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Þjóðveldið Ísland
Icelandic Commonwealth


Coat of arms

Capital Þingvellir
Language(s) Old Icelandic
Political structure Federation
Important chieftains (goðar)
 - 1199-1238 Sturla Sighvatsson
 - 1208-1245 Kolbeinn ungi Arnórsson
 - ????-1256 Þórður kakali Sighvatsson
 - 1208-1268 Gissur Þorvaldsson
 - 1214-1284 Sturla Þórðarson
 - 985-1001 Þorgeirr Ljósvetningagoði
 - 1004-1030 Skapti Þóroddsson
 - 1215-1218/1222-1231 Snorri Sturluson
 - 1248-1250/1252 Óláfr Þórðarson
 - 1251 Sturla Þórðarson
Legislature Lögrétta of Alþingi
Historical era High Middle Ages
 - Alþingi established 930
 - Norwegian kingship 1262
 - 950 103,000 km2 (39,769 sq mi)
 - 950 est. 50,000 
     Density 0.5 /km2  (1.3 /sq mi)

The Icelandic Commonwealth or the Icelandic Free State (Icelandic: Þjóðveldið) was the state existing in Iceland between the establishment of the Althing in 930 and the pledge of fealty to the Norwegian king in 1262. It was initially established by a public consisting largely of recent immigrants from Norway who had fled the unification of that country under King Harald Fairhair.


Goðorð system

Note: the Icelandic ð represents the voiced dental fricative, English 'th' as in the word there.

The medieval Icelandic state had an unusual structure. At the national level, the Althing was both court and legislature; there was no king or other central executive power. Iceland was divided into numerous goðorð (plural same as singular), which were essentially clans or alliances run by chieftains called goðar (singular goði). The chieftains provided for defense and appointed judges to resolve disputes between goðorð members. The goðorð were not strictly geographical districts. Instead, membership in a goðorð was an individual's decision, and one could, at least theoretically, change goðorð at will. However, no group of lesser men could elect or declare someone a goði. The position was the property of the goði; and could be bought, sold, borrowed, and inherited.

Court system

If a person wanted to appeal a decision made by his goðorð court or if a dispute arose between members of different goðorð, the case would be referred to a system of higher-level courts, leading up to the four regional courts which made up the Althing, which consisted of the goðar of the Four Quarters of Iceland. The Althing eventually created a national "fifth court", as the highest court of all, and more goðar to be its members.

The Althing was only moderately successful at stopping feuds; Magnus Magnusson calls it "an uneasy substitute for vengeance". Nevertheless, it could act very sweepingly. At the Conversion of Iceland in 1000, the Althing decreed in order to prevent an invasion, that all Icelanders must be baptized, and forbade the public celebration of pagan rituals. Private celebration was forbidden a few years later.

In 1117 the laws were put into writing, and this written code was later referred to as the Gray Goose Laws.

Life within the system

The actual operation of this system is a common subject matter in some of the Icelandic sagas. Works like Njáll’s Saga and the Laxdaela Saga give many details, but their accuracy has been disputed. These and other sagas are available in modern English translations. Njáll’s Saga includes the Christianisation of Iceland within the framework of the story.


The followers of the goðar owed them military service. They were organized into platoons or companies based on their social status and equipment, which formed expeditionary armies or leiðangrs. Icelandic military tradition of the time followed closely developments in Norway. No organized cavalry formations or formations of troops equipped with projectile weapons are recorded: instead the bulk of the forces were formed in units of light, medium and heavy infantry, with bowmen or rock throwers distributed among the infantry units operating as light support skirmishers.

Before the end of the Commonwealth at least 21 fortresses and castles had been built in Iceland.[1]

During the Civil War the average battle consisted of fewer than 1000 men with the average casualty rate of only 15%. This low casualty rate has been attributed to the blood-feud mentality that permeated Icelandic society which meant that the defeated army could not be slaughtered honourably to a man. -- Birgir Loftsson op.cit.

Iceland currently has no standing army; and at this point in time was a unified commonwealth. Eventually, the Icelandic Civil War ended the commonwealth.

Decline and fall

In the early 13th century, the Sturlung era, the Commonwealth began to suffer from serious internal strife. The King of Norway began to exert pressure on his Icelandic vassals that they bring the country under his rule. A combination of discontent with domestic hostilities and pressure from the King of Norway led the Icelandic chieftains to accept Norway's Haakon IV as king by the signing of the Gamli sáttmáli ("Old Covenant") in 1262. This effectively brought the Commonwealth to an end.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Birgir Loftsson (2006), Hernaðarsaga Íslands : 1170-1581, Pjaxi. Reykjavík; pg. 76

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