Alternate History

The Greenland Crusades (Fish-Eating Norse)

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Fish-Eating Norse
Events and Background
New World
Old World

Once Eirikur had rejected Christianity, crusades against the pagan Norse of the New World was inevitable as soon as Europe had the manpower to spare. The slow development of sailing technology, the Black Death, the onset of the Little Ice Age and the Holy Land Crusades all made the Europeans reluctant to contribute large numbers to the subjugation of pagans occupying such a marginal territory (as they believed). Thus until the 15th century the Greenland pagans were viewed by the rest of Europe as a Scandinavian problem.

1259: The Iceland Crusade

King Hakon Hakonsson (Hakon IV) of Norway received dispensation from Pope Innocent IV to use all of Norway's Crusade tithe to equip and sail a fleet out to crush the pagan Greenlanders and reclaim Iceland for Christianity. En route, the fleet became embroiled in the Norwegian conflict with the Scots over the Western Isles and half the fleet was left behind to be re-enforced from Norway. As a result, only 22 ships continued on to the Faroes and then to Iceland.

Arriving in Iceland, the Norwegians overpowered the Vinlanders and Odinist Icelanders in two months of skirmishes gained control of the island. The Vinlanders were able to retreat to Greenland in good order and the Norwegians did not feel confident enough, or numerous enough, to pursue them immediately. Instead, they stayed on Iceland for a year to persecute and execute Odinists, killing about 300 Icelanders and claiming their meager possessions as booty. They also restored several churches and the cathedral of Rejkjavik, which had been burned by the Odinists.

In 1261 the fleet was recalled to Norway to participate in an invasion of Scotland (the Battle of Largs).

1405: The Second Iceland Crusade

The Danish Crown, troubled by unrest and famine at home was all too willing to abandon the increasingly marginal colony of Iceland to its fate in 1401. Pope Boniface, however, took a dim view of the loss to Christendom of a whole island and demanded that Queen Margarete lead a crusade to re-take the island and exterminate the Greenland pagans.

The Danish fleet which set sail in 1405 was unprepared for how much sailing and living conditions in the North Atlantic had deteriorated. Stopping at first the Orkneys and then the Faroe Islands, they found in both places that the islanders were near-starving and unable to supply or house the fleet adequately. As a result, the fleet which left the Faroes for Iceland in late August was already fatigued when they met Eirikur Gunnarsson's fleet at sea.

The Danes were definitely superior in numbers and technology, sending larger ships (cogs and even two carracks) than the Vinlanders had seen. But they were unprepared for the maneuverability of Eirikur's seal-ships. After several hours, with darkness approaching and 9 of Eirkur's 32 ships destroyed, and four Danish ships aflame, the Vinlanders were able to slip away into an encroaching storm front without pursuit.

The Danes returned to the Faroe Islands for the winter. This proved a disastrous decision (as the decision to winter in Iceland would in 1495). The islanders had been surviving only by the mercy of barley and charcoal shipments from Norway; the growing season had become too short and unreliable for any crops to succeed and the Faroes had no trees. Islanders and sailors alike survived on a starvation diet of seal and cod stew through the winter, leaving the sailors malnourished, frozen, and sick. To make things worse, the Faroe harbors iced over that winter, cracking the hulls of many Danish ships.

As soon as the harbors of Iceland were clear of ice in 1406, Eirikur sailed off for the Faroes, and caught the Danes unprepared. Eirikur was able to burn many of the Danish ships in harbor and take several Danish prisoner, including a carpenter. There were too many Danes for Eirkur to seize the Faroes, though, and he became mortally wounded trying.

The Vinlanders retreated to Iceland and the Danes to Scandinavia. Tales of the fierceness of the Norse warriors and the even fiercer Atlantic weather caused Margarete to turn a deaf ear to demands from the Vatican for another attempt.

The (Third) Greenland Crusade

Note on nomenclature: by 1550, Europeans got in the habit of calling all three expeditions against the Vinlanders The Greenland Crusades, even though only the last one had been called the Greenland Crusade at the time. So while contemporary accounts refer to them as the Iceland Crusade, the 2nd Iceland Crusade, and the Greenland Crusade, sources from a century later refer to them as The Greenland Crusades I, II and III.

1483: Colombo's Inspiration

In 1483, a young Portuguese ship captain named Cristóvão Colombo (Colombo hereafter) met a group of Danish sailors and heard the most extraordinary description of their grandfathers' sea battle with the strange ships of the Greenlanders. Based on a bit of wishful thinking and the calculations of Pierre d'Ailly, Colombo came to the conclusion that the Greenlanders had actually settled the Northern reaches of India, and that the Greenlanders had been sailing Indian boats.

He attempted to persuade the Portuguese court of this idea, without success. João II and his advisors already knew that India was much farther than Colombo believed. Colombo went next to the court of Castile, disguising his nationality and claiming his family's Genovese roots. He was kept waiting for over a year at which time his wife died and he returned to Portugal. Frustrated with the Castilian court, he decided to try his luck in Italy.

His Genovese relatives were able to introduce him to some bankers, and more importantly, to get him a hearing with the Pope in 1488. Innocent VIII took warmly to the idea of a crusade against the Greenlanders, but was more intent on a crusade against the Turks. As a result, he kept Colombo on in Rome until the congress of Christian Princes in 1490.

1490: The Congress of Princes

While the emissaries in Rome took a lukewarm interest in fighting the Ottomans, several expressed much more interest in Colombo's crusade, particularly the Castilian prince at the summit. Surprising everyone, the Sforza of Milan pledged support of the enterprise, followed by the French cardinals. This made the Greenland Crusade a reality and the Order of Christ (there representing the Portuguese) promised to support it, and insisted on sending a messenger to the Danish, since Iceland was a Danish possession. Seeing France and Milan committed, Ferdinand I pledged ships from Naples. The Venetians made excuses and departed the congress abruptly.

However, an argument quickly broke out among the emissaries regarding who would lead the expedition. The Order of Christ claimed this place as knights dedicated to the Cross. The Castilians took umbrage at this and demanded that Pope Innocent dismiss the Portuguese Order as lukewarm supporters of the Church and the inheritors of the corrupt Templars. The argument got worse and would have scuttled the whole enterprise except that Innocent was determined to make this Crusade a mission of "united Christendom."

Eventually, Sforza insinuated the idea that the relatively neutral royal house of Naples should be given charge. Innocent ratified this proposal and Frederick of Naples was given command. In order to forstall conflict over land and booty, the Pope decreed an equal split of loot, territorial claims and trade revenues. There was quite a bit of legalistic argument around this, and the various emissaries eventually ended up negotiating a complex agreement known as the Charter of _________, because it wasn't signed until the fleet was actually assembling.

May 1491: The Crusade Fleet Assembles

The following year, ships began to gather at the port of _________. The Castilians assembled fourteen carracks and caravels under the command of ___________. ___________ soon arrived with seven Portuguese ships and numerous fights broke out between the Portuguese and Spanish sailors while waiting for the others. Frederick arrived with 11 ships, and was surprised that the French had not preceded him. He was closely followed by the three ships of Genoa, bearing much of the expedition's finances. After waiting for another couple weeks, a single ship arrived bearing the French and Sforza ambassadors, who came prepared to sign the Charter and with promises that the ships from their respective nations were following close behind them.

However, the assembled crusade fleet waited for another week. The French and Milanese still did not arrive and Frederick became worried and sent messengers for home. His fears were realized: Charles VIII had entered Naples with a Sforza-supported invasion force to support Charles' claim on the throne of Naples, beginning the Italian Wars. Frederick immediately departed for home, leaving only the least two of the Napoli ships to fulfill his obligation to the Pope. Shortly thereafter, a single French carrack arrived, followed by a single Milanese galley.

The rest of the assembled group then broke out in argument as to who was leading the crusade with the departure of Frederick. Colombo stepped forward, but was ignored by the princes. The Castilians and Portuguese were unable to come to agreement and almost came to blows. A messenger was dispatched to Pope Innocent, and the Portuguese withdrew to __________ port in order to separate the two contingents.

Innocent sent Cardinal _________, who was to take charge of the crusade. There was a great deal of argument in favor of abandoning the venture, but neither the Castilians nor the Portuguese wanted to be the first to depart. Finally, in early August, the fractious crusade fleet departed for Dublin, where they would meet the Danish ships.

The Danish had sent a fleet of two carracks, four cogs and more than twenty knorrs to join the expedition. However, with the delay of over four months more than half of this fleet retreated to Norway having run out of cash for supplies. They were sent for but would not be able to join the crusade fleet in Iceland until the following spring. This left the Danish in a weak position to assert authority over the crusade as they'd planned to do (with Portuguese support). After another three days wasted arguing, they instead arrived at an uneasy arrangement where a council of captains of the larger ships, supervised by the Cardinal, would vote on any major decisions, and the Cardinal would otherwise exercise admiral authority, advised by Colombo on nautical matters. This arrangement made Colombo happy but not anyone else.

September 1491: Iceland

The fleet then sailed to Iceland. Most of the ships had barely enough supplies to get there, as many of them had been out of their home ports for months with nothing to show for it and were running low on funds. On the insistence of the Danish, they skipped the Faroes where such a vast fleet could not possibly be supported and headed straight across the Ocean Sea.

Everyone other than the Danish and Portuguese were rather surprised by what they found when they arrived. The Castilians had been arming themselves for a deadly conflict with the Norse, but there were no Norse to be found. The Norse had evacuated the island of Iceland some seventy years before, and the only habitation on the island was a small Portuguese fort in the ruins of Reykjavík, established by secret treaty with Denmark in 1479.

This caused another crisis of leadership. The Castilians realized that they had been tricked and berated the Danish and the Portuguese. Battle between the factions seemed likely except that even the Spanish could count ships and men, and backed down before hostilities became inevitable. The Castilians considered returning to Europe but vacillated, since the terms of the Charter still held and Spain would relinquish any claims on India if they abandoned the crusade. Unfortunately for all concerned, the winter storms of 1491 set in before the very tardy and fractious fleet could get underway for Greenland or break up.

Winter 1491-1492: Starvation and Conflict

Despite the Portuguese laying in provisions for the fleet, the Southern Europeans were unprepared for the fierceness and length of the Icelandic winter. The schism within the fleet, which made its leaders completely unable to cooperate, made things much worse. By February, food supplies - and more importantly, firewood - were running low and fights began to break out over what remained, often destroying it in the process. Eventually this erupted beyond all restraint, resulting in the burning of many of the poorly repaired Icelandic buildings where the sailors sheltered, and the murder of more than a dozen sailors. More men succumbed to freezing, starvation, and disease.

By the time April arrived and further progress on the Ocean Sea could be contemplated, the crusade had lost nearly one-third of its manpower. Most importantly perhaps, Cardinal _______ and Colombo had perished of disease. The Cardinal's assistant, however, Archdeacon Tomasso of Florence (to become Saint Tommasso the Baptist), survived his bout with the fever and was rewarded by a vision. The archangel Michael appeared to him and told him that the soldiers would be purified by their suffering and worthy to bring the Word of the Lord to the pagan Greenlanders, and that he would go with a fiery sword before them. This was no little encouragement to the trapped and starving sailors. The ecstatic cleric was so transported by this vision that he managed to bind together the shattered remnants of the crusaders into a resolute (if emaciated) force.

April 1492: Conquest of Greenland

By 1492, Greenland was settled only with a small fort in the Eastern Settlement whose 140-person staff's primary activity was trade with the Inuit. This complement was split into two nearly equal parts: warriors who had been exiled to the fort for being on the wrong side of political infighting in Vinland, and Norse who had intermarried with Inuit and found they could endure the social ostracism better far from the Vinland mainstream. Thus the Norse were unprepared for the invasion, and did little to defend themselves, even though they had enough warning to send a panicked messenger in a kayak to the mainland.

The Norse held out against the sudden assault for two days only because Fort Gardar was located far back in the fjord, where the winds were mild and it was too shallow for the large European ships. The Europeans had to disembark and haul cannon to a hill above the fort on foot. Once in place, however, the two cannon destroyed the fieldston West wall of Gardar in only two shots. The Norse surrendered immediately, except for one small group of hothead exiles who fought to the death, setting Gardar on fire in the process.

At the insistence of Tomasso, the captured Norse were baptized as Christians. Then, under guard by the Order of Christ, they loaded the European ships with what provisions they could scavenge -- mostly large quantities of seal meat. One exile in particular, Snurri Olegsson, saw a chance to revenge himself on his relatives and explained to the Europeans about Vinland and the many settlements there. This quisling was taken along as a guide, and a small mixed European contingent, with one ship, was left behind to hold the damaged fort and the Norse prisoners.

Vinland in 1492: The Norse Divided

The Vinlanders were ill-prepared to face an invasion, having divided themselves into three hostile communities. Not coincidentally, this was due to Portuguese influence.

In 1483 Greenland Norse made contact with the Portuguese trading post and fort on Iceland. Thanks to good timing, they were able to open trade with the Portuguese: furs and walrus ivory in trade for manufactured goods hard to come by in Vinland, including fine cloth and good steel. The Portuguese were careful to not let the Norse get a glimpse of cannon or guns, and the Greenlanders misled the Portuguese to believe that Vinland was simply a second, larger island west of Greenland (not entirely successfully, as the Portuguese had other information).

This trade carried on for four years without incident, the fine European goods fetching high prices in Vinlanborg. But at the Althing of 1487, several lords from Southern Vinland, particularly Margarbakki and Haethottureyja which were settled by refugees from Iceland and Rugen, objected strenuously to trading with Christians. They demanded that the Althing vote a war party and slaughter the Portuguese and take back Iceland.

The vote went in favor of trade rather than war, partly because of the larger population of Vinlanborg, Markland and Alderland (the North) and partly because Jotunnlaugholdr sided with Vinlanborg. The Sudurlandar (as they came to be called) refused to accept this verdict, and left the Althing after a brawl, vowing to pursue their own course. After returning to their farms, they organized a war fleet which was stopped on its way up the coast by the Norlandar (Northern Norse) with fairly limited bloodshed (for the Norse, anyway).

It did result in the Sudurlandar "seceding" from the Althing and holding their own in their new capital of Rykrelfrborg. The Jotunnlaugholdr then declared their independence as a block from Vinlanborg, and cannily alternated sides in the long, hostile negotiations which lasted the next two years. The Sudurlandar did attempt to send several boats directly across the Ocean Sea to attack Iceland, but they vanished (probably became lost).

In 1490, the Iroquois (the Mohawk, actually) took advantage of this strife and attacked the Jotunnlaugholdr with renewed energy, wiping out an entire small settlement. This collapsed their brief flirtation with independence and the Jotunnlaugholdr rejoined the Vinlanborg Althing, desperately pleading for armed help. It is not clear what would have happened with the Norland/Sudurland split, given time, since the Europeans did not give the Norse time.

May 1492: The Baptism of Markland

On Snurri's advice, the Europeans sailed Southwest across the Ocean Sea to Markland, rather than sailing around the Davis Straight past Helluland. This was partly because Helluland was of little value, and partly to bypass any Norse fleet sent to meet them (which none was; the Norse were still arguing and panicking).

Despite the several Norse who fled Greenland and brought word of the European conquest, no substantial defense had been organized. A couple dozen whaling boats and a cog sailed to meet the crusaders but were quickly scattered by a handful of cannon-shot and musketry (even though no boat was hit). The Norse sailors fled, some trying to evacuate their relatives and some simply fleeing.

The disembarking Europeans in the harbor of Markland mustered a more resolute defense, storming down to meet the ship's boats with axes and harpoons ready. But the European matchlocks, of which the Norse had no previous experience, were a great demoralizer, causing more panic than injuries. Most of the squads of Markland warriors scattered or surrendered, although two bands braved the bullets and waded into the midst of the European sailors. There they found that Europeans bled as readily as other men, and while their armor was better than the Norse, their sword arms were weaker. So the Europeans took a couple dozen casualties before Markland was subdued.

The Europeans then split up to loot the small town and its adjacent farms for food, turning to rape and murder only when their bellies were filled. This allowed a large portion of Markland to flee south, and two enterprising warriors were able to rob some Portuguese soldiers of their matchlocks and powder and head to Vinland with it.

The Holy Tommasso, however, headed straight for the Temple of the Aesir to burn it down. There, the holy warriors and the three priests of Odin put up a spirited defense, slaying three Europeans but being brought down with bullets. Once the Temple and its grove were in flames, Tommasso ordered his squad of soldiers to round up all of the Norse for a forced baptism. These "new Christians" were then put to work as forced labor, loading up food for the crusaders.

Between the baptisms and the long-starving Europeans glutting their appetites on Markland's spring stock, the Europeans spent eleven days in Markland. They were not rushed. The Europeans' faith in Tommasso and God was absolute: clearly the Saints had paved their way smooth.

May 1492: Battle of Leifsbudir

The Vinlanders had not been idle during this reprieve. They hastily convened the Althing, and selected Saemundr the Longsighted for the defense of Liefsbudir and sent him with several score warriors and boats. They then send delegations to the Suderlandar, offering peace and asking for help in battling the Christians.

Saemundr interviewed the Markland refugees and inspected the matchlocks, but without interpretation was unable to decipher their mechanism. He determined that the uppermost priority in their long-term defense was to capture some of the Europeans and interrogate them, so he selected a particularly crew and gave them that task. The rest of the boats and ships were mustered, hidden, around the headland of Liefsey, to fall upon the Europeans from behind. He also told the citizens of Liefsbudir and the neighboring community of Vik to evacuate.

Despite the wisdom of this plan, it had little success. The Norse were unable to kill more than a few Europeans with bows and harpoons, and took heavy casualties from the European musketry. The European defensive cannon were useless against the maneuverable umyjks, but badly damaged the two large cogs the Norse sent against them. As ordered, the Norse fled back around the headland. The Europeans, fearing a trap, did not pursue but set picket ships and landed soldiers at Leifsbudir.

On land, the Vinlanders had more mixed success. Hiding in town buildings, the Norse warriors attacked from ambush, taking heavy casualties but often taking Europeans with them. Soon the signal came, and the Norse abandoned Liefsbudir to the Europeans. They had lost, but Saemundr had accomplished his goal; four Danish musketeers were now his.

June 1492: The Plundering of Leifsieg

After taking Leifsbudir, the crusaders continued South, plundering the rest of the island of Leifsieg and forcing conversions on the populace. Saemundr led the Norse defensively, falling back from pitched battles and conserving his forces while he tried to replicate European firearms. Wise as it was in the face of the Europeans' superior weapons, it was a very unpopular strategy.

The Suderlandar delegation was led by the fiery-tempered Haraldr, who immediately demanded that the "cowardly" Saemundr be deposed as a condition of Suderlandar help. After a brief tussle, Saemundr was send to the {temple of Odin} for medical care and Haraldr was in charge of the Norse forces.

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