History of Iceland

Iceland was a largely uninhabited island in the northern Atlantic Ocean, where Norsemen settled around 870. It began as a ‘free state’ at first but became a Norwegian province in the years 1262/64. As a dependency of Norway, Iceland came under the Danish-Norwegian Crown in 1380 and became, in reality, a Danish dependency from 1660. During the course of the 19th century, Icelanders strove for emancipation from Denmark, and gradually the country achieved greater independence. The ‘Althing’ was restored in 1845 as a national consultative assembly, and in 1874 the country obtained a constitution giving the Althing its own legislative power. Home rule was introduced in 1904, and in 1918 Iceland became an independent and sovereign state in personal union with Denmark. Among other things, the union meant a joint monarchy and that Denmark was responsible for Iceland's foreign affairs. The personal union between Denmark and Iceland was dissolved by Iceland following a referendum in Iceland in May 1944 (more than 98% were in favour of a repeal of the union). After the referendum, Iceland was declared an independent republic on 17th June 1944 at Þingvellir. Denmark did not, however, repeal the law which set out the terms of its personal union with Iceland until 1950. Since then, Iceland has been able to re-claim much of its cultural heritage from Danish institutions. Fisheries and power production saw economic growth in Iceland in the post-war era, and even in to the 21st century. However, in 2008, a severe economic downturn led to austerity measures being necessary which proved to be a success.

2019.08.26 | Agnes Arnórsdóttir

Map of Iceland from 1500s by Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), a cartographer from the Netherlands, which was first published in his extensive 'atlas', completed and published by his son in the year after Mercator's death. Mercator was the first to use the word 'atlas' for a collection of maps. From: The Royal Library, The Picture Collection (CC-BY-NC-ND).

In the following three articles, Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir provides an overview of Icelandic history from the first settlements around the year 870 to Iceland's first half a century as an independent republic. You can read the articles by clicking on the links below:

1. History of Iceland, Vikings to early 19th century

2. History of Iceland, 1840s to the Second World War

3. History of Iceland from 1944

Further reading:

  • Guðmundur Hálfdánarson, Historical Dictionary of Iceland (European Historical Dictionaries; 1997).
  • Gunnar Karlsson, Iceland´s 1100 Years. The History of a Marginal Society (United Kingdom: Hurst & Co, 2000).