Ásbirningar Clan of Skagafjörður


Back in the 11th and 12th century, there was a powerful clan called the Ásbirningars. They lived in northwestern Iceland and were the leading clan of the Skagafjörður. We are so lucky they wrote the stories down for us and we can study them many centuries later.


Kolbeinn Tumason and his younger brother, Arnór were members of this Ásbirningar clan. They were well-known warriors, politicians, and poets. According to Hálfdan Helgason´s database, their father, Tumi Kolbeinsson, has over 112,000 descendants, so they could be your ancestor, too!

I was going to write a story about how they are all connected and share a music video that was sent to me by my new friend from the Skagafjörður, Helga Bergsdóttir, from Sauðárkrókur. However, Nancy Marie Brown has written a wonderful piece HERE and has the music video, the poem, and the translation all included in her blog post. Thanks, Nancy!

Or you can see just the video link from Helga with English and Icelandic subtitles. The chieftain of the Ásbirningar clan, Kolbeinn Tumason, wrote this beautiful, religious poem before he died. It is a very well-known hymn in Iceland. Kolbeinn had his head smashed with a rock in a battle with his wife’s uncle, who also happened to be the Catholic Bishop of Hólar.

All these people are related to me (and probably you, too). The crazy thing is that through all their battles and strife, they were actually one-time friends and even related to each other! The chieftain, Kolbeinn Tumason, was married to Gyðríður Þorvarðardóttir. Her uncle was Bishop Guðmundur Arason. This big battle and the events leading up to it are described in Nancy’s post. Bishop Guðmundur survived this battle but Kolbeinn, the leader of the Ásbirningar Clan, died from this battle. Some legends say the rock that smashed Kolbeinn’s head was thrown from heaven. There is a statue to Bishop Guðmundur “The Good” at Hólar.


Another big battle was between this clan and the Sturlung clan. The last chieftain in the Ásbirningar clan was Kolbeinn yngri (the younger) Arnórsson. He is¸the son of Arnór Tumason. Kolbeinn yngri fought against the Sturlung Clan (more of our ancestors in this clan, too) in the Icelandic civil war with his first cousin, Gissur Þorvaldsson. Gissur led the group of men who eventually murdered the famous Snorri Sturluson (also an ancestor to many of us) in 1241. Gissur worked with the king of Norway to bring Iceland under the Norwegian Crown in 1264. This agreement is called Gissurarsáttmáli (the covenant of Gissur).

Kolbeinn yngri (the younger) lived at Víðimýri in Skagafjörður. There is a great old turf church there.


Over in another area of Skagafjörður, there was another famous battle between the Sturlungs and the Ásbirningar on 19 Apr 1246 called the Haugsnes battle. About 110 men died there including Ásbirningar clan chieftain, Brandur Kolbeinsson. This battle ended their power in the Skagafjörður. After the battle, a large cross was erected on the site. Over the centuries, it disappeared and now there is a new cross there carved by our friend, Jón Adólf Steinólfsson. You can see his website by clicking on the link: Jón Adólf Steinólfsson. I was able to visit his studio and home this summer. He is doing some wonderful work.


Battle of Haugsnes cross by Jón Adólf Steinólfsson

So, you can see, our ancestors were battling each other, had various motives, and had enormous life experiences. It is so interesting to learn about their lives not only because this is the history of Iceland and they are our ancestors, but also because their stories are so intertwined with such contrasting drama – love, hate, poetry, great deeds, and violence.

The people of Iceland have many treasured songs and poems. The poem that Kolbeinn wrote before he died (the one that had his head smashed in with the rock), was set to music hundreds of years later. It is such a beautiful hymn. Heyr, himnasmiður (Listen, Creator of the Heavens). Part of the lyrics are: “God, I beg of you, heal me. Remember how great is our need of you. Almighty God, heaven’s king, wipe away human sorrow, take it from our hearts.”

The father of Kolbeinn is Tumi Kolbeinsson. Tumi is my 19th Great Grandparent. He had already died when his sons and other members of his clan were in the battle with the Bishop Guðmundur. The younger brother to Kolbeinn, Arnór, is my 18th Great Grandparent and he was 26 years old during the battle where is older brother was killed at the age of 35. Snorri Sturluson is my 20th Great Grandparent. Bishop Guðmundur Arason’s grandparents are my 21st Great Grandparents.

When you go to Skagafjörður, make sure that you visit these famous places in our history: Hólar – where you find a statue of Bishop Guðmundur. Viðines, Víðimýrikirkja, and Haugsnes. There are so many other amazing places in Skagafjörður. A great website link is HERE for the Saga Trails of Iceland.

Until next time….. Have a wonderful day!


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