A Very Brief History of Iceland

April 24, 2016

When most people think of Iceland they think of Vikings, but the first discovery of the isolated country is thought to have been made by the Greek explorer, Pytheas, in 325 BC. On his epic sea voyage to explore western Europe he mentions a land called Ultima Thule, saying that it’s ‘in the farthest north near a frozen sea’, and also describing the strange phenomenon of the midnight sun.

But although Iceland is actually marked out on medieval maps by the name Thule, there’s some debate as to whether Pytheas was speaking about Iceland, or if he sailed in the opposite direction and was actually borne on his ship to Norway.

The First Settlers

Whether Norway or Iceland though, Pytheas didn’t stay long in the Land of the Cold Sun, and it’s thought that the first permanent settler came to Iceland in the 9th Century. This traveller, Ingólfur Arnarson, sailed from Norway with his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir, and arrived on land in 874 AD.

According to legend, when he first sighted Iceland ahead of him Ingólfur dedicated his wooden posts to the Gods, threw them into the sea, and began to explore his discovery. When the posts were finally washed up in the southwest of Iceland he settled there, where he and his wife built a homestead which they called Reykjavik – or ‘Smokey Bay’.

Many Norwegian Vikings followed Ingólfur, and when they found that they were able to farm large patches of the land away from the rule of King Harald I, many also stayed. By 930 AD an estimated 60,000 Vikings had populated the island, and in the same year the first Alþingi, an Icelandic Parliament, was set up on the fields of Þingvellir.

After the establishment of the Parliament the period of 930 – 1030 became known as The Saga Age, since many of the events that were recorded in the Icelandic Sagas in the 12th and 13th century actually took place during this time.

Þingvellir

Þingvellir

The Middle Ages

But the Middle Ages also heralded huge changes in the Free State of the Icelandic Commonwealth. The Norwegian king sent missionaries out to Iceland to convert the pagan population into Christians, and although some accepted the new religion, a large majority resisted the change. The animosity lead to rumblings of a civil war that was only averted by Thorgeir the Lawspeaker, who persuaded the people to accept a compromise.

In the 11th century Christianity became the official religion of Iceland, but pagans were still allowed the religious freedom to worship their Gods in private. However, the church soon grew rich by the law that said peasants had to pay one tenth of their produce to the clergy. In 1082 the first bishop was installed in Iceland, and he quickly set about eradicating all traces of paganism and establishing monasteries there instead.

In 1152, the Icelandic church was brought under the authority of a Norwegian archbishop, and so began the steady trickle of power back into the hands of the Norwegian king. As religious and economic power drifted back towards Norway a period of internal conflict developed across Iceland, helped along by the concentration of power in the hands of one mighty family.

The Age of Sturlungs

In 1220 The Age of Sturlungs began. The Sturlungs were members of the most powerful family clan, and through marriages and political alliances they dominated a large part of the country. Further groups of chieftains and other families began to oppose their strength on the island, and tensions started to rise.

At the same time, the ecology of Iceland began to deteriorate, in part due to over-grazing of the rich lands around Reykjavik. The forests had been decimated by farmland, and with no more wood with which to build ships, the Icelanders became dependent on Norwegian merchants to export and import food and materials. As the Icelandic Commonwealth was undermined by the growing feud with the Sturlung family, normal Icelanders began to look to the King of Norway to protect trade, and help to support their flagging economy.

As the growing unrest between the Sturlungs and the rest of the island continued seemingly unstoppably, the country finally agreed to submit to the Norwegian king in return for peace and security. As such, 1262 marked the year that ended nearly four centuries of Iceland’s Independence as a free state.

Under Foreign Rule

Sveinstekksfoss in Iceland: Photo Credit - Slipshod

Sveinstekksfoss in Iceland: Photo Credit – Slipshod

After the promise of peace, rule by Norway proved to be a time of hardship and desolation for Iceland. The country became almost wholly dependent on Norwegian supplies, and due to a change in environment many of these ships never actually arrived. Ice blocked the fjords and sea approaches to the island, volcanoes erupted recurrently, and repeated epidemics and famine decimated the population.

In 1349, the Black Death spread across Norway and all trade and supplies into Iceland were suspended.

Then, in 1380, Norway entered a union with Denmark and in 1397, when Norway, Denmark and Sweden formed the Kalmar Union, Iceland was drawn under the power of the dominant Danish crown. The conditions in the country worsened yet again, and Icelandic chieftains were replaced by Danish royal officials.

At the beginning of the 15th century during 1402 – 1404, the Black Death found its way onto Iceland and killed more than a third of the population. This weakening of the society was swiftly followed in the next century, by the imposition of Lutheranism by the Danish King following the Reformation across Europe.

In 1550, the last vestiges of the Roman Catholic religion were removed from Iceland when the final bishop, Jon Arason, was beheaded, and Lutheran doctrine was strictly imposed by the Crown. With freedom of worship taken out of the Icelanders’ hands, in 1602, Denmark established a trade monopoly which prevented them from trading with any other country, leading to a period of extreme destitution until 1787 when the ruling was lifted.

During the intervening years, the Danish King tightened his grip on Iceland, and in 1662 he assumed hereditary power. Absolute monarchy was imposed and the Icelandic Parliament’s power was brutally curtailed.

Throughout the 1700s a period of natural disasters beset the island, with an outbreak of smallpox in 1707 that killed around 18,000 people, and the eruption of Katla volcano in 1755. In 1783, there was a catastrophic eruption of the Lakagigar volcano which triggered floods, unleashed ash and toxic fumes into the atmosphere, and precluded a period of starvation that killed another 10,000 people.

Moves Towards Independence

With Iceland’s population now standing at only 38,000, in the year 1800 royal decree dissolved the Icelandic Parliament and replaced it with a Supreme Court. However, nationalism became a growing force across the country as well as throughout Europe.

Jon Sigurdsson became the influential leader of the Icelandic independence movement, protests were set in motion, and in 1843 the Parliament was re-established as a consultative body with only a handful of powerful barons and landowners elected. Despite its little power, nationalism in Iceland continued to grow, and in 1874 the king granted Iceland a new constitution.

The move to independence finally came to a head in 1904 when the post of governor was abolished and Iceland was granted home rule. The first Icelandic minister was established in Reykjavik.

The years of home rule (1904 – 1918) were a time of economic and social progress, as Iceland’s fishing industry and newfound opportunities in free trade bolstered the nation. In 1915 Icelandic women were allowed the vote for the first time, and in December 1918 Iceland finally became a sovereign state once again; now to be known as the Kingdom of Iceland, in a personal union with the Danish King.

The Second World War, however, led to a period of occupation for the island. In May 1940 British troops moved in, and in May 1941, the Americans relieved them. Finally, in 1944 Iceland broke off all links with Denmark and the joint monarchy was dissolved.

The Modern Day

Modern Day Iceland

Modern Day Iceland

Since 1949 Iceland has been a member of NATO. Its population has risen, despite emigration to Canada, and in 1980 Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was elected the first president of Iceland. She was the first elected female president in the world.

Today, Iceland still relies primarily on fishing for its economy and trade, but its tourism industry has also started to boom. Its natural beauty and extremes of weather attract visitors from around the world, and since its inclusion as a location on HBO’s hit drama Game of Thrones, more people are making the trip to visit this land of Ice and Fire.

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