Watch in full screen the best Icelandic viking movie ever made, or read about how in the 13th century Iceland plunged into a violent civil war known as the Age of the Sturlungs. 

Of the many family clans in the Icelandic Commonwealth at the time, the powerful Sturlungs had the most influence, which led King Hakon of Norway to insist that they work together to bring Iceland under his control. 

Snorri Sturluson, the clan’s chieftain, met with King Hákon and agreed to his request, but Snorri acted slowly and lazily and nothing was accomplished for years until his nephew, Sturla Sighvatsson, took over the reins. 

Snorri was also the poet and historian who gave us the Prose Edda, which all school children in Iceland still study. 

In the name of King Hakon of Norway, Sturla embarked on a bloody quest to defeat the opposition.

Struggle for Control of Iceland

Snorri Sturluson as depicted by Christian KroghThe Sturlungs clan, however, were not the only ones working for King Hákon.

Gissur Þorvaldsson was the chieftain of the Haukdælir clan and was fighting to bring Iceland under Norwegian control as well. 

Nevertheless, the two clans remained enemies and fought in the Battle of Örlygsstaðir, the largest armed conflict in the history of Iceland.

Unfortunately for Sturla and his father, another clan, the Ásbirnings, accompanied their enemies. They were outnumbered.

The result of the battle was a crushing defeat of Sturla and his father, leaving the chieftains of the Haukdælir and Ásbirnings as the most powerful in all of Iceland. 

After falling from the king’s good graces, Snorri Sturluson returned home. Adding insult to injury for the Sturlungs, the king ordered that Snorri be killed.

Gissur Þorvaldsson fulfilled the order, murdering Snorri in his own home, only three years after he had soundly defeated his nephew in the Battle of Örlygsstaðir.

Stalemate of the King’s Vassals

Icelandic traditional turfhouses

The dust had nearly settled when Snorri’s brother, Þórður kakali Sighvatsson, heard the news of his family’s recent losses. He sought vengeance for the killings of his father and brothers.

Þórður (pronounced Thorthur) proved to be a strong leader and an excellent strategist in battle, fighting in Iceland’s first civil naval battle in 1244 as well as the bloodiest battle in Icelandic history, the Battle of Haugsnes in 1246, where 110 people were killed. 

Eventually, the two opposing leaders, Þórður and Gissur, reached a stalemate. They wouldn’t fight each other directly, because they both were vassals of King Hákon. Instead, they asked him to mediate the dispute, and in 1246, he chose to side with Þórður, who became the lone leader of Iceland. 

Resolution of the Conflict

Icelandic turfhouse

King Hákon tried unsuccessfully for years to bring Iceland under Norwegian control through force. Finally, in 1264, the king sent a special emissary to Iceland who agreed to negotiate peacefully with the people.

The chiefs of Iceland agreed to Norwegian kingship with the signing of the Gamli sáttmáli (“Old Covenant”). With this signing, the civil war came to an end, the Icelandic Commonwealth ceased to exist, and King Hákon of Norway assumed control of Iceland.

Read now an overview of the History of Iceland or see main page of History and Culture of Iceland for more articles.