The Icelandic Commonwealth, Icelandic Free State, or Republic of Iceland (Icelandic: þjóðveldið or, less commonly, Icelandic: goðaveldið) was the state existing in Iceland between the establishment of the Althing in 930 and the pledge of fealty to the Norwegian king with the Old Covenant in 1262. With the possible exception of Papar, Iceland was an uninhabited island until around 870, when immigrants fleeing from the unification of Norway under King Harald Fairhair began the Norse settlement in Iceland.
The medieval Icelandic state had a unique judicial structure based on the principle of consensus. The initial settlers of Iceland were greatly influenced by their Norwegian roots when creating their own form of government. They wanted to avoid the strong centralized authority of Harald Fairhair from which they had fled, but they also wanted to replicate the Norwegian tradition of laws and district legal assemblies (Þing). This created a uniquely democratic structure about which historians continue to speculate today.
The most powerful and elite leaders in Iceland were the chieftains (sing. goði, pl. goðar). The goðar were not elected to their positions, but rather owned their title. The position was most commonly inherited, but it could also be bought or sold. The office of the goði was called the goðorð. The goðorð was not delimited by strict geographical boundaries. Thus a free man could choose to support any of the goðar of his district. The supporters of the goðar were called Þingmenn ("assembly people"). In exchange for the goði protecting his interests, the Þingmann would provide armed support to his goði during feuds or conflicts. The Þingmenn were also required to attend regional and national assemblies.
On a regional level, the goðar of the thirteen district assemblies convened meetings every spring to settle local disputes. The goðar also served as the leaders of the Althing (Alþingi), the national assembly of Iceland. Today, the Althing is the oldest parliamentary institution still in existence. It began with the regional assembly at Kjalarness established by Þorsteinn Ingólfsson, son of the first settler. The leaders of the Kjalarnessþing appointed a man named Úlfljótr to study the laws in Norway. He spent three years in Norway and returned with the foundation of Úlfljótr’s Law, which would form the basis for Iceland's national assembly. Sections of his law code are preserved in the Landnámabók, ("Book of Settlements"). The first Althing assembly convened around the year 930 at Þingvellir, ("Assembly Plains"). The Althing served as a public gathering at which people from all over the country met for two weeks every June. The Althing revolved around the Lögrétta, the legislative council of the assembly, which was responsible for reviewing and amending the nation's laws. The Lögrétta comprised the 39 goðar and their advisors. They also appointed a Lawspeaker (lögsögumaður) once every three years. The Lawspeaker recited and clarified laws at Lögberg ("Law Rock"), located at the center of Þingvellir. The descendants of Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, held the ceremonial position of allsherjargoði and had the role of sanctifying the Althing each year.
Iceland was divided into four administrative regions called fjörðungar (farthings). Each of these was ruled by nine goðar. The Althing was made up of the four Quarter Courts (fjórðungsdómur). This judicial body of Iceland consisted of 36 judges, each appointed by one of the goðar. These courts tried individual cases and served as a higher judicial authority to the regional courts. The rulings of the quarter judges had to be virtually unanimous. If only six of the judges disagreed, then the case was deadlocked and dismissed. In 1005, this problem was solved by the creation of a Fifth Court, an appeals court based on a simple majority. Once a court decided a party was guilty, however, it had no executive authority to carry out a sentence. Instead, enforcement of a verdict became the responsibility of the injured party or his family. Penalties often included financial compensation or outlawry. However, these were considered by some to be insufficient penalties and the Althing was only moderately successful at stopping feuds. According to Magnus Magnusson, the courts were "an uneasy substitute for vengeance.”
On the other hand, historian Birgir Solvason states that Icelandic society was "more peaceful and cooperative than its contemporaries"; in England and Norway, by contrast, "the period from about 800 to 1200 is a period of continuous struggle; high in both violence and killings." At the Conversion of Iceland in 1000, the Althing outlawed public celebration of pagan rituals and decreed that in order to prevent an invasion, all Icelanders must be baptized. Roderick Long writes: "Byock contrasts the prolonged and violent civil strife which attended Christianization in Norway with its relatively swift and peaceful Icelandic analogue. Icelanders treated the conflict between pagans and Christians as a feud, to be resolved like any other feud – by arbitration. The arbitrator decided in favor of Christianity, and that was that." In 1117 the law code of the Icelandic Commonwealth was put into writing, becoming known as the Gray Goose Laws.
Knowledge of the system of government in medieval Iceland stems mainly from two main primary sources: the written law code, and Íslendingabók, or the Book of the Icelanders by Ari the Learned. The impact of the legislative and judicial systems on Icelandic settlers is a common theme in many of the other Icelandic sagas. Works such as Njáls saga and the Laxdæla saga give many details, but their accuracy has been disputed. Eyrbyggja saga details the transition from paganism to Christianity within Icelandic settlement under the direction of Snorri Goði, or "Snorri the Priest." The emphasis on justice and the conviction in their system of governance is reflected within the saga: "They say we shall suffer setbacks in court; we must plead for support from powerful chieftains: but Arnkel will argue an eloquent case, he will sway judge and jury - I have faith in justice."
The followers of the goðar owed them military service. They were organized into platoons or companies based on their social status and equipment, and these formed expeditionary armies or leiðangrs. Icelandic military tradition of the time closely followed developments in Norway. No organized cavalry formations or formations of troops equipped with projectile weapons are recorded: instead the bulk of the forces were formed in units of light, medium and heavy infantry, with bowmen or slingers distributed among the infantry units operating as light support skirmishers. Before the end of the Commonwealth at least 21 fortresses and castles had been built in Iceland. During the Age of the Sturlungs the average battle involved fewer than 1000 men, with an average casualty rate of only 15%. This low casualty rate has been attributed to the blood-feud mentality that permeated Icelandic society, which meant that the defeated army could not be slaughtered honourably to a man. – Birgir Loftsson op.cit.
In the early 13th century, the Sturlung era, the Commonwealth began to suffer from chaos and division resulting from internal disputes. Originally, the goðar functioned more as a contractual relationship than a fixed geographic chieftaincy. However by 1220 this form of communal leadership was replaced by dominant regional individuals who battled with one another for more control. The King of Norway began to exert pressure on his Icelandic vassals to bring the country under his rule. A combination of discontent with domestic hostilities and pressure from the King of Norway led the Icelandic chieftains to accept Norway's Haakon IV as king by the signing of the Gamli sáttmáli ("Old Covenant") in 1262. This effectively brought the Icelandic Commonwealth to an end.