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Icelandic explorer and legend of the Vinland sagas, Gudrid could be said to be the most widely travelled European of the early 11th Century.

Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir

Gudrid was born in Iceland, married in Greenland, gave birth to a son in North America, travelled to Norway, farmed in Iceland and made a pilgrimage on foot to Rome, before ending her days as a nun and anchoress in Iceland.

Much of what we know of Gudrid’s life comes from the Vinland sagas – two Icelandic texts written independently of each other in the early 13th century – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendinga Saga) and the Saga of Eric the Red, (Eiríks Saga Rauða). These sources cannot be deemed completely historically accurate due to Iceland’s oral tradition, and some details are contradictory, however these texts do provide substantial evidence for Viking exploration of North America and the role figures like Gudrid played in this.

The Saga of Eirik the Red tells us that Gudrid was the daughter of the chieftain Thorbjorn of Laugarbrekka. As the story goes, a young man by the name of Einar asked for her hand in marriage, but because his father was a slave, Gudrid’s father refused. Gudrid and her father promptly left Iceland and voyaged to Greenland to accompany Eirik the Red. In this saga, Gudrid also exemplifies the transition from the pagan Norse religion to Christianity, describing herself as a “Christian woman”.

Gudrid married Thorstein Eiriksson, Leif Eiriksson’s younger brother and Eirik the Red’s son. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Gudrid accompanied her husband to Vinland with the hope that he could retrieve the body of his brother Thorvald. However, illness struck the group and Gudrid’s husband Thorstein died. According to this account, Thorstein temporarily rose from his dead bed to tell prophesise the rest of Gudrid’s life:

“thou wilt be married to an Icelander, and ye shall live long together, and have a numerous posterity, powerful, distinguished, and excellent, sweet and well favoured; ye shall remove from Greenland to Norway, and from thence to Iceland; there shall ye live long, and thou shalt outlive him. Then wilt thou go abroad, and travel to Rome, and come back again to Iceland, to thy house; and then will a church be built, and thou wilt reside there, and become a nun, and there wilt thou die.”

The Saga of the Greenlanders

Viking discovery

After Thornstein’s death, Gudrid married a merchant named Thorfinn Karlsefni. Gudrid insisted they should settle Vinland. She led an expedition of 60 men, 5 women and a cargo of livestock. In Vinland, Gudrid gave birth to a son named Snorri Thorfinnsson – the first European reported to have been born in North America. Shortly after Snorri was born, the family travelled back to Greenland and then to Iceland.

When back in Iceland, Gudrid converted to Christianity – conversion to Christianity was widespread during in Iceland during this period. She went on a pilgrimage to Rome and some historians have suggested Gudrid may have met the Pope, but there is no evidence for this. When she came back from Rome, Gudrid lived out the rest of her days in Iceland as a nun, living in a church that her son Snorri had built.

There is a statue of Gudrid at Laugarbrekka in the Snæfellsnes peninsular, Iceland – it depicts her on a boat, carrying her son Snorri on her shoulder. Gudrid is known in Iceland as víðförla, wide-fared or far-travelled, because of her many adventures.