Iceland's Independence Day - June 17

By Rannveig (rannveig) on June 20, 2010

June 17, we celebrate our independence day here in Iceland. On this date in 1944, Iceland became a republic and severed all ties with its former ruler, the King of Denmark. It was the end of a very peaceful independence battle, quite possibly the most peaceful in world history; an independence battle fought with pens instead of swords.

But how did we lose our independence in the first place?  Iceland was settled mainly by people from Norway fleeing from the oppressive rule of King Harald Fairhair.  They came here in hopes of freedom and a better life.  And for the first two or three centuries they were free.  Well, some of them were at least.  Many settlers made a stopover in Ireland and picked up a few slaves on the way.  They were certainly not free.

2010-06-20/rannveig/8aa25dThe first Norse settlers are believed to have arrived here around 870.  The Althing, the world’s first parliament was founded in 930, which marked the birth of the Icelandic commonwealth.  The country was divided into clans, governed by chieftains called goðar, but there was no central figure of authority.  The chieftains assembled on Althing in Thingvellir, where they decided on legislation, settled disputes and delivered judgment.  A system that worked in the beginning, but by the 13th century, the disputes between chieftains were mostly settled in battles.  The age of the Sturlungar (the most prominent clan) was a time of great civil strife and unrest, which ended with the chieftains signing a treaty with the king of Norway in 1262.  And so Iceland lost its independence. 

With the treaty came a guarantee of peace.  However, when Norway was unified with Denmark and Sweden under the Kalmar Union in 1380, Iceland passed under the Danish crown and everything went downhill from there.  Denmark didn’t have any use for the fish and homespun wool Iceland had exported and in the course of the next few centuries, it became the poorest country in Europe.  Plagues, volcanic eruptions, and an unforgiving climate all made huge cuts in the population.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, harsh trading restrictions imposed by Denmark brought even further hardships to the Icelandic people.  It’s safe to say that the dark ages lasted well into the 19th century.

In 1814 when the Norway-Denmark union broke up, Iceland remained under Danish rule.  Around the middle of the 19th century, a few Danish-educated intellectuals, with Jón Sigurðsson as the center force, started the independence movement.  They fought their battles with pens and paper, writing articles and letters in favor of Iceland’s independence.  In 1874, Iceland was granted its own constitution and in 1918 full independence.  It remained in a personal union with the King of Denmark until 1944.  On June 17, the birth date of our independence hero, Jón Sigurðsson, parliament assembled on Þingvellir (Thingvellir) and elected to sever all connections between the two countries.  Some have pointed out that it might have been a bit rude to take this step while Denmark was under Nazi rule and in fact powerless to object in any way.  But then again, being the great opportunists that we are, we never let a good opportunity go to waste.


Following are a few photos from the festivities in Hafnarfjörður last Thursday:

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Related articles:
History, Iceland, Independence

About Rannveig
Born and raised in Iceland, I found a deeper appreciation for my country after spending 6 years of my teens in the US (Florida). I've been a garden enthusiast since my childhood and love the challenges of gardening in Iceland ..... well, most of the time. I have to admit that slighly longer, warmer summers would not be a bad thing.

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