International Trade between Medieval England and Iceland

Guest post by Toni Mount

In my latest Seb Foxley medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Lies, set in London in the 1470s, the trouble begins with the theft of three exceptionally valuable items from a stall during the annual St Bartholomew’s Fair. They are unicorn horns belonging to a Bristol merchant, Richard Amerike (or Ameryk). In the Middle Ages, nobody doubted that creatures with a single horn existed somewhere in the world but they were so illusive and descriptions of them so variable, it was unsurprising that they proved difficult to locate and impossible to identify, yet their horns were real enough, if rare indeed. A unicorn horn could be worth twenty times its weight in gold and a large one could weigh fourteen pounds. Even in small pieces or powdered – a form used medicinally to treat any and every ailment, from plague to piles – it was worth ten times the value of gold. My research into the origins of these marvellous artefacts revealed a surprising source: Iceland. So how might a Bristol merchant have come to acquire the unicorn horns?

The_Colour_of_Lies_3D (002)

I had already completed my novel in which Richard Ameryk, a very real medieval merchant from Bristol, appears as a minor character, when I attended the Richard III Society’s conference in early April this year, held at King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Had it not been with the publishers but still a work in progress, I would probably have changed Ameryk’s character for that of a merchant from Lynn because two of the conference speakers – Anne Sutton and Mark Gardiner – informed us about the Norfolk port’s trade connections with Iceland in the medieval period. This article makes full use of the notes I made at the time and Anne’s paper ‘East coast ports and the Iceland trade, 1483-5: (protection and compensation)’ that she so kindly sent me. Also to Mark’s paper: ‘Trading and Fishing Sites in Medieval Iceland’, co-written with Natascha Mehler, which I found on the internet. I’m indebted to both speakers.

England’s main concern with Icelandic trade was fish. The richest fishing was to be had in the seas off the south-west of Iceland and English ships, first recorded in the area in 1412, were there to catch fish themselves as well as trading with the Icelanders for dried cod and vadmal, the local rough sheeps’-wool cloth. The following year, having realised the potential, thirty fishing vessels and a merchant ship arrived. These heralded what the Icelanders call ‘the English Age’ that lasted into the Tudor period. In the 1470s, an average of three merchant ships was sailing to Iceland from Bristol every spring, making the three to six month voyage into the North Atlantic, known then as the Mare Oceanum or the Ocean Sea.

By the mid-fifteenth century, the English, with a thriving woollen textile trade of their own, were less interested in vadmal cloth and the emphasis was on fish. Stockfish was locally caught cod that the Icelanders gutted, filleted, opened up and put on drying racks – known as stocks – to cure in the cold wind and sun. In the process, the fish lost 80% of their weight and would be layered with salt in barrels by which means they would keep for months, years even, long enough to bring them back to Europe. Although some of the fish would be for English consumption, having been soaked overnight to remove most of the salt and reconstitute the flesh, much of it was sold by the Bristol merchants to Portuguese and Spanish traders. At the time, all Roman Catholic countries, including England, were obliged to consume a great deal of fish in accordance with the doctrines of the Church and stockfish was cheap, stored well and was, therefore, available all year round.

Stockfish were traded with Iceland in exchange for basic goods, such as flour, malt, beer, salt, wax, honey, pitch, iron and linen; manufactured metal goods such as copper kettles, knives, horseshoes, swords and helmets; along with luxury items, such as soap, pins, needles and buttons. Oak trenchers and wood for construction and fuel were also tradable items in treeless Iceland. There was a rate of exchange for stockfish, drawn up in 1420, against all these goods since Iceland had no coinage system and remained a barter economy. Yet stockfish was not the only commodity available: Iceland manufactured fish-skin leather goods, purses were particularly popular; shark-skin provided the medieval equivalent of sand-paper and, of course, occasionally ‘unicorn’ horns were available for trade. These were the exquisite, solitary ivory spirals from the narwhal, a member of the whale family then found more frequently in the arctic seas around Iceland.[i]

Ships from Bristol were not the only English vessels making the Iceland voyage. The east coast ports of Scarborough, Hull, Dunwich, Kings Lynn and even London were involved. Many of them were doggers or farcosts, basically fishing vessels that could also carry cargo, but by the 1470s bigger, purpose-built merchant ships, like the three-masted carracks, were making the trip – the fictitious Eagle, as in my novel, The Colour of Lies, is just such a vessel.[ii]

Officially, after an international dispute between King Edward IV of England and King Christian I of Denmark and Norway in 1475, English direct trade with Iceland was made illegal, Iceland being annexed to the Scandinavian kingdom. All English vessels were required to have a licence and either trade was to be conducted through the port of Bergen in Norway or else English ships were to stop off there to pay customs dues and tariffs on cargoes bought and sold in Iceland. Records show that a number of east coast merchants paid for licences and others are noted as having visited Bergen to pay the tariffs, yet few appear on both lists, so clearly not everyone was following the regulations. The Bristol merchants appear to have ignored the rules completely, although the west coast fishing vessels somewhat curtailed their efforts in Icelandic waters, finding new fishing grounds further west, off Greenland. The Bristol merchants were hardly inclined to add thousands of hazardous miles to the voyage by sailing home via Norway and the North Sea just to pay customs duties, reducing their profit margins in the process.

Instead, they did much of their business through Galway on the west coast of Ireland. To this Irish port, the Spaniards brought wine, the Portuguese cheap salt and wine. The Bristol merchants would exchange English wool textiles for wine, also for the salt which they required for the next stage of the voyage. In Iceland, English goods and Iberian wines would be exchanged for both stockfish and freshly salted fish. Both commodities needed the cheap salt to preserve them. The English ships carried their own supplies of wooden planks and a cooper to construct the barrels to bring back the fish. Without trees, Iceland had no wood for such purposes. The ships then returned to Galway, selling much of the highly prized fish to the Spanish and Portuguese merchants for a decent profit, taking on more wine for the home market, along with some remaining fish – the Iberians paid more handsomely for codfish than the English and customs duties in Bergen were avoided.

English sources suggest that Bristol merchants did much of their trading in the Icelandic port of Snaefellness[iii] on the west coast but my research, carried out in Iceland, seems to indicate that Eyrar – now Eyrarbakki – on the south coast was at the centre of the island’s trade with the English.


Map of Iceland
Detail from Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, 1531.


Allowing for the inaccuracy of the map above, Eyrar would be situated at the bottom of the island, just left of centre. There are shown the turf-walled booths – the English called them ‘caves’ – roofed with canvas ‘tents’, just as the Icelandic sources describe the English traders using as temporary warehouses. Further to the left, and looking liked stacked logs, are the stockfish, ready for sale. Eyrar was a bustling place during the summer trading season, when local farmer-fishermen would assemble to exchange their dried fish for the basics which Iceland could not produce. Over the winter, the population probably reduced to the six hundred who live in Eyrarbakki today.

As an interesting footnote to trade between Iceland and England, during the reign of Henry VIII, in a single year, 1528, no fewer than 149 English fishing vessels were catching cod in Icelandic waters, using hooks and lines in the traditional way; not nets. In 1509, on becoming king, Henry had unilaterally rescinded the requirement for licences or paying tariffs in Bergen. King Christian II of Denmark and Norway was not amused by this loss of revenue, particularly since, at the time, he was in need of cash. Realising how important this enterprise was to the English and setting previous disputes aside, Christian attempted to mortgage Iceland to King Henry. In 1518, he sent an envoy to Henry, secretly asking for a loan of 100,000 florins, pledging Iceland as collateral. The envoy was instructed to go as low as 50,000 florins, if necessary (today’s equivalent of about 6.5 million US dollars).[iv] Nothing came of this because, by that date, Henry himself was in financial difficulties, having spent his father’s bulging treasury on wars and a lavish regal lifestyle. Had Christian made his request just a few years earlier, Iceland may have become part of the United Kingdom.

I hope readers have enjoyed this brief article. I put my research to good use as part of the backstory for my new Seb Foxley medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Lies.

[i] Researched at the Whales of Iceland Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland, 2018.

[ii] Researched at the Newport Medieval Ship Centre, South Wales, NP19 4SP, 2017.

[iii] Broome, Rodney, Amerike, The Briton who gave America its Name, [Sutton Publishing, Glos, 2002], p.31.

[iv] Gissurarson, Hannes H., ‘Proposals to Sell, Annex or Evacuate Iceland, 1518-1868’ [accessed online 29th April 2019].


Toni is a history teacher, a writer, and an experienced public speaker – and describes herself as an enthusiastic life-long-learner; she is a member of the Richard III Society Research Committee and a library volunteer, where she leads the creative writing group.

Toni attended Gravesend Grammar School and originally studied chemistry at college. She worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry before stopping work to have her family. Inspired by Sharon Kay Penman’s Sunne in Splendour Toni decided she too wanted to write a Richard III novel, which she did, but back in the 1980s was told there was no market for more historic novels and it remains unpublished.

Having enjoyed history as a child she joined an adult history class and ultimately started teaching classes herself. Her BA (with First-class Honours), her Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing and Diploma in European Humanities are from the Open University. Toni’s Certificate in Education (in Post-Compulsory Education and Training) is from the University of Greenwich. She earned her Masters degree from the University of Kent in 2009 by the study of a medieval medical manuscript at the Wellcome Library.

After submitting an idea for her first book, about the lives of ordinary people in the middle-ages, Everyday Life in Medieval London was published in 2014 by Amberley Publishing – the first print run sold out quickly and it was voted ‘Best history book of the year’ at Christmas 2014 on The Medieval Housewife was published in November 2014 and Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark, the mysteries of medieval medicine (later renamed in paperback as Medieval Medicine it mysteries and science) was first released in May 2015. A Year in The life of Medieval England, a diary of everyday incidents through an entire year, was published in 2016.

Having taught history to adults recruited her to create a range of online history courses for, but she still wanted to write a medieval novel: The Colour of Poison the first Sebastian Foxley murder mystery was the result, published by madeglobal in 2016. Shortly before publication Tim at madeglobal asked if this was going to be a series – although nothing else was planned, Toni said “yes” and now The Colour of Lies (published in April 2019) is the seventh book in that series.

Toni is married with two grown up children and lives with her husband in Kent, England. When she is not writing, teaching or speaking to history groups – or volunteering – she reads endlessly, with several books on the go at any one time. She is currently working on The Colour of Shadows the next Sebastian Foxley murder mystery and The World of Isaac Newton, her next non-fiction.

Her websites include:

You can follow Toni on social media at:




Was Henry III Autistic?

Embarking on a biography of Henry III was an exciting but daunting task. He is a king many might struggle to place in English history. Men like William Marshal and Simon de Montfort have made more of a mark on the history of Henry’s reign than the man himself. Sandwiched in an almost non-descript period between the disasters of John and the towering figure of Edward I, there were nevertheless immediate pointers that there might be more to this man and his period wearing the crown than is attributed to him. He remained king for 56 years, a record until George III in 1816, Queen Victoria in 1893 and more recently Elizabeth II hit that milestone. His rule saw the finest hour of one of Europe’s most famous knights, the last great Justiciar in England, a role almost forgotten today, but equivalent to a Prime Minister today and a role not to find a true parallel until Henry VIII relied so heavily on Thomas Wolsey and the Thomas Cromwell, the emergence of a body taking the name ‘parliament’, a Second Barons’ War and a man (wrongly) dubbed the father of parliamentary democracy.

As I researched this elusive man I made my notes and filed things ready to organise my thought. It wasn’t until I began to draw these disparate threads together that an intriguing but ultimately unprovable notion began to stand out from the page. Individually, the items meant little, beyond being interesting and sometimes confusing snippets, but as I began to string them together, a question began repeating itself, nagging away at the back of my mind. As much as I was unable to offer it as a proven fact or even a provable theory, I couldn’t stop it repeating away.

Was Henry III autistic?

King Henry III
King Henry III
A diagnosis of autism can be notoriously difficult today, with an individual stood in front of a specialist, so I am under no illusion that this question cannot be definitively answered. However, I am also convinced that it cannot be completely discounted. When drawn together, the snippets of evidence can make an intriguing case that this is possible.

Matthew Paris, a key recorder of this period of English history, though frequently diverted by his own monkish prejudices and agendas, met Henry during the king’s visit to St Albans Abbey at the time bones believed to belong Saint Alban himself had been found and were being reinterred. Matthew quite proudly notes that he was able to spend time in personal conversation with the king and in recalling their discussions he noted that he had been impressed by Henry’s ability to recall complete lists of things such as German electors and English saint-kings. The recall and reliance on lists of known information, called rote memory, is a well-known ability of those affected by autism. Sadly, I could not find other examples of this being recorded to corroborate it or demonstrate it being a prominent portion of his personality, but it may be telling that when placed in a social situation with a person he did not know, Henry fell back on reciting lists.

In 1258, as England began to slide towards what became the Second Barons’ War, Matthew Paris recorded an encounter between the king and his troublesome brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. The interesting portion of the story for the purposes if this discussion is that Henry was rowing down the Thames when a thunder storm erupted. The king was so terrified of the noisy storm that he ordered his barge to put in at the nearest dock. The house in which he took shelter happened to be being used by Simon at the time and Matthew placed prophetic words into the king’s mouth, having him tell his brother-in-law ‘I fear thunder and lightning greatly, but by God’s head I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world.’ Nevertheless, Matthew might have struggled to write what he did if it was not the case that Henry was known to be scared by thunder and lightning. Perhaps Henry had a fear of storms unrelated to anything else. Perhaps Matthew even made up the story to allow his prophesy of trouble between the in-laws, but if sensory sensitivity is behind the episode it is another pointer to potential symptoms of autism. This might be supported by the fact that at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, although an old man, Henry was found curled into a ball shouting to be left alone, overwhelmed by the experience of being caught in the midst of the noise and chaos of the battle.

One thing that does reoccur is a trait that might point to a need to assert royal authority and keep unruly barons on their toes, but which could also contribute to increase the potential for a diagnosis of autism. When Henry’s first son, Prince Edward (later Edward I) was born in1239, gifts poured into the capital city to celebrate the momentous event. Henry made a point of asking who had sent each gift and if he didn’t think that the value reflected the wealth and position of the sender, he ordered it to be sent back and a more suitable replacement sent that met his expectations. Matthew Paris recorded that ‘the king deeply clouded his magnificence as a king’ and one joke reportedly doing the rounds in London quipped that ‘God gave us this child, but the king sells him to us’. Henry repeated this behaviour in 1254 when he returned from a rare successful venture to France. On his return to London, the city joyously gave the king a gift of £100 only to be dismayed when Henry told them flatly that it was not enough to recognise his achievements. There was much desperate scrabbling and Henry was only satisfied when a cup valued at £200 was added to the cash gift.

Henry did have a dire and deeply vested interest in establishing the authority and prestige of the crown, so these may have been displays designed to check and wrong-foot both the barons and a capital Henry always had an uneasy relationship with. However, high-functioning autism such as Asperger’s Syndrome is frequently accompanied by social awkwardness and a tendency to be honest and to say things those without autism might shy away from saying. Without understanding Henry’s true motive, it is hard to know whether this was a calculated strategy or an example of behaviour that might point further toward a degree of high-functioning autism.

King Henry III's Tomb Effigy
King Henry III’s Tomb Effigy
Henry’s long rule is notable for a complete lack of favourites. Several monarchs, particularly weaker ones, and Henry is frequently placed amongst their number, were plagued by favourites who were promoted to the chagrin of the nobility and caused immense problems within the kingdom. Henry’s rule, if anything, was marked by a lack of these close connections. He remained on the best of terms with his brother Richard and his wife and children throughout his life, but beyond that, there are no examples of lasting close favourites. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the failure to create lasting social connections might be another pointer suggesting autism. Henry’s relationship with his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort blew notoriously hot and cold, lurching from bosom buddies to arch enemies and back again with the changing of the wind. In September 1238, Henry was the target of an assassination attempt which is also quite revealing. Whilst staying at his palace at Woodstock, Henry was awoken in the night by a noise which turned out to be made by an armed intruder. Seemingly failing to equate the situation with any danger, Henry struck up a conversation with the would-be assassin. Their talking awoke Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor, who raised the alarm in panic. The man was arrested and admitted that he had been hired by some of Henry’s enemies to kill him in the night. The assassin was torn limb from limb, beheaded and once his limbs had been sent to major cities around England the remnants were hung from a gibbet usually used for thieves. The fact that Henry saw no danger in the situation points to a glaring lack of appreciation of a very dangerous situation and might suggest a degree of social awkwardness and an inability to discern the motives of others that is indicative of autism. Why else might that armed stranger have been in Henry’s bedchamber when he was asleep?

The final piece of suggestive evidence that I can offer is Henry’s often unhealthy obsession with Edward the Confessor. The saint-king fascinated Henry and drove many of his choices through his life. His first son was probably given the very Anglo-Saxon (and previously unused in Norman and Angevin royal circles) name of Edward most likely in homage to Henry’s hero. When Henry rebuilt the Confessor Abbey at Westminster with his gothic masterpiece, he had the Confessor’s bones moved to a central position of high honour and had his own tomb built over the exact spot on which Saint Edward had rested for two centuries. When Henry had the Painted Chamber at Westminster Palace redecorated to use as a private bedchamber, he had a portrait of Edward the Confessor painted over his bed. It was a lifelong and deep obsession that is again a potential symptom of a high-functioning form of autism, though as with each other piece of the puzzle, far from confirmation.

Each of these pieces individually would mean nothing. Taken together, they begin to build a suggestion of a form of high-functioning autism but, with a definitive diagnosis difficult enough to confirm face to face today, trying to construct anything beyond a suggestive set of symptoms that might add to up possible autism. It is therefore impossible to state that Henry III had any degree of autism, but it is fascinating to consider what it might mean if he did. Henry ruled England for 56 years, in spite of frequent problems. He handed over a kingdom rescued from the brink of disaster and ripe for the consolidation and expansion of his son’s reign. The lack of a favourite, if due to a difficulty in forming close social connections, possibly worked in his favour. Weak kings tended to be dominated by unpopular favourites but Henry never suffered in this respect. He was at odds with Simon de Montfort as much as they were best friends. Henry tended to flip flop in his policy, one moment swearing religious oaths to support the Charters and then denying their enforceability, perhaps demonstrating that he was easily influenced and unable to discern the motives of others in social situations.

Henry was referred to by contemporary chroniclers as ‘simplex’, which has been used to suggest that he was not a clever man and perhaps suffered from mental problems. The word ‘simplex’ is also often applied to saints to demonstrate their lack of guile and unworldliness and it has been suggested that this was what chroniclers meant, but the truth perhaps lies in the subtleties in between. Henry may have frequently appeared to lack the intellectual acumen of others, though been capable of memorising lists of information. He might also have seemed to lack the guile of a politician if he was unable to make out people’s true motives when others may have seen plainly what was going on.

Henry’s reign is often overlooked within English history. I wrote this new biography because I believed there must be more to a man who lived, and retained his throne, through such a long and eventful reign. There is some tantalising, but ultimately inconclusive evidence to suggest that he achieved all of this with a high-functioning form of autism, which would shed a new light on his achievements and his failures alike. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the possibility that ‘simplex’, which is a word that has caused debate on Henry for centuries, was in fact an early diagnosis of an as yet unknown condition. What if ‘simplex’ can be directly equated to autistic?

A new biography of Henry III: Son of Magna Carta is available now from Amberley Publishing, seeking to uncover the true story of a king all too often forgotten to history.

Matt’s book Richard, Duke of York, King By Right, reveals a very different man from the one who has passed into myth amongst the stories of the Wars of the Roses
Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.

Matt is also the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor and Facebook.