Althing: Parliament of Iceland

Althing, the world' s longest running parliament is in Iceland, this article explains more about the democracy established by the Vikings. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

31 May 22 · 9 mins read

The Althing

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.

Thingvellir national park landscape with historic site known for the Althing site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. View is from The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a boundary between two tectonic plates, the Eurasian and the North Americans and is product of earth movements. It is UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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.

Viking longship sailing on a calm sea at sunset, 3d digitally rendered illustration

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.

Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park, 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.

Reykjavik capital city of Iceland
Reykjavik, Iceland in winter

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.

Setting sun along the path between large rock walls in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

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.

Arnarstapi village, Iceland
View of the basalt rocks formation on the coastline with the beautiful houses and the Mountain Stapafell in the background at Arnarstapi village, Iceland

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:

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:

Related Tours

Iceland church in Vik

17 days

May, Sep

Iceland cultural and wilderness small group tour

Visiting Iceland

Our escorted tour gives guests an insight into the history of this Icelandic nation. Travelling as a small group, our daily itineraries explore the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and others, national parks and majestic waterfalls as we learn about Iceland’s natural heritage and its Viking past from experienced local guides. There is a single supplement for solo travellers.

From A$16,995 AUD

View Tour
Discover Greenland’s history and culture

4 days

Sep, May

Discover Greenland | Small Group Tour for Seniors

Visiting Greenland

Greenland is the largest island in the world, the majority of it lies above the Arctic Circle, and it is part of Denmark. Few places are quite so difficult to reach, we fly from Reykjavik to Nuuk. During this small group tour we have ensured that our travellers gets to this conversation-stopping land and, while we are there we obtain the most comprehensive overview of this vast landmass. We visit during the summer, experiencing the burst of seasonal flora, which caused the early voyagers to name it Greenland.

From A$5,950 AUD

View Tour
Faroe Islands

5 days

Sep, Apr, May, Jul, Aug

Faroe Islands Tour

Visiting Denmark

Few European tour companies offer small group journeys to the Faroe Islands. This five-day small group tour designed for mature couples and solo travellers. Local guides take you on trips off the beaten path to visit some of the islands' most stunning sights and to explore the capital of Tórshavn.

From A$6,450 AUD

View Tour
Northern Lights small group tour

10 days

Oct, Jan

Northern Lights Small Group tour | Visit Norway and Finland

Visiting Finland, Norway

Odyssey's small group tour following the Northern Lights allows you to experience serene snow-covered Arctic landscapes. Throughout our journey guides and specialists will outline the history of this stark region and the nature of the peoples who wrested their living from it. A unique opportunity to view this natural phenomenon travelling as part of a small group.

From A$8,750 AUD

View Tour
A 15 pence Isle of Man postage stamp issued in 1979 depicting a Viking ship.

28 days

Jun, Sep

Vikings in Britain; small group tour

Visiting England, Ireland

Vikings in Britain, escorted educational small group tour for senior couples and mature solo travellers who for 27 days explore Ireland, the isle of Man, Scotland and England and the viking history.

From A$17,650 AUD

View Tour
Scandinavia tours

13 days


Scandinavia tours for mature travellers

Visiting Denmark, Norway

Uncover on a small group tour for couples and solo travellers, a Viking past and view of the world’s biggest fjords on this journey through Scandinavia. In low-lying Denmark our small group journey takes us to visit the Zeeland, the sea land, and our program includes the vibrant capital of Copenhagen. In Norway we travel through endless forests, skirting great fjords to Bergen.

From A$14,295 AUD

View Tour
Scandinavian Designs Small Group Tour; Denmark, Sweden and Finland

21 days


Scandinavian Design Small Group Tour: Denmark, Sweden and Finland

Visiting Denmark, Finland

Denmark, Sweden and Finland realised that the only way to remain competitive on the world stage was through the value of superior design. Travelling with like-minded people on our small group tour you will explore the cities and towns where those high quality products, appreciated around the world, are created including hygge.

From A$15,895 AUD

View Tour
Scandinavia tours

20 days

Aug, May

Tour of Denmark's Culture & History

Visiting Denmark

Experience group travel for couples and single travellers to Denmark. This European tour provides a travel experience based around key destinations and itineraries that provide authentic experiences in Denmark .A single supplement applies for solo travellers.

From A$14,750 AUD

View Tour

Related Articles

Reykjavik capital city of Iceland

Iceland Museum collection

Article supporting small group educational tour to Iceland for senior couples and mature single travellers. Focus is on the museums and galleries of including the Vikings and the history of settlement from Skara Brae and the Faroe islands.

30 Sep 21 · 7 mins read
Read Article
Lunar landscapes and geology in Iceland

Lunar landscapes and geology in Iceland

Iceland has a fascinating place in the contemporary geologic record of Earth. But whilst the geology makes the landscape it is the people, the wildlife and the culture that attract many to visit. For Odyssey's small group package tour of Iceland for mature and senior travellers whether couples or a single traveller this is a great journey.

1 Jul 20 · 10 mins read
Read Article
Church in Reykjavik

Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, the capital and largest city of Iceland, will most likely be your first port of entry into this fairly isolated island country.

3 Jan 20 · 4 mins read
Read Article
Sami culture within the Vikings

Sami culture within the Vikings

Article about the Sami culture of the Arctic circle for small group educational tours for senior couples and mature single travellers interested in learning about the Vikings and their journeys into the Atlantic and south across Russia.

30 Sep 21 · 8 mins read
Read Article
The Blue Lagoon, Iceland

The History of the Settlement of Iceland

Marooned at the top of the globe, somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean, lies the island nation of Iceland, a land of vivid contrasts where nature reigns supreme in her most dramatic form. Iceland is the world's oldest democracy and boasts more writer's per capita than any other country in the world. It is said that many Icelanders still believe in the mythical figures of the Norse past, such as elves, trolls and fairies, which may be due to the country's literary history including its famous sagas, epic tales based on Iceland's settlement from around 9-11 AD.

13 Jan 20 · 9 mins read
Read Article
The Viking's Woollen Sails

The Viking's Woollen Sails

Vikings and Their Use of Wool for Sails This educational article aims to help senior travellers immerse in the world of vikings before they take part in a memorable travel experience across Scandinavia. It helps…

15 Mar 19 · 7 mins read
Read Article
Ale's Stones (Ales stenar), a megalithic monument in Skåne, Sweden.

Vikings-explorers, raiders, traders

Article introducing Vikings and Outhere the explorer. Learn more on a small group educational tour for senior couples and mature solo travelers going to Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic circle or the Orkney islands.

4 Oct 21 · 6 mins read
Read Article

Join 22,383 like-minded travellers receiving our weekly newsletter.

Special offers and promotions
A$350 AUD first trip travel voucher
The latest tours and articles