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Flag of Icelandic Commonwealth 930 AD/CE to 1262 AD/CE

Capital: Þingvellir

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Continent: Europe

Official Languages: Old Norse, Old Icelandic

Established: 930 AD/CE

Disestablished: 1262 AD/CE


The medieval Icelandic state had a unique judicial structure. The first settlers of Iceland were greatly influenced by their Norwegian roots when creating their own form of government. They wanted to avoid the strong centralized authority of Harald Fairhair from which some of them had fled, but they also wanted to replicate the Norwegian tradition of laws and district legal assemblies (Þing). This created a unique structure.[dubious – discuss]

The most powerful and elite leaders in Iceland were the chieftains (sing. goði, pl. goðar). The office of the goði was called the goðorð. The goðorð was not delimited by strict geographical boundaries. Thus, a free man could choose to support any of the goðar of his district. The supporters of the goðar were called Þingmenn ("assembly people"). In exchange for the goði protecting his interests, the Þingmaðr would provide armed support to his goði during feuds or conflicts. The Þingmenn were also required to attend regional and national assemblies.

On a regional level, the goðar of the thirteen district assemblies convened meetings every spring to settle local disputes. The goðar also served as the leaders of the Alþingi, the national assembly of Iceland. Today, the Alþingi is the oldest parliamentary institution in existence. It began with the regional assembly at Kjalarness established by Þorsteinn Ingólfsson, son of the first settler. The leaders of the Kjalarnessþing appointed a man named Úlfljótr to study the laws in Norway. He spent three years in Norway and returned with the foundation of Úlfljótr's Law, which would form the basis for Iceland's national assembly. Sections of his law code are preserved in the Landnámabók, ("Book of Settlements"). The first Alþingi assembly convened around the year 930 at Þingvellir, ("Assembly Plains"). The Alþingi served as a public gathering at which people from all over the country met for two weeks every June. The Alþingi revolved around the Lögrétta, the legislative council of the assembly, which was responsible for reviewing and amending the nation's laws. The Lögrétta comprised the 39 goðar and their advisors. They also appointed a Lawspeaker (lögsögumaður) once every three years. The Lawspeaker recited and clarified laws at Lögberg ("Law Rock"), located at the center of Þingvellir. The descendants of Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, held the ceremonial position of allsherjargoði and had the role of sanctifying the Alþingi each year.

In the early 13th century, the Age of the Sturlungs, the Commonwealth began to suffer from chaos and division resulting from internal disputes. Originally, the goðar functioned more as a contractual relationship than a fixed geographic chieftaincy. However, by 1220 this form of communal leadership was replaced by dominant regional individuals who battled with one another for more control. One historian argues the chaos and violence of this period stem from an imbalance of power and changes in the nature of Icelandic warfare. The separation of secular and ecclesiastical power led some families and regional networks to become stronger at the expense of others, leading to an imbalance of power. The introduction of pitched battles and harassment of farmers on a regional basis raised the stakes and dangers.

The King of Norway began to exert pressure on his Icelandic vassals to bring the country under his rule. The King's role in Icelandic affairs started in 1220, and had become strong by 1240 (Icelanders were starting to accept the King's choice of chieftains). Over the period 1240-1260, the King consolidated power in Iceland. A combination of discontent with domestic hostilities and pressure from the King of Norway led the Icelandic chieftains to accept Norway's Haakon IV as king by the signing of the Gamli sáttmáli ("Old Covenant") in 1262. According to historian Sverrir Jakobsson, three Icelanders played a central role in bringing Iceland under the King of Norway: Gissur Þorvaldsson (for getting farmers to agree to pay taxes to the King), Hrafn Oddsson (for pressuring Gissur into supporting the King, and getting farmers in the Westfjords to submit to the King) and bishop Brandur Jónsson (for getting his relatives in the East Fjords to submit to the King).

By 1264, all Icelandic chieftains had sworn allegiance to the King of Norway. This effectively brought the Icelandic Commonwealth to an end.

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