Althing: Parliament of Iceland
31 May 22 · 9 mins read
In the Thingvellir valley, in the southwest of Iceland, the world’s longest running national parliament first assembled over 1000 years ago. Known as the Althing (Icelandic: Alþingi), the parliament was founded as an outdoor assembly in 930, uniting the various Viking chieftaincies of Iceland and establishing justice, order, and a rule of law. With it, Iceland became, outside of Greece and Rome, the first republic in Europe, a crude model for the ideas that would come into play 800 years later as democracies were formed in the USA, France and then the wider world.
The function of the Althing has varied over the years, with Iceland occupied by various powers until gaining its full independence again in 1944. Nevertheless, the Althing has always stood as the foundation for an independent national existence in Iceland.
Odyssey Traveller visits Thingvellir National Park, historic home of the Althing, during our 17-day Iceland Culture and Wilderness Small Group Tour. Read on for a history of Iceland’s Althing as background reading for your tour.
Viking Settlement of Iceland
The Vikings first visited Iceland in a series of voyages in the mid-9th century before colonists led by Ingólf Arnarson first settled on the island in 872. From then until 930 somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people followed to settle habitable areas of the land.
Many of these first settlers were members of the Norwegian aristocracy – chieftains (known as goðar), nobles, and even the sons of kings – escaping the oppressive regime of King Harald Fairhair. For the first time in history, the king had brought all Norway under his sway, taking possession of people’s lands and levying taxes. For the Norwegian aristocracy and their families, this was nothing short of tyranny. Rather than be subjugated in their homeland, they chose exile, seeking a land of the free.
During the period of settlement, no real political structure existed in Iceland. However, as the aristocrats had been the acknowledged leaders politically and religiously in Norway, they soon came to hold a similar position in the new land, with groups of adherents gathering around them. The country was thus divided into a number of chieftaincies.
As the settlers had left their native land for the sake of personal liberty, they did not intend to establish a unified government with a centralized authority which might in any way threaten their individual rights. Instead, each chieftaincy had its own laws, which freeman could discuss and agree upon in gathered assemblies.
Establishment of the Althing
The local assemblies soon proved insufficient to maintain peace across Iceland. Although the different chieftaincies shared the same ancestral home, religion, and language, they had their own leaders and customs that set them apart. Violence between the groups became frequent as each fought for their beliefs and limited resources of the land.
With no higher tribunal nor assembly for the country at large, it was impossible to settle the conflicts between the different communities. The people thus began to push for a general assembly under a central national government which could establish laws to ensure harmonious living. To ascertain how this could be achieved, one of the goðar, Ulfjot, went to Norway to study Norwegian constitutional laws. After a few years he returned with a constitution for Iceland.
Ulfjot’s constitution was adopted in 930, yielding the chieftaincies together into the unified Iceland Republic. The constitution provided for the establishment of the Althing – a national assembly in which every community could be represented proportionately. This was to be the sole body charged with legislative and judicial powers in the new republic.
To select the meeting place of the Althing, Ulfjot’s foster brother, Grim Goatbeard, traversed all the country. Eventually, he chose the lowlands which have ever since been knowns as Thingvellir (The Plains of the Parliament), in the southwestern part of Iceland.
Function of the Althing
Following the first assembly in 930, the Althing would be assembled around the middle of June each year and last for two weeks. The assemblies were centred around a large basalt slab protruding from the western wall of the valley, known as the Lögberg, or Law Rock. Taking his seat on the Law Rock was the lögsögumaður, or Lawspeaker, who officially presiding over the assembly, recited the laws of Iceland in effect at the time, and proclaimed the procedural law of the Althing to those attending the assembly.
Still, the Lawspeaker did not have any real greater power than the other attendees. His position was merely a ceremonial one, designed to serve as the institution’s mouthpiece. Rather, decisions were made collectively amongst the Lögrétta, or the Law Council. All free men could attend the assemblies, but it was the country’s goðar from 39 districts plus nine additional members who made up the Law Council.
As the legislative section of the assembly, the Law Council amended and adopted new laws, granted exemptions to existing laws, settled legal disputes, and tried and punished criminals. All rulings were made by majority vote.
When the country was split up into four quarters in 965, a fjórðungsdómur, or quarter court was established for each. Each quarter court consisted of 36 judges, each appointed by the Law Council. For a verdict to be valid 31 judges had to agree.
A fifth court, the fimmtardómur, was then established in the early 11th century. Comprised of 48 judged appointed by the Law Council, this served as an appeal court, hearing cases left unsettled by the other courts.
Social Event of the Year
Politics and legislation, however, were not the only focus at these assemblies. Socially, it was the main event of the year. Large crowds descended on the assemblies – farmers, craftsmen, storytellers, travellers, traders, and all their families attending.
Merchants returning from abroad brought news along with goods for sale. Athletes showed their prowess in various sports. Poets and story tellers entertained with their art. Distant relations shared their annual news, invitations were exchanged, and banquets held. It was an excellent occasion for making and renewing friendships, many a marriage was there arranged, and many a romance begun.
Within the bounds of Althing everyone was entitled to sanctuary. To accommodate everyone, temporary tent camps called búðir were raised, where people stated and met up for gatherings and parties.
Changing Role of the Althing
The Icelandic republic born at Thingvellir would come to an end in the 11th century. After about 20 years of internal strife and deafly fighting, the leaders of the little nation chose to surrender independence to the authority of the Norwegian king in 1264.
The Law Council at the Althing continued to be the country’s principal institution, maintaining its legislative powers, albeit to a limited extent. The executive power now rested with the king. He had the final verdict on laws adopted by the Law Council, and if he initiated legislation, the Althing had to approve.
Then in 1397, Scandinavian union was formed at Kalmar, Sweden (Kalmar Union) bringing the separate kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark under a single monarch. This union eventually led to Iceland and Norway being united under the Danish crown towards the end of the 14th century. With this, Iceland lost all of its autonomy it had while under the Norwegian crown, including its legislative powers. The Althing was reduced to serving only as a court of legislation until 1800.
That year, the Althing’s functions were dissolved, and a new High Court was established in Reykjavik. Then, in 1843, a royal decree established a new Althing comprised of 26 Members sitting in a single chamber. Unfortunately, the group were no more than a consultative body for the Danish crown, tasked with examining proposed legislation.
Following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Icelanders began to agitate for independence. This led the Danish King Christian IX to grant Iceland its own constitution in 1874, at the celebration of the thousandth anniversary of Iceland’s first settlement. This granted the Althing, now consisting of 36 members, joint legislative power with the crown in matters of exclusive Icelandic concern, and it gave Iceland’s National treasury powers of taxation and financial allocation. Still though, the king retained the right to veto legislation and often used it.
Then on 1 December 1918 Iceland was recognised as a fully sovereign and independent state in a personal union with Denmark. With this the Althing was granted unrestricted legislative power, although foreign affairs and coastal surveillance remained in Danish hands. The union expired in December 1943 after 25 years, and in May 1944 Icelanders voted to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic, with the Althing as the parliament.
Thingvellir National Park
On May 7, 1928, Thingvellir, site of the historic Althing, was turned in a national park and declared a “protected national shrine“. Located 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Reykjavik, it is regarded as a site of historical, cultural, and geological significance. It is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations, situated on “The Golden Circle” – a popular tourist route which also includes the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall. For years it was Iceland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, until it was joined in 2008 by the volcanic island Surtsey, and by Vatnajokull National Park in 2019.
Thingvellir’s location is quite impressive: a sunken lava-plain, several miles in length and breadth, shaped over the ages by volcanic fires and earthquakes. Its surface is interwoven with chasms, changing from barren rock to drwarf birches and green pastures. A snow-capped mountain rises in the distance to the north, while the south side of the plain is situated on the silver waters of Þingvallavat, the largest natural lake in Iceland. To the east and the west huge walls of rock flank the tableland.
The Park lies on the Mid-Atlantic Riff, the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Iceland is the only place in the world where this riff is above sea level. Here you can literally walk between the two continents, visible on the earth’s surface and continuously splitting Iceland into two at a rate of 1 mm to 18 mm per year.
Today many come here for the opportunity to snorkel and dive in the pristine and crystal glacial clear water that flows through the ravines opened by the tectonic movement. Silfra is the most famous of these ravines, with water visibility exceeding a hundred metres. Here visitors can immerse themselves in a magical blue world and witness the incredible geology beneath the surface.
The animal life at Thingvellir is also popular amongst guests. Fishing in the lake for its trout is popular, as is birdwatching for its many species of duck, its golden plovers, and its common snipes. Artic foxes and mink can also be found on the undergrowth and the edges of the waters.
Tour of Iceland
Visit Thingvellir National Park and more on Odyssey Traveller’s Iceland Cultural and Wilderness Small Group Tour. Over 17 days we visit not only the major stops of the Golden Circle but the country’s other natural wonders as well, such as the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the volcanic crater Viti, and the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. On this tour, you will be driven by coach from your hotel and back, giving you a comfortable, hassle-free Icelandic holiday experience.
Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.
Articles about the Golden Circle and Iceland published by Odyssey Traveller:
The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of Iceland when visiting:
- Questions About Iceland
- Visiting Iceland for Mature and Senior Travellers
- Lunar Landscapes and Geology in Iceland
- Iceland Museum Collection
- The Vikings: Explorers, Raiders, Traders
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to the Golden Circle and Iceland:
- Thingvellir–Northern Europe’s First Parliament
- How many of these 10 hidden gems in Iceland have you seen?
- Inspired by Iceland: The official tourism website
- Travel + Leisure: How to travel to Iceland
- Ice, Fire and Feuds: On the Trail of Iceland’s Sagas
- Lonely Planet: Ten things to do in Reykjavík
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