Earlier this year the Law Library of Congress published a report on parliaments around the world. Kelly highlighted this report in a blog post that included some amazing pictures of parliamentary buildings. This inspired me to write about the oldest parliament in Northern Europe, which met at Thingvellir, Iceland. I was lucky enough to visit the area last year. Kurt also previously visited Thingvellir (during a warmer season!), and some of his photographs are included below.
Parliamentary meetings were held in the Thingvellir area starting in 930 A.D., during the time of the Vikings, with the last meeting held in 1798. The area became a national park on May 7, 1928, and is one of the few parliament sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Thingvellir means “parliament plains” in English. It is the place where representatives from all over Iceland met annually during summertime in an assembly similar to that of a modern parliament, except that it was held outside. The representatives adjudicated laws and settled disputes. Historical documents explain the role of the legislative speaker of Parliament (called the Law Speaker) and the procedures under which attendees were allowed to speak.
The area that makes up Thingvellir is defined by naturally occurring boundaries, such as a lava rock formation to the west and Þingvallavattn (Lake Thingvallavatn) to the south. The landscape has changed somewhat since the early days of the Thingvellir assemblies, but the large lava rock formation, known as Almannagjá, is thought to have been there for 10,000 years.
In the early years (between the 10th and 13th centuries) the most important formation at Thingvellir was Lögberg (Law Rock). The Law Speaker (Lögsögumaður) and anyone wishing to address the Parliament would stand on this rock and speak to the assembly below. Discussions of proposed legislation would take place in a limited assembly, the Law Council (Lögrétta), composed of local leaders (chieftains) and later also bishops, that also adopted the laws. The Law Council also chose the Law Speaker, a paid citizen who served for three years at a time and was tasked with memorizing and reciting the laws of Iceland over this period.
It was also here, at Law Rock, that the Icelanders decided to adopt Christianity and swore allegiance to the Norwegian king. Unlike the other Scandinavian countries, Iceland – until it became part of Norway in 1262 – did not have its own king or queen. In fact it was because of struggles among the local leaders of Iceland that Iceland came under Norwegian rule. The Icelandic parliament gave up its sovereignty to the Norwegians by the members swearing allegiance to the Norwegian king Haakon and by signing the Gamli Sáttmáli (Old Covenant). Later, as part of the Danish conquests of Norway in 1380, Iceland formally came to be under Danish rein, a status that lasted until the 1940s.
During Norwegian and then Danish rule the position of the Law Speaker was abolished but members of the Law Council continued to meet at Thingvellir annually to decide laws and adjudicate cases. Its role might be described as similar to the historical role of the British House of Lords, which included judicial functions.
Although the precise location of the Law Rock is not known, it is believed to be the flattened surface of the Hallurin hill. A flagpole marks the spot today.
As noted above, in addition to legislative matters, adjudicative matters were also dealt with at Thingvellir. During the period between the 10th and 13th centuries there were five courts in total, one for each region of Iceland (Quarter Courts) and one Supreme Court (fimmtardómur), which adjudicated cases that were not properly resolved in the regional courts.
Over time the parliamentary meetings at Thingvellir became less influential, and the meeting in the summer of 1798 became the last at Thingvellir. In 1800, the Danish king formally abolished the Parliament. A new Parliament was created in 1845 and today meets in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.
Although a parliament has never met at Thingvellir again, the importance of the area continues to be celebrated. It was here that the Danish king presented Iceland with its first constitution in 1874, marking a millennia of the colonization of Iceland. Also, in 1944 when, after years of independence campaigns, Iceland declared its independence from Denmark, the papers were signed at Thingvellir due to the symbolism of the area.
Tomorrow, May 7, is the anniversary of the Thingvellir area becoming a national park. On that date in 1928 the Icelandic Parliament (acting under the Home Rules of 1904, which gave it autonomy over domestic affairs) passed a law – the Thingvellir Conservation Act – that turned the site of the original parliament into a national park. The park was described as “a protected national shrine, designated for all Icelanders, for eternal ownership by the Icelandic nation under the protection of the Icelandic Parliament, which can never be sold or impawned.”
Further legislation was adopted in 2004 expanding the boundaries of the park. This occurred in the context of Iceland’s UNESCO World Heritage Site application, which was accepted and approved the same year acknowledging the uniqueness of Thingvellir.
In accordance with the 2004 Act, the national park is managed by the Thingvellir Commission, which reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.
There’s more to learn!
Hopefully I have piqued your interest in both the beauty of Iceland and the Library of Congress collections related to Iceland. If you are wondering where to start, perhaps try one of the most famous Icelandic texts, Heimskringla, which was written in the 13th century by Snorre Sturlason (a man who was Law Speaker of the Icelandic Parliament twice). The text has been translated into English: Heimskringla, Or the Lives of the Norse Kings (1990).