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The Ásbirningar Clan and their Battles in Skagafjörður

Editor’s Note: This article is a compilation of two previous articles authored by Icelandic Roots President, Sunna Furstenau. This article explores the era of settlement in Iceland and the power struggles between the clans.


Back in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Clan Ásbirningar was the most powerful and at one point, a leading clan of the Skagafjörður area. Kolbeinn Tumason (IR#I136178) and his younger brother, Arnór (IR#I136181), were both members of this clan. The two brothers, whose father was Tumi Kolbeinsson (IR#I136177), were well-known warriors, politicians, and poets. Kolbeinn rose to became one of the most formidable chieftains, or goði in Iceland. He oversaw the Clan Ásbirningar until his death.

Skagafjörður area highlighted in red.


The Battle of Víðines

Kolbeinn's rule as clan leader was short. He died in battle against the Catholic Bishop of Hólar, Bishop Guðmundur “The Good” (IR#I138506).

In the early years Guðmundur served as house priest to Kolbeinn. Later, Guðmundur was elected as the Bishop of Hólar with Kolbeinn’s inducement. In 1205 a monetary dispute arose, but Bishop Guðmundur refused resolution as he believed the church had jurisdiction over money matters. A few years had passed when Kolbeinn led a group to settle a claim of impropriety of one of the priests against a local woman. Tensions rose between the men and the bishop’s followers resulting in the battle called Víðinesbardagi, The Battle of Víðines.

Bishop Guðmundur survived this battle, but Kolbeinn and his men suffered with many dying in the conflict. It was here that Kolbeinn died from a rock that smashed his head. Legend believes the rock was thrown from heaven.

Statue of Guðmundur the Good at Hólar í Skagafirði
Statue of Guðmundur the Good at Hólar í Skagafirði

While on his deathbed Kolbeinn had written a poem that, 750 years later, was set to music by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (IR#I311975). This poem is now a beloved hymn in Iceland: Heyr, himna smiður or “Hear, Smith of the Heavens.”  Some of the lyrics include:

“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.”

There are a few choices to read and hear this poem sung:

Bishop Guðmundur had his disputes with the chieftains over the years, but they soon faded in contrast to the reverence bestowed upon him for all his good work with the church. Here is an earlier IR blog for Bishop Guðmundur the Good that may be of interest.


Battle of Örlygsstaðir

The largest battle in Iceland’s history, known as the Battle of Örlygsstaðir in 1238, pitted the Clans Ábirningar and Haukdælir against the Clan Sturlung. The Sturlungs were eventually defeated. Historians estimate that 2000-3000 men were involved with 56 people killed including some chieftains.

The son of Arnór, Kolbeinn "yngri" Arnórsson (IR#I136905) had become the chieftain of clan Ábirningar following the death of his uncle Kolbeinn. The chieftain of Clan Haukdælir happened to be the first cousin of Kolbeinn yngri, Gissur Þorvaldsson (IR#I89135). Some years later, Gissur’s men murdered the famous Snorri Sturluson (IR#I134368) in Snorri’s home.

The old turf church at Víðimýri in Skagafjörður.
The old turf church at Víðimýri in Skagafjörður.

A new virtual museum in Sauðárkrókur has a tourist excursion called, "The Last Battle of the Vikings, 1238 The Battle of Iceland". In 1988, a memorial was raised on the site of the battle, which describes the battle. Kolbeinn yngri lived at Víðimýri in Skagafjörður where a great old turf church remains.  

Battle of Haugsnes

Iceland’s civil war, the Battle of Haugsnes, also known as its bloodiest battle, took place on 19 April 1246. The battle was fought between the Clans Sturlungs and Ásbirningar.  Brandur Kolbeinn, nephew to Tumi Kolbeinnson, was now the chieftain of Ásbirningar clan. The battle saw about 110 men die including the Ásbirningar clan chieftain, Brandur. This defeat ended the power reign of the clan Ásbirningar in Skagafjörður.

Battle of Haugsnes cross by Jón Adólf Steinólfsson
Battle of Haugsnes cross by Jón Adólf Steinólfsson

After the battle, a large cross was erected on the site. Over the centuries, it disappeared. In more recent years, travellers to the area can see the new cross carved by Jón Adólf Steinólfsson. There is also a history and art exhibit located at Kakalskáli á Kringlumýri that demonstrates the staging of the Battle of Haugsnes.

The artist and farmer Sigurður Hansen of Kringlumýri created a memorial for the battle at the site, consisting of more than 1100 boulders in battle order, each representing a combatant. Those who fell are marked with iron crosses.



The combatants were often known to each other because they were either relatives or friends. Researching the Icelandic Roots’ relationship calculator in the database will identify if there is a link between you and some of these warriors.

Sunna Furstenau, President of Icelandic Roots, is related to Tumi; he is her 19th Great-Grandparent. He was not alive when his sons and clan members were in the battle with Bishop Guðmundur. The younger brother to Kolbeinn, Arnór, is her 18th Great-Grandparent Arnór was 26 years old during the battle where his older brother, Kolbeinn, was killed at the age of 35. 

How might you be related?

·       Tumi Kolbeinsson   IR# I136177

·       Kolbeinn Tumason   IR# I136178

·       Arnór Tumason   IR# I136181

·       Kolbeinn "yngri" Arnórsson   IR#I136905

·       Gissur Þorvaldsson   IR# I89135

·       Brandur Kolbeinn   IR# I137425

·       Bishop Guðmundur “The Good”  IR# I138506

·       Snorri Sturluson   IR# I134368

·       Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson  IR# I311975



If you plan to go to Northwest Iceland, review the list of interesting places at Saga Trails Travel. In Skagafjörður, be sure to visit exhibits and monuments that pay tribute to the history. There are many to choose from, but here are a few to consider:

  • Arnarstapi - a rocky mound just south of Highway 1 with a monument for Stephan G. Stephansson, IR# I187678, who emigrated to North America.

  • Drangey - The beautiful island in the middle of the fjord with diverse birdlife

  • Glaumbær - a museum with authentic buildings and turf house

  • Grettislaug - Natural Hot Springs - the pool of Grettir the Strong IR# I138211

  • Hofsós Emigration Center Website

  • Hólar – Bishopric of the north from 1106-1801 with the statue of Bishop Guðmundur, Hólar Cathedral, Nýibær turf house, Icelandic horse history exhibit

  • Sauðárkrókur - many things to do and see as well as golf, restaurants, bakery, and the local Safnahúsið - Héraðsskjalasafn Skagafirðinga

  • Tindastóll - Ski area

  • Viðines, Víðimýrikirkja Turf Church built in 1834


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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