Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Instagram
 

Iceland has the Oldest Parliament in the World

Samantha Flaum
Viking meeting house
Viking meeting house

Though the Republic of Iceland has only existed since 1944, its parliament dates back much further. Beginning in the 9th century, Norwegians were the first to settle the island, bringing with them other Scandinavians and slaves of Gaelic origins. In 930, the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, was founded at Thingvellir. Here, the island’s leaders would gather to deliver justice and legislation.

Parliament House in Reykjavík. Photo by Zinneke CC BY-SA 3.0

Parliament House in Reykjavík. Photo by Zinneke CC BY-SA 3.0

A yearly event, the gathering of the Althing was akin to a festival of sorts. All free men were welcome and would travel across the island, setting up camp for days. Along with politicians, tradesmen and their families would join the gathering.

The prominent member of the Althing was the Lawspeaker who would preside over the events upon what else but the Law Rock, or Lögberg. Having no codified laws, the Lawspeaker would enumerate the current laws in effect to the gathered crowd.

19th century rendering of the Law Rock in Þingvellir.

19th century rendering of the Law Rock in Þingvellir.

The Althing also included the Lögrétta, the legislative branch. Alongside the Lawspeaker, 39 chieftains from across the island would adopt laws, review existing ones, and asses Medieval legal cases.

In 965, the island of Iceland was divided into four and a court made up of 36 judges was created in each of the four sections. Later in the 11th century, they developed their version of a supreme court, the fimmtardómur.

A map of Scandinavia and Britain from the 16th century, showing Iceland in green in the top left

A map of Scandinavia and Britain from the 16th century, showing Iceland in green in the top left

In 1262 things began to change. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, the island of Iceland came under the rule of Norway, whose king now held executive power over the Icelandic peoples, through shared legislative powers with the Lögrétta branch of the Althing.

Any laws passed by the Lögrétta had to be approved by the king; however, this exchange worked in reverse: legislations decreed by the king had to be approved by the Althing. A rather democratic system for the age.

Iceland

Iceland

Through a series of royal intermarriages, the Norwegian and subsequently the Icelandic people came under the rule of the Danes at the end of the 14th century. This event greatly limited the powers of the Althing, forcing the Icelandic people to essentially forfeit their autonomy to the Danish monarchy.

At this point, the Althing functioned merely as a simple court of law until 1800 when it was fully disbanded through a Danish decree. This didn’t last long, however, as the Althing was reestablished in 1845, though with limited, consultative powers.

19th century rendering of the Law Rock in Þingvellir. Photo by Cicero85 CC BY 2.5

19th century rendering of the Law Rock in Þingvellir. Photo by Cicero85 CC BY 2.5

Along with 6 members appointed by the Danish king, 20 members were elected in as many districts by public vote. Those eligible to vote were men of “sufficient means” of at least 25 years of age. It wasn’t quite universal male suffrage, but significant representation for the time.

In 1874, the Althing was given more legislative powers, though still subject to royal vetoes, and was split into an upper and lower chamber. In 1903, Iceland was granted home rule by means of a parliamentary government.

Broken glass lying by a chair inside Althingi, the Icelandic parliament. Photo taken on March 31, 1949, the day after rioting because a resolution was passed in order for Iceland to be a founding member of NATO.

Broken glass lying by a chair inside Althingi, the Icelandic parliament. Photo taken on March 31, 1949, the day after rioting because a resolution was passed in order for Iceland to be a founding member of NATO.

Steps towards autonomy progressed quickly over the next 25 years. The 1918 Act of Union declared Iceland as its own state which remained in union with Denmark. The Act was due to last 25 years, after which each party could choose to maintain the union or leave it.

The Act of Union was reviewed earlier than planned due to World War II. German invasion of Denmark severed relations between the king and the Icelandic state, pushing the latter towards formal independence. The Althing, along with a representative of the Danish crown, voted to repeal the Act.

German invasion of Denmark

German invasion of Denmark

At an official session of the fully reinstated Althing in June 1944, the Republic of Iceland was officially established.

Read another story from us: Iceland’s Witch Trials Took the Lives of 21 Men and Only 1 Woman – Here’s Why

The Althing stands out from other parliamentary bodies as it was the first national legislative body, assembling leaders and lawmakers from all over the island. Its official seat is now in Reykjavík at the Althingshús, built in 1881 out of Icelandic stone, and it is comprised of 63 members elected by secret ballot.