Short History

Iceland - Ultima Thule, a land in the farthest north

The discovery of Iceland is attributed to the Greek explorer Pytheas who made an epic voyage of exploration to north-western Europe around 325 BC. He mentions a land, Ultima Thule, or Thule, in the farthest north, six days’ sailing north of Britain and near a frozen sea. He also describes the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun. On later medieval maps Iceland is depicted as Thule. 

Settlement (870–930)

The first permanent settler of Iceland was Ingólfur Arnarson, a rich and influential Norwegian chieftain who sailed to Iceland to settle in 874 AD. Together with his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir, he built a homestead on a site that he named Reykjavík. 

Most of Iceland’s first settlers came from western Norway, but some came from other Scandinavian countries, as well as from the Norse Viking Age settlements in the British Isles. The settlers who came from Norway were mainly big farmers and powerful chieftains who were dissatisfied with excessive power of King Harald I (Harald Fairhair). They sailed in open boats with their families, kinsmen, serfs and livestock and settled on the lowlands along the coast where they could pursue farming. They established large farms and sustained themselves mostly by breeding cattle and some fishing. According to the early Icelandic sources, some Irish monks were living in Iceland when the Nordic settlers arrived, but they departed soon after. 

There was no central administration or government in the beginning, but the early settlers had continued a Norwegian tradition of laws and district-wide legal assemblies, Þing (Thing), led by chieftains (goðar). These local assemblies were held regularly every spring and autumn. 

Commonwealth (930-1262)

In 930 AD the first Alþingi (Althing), Icelandic parliament, was established on the fields later called Þingvellir (Thingvellir) and a constitution was adopted for the whole land, modelled on the Norwegian constitution. Althing was both a legislative and a judiciary assembly and it was held annually at midsummer for 14 days. The laws were formulated, reviewed and amended by The Law Council consisting of the goðar and their advisors. The Law Council elected the Law-speaker whose job was to memorize the law and quote it. (The laws of the Althing were not written down until 1117-8 AD). Each goði (chieftain) was required to attend the recitation of the laws. 

The convening of the first Althing in 930 AD marks the beginning of the independent republic. This period of governance is known as the Icelandic Commonwealth (Þjóðveldið) or Free State; “The Golden Age of Iceland”. The period 930–1030 is known as The Saga Age, since many of the events recorded later (in the 12th and 13th century) in the Icelandic sagas actually took place during this time. Moreover, many of the key events related in the sagas happened at Thingvellir. It was also at Thingvellir in the year 999 or 1000 that Christianity was adopted in Iceland. 

The first bishopric in Iceland was founded at Skálholt in 1082, and in 1106 a second bishopric was established at Hólar. Jón Ögmundsson, the 1st bishop at Hólar, eager to eradicate all traces of paganism, succeeded in changing the names of the days of the week, named after the pagan gods. Thus, týsdagr, after Týr (Tues), óðinsdagr, after Óðin (Wed), þórsdagr, after Þór (Thurs) and frijadagr, after Frigg (Frid) became: “third day” (þriðjudagur), “midweek day” (miðvikudagur), “fifth day” (fimmtudagur) and “fast day” (föstudagur). He also forbade dancing and love poems. 

1120s-1230s, the Great Age of Writing, was an epoch of remarkable literary achievements. Most of the Icelandic sagas were written during this time, as well as the great historical works: Íslendingabók and Heimskringla. Íslendingabók, the first national history, was written around 1130 by Ari Þorgilsson (Thorgilsson), called fróði - Ari the Wise (1067-1148). Heimskringla (The History of Norwegian Kings) was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). 

The year 1220 marks the beginnings of “The Age of the Sturlungs” - Sturlungaöld. This was a period of internal conflict in Iceland, and the last period in Iceland’s nearly 400 years as an independent free state. The Sturlungs were members of the most powerful family clan; amongst them were the authors of the classic Icelandic sagas. The most famous and greatest of them all was Snorri Sturluson. Through marriages and political alliances, the Sturlungs dominated great part of the country, but other chieftains and influential families opposed them. The prolonged feuds and power struggles between the chieftaincies brought about economic and social ruin. At the time, the Norwegian king Hákon Hákonarson (King Haakon IV) was attempting to extend his influence in Iceland, as part of his campaign to unite all Norwegian Viking Age settlements. Several of the greatest Icelandic chieftains had become the King’s liegemen, while Snorri Sturluson had fallen out of favour, due to his support for Earl Skúli, King Haakon’s rival. In 1241, at King Haakon’s instigation, Snorri Sturluson was killed in Reykholt. Ultimately, 1262-1264, Icelandic chieftains were persuaded to swear allegiance to King Haakon IV of Norway, partly in the hope that he would bring peace to the country. 1262 marks the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth period. 

Iceland under Foreign Rule

Under the Norwegian Crown, Icelanders became dependent on Norwegian ships for supplies, which often failed to come. A period of great hardship and desolation followed. Ice often blocked the fjords and the sea approaches. Violent volcanic eruptions, recurring epidemics and famine ravaged the entire country. In 1349 the Black Death afflicted Norway, cutting off all trade and supplies. 

In 1380 the Norwegian monarchy entered into a union with Denmark; however, the change did not effect Iceland’s status. When in 1397 the Kalmar Union was formed between Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Iceland came under the dominant Danish crown. The conditions in the country worsened further. Icelandic chieftains were replaced by Danish royal officials. Althing became a court of law; judges were chosen by royal officers. 

At the beginning of the 15th century, 1402-1404, the Black Death afflicted Iceland, killing more than a third of the population. In the period 1540-1550 Lutheranism was imposed on Iceland by the order of the Danish king, and first Lutheran bishop installed in Skálholt. The opposition to the Reformation in Iceland ended in 1550 when the last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, was beheaded. In 1602 Denmark established a trade monopoly, forbidding Iceland to trade with any country other than Denmark, precipitating a period of extreme destitution. The monopoly remained in effect until 1787. The Danish Crown tightened its grip on Iceland on the constitutional level as well. In 1662, the Danish King assumed hereditary power, absolute monarchy was imposed in Iceland and the power of Althing significantly declined. 

The 18th century in Iceland was a tragic period of population decline, increasing poverty and natural calamities. In 1703 when the first census of Iceland was conducted, the population numbered 50,366, and about 20% were destitute. After the smallpox epidemic in 1707, around 18,000 people perished. The series of natural disasters and famines that followed in their wake caused population decline to well below 40,000 twice more during the century. Katla volcano erupted in 1755 and in 1783 the catastrophic Laki eruption (Lakagígar) occurred, causing floods, ash and toxic fumes and the ensuing starvation killed 10,000 people. 

Towards Independence

In 1800 the Althing was dissolved by royal decree and later replaced by the Supreme Court. However, by the middle of the 19th century a new national consciousness was revived in Iceland, and Jón Sigurðsson (Jon Sigurdsson) had become the great leader of the Icelandic independence movement. In 1843 the Althing was re-established as a consultative body, but only a few powerful feudal barons and landowners were elected. When in 1848 King Frederick VII of Denmark renounced his absolute power, it also led to the question of Iceland’s status in the new form of government. Jón Sigurðsson’s stance was that the king could only give his absolute power rule over Iceland back to the Icelanders themselves, since they were the ones who had relinquished it to the Danish Crown in 1662. In addition, Iceland had originally entered the union with the Norwegian monarchy as a free state with certain rights vouchsafed under the agreement from 1262-1264. 

In 1854 the Danish trade monopoly lifted, finally granting Iceland complete freedom of trade. Freedom of press was established in 1855. In 1874 the millennium celebrations of the Settlement were held and King Christian IX of Denmark visited Iceland. He presented Iceland with a new constitution, granting the Althing legislative power in internal affairs. In 1904 the constitution was amended, and Iceland got home rule under Denmark. The first Icelandic minister was established in Reykjavik. 

Home Rule to Sovereignty

Whilst the years of home rule (1904-1918) were characterized by progress in economic and social spheres, Iceland’s struggle for greater autonomy continued. On 1 December 1918, Iceland became a sovereign state, the Kingdom of Iceland, in a personal union with the Danish king. 

In 1930 festivities were held at Thingvellir to celebrate the millennium of the Althing itself. This was the first general celebration of Icelanders attended by a substantial proportion of the nation. It is estimated that 30,000-40,000 people were present. 

In 1944, Iceland rescinded its union with Denmark. On 17 June 1944, the Republic of Iceland was founded at Thingvellir, Iceland’s national shrine. 17 June was chosen since it is the birthday of one of Iceland’s national heroes, Jón Sigurðsson, “Iceland’s longed-for child, its honour, sword and shield”. The proclamation of the Republic of Iceland marked the end of seven centuries of foreign rule.  A new epoch in the history of Iceland had begun.

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