Icelandic History

Figure 1.--.

The Romans described the remote Island of Thule. Irish Monks are reported to have visited Iceland during the early medieval period, The history of Ireland, howevers, begins with the arrival of the Vikings who first populated the island (9th century). . Christianity was peacefully adopted by the Icelanders (1000). The decesion was taken at Alţingi, which met for 2 weeks every summer, with a large proportion of the population participating. Greenland was discovered and colonized by Icelanders under the leadership of Eirik the Red. His som Lief led the first Europeans to set foot on the American continent (1262-64). In Ireland itself, internal feuds, tatamount to civil war, led to the King of Norway acquiring the island as part of his domains (1271). Norway and Denmark formed the Kalmar Union (1397), which in effect transferred Iceland to the Danish monarchy. This ended the "Golden Age" of Iceland's independence. The Danish kings instituted the Reformation (1551). This replaced papal control with Danish control which involved confiscation of great wealth. The Icelandic economy was severly damaged when the Danes replaces the Hansa and English trade with a Danish trade monopoly. An absolute monarchy was established (1662). This effectively transferred government authority to Copenhagen. The Danish Crown benefuitted financially, but the Icelandic economy suffered. The Little Ice Age cooling affected Icelanding agriculture (16th and 17th centuries). Most icelanders believe that the 18th century was aow point of Icelandic history. The Alţingi was dissolved and the old diocese replaced by one bishop residing in Reykjavík. The Danish government finally began to shift their policies in Iceland. The trade monopoly was modified (1783). All subjects of the Danish monarchy were given the right to trade in Iceland. The Alţingi was reinstituted as a consultative assembly (1843). The trade monopoly was abolished entirely (1854). Iceland celebrated the millenium of the first settlement (1874). The Danes used this to grant Iceland a constitution and control of its own finances. The Daneish crown granted home rule (1904) and finally sovereignty (1918). The country remained united with Denmark under the Danish crown. After World War II broke out and Germany invaded Denmark, the British occupied Iceland (1940). American troops arrived to relieve the British (1941). Iceland proclaimed a republic (1944).

Ancient Thule (4th century BC)

Britain for the ancients was at the end of the world. Even so a misty island beyond Britain was written about--Thule. For many it was more legend than geography. The first known citing of Thule was made by Pytheas, a Greek geographer and explorer who sailed from Marseilles, at the time a Greek colony. He set out to determine how far the earth extended. He sailed into the Atlantic and then north to Britain (330 BC). At the time, reports of Britain existed, largely because of cultural ties with the Galic tribes and trade ties, especially for tin. Very little was known of Britain. Pytheas reached Britain and then continued north. He described an island which he named Thule /Ultima Thule. We do not have details in his descriptions of either Britain on Thule because his writings are lost. His voyage is only known because his voyage was mentioned by other classical authors whose work have survived. He apparently reported that Thule was a 6 days sail from Britain. Modern geographers believe that theisland he named Thule was modern Iceland. Curiously, Pytheas also reported that Thule was 1 day from the end of the world. (He appears to have used the term "end" rather tham "edge", although this is not known with certainty. While it is easy to see how he determined that Thule was 6 days from Britain, it is less easy gto determine how he determined that Thule was 1 day from the edge of the world. While Pytheas' work is lost, as far as we can determine, the island was at the time uninhabited.

Irish Explorers (8th century AD)

The next Europeans after Pytheas known to have reached Thule were Irish priestss known as the 'Papas'. They claimed to have regularly saol;ed to Thule. It is notvknown when they first began these voyages, but they are known to have taken place before the rise of the Vikings (probably 8th century AD). The priesrs claimed to have sailed north to Thule and actually lived there from February to August each year. Sailing in the North Atlantic during the Winter seems curious and we do not know just why they went to Thule which they described as uninhabited. The Papas did confirm Pytheas' that the world ended 1 day north of Thule. Their accounts probanly explain Pytheas' reckoning. They decribed a 'frozen sea' north of Thule which can be easily seen as the end of the world. The first surviving document describing Iceland is the work of Irish monk, writing nearly a millenium after Pytheas. He described the accounts of the Papas. . Ireland at the time was the edge of the known world. While it had been Christianized it was never a part of the Roman Empire. And it was not conquered by the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic invaders. Thus it was rare shaft of life through where the Church fostered learning and classical wruitings. The Irish monk named Dicuil authored an geographic work in which he described Thule, De mensura orbis terrae (Concering the Measurement of the World) (early 9th century).

Viking Settlement (874-930 AD)

The Vikings were the next Europeans to reach Iceland. The Irish faced with the terrifying Norse, appear to have abandoned the island, although there os no actual proof of this. The Vikings first reached Iceland (874) and the island had been largely setteled (930). The settlement of Iceland resulted primrily from a power struggle in Norway. l King Harald the Fairhaired was locked in a battle for supremecy with nd former Viking leaders. Harald after a major victory began to pursue his defeated enemies. Many fled to the Scottish islnds. Harald then pursued them there and they fled again, this time to the most remote known island--Iceland. There is little contemprary information available on the settlement of Iceland. The principal source available to scholars is the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), but it was written centurues after during the 12th century. It does provide a very detailed accoubt of the early settelers, including actual names. Ingólfur Arnarson led the initial settelment. He was a chieftain who had fled. He brought his family and dependants (874). He began farming at what is now Reykjavik, which eventually became the island's capital. Other Vikings followed him. With the Vikings were some Celtic women who had been taken by the Vikings in raids on Ireland, but not a lot is knowabout them. They appear to have been brought from Norway and not diirectly from Ireland.

The Alţingi/Althing (930)

The Viking settlers established the Alţingi/Althing--a general assembly. It is notabble as the world's oldest existing national assembly. It is interesting that the Vikings who reeeked such havoc throughout Europe founded the oldest democratic body in Europe. And it is notavle that they did it in Iceland and not Norway or Denmark. The Danes in England also played a major role in the evolution of democracy. The Althing was founded as Thingvellir (Parliament Plains) (930). There wasc no real precedent for democratic government in Europe at the time. Europe was dominated by monarchs who claimed rule by divine right. The Vikings (Norway, Denmark, and Sweden) were somewhat different in that they were not Christian, but the early Viking kings saw the advantages that Christianity conferred in terms of legitmizing their rule. The Icelanders also wrote a constitutional law code, another important early step. They established four regional courts to administer justice along with a supreme court which met annually with the national assembly at Thingvellir. The Althing assembled initially assembeled for two weeks every summer. This would attract a large proportion of the island's population.

Greenland (982)

Erik the Red sailing from Iceland discovers Greenland (about 982). He sailed from Iceland with a fleet of 25 ships crammed with settlers, tools, and livestock. Only 14 of his ships actually made it to Greenland. They established two settelments (the Eastern and Western settlements). Each was located in deep fjords close to the southwestern tip of the island (about 984). The settlements at first thrived. The Vikings were present on Greeland for more than four centuries. They suddenly disappeared (early 14th century). At the peak, there were about 300 Viking farms on Greeland with about 1,000 people. As on Iceland, they essentially attempted to replicate life in Norway. They raised cattle, planted crops, and hunted seals. Historians debate why the Viking settlements failed. Souther Greenland is at alower latitude than Iceland, but is less affected by the warmth of the Gulf Stream, thus the climate is harsher. (The name Greenland was a bit of propaganda authored by Erik the Red to attact settlers.) Some authors believes thatclimate change affected the settlements. We know that Native Americans survived oerfectly well on the island north of the Vilking settlements. The Vikings refused, however, to adopt the technologies and life styles that enabled the Native Americans to survive.

Christianity (11th century)

Christianity was gradually introduced to Iceland. Unlike other countries which were normally Chritinized by converting the rulers, Christianity was a democratic choice of the prople. The Althing adopted Christianity (about 1000). The fotst Icelandic diocese was established at Skálholt in South Iceland (1056). A second was subsequently set up at at Hólar in the north (1106). As a result, these two settelments became centers of learning. Pagan traditions survived in Old Norse literature for centuries--the sagas. Unlike many European countries, there was no Inquisition to wipe out pagan beliefsand hersies. The greatest flowering of Old Norse literature occurred two centuries after the inroduction of Christinity (13th century). Interestingly Old Norse has survived with only minor changes in the modern Icelandic language.

Vinland (1000)

Erik the Red played a major role in the settlement of Greenland. He left Iceland and founded the first major settlement (985). , founding there the first permanent colony. He returned to Iceland to recruit more settlers (986). He described a boutiful green land, rather embelishing the truth. Erik's son Leifur Heppni (Leif the Lucky--Leif Erickson) sailed west from Greenland (1000). He thus is believed to be the first European to reach the Americas. He named the land, Vínland the Good. One of the Sagas, however, credits this destinction to Icelander, Bjarni Herjólfsson, who reportedly sighted the North American coast 14 years earlier. This is quite plausible because Viking long boats were plying the North Atlantic seeking out land, markets, and vulnerable targets. These voyages were, however, not well publicised throughout Europe which continued to bdelieve until Columbus that one could not sail west into the Atlantic. Archaeological evidence has confirmed Norse settlement in North America. The most important site is L'Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland. This probaby was Leif's Erickson's Vinland, but there is no way of being sure. The Vikings are bdlieved to have sailed down the coast much furthur south. Researchers have, however, been unable to precisely date it. Historians wonder why the Vikings did not move south and settle North America. The climate and agricultural potential was onviously more attractive than Greeland and even Iceland. This question has not been answered with any certainty. We know large numbers of Vikings invaded England and after battels with the Anglo Saxons there setteled the Dane Law. North america was obviously a far longer voyage. And the closer populations of Greenland and Iceland were very small. The most likely explanation is probably that they were repulsed by the Native Americans. The technolgy used by English setters six centuries later were not available to the Vikings and their numbers were smaller. Most importantly, however, the population of Native Americanslong the notheastern seaboard had not yet been weakened by European diseases. Thus the Vikings faced much more formidable resistance (11th century) than did the English (17th century).

The Golden Age (11th-12th centuries)

The "Golden Age" of Iceland was a time of relative peace (11th-12th centuries). It was also a time of artistic output. The Icelandic Sagas describe family histories in early Iceland (1oth-12th centuries), although they were actually written down later. They are today one of the great treasures of medieval European literature. The Sagas are written in the ancient Viking language which is still the spoken lanuage in Iceland. The Sagas were part of an oral tradition that extends back centuries. The importance of the sagas is that they were written down and thus have survived to our modern day. The Sagas are one of classics of medieval European literature. They were written in Old Norse (the Viking language). Interestingly while modern readers can not understand early medielval languages like Old Englinsh and Old French, Icelanders can read the Sagas because Olde Norse is very similar to the modern Icelandic language. The origininal Sagas were written on vellum. The first sagas were heroic poetry. Gradually epic and dramatic stories appeared. They included tales of the early settlement, romance, and historical accounts. The Sagas were the first important Icelandic cultural product. The vellum documents served to secure the stories. They were recounted orally in homes througfhout the island. The authors of some of the Sagas are known. The best known is Snorri Sturluson who might be desribed as a historian, poet, and prose author which is not surprising as historiansat the time were often quite imaginative. He authoted the prose Sagas "Edda" and the "Heimskringla".

Norwegian Rule (1261-1380)

Iceland lived a relatively isolated and peaceful life for two centuries. This changed in the 13th century. The period of bloody conflict is called the Sturlung Age (1208-58). Icelanders describe it as an era of domestic connflict and battels for land and supremecy. It seems to have developed as populatiin increased and pressure to control the best land led to conflict. The first Icelandic naval battle occurred at Húnaflói--the Bay Battle (1244). Sturla Thurdason and his sons energed as a dominant figure. He failed to secure control over the entire island. Norwegian King Hákon Hákonarson IV took advantage of the situation and intrervened. The Iceladers eventually accepted the rule of Haakon, in part to end the violence (1261-64). Iceland in the medieval era thus became a dependency of Norway and subsequently the Danish crown.

Danish Rule (1380-1918)

Norway became a part of the Danish Kingdom (1380). This meant that Iceland also became a Danish possession. Martin Luthur posted his 95 Thesis (1519). Denmark quickly adopted Protestantism--Luthernism. The Danish kings supported the north German princes who also adopted Protestantism against the Counter Reformation. Thus Iceland also adopted Luthernism. A trading company was set up in Copenhagen which restricted trade to commerce with Denmark (1602). This caused a widespread economic depression on Iceland. Pirates furthur impaired trade (17th-18th centuries). The island was devestated by volcanic erruptions (1783). Large numbers of Icelanders were killed. The eruptions were so massive that they had a major impact on European weather for several years. Some historians suggest that the resulting crop failures were a factor in the French Revolution (1789). Iceland cotinued as a backwater of the Danish kingdom. The Danish Government did not permit Icelanders to resum foreign trade until (1854).

Emigration to America (Late-19th century)

Icelanders joined the mass European emigration to America. Iceland declined under Danish rule and by the ;ate 19th century faced many serious problems, including overpopulation, diseases, and food shortages. The basic problem was that Icelandic farms did not produce enough food to feed the growing popilation. Individual Icelanders began emigrating, mostly to North America (mid-19th century). A number of early emigrants entered the United States. For some reason many converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah, settling in Spanish Fork. An organised group left Iceland from Akureyri (1873). The largest numbers of emigrants departed (1880s). Most settled in Canada, but substantial numbers went to the United States, eiher directly or after reaching Canada. Economic conditions improved and emigration declined (1890s). It is difficult to assess the impact of emigration on Iceland. The numbers involved may have relieved population pressure, but only slightly. Some emigrants eventually returned, bringing with them, capital, new ideas, and new technologies. Many of the Icelanders decided to settle in Canada many around Manitoba. This was proavly where the first Icelanders settled. Icelanders formed a kind of colony there--Nýja Ísland (New Iceland) (1875). New Iceland was situated along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg (60 miles north of Winnipeg). An estimated 15,000 Icelanders eventually emigrated to North America.

Autonomy and Independence (1874-1918)

The independence movement, after centuries of Danish rule and a moribund economy, gradually gained strength. The most important Icelandic nationalisdt was Jon Sigurdsson. The first achievement of te Icelandic nastiinalist movement was convoinving the Danish Government to end the trade monopoly (1854). The Danish Crown granted a constitution and home rule (1874). At the end of World War I, the Danish Government through the Act of Union declared Iceland to be an independent nation in personal union with the Danish Crown (1918). The country thus achieved its independence while retaining its ties to Denmark.

World War II (1939-45)

Iceland like Denmark and many other countries wanted to remain neutral as Europe moved toward war. NAZI Germany requested landing rights for Lufthansa trans-Atlantic flights (1939). The Icelanders denined the request. After the War began, NAZI Germany invaded and occupied Denmark (April 1940). King Christian X remained in Denmark and did what he could to support his people. The NAZI action shocked Icelanders. The Germans in World War I respected Danish neutrality. The British after the NAZI invasion of Denmark requested bases to ensure that the NAZIs would not also take over Iceland. The Icelandic Goverrnment was still determined to remain neutral and rejected the British request. This seems somewhat difficult to understand. Surely it was obvious that the NAZIs would also seize Iceland once they had the military capability. The NAZIs did not have the naval capability in 1940 to hold Iceland even if they somehow could take it. The British hard-pressed in the North Atlantic were not prepared to take a chance. They proceeded to occupy Reykjavík (May 10, 1940). A German airbase in Iceland would have meant defeat for Britain in the Battle of the Atlantic. The British action was probably promted more to secure vital air bases for convoy protection than any imminent danger of NAZI invasion. Most Icelanders were displeased, but understood the British action. Many were in a sence releaved that it was the British, unlke the NAZIs in Denmark. The British wanted to ensure that the Germans would not be able to use the country as an air and naval base in the Battle of the Atlantic. Iceland in British hands played a key role in closing the air gap in which German U-boats could opperate. After the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941), some of the Arctic convoys ferrying supplied to that embatteled country were formed off Iceland. President Roosevelt ordered the American Marines (1st Marine Brigade) to replace the British (June 1941) even before America entered the War. The Brigade took responsibility for the defense of Iceland which released the British troops for duty elsewhere where the British were actively fighting the Germans. The Icelandic Government maintained an official neutral status during the War, but in fact cooperated closely with the Allies.

Republic Proclaimed (1944)

While the British and Americans intervned in Iceland, they did not take any action aginst the Icelandic Government which continued to function. With Denmark still occupied by the NAZIs, the Icelanders organized a popular referendum to decide the country's future. Icelanders voted for complete independence from Denmark and the formation of a republic which was confirmed by the Althing, the Icelandic parliament (June 17, 1944).

The Cold War

Iceland maintained very close relations with the Unites States during the Cold War. Iceland accepted a United States offer to take responsibility for the country's defence (1951). This was the first American bilateral defense pact. The United Ststes established a military base at Keflavik which remained there until 2006. Iceland was of some significance in the Cold War because the Soviet Union initiated a major naval building program. The core of the Soviet Navy was its submarine force and potential for seveing North Atlantic trade routes. This led to a little known struggle of the Cold War that went on unseen beneath the surface of the Atlantic. The U.S. Navy responded with an important Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) program. Iceland as in World war II was essentially a floating aircraft carrier satride the North Atlantic trade routes. It also set astride the routes that Soviet submarines had to use to enter the Atantic and return to home ports. Thus the American presence in Iceland afforded the ability to monitor Soviet naval movements in the North Atlantic. The defense relation was controversial in Iceland. Some Icelanders saw the need for defense assistance and associated economic benefits. Other resented the foreign military presence. [Johannesson] The Soviets were mindful of the importasnce of Iceland. The issue of fishing limits ecploded (1952). Iceland restricted Britishing fishing in coastal waters. The British reponded with a ban on fish imports from Iceland--a major blow to a country dependent on fish exports. The Soviets interested in prying the Icelanders away from its allies, offered to trade oil for fish. The Soviets overnight became one of the largest buyers of Icelandic fish.

The Cod Wars (1970s)

Cod is a key North Atlantic resource. It brought Europeans to Noth America even before Columbus. The first treaty signed by the United States concerned cod. Cod also becamand other fisheries became a mainstay of the Icelandic economy. After World War II, fishing pressure steadily increased on cod and other important fishery resources leading many countries to extended their jurisdiction beyond the tradtional 3-12 mile limit. Many countries with distantwater fishermen refused to recognize these claims of extended jurisdiction. This led to the Cod Wars in which the Icelandic Coast Guard seized British fishermen attempting to fish off Iceland. Incidents began to occur with British fishermen (1950s). The issue escalated when Icelabd extended its zone and the the British Government deployed Royal Navy vessels (1970s). Eventually a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone became the international standard.

Economic Growth

Iceland like other Scandivavian countries built a welfare state which included Government takes overs in key industries. The cost of suppoting that system and the inefficebnt operations of state corporations led to a stagnant economy and rising debt levels. The cost of maintaining the system impededed economic growth. Conservative Governments initiated a policy of privatisation (1990s). The result was subsrantial economic growth. The financial sector in particularly developed. Iceland became in the 2000s one of the richest countries in the world in percapita terms. Some of the other sucessful areas of development included aluminium smelting, information technology, and tourism. This diversified the econommy so that it was not longer centered almost exclusively on fidsheries. The Icelandic economy was severly affected by the 2008 recession/financiual crisis, ;argely because of poor investments by Icelandic banks.


Johannesson, Gudni Th. "U.S.-Icelandic defense relations during and after the Cold War," Naval War College Review (Autumn 2004).


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Created: 12:56 AM 4/25/2009
Last updated: 8:24 PM 7/28/2009