Althingi

Alþingi is the nation’s oldest institution, and the highest. Its foundation at Þingvellir (Parliament Plains) in 930 AD marks the birth of the Icelandic nation. Alþingi was an assembly of the nation, where the leading chieftains met to discuss various matters, pass legislation and dispensed justice.

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Alþingi assembled around the middle of June for a session of about two weeks, and all free and law-abiding citizens could attend. Those attending the assembly dwelt in temporary camps known as búdir during the session. Sanctuary during the session was intended to ensure freedom to observe the proceedings. Alþingi was well-attended, as it was the centre of power and interaction. Lögrétta (the Law Council) was at the heart of Althingi’s proceedings. The Council ruled on legal disputes, enacted new legislation, and granted exemptions from law. Lögrétta comprised chieftains (godar), and in due course bishops. They were accompanied by non-voting advisers. Decisions were made by simple majority. After the country was divided into four quarters around 965 AD, quarter courts (fjórdungsdómar) were established at Althingi, one for each quarter. Each comprised 36 judges; for a valid  erdict, 31 had to be in agreement. A fifth court (fimmtardómur) was established early in the 11th century, which served as an appeals court of sorts. It comprised 48 judges appointed by the godar of Lögrétta, and reached its verdicts by simple majority.

The Law Speaker (lögsögumadur) was the highest official of Althingi. His role included reciting the laws of Iceland at Alþingi, in the days before Iceland had a written language. He recited the laws of parliamentary procedure, chaired sessions of Lögrétta, and settled disputes. The Law Speaker is believed to have addressed the assembly from the Law Rock (Lögberg), which appears to have been where verdicts were announced, important speeches made, and where the assembly was formally opened and dissolved. Much remains unclear about the assembly and the role of the Law Speaker; the Old Commonwealth was a time of change in Icelandic society, and disputes over power and religion made their mark on society and on the work of Alþingi. The Book of Icelanders (Íslendingabók), written in 1122-33, is one of the most important historical sources on the foundation of Alþingi.

Royal rule

Icelandic chieftains submitted to the authority of the Norwegian king in 1262 after nearly 20 years of civil war. Peace was established, and the royal authorities introduced a new system of government by the enactment of new law codes: Járnsída (Ironside) in 1271 and Jónsbók (Jón’s Book) in 1281. The legal codes were drawn up on the king’s initiative and accepted by Alþingi.

Alþingi continued to convene at Þingvellir, but in a new form Lögrétta now comprised 36 members, nominated by regional sheriffs, and the Law Speaker was replaced by two Law Men. Lögrétta became primarily a court of law, to which cases from the regions could be appealed. Its rulings in turn could be appealed to the king. One Law Man was appointed to the south, the other to the north, and hence Lögrétta as a law court was divided into two divisions, over which the two Law Men presided. Lögrétta could also enact legislation, but this was subject to royal consent. New royal legislation and decrees were generally submitted to Lögrétta before being introduced. The hearing of court cases became the central function of Alþingi, and over time it ceased to enact new law. From 1271 Alþingi convened on 29 June for three or four days, although occasionally longer. By the middle of the 17th century sessions might last up to two weeks.

After 1701 Alþingi was scheduled to commence on 8 July and sit for two weeks, or longer if necessary. Sessions of Alþingi at Þingvellir came to an end in 1798. In 1799 and 1800, Lögrétta alone convened at Hólavellir School in Reykjavík. Under a royal decree of 6 June, 1800 Alþingi was abolished, and superseded by a High Court. Comprising three men, the High Court assembled in Reykjavík. It was Iceland’s court of highest instance until the Supreme Court was established in 1920. Towards the end of the 14th century, when the kingdoms of Norway, Sweden and Denmark united to form the Kalmar Union, Iceland came to be ruled from Denmark. Royal authority was increased after the Reformation of the 16th century, and in the Danish realm the king gained absolute power. Absolutism was introduced in Iceland in 1662. This led to the abolition of certain ancient rights. The same laws and duties were meant to apply throughout the realm, but the Icelanders retained certain privileges. Public demand for influence on government increased throughout the course of the 19th century, as nationalist consciousness intensified. The response of the Danish king, an absolute monarch, was like that of many other absolute rulers: he summoned an estates-general, an assembly of the several classes in society. Such assemblies had functioned before the period of absolutism. Icelanders wanted their own assembly, and in due course the King consented to the foundation of an advisory assembly in Iceland. Alþingi was re-established by a royal decree of 8 March 1843, followed by the first election in 1844, and Alþingi convened for the first time on 1 July 1845. It comprised 26 Members: 20 were nationally elected, one from each electoral constituency (county), and six royal appointees. The right to vote and to stand for office was, following the Danish model, limited to males of substantial means and at least 25 years of age, which initially meant only about 5% of the population.

Source: Alþingi Administration