A Brief History of Iceland

By Tim Lambert

Viking Iceland

The first people to settle in Iceland were probably Irish monks who came in the 8th century. However, in the 9th century, they were driven out by Vikings.

According to tradition the first Viking to discover Iceland was a man named Naddoddur who got lost while on his way to the Faeroe Islands. Following him, a Swede named Gardar Svavarsson circumnavigated Iceland in about 860. However, the first Viking attempt to settle was by a Norwegian named Floki Vilgeroarson. He landed in the northwest but a severe winter killed his domestic animals and he sailed back to Norway. However, he gave the land its name. He called it Iceland.

Then from 874 many settlers came to Iceland from Norway and the Viking colonies in the British Isles. A Norwegian named Ingolfur Arnarson led them. He sailed with his family, slaves, and animals.

When he sighted Iceland Ingolfur dedicated his wooden posts to his gods and then threw them overboard. He vowed to settle at the place where the sea washed them up. He then explored Iceland. When the posts were found in the southwest of Iceland Ingolfur and his household settled there. He called the place Reykjavik, meaning Smokey Bay. Many other Vikings followed him to Iceland.

The land in Iceland was free to whoever wanted it. A man could claim as much land as he could light fires around in one day while a woman could claim as much land as she could lead a heifer round in one day.

There were excellent fishing grounds around Iceland and the land was well suited to sheep. Many Vikings brought flocks with them and soon sheep became a major Icelandic industry. The population of Iceland soared. By about 930 about 60,000 people were living in Iceland.

At first, the Icelanders were ruled by chiefs called Godar but there were some local assemblies. About 930 the Icelanders created an assembly for the whole island called the Althing.

Iceland in the Middle Ages

In the 11th century, the Norwegians were converted to Christianity. The Norwegian kings sent missionaries to Iceland. Some Icelanders accepted the new religion but many were bitterly opposed. Eventually, a man named Thorgeir, who was the law speaker of the Althing, realized there was likely to be a civil war between the two. He may also have feared Norwegian intervention. (The Norwegians were quite prepared to ‘convert’ people to Christianity by force!). He persuaded the people to accept a compromise. Christianity became the ‘official’ religion of Iceland but pagans were allowed to worship their gods in private.

From 1097 people in Iceland had to pay tithes to the church (in other words they had to pay one-tenth of their produce). As a result, the church grew rich and powerful. Paganism was stamped out and monasteries were built. Iceland was given a bishop in 1056. In 1106 another bishopric was created at Holar in the north.

However, in 1152, the Icelandic church came under the authority of a Norwegian archbishop. In those days the church was closely allied to the state. When the Icelandic church became subordinate to the Norwegian church it meant the Norwegian king’s influence in Iceland slowly increased.

Meanwhile during the 12th century conditions in Iceland deteriorated. It may have been partly due to overgrazing. The forests were also cut down and the result was soil erosion. With no wood to build ships, the Icelanders were dependent on Norwegian merchants. At that time wool, animal hides, horses, and falcons were exported from Iceland. Timber, honey, and malt for brewing were imported. Some Icelanders began to look to the king of Norway to protect trade.

The Icelandic Commonwealth was also undermined by feuding between clans. Then in 1218 a man named Snorri Sturlung visited Norway and agreed to support the Norwegian king’s interests in Iceland. He returned home in 1220. Meanwhile, bishops who were born in Norway also supported the Norwegian king’s ambitions to rule Iceland.

However, the commonwealth ended because of the feuding between clans. The Icelanders desperately wanted peace and eventually realized the only way to obtain it was to submit to the Norwegian king.

Therefore in 1262, an agreement called the Ancient Covenant was accepted by the Althing. The Icelanders agreed to pay a tax of woolen cloth each year. In return, the king promised to uphold law and order in Iceland. He also replaced the Godar with royal officials. In 1280 a new constitution was drawn up. The Althing continued to meet but its decisions had to be ratified by the king. Furthermore, the king appointed a governor and 12 local sheriffs to rule. Meanwhile, slavery slowly died out in Iceland.

The 14th and early 15th centuries troubled years for Iceland. In the early 14th century, the climate grew colder. Then in 1402-03, the Black Death struck Iceland and the population was devastated.

However, prosperity returned in the 15th century. At that time there was a big demand in Europe for Icelandic cod and Iceland grew rich because of the fishing industry. Icelanders traded with the English and with the Germans. (At that time there was no single German nation but German ports were joined together in a federation called the Hanseatic League).

Meanwhile, in 1397 Norway was united with Denmark. Afterward, Iceland was ruled by the Danish crown.

Iceland 1500-1800

During the 16th century Iceland, like the rest of Europe, was rocked by the reformation. Denmark became Protestant in the 1530s and in 1539 the Danish king ordered his men to confiscate the church’s land in Iceland. The bishops of Iceland resisted and in 1541 the Danish king sent an expedition to enforce conformity. Skalholt was given a new bishop but the bishop of Holar, a man named Jon Aranson continued to resist. He was a powerful chieftain as well as a bishop and he had soldiers to fight for him. He also had two sons, by his concubine, who supported him. In 1548 Aranson was declared an outlaw. His soldiers then captured the Protestant bishop of Skalholt. However, in 1550 he was defeated. Aranson and his two sons were executed.

Afterward, the people of Iceland gradually accepted Protestantism and in 1584 the Bible was translated into Icelandic.

However, during the 17th century, the Icelanders suffered hardship. In 1602 the king made all trade with Iceland a monopoly of certain merchants in Copenhagen, Malmo, and Elsinore. In 1619 the monopoly was made a joint-stock company. The monopoly meant the Icelanders were forced to sell goods to the company at low prices and buy supplies from them at high prices. As a result, the Icelandic economy suffered severely.

Furthermore, in 1661, the Danish king made himself an absolute monarch. In 1662 the Icelanders were forced to submit to him. The Althing continued to meet but had no real power. It was reduced to being a court. Worse in 1707-09 Iceland suffered an outbreak of smallpox which killed a large part of the population.

In the mid-18th century, a man named Skuli Magnusson was made an official called a fogd. He tried to improve the economy by bringing in farmers from Denmark and Norway. He also introduced better fishing vessels. He also created a woolen industry in Reykjavik with German weavers. Finally, in 1787 the monopoly was ended.

However, in 1783, the fallout from volcanic eruptions caused devastation in Iceland. By 1786 the population of Iceland was only 38,000. Finally, in 1800 the Althing closed. A new law court replaced it. It sat in Reykjavik which at that time was a little community of 300 people.

Iceland in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, ties between Iceland and Denmark weakened. Nationalism was a growing force throughout Europe including Iceland. One sign of this growing nationalism was the writing of the song O Guo vors lands in 1874.

In 1843 the Danish king decided to Christian VIII to recall the Althing. It met again in 1845. However, it had little power. Yet nationalist opinion in Iceland continued to grow and in 1874 Christian IX granted a new constitution. However, under it, the Althing still had only limited powers. Then in 1904, the post of governor was abolished and Iceland was granted home rule.

Meanwhile, in 1854 restrictions on trade were removed. Trade with Iceland was opened to all nations. Furthermore, Icelandic fishing became much more prosperous in the late 19th century. Until then fishermen usually used rowing boats but by the end of the century, they had switched to much more effective decked sailing ships.

Iceland in the 21st Century

Iceland began to prosper once again. The population rose (despite emigration to Canada) and in 1911 Reykjavik University was founded.

In the 20th century, ties with Denmark were loosened. In 1904 Iceland was granted home rule. The post of governor was abolished. Instead, Iceland gained an Icelandic minister responsible to the Althing. Then in 1918, Iceland was made a sovereign state sharing a monarchy with Denmark.

In 1915 Icelandic women were allowed to vote. The first woman was elected to the Althing in 1922.

Then, in May 1940, Iceland was occupied by British troops. In May 1941 the Americans relieved them. Finally, in 1944, Iceland broke all links with Denmark, and the joint monarchy was dissolved.

In 1947 Mount Hekla erupted causing much destruction but Iceland soon recovered and in 1949 Iceland joined NATO.

In the late 20th century Iceland had a series of ‘cod wars’ with Britain. Iceland relied on its fishing industry and grew alarmed that the British were overfishing its waters. The ‘cod wars’ were ‘fought’ in 1959-1961, 1972, and 1975-1976.

In 1980 Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected president of Iceland. She was the first elected woman president in the world.

Iceland in the 21st Century

The people of Iceland benefit from natural hot water, which is used to heat their homes. It is also used to heat greenhouses.

In March 2006 the USA announced it was withdrawing its armed forces from Iceland.

Then in 2008, Iceland suffered an economic crisis when its 3 main banks failed. In 2009 demonstrations led to the fall of the government.

Today Iceland still relies on fishing but there are many sheep, cattle, and Icelandic ponies. Iceland suffered badly in the world financial crisis that began in 2008 and unemployment rose to over 9%. However, Iceland soon recovered and unemployment fell. In January 2024 it stood at 4.2%.

Today Iceland is a prosperous country with a high standard of living. In 2024 the population of Iceland was 376,000.


Last revised 2024