June 17: the king’s visit


“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.




Viking women


Nancy Marie Brown in Song of the Vikings says that “Marriage in Iceland had long been business transactions, arranged by the couple’s families….The bride’s family supplied a dowry, the groom’s family a bride-price of land, livestock, and other goods that the couple would jointly own while their marriage lasted. The fathers then shook hands on the deal. It was the same way they sold a plot of land or an ocean-going ship or transferred a chieftaincy. The bride didn’t even need to be present—much less agree to the deal. Nor was the groom expected to be monogamous.”

After all, the gods were not monogamous. They had children with many different women. The myths of the gods provided a model for the behaviour of Icelandic men.

So much for the depiction I’ve heard of Icelandic women in saga times being independent, swashbuckling, Amazon types standing on the prow of their long ship, leading their followers into battle. Good romance novel stuff, Disney stuff, comic book stuff, but not much connected to reality.

There are, in the sagas, examples of women who did manage to rise above childbearing, cooking, knitting, spinning, weaving, raking hay. There was, after all, Aud the Deep Minded, and Guðriður beating her breast with a sword. Aud was the only woman to ever become a chieftain. However, in his book Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874, Bayard Taylor says about saga times

“As in all well-ordered households in all time, the husband’s duty was to see to every thing out of the house, and that of the wife to have care for every thing within it; but now and then a superior, strong-minded women would so far encroach upon the husband’s province as to bring him into disgrace.”

So, there were social restrictions on ambitious females. Add that to being pregnant a good part of the time and it was pretty hard to lead forays abroad. And with Icelandic men not feeling bound by monogamy, the opportunities to get pregnant abounded.

Brown says “Before they went to Norway, Gudny and Ari had married her eldest son, Thord, then twenty-one, to his daughter, Helga. With his young wife Thord got Ari’s chieftaincy and a rich farmstead. When Ari died, the rest of his wealth went to Thord as his wife, but, as the saga says, “Thord was not lucky enough to feel for Helga the love he should have.” After four years of marriage and no children, they divorced. Thord kept the farm, most of Ari’s wealth, and the chieftain’s title. He took up with a married woman, Hrodny, the estranged wife of Bersi the Rich of Borg—the farm of his famous ancestor Egil Skallgrimsson—but though “they enjoyed a lasting love,” Thord and Hrodny didn’t marry. Instead Thord married a rich widow named Gudrun, who “brought a great deal of money with her,” the saga says. “Thord then became a great chieftain.” He and Gudrun had a son, Bodvar, who was his father’s only legal heir, and a daughter. Later in life Thord fell in love again, taking as his mistress Thora, who gave him six children, her son Sturla, born when his father was fifty, wrote the saga.”

Although people like the archbishop of Trondheim tried to explain that a Christian wedding was a sacred event that joined a couple for life in an exclusive relationship, he didn’t have much effect. Even those priests who represented Christianity ignored the rules. In the 19th Century, it was still common for men, including priests, to impregnate young women and to absolve themselves of responsibility by paying someone to declare falsely that he was the father. Halldor Laxness describes this process in detail in Paradise Reclaimed.

I didn’t know this, or maybe I did in a way because of having read some sagas but it didn’t mean much, sort of like the begats in the Bible, read but bored and ignored. Nancy Marie Brown explains what was going on and why. It stops being boring. It even becomes a bit shocking. Those saga heroes were into sex in a big way with all sorts of women, inside marriage and out. None of this takes into account all those serving girls. The only way forward for an ambitious woman was to have a relationship with a powerful man. The men took it for granted that they could have sex with many women. Of course, all women didn’t get the chance to be the wife, mistress, consort of some important man. They needed to bring with them money, connections, land. The indentured girl who was going to spend her life grinding barley wasn’t going to get to even be a mistress. She might get a baby but then she’d be pawned off to some young crofter.

Brown’s book is causing me to do a lot of thinking, not just about saga times but about Iceland during the years of emigration and the Icelandic communities in North America during and after the immigration.

I wonder if it was these myths, these sagas that gave permission to men like Björn of Leirur to behave in the way he did in Paradise Reclaimed. I know it is a novel, but it also obviously is based on what Laxness observed and Björn represents not just one man but many men for his friend the sheriff says that he is constantly busy having to deal with the problems created by men getting girls pregnant.

The pattern of the privileged man, the landowner, the well paid civil servant having the right to have sexual relations outside of marriage seems to have followed the Icelanders to North America, in spite of the fact that the church had done all it could over hundreds of years to make marriage monogamous. The Icelandic priests, for all their preaching of the value of virtue, often behaved like Björn of Leirur. They, too, paid other men to say that a child was theirs. Old saga ways prevailed.

Perhaps we are separated from the vikings by time but the story of Snorri raises the question of how separated we are from them in action.

The viking age only lasted from the 9th to the 11th century. After that it was all downhill, not just for the women but also for the men. Norway took over Iceland in 1262 and Iceland didn´t get its independence back until 1944.

Iceland´s history has been one of physical cataclysm, volcanoes, earthquakes, dreadful weather with the onset of the Little Ice Age, political repression, rampant disease and famine. However, the sagas, those stories of a time when Iceland was powerful and there was wealth, continued to be told. After Bayard Taylor visited Iceland in 1874,  he wrote of an experience with the local farmers at the Geysers,

“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemunds Edda!” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces, and all shyness vanished. The Njil and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlusson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed. It was remarkable to see their full knowledge of Icelandic literature and their vital interest in it.”

According to Kneeland in his book, An American in Iceland, 1874, “The authority of the father, however, or the natural guardians, in case of proposed marriage, was decisive, either with or against the girl’s inclinations; a widow could not be compelled to marry a second time, nor could she marry without the consent of her father, brother, or sons. Marriage was a regular business affair and the settlement of the conditions often a shrewd bargain. If a girl married without the consent of her parents, the father cold disinherit her and her children; and the man who made her his wife, under such circumstances, was liable to be punished for abduction; this right was not always exercised. If the father were dead, the nearest male relatives became her natural guardians. Betrothal could not be extended beyond three years, and neither party could break it without punishment and disgrace. With the introduction of Christianity, marriage became a religious rite. Plurality of wives though not expressly forbidden, was never general, either in Norway or Iceland. Should a man lay violent hands upon his wife three times, she was at liberty to leave him, taking both dower and settlement; but such violence was rare, as it was looked upon as most  unmanly. Says their old law; “Every man owes the same duty to his wife that he owes to himself;” but the husband alone possessed all rights concerning the disposal of the children. As in all well-ordered households in all time, the husband’s duty was to see to every thing out of the house, and that of the wife to have care for every thing within it; but now and then a superior, strong-minded women would so far encroach upon the husband’s province as to bring him into disgrace.

Divorces were very common; mutual disinclination, the will of the husband, abuse of his wife, or the wearing by either party of garments belonging to the opposite sex, were sufficient grounds for separation. When the wife sought the divorce, she was obliged to proclaim her lawful reasons within the house, before its principal entrance, and at the public assembly. A divorce offered no impediment in the way of either party marrying again. When marriage became a religious rite, divorce was granted by the church, and never without the strongest reasons.”

When our myths support positive outcomes for our group, family, ethnic, national, they are to be heralded. I grew up with people mentioning women in the sagas. A lot of what was said was not based on fact. There weren’t armies of Amazons with their own ships raiding the Baltic coasts. Men and women were not equal. There were a few women in the sagas who obviously were exceptional but that’s the whole point, they were exceptional. They also weren’t the vast majority of women who were having babies nearly every year, spinning, weaving, knitting, cooking, milking, raking hay, living in conditions that required constant work just to survive. Nor were they the female servants or slaves. The problem was that there was no golden age for women and the myths obscured and hid the brutal reality of most women’s lives.

Brown’s description of life during the time of Snorri Sturlusson makes clear the relationship of men and women. The attitude that neither the gods, nor men need to be monogamous surfaces in various accounts as late as the 19th Century. According to English travelers like Richard Burton (1872), the number of illegitimate children in some syslas were one in three.

I love the image of the swashbuckling female Viking, standing at the prow of the longboat, sword uplifted, long hair streaming in the wind, riding the waves of the North Atlantic, heading into battle but I’m afraid it is only an image for comic books, movies and fantasy novels. Men could have sex, sail away from the outcome but women couldn’t. They had children to feed and clothe, to educate, farms to tend. That they had a few rights (if they were part of the upper class) was good. It would have been better if they’d had more but with the growing power of the church and its inherent misogyny, with the betrayal of Iceland by Snorri and Iceland becoming a vassal state, their rights became less. For centuries, Icelandic women would live in darkness and not until well after Icelandic regained its political independence would Icelandic women start moving toward undoing an unjust system.