Many of Iceland’s first settlers had run-ins with royalty back in mainland Scandinavia. These chancers and outlaws decided that they could live happily without kings in the new country, and instead created district þings (assemblies) where justice could be served by and among local goðar (chieftains).
Eventually, a nationwide þing became necessary. Bláskógur – now Þingvellir (Parliament Fields) – lay at a crossroads by a huge fish-filled lake. It had plenty of firewood and a setting that would make even the most tedious orator dramatic, so it fitted the bill perfectly. Every important decision affecting Iceland was argued out on this plain – new laws were passed, marriage contracts were made, and even the country’s religion was decided here. The annual parliament was also a great social occasion, thronging with traders and entertainers.
Over the following centuries, escalating violence between Iceland’s most powerful groups led to the breakdown of law and order. Governance was surrendered to the Norwegian crown and the Alþingi was stripped of its legislative powers in 1271. It functioned solely as a courtroom until 1798, before being dissolved entirely. When it regained its powers in 1843, members voted to move the meeting place to Reykjavík.