The Ancient History of Iceland

Before you begin your Iceland travel, enhance your experience by learning a little more about the countryís ancient history. Islandís history is closely connected with nearby Norway and Denmark, but the first people to actually inhabit the island were Irish monks, who used Iceland as a hermitage of sorts until the early 800s. The monks were followed by permanent settlers from Norway; one early source states that the first settlers were Ingolfr Arnarson and his wife, Hallveig Frodadottir, who came to Iceland from Norway in 874, staked their homestead in the southwest, and called it Reykjavik. Over the next several decades, Ingolfr and Hallveig were followed by hundreds of other settlers, most from Norway, but some from other Nordic countries and settlements in the British Isles.

The settlers formed a parliamentary government system, complete with district assembly, National Assembly (or Althing), code of law and courts of justice. While farmers had political rights, the democratic practice did not include women or common workers. The conversion of Icelanders to Christianity in 999 helped to further unify the people. A tour of Iceland today allows the opportunity to see the influence Christianity still has on the present-day island culture. Over the next 100 years peace reigned and an agrarian economy developed and flourished. The people raised both sheep and cattle for meat, milk, and wool.

By the 13th century the royal power in Norway had strengthened and King Hakon Hakonarson was determined to unite all Norwegian settlements under his reign. By the early 1260s Iceland was under Norwegian power. The next 300 years brought difficulty and turbulence. In the 1300s Icelanders suffered from several eruptions of volcanic Mt. Hekla, resulting in severe death and destruction. Mount Hekla is still an active volcano today, and a popular destination for those enjoying Iceland travel. The volcano is recognized for its notorious history, but also has incredible beauty. In 1380, Norway and Denmark united, putting Iceland under Danish rule. During this time, Icelandís economy deteriorated, because of deforestation, soil erosion, and an increasingly severe climate, all of which affected the islandís agriculture. Iceland was not immune to the infamous plague that hit Europe; the Black Death struck twice in the 15th century, killing off nearly half of the population.

In the 1530s, the Reformation came to Denmark. The people of Iceland, however, held out stubbornly against Lutheranism for 20 years before their resistance lost its stronghold. After the Reformation, Denmark tightened its hold on Iceland, confiscating all monastery lands, monopolizing foreign trade, and introducing a bureaucratic system. By the early 1700s, the population of Iceland was a little more than 50,000, with most people making their living either in farming or fishing. As the century progressed, some of the people slowly began to cluster into towns. Reykjavik was just a small village in the 1750s, but by the time the Danish governor settled there in the early 1800s, its population had reached 300.

The move for independence began in the early 19th century. The Icelanders expressed a desire to reinstate the Althing as a local representative assembly. This wish was granted by the Danish king, Christian VIII, in 1845. Over the next several decades, the Icelanders and the Danes worked to reach an agreement on Icelandís status, but it was not until 1874óthe millennium anniversary of Icelandís settlementóthat King Frederick VII granted the Althing legislative power in domestic affairs. After several more decades of struggling for independence, Iceland finally became a separate state under Danish rule in 1918. In 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark, the connection between the two countries dissolved. After the war, Iceland severed all ties with Denmark, and established an independent republic. Sveinn Bjornsson became Icelandís first president on June 17, 1944. If you travel in the middle of June you can experience Icelandís National Day, which is annually celebrated on the seventeenth.