History of Iceland in Brief

History of Iceland in Brief – Guide 2024

The history of Iceland is important to understand with a brief summary the past and present of Icelandic history and of a fascinating land rich in legends . Not only postcard landscapes, Northern Lights and geothermal activity, but the Land of Ice and Fire also has a rich and fascinating past, despite being a “young” island and remaining uninhabited for a very long time, before the arrival of the first settlers . So let’s discover its history together in brief in our summary, better understanding the country during your trip to Iceland!

The History of Iceland

To understand the present it is important to know the past, thanks to a summary of Iceland’s history in brief. The roots of Icelandic history date back to the formation of the island approximately 20 million years ago due to many volcanic eruptions . Uninhabited until the 8th century AD , when monks arrived from Ireland and settled here temporarily. Permanent settlers only arrived in the 9th century from Norway . The Icelandic parliament , one of the oldest legislative assemblies in the world, was founded in 930 AD : ‘the Alþingi . Iceland thus became an independent republic with well-rooted traditions, then entering the kingdom of Norway in 1262 , followed in 1380 by Denmark .

From the 19th century, the struggles for independence began during Icelandic history , obtaining autonomy in 1904 and in 1918 it became a sovereign kingdom under the King of Denmark . In World War II , the island was occupied by the Americans and the English , arriving at the proclamation of independence only on 17 June 1944 . Thus the Republic of Iceland was born . Today, it is a prosperous place, considered one of the most developed countries in the world. Furthermore, tourism also plays a fundamental role in its economy, attracting numerous travelers every year for its natural beauty.

So let’s look at a summary of the history of this country, to understand it in brief.

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The phases of Icelandic history

PeriodEpoche Storiche
Pre-colonial age20 million years – 8th century AD
Free State of Iceland930-1262
Protestantism1530 – 1701
Kingdom of Iceland1918 – 1944
Declaration of independence1944

Pre-colonial period

The first period of Iceland’s history in brief, thanks to the distance from the island’s mainland, in addition to the difficulty of navigating the Norwegian Sea and due to the cold , saw the territory uninhabited for a long period, not undergoing migratory movements. That was until innovation allowed long-distance travel. Even today it is debated who the first explorers in Iceland were, speculating regarding sources that speak of the legendary island of Thulme , discovered by the Greek Pytheas . The first to arrive in Iceland, in the summary of its history, were the Irish anchorite monks called Papar . They tested their faith, following the example of Saint Brendan of Clonfert, by undertaking long, dangerous journeys. Furthermore, they were probably facilitated, having already arrived in the Faroe Islands in the 6th century .

The first trips

In the 9th century, the monks from Ireland reached the island several times and without too many problems, spending even long periods, but never permanent movements. In fact, there is no evidence of permanent settlements in Iceland or large migratory flows from this period. The Irish, according to literary evidence, arrived before the Normans during Iceland’s brief history, although no evidence of them has been found. In a writing in Landnámabók , The Book of Colonization dating back to the 12th century , it is hypothesized that the Icelanders are descendants of Kjarvalr Írakonungr : Irish king.

ancient artificial Hella Caves - Icelandic history in brief - Icelandic history - the history of Iceland in brief
The artificial caves of Hella

The Roman Testimonies

Through the discovery of Roman coins near the eastern area, in the county of Suður-Múlasýsla , it has allowed historians to discover an unknown part of Icelandic history. Found between the Hamarsfjörð fjord, Hvaldalur and Bragðavellir , these date back to three distinct Roman historical periods : reign of the emperors Probus, Diocletian and Aurelian . The director of the National Museum of Iceland, Kristján Eldjárn , at the time the greatest Icelandic antiquarian expert and then President of the Republic, hypothesized various explanations in this regard.

The most plausible is that the coins arrived on the island together, dragged after a storm, or that they were brought by Vikings . Later, in the Vestmann Islands , other Roman coins dating back to 260 were found, found in 1993 on the hill of Arnarhóll . Today these coins are in the National Museum of Iceland.

isole Vestmannaeyjar
Le isole Vestmannaeyjar

The colonization of Iceland

When summarizing the history of Iceland, in brief, the period of colonization is considered to be from the middle of the 9th century . In this period the Vikings passed the North Atlantic, seeking new lands for cultivation in Scandinavia . Another reason for the Viking migration can be linked to the civil wars started by the king of Norway, Harald Fairmane . Unlike what happened in Ireland and Great Britain, Iceland was uninhabited and the settlement was simple .

The colonization era of Icelandic history begins in 874, and in 930 the first assembly of the Free Icelandic state was founded in Þingvellir : the Alþingi , today in Thingvellir National Park . The evidence of this historical period came thanks to the writing of the Book of Icelanders , by Ari Þorgilsson and the Landnámabók , a medieval text and among the first works of Icelandic literature . Furthermore, the first settlers settled mainly in the southwestern and northern areas.

plaques Þingvellir National Park - history of iceland summary - history of iceland summary - history of iceland
Plate divides at Þingvellir National Park

The first Vikings in the Land of Ice

According to the Landnámabók , evidence of the summary of Iceland’s history in brief, the first Viking on the island was Naddoddr , who called it the Land of Snow , followed by Garðar Svavarsson , Swede, in 860 , who skirted the island arriving at Húsavík , North. He gave the island the name Garðar Island and set out again. After him comes Náttfari , one of his men, who settled instead in Náttfaravík with two slaves, in Skjálfandi Bay. Flóki Vilgerðarson was the second Viking on the island, also known as Flóki the Raven for following his ravens to Iceland, arriving at Vatnsfjörður, beyond modern-day Reykjavík . After the winter killed the cattle, he called the island the Land of Ice : Ísland . His settlement lasted a year in Borgarfjörður , but he returned to Norway in the summer.

However, he returned years later, settling in Flókadalur . After starting a blood feud in Norway , Ingólfr Arnarson arrived in Iceland on an expedition with his brother Hjörleifr , later returning with more men to establish a colony. However, Hjörleifur was killed and Ingólfr remained, who killed his assassins in Vestmannaeyjar , on the Vestmann Islands. He then builds a farm in Reykjavík, reclaiming the land in the west. According to the writings, in 60 years Iceland was completely colonized.

The Arctic Henge
The mysterious Arctic Henge construction, on the north-eastern coast

Free State of Iceland

The period during Iceland’s history in brief in the summary of the Free State , runs from the founding of Alþingi in 930 , to the oath of allegiance to Norway, in 1262 . The Free State consisted of the inhabitants of the island at that time, mostly from Norway and fleeing from King Harald Fairmane . The structure of this state during Icelandic history was unusual, in that nationally the Alþingi was both a legislative and judicial body , lacking a central authority or king. The state was divided into clans and alliances led by goðar : the captains and territorial entities. The office of goði was not assigned, but was sold or inherited.

In case of protests against the goðorð, the case was handled by the authority of the four courts , which formed the Alþingi, uniting the goðar of the north, south, west and east. This method stemmed many feuds , being called an inconvenient substitute for revenge . In the year 1000 Iceland adopted Christianity and to avoid the invasion of Olaf I of Norway , the Alþingi decided to baptize all Icelanders, prohibiting pagan rites , even in private. This law is called Grágás and was written in 1117 and the fact is present in many sagas of local literature, such as the Laxdœla saga .

la chiesa Ingjaldsholl, Iceland
La Chiesa di Ingjaldsholl, in Snaefellsnes

War, decline and fall

During this period of Icelandic history, numerous castles and forts were built on the island. Due to the mentality of feuds , which the local society was imbued with, the civil war begins . In the era of the Sturlungar , in the 13th century , the Free State was torn apart by internal conflicts and the king of Norway increased the pressure on the Icelandic vassals. The power of the Alþingi waned and the chiefs finally accepted Haakon IV of Norway as ruler by signing the Gamli sáttmál i in 1262 . Thus ends the Icelandic Free State.

The Age of Sturlungar

In the 13th century during the brief history of Iceland that we see in our summary, there was the Sturlungar era, a period of internal strife that lasted about 44 years . The bloodiest and most violent period in Icelandic history, narrated in the Sturlunga saga. The Sturlungar was the most powerful clan and all clans gathered followers to fight. Meanwhile, in Norway, King Haakon IV wanted to extend his influence to Iceland too, finding many vassals on the island in exchange for gifts and warriors. Indeed, the most powerful goðar were affiliated with the Norwegian king.

Dverghamrar, the cliffs of the dwarves
Dverghamrar, the cliffs of the dwarves

Iceland was a Danish and Norwegian vassal

In the years after the treaty, Norway imposed its power with difficulty , still feeling the influence of the Althing . The ecclesiastical authorities slowly took over the territories, taking the lands of the clan leaders. At the end of the 14th century of Iceland’s brief history, the dominion passed, with the union of the nations, to Norway-Denmark . The Danish king Christian III , in 1537 , extended the introduction of Lutheranism into Iceland. However, the ordinance was only effective in 1541 , when the bishop of Skálholt was captured and the Catholic bishop Jón Arason was beheaded .

The last massacre in the country occurred in the 17th century, with that of the Spanish . Furthermore, although distant from the continent, Iceland was not isolated, but reached for trade in its ports by many sailors from the Middle Ages to modern times. Denmark , Sweden and Norway formed the Kalmar Union in 1397 . During the 16th century, a severe famine due to very cold winters caused numerous deaths, blocking trade. In 1636 the Hekla volcano erupted for 7 consecutive months , then again in 1693, 1660 and in 1755 Katla . Lakagígar erupted for 10 months in 1783, spreading poisonous clouds and reducing the population . In 1814 the Peace of Kiel and Danish rule was proclaimed .

Hekla volcano
The Hekla volcano

Icelandic history from the 17th to the 20th century

During the brief history of Iceland in the summary, let’s see the founding of the Kingdom of Iceland . Autonomous from Denmark, yet still under her crown. Due to numerous volcanic eruptions, the country’s history sees a period of severe famine due to ash, fumes and the death of a large part of its population. With the Treaty of Kiel of 1814, Iceland remained dependent on Denmark. In the 19th century , due to the worsening of the Icelandic climate, there was a migration to the New World , especially in Manitoba, now Canada .

Meanwhile, nationalism and European romanticism inspired a new consciousness in national history, seeing the birth of an independence movement from Jón Sigurðsson . In 1800 the Althing was abolished , remaining as a judicial body and, in 1843 , the constitutive assembly was born ; although the Alþingi is still claimed in the Icelandic Commonwealth, guaranteeing the island an internal government in 1874 , expanding it in 1904 and arriving at the constitution in 1874 , then revised in 1903 in Reykjavík. With the Act of Union , Denmark recognized the Kingdom of Iceland in 1918 , under the Danish king.

statua Jon Sigurdsson Austurvollur piazza Reykjavik - storia icelandese
The statue of Jon Sigurdsson in Piazza Austurvollur, Reykjavik

The Second World War

During the Second World War, the country’s history is characterized by German occupation . On 9 April 1940 communications with Denmark were interrupted and on the 10th the Icelandic parliament took provisional control of foreign affairs , electing Sveinn Björnsson as governor : later the first president of the Republic. Throughout Icelandic history, the island declared itself to be extremely neutral . The British military arrived in Reykjavík on 10 May 1940 , beginning the occupation of the Allied forces , which lasted throughout the war. Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson radioed a message advising to treat foreigners as guests, initiating a policy of cooperation with the occupiers.

Over 25,000 British arrived on the island . In 1941 Icelandic defense passed to the US, with the US-Iceland Agreement , and the British convinced the Althing to also accept US occupation. The military on the island reached 40,000 , exceeding the Icelandic population. After the plebiscite, Iceland became an independent republic on 17 June 1944 . In fact, Denmark was still under Nazi Germany, yet Danish King Christian X congratulated Iceland on its achievement.

The post-war period

During the brief history of Iceland, in his summary, the island prospered during the war , accumulating foreign currency. The government, composed of socialists, social democrats and conservatives, decided to use the funds for fishing boats, fish processing plants and the agricultural industry , thus building a high quality of life for its population. The aim was to create, through fiscal policies, an industrialized country with minimum unemployment . In 1946 the US defense of Iceland ended, although it maintained responsibilities in Keflavík , thus being able to return in the event of the threat of war.

In 1949 Icelandic history became a member of NATO , reserving the right to never take part in offenses against other states. With the onset of hostility in Korea in 1950 , the USA, in agreement with Althing, returned to protect Iceland with a military presence until 2006 . The development was inspired by the Scandinavian state , however the oligarchy remained dominant, especially the Octopus : the Icelandic political and economic elite of the Independence Party, made up of around ten families.

Jet Nest Keflavik Airport
La scultura Jet Nest, a Keflavik

The Cod Wars

During the summary of Iceland’s history the Cod War occurred , also called the war over territorial waters. Various unarmed confrontations between the UK and Iceland, 1950 to 1970 , over the division of fishing grounds in the Atlantic . The ships of the Royal Navy and the Landhelgisgæsla Íslands clashed several times with dissuasive actions, arriving in collisions without ever serious damage, leading to international mediation , in which the US government got involved asking for the intervention of the British government. This led to the expansion of Iceland’s fishing space after the Third Cod War.

Eskifjordur trading port - iceland history in brief summary icelandic history
The important commercial port of Eskifjordur

From the 20th to the 21st century

The most recent history of Iceland, in this summary, in 1991 Davíð Oddsson, the Independence Party leader forms the Social Democratic Party and starting market liberalization policies ; privatizing companies. Inflation is reduced and economic stability begins. Member of EFTA since 1994 , Iceland also joins the European Economic Area . Furthermore, since 1994 , Iceland has been among the richest nations in the world, however with income inequality due to rigid tax policies and, between 1990 and 2000, they supported pro-US policies, supporting NATO in the Kosovo War.

Oddsson formed a coalition with the Progressive Party in 1995 , reducing income , inheritance and wealth taxes . After 13 years, Oddsson leaves the position, becoming Foreign Minister and leaves politics in 2005. He is replaced by the leader of the progressives Halldór Ásgrímsson , prime minister until 2006. Geir H. Haarde then follows and in 2006 the USA withdraws the Icelandic Defense Force, also closing the base in Keflavík. Today, in fact, Iceland is the only NATO member without a military force.

Dal 2008 al 2011

In this period of Iceland’s short history the country went through a major financial crisis , where the Icelandic krona lost value and the market collapsed. The local economy was collapsing, the banks implemented debt policies exceeding the country’s GDP, leading to the collapse of financial institutions. The country reached bankruptcy in 2008 and in 2009, after many protests near parliament, the prime minister resigned. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir arrives and, due to the crisis, Iceland begins negotiations for entry into the EU .

New protests followed to ask for a referendum to settle the debt and, in 2011, Olafur Grimsson, then president, announced the consultative popular referendum . Sigurðardóttir, meanwhile, organized investigations to legally attribute responsibility for the crisis and it was Interpol who searched for those convicted, given that the bankers left the country. Following the Danish model , a new Constitution is drafted. With the Magna Carta project of the Constitutional Assembly, the new Constitution was approved in 2012 . In 2015, however, the application for EU membership was withdrawn after a unilateral decision by Iceland.

lake Tjörnin Reykjavík - iceland history in brief summary icelandic history
Lake Tjörnin in Reykjavík

The Eruption of Eyjafjöll

In 2010 , during recent Icelandic history, the Eyjafjöll volcano erupted, in the south of the island following seismic activity that began in 2009. The eruption on 14 April 2010 created many problems for air traffic , paralyzing it in Europe until 9 May. This volcano, which has been active since the Ice Age, is also covered by the Eyjafjallajökull glacier.

Fagradalsfjall eruption - iceland history in brief summary icelandic history
Eruption at Fagradalsfjall

The Republic of Iceland today 

Today, the Republic of Iceland is a nation in the Scandinavian Region , in northern Europe in the Atlantic Ocean, between Great Britain and Greenland. Still it is one of the least populated countries in Europe and its capital is Reykjavík , as well as being the most populous city on the island, and Akureyri is in second place. Iceland is also known as the Land of Ice and Fire due to the contrast between its glaciers and geothermal and volcanic activity , which characterizes its wonderful wild landscapes. Between barren and desert plains, waterfalls, mountains and glaciers, the north has a polar climate and the rest an oceanic one, thanks to the Gulf Stream .

The country’s main economic resource is still fishing , with one of the most modern fleets in Europe. In addition to the fishing industry, hydroelectric energy use is becoming increasingly popular . Tourism is also becoming a central resource for the Icelandic economy, developing accommodation facilities and related activities. A trip to Iceland is a unique experience, in a wild and wonderful land, with rich history and numerous legends, which will remain in your heart forever!

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