The history of Iceland

The first people known to have inhabitated Iceland were Irish monks or hermits who came in the eighth century, but left with the arrival. In 930, the Icelandic settlers founded one of the world´s first republican governments; the Old Commonwealth Age, described in the classic Icelandic Sagas, lasted until 1262, when Iceland lost its independence, and in 1944 the present republic was founded.  The country is governed by the Althing (parliament), whose 63 members are elected every four years.   In the year 1000, Icelandic-born Leifur Eiriksson (Leif Eriksson, sometimes called "Leif the Lucky") became the first European to set foot in North America. On another Viking expedition a couple of years later, Icelander Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir had a son, Snorri, who became the first child of European descent to be born in America. The Old Commonwealth Age, described in the classic Icelandic Sagas, lasted until 1262, when Iceland lost its independence.


Iceland is a  now a modern welfare state, in the spirit of its Scandinavian neighbours and cousins.  

In 1944 it regained independence and the present republic was founded. The country is governed by the Althing (Parliament), whose 63 members are elected every four years. Elections every four years are also held for the presidency; President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was elected in June 2000 for the second time.  

History of Iceland in chronological  order:

330 BC: Ultima Thule

330 BC An explorer named Pytheas sailed north from Marseilles (in modern France) to discover how far the world would reach in that direction. He navigated the British Isles and the northern seas and wrote about an island that he called Thule or Ultima Thule in his now lost work, On the Ocean. This island was six days north of Britain and one day from "the end of the world". The island he found is thought to have been Iceland

874-930 AD: Irish Monks and the Settlement of Iceland

The first geographical document of the northern seas was written by an Irish monk named Dicuil, early in the 9th century. The geography book was called 'De mensura orbis terrae' (Concerning the Measurement of the World) and in it he related his interviews with Irish priests, the 'Papas', who claimed to have sailed north to Thule and lived there from February to August each year. The Papas also confirmed Pytheas' story that after a day's journey north of the island they had come to 'frozen sea'. Dicuil was therefore the first man to document Thule as the uninhabited island that had already been known to Irish monks in the latter part of the 8th century.


The settlement of Iceland by the Vikings started in 874 and was largely over by 930 AD. It was precipitated largely by internal struggles in Norway between the barbarian King Harald the Fairhaired and former rulers. King Harald won a major victory late in the 8th century, after which he drove his enemies to the Scottish Isles, which he then later conquered. Many of these people fled onwards to Iceland - which by then was well-known amongst the Vikings - either directly from Norway or from the Scottish Isles, in order to evade Harald's rule.

The Irish monks are believed to have left Iceland soon after the heathen Vikings arrived. It is possible, however, that they remained in Iceland, in which case they bore no influence on subsequent events in Iceland.

The main source of information about the settlement of Iceland is the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), written in the 12th century, that gives a detailed account of the first settlers. According to the book, Ingólfur Arnarson was the first settler of Iceland. He was a chieftain from Norway, who arrived in Iceland with his family and dependants in 874. He started a farm in Reykjavik, which later became the country's capital. The years between 874 and 930 AD saw increasing numbers of Viking settlers (bringing with them Celtic women) who arrived from Scandinavia and claimed land in the inhabitable areas.

930 AD: Establishment of the Althing

The Althing, Iceland's present-day parliament, is the world's oldest existing national assembly. Founded at Thingvellir ('Parliament Plains') in 930 AD, the country's democratic system of government was completely unique in its day. In the year 930, at the end of the settlement of Iceland, a constitutional law code was written and the Althing parliament established. The judicial power of the Althing was distributed among four regional courts, together with a supreme court which convened annually at the national assembly at Thingvellir.


982 AD: Discovery of Greenland

Erik the Red (Eiríkur Rauði) discovers Greenland in approximately 982 AD. He left Iceland with 25 ships loaded with prospective settlers, of which only 14 made it to Greenland. Around 984 AD they established the Eastern and Western settlements in deep fjords near the southwestern tip, where they thrived for the next few centuries, and then disappeared completely after more than 450 years of habitation. When they were at their most numerous, the farms in the Norse colonies reached 300 in number. These had some 5000 inhabitants who, among other things, raised cattle, harvested the earth and hunted seals.


1000: Adoption of Christianity

Christianity was peacefully adopted at Thingvellir by the Icelanders in the year 1000 AD. The Althing assembled for two weeks every summer and attracted a large proportion of the population. The first diocese was established at Skálholt in South Iceland in 1056 and a second at Hólar in the north in 1106. Both became the country's main centres of learning.

1000: Leif the Lucky discovers Vinland in North America

In 985 AD Erik the Red left Iceland and settled in Greenland, founding there the first permanent colony. He returned to Iceland in 986 AD and gave accounts of a country he called Grænland ('Greenland'), hoping that the name would make it an attractive option for settlers. It was from this Greenlandic colony that Erik's son Leifur Heppni ('Leif the Lucky') sailed in the year 1000 to discover North America, which he named Vínland the Good. One of the more reliable Icelandic Sagas, however, suggests that Leif Eriksson heard of Vínland from another Icelander, Bjarni Herjólfsson, who had sighted it some 14 years prior. Whatever the truth is, these voyages of exploration became the source material for one of Europe's greatest periods of literature. In 1960 archaeological evidence of Norse settlement in North America was found at L'Anse aux Meadows on the island of Newfoundland, though it is not known for how long the settlement survived.


13th Century: The Golden Age of the Sagas.

The Sagas include some of the classics of world medieval literature and are written in the ancient Viking language - Old Norse. Between 1120 and 1230 the Norse Sagas were written down on vellum in Iceland. The first literary medium to emerge was poetry, which tended to be heroic in theme. Poetry was then replaced by epic and dramatic tales of early settlement, romance, disputes and the development of Iceland. These provided both a sense of cultural heritage for everyday Icelanders as well as providing entertaining stories on bitterly cold winter nights. One of the most famous saga writers (and also historian and poet), Snorri Sturluson, wrote the Prose Edda and the Heimskringla.

1262: Iceland comes under Norway

The first naval battle in Iceland took place in 1244 at Húnaflói, and has subsequently been called 'The Bay Battle'. This particular battle occurred near the end of a series of battles and bloody clashes, which raged more or less continuously between 1208 and 1258. By the early 13th century, the enlightened period of peace that had lasted 200 years had come to an end. The country then entered the infamous Sturlung Age, a turbulent era of political treachery and violence, dominated by Sturla Thurdason and his sons. The opportunistic Norwegian King Hákon Hákonarson promptly stepped in and Iceland became a Norwegian province.


1380: Iceland and Norway come under Denmark

The volcano Mt. Hekla erupted in 1300, 1341 and 1389, causing widespread death and destruction. Recurring epidemics also plagued the country, and the Black Death that struck Norway in 1349 effectively cut off trade and supplies.

At the end of the 14th century, Iceland was brought under Danish rule. Disputes between church and state resulted in the Reformation of 1550, and the imposing of Lutheranism as the country's religious doctrine. Throughout the next two centuries, Iceland was crippled by rampant Danish profiteering, beset by international pirates and subject to an increasing number of natural disasters. The eighteenth century marked the most tragic age in Iceland's history. In 1703, when the first complete census was taken, the population was approximately 50,000, of whom about 20% were beggars and dependants. From 1707 to 1709 the population sank to about 35,000 because of a devastating smallpox epidemic. Twice more the population declined below 40,000, both during the years 1752-57 and 1783-85, owing to a series of famines and natural disasters.

1800's: Mass Emigration to America 

In the last quarter of the 19th century the Icelandic nation was beset by problems of hardship, overpopulation, diseases and famine. Icelanders had been emigrating west to North America since 1855, but the first organised journey was undertaken in 1873 when a large group sailed from Akureyri. The greatest exodus to the west took place shortly after 1880 and the situation lasted until 1890, when living conditions began to improve.


The majority of those who emigrated settled in Manitoba, Canada. An Icelandic 'colony' was formed there in 1875 and was called Nýja Ísland ('New Iceland'). The colony was located on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, about 60 miles north of the city of Winnipeg, and encompassed about 300 square miles of territory. Many of those who first left after 1855 converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah in the United States, settling in Spanish Fork.

From 1855 to 1914 about 15,000 Icelanders emigrated to North America. Many never returned and were sadly missed; some returned with new insights and technological knowledge. Today it is estimated that about 60,000 North Americans can trace their roots to Icelandic origin. About 18,000 descendents are believed to be living in the areas around British Columbia, Canada and Washington State in the US. Some 25,000 more are located in the Manitoba and North Dakota areas. The remainder are to be found in and around large urban centres such as Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. There are also notable settlements in Saskatchewan and Alberta. These people and their descendants are often called 'Vestur-Íslendingar' (West Icelanders) among Icelanders, and Icelandic Canadians or Icelandic Americans with non-Icelanders.
19th & 20th Centuries: Stepping-Stones Towards Independence

By the end of the 18th century the Althing had been dissolved and the old dioceses replaced by a bishop residing in Reykjavík. Due to the desperate plight of the population, the Danish trade monopoly was modified in 1783 and from then on all subjects of the Danish king were given the right to trade in Iceland. Denmark's grip on Iceland was broken in 1874 when Iceland drafted a constitution that gave it permission to handle its own domestic affairs.

In 1904 Home Rule came to Iceland with the appointment of the first Icelandic government minister. In 1918 Denmark recognised Iceland as a fully sovereign state united with Denmark under a common king. Denmark though retained responsibility for Iceland's defence and foreign affairs. In 1930 there were huge celebrations at Thingvellir in honour of a millennium since the establishment of the Althing parliament.

1944: Proclamation of the Republic of Iceland

After the Germans occupied Denmark in April 1940, Iceland took over its own foreign policy and proclaimed its neutrality. The island's vulnerability and strategic value became a matter of concern for the Allies who took the step of occupying Iceland in May 1940. Following a plebiscite, Iceland formally became an independent republic on June 17, 1944 even though Denmark was still occupied by Nazi Germany.


1950's to the Present

In 1951 Iceland agreed that the US should take responsibility for Iceland's defence and the US established a military base at Keflavik which remained there until 2006. Meanwhile in the 'Cod Wars' of the 1970's British warships clashed with Icelandic coastguards when the UK refused to recognise Iceland's expanded territorial fishing rights.

Since the mid 1990´s the economy has grown considerably following a policy of privatisation by successive right wing governments. In particular the banking sector has developed rapidly and Iceland is now one of the richest countries in the world. Areas of growth have been most obvious in aluminium smelting, information technology and tourism whilst the reliance on fishing has diminished. Thanks to a healthy economy, Icelanders are now looking forward to a brighter future for the 21st century.