With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste. Njál’s Saga
By the beginning of the tenth century, Iceland’s 36 regional chieftains recognized the need for some form of national government. Rejecting the idea of a paramount ruler, Norwegian law was adapted and the first Alþing, or General Assembly, was held in the rift valley north of Þingvallavatn in 930 AD, at a place which became known as Þingvellir, the Assembly Plains. Though the Alþing’s power declined through the ages, Þingvellir remained the seat of Iceland’s government for the next eight centuries.
The Alþing was held for two weeks every summer, and attendance for chieftains was mandatory. In fact, almost everyone who could attend did so, setting up their tented camps – buðs – and coming to watch the courts in action or settle disputes, pick up on gossip, trade, compete at sports and generally socialize. The whole event was coordinated by the lawspeaker, while the laws themselves were legislated by the Law Council, and dispensed at four regional courts, along with a fifth supreme court. Strangely, however, none of these authorities had the power to enforce their verdicts, beyond bringing pressure to bear through public opinion. The adoption of Christianity as Iceland’s official religion in 1000 AD was one of the Alþing’s major successes, but if litigants refused to accept a court’s decision, they had to seek satisfaction privately. Njál’s Saga contains a vivid account of one such event, when a battle between two feuding clans and their allies broke out at the Alþing itself around 1011 AD; while Hrafnkel’s Saga shows how people manipulated processes at the Alþing and could, if they wanted, ignore court verdicts.
This lack of real authority undermined the Alþing, creating a power vacuum in Iceland that ultimately saw Norway and then Denmark assume control of the country. By the late thirteenth century the Alþing was losing its importance, with the lawspeaker’s position abolished and the courts stripped of all legislative power. Eventually, while still meeting for a few days every year, the Alþing became a minor affair, and the last assembly was held at Þingvellir in 1798, replaced by a national court and parliament at Reykjavík.
During the mid-nineteenth century Þingvellir became the focus of the nationalist movement, with large crowds witnessing various independence debates here – the Danish king even attended Iceland’s millennial celebrations at Þingvellir in 1874. The site remained a symbol of national identity through the twentieth century, peaking when half the country turned up at Þingvellir to hear the declaration of independence from Denmark and the formation of the Icelandic Republic on June 17, 1944.