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.