Iceland, first discovered by Vikings ca. 860, was settled by Norwegian Vikings in the years 870-930. Irish monks inhabiting the island have either been expelled or enslaved. The process of settlement was recorded in the Landnamabok.
In 930 the Icelanders established a constitution, with the Althingi, a combination of high court and parliament, meeting annually at Thingvellir, under open sky. The Icelandic sagas, recorded in the 13th century, are a rich and unique source on Viking era history. The country accepted christianity peacefully, by a resolution of Althingi, around 1000 A.D., bishoprics established at Skalholt in 1056 and at Holar in 1106. In 1262, Iceland had to acknowledge the sovereignty of the King of Norway.
The Icelanders suffered from a severe shortage of timber, as there were no forests on the island. As a result, they could not build or even repair ships. Iceland became dependent on Norwegian supply ships; Norway forbade any non-Norwegian to sail "beyond Bergen". However, English merchants and fishermen violated this regulation.
From 1380 onward, Norway and Denmark were connected in a dynastic union.
In the 14th century, Norway experienced a drastic population decrease, as a consequence of harvest failures, a cooling of the climate and of the plague. Due to its geographical and political isolation, the plague hit Iceland with a delay, in 1402 and 1494.
The annual supply ship from Norway stopped coming; Denmark took over responsibility for the North Atlantic outposts.
In 1537 King Christian III. of Denmark decreed the Church Ordinnance, which introduced Lutheranism. In the Danish realm, the bishops were to be replaced by superintendents; a part of church property was to be confiscated, monasteries to be dissolved, a part of regular church revenues trandferred to the state. The church were to use remaining revenues and property in order to establish schools. Also, church authority (jurisdiction) was to be transferred to the state. The reformation thus clearly served to answer the monetary demands of the Danish crown (after decades of civil war).
The Icelandic bishops (of Skalholt and Holar) rejected the church ordinnance altogether. Few in Iceland saw the necessity of a reformation from a religious point of view. Bishop Jon Arason of Holar had six children, but that was regarded as conforming with Icelandic tradition. The then planned dissolution of the monasteries, the planned reduction of the economic and political foundation of the bishops were rather seen as an attempt of the Danish administration to cut down on the autonomy of the Icelandic community.
Only a few Icelanders, priests at the bishop's court at Skalholt, who had studied in Germany, were aware of the issues on which the reformation was grounded, and one of them, Oddur Gottskalksson, translated the Gospel of St. Matthew into Icelandic (1541).
In 1539 the Danish bailiff, from his residence at Bessastadir, with an armed force rode to the nearby convent of Videy, declared it dissolved and appropriated its holdings in the name of the Danish crown. On his way to repeat the same procedure at another convent, the bailiff and his party was murdered. All Danish representatives on the island (they were few) met a violent death. In 1540 a protestant superintendent (bishop) was appointed for Skalholt, who gradually and very carefully introduced Lutheran practices; after his early death, bishop Jon Arason of Holar, an outspoken opponent of the reformation, took control of the diocese of Skalholt as well. Only after his assassination (1550) could the reformation be introduced on Iceland.
Lutheranism did not have a firm hold in the Icelandic community, and changes were gradually introduced by a church administration operating carefully. A few Latin schools (priest seminars) were created, financed by the revenues of earlier convents or monasteries. The bishoprics continued into the 18th century.
The Althing passed a moral code called the Great Verdict (1564) - legislation in an effort to replace the church jurisdiction which had been abolished.
Communication with Denmark was poor (one ship per year), and the revenue of the Danish bailiff rather limited. So
Denmark relied on the cooperation of Icelanders when it came to the administration of the island. The island parliament - the Althing, meeting annually under open sky at Thingvellir, functioned as the legislative (decisions had to be approved by the Danish king). The bishops (superintendents) were the other local administrative institution cooperating with the Danish monarchy. Only Icelanders were appointed to the position.
Iceland had a population of roughly 50,000 inhabitants, spread all over the islands in isolated farms and clusters of farms. The largest such clusters were at Skalholt and Holar, numbering over a hundred farms each. The Icelanders lived of agriculture (livestock breeding, for instance the famous Icelandic ponies) and of fishing.
For centuries, Norwegian law had forbidden any foreign ship to sail to Iceland. In the 15th century English fishing boats had appeared off Iceland, in the 16th century German fishing vessels, mostly from Hamburg, had taken their place. For the Icelanders they were both competition and a source of trouble, as armed parties of sailors occasionally caused harm.
The English also had established an illegal trade; in order to dislodge the English, the Danish government permitted the Hamburgers to trade with Iceland (1530es). In 1542, foreigners were forbidden to stay over winter. The Danish crown made repeated attempts to hand over a trade monopoly with Iceland to Danish merchants, but, during the 16th century, failed to dislodge the Hamburgers.
In 1602 the Danish crown granted a monopoly over the Iceland trade to a consortium of merchants from Copenhagen, Helsingør (Elsinore) and Malmö. This time, competition both domestic and foreign was excluded. Prices, calculated in stockfish or homespun, were fixed according to Icelandic traditional standards. The holder of the monopoly was required to import the basic needs of the Icelandic community, most importantly a certain amount of unspoiled grain.
In the 17th century, Iceland experienced a raid by Barbary Coast pirates from Algiers, which killed some and abducted others (1627), and the emergence of witch trials and burnings (since 1625). About 80 % of the persons tried as witches on Iceland were men.
1662-1789 Denmark had adopted absolutism in 1660; Norway - in Dynastic Union with Denmark, in 1661. In 1662, the office of Danish bailiff on Iceland was replaced by that of a governor, and the oath formula by which the Icelanders were to swear their allegiance to the king was altered by the Danish administration, in order to have absolute rule recognized. The institutions of Icelandic administration, especially the Althing, continued to function; changes were introduced gradually.
In 1662 the bishops and lagmen ("law-men") were compelled to sign a document in which they, in the name of the Icelanders, agreed to the cancellation of the Island's old privileges, the Old Covenant granted to them by Norway's king in 1262.
In 1683 the administration was reorganized; the position as governor ("stiftsamtmand") was treated as a benefice and bestowed to persons at the Danish court; the holders, until 1770, resided in Copenhagen. At the head of the practical Danish administration on Iceland stood the amtmand. The Danish administration took over most of the Althing's competence and then interfered in its composition.
The last witchcraft trial and execution on Iceland took place in 1685; in 1692 the Danish supreme court overruled an Icelandic court, thus saving the life of a convicted 'witch'. The Gregorian Calendar was introduced in 1700.
With the various holders of the trading monopoly repeatedly failing in their obligation to supply Iceland with the necessary amount of unspoiled grain and thus, at least partially, being responsible for famines which caused a significant fall in the island's population, the Danish administration developed an increased interest in the island. In 1703 a census was carried out - the island population was established at 50,358.
Among those who were entrusted with the census was Arni Magnusson, a collector and student of Icelandic manuscripts who took up residence in Copenhagen. He later bequeathed his collection to the University of Copenhagen, where it became the Arnamagnaean Institute. In 1971 its library was transferred to Reykjavik.
Iceland had had printing press since 1578, owned by the bishop of Holar; when a private printing press was established in 1773, the printing of secular texts took off. Around 1770 the island's first prison, and at that time the only stone house, was built in Reykjavik, later to be transformed into the governor's residence (in 1810), a place which was also the site of attempts to establish a primitive industry (aimed at the export of sulphur and the processing of wool). Although these attempts failed, Reykjavik developed into Iceland's oldest township. From 1770 onward the governors resided, on Iceland. The old residence of Bessastadir was given up in favour of Reykjavik. In 1786 Reykjavik was elevated to a township. In 1780, Islenzka Laerdoms-Lista Felag (Icelandic Scholarly Society) had been founded. In the 1780es, the Danish government abolished the trade monopoly with Iceland a Danish company enjoyed. The two bishoprics finally were abolished, the two Latin schools merged into one.
For centuries, the affairs concerning Iceland had mainly been decided in Copenhagen. The most important Icelandic political institution, the Althingi - a parliament dating back into the 10th century - was abolished in 1800.
With Denmark pursuing a foreign policy staunchly opposing Britain in the Napoleonic years - Copenhagen was attacked by the British Navy twice, in 1801 and 1807 and following - communication with Iceland was cut off.
In summer 1809, the Danish adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen assumed the title of sovereign and protector of Iceland, claiming to act under British protection, declaring Danish rule to have ended and Iceland to become independent, under British protection; when it turned out that
Britain was not involved, he was removed by the captain of a British ship, and after only two months Governor Greve af Trampe resumed the administration. From 1810 to 1813 the island was without a governor.
The short-lived coup of 1809 was an affair in which foreigners were involved - Danish officials as victims, Dane Jørgensen and his English associates as actors. Icelanders have taken mainly a passive position.
In 1816 the Islenska Bokmenntafelag (Icelandic Literary Society) was founded by a Danish linguist, Rasmus Christian Rask, its seats were Reyklavik and Copenhagen. Demands for the reestablishment of the Althing were first raised in 1831. In 1838 a Committee of Officials (a kind of Icelandic cabinet) was created, consisting of 10 Icelanders. In 1843, the Althingi (abolished in 1800) was restored. Jon Sigurdsson emerged as the leader of the Icelanders supporting and shaping the new constitution. Reykjavik was selected as the new site of the Althing. The franchise was limited to men over 25 years
old who fulfilled certain property or education qualifications.
When absolutism was abolished in Denmark and a democratic constitution was adopted in 1848, Jon Sigurdsson proposed a constitution for Iceland which foresaw a maximum of autonomy, virtual independence with only the dynasty binding Denmark to Iceland; the 1849 proposal was rejected by the Danish parliament in 1851.
From 1860 to 1865 Porour Jonassen was the first Icelander in centuries to govern the island, albeit as acting governor. The position of Minister for Iceland was established in 1855, the ministers residing in Copenhagen until 1904; until the end of the century, Danes were exclusively appointed to the post. The Danish administration's revenues from Iceland covered roughly half the expenses, the island thus was subsidized by the Danish state. In 1874 a new constitution for Iceland was proclaimed.
In 1815 Iceland's population was c. 48,000; until 1855 it rose to c. 65,000. Emigration to America began in 1855; overall, c. 15,000 Icelanders emigrated, mostly to Canada and the USA. The stocks of sheep and cattle also expanded considerably; after centuries of stagnation, Iceland experienced sustained demographic and economic expansion. Medical progress, with the assistance of Danish veterinarians, permitted the extermination of the scab, an infectious disease afflicting sheep.
In 1855 the Danish parliament had enected free trade for Iceland, ending the exclusion of foreigners from Iceland trade that had lasted since 1602.
In 1869 a group of Icelandic farmers purchased a sailing ship (hitherto Icelanders only owned fishing boats), thus beginning an Icelandic merchant fleet.
The export of live ponies and sheep, primarily to Britain, was begun.
Because of the extremely low population density, Iceland, despite it's Lutheran tradition, had no elementary schools until into the 19th century, the
Latin school(s), designed for the education of priests, being the only school in the country. Basic education took place at home on the farms; a significant proportion of the population could read, a smaller share could write.In the 1850es and 1860es, permanent schools were established in larger villages, while itinerant schools (i.e. teachers moving from farm to farm) became popular.
In 1861 a law was enacted according to which single women 25 years or older were permitted to rule their property, a first step toward the emancipation
In 1872 an exclusive fishery zone was established, within a line 10 miles from the Icelandic coast; it was recognized by the British in a treaty of 1901.
In 1874 a new constitution was issued for Iceland, a compromise between Icelandic demands for a maximum of political autonomy and of Danish interest in maintaining the monarchy; the Danish state still subsidized the Icelandic budget regularly. Legislative power lay with the Althing, the decisions of which required approval by the Danish king, who was served by a minister for Iceland. National defense and diplomatic representation still were Danish prerogatives. On the occasion of the Icelandic millennium, King Christian IX. visited Iceland , the first royal visit ever. Iceland since 1684 had been administrated by governors, who until 1770 resided in Copenhagen. In 1904 Governor Magnus Sthephensen (gov. since 1886) was promoted governor-general. At the same time the residence of the minister for Iceland was moved from Copenhagen to Reyklavik, and, for the first time, an Icelander was appointed to the office : Hannes Hafstein.
In 1917, the position of Minister for Iceland was elevated to prime minister, the first being Jon Magnusson.
In 1882 farm-owning widows were granted the right to vote in local elections. The franchise was still tied to property, since 1857, until the electoral reform
of 1915 which introduced universal suffrage, both for men and women. Womanhood suffrage and full legal equality had been demanded since 1888. In the early 1880es the Temperance Movement began its activities on Iceland. The first trade union was formed in 1897. The Icelandic Labour Party was established in 1916, the agrarian-liberal Progressive Party in 1916-1917.
Since the 1890es, the Icelandic fishermen found themselves in competition with foreign, mostly English, trawlers, technically much better equipped than the traditional Icelandic rowboats. The mechanization of fishing boats began in 1902.
In 1886, an Icelandic National Bank was established, issuing paper money, a right also granted to the Bank of Iceland founded in 1904. Credit from these banks was necessary in order for Icelandic fishermen to acquire modern fishing vessels (trawlers).
In 1918 Denmark recognized Iceland beign a sovereign state, with Christian I. (Christian X. of Denmark) as first (and only) king of Iceland, the country thus remaining in dynastic union with Denmark. Iceland thus gained formal recognition of self-government. Capital was Reykjavik, the Althingi Iceland's parliament. In 1919 universal womanhood suffrage was introduced. Iceland was one of the first countries to abolish the death penalty in 1928. In 1930 Iceland celebrated the millennium of the Althing.
Until 1916 there had been several political parties, which advocated various degrees of political autonomy/independence and were all more or less moderately liberal. In 1916 the Labour Party and the Progressive Party were founded. The right wing of the older Home Rule Party reorganized itself as the Independence Party (c. 1918). In 1930, the left wing of the Labour Party split off to form the Communist Party; in 1938 they were joined by another breakaway Labour faction, and renamed themselves the Socialist Party.
An insurance for work-related invalidity was introduced in 1925; in 1936 the State Social Security Institute was established, taking care of retirement, invalidity and health insurances.
The island's economy depended almost entirely on fishery, almost all other articles of daily consumption having to be imported.
After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Iceland's exports sank, as did prices for export products (mainly fishery and agricultural products). Unemployment rose, and among those who depended on employment, desperate situations occurred; farmers and cottage owners were less affected. The state introduced a public works program, offering employment to some. An attempted cut in wages did not take place, due to the threat of violence on the side of the workers. During the depression, protectionist measures such as the regulation of imports, the monopolization of trade with foreign currency by state-owned banks etc. were implemented; they were to last throughout World War II.
Among right-wing Icelanders, the idea of reclaiming Greenland gained some support during the 1930es; fascist organizations, however, failed to establish themselves on Iceland.
When World War II broke out, the Icelanders sympathized with Britain, France and soon-occupied Poland, and then with Finland which found itself under attack from the Soviet Red Army. The Icelandic government, although not responsible for foreign policy (a prerogative of the Danish government) pursued a policy of neutrality.
On April 9th 1940, German troops occupied Denmark; the British occupied the Faroes and Iceland (May 1940, c. 25,000 troops) to make sure the Germans would not establish footholds there. Just after the Atlantic Conference, US forces established an airbase on
Greenland (1941) and took over the task of occupying Iceland from the British (60,000 troops); they established a base there at Keflavik.
A few Icelandic cargo or fishing vessels were sunk by German u-boats, aircraft or sea mines. German airforce planes repeatedly flew over Iceland, but caused little damage.
In 1944, the Icelanders met at Thingvellir, where they declared full independence from Denmark. As first president, they elected Sveinn Bjoernsson, who had acted as regent since 1941.
In 1946 a social secirity law uplifted Iceland's social security network to the level of the best in the world; retirement pensions were guaranteed
to persond 67 and over; family benefits to families with 4 and more children; universal insurance was granted. Social security quickly grew to make up
a considerable part of state expenses; Iceland joined the ranks of the welfare states. Unemployment insurance was introduced in 1956.
Iceland received Marshall Plan aid. The country experienced a considerable inflation. In 1952, the exchlusive fishery zone around Iceland was
extended, unilaterally, by the Icelandic government, to 4, in 1958 to 12 nautical miles. In 1958, Britain refused to accept this, and the confrontation - the arrest of British fishermen, the liberation by the British navy - was referred to as the Cod War (1958-1961).
In 1949, Iceland joined NATO. In 1951 a treaty was signed with the US, providing the legal basis for renewed US military presence on the island
(at Keflavik). In 1963 an underwater volcano erupted, creating the new island of Surtsey.
In 1972, Iceland unilaterally extended its Exclusive Fishery Zone to 50, in 1975 to 200 nautical miles around Iceland; this lead to the (second) Cod War with Britain (1975-1976; a trade conflict). In 1980, Iceland was the first republic to elect a woman, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, president.
Iceland was one of the few western countries that imported cars made in East Germany.
Iceland's economy depended heavily on fishery anf agriculture; almost everything had to be imported. The welfare state was costly; one consequence was a relative high level of inflation, which again resulted in a fall of the foreign exchange rate, to US Dollar, Pound Sterling or DM. The annual inflation rate peaked in 1983 at 85 %. In 1938 one US Dollar had the value of 4.77 Kronur, in 1990 5.547 (old) Kronur. In 1981 a currency reform was conducted, 1 new krona equivalent to 100 old kronur.
In 1985, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik.
Iceland, desiring to resume commercial whaling, left the International Whaling Commission in 1992. It rejoined in 2002; whaling (on which the IWC had placed a moratorium in 1986), under the pretext of being conducted for scientific purpose, was resumed in 2003. The Icelandic economy has always heavily depended on fishery.
In 2006 the US airbase at Keflavik was closed.
A.L. von Schlözer, Isländische Litteratur und Geschichte,
vol.1, 1773, in German, GB
J. Nicoll, An historical and descriptive account of Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands (1840),
L. MacColl Elton, The Story of Iceland 1887, IA
B. Melsted, Concise history of Iceland 1906, IA
List of Ratifications of International Labour Conventions by Iceland, from
ILO, 22 docs. since 1945
Free Trade Agreements signed by Iceland, from
Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Icelandic; list of treaties, some linked
Internet Law Library : Iceland
Codex juris Islandorum antiqvissimus
vol.2, 1829, GB
Magnus Ketilsson, Kongelige allernaadigste Forordninger og aabne Breve som til Island ere udgivne af de Hoist-priselige Konger af den Oldenborgiske
Stamme, part 1, 1776,
part 2, 1778,
part 3, 1787, in Danish, GB
Svend Gissel e.a. (ed.), Desertion and Land Colonization in the Nordic Countries c. 1300-1600, Stockholm : Almqvist & Wiksell 1981 [G]
The North Atlantic Saga, in : Historical Atlas of the Vikings, by John Haywood, London : Penguins 1995, pp.86-99, illustrated, concise, scholarly