History of Althingi
The Althingi is both the oldest and greatest national institution. Its establishment, as an outdoor assembly held on the plains of Thingvellir from about the year 930 AD, laid the foundation for an independent national existence in Iceland.
To begin with, the Althingi was a general assembly of the nation, where the country's most powerful leaders, called goðar, met to decide on legislation and dispense justice. As all free men could attend, the assemblies were usually the main social event of the year and drew large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travellers.

Those attending the assembly dwelt in temporary camps known as búðir during the session. Within the bounds of the Althingi everyone was entitled to sanctuary.

The centre of the gathering was the Lögberg, or Law Rock, a rocky outcrop on which the Lawspeaker (lögsögumaður) took his seat as the presiding official of the assembly. His responsibility included reciting aloud the laws in effect at the time, one third of the entire corpus each year. He was to proclaim the procedural law of the Althingi to those attending the assembly each year.

Public addresses on matters of importance were delivered at the Law Rock and there the assembly was called to order and dissolved. The Lögrétta, the legislative section of the assembly, was its most powerful institution. It was comprised of the 39 district goðar plus nine additional members and the Lawspeaker.

As the legislative section of the Althingi, the Lögrétta took a stand on legal conflicts, adopted new laws and granted exemptions to existing laws.

The Althingi of old also performed a judicial function and heard legal disputes in addition to the spring assemblies held in each district. After the country had been divided into four quarters around 965 AD, a fjórðungsdómur, or quarter court, of 36 judges was established for each of them at the Althingi. A fifth court (fimmtardómur) was established early in the 11th century. It served as a supreme court of sorts, and assumed the function of hearing cases left unsettled by the other courts. It was comprised of 48 judges appointed by the goðar of Lögrétta.

The tenth century Althingi convened on Thursday of the tenth week of summer, according to the ancient calendar, or about the middle of June. Thereafter the assembly met a week later, with sessions lasting two weeks until about 1271.

When the Icelanders submitted to the authority of the Norwegian king by the terms of the "Old Covenant" (Gamli sáttmáli) in 1262-1264, the function of the Althingi changed. The organisation of the commonwealth came to an end and the rule of the country by the goðar disappeared. Executive power now rested with the king and his officials, the Royal Commissioners (hirðstjórar) and District Commissioners (sýslumenn). As before, the Lögrétta, now comprised of 36 Members, continued to be its principal institution and shared formal legislative power with the king. Laws adopted by the Lögrétta had to receive royal assent and, conversely, if the king initiated legislation, the Althingi had to give its consent. The Lawspeaker was replaced by two legal administrators, called lögmenn.
As a result of these changes Lögrétta acquired a judicial function as well, while the former courts were abolished. The hearing of court cases became the central function of the Althingi. After 1593 judgments by Lögrétta could be appealed to the Court Superior (yfirdómur) of the Althingi or to the king.

Towards the end of the 14th century royal succession brought both Norway and Iceland under the control of the Danish monarchy. With the introduction of absolute monarchy in Denmark, recognised by the Icelanders at a special assembly held in Kópavogur in 1662, the Icelanders relinquished to the crown the meagre remains of their autonomy, including the right to initiate and consent to legislation. After that the Althingi served almost exclusively as a court until the year 1800.

From 1271 onwards the Althingi convened on June 29 and generally lasted from three to four days, although occasionally longer. By the middle of the 17th century meetings could last up to two weeks. After 1701 the Althingi was scheduled to commence on July 8 and to sit for a fortnight, or even as long as three weeks.

Meetings at the Thingvellir site by the river Öxará ceased in 1798. In 1799 and 1800, the assembly met in a school building, Hólavallarskóli, in Reykjavík. A royal decree issued June 6, 1800 declared that the Althingi should be abolished.

The period from 1800-1845
The functions of the Althingi were taken over by a High Court established by this same royal decree. Located in Reykjavík, it took over the functions of Lögrétta. The three appointed judges first convened in Hólavallarskóli on August 10, 1801. The High Court was to hold regular sessions and function as the court of highest instance in the country. It operated until 1920, when the Supreme Court of Iceland was established.

A royal decree providing for the establishment of a new Althingi was issued on March 8, 1843. Elections were held the following year and the assembly finally met on July 1, 1845. It was comprised of 26 Members sitting in a single chamber. One Member was elected in each of 20 electoral districts and six "royally nominated Members" were appointed by the king. Suffrage was, following the Danish model, limited to males of substantial means and at least 25 years of age, which to begin with meant only about 5% of the population. The Althingi was to meet in the Latin School in Reykjavík (now the Reykjavík Grammar School) every other year on July 1. A regular session lasted four weeks and could be extended if necessary.
During this period, the Althingi acted merely as a consultative body for the crown. It examined proposed legislation and individual Members could raise questions for discussion. Draft legislation submitted by the government was given two readings, an introductory one and a final one. Proposals which were adopted were called petitions.

Instead of the regular Althingi session of 1851, a national assembly was held with the main assignment of discussing the form of government for Iceland.

The new Althingi managed to effect a number of improvements to legislation and the administration of the country. In Jón Sigurdsson, a Copenhagen-based intellectual representing the Ísafjördur district, the assembly during its first three decades had a strong leader who served as its president for much of the period.


The Constitution of 1874 granted to the Althingi joint legislative power with the crown in matters of exclusive Icelandic concern. At the same time the National Treasury acquired powers of taxation and financial allocation. The king retained the right to block legislation and often refused to consent to legislation adopted by the Althingi.
The number of Members of the Althingi was increased to 36, 30 of them elected in general elections in eight single-Member constituencies and 11 double-Member constituencies, the other six appointed by the crown as before. No alternates were elected. The Althingi was now divided into an upper and a lower chamber. Six elected Members and the six appointed ones sat in the upper chamber, which meant that the latter could prevent legislation from being passed by acting as a block. 24 elected representatives sat in the lower chamber. Sessions involving both chambers were referred to as sessions of the United Althingi.

From 1874 until 1915 ad hoc committees were appointed. After 1915 seven standing committees were elected by each of the chambers.

Regular sessions of the Althingi convened every other year. A supplementary session was first held in 1886, and these became more frequent after the turn of this century. Althingi met from 1881 in the newly erected Parliament House.

Althingi convened on the first working day of July and sat at first for six, then eight weeks from 1903 onwards. The Governor-General (landshöfðingi) was the highest representative of the government in Iceland and was responsible to the Advisor for Iceland (Íslandsráðgjafi) in Copenhagen. It was he who convened the Althingi and attended the assembly ex officio, serving as its liaison with the government in Copenhagen.

Text from Alþingi's website

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