Iceland was settled in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, principally by people of Norse origin. In 930 A.D., the ruling chiefs established a republican constitution and an assembly called the Althingi--the oldest parliament in the world. Iceland remained independent until 1262, when it entered into a treaty establishing a union with the Norwegian monarchy. Iceland passed to Denmark in the
late 14th century when Norway and Denmark were united under the Danish crown.
The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia wrote, "Irish monks, according to legend, were the first discoverers of the island about the year 800. Colonization did not begin until much later, when King Harold I Harfagr of Norway subdued the Norse nobles, who had been independent until then, and made himself absolute lord of Norway in 872. Many liberty-loving men at that time left the land of their
fathers (874), and sought new homes on the still uninhabited island which is said to owe its name to the Norseman, Floke Vilgerdarson. This immigration (Landnahme) continued for sixty years. The colonists (noblemen, with their serfs, among whom were men of Germanic and Celtic origin) divided the soil among themselves, and the chieftains not only continued to exercise judicial prerogatives over
the low tenants and serfs, but also performed the functions of high-priests (gooi). Freemen, however, might claim their rights in the moot or public assembly (thing). The people at the beginning of the tenth century numbered about 25,000, divided into some thirty clans, which about 930 formed an independent republic with an aristocratic constitution. The government and the administration of
justice were vested in the Althing, which met annually in June and in which freemen and their families could take part. But this body was not always able to exercise its powers, and it happened quite often that internal quarrels were settled by the sword. Thirty years later the country was divided into four quarters, subdivided in turn into thing-districts. To simplify business, there was a
special court of law for each district, under the general jurisdiction of the Althing. A committee (lögrätta), to which each quarter sent twelve representatives, carried on the administration in the name of the Althing. The republic was on friendly terms with the Kingdom of Norway, the two countries having fixed the respective rights and obligations of their citizens
by treaty. But it was not long before King Olaf Haraldsson (1024) and Harold Hardrada (1066) made unsuccessful attempts to bring the island into dependence on Norway."
"The inhabitants had in the meantime been converted to Christianity, and for a long while the Catholic bishops exerted over them a powerful and beneficial influence. At their instance the old laws (Gragas) were written down in 1117. Unfortunately, soon afterwards bloody feuds broke out among the chief nobles of the State, in the course of which Sturla attempted to make himself king. The
people, tired of protracted wars, offered no resistance to King Hakon the Elder when, in 1258, he appointed Gissur Thorwaldsson Governor (Jarl). A few years later the whole island swore allegiance to the new master, still insisting, however, on retaining certain privileges (1302). It is certain that this act did not make Iceland, strictly speaking, a province of Norway. Norwegian Iceland is
always referred to in public documents of the fifteenth, and in chronicles of the sixteenth, century as a dominion of the Crown (see Styffe, "Skandinavien under Unionstider," Stockholm, 1880), and at first it retained its constitutional organization. In the year 1281, however, a code of laws was introduced by the judge, Jón Einarsson, patterned on the Norwegian laws (Jonsbok).
Hakon II having died (1380), his son Olaf, who since 1376 had ruled Denmark, ascended the throne."
In the early 19th century, national consciousness revived in Iceland. The Althingi had been abolished in 1800 but was reestablished in 1843 as a consultative assembly. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland home rule, which again was extended in 1904. The constitution, written in 1874, was revised in 1903, and a minister for Icelandic affairs, residing in Reykjavik, was made responsible to the
Althingi. The Act of Union, a 1918 agreement with Denmark, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state united with Denmark under a common king. Iceland established its own flag, but Denmark continued to represent Icelandic foreign affairs and defense interests.
German occupation of Denmark in 1940 severed communications between Iceland and Denmark. Consequently, Iceland moved immediately to assume control over its own territorial waters and foreign affairs. In May 1940, British military forces occupied Iceland. In July 1941, responsibility for Iceland's defense passed to the United States. Following a plebiscite, Iceland formally became an
independent republic on June 17, 1944.
In October 1946, the Icelandic and U.S. Governments agreed to terminate U.S. responsibility for the defense of Iceland, but the United States retained certain rights at Keflavik. Iceland became a charter member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. After the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950, and pursuant to the request of NATO military authorities, the United States
and Iceland agreed that the United States should again be responsible for Iceland's defense. A bilateral defense agreement signed on May 5, 1951, is the authority for U.S. military presence in Iceland. Iceland is the only NATO country with no standing military of its own.
The current President is Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, a former political science professor who led the People's Alliance in 1987-95 and served as Finance Minister in 1988-91. Although Grimsson won office with only a 41% plurality in 1996, he was not challenged for re-election in 2000. This follows a well-established tradition of giving deference to sitting presidents. While he will not run
unopposed in the upcoming June 26 elections, there are no serious challengers, and he is expected to be re-elected by a landslide margin. (His announced 2004 opponents are peace activist Asthor Magnusson and performance artist Snorri Asmundsson.) Once in office, a president can generally count on serving as many terms as he or she likes, assuming good behavior. Since the establishment of the
republic in 1944, a sitting president has been challenged for re-election only one time and that effort fell far short (in 1988, against then-President Vigdis Finnbogadottir). Reflecting the belief that the president is "above politics," presidential candidates run for election as individuals--since 1952, political parties have played no role in nominating or endorsing candidates. During his
term, Grimsson has occasionally drawn criticism for breaching the bounds of presidential etiquette by being too outspoken on sensitive political issues.