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An Extraordinary Medieval Woman

A prominent woman from Iceland driven by doing right for her country, a true sprakkar. Read about this amazing woman, Ólöf “rika” Loftsdóttir (IR# I133241).

By Alfreda Erikson

    Iceland. From the Carta Marina 1539
Iceland. From the Carta Marina 1539

Ólöf, an extraordinary woman for her time, was the daughter of Loftur “riki” Guttormsson (I39611), an important political figure who became Governor of North and West Iceland. Due to the Black Plague in 1403, and while still in his early twenties, Loftur inherited numerous properties from kin who had succumbed to this rampaging sickness. He became the richest man in Iceland, eventually owning about eighty properties. In 1426 while in Norway, her father was knighted and awarded a coat of arms from its king, Eric III of Norway. A white falcon on a blue background became known as a Noble House.

Ólöf became the closest thing to a “noble” woman Iceland has ever had. Only a powerful man like Björn “riki” Þorleifsson (I133236), son of a magistrate, who represented the Danish government as Governor of all of Iceland, could attract such an incredible woman. Together they became the richest and most powerful couple in their nation. The Danish king later awarded him his own coat of arms, a polar bear on a blue background. It became their seal of power.

While visiting the Orkney Islands in 1455, Ólöf and her husband Björn were kidnapped and robbed by pirates. This powerful couple was probably well known and kidnapped for this very purpose. A large ransom for their release was demanded and eventually paid by King Christian I of Denmark. On one condition. They rid Iceland of the English traders who were gaining much wealth by violating the fishing rights, which their Danish Imperial leaders fought hard for.

On their return a few years later, Björn attempted to force these English merchants to leave Iceland by imposing heavy tariffs on their lucrative business. Cutting so deeply into their profits served only one purpose, resentment and extreme anger.

Since arriving in Iceland, overfishing and high profits had fed their greed as well as their arrogance. How dare this small nation dictate to them. So, a gang of English traders got together and attacked Björn and seven of his men. Killing them all, they beheaded and dismembered only Björn’s body and delivered his remains to his wife Ólöf. After all, she was only a woman; their intent was to send a clear message that they disliked the hefty taxation. Did they think his death would put an end to it? Obviously, they were not expecting any repercussions; if they did, they must have thought they could handle it.

Instead of grieving or asking Denmark for help, she vowed to get revenge when she received this gruesome package. Unbeknownst to them, they had underestimated the power and abilities of this remarkable woman. Ólöf immediately went to work, assisted by her firstborn Þorleifur (I133230). Together they amassed a great force of men and seized three fishing vessels, kidnapping all on board. Some were sent into slavery to work on her farms, some were sent back to England to send a message, do not mess with Iceland, while the rest were killed.

Kraka. A Viking Fishing Vessel reproduced by The Viking Museum in Roskilde. Source: Wikipedia
Kraka. A Viking Fishing Vessel reproduced by The Viking Museum in Roskilde. Source: Wikipedia

Years before this incident, a treaty had been signed after the first Cod War, which took place between 1415-1425. At that time, there were reports that the English were “building houses, putting up tents, digging ditches, working away and making use of everything as if it was their own.” (Medieval Cod Wars 1415-2017, Medieval Histories)

Therefore there were fishing limits set during Björn and Ólöf’s time. To both nations, Iceland and Denmark, these limits were clearly being abused once again by the arrogance of the English fishing vessels. Although Björn’s high tariffs were meant to clear the English from their land, his attempt to rectify their exploitation was understandable.

As for Ólöf’s revenge, it is said that the King of Denmark was impressed with her assertiveness. It has also been said that her revenge may have been the trigger to further dissensions between England and Denmark. Even triggering a five-year war. During those times, it is not surprising to read that the English Navy sometimes travelled beside their fishing fleets to protect them on their journey to fish in Icelandic waters.

The infamous Ólöf “rika” Loftsdottir must have made quite the impression on those English fishermen. Can you imagine the stories that were told about her, fearing her might, her power over them, as they sailed over dangerous seas to fish in those cold turbulent Northern waters? No wonder they needed protection.

The Medieval Cod Wars continued into the present years, with the last one in 1972 when Iceland extended its fishing limits to 200 miles. (I arrived in Iceland 24th August 1972 during those uneasy times.)

Ólöf “rika” Loftsdottir (c 1410-1479 Wikipedia) took over managing her husband’s holdings and later built a church that survived for three centuries. In her final days, it has been said that she asked God to send some sign of acknowledgment. When she died, “a fierce storm blew up in the region. Churches, homes, and boats were destroyed. In England, fifty ships were sunk, and houses were blown from their foundations in Norway. Henceforth, the storm was dubbed Ólöf’s Tempest.” (Reid)

An extraordinary medieval woman, without a doubt a true sprakkar! We are all related to her, she is 13 times my great-grandmother. How are you related?



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