Tucked away in a far corner of the North Sea between the British Isles and Iceland, the Faroe Islands seem like the last place in the world where major world events could occur. 

Renowned for its craggy, windswept landscape and sheep, the islands have become a major tourist destination in recent times. 

For more than a millennium, the islands have been very much in the Scandinavian world thanks to their settlement by people in Viking societies during the early medieval period. 

Though not the first people to live on these remote islands, individuals from Viking societies soon colonized and settled them, bringing them into the sway of the Viking world. 

According to the rich tapestry of Norse sagas and legends, it was emigrants fleeing the "tyranny" of Harald Fairhair, who had recently unified the petty kingdoms of Norway under his rule, that sailed westward to settle in the Faroes. 

These people brought with them their hopes, dreams, and their belief system – which is what modern historians call the Old Norse religion.

As soon as these political malcontents were said to be leaving western Norway for a new life in the Faroes, a spiritual war was already underway throughout Viking societies. 

Since Late Antiquity, Christian missionaries had been sent northward to proselytize and convert the heathen masses. By the 10th century, the Viking world was torn between those who had converted to the new Christian religion and those who clung to the old ways. 

Nowhere was this societal rift more evident than in the Faroe Islands. 

Situated between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands, home to Viking leader Sigmundur Brestisson, boast a unique cultural heritage steeped in Norse tradition. Photo: Vincent van Zeijst / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Life as a slave and servant to a king 

It was into this milieu that Sigmundur Breitsson was born in 961. 

Whilst the historical records are incomplete, we believe that his family lived in the southern part of the Faroes and had some political standing. 

According to the Færeyinga saga, which presents challenges as a reliable historical record, Sigmundur, born into a life of influence and power, faced a drastic turn of fate. 

Along with a cousin, he was sold into slavery after a series of events orchestrated by political rivals nearly decimated his family. 

He would eventually end up serving Haakon Jarl, who, from 975, ruled Norway for more than two decades.

During his time in the service of his master, Sigmundur built the political connections and contacts that he would later exploit. 

He and his cousins were said to have served Norway's de facto ruler bravely until the arrival of Olaf Trygvasson spelled the end of Haakon's rule. 

Amidst political strife and warfare, Haakon was ultimately ousted from power. He met his end at the hands of a slave (not Sigmundur) in a pigsty. 

This upheaval paved the way for Olaf Trygvasson, Harald Fairhair's grandson, to claim the Norwegian throne. 

Unlike Haakon, Olaf was a fervently Christian king, a shift that would significantly impact the now masterless Sigmundur. 

Nestled in the Tinganes quarter of Tórshavn, the modern Faroese parliament buildings are a continuation of the ancient Løgting tradition, serving as a symbol of the Faroe Islands' enduring democratic heritage since the Viking Age. Photo: kasakphoto / Shutterstock

Althing, a royal decree and a change in tactics 

Despite a change in direction at the top, Sigmundur appears to have made himself invaluable to the new king. 

Olaf Trygvasson was a profoundly different ruler from his predecessor, which was no more evident than in his spirituality. 

Whilst Haakon Jarl staunchly defended the old gods and the Old Norse religion, Trygvasson experienced a profound transformation. 

Having "seen the light," he was baptized and converted to Christianity, viewing his rule as a divine mission to bring his subjects to the word of God. 

Due to his upbringing in a prominent Faroese family, Sigmundur was dispatched by Trygvasson to the islands with a clear mission: to convert the entire population to Christianity and integrate these remote islands into the Christian faith and the Kingdom of Norway. 

Arriving on the islands, he called a meeting at the Løgting to read out a royal decree proclaiming that the islanders would now convert to the new Christian religion. 

To say this went down badly would be an understatement, as Sigmundur was lucky to escape with his life intact. 

To many islanders, Breitsson was perceived as an outsider imposed by a distant ruler, an embodiment of extreme government overreach attempting to dictate their beliefs.

Realizing that a grassroots approach would not suffice, Breitsson shifted his strategy, opting to exert influence on the influential and powerful figures of Faroese society. 

The remnants of Magnuskatedralen in Kirkjubøur serve as a historical landmark, symbolizing the Christianization of the Faroe Islands, a process begun by influential leaders like Sigmundur Brestisson. Photo: Erik Christensen / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A midnight break-in 

One of the key figures of the early 11th century in the Faroe Islands was Tróndur í Gøtu

Not only is he famous for his refusal to convert to Christianity, but this obstinance has also entered the contemporary Icelandic lexicon as a popular saying (one is a Tróndur í Gøtu if one is being an obstacle to something). 

The Færeyinga saga portrays Tróndur as a rival chieftain and opponent to the newly arrived Sigmundur. 

Although the saga provides scant details about the backgrounds of the two rivals, their origins from powerful families inevitably set the stage for a clash of egos. 

This was particularly true when Sigmundur, bearing a royal religious decree, arrived. 

For Tróndur, the idea of being dictated to by anyone, let alone a Norwegian outsider and former slave, about which gods to worship was utterly unacceptable, both for him and his community. 

Sigmundur knew that Tróndur held considerable political sway over the local community and thus held the key to communal conversion. 

Following his debacle at the Logating, Breitsson was said to have crept onto Tróndur's farm with a small band of followers and crept into his house. 

Stealthily moving into his bedroom, Sigmundur held a knife to the throat of the sleeping Tróndur, then slowly woke him up. 

The now-awoken chieftain had a choice: either agree to a Christian conversion for the community or have his throat slit. Being fond of his throat and his life, Tróndur chose the former. 

Christianity was forced upon the islanders, though it would be centuries before the last remnants of the Old Norse religion died out in the region. 

This "top-down" approach to Christian conversion reflected a pattern seen in other Viking societies, including the three Scandinavian kingdoms, where those in positions of political power spearheaded the spread of Christianity

The "Sigmundur Brestisson - The Last Journey" memorial, created by Hans Pauli Olsen and erected in Sandvík in 2006, commemorates the site where the Viking chief, known for bringing Christianity to the Faroe Islands, was killed by a farmer. Photo: Eileen Sandá / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A tragic end and legacy 

It was Tróndur í Gøtu who ultimately had the last laugh. Despite being forced at knifepoint to convert to this new religion, he never forgot the devious act. 

In 1005, he gathered a posse to kill Sigmundur. 

For the third time in his life, Sigmundur had to escape the clutches of an angry elite baying for his blood. 

He managed to escape and swim to a nearby island but was not safe. A local farmer, perhaps still unhappy with his forced conversion, killed him. 

The spot was memorialized over a millennium later by artist Hans Pauli Olsen, with artwork in the shape of a Christian cross. 

The story of Sigmundur Brestisson, if many of the events recounted in the Færeyinga saga are indeed true, shows the precarious nature of power in the Viking world. 

Born into a powerful family, Brestisson lost everything, even his freedom, to be enslaved, then rose to power and prominence in the court of Olaf Trygvasson. 

His efforts to Christianize the Faroe Islands left a lasting impact on its cultural and religious landscape, which is still being felt today.

For more information on the settlement of the Faroe Islands, visit The Conversation here

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