The Saga of Iceland’s Independence

Gather ’round, my good friends, for today (June 17th) is an important day for the lovely folk living in Iceland! On this day in the year 1944, the Republic of Iceland was officially established after a long struggle for independence, which they call sjálfstæðisbarátta. Today, Icelanders continue to celebrate this achievement annually through a holiday called Þjóðhátíðardagurinn, which means “the day of the nation’s celebration” (but it’s usually just Icelandic National Day in English). And we too shall join the festivities! But we shall celebrate in a fashion that is in accordance to the traditions of Fjörn’s Hall — through a saga! Indeed, in order to pay our respects to Iceland’s history and experiences, I shall now briefly recount the story of their independence (and lack thereof), from the time of Iceland’s founding to that celebrated day in 1944.

This saga has roughly four sections, and (in typical saga fashion) the main part of the saga (Iceland’s history leading up to independence) comes after a prelude (the Commonwealth). (For those unfamiliar with Icelandic sagas, the saga’s main hero usually comes into the saga ‘late’, after many chapters concerning their ancestors). Thus, our saga opens with Iceland’s independent ‘golden age’ before discussing Iceland’s long history under foreign rule, which ends with their struggle for Independence and the establishment of an independent Iceland once more. Unlike traditional sagas, though, here’s a table of contents:

  1. The Icelandic Commonwealth (c.870–1262)
  2. Life under Norwegian Rule (c.1262–1397)
  3. Life Under Danish Rule (c.1397–1944)
  4. Towards Independence (c.1800–1944)

But before I continue, I must stress one thing: this post covers a considerable amount of time, meaning that it leaves out many details and events. If you want more of the story, please consider getting a copy of Gunnar Karlsson’s book The History of Iceland. Most of the information that helped develop this blog-post saga came from that book, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Iceland!

But now, without further delay, let’s begin our festivities! Fill your horns with mead and ready yourselves for songs of achievement and merriment, for the night is young and our stories have yet to be told!

The Icelandic Commonwealth (c.870–1262)

Our saga begins just before the year 870, when Iceland was still a land free from human settlement, save for a few Irish anchorites (called papar by the Norse). It is said that those monks fled there sometime around the year 795 (likely because of Viking raids and settlement in the British Isles). At that time, they called the land Thule. But to their distress, seafarers from the North disturbed their peace by the year 860, when those Norse seafarers found themselves blown off course into a new land ripe with potential. Without delay, starting as early as 870, Norsefolk from Norway now came as settlers to establish permanent homes there. Their numbers gradually increased between the years 890 and 910, until all of the best farm lands were claimed.[1] Thus, the last country of Europe was inhabited; Iceland was born.

Fleeing King Harald Fair-hair

While that story may make the settlement of Iceland seem like an unexpected but well-harnessed opportunity, the Icelanders themselves told a different story in their sagas. According to their tradition, the reason for Iceland’s settlement was King Harald’s rise to power back in Norway, their homeland. This version of the story is best told by a work of medieval literature known as Egil’s Saga (Egils saga):

Fjörn's Leaf King Harald inherited the titles of his father Halfdan the Black and swore an oath not to cut or comb his hair until he had become the king of Norway. He was called Harald Tangle-hair. He did battle with the neighboring kings and defeated them, as is told in long accounts.
Once King Harald had taken over the kingdoms he had recently won, he kept a close watch on landholders and powerful farmers and everyone else he suspected would be likely to rebel, and gave them the options for entering his service or leaving the country, or a third choice of hardship or paying with their lives; some had their arms and legs maimed.
Many people fled the country to escape this tyranny and settled various uninhabited parts of many places, to the east in Jamtland and Halsingland, and to the west in the Hebrides, the shire of Dublin, Ireland, Normandy in France, Caithness in Scotland, the Orkney Isles and Shetland Isles, and the Faroe Islands. And at this time, Iceland was discovered.[2]

Thus, the settlement of Iceland was, at least for the medieval Icelanders themselves, connected to the tyranny of a foreign monarch who suppressed the inherited freedoms of landowners and independent farmers.[3] The historical reality, however, seems to be that settlement was never an organized movement but rather a series of independent undertakings. News spread across the Norse world of large tracts of free land, which attracted free farmers and small-scale chieftains seeking to take advantage of such an opportunity.[4] Nevertheless, this early legend is important for this saga, whether truthful or not, for Iceland’s founding lore centered around a foreign king who threatened the independence and lifestyle of landowning farmers and their families — and such lore is certainly not forgotten when independence is once again yearned for.

Establishing a Land without a King

By 930, the settlers came together to establish a system of governance for themselves. The system that they developed was largely inspired by the assembly system from Norway, where free men assembled annually in meetings called Things (þing) that were overseen by chieftains, called goðar (sg. goði) in Iceland. The most important of these assemblies was known as the Althing (alþingi), which was the national assembly that occurred at a place called Thingvellir (Þingvellir) for two weeks during midsummer. This system continued to develop, and by 962 the country was divided into four quarters: North, West, South, and East. Each of these quarters had three local assemblies (except the North, which had four). Heads of households attached themselves to a chieftain as their Thingman (þingmaðr), which determined the local assembly that they belonged to.[5] This system meant that power was generally dispersed among many landowning individuals — several belonging to the very families that allegedly fled King Harald Fair-hair’s tyranny.

Below is a diagram to help visualize this system:

Iceland Gov Commonwealth
[Fig.1] A diagram of Iceland’s governmental system during the Commonwealth era (c.962-1262). Note that there were more chieftains than this diagram shows, and the date of 962 was chosen as a ‘starting’ point since it saw the establishment of quarter assemblies.
While this system served the Icelanders well for hundreds of years, the balance of power began to shift during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Over the course of the twelfth century, the number of chieftains dwindled as power concentrated in the palms of fewer hands. By the thirteenth century, matters had gotten worse — six large families monopolized the chieftaincies and thus controlled the entire political system. This age, which lasted from 1220 to around 1260, is known as the Age of the Sturlungs (Sturlungaöld).[6]

The Age of the Sturlungs (c.1220–1260)

Although the Sturlungs were just one of the six families that ruled over Iceland during that time, they were indeed the most successful. Snorri Stulurson, who’s name may be familiar due to his contribution to Norse mythology, was a member of this family. Nevertheless, these powerful chieftains (called stórgoðar) were in the process of forming a new social class by gradually inflating their previous positions.[7] Despite this, their power was not quite absolute. These families, although powerful and dominating, still remained dependent upon the support of well-off farmers (called stórbændr). Furthermore, these families were not cohesive political groups, often dispersing power between family members who frequently refused to cooperate smoothly with one another. These powerful chieftains, then, should be considered as a ‘natural’ development within the native Icelandic system. Still, their rise to power caused confusion and instability during the thirteenth century, which made Iceland vulnerable to the expansionist policies of the Norwegian Crown.[8]

Ambitious stórgoðar without the means to overturn the current political system frequently looked overseas to Norway’s King Hakon for aid. He was delighted to help, but he was no fool, either. Throughout this period, King Hakon watched and helped the chieftains of Iceland weaken each other through their intensifying competition. In 1258, he finally made his move, declaring a man named Gizur Thorvaldsson the Jarl (earl) of Iceland. Gizur immediately worked to establish a feudal system in Iceland, but his progress was slow.[9] As a result, King Hakon sent an emissary from Norway in 1261 to put pressure on Gizur, as well as appeal directly to the farmers of Iceland. By 1262, through an agreement known as the Old Covenant (Gamli sáttmáli), the chieftains and farmers of Northern and Southern Iceland agreed to swear their allegiance to the Norwegian king, with the Western and Eastern quarters following closely behind (in 1264). Thus, Iceland’s independent Commonwealth came to its end.[10]

Iceland under Norwegian Rule (c.1262–1397)

But how did this happen? And why did the Icelanders give up their independence? Of course, it is the tendency of history to withhold a clear answer. The topic has been debated by historians over the years and a number of explanations have been put forward. But in reality, there is no single answer to our questions, nor should we expect there to be. After all, each individual Icelander would have held to and acted upon their own sentiments. Nevertheless, here are a few of the things that were likely on their minds:[11]

  1. The people were tired of the constant fighting and competition and hoped the king would bring peace;
  2. They were worried that the king would threaten them with an embargo (Icelanders depended upon shipments from abroad for various supplies);
  3. Icelanders had not yet embraced the concept of sovereignty, which was only just emerging in Europe during the thirteenth century;
  4. An anxiety of what the rest of Europe thought of Iceland, since it was considered ‘improper’ to dwell in a land not presided over by a king.

Regardless of their reasons, Icelanders were still reluctant and careful when accepting the king’s terms, including a few important ‘conditions’ when they finally decided to swear their allegiance. In particular, they emphasized the king’s responsibility to maintain peace, but also ensure the continuation of Icelandic law and legislation:

Fjörn's Leaf In consideration hereof that the king will let us enjoy peace and the Icelandic laws.[12]

And this agreement could be broken if the king or his descendants failed to adhere to their terms:

Fjörn's Leaf We and our descendants shell keep faith with you so long as you and your descendants keep this covenant, but be free of all obligations if, in the opinion of the best men, it is broken.[13]

Through this covenant, which was composed by the Icelanders themselves, their Commonwealth was abolished while still maintaining some degree of independent agency. In a sort of contract between the Icelandic people and a foreign king, the Icelanders thus entered into a union with Norway. The king was to protect the peace of their land while the Icelanders were allowed to keep their own laws, thus leaving legislative power in their hands. But despite this condition, there was no stipulation made against the Norwegian king introducing and proposing legal reforms.[14]

Legal Reforms

Although the change was slow, it wasn’t long before such reforms started trickling in from Norway, especially through King Hakon’s son, Magnus the Law-reformer. His efforts to reform Icelandic law occurred in two stages: in 1271 with a law-book known as Iron-sides (Járnsíða) and again in 1280 with Jón’s Book (Jónsbók). The first legal reform abolished the goði-system and adjusted the legal bodies and assemblies that convened. This included the abolishment of the quarter courts. Oddly enough, the second wave of legal reform actually placed Iceland outside of the Norwegian legal district. In other words, when a law was enacted in Norway, it was not immediately (nor automatically) enacted in Iceland.[15]

But things were still very different. Here’s a diagram to visualize the new system of governance under Norwegian rule:

Iceland Gov Norwegian
[Fig.2] Iceland’s system of governance under Norwegian rule (c.1271–1397). This system developed slowly, but began with the legal reforms introduced by Járnsíða.
Compared to the previous diagram, the governmental structure of Iceland has undergone noticeable change throughout this period. These changes continued as Iceland was eventually divided into around twenty shires (sýslur) which generally aligned with the old assembly districts. Furthermore, there were now bailiffs and sheriffs (sýslumenn, sg. sýslumaður), who were typically Icelanders from the old chieftain families. The primary difference now, though, was that these men were typically appointed by the king himself, or his appointed governor. This meant that Iceland’s ruling system, while generally run by Icelanders, was mediated through the power and authority of the Norwegian Crown. Thus, Iceland’s status within the Norwegian kingdom was neither fully autonomous nor fully incorporated.[16]

The Collapse of the Norwegian Kingdom

[Fig.3] The Norwegian Kingdom at its greatest extent, c.1263.
Iceland’s place within the Norwegian realm, however, began to change during King Hakon V Magnusson’s rule (1299-1319). He was eager to forge a Nordic monarchy, rather than a North Atlantic one, and thus sought to bring the Scandinavian kingdoms together through marriage. Thus, he married his daughter to a man named Erik, who was the brother of the Swedish king. Their son was named Magnus, and he inherited both the Norwegian and Swedish throne in 1319. But this period, the fourteenth century, was a politically unstable time for Scandinavia — the Danish realm was in complete dissolution (at least in the 1330s), the Norwegians revolted against Magnus (believing that he favored Sweden), and a contender for Swedish throne captured Magnus after overthrowing him. With this instability in Scandinavia, the situation for Iceland was also insecure. In fact, there were even times when Iceland’s union with Norway was dissolved as it was passed around the hands of various rulers.[17]

[Fig.4] The Kalmar Union, c.1400.
The eventual unification of the North (however temporary) came due to the ambitious determination of a now legendary woman named Queen Margrethe (who deserves a saga of her own, I imagine). Through her own will, she established herself as regent of both Norway and Denmark; and by 1389 she was also the regent of Sweden. She then arranged for her niece’s son, Erik of Pomerania, to become the future king of the North. Her offer was accepted and came to reality in 1397 when Erik was crowned king of the three Nordic kingdoms at Kalmar — thus the Kalmar Union was born.[18]

But what did all of this mean for Iceland?

The Kalmar Union was dominated by Denmark, which had the advantage of a virtually unbroken line of kingship. Norway remained a state of its own within the union until the 1530s, but essentially became a dependency of Denmark, and thus was mostly ruled by Danish officials. Thus, Iceland became the dependency of a dependency. And to make matters worse, Iceland gradually became a remote and neglected island within the Danish kingdom, which had already lost and forgotten its dependency in Greenland. In sum, the new kingdom that ruled over Iceland from afar was not interested in the rich North Atlantic, but rather focused on themselves and their own local region. Iceland was of little interest to them.[19]

Life under Danish Rule (1397–1944)

Wasn’t that…good, though? Iceland was left to its own devices, after all. But while it may seem like Iceland could essentially rule themselves in their forgotten state, this was not how history played out. Under Denmark, the Icelandic system of governance worked as it had before, except you replace the Norwegian king and governor with Danish ones. Thus, being neglected didn’t mean independence, it meant being undervalued and generally unaided. In the centuries following the collapse of the Norwegian Kingdom, Iceland became an economic battleground for foreign powers, especially the English, the Germans, and later the Danes themselves.

Exploitation and Monopolies

As early as 1412, English fisherman and ships are known to have arrived in Iceland to acquire stockfish. And by the late fifteenth century, it is likely that around 100 English ships came to Iceland annually. With such a large amount of foreign sailors (who were sometimes armed and could usually get their way in the practically defenseless land of Iceland), the country may have been (at times) ruled by the English as much as it was by the Danish.[20] Thus, fishing off Iceland (which the Icelanders themselves had little control over) by the English was only the beginning of foreign exploitation of Icelandic fishing grounds, which actually lasted until the late 1970s.[21]

After 1470, the Germans made their way to Iceland for stockfish as well. Their arrival sparked clashes with the English, and it wasn’t long before the English and the Germans were ‘at war’ over who controlled trade in Iceland. Eventually, after several skirmishes, battles, and failed policies, the English were driven from the country. For a time, the Germans remained there, even building permanent homes in the 1530s; but they did not retain the favor the Danish Kingdom for long, for Denmark had finally set its eyes on the potential of a trade monopoly in Iceland. In other words, Iceland was finally useful to them, and so they wanted the Germans out of there. Thus, through a series of more vigorously backed policies, the Germans slowly abandoned their hold on Iceland, making way for the Danes.[22] Without delay (by 1602), the king of Denmark issued a decree that gave the citizens of three Danish towns (Copenhagen, Elsinore, and Malmø — now a part of Sweden) a monopoly over all trade in Iceland for twelve years. This marked the beginning of an 186-year-long Danish monopoly over foreign trade in Iceland, which restricted the management of trade to Danish citizens (mainly from Copenhagen).[23]

Thus, the story of late medieval Iceland is quite different than that of most European countries. While the rest of the European world was transitioning into the modern era, enjoying increased trade and communication (both in terms of distance and quality), Iceland had been the battleground of the ‘greater’ powers who competed over the exploitation of Iceland’s products. AS a result, Iceland remained isolated from the benefits that the ‘modern’ world around them was experiencing.[24]


[Fig.5] A portrait of King Frederik III, painted by Karel van Mander III in 1656.
Up until this point, although their situation was not always ideal, the Icelanders still kept hold of their old laws and rights (however reformed they became); they still had some kind of voice in decisions, even if only a whisper. But this was set to change in 1660, when King Frederik III achieved absolute authority over the kingdom — no other political body had any real authority anymore.[25]

In March of 1662, the king sent his governor Henrik Bjelke to receive an oath of allegiance from the Icelanders at the Althing. He sent a letter requesting the attendance of all the important men, but didn’t mention absolutism. After some confusion, the representatives of Iceland acknowledged the absolute sovereignty of the king. But on the very same day that they did this, they also wrote a letter to the king declaring that they would only accept his authority if he obeyed the following statement:

Fjörn's Leaf …let us keep our old law of the land, peace and freedom, with the rights that the previous praiseworthy kings of Denmark and Norway, Your Majesty’s forefathers, have mercifully granted and rendered us, and our forefathers have accepted under oath.[26]

Thus, the Icelanders hoped to maintain the terms they established long ago with the king of Norway back in 1262. And during the next two decades (perhaps to their relief), the governmental system of Iceland didn’t actually change all that much. But between 1683 and 1688, the top of the administration was indeed reorganized. Surprisingly, however, the Althing was not completely abolished, nor did it experience any sudden changes. But over time it began decline, becoming a mere mockery of the greatness it once held.[27] Eventually, through a royal decree in 1800, the Althing was officially abolished (as part of a modernization effort).[28]

Towards Independence (c.1800–1944)

And now our saga turns to a tale from 1809, when we stumble upon an odd event in history during the Napoleonic Wars, which were causing trouble for Denmark. At this time, there was a Dane named Jørgen, the son of Jørgen. He became interested in Iceland while on parole as a prisoner-of-war in England. One day he went to Iceland with some Englishmen to arouse the Icelanders in staging a coup, promising them independence and democracy. However, his plan failed and Iceland returned to Danish rule. Even so, the Icelanders did little to defend the independence that they had acquired. As Gunnar Karlsson puts it, there was “an exceptionally clear indication of the absence of political nationalism or democratic ideas in Iceland at this time.”[29] Thus, while the Icelanders did have a strong sense of ethnic identity, they were not as concerned with who was the formal head-of-state. When it came down to it, they were satisfied enough as long as their Icelandic officials were able to carry on with daily business.[30]

So what changed? The Romanic movement swept through. This sentimental wave of ideology gave the Icelanders an increased self-esteem and enhanced interest in their country. The political aspects of this wave, however, didn’t come into effect until the 1830s, when Denmark was pressed to establish four assemblies, called Diets, in the realm. Meanwhile, another man enters our saga. There once was a man named Baldvin, the son of Einar. He was from Iceland but had gone abroad to study law in Denmark. Filled with romantic sentiment, however, he yearned for the reestablishment of the old Icelandic Althing in his homeland. Thus he proposed that Iceland should have its very own Diet, rather than be meagerly included in more distant assembly back in Denmark. Despite his hopefulness, his proposals were ignored (although he did not live to see it).[31]

Nevertheless, the 1830s continued to see increased support for more extensive home rule in Iceland. By 1840, King Christian VIII (who only recently inherited the throne) offered the Icelanders an opportunity to consider establishing a consultive assembly in Iceland, which would be called the Althing and assemble at Thingvellir, as it used to.[32]

Jón Sigurðsson

[Fig.6] A portrait of Jón Sigurðsson painted by Þórarinn Þorláksson.
And now, at such a crucial moment, a new figure enters our saga: a man named Jón, the son of Sigurður. He was born on June 17th of 1811 and was from Hrafnseyri in the Westfjords. In 1833, he traveled to Copenhagen to study philosophy, but he abandoned these studies and entered the political arena in 1840, establishing an annual journal known as Ný félagsrit (New Society Paper) by 1841.[33]

Meanwhile, his fellow Icelanders had accepted King Christian’s proposal, but they quarreled over where this assembly was to take place. Jón Sigurðsson entered the fight, and through the Ný félagsrit he advocated for Reykjavík, arguing that the Althing would help make the Danish town more Icelandic. Another journal, known as Fjölnir, argued that the location should be at the ancient and traditional site of Thingvellir, which would help awaken the national spirit of the Icelandic people. In the end, Jón’s side won and Reykjavík became the site of the new Althing.[34]

In 1843, a royal decree was issued to establish the arrangement of the Althing:[35]

  1. 26 total members (20 elected in Iceland, 6 appointed by the king)
  2. Only men who were 25 years or older (and of a minimum social class) could attend
  3. Only men who were 30 years or old (and owned land) could be elected
  4. Convene once every other year for 4 weeks starting in July
  5. Electoral term of 6 years (thus sitting in 3 sessions)

The first elections were held in 1844, and the first session occurred in 1845. Jón Sigurðsson was elected to the Althing and quickly gained an impressive reputation among his fellow Icelanders (largely thanks to the articles he wrote in Ný félagsrit). He had become a leader for the Icelandic people, and thus people often called him Jón Sigurðsson the “President.” He remained at the forefront of Icelandic politics until his death in 1879.[36]

A Constitutional Monarchy

Now, to return to Denmark. It was 1848, and a new wave of revolts throughout Europe inspired a large gathering of Copenhageners to demand change within the monarchy of Denmark. Their demands were met, and Denmark became a constitutional monarchy. But what did this mean for the Icelanders? According to their agreement (the Old Covenant, you’ll recall), the Icelanders were only bound to the king himself — not the people of Denmark, nor of Norway. This agreement did not change when absolutism was established in 1662. But now the king had stepped aside and the people of Denmark had authority. Did the Icelanders have to obey the people of Denmark, or was their agreement broken? Jón Sigurðsson was the first to give a definite response: the sovereignty over Iceland returned to the Icelanders when the king relinquished it to the people of Denmark.[37]

This would have been a promising step for Icelandic independence, but events did not play out as ideally as they may have hoped. By 1851, the revolts that sparked this change had lost their wind and the political climate once again shifted. Danish troops came to Iceland with a bill that declared the constitution of Denmark valid in Iceland (although they still weren’t entirely incorporated, which was a victory, albeit a smaller one than they hoped for). Nevertheless, there was still strong support for Jón Sigurðsson’s policies, and so this event attests to the spreading of nationalistic sentiments in Iceland across all social strata.[38]

Throughout the 1860s, Denmark and Iceland busied themselves with hammering out financial issues, since Iceland was facing a deficit and needed more annual support. Meanwhile, Denmark wanted to make this financial problem one for the Icelanders themselves to deal with. But it soon became clear that financial separation alone wouldn’t work, and so the Danish parliament proposed a constitution for Iceland in 1867. At this point, Iceland was considered an inalienable part of Denmark, but only the paragraphs of the Danish constitution that were relative to the king actually applied to Iceland. The process of establishing a constitution for Iceland, however, did not progress smoothly as the Althing and the Danish parliament went back and forth with various changes and conditions. This dispute didn’t conclude until 1874, when King Christian IX issued the Constitution for Iceland’s Internal Affairs.[39] While this may sound like progress, it was a compromise (and a temporary fix). The Althing attained the status of a legislative parliament, thus Iceland achieved some degree of home rule; but the minister of Iceland was to be occupied by a Danish government minister, rather than an Icelander.[40]

The Struggle Begins

While the Icelanders were able to pass legislation governing their own affairs, the minister, who had the right to advise the king and stand responsible for his decisions in Iceland, was still not within their grasp. Thus, the movement towards independence took on three new objectives, all concerning this position:[41]

  1. The minister of Iceland should reside in Iceland
  2. He should be an Icelander by nationality
  3. He should not act within the Danish Council of State

[Fig.7] A photograph of Hannes Hafstein, taken by an unnamed Danish photographer between 1904 and 1906.
From 1884 to 1902, various movements centered around these issues, with some minor victories achieved. But it wasn’t until 1902 that any major change was felt. In that year, the Althing convened and it was decided that Iceland could have its minister reside in Reykjavík. However, there were some consequences to this: the minister was still subject to the king and the Danish Council of State and the Althing was to acknowledge (for the first time in history) that Iceland was an explicit and formal part of the Danish state. Nevertheless, Iceland finally had its own minister, who could be chosen by the Althing. Thus, in 1904, another man enters our saga: Hannes Hafstein, Iceland’s first minister (who was also a poet, lawyer, and leader of the Icelandic Home rule party).[42]

His election marks the beginning of a new chapter in our saga, a period of history known as the Home Rule Period (1902-1918). Throughout this time, Icelandic society progressed rapidly, but it was also a complicated time when political parties were in formation and thus unstable. Nevertheless, Iceland’s relationship with Denmark remained the focal point of interest for politicians. Furthermore, nationalistic sentiment among the people was also on the rise. In the summer of 1913, the captain of a Danish warship confiscated an Icelandic flag from a one-man rowing-boat, saying that an Icelandic flag was not allowed to be on vessels belonging to Denmark. The people responded as one might expect: Icelandic flags were raised all over Reykjavík and demonstrations followed for the remainder of the day. This marked the first demonstrations to actually take place in Iceland’s struggle for independence.[43]

[Fig.8] The Icelandic flag on a ship during Sailor’s Day in Akureyri, Iceland.
As one can tell from such an event, the Icelanders were very proud of their ships, which (thanks to the progress of this period) they now had a fleet of. And so, in 1917, the Icelanders requested the king to grant the Icelandic flag the status of a maritime flag. When the minister of Iceland brought this to the Danish Council of State, the Danish minister and king decided to address the larger picture: Iceland’s union with Denmark. Astonishingly, in the year 1918, this culminated in a treaty that declared Iceland a separate state within a personal union with Denmark. By 1920, Denmark declared to the world the Iceland was an independent, neutral state without a defensive force. And so our saga already enters another chapter, that of a 22-year period of neutrality.[44]

The Birth of a Republic

Suddenly, but eagerly welcomed, the Icelanders had finally achieved all that they had hoped for. Indeed, they were so satisfied with the 1918 Act of Union that the struggle for independence practically came to an end. After all, the Icelanders now managed all of their own affairs.[45] As a result, Icelandic politics centered around other issues, such as rearranging the political parties (which had been strictly built upon the goal of independence), grappling with the depression of the 1930s, and dealing with British occupation during World War II.[46] But in 1940, the Althing temporarily dissolved their union with Denmark when they learned of its fall to the Germans. And in 1941, the Althing established a regent to fulfill the king’s constitutional duties (since it was clear that the king of Denmark could no longer carry out those duties, given the wartime circumstances). This regent was a man named Sveinn Björnsson, who will return to play another role in our saga shortly.[47]

But at the same time, the Althing passed three resolutions:[48]

  1. Since Denmark was unable to fulfill its part of the Union Treaty, Iceland had the right to sever it;
  2. The Treaty would not be renewed, even after the war’s end;
  3. A Republic would be established following the dissolution of the Union.

These resolutions were presented to the Danish government, but in 1942, the country was divided: should they wait to break the Union legally? Or separate from Denmark immediately? The United States, which was currently Iceland’s military protection, urged them to wait until Denmark was free from German occupation. In the end, a middle ground was reached. The Althing issued a constitutional amendment stating that the union could be dissolved and replaced through a simple referendum. After this, the United States consented and agree to voice no objection over their separation from Denmark after the end of 1943 (even if Denmark was still unavailable for consultation). Without surprise, the Althing unanimously agreed to establish the republic as soon as the year 1944 dawned.[49]

On June 17th, 1944 (which was Jón Sigurðsson’s 133rd birthday), the Republic of Iceland was officially established at the ancient site of Thingvellir. It was raining heavily that day, but (despite the bad weather) the people of Iceland hurried there, so that one fifth of the population was gathered there. After the declaration, the Althing assembled there in order to elected their first president: Sveinn Björnsson. After this election, the assembly was relieved to find the Danish prime minister there as well, holding a telegram from the king himself congratulating them on their achievement.[50] Thus ends the Saga of Iceland’s Independence.

[Fig.9] Iceland’s flag flying high at Thingvellir.
But their saga is actually far from over, my friends. Rather, it has only just begun, for Iceland still has a bright future ahead of them! Today we have gathered to celebrate the story of their struggles so that we may wish them continued happiness and prosperity in their future.

And so, to our good friends in Iceland: Gleðilega þjóðhátíð! 🇮🇸🎉

— Fjörn

Fjörn's Leaf If you have any questions or concerns about the contents of this post, please feel free to send me a raven at I will make sure that your raven is well-received and happily fed before sending back a reply.


The Icelandic Commonwealth (c.870–1262)

[1] Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards trans., The Book of Settlements: Landnámabók (repr., 1972; Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 1. [return]

Fleeing King Harald Fair-hair

[2] Bernard Scudder trans., Egil’s Saga (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 5-8. (Chapters 3-4) [return]

[3] Theodore M. Andersson, The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 104. [return]

[4] Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 7-8. [return]

Establishing a Land without a King

[5] William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking andPeacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 16-7. [return]

[6] Byock, Viking Age Iceland, 341. [return]

The Age of the Sturlungs (c.1220–1260)

[7] Byock, Viking Age Iceland, 341-2. [return]

[8] Ibid., 348-9. [return]

[9] Ibid., 351. [return]

[10] Gunnar Karlsson, The History of Iceland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 82. [return]

Iceland under Norwegian Rule (c.1262–1800)

[11] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 84-56. [return]

[12] Jón Jóhannesson, A History of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth, translated by Haraldur Bessason (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1974), 282. [return]

[13] Ibid., 283. [return]

[14] Ibid., 283-4. [return]

Legal Reforms

[15] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 89-91. [return]

[16] Ibid., 94-5. [return]

The Collapse of the Norwegian Kingdom

[17] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 100-1. [return]

[18] Ibid., 102. [return]

[19] Ibid., 102-5. [return]

Life under Danish Rule (1397–1944)
Exploitation and Monopolies

[20] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 118. [return]

[21] Ibid., 121. [return]

[22] Ibid., 127. [return]

[23] Ibid., 139. [return]

[24] Ibid., 127. [return]


[25] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 149. [return]

[26] Ibid., 151. [return]

[27] Ibid., 151-4. [return]

[28] Ibid., 184. [return]

Toward Independence (1809–1944)

[29] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 199. [return]

[30] Ibid. [return]

[31] Ibid., 202-3. [return]

[32] Ibid., 206. [return]

Jón Sigurðsson

[33] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 206. [return]

[34] Ibid. [return]

[35] Ibid., 207. [return]

[36] Ibid., 207-8. [return]

A Constitutional Monarchy

[37] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 209-10. [return]

[38] Ibid., 212-3. [return]

[39] Ibid., 218-23. [return]

[40] Ibid., 267. [return]

The Struggle Begins

[41] G. Karlssson, The History of Iceland, 267. [return]

[42] Ibid., 271. [return]

[43] Ibid., 282. [return]

[44] Ibid., 283. [return]

The Birth of a Republic

[45] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 302. [return]

[46] To read more about these periods of Icelandic history, see Gunnar Karlsson The History of Iceland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 302-18. [return]

[47] G. Karlsson, The History of Iceland, 319. [return]

[48] Ibid., 320-1. [return]

[49] Ibid., 321. [return]

[50] Ibid., 322. [return]


[Fig.1] This diagram was made using the following source as a reference: Jesse L. Byock, Viking Age Iceland (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 180. [return]

[Fig.2] This diagram was made using the following source as a reference: Gunnar Karlsson, The History of Iceland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 93. [return]

[Fig.3] [x] [return]

[Fig.4] [x] [return]

[Fig.5] [x] [return]

[Fig.6] [x] [return]

[Fig.7] [x] [return]

[Fig.8] [x] [return]

[Fig.9] [x] [return]

Books Used (In Order of Appearance)

41lEzE1oX-L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ 51VfjIcEvTL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ 518AFyjE0+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ 516L-ZXmsQL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_ 51C2bdJNFpL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ 51KUY3eI17L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_ 41xxBXgJSaL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_


I would like to offer my most sincere thanks and gratitude to Fjörn’s Fellowship. Without their support, this post would not be possible. In fact, this entire Hall would be nothing if not for their support and companionship. Here are the names (taken from Patreon) of the members of this Fellowship who supported me during the time I wrote this post:

Fjörn's Leaf Anastasia Haysler, Cataclysmit, Cooper Brown, Froggy, and Kathleen Phillips.

Fjörn's Horn Click here to add your name to this list and support this Hall!


One thought on “The Saga of Iceland’s Independence

  1. Pingback: Fjörn’s Old Norse Dictionary – Fjörn's Hall

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