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The Voyage of Powell Knutsson: Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

The Voyage of Powell Knutsson

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General
(William Thalbtizer)
(Translated from the Danish
by Karin Fennow)

THE VOYAGE OF POWELL KNUTSSON

A Lost Expedition to Greenland — and Markland?
A rarely mentioned Greenland expedition, which had no scientific purpose
but which was undertaken in honor of the Cross, was once launched by Magnus
Eriksson (called "Smok"), the first king of the union of Sweden and Norway
(1319-1355). King Magnus' "Letter of Command" regarding this expedition is
dated in the year 1354. His order is extant in writing, although now only in
a late copy, in which the order has been translated from Old Swedish to older
Danish. The copy of the diploma is in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen,
and has been reproduced in Part III of Grønlands historiske Mindesm ae æ rker (pp.
121-122). Following is a somewhat revised version in English translation (with
comments):
"King Magni Letter of Command [ befalingsbrev ] given Powell Knutsson at
Anarm [i.e., Onarheim ] ordering him to sail to Greenland.
"Magnus, by the Grace of God King of Norway, Sweden and Skone [Skåne, now
Skåne Province of Sweden] sends to all men who see or hear this letter God's
Health and Spirit.
"We want you to know that you [Powell Knutsson] are to take with you all
such men as are willing to journey in the knarr [ship] — whether they are called
[ n ae æ vnte ] or not called — from among all my henchmen or other men's retainers,
and other men whom you can persuade to go along; for Powell Knutsson, whi is to
be commander of the knarr , 1 / has full authority to appoint both as officers and 1

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Thalbitzer (Fennow): Voyage of Powell Knutsson

subordinates [ mesterm ae æ nd oc sv ae æ nne ] those men he likes best; we request you
to accept this order with right good will for the cause, that we do this in
God's honor and for the sake of our souls and for our forefathers, who brought
Christendom to Greenland and maintained it to this day, and it shall not fall
away in our time
. Know that whoever disobeys our order shall feel our true
wrath and shall be held responsible for breach of the letter [fined for trans–
gression].
"Done in Bergen the Monday after Simoni and Judae day [28 October] in the
36th year of our reign [ [: ] 1354]. Here örmer östinsson, our Keeper of the Seal
[ drott sa ŝâ ter , drost — Lord Chamberlain] affixed the seal."
This is a remarkable document. Powell Knutsson was one of the king's high
officials. In 1345 he had been delegate in Bergen for the king's mother, Duchess
Ingeborg, and in 1347-48 he was lovsigemand [law speaker] at Gulathing [parlia–
ment, assizes]. He was one of Norway's leading men — and now in glorious and
inviting terms King Magnus delegates to him the position as commander of a great
missionary expedition to Greenland. It appears that the king desires Powell
Knutsson to select choice men from the retinue ("my henchmen"); he is even to
address himself first and foremost to the specially recommended or "called" men,
who cannot easily ignore the royal wish; but otherwise he is to have free choice
in the selection of his companions.
The purpose of the expedition is on the highest plane, and can best be
understood against the background of those crusade-like expeditions which King
Magnus had led into Russia in previous years (1347-1348 ) and 1351) in order to
force upon the Russians conversion to the Roman Catholic faith. That was an
enterprise which cost millions, but which unfortunately led only to Sweden's
defeat. At approximately the same time the "black death" plague raged across

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Thalbitzer (Fennow): Voyage of Powell Knutsson

Norway, and further impoverished the land. In 1350 the king appealed to Pope
Clement VI, who half a year later sent an encouraging reply. The Pope decreed
that a holy crusade was to be sent out from both Germany and Poland and the
Scandinavian countries against Russia, and he offered Magnus a large loan out
of all the tithes forthcoming in the next four years from Sweden-Norway and ad–
jacent dependencies. However, after the revenues poured into the king's treasury
in 1351, the spread of the black death to Russia prevented the last Russian
crusade from being carried through. The king, who had now acquired ample means,
then turns to the west instead of to the east; he decides on the missionary ex–
pedition to Greenland. Presumably, King Magnus had often thought of such an
expedition before.
"Christendom shall not fall away in Greenland." Up there, Christendom
was also threatened, by the heathen Skraelinger (Eskimos) who in the preceding
years had come down from the north to the Western Colony time and again, perhaps
only for the purpose of re-occupying the hunting grounds in the South Greenland
fjords which they had formerly visited and which were better than those in the
central part of the west coast. But thereby the Eskimos involuntarily came into
conflict with the Icelandic farmer inhabitants of the settlements, and when they
came down from the north the Western Colony was the first to be affected.
In Historia Norwegiae , which was written in 1250 or thereafter, 2 / we find
early references to skirmishes with Eskimos in the northern settlements on the
west coast. A century later the Eskimos have moved in on the colonists, and
already appear to have displaced the latter in the most northerly regions. We
are told about this by Ivar Bårdsson , the Norwegian priest who was himself born 2

EA-Greenland, Svalbard, General. Thalbitzer (Fennow), Voyage of Powell Knutsson

in Greenland and who for about 27 years, beginning in 1341, functioned as
deputy for the bishop at the Gardar Cathedral during the lengthy episcopal
interregnum there. His words are recorded in translation in a short work, a
14th century description of Greenland, which begins as follows: Så siger vise
m ae æ nd, som fødte ehre udi Grønland
[Thus say wise men who were born in Greenland],
etc. This work has frequently been commented upon. 3 / In the present article we
will confine ourselves to citing a passage from the latter part of the work (in
English translation):
"Furthermore, all this that has been said above was told to us by Iffver
Bardsen
[ [: ] Ivar Bårdeson], Greenlander [Grønlaender — here used more or less
as part of the man's name], who was head of the Bishop's Seat in Gardum on Green–
land for many years. He said that he had witnessed all of it, and he was one
of those appointed by the Law Lord [ Lagmand ] to set forth to the Western Colony
against the Skr ae æ llings [Eskimoe] in order to drive them out of the colony. And
when they came there they found no men, neither Christian nor heathen, but only
some wild cattle and sheep. And they fed on the wild cattle and [: ] took
with them as many cattle as the ship could hold, and so they sailed back home
to the Eastern Colony. And the above-mentioned Iffver was with them."
Accordingly, Ivar Bårdsson found the Western Colony deserted; only some
freely roaming cattle were to be seen. That was presumably in the summer of
1342. The fact that Ivar did not meet a single person — not even women or
children — could indicate that the region (as far as he explored it) had been 3

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Thalbitzer (Fennow), Voyage of Powell Knutsson

voluntarily evacuated by the Icelandic colonial farmers and their families —
without violent pressure on the part of the Eskimos.
Another Icelandic story, which refers to an occurrence in the Western Colony
the same year, would agree with the above, but the only extant copy is of a much
later date, 1637 (rendered from Latin in English, below):
From Grønlands annaler :
"In 1342 the inhabitants of Greenland abandoned the true faith and the
Christian religion; and after they had discarded all good habits and true virtues
they turned toward America's savage people. There are some who believe that
Greenland lies rather close to the western regions of the world. Thus it followed
that Christians began to keep away from the Greenland waters...." 4 /
Here it is regretfully stated that the Icelandic members of the Western
Colony had left the Christian community about 200 years earlier, and had emigrated
to the heathen folk, the Skraellings , on the other side of the ocean, in Markland
or Vin o land. [But the copy is so much later than the original that the modern
name of America has been employed instead of Markland and Vinland.] They must
have done this in the hope of encountering fellow-countrymen or their descend–
ants over there in America. Just as the earlier Icelanders had succumbed to the
lure of Greenland in the days of Erik the Red, these men were also tempted by
beautiful names like "Vinland the Good" and "Markland" [the latter means wood–
land]. They counted, perhaps, on meeting traders from the settlements, who
through the years — possibly still — voyaged to those coasts which were memor–
4

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Thalbitzer (Fennow), Voyage of Powell Knutsson

able since the says of Lief and Karlsefni. 5 / I have pointed out that rare fur
products reached Europe in the Middle Ages, coming from America over Greenland.
The Norsemen in Greenland had their own vessels in which they were able to
undertake long journeys to remote parts of Greenland and to America. They were
often in America, hunting and trading. 6 /
Not much news sifted out of Greenland. Perhaps the Greenlanders found it
most prudent not to reveal the source of their valuables. But in 1347 a Green–
landic ship that had been in Markland happened to be driven to Iceland by storms,
with a crew of 17 on board and a missing anchor. It ran into Strømfjord (on
the south side of Snaefellsnaes) — and surely it must have attracted attention!
Never in man's memory had a ship come to Iceland direct from Markland. For what
reason had that ship been in Markland? Was there any connection with uncertain
conditions in Greenland? Were there, perhaps, refugees from the Western Colony
on board? Undoubtedly, the Greenlanders brought sensational news. The leading
Icelandic politician of the time, Jon Guttormsøn, member of a rich and respected
family, got in touch with them [he was in bad grace with the Norwegian king at
the time and needed political support, which might possibly be obtained in this
way]; consewuently, in the following year 1348 he journeyed to Norway along with
these Greenlandic traders, and visited the king's court. King Magnus had just
recently donated a large sum of money to the cathedral in Greenland, and had in 5 6

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Thalbitzer (Fennow), Voyage of Powell Knutsson

various ways evidenced his interest in Greenland. The knörr had returned
from the Greenland expedition the previous year with an exceptionally valuable
cargo in her hold. 7 / The reports of these travelers from Markland on conditions
in the Western Colony surely gave the king food for thought, worried as he was
about the fate of the Christian church in the east and west.
But now a catastrophe struck — the black death broke out all over the
northern countries. In those years it spread out from Asia across Europe, and
threatened to wipe out entire nations. Even in sparsely settled Norway and
Sweden it wrested away nearly a third of the population. Iceland and Greenland (?)
alone seem to have escaped. 8 /
The arrival of the Markland ship in Norway in 1348, prior to the outbreak
of the plague, undoubtedly had certain results. The old traditions regarding
Greenland and Vinland had always been kept up both in Iceland and in Norway.
Now the relationship with America at once became very much alive again.
Unfortunately, our sources from the years immediately preceding and immed–
iately following 1347 are very scanty. Neither annals nor other documents state
what kind of goods or new information the crew of the Markland ship brought in.
It is probable that Greenland, the Eskimos' attacks, etc., must have made a deep
impression.
The years passed. In the period following 1350 the King of Norway and
Sweden was so hard pressed by his obligations to the Pope (among other things
the mortgage on Skåne) that it was logical — after the unsuccessful and costly 7 8

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Thalbitzer (Fennow), Voyage of Powell Knutsson

Russian crusades — for him to turn westward with an expedition to "the rich
Greenland." His knörr usually returned home with valuable cargoes, and tithes
came in from the colonies there in the form of costly furs and ivory (walrus
teeth). To be sure, Christendom was not to "fall away" in Greenland — there
riches, power and honor were to be acquired! King Magnus had arrived at the
great crisis of his life. In 1350 (the annals relate) King Magnus and Queen
Blanche came to Bergen, and the king then gave Sweden to his son Erik, and Nor–
way to Haakon, and with high ceremony placed them on the throne, and decreed
that they should have a retinue; but for himself he retained Haalogoland, Ice–
land, the Faroe Islands and Hjaltland [for his own disposal]. There is no men–
tion of Greenland, but it was usually combined with Iceland. A great decision
had been made, and the plan was to be put into practice within five years. It
meant the dissolution of the union.
But a plan for a crusade to Greenland provided a solution, a remedy. Out
there lay a road to salvation! Inside of five months the plan matured — and,
as we have seen, the orders were issued.
This expedition to Greenland was of course carried out in accordance with
the royal orders; there are no grounds for doubting that. It is impossible to
determine how many men, "called or not called," responded to Powell Knutsson's
appeal for support; but, considering the times, it is probable that a consider–
able group of young men in the king's service — both from Norway and from Sweden —
were willing to set forth on the adventure. The upplandske m ae æ nd [men from Upp–
land, Sweden] were responsbble for placing Magnus on the throne of Norway [see
Erikskrøniken], and the king was on the best of terms with the Göter 9 / [Gothlanders,
of East and West Götaland, Sweden]. But the Norwegians had the best understanding 9

EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General. Thalbitzer (Fennow), Voyage of Powell Knutsson

of Greenland as the gateway to a greater world; consequently, major support
would come from Norway. The knörr was too small a vessel to accommodate all
the members of the expedition; presumably one or more ships were made available.
The outcome of the expedition is a matter of conjecture. In the Greenland
settlements the men of the Powell Knutsson expedition must have obtained veri–
fication of the reports received in Norway from the Markland ship of 1347, and
they must also have acquired new information. There is nothing that can lead
us to believe that those men settled down in the Greenland colonies. They
learned what had happened to the families that had left the Western Colony, and
Powell Knutsson adhered to the spirit of the king's letter of Command and with
the help of his followers set out in search of the emigrants along the old south–
western route. Guided, perhaps, by a man who knew the way, they may first have
visited Markland and Vinland. From there they may have gone forth to meet their
fate in the great unknown land in the west, never to return.
William Thalbitzer
[Translated from the Danish
by Karin Fennow]
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