The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

History: The collapse of the Commonwealth

During the twelfth century the relative equality of power and wealth amongst the goðar, which had formed the cornerstone of the Commonwealth's stability, gradually disappeared and by the beginning of the thirteenth century most of the power and wealth in Iceland was shared between six ruling families. A period of unprecedented feuding, murder and bloodshed followed as they struggled for ascendancy, each enlisting in turn the support of the King of Norway, whose plans to arrogate the country were well suited by the increasing anarchy. The traditional independence of the goðar's followers was crushed beneath their burgeoning power and freeholders were now harshly used, often being treated as personal vassals by their increasingly arrogant masters.

The Althing was powerless to prevent these developments, for it had been constituted in such a way that it possessed no centralised basis of power capable of subduing its increasingly lawIess members. By 1262, the situation had reached such a pitch that the majority of the population welcomed the intervention of the Norwegian king, who concluded an "Agreement of Union" with the (incomplete) Althing, by which the king undertook to maintain peace in the country, adhere to the existing Icelandic laws, and ensure that supply ships sailed regularly from Norway to Iceland. In return he was to receive the Icelanders' allegiance and the right to levy taxes on them. The "Agreement of Union" — and the bloodshed which preceded it — may be said to mark the beginning of the Dark Ages of Icelandic history, for if Iceland had enjoyed a period of relative enlightenment and democracy during Europe's Dark Ages, it was now to suffer five centuries of almost unrelieved misery due to natural disaster and foreign oppression.

Less than twenty years after the "Agreement of Union", a new code of law was introduced by the king and accepted, reluctantly, by the Althing. This led to the official abolition of the powers of the goðar, handing full control of the government of the country to the king. The Althing continued to meet, more or less regularly, until 1800, but its importance and power were much reduced and decreased further through time.

The vacuum left by the goðar's loss of power and the emasculation of the Althing was filled by the Church (by now controlled by Norwegian bishops) which amassed considerable wealth at the expense of the Icelandic landowners. In this the Church was largely abetted by the Norwegian monarchy, whose treatment of its new dominion became increasingly arbitrary. Up until the Reformation in the sixteenth century these bishops, usually foreign, wielded enormous power in lceland, in many cases taking over as old-style chieftains in all but name. In 1354, the King of Norway began the practise of leasing the country to the highest bidder, who was then appointed "Governor" for three years. Providing he paid his annual "rent" he was free to gather taxes by whatever means he wished. This led to a trade monopoly that was to have disastrous consequences for the Icelanders, who suffered considerable depredation, and outbreaks of violence by the starving population against their foreign oppressors were not uncommon.

What`s in the website ?


The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy