Warfare in Medieval Iceland

By Peter Konieczny

For several decades in the thirteenth century, Iceland would see a civil war. The military situation of this isolated island is unique, which leads to questions about how did Icelanders raise troops, conduct campaigns, and fight battles, both on land and sea?

It is not very surprising that we don’t hear much about Iceland’s military past, since this island which straddles the Arctic Circle has never been the target of invaders and conquerors. Iceland is just too remote and has little worth fighting over. Even today, the country has no military forces of its own.


But there was one time in Iceland’s history when this island fell into a period of civil war, where armies of several hundred men would take part in numerous raids and several battles. This period, roughly between the years 1200 and 1264, was named the Sturlunga Age after one of the main families involved in this warfare. It saw the breakdown of the traditional Icelandic legal system, and the emergence of several powerful families who fought to gain control of the island. The warfare between them would have serious effects on the Icelandic population, in particularly after 1230 when fighting was almost continuous. In order to bring stability back to Iceland, its people agreed to submit themselves to the rule of King Haakon IV of Norway between the years 1262 to 1264.

Timeline of Events

1209 – Battle of Víðines – Kolbeinn Tumason leads 400 men to Holar, the residence of Bishop Gudmund, who commands 300 men. After a short battle, Kolbeinn is struck by a stone and dies.  His force flees. Total number of dead in the battle is 12.


1210 – Sighvat and Snorri Sturluson, and several other chieftains, raise a force of 700 men to confront Bishop Gudmund. The bishop’s forces mostly flee before any fighting begins, and Gudmund is forced to surrender.

1221 – Battle of Breiðabolstaðer – Loft the Bishop’s son leads 100 men against Bjorn Thorvaldson, who defends a farm with 70 men. Another chieftain, Saemund Jonsson, also arrives with 200 men, offering protection to anyone who joins his group. Loft attacks the farm, and Bjorn is killed and his force defeated. Total dead in battle is numbered at 8.

1235 – Battle of Bær – Sturla Sighvatsson raises an army of 720 men, and defeats a force of nearly 400 men, led by Thorlief Thorðarson. Thorlief has 29 dead, while Sturla had 3 dead and 23 wounded.

1238 – Battle of Örlygsstaðir – a coalition of several chieftains, most notably Gizur Þorvaldsson and Kolbeinn ungi, raise a force of 1700 men, which marches on Sturla Sighvatsson. Sturla raises an army of at least 700 men, but in the battle he and his father Sighvat are both captured and executed. Total number of killed in this battle is 56.


1241 – Gizur Þorvaldsson executes Snorri Sturluson at Reykjaholt. Oraekja Snorrison and Sturla Þórðarson gather 300 men, and recapture Reykjaholt on the day after Christmas. They then moved against Gizur Þorvaldsson, finding him at Skalahot. Before a major battle occurs, Bishop Sigvard brings about a ceasefire.

1244 – Battle of Hunafloi – Þórður kakali Sighvatsson, brother of Sturla Sighvatsson, raises a fleet of 12 ships, with about 100 men, and fight a fleet of 20 ships (with 500 men) commanded by Kolbeinn ungi. Eventually both sides disengage without a clear winner. Total number killed in this battle was more than 80.

1246 – Battle of Haugnes – Þórður kakali Sighvatsson leads about 500 men in battle against Brand Kolbeinnsson (son of Kobleinn ungi), who commands 600 men. Þórður eventually wins the battle, and Brand is captured and executed. About 110 men are killed in this battle.

Site of the Battle of Haugnes, where 1100 stones have been erected to represent the men who fought here. Photo by Navaro / Wikimedia Commons

1253 – Winter attack on the home of Gizur Þorvaldsson while he celebrates the wedding of his son. Most of Gizur’s family is killed, but Gizur escapes.

1255 – Battle of Þverá – A force under Hrafn Oddsson and Eyjolf Thorsteinsson is defeated by a coalition of several chieftains, most notably Thorvaðr Thorarinsson and Thorgils skardi. Either 16 or 17 men are killed in this battle, including Eyjolf.

See also: Medieval Iceland: A Timeline

Conditions in 13th-century Iceland

The uniqueness of Iceland can be seen in its land – an inhospitable island with no trees and almost no arable land. With most of the island covered by glaciers or rock, the approximately forty thousand Icelanders lived along coastal regions and a few inland areas. There were no towns or even villages in medieval Iceland, and every farm would be some distance away from its neighbours. Castles and similar kinds of fortification were non-existent in Iceland – some farms would have stone walls, but even these were meant more for keeping livestock in, rather than enemies out.

Iceland also had no official government – social and political power was controlled by several chieftains, or goðar as they were called. In the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, this political power came to be controlled by fewer and fewer chieftains, who were also becoming the wealthiest people on the island too. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, five families had emerged to dominate the political control of this island. It would be the feuds between and within these families which would lead Iceland into civil war.


The main source for the events of this period comes from the Sturlunga Saga – a compilation of a series of texts by different authors, which forms an account of Icelandic history from the early twelfth century up to 1264. Most notable of these texts is the Islendisaga, written by Sturla Þórðarson, a member of the important Sturlunga family and who was often personally involved in many of the events he wrote about. While Icelandic sagas have not been usually considered good sources for the study of military events, the Sturlunga Saga is considered to be a somewhat faithful historical account, with some scholars noting it as very straightforward and candid – one of them commenting that “probably nowhere in all of Europe has medieval history been documented by contemporary authors with such an unbiased outlook towards men and events.”

Raising Armies

There were no formal requirements for military service among Icelanders. Yet, there are several battles that took place where over a thousand men were involved, and this was when the entire island’s population was around forty thousand. How could Icelanders raise these kinds of troops?

A chieftain could rely first on his extended family, or kinship network, to provide them with men and resources, with sons, brothers, cousins, and other relatives arriving with their men to offer support. The chieftain would also have friends and neighbours he could rely on – any chieftain seeking political influence and power would make sure that he would be generous and courteous to as many people as possible, in hopes of gaining their support when the time came. Furthermore, if a local population believed that a certain chieftain was acting in their interests, or was justified in taking up arms against another chieftain, they would also give him their support. Sometimes this assistance was limited – a chieftain’s followers would support him to a certain extent. When Oraekja Snorrison collected 600 men for a campaign against his uncle Sighvat Sturluson, one of his deputies told him “that men were willing to help him to help him in obtaining honourable settlement, but were unwilling to fight against Sighvat.”

There are a few occasions where Icelandic leaders had Norwegians in their ranks, perhaps serving as mercenaries. These men would appear as personal bodyguards for the chieftains, and had expertise in bows, an uncommon weapon in Iceland.

The story of Þórður kakali Sighvatsson illustrates the difficulties in obtaining men to follow you. He was one of the sons of Sighvat Sturluson, who had died with Sturla Sighvatsson at the Battle of Örlygsstaðir in 1238. Þórður was in Norway at the time, and when he returned to Iceland in 1242, he set out to raise an army to fight the powerful leader Kolbeinn ungi, one of his father’s enemies. He soon found that “none of Þórður’s kinsmen dared help him for everyone was so terrified” of Kolbeinn. One of his cousins said he would not help until he got others to join him, and another cousin said he had sworn an oath to Kolbeinn and would not break it for now. At one point, Þórður rode around Iceland with only two followers, until his brother Tumi arrived with twenty more men. Over the next few weeks, he was able to gain the support of a few more men, all of whom had been supporters of his father Sighvat and brother Sturla. Þórður went to go see Asgrim Bergthorsson and gave him three reasons to join:

First, because of our kinship; next, because my brother Sturla greatly helped you to get on in the world; and third, because you suffered in all the losses at Örlygsstaðir where you saw the death of your kinsmen and of those men whom you will never forget.

In the end, Asgrim decided not to help Þórður, citing the fact that he lived too close to Þórður’s enemies.

Within a few months, Þórður has raised an army of 200 men, but Kolbeinn was now in pursuit with 600 men. Þórður’s forces took flight, but soon many of his supporters deserted him, while others fell behind and were captured when their horses tired out. Still, Þórður was able to escape, a feat that seemed to earn him greater respect. The following spring he was able to raise an army of twelve hundred men, leaving the writer of these events to remark, “it was certainly deserving of high praise that he had been able to gather so large a force from so few places.”

Military campaigns

Armies would be gathered and campaigns started in the spring, usually a few days after Easter.  These campaigns would be very short, lasting a few weeks at most, since the men would want to return home as soon as possible to take care of their farms, and also because the chieftains would not have enough food or other supplies to continue a campaign any longer.

These armies moved on horseback, sometimes travelling over the uninhabitable glaciers and mountain ranges of Iceland’s interior. The usual goal of an army was to seek out an enemy chieftain, or his closest associates, in hopes of capturing or killing them. Not that you needed a large army to do this – some of the best attacks came when small forces would make a surprise foray into an enemy chieftain’s farm, and catch them off guard. One example of this is when thirty men attacked the farm of Gizur Thorvaldson while he was hosting a wedding party. The attackers burned down Gizur’s home, and killed all of his family, although Gizur himself was able to escape the flames.

Armies on campaign would carry out a fair amount of pillaging of farms, sometimes because they needed the food and supplies, while in other cases they would deliberately be targeting their enemies and their supporters. For example, listen to the words of Kolbeinn ungi when he planned to go after his rival Þórður kakali:

we are going to sail west across Hunafloi and pursue Thord until we find him; then let us fight it out between us. If we don’t meet him, then we will sail to the West Fjords and there make raids, burn homesteads, kill men, and so lay waste the habitations that Þórður will never again be able to muster a force against us.

Medieval weapons on display at the National Museum of Iceland

Battles in Iceland

With one exception, all the major battles in Iceland during this period took place on land. These clashes would usually take place on or near a farmstead, where the defenders would have at least some added protection from the walls and buildings. Another reason to defend oneself at a farm was that many of them would have a church on their property, and if the defenders were losing the battle they would be able to flee into it and seek sanctuary Of course there were a few exceptions to this trend, such as the Battle of Þverá, where after some negotiation, it was decided, according to the saga, that “the two groups were to meet each other on the plain north of Þverá and fight to a decisive conclusion, each side was to take up a position equally far forward and neither was to creep up on the other.”

Once a battlefield was chosen, the opposing armies would go on foot and form themselves into some semblance of ranks. One can see that Icelanders had some idea on how to set up a military formation – for instance, at the Battle of Þverá, Thorgils skardi arranged his force into three parts, a centre with left and right flanks, while Thorgils himself and a few others formed “a group which was to move wherever men seemed to need help most gravely.”

Those defending a farmstead or church would also arrange themselves to make use of whatever defences they had. At Örlygsstaðir, Sighvat Sturluson and his son Sturla put the bulk of his force inside a walled enclosure, while Sighvat’s other son Kolbeinn was positioned on a nearby hillside, where he could either provide help to Sighvat or make a counter-attack on the enemy positions.

One of the most unique aspects of Icelandic warfare is how much they made use of stone-throwing. In every battle mentioned in the Sturlunga Saga, one or both sides would begin by attacking the other with stones, and this would continue on and off for most of the fighting. Stone-throwing rarely caused serious injuries, especially if shields could deflect these rocks.  In the saga you do find a few episodes where men got the worst of a stone – for example, Thord drajkan was fighting at Bær when a stone “hit his shield and rammed it into his face so that it smashed his teeth. After that he fled.” A more serious incident occurred at the Battle of Víðines, when Kolbeinn Tumason was struck in the forehead by a stone. He would die within minutes, causing his force to retreat.

It is interesting to wonder how much of an advantage for those involved in the fighting to keep firing stones at each other. Gizur Þorvaldsson said to his men at Örlygsstaðir “don’t throw the stones at them now or you will receive hard blows from those very stones when they throw them back at you.”

Fighting would inevitably progress to hand-to-hand combat, typically with small groups of men charging out against enemy positions. They would use swords, spears and axes, as well as other weapons. This type of combat was far more lethal, and it would be here where the outcome of battles would be determined.

Once victory and defeat had been determined, those remaining on the losing side would try to flee, sometime by riding away from the area. But most would attempt to reach the nearest church, which could be located somewhere in the farmstead, and seek sanctuary in its walls.

Those pursuing would soon reach the church and then be faced with a dilemma. Since your army was not prepared for any siege, either you had to allow your enemies to stay safe in the church and have them eventually escape, or you could attack the church and risk excommunication. The usual solution was to have some sort of negotiated settlement, where the leaders would be turned over, while the bulk of the men would be spared.

The treatment of prisoners of war in Iceland is rather interesting – for the vast majority of those captured would be treated very lightly and be released. They might have their weapons and armour seized, or be forced to swear an oath of allegiance to their captors, but it was very rare that they would be physically harmed or forced to pay a ransom.

The situation was very different for chieftains and their high-ranking supporters. In almost all cases, they would be executed if caught, often brutally. For example, at Örlygsstaðir, Sturla Sighvatsson was badly injured and was lying down on the field when Gizur Þorvaldsson and several other men approached him.

Gizur quickly used an axe to deliver a fatal blow to his head – the saga states that he “leapt into the air with both feet when he struck Sturla, so (high) that they saw the sky between his feet and the earth.” At the same time, three other men also hacked at Sturla with their weapons. His clothes and possessions were completely stripped away from him as well.

The Sturlanga Saga would make a point of giving the total number dead for a battle, naming as many of the fallen as possible. If we can take their figures as more or less accurate, these battles were not very bloody. Three of the battles had less than twenty dead, while even at Örlygsstaðir, where around 2500 men fought, there were only 56 fatalities.

See also: Were Icelandic Sagas Sleazy Tabloids?

A Naval Battle

The only naval engagement in Sturlunga Age Iceland involved Þórður kakali against Kolbeinn ungi as part of their several-years-long struggle against each other. Þórður had begun in the spring of 1244 to collect men and ships for a new campaign against Kolbeinn, and by June had gathered over a hundred men and a dozen ships. Þórður made sure that he placed some of his most trusted followers on each of the ships, and set out in a large bay in northern Iceland, called Hunafloi.

Meanwhile, Þórður’s nemesis, Kolbeinn ungi had collected 20 ships and about 470 men. The saga writer noted that Kolbeinn’s own flagship “was almost too big to be seaworthy.” They also entered Hunafloi, and as the two fleets navigated past ice flows in the bay they caught sight of each other. The ships in two fleets each tied themselves together with rope and rowed towards each other to begin the battle.

A view of Hunafloi – photo by Alexandre Buisse / Wikimedia Commons

The early stages of the fighting involved both sides throwing stones and other missiles at each other. The saga writer states that the smaller fleet of Thord was winning, and gives these reasons for it: first:

Kolbeinn’s men had only a small supply of stones on two ships, while Þórð’s men had loaded every ship with stones; secondly, on Kolbeinn’s ships there were only some few men who knew anything about what they were expected to do on a ship, while on Þórður’s ships each man was an even more knowledgeable seaman than the next.

As the supply of stones dwindled, some of Þórður’s men jumped onto Kolbeinn’s ships and fought with swords and axes. Kolbeinn had his fleet break up and reposition itself. They then used grappling hooks to pull ships from Þórður’s fleet to them. The saga writer describes the fighting as particularly intense, with men jumping from ship to ship, while others were being forced to jump into the cold seawater. Some ships were taking on water to the point of almost sinking, since so many people were on board fighting each other. Meanwhile, now without stones, the saga explains that the men were

hurling short swords and pole-axes from one ship to another while they also hurled spears, seal harpoons and whale harpoons, striking with whatever they could get their hands on, even with sail spars and oar handles.

With many men now injured and exhausted from the fighting, and with the ships heavily damaged, the battle slowly came to an end. The ships in Þórður’s fleet started to move away one by one, and Kolbeinn decided against pursuing them. Kolbeinn’s forces had captured several men from Þórður’s side, some of whom they spared while others they executed and threw overboard.

This was one of Iceland’s more bloody battles. About eighty men were killed on Kolbeinn’s side, while among Þórður’s forces; they “had lost only a few men, but that almost every man who had been with Þórður was wounded to some extent.”

This battle was unusual also because it ended without a clear victor. Þórður kakali did retreat first, but his force took fewer casualties and considering that he was greatly outnumbered in terms of men, the fact that he survived and was able to escape shows that he certainly had luck on his side. His good luck would continue, as Kolbeinn ungi would die from illness in the following year. Brand Kolbeinnsson, would continue his father’s feud with Þórður, leading up to the Battle of Haugnes in 1246, where Þórður defeated and killed Brand.

Warfare in Iceland could be very different from that in the rest of medieval Europe. The lack of a formal military system meant that armies were made ad hoc, often poorly equipped and provisioned, and only able to operate for short periods of time. The farmer who joined an army did so to gain favour with his chieftain, as well as for some spoils of war.  Furthermore, he risked very little, as battles were not particularly deadly, and if he was captured he was likely to suffer no more than the loss of his weapons.

But for chieftains and the elite of Icelandic society, these ongoing civil wars would have been particularly destructive. It would be their properties which would suffer the most from raids, and they would be the ones targeted in battle or executed afterwards. In the end, they would have been the people most open to the prospect of peace, stability and real government, which the King of Norway offered in return for Iceland’s submission to his authority.

Peter Konieczny is Editor of 

Top Image: Reconstruction of a Viking house at Vestmannaeyjar. Photo by Joxean Koret / Flickr