Capital punishment in Iceland

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Capital punishment in Iceland was practiced until 1830.[1] Although many were sentenced to death after 1830, their sentences were each commuted. Capital punishment was formally abolished in 1928.[2]

The medieval Icelandic Commonwealth (930–1262), having no central executive powers, did not apply capital punishment. It was, however, possible for the Althing to declare a man réttdræpur (English: "rightfully killable"). This made the killing of the person in question legal—although the executive power was invested in whosoever cared to pursue it, instead of being the duty of state officials.


From 1550 to 1830, approximately 240 individuals were executed in Iceland.[3] Execution methods included beheading, hanging, burning at the stake and drowning. Whereas men were more commonly beheaded or hanged, women were instead lowered into the river directly next to the Law Rock itself with ropes, to either freeze to death or drown.

According to archeologist Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir, women were drowned when found guilty of infanticide, incestuous couples were beheaded, murderers were beheaded, thieves were hung and individuals found guilty of witchcraft were burned at the stake.[3] Executed individuals lost the right to burial in church cemeteries.[3] Most of those who were executed were vagrants, poor farm hands or women who were alleged to have violated morality codes.[4]

Later, when Iceland fell under the Danish Crown, Danish laws applied, more or less. The frequency of capital punishment increased considerably with the adoption of Lutheranism in the 17th century, but gradually disappeared by the mid-19th century.

Last execution[edit]

The last application of capital punishment in Iceland took place on January 12, 1830, in Vatnsdalshólar in Húnavatnssýsla. The convicts were Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a farmhand, and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmer's son from Katadalur. Their crime was the murder of two men on March 14, 1828: Natan Ketilsson, a farmer of Illugastaðir, and Pétur Jónsson of the "Geitaskarð" farm. They were executed by beheading.

This case was the basis for a 1995 Icelandic film Agnes by Egill Eðvarðsson and novel, Burial Rites by Australian writer Hannah Kent (May 2013).[5]

The last capital punishment sentence took place in 1913, but the sentence was later changed to a prison sentence.[6]


Four years later, the last execution of an Icelander was carried out in Denmark. After 1830, dozens of Icelanders were found guilty of a crime punishable by death. Most of the cases were infanticides, where women who were unable to care for their newly-born illegitimate children would kill them. However, they were all granted a clemency by the King of Denmark. In 1869, a new law took effect in Iceland, harmonizing Icelandic and Danish law—this law abolished the death penalty for lesser offenses. In 1928 the death penalty was abolished entirely, and has not since had a place in Icelandic law.

Since the 1995 revision of the constitution, the reintroduction of capital punishment is unconstitutional.


  1. ^ "Hvenær var síðasta aftakan á Íslandi?". Vísindavefurinn (in Icelandic). Retrieved 2018-04-22.
  2. ^ "Hvar er dauðarefsing leyfð? Hvers vegna er henni beitt? Fækkar hún glæpum?". Vísindavefurinn (in Icelandic). Retrieved 2018-04-22.
  3. ^ a b c "240 aftökur á Íslandi á um 200 árum". RÚV (in Icelandic). 2018-10-13. Retrieved 2018-10-15.
  4. ^ "Cleaning Up The Countryside By Killing Vagrants: Iceland's History Of Executions". The Reykjavik Grapevine. 2019-10-11. Retrieved 2019-10-14.
  5. ^ [1] Trade review.
  6. ^ "Deyjandi (ó)siður". Kjarninn (in Icelandic). 2016-11-06. Retrieved 2018-04-22.