it, the King stops to listen to a formal speech given by Herr Thomssen, of Bessastaðrin the name of the People of Iceland because it is Iceland’s thousandth anniversary. This speech, Burton says, has, as all the other speeches made by Icelanders, two components: an expression of loyalty to the King while, at the same time, wishing to have their own government.
The King replies briefly. There are cheers. The band plays the Danish national anthem and everyone walks to the mound. At the official site, there are a bunch of formal greetings and well wishes read out from abroad. When those are done, the King spends half an hour listening to people who want to talk to him. Although Burton, Kneeland and the other Americans are strongly Republican, Burton says that the King’s manner “as it has been from first to last, is admirable—never lacking in true dignity, yet thoroughly simple, friendly, and familiar.”
With the formal ceremonies over, the choir goes to the door of the large pavilion. There they sing a new song written by Jochumsson. It is superbly sung. When the song is over, the Americans are ushered into the pavilion. They sit with the other foreign guests.
The banquet in Reykjavik was Danish. The decorations were Danish. The food was brought from Denmark, much of it tinned. However, this breakfast is Icelandic. It is “salmon, mayonnaise of fish, cold mutton, and excellent Rejkiavik bread, with claret, sherry, and finally champagne. It is, in fact, rather a dinner than a breakfast, or served as such for the Royal party.”
With this meal over, the King and his party–remember he needed 108 horses so this is no small group–get ready to ride back to Reykjavik. It is raining heavily. It began to rain when the King arrived and it is still raining. At one o’clock the King and his retinue are in their saddles but there is one more spectacular moment coming.
The choir goes ahead of the King to the Allmannagja. “There, under the lava walls of the tremendous cleft, sing a parting song. One by one the cavalcade disappears around the corner of the sharp crest, and Thingvalla is left to the people of Iceland.”
Think on that, the long line of horses, the royal figures, the choir, the cliffs, the rising voices, the steady rain. What a dramatic moment. All this has occurred because of Jon Sigurdsson and his followers. This is what it was like. It wasn’t abstract. It was horses, rain, people, food, camp fires, tents, speeches, songs, cheering.
It is here that Steinar of Hlidar brought his magical horse to give to the king. Even though he was not important enough to be invited to the festivities, it is here that he comes and all this is what he sees and hears.
Samuel Kneeland, in his book, An American In Iceland, sums up what he has seen by saying, “Jon Sigurdsson has done something important, even heroic, for Iceland. He hasn’t been Joan of Arc. He hasn’t led the Icelanders in armed rebellion. He’s done something much more important. He’s convinced the Icelandic people that their situation is not hopeless. Centuries of oppression have made it seem impossible that there can be a better way of being governed. Jon Sigurdsson has convinced people that there is a better way and it is achievable. Iceland has no army. It has no resources to raise an army and equip it. It must depend on persuasion. It must move gradually toward independence.”
And so, it came to pass and when we celebrate June 17, we should remember these events, these images. We are fortunate that Samuel Kneeland and Bayard Taylor left us books about these events. If you want full descriptions of their adventures in Iceland, you can read Kneeland’s, An American in Iceland, and Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874. All factual material has been taken from their books.