History of Icelandic Parliament and why it is considered the longest running in the world

The Icelandic Parliament, known as the Althingi, stands as one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world. Its origins trace back to 930 AD, marking a significant development in the governance of medieval societies and laying foundational principles for modern parliamentary systems.

In the article below, WHE explores the historical context, evolution, and key characteristics of the Althingi, providing insights into its enduring significance in Icelandic political life.

Origins and Medieval Functioning (930-1262)

The Althingi was established in 930 AD at Þingvellir, a location approximately 45 kilometers east of what is now Reykjavik. The assembly was founded during a period when Viking settlers, largely of Norwegian descent, were establishing new communities in Iceland.

The Althingi served as a general assembly where the country’s most powerful leaders, known as chieftains or goðar, gathered to make laws and adjudicate disputes. It was essentially a legislative and judicial body combined, central to the governance of the stateless society of early Iceland.

The Althing met annually in an open-air assembly that lasted two weeks each summer. The Lawspeaker, an elected official who held a three-year term, presided over the assembly. His role was crucial: he recited the laws aloud to the assembly since written laws did not exist in the early periods. The Lawspeaker’s recitation was the primary means through which the laws were taught and preserved.

The Althing, Iceland’s national parliament, is renowned for being one of the oldest extant parliamentary institutions in the world. The institution is not just a cornerstone of Icelandic political culture but also a symbol of resilience and adaptation. Image: Iceland’s flag.

The Commonwealth and Norwegian Influence (1262-1800)

In 1262, the Old Covenant was established, marking the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth and the beginning of Norwegian rule. This changed the structure and function of the Althingi. It retained its legislative role but now also served as a court of law for the entire country. Under the Kalmar Union (1397), control of Iceland shifted to the Danish crown, further impacting the Althingi’s autonomy.

During the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union in 1814, Iceland officially became a Danish dependency, and the Althingi was suspended in 1800. It was a period marked by a decline in Iceland’s political autonomy and a centralization of authority in Denmark.

Established in 930 AD at Þingvellir, the Althing is a site now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage due to its cultural significance. Image: Front view of the Althing.

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Restoration and Modern Development (1843-Present)

The 19th century was a period of rising Icelandic nationalism and a movement towards independence from Denmark. These sentiments led to the restoration of the Althingi in 1843, though initially only as an advisory body. It wasn’t until 1874, when Denmark granted Iceland a constitution, that the Althingi was reinstated as a legislative body with limited powers.

In 1904, Iceland achieved home rule, which was a significant step towards full sovereignty. This change allowed for greater self-administration and the Althingi played a crucial role in governing the country. By 1918, Iceland became a sovereign state in a personal union with Denmark, and in 1944, Iceland declared full independence and established itself as a republic.

The modern Althingi is a unicameral legislature with 63 members elected for a four-year term. The members are elected through a mixed electoral system that combines direct constituency elections with a national proportional representation component. This system ensures both local representation and proportional representation of political parties.

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Major Facts and Features

The Althingi’s role in Iceland’s governance is comprehensive, encompassing legislative, budgetary, and supervisory functions. It is responsible for the enactment of new laws, the amendment of existing ones, and the fiscal budget. Additionally, it supervises the government and has the authority to impeach ministers.

The Althingi meets in the Althingi House in Reykjavik, which has been its home since 1881. This location symbolizes the continuity and the adaptability of the Althingi over centuries. The parliament’s structure promotes transparency and accountability, with sessions that are open to the public and broadcasted.

Global Significance

The Althingi’s historical and contemporary significance extends beyond Iceland. As one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world, it provides a unique case study of the evolution of democratic institutions. It reflects how historical, geographical, and social factors interact in the development of legislative bodies.

The Icelandic Parliament exemplifies how democratic institutions can adapt to changing political, social, and economic environments while maintaining continuity and stability.

Frequently asked questions about Iceland

Here are some frequently asked questions about Iceland, covering a range of topics from its geography and climate to culture and tourism:

What is the capital of Iceland?

The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik, which is also the largest city in the country. It is known for its vibrant cultural scene, historical sites, and proximity to natural wonders.

What language is spoken in Iceland?

The official language of Iceland is Icelandic, a North Germanic language that has changed little from the Old Norse spoken by the Norse settlers in the Middle Ages.

What is the currency in Iceland?

The currency of Iceland is the Icelandic króna (ISK).

What is the best time to visit Iceland?

The best time to visit Iceland depends on what you want to see and do. For milder weather and long daylight hours, visit during the summer months (June to August). If you’re interested in seeing the Northern Lights, the best time is from September to mid-April when the nights are darkest.

How is the climate in Iceland?

Iceland’s climate is classified as subarctic, characterized by cold winters and cool summers. The coastal areas tend to be milder, while the interior can experience more extreme temperatures. Weather can be unpredictable, and it’s common to experience all four seasons in one day.

Can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

Yes, the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) can be seen in Iceland, typically between September and mid-April. The best conditions are cold, clear nights away from city lights.

What are some must-see places in Iceland?

Some must-see places in Iceland include the Golden Circle (which includes Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geysers of Haukadalur), the Blue Lagoon, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, and the black sand beaches of Vik.

Is Iceland the home of the longest-running parliament?

The claim that the Althing is the “longest-running” parliament can be nuanced. While it was founded in 930 AD, the Althing was suspended after the 1800 Act of Union under Danish rule, which centralized governmental functions in Denmark.

It was not restored until 1843, and even then, initially as an advisory body. This interruption raises questions about the continuity of the Althing as an institution.

Nevertheless, its re-establishment and the eventual move towards full legislative authority with the establishment of the Icelandic Republic in 1944, solidify its claim as one of the most enduring parliamentary bodies.

Is Iceland part of the European Union?

No, Iceland is not a member of the European Union, but it is a part of the European Economic Area (EEA), which allows it to be part of the EU’s single market.

What is traditional Icelandic food?

Traditional Icelandic food often includes lamb, dairy, and fish, reflecting the island’s agricultural and maritime heritage. Popular dishes include hákarl (fermented shark), skyr (a dairy product similar to yogurt), and hangikjöt (smoked lamb).

What are the visa requirements for visiting Iceland?

Iceland is part of the Schengen Agreement, so visitors from countries within the Schengen area can enter without a visa for short stays. Visitors from outside the Schengen area may need a Schengen visa, depending on their nationality. Always check the latest visa requirements before planning your trip.

What kind of wildlife can you find in Iceland?

Iceland is home to various wildlife species, particularly birds and marine life. The puffin is one of the most famous bird species found here, especially during the breeding season. Iceland’s waters are also rich in marine life, including whales, dolphins, and seals.

Iceland is considered one of the safest countries in the world for travelers. Crime rates are extremely low, and the country is well-prepared for natural hazards with excellent safety standards and procedures. Image: Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital city.

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