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    The Voyage of Powell Knutsson

    Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General

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    EA-Greenland-Svalbard, General

    (William Thalbtizer)

    (Translated from the Danish

    by Karin Fennow)



    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


            "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. O.N. knörr , a kind of ship, the royal trading vessel.

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    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–


            "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

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    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. See Gustav Storm: Monumenta historica Norwegicae . Christiania, 1888.

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    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

    [ [ ?] 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. Grønlands historiske Mindesm ae æ rker, III. pp. 886-889. Kiöbenhavn, 1845.

    Finnur Jonsson: Det gamle Gronlands Beskrivelse af Ivar Baro t arson (Ivar

    Bardsson). Köbenhavn, 1930.

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    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. Grønlands historiske Mindesm ae æ rker , III. p. 459, etc.

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    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. The Norwegian historian, P. A. Munch, supposed that these people from Green–

    land could have been in personal contact with their emigrant fellow-country–

    men in Markland. Det norske Folks Historie. Unionsperioden , I. p. 314. 6. W. Thalbitzer, Nordboerne ved Upernavik. Det Gro n landske Selskabs årsskrift ,

    1945. pp. 37-38. of. Meddelelser om Grønland , Vol. 39. 1914. p. 693.

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    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


            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. Knörr (plural knerrir ), in Dan. knarr , was the Old Icelandic name for a

    type of large ship, different from and smaller than the langskip (long ship,

    used in warfare) or skeid. According to the old Icelandic annals the knörr

    had returned with "exceedingly much goods." 8. See report in the Icelandic Annals (year 1349), Grønlands historiske Mindes–

    m ae æ rker
    , III. 1845. pp. 15-19.

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    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. A. Tavanger. Norges Historie (1319-1442), III. Oslo, 1915. p. 10.

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    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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