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?

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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.

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