During the first half of the 13th century Iceland was virtually ablaze with civil war waged by a number of prominent chieftains who forced assembly members and farmers under their power to attack their rivals. One of the most significant struggles for power was conducted by the Sturlungar family, which was comprised of the descendants of Hvamm-Sturla. They were not only renowned warriors but also subtle politicians and prolific writers of literature and history. For a time the sons of Hvamm-Sturla had acquired half of the goðorð in the country, a degree of power attested by the fact that this particular period in Icelandic history came to be known as Sturlungaöld or the Age of the Sturlungar Family.
Snorri Sturluson was the son of Sturla at Hvammur. At a young age he was taken in as a foster-child by Jón Loftsson at Oddi in Rangárvellir. In 1202, Snorri married Herdís Bersadóttir and became master at Borg in Mýrar as well as gaining possession of the Mýrar goðorð or the right to represent that county at the Althing. Over the following years Snorri gathered a large number of such goðorð and by the time he was thirty he was considered the richest and most powerful man in the whole country. He moved to Reykholt in 1206 and spent the rest of his life there.
In the year 1215 Snorri was chosen to the office of law speaker at the Althing. He held that position for three years until he sailed to Norway to meet with the king. He befriended Earl Skúli Bárðarson who was King Hákon’s chief advisor. It appears that Snorri had promised King Hákon he would bring Iceland under the power of the Norwegian throne, but when he returned home he evidently laid these plans aside. Snorri was elected Law Speaker for a second time in 1221 and kept that office for a further decade.
By 1230, Snorri had indisputably become one of the most respected and influential chieftains in Iceland, but his lack of interest in bringing the country under Norwegian rule soon prompted his downfall. In 1235, Snorri’s nephew Sturla Sighvatsson arrived from Norway under the appointment of King Hákon to carry out what Snorri had failed to achieve. He drove Snorri out of the country and set about his royal task by entering a bloody power struggle with the rest of Iceland’s leading families.
Snorri was in Norway when a disagreement arose between his friend Skúli and King Hákon. Skúli was in favour of allowing Snorri to return home and reclaim his lands but the king stubbornly refused his permission and prohibited Snorri from leaving Norway. Snorri contradicted the king’s orders by setting out for Iceland anyway and was almost certainly assisted by Skúli. At that time Skúli had been conspiring to overthrow Hákon but the attempted coup failed miserably and it was abundantly clear to Hákon that Snorri was among the party who betrayed him. The king responded by sending Gissur Þorvaldsson, who was by then the most powerful chieftain in Iceland, a letter requesting that Snorri be declared a traitor and that Gissur was either to bring him back to Norway or have him killed.
In the summer of 1241, Snorri’s sons-in-law, Kolbeinn the Young and Gissur Þorvaldsson met up on Kjölur, the mountain route across the Icelandic highlands, and devised a plan. It was on the eve of the 23rd September that same year that Gissur and his men broke into Snorri’s house and searched the premises for him. When they had him cornered they squabbled about which one of them should deal the final blow, when Snorri well over sixty years old repeated constantly: “Eigi skal höggva,” literally “Do not strike.” Gissur’s men paid no heed to Snorri’s words and together struck him down and killed him.
With that ended the life of one of the most prominent politicians in the history of Iceland. He was not at all famous for his prowess as a warrior but rather for his financial exploits and for his prolific output as a writer. He left behind him a large range of works such as Heimskringla, a collection of chronicles of the Norwegian Kings and one of the most important historical accounts of medieval literature, as well as the Snorra-Edda, which contains, among other things the story of “Gylfaginning” and remains a central document on Nordic mythology and cosmogony, under the guise of fiction. Snorri is also thought to have written one of the best sagas of the period, The Saga of Egill Skalla-Grímsson. There is no indisputable evidence of his having written the tale but the fact that Snorri began his career as a chieftain at Borg in Mýrar on the farmstead and land once owned by Egill’s father Skalla-Grímur strongly indicates that this might be true.