Vikings in the North Atlantic: 9th - 10th century AD

Rowing and sailing through the northern seas, in their superbly streamlined longships, the Norsemen settle in islands close to land which have been inhabited since neolithic times (such as the Orkneys and Shetlands) and in others further afield where their only predecessors - in the previous century or two - are Irish Christian hermits, searching for isolated discomfort.

Islands with only hermits to displace include the Faeroes and above all Iceland. From Iceland the Vikings venture even further west to perch on the edge of Greenland, where they are preceded only by the Eskimo.

The first family of Iceland: AD 874

In 874 Viking longships are beached on a promontory in the southwest of Iceland, where Reykjavik now stands. They have brought from the coast of Norway a chieftain, Ingólfur Arnarson, together with his family, dependents and livestock. Arnarson establishes a settlement, based on fishing and sheep farming.

Other similar groups soon follow, staking out territories round the coast of the island. Two centuries later the population of Iceland is already about 75,000 people - a level not exceeded until the 20th century. Meanwhile Norse colonists from Iceland have formed the first European settlements on the American continent, naming them Greenland and Vinland.

The Icelandic Commonwealth: AD 930

The state of Iceland, established on an empty island by disciplined family groups, each with its own clear leader, is like a clean slate on which to establish utopia. The settlers believe in the heroic legends of Norse mythology. Their personal values are those of Viking warriors. Their ideal political community is one in which devotion to a powerful leader is the central theme.

This is in practice the type of society which develops in the first century of Iceland's settlement. It evolves from the absolute authority, and the power to dispense justice, held by chieftains in an island large enough for each to control an extensive territory.

As more immigrants arrive, rivalry between chieftains is inevitable. It becomes necessary to establish some form of central authority. This emerges as a council of chieftains, a natural assembly in this particular community. It differs in nature from the thing and althing already familiar in Scandinavia, for those are consultative assemblies of all free men. But the more Oligarchic council of Iceland uses the same name.

The first althing meets near Reykjavik in930. Its convening is taken as the founding date of the Icelandic commonwealth, which survives for more than three centuries - until 1262.

Millennial conversion: AD 1000

In Iceland the entire population converts at the same moment to Christianity. This happens elsewhere, in several cases, on the whim of a ruler. But Iceland is unusual. The occasion is a resolution passed by an assembly.

Missionaries from Norway, working in Iceland from about 995, have succeeded in converting some of the chieftains, who bring their people into the Christian fold. Other chieftains, equally powerful, remain committed to pagan values.

Disagreement on such basic issues, in a community of fiercely independent tribal groups, brings a strong likelihood of civil war. The situation is defused by the althing. The chieftains in assembly pass a resolution which represents a complete victory for the Christian cause. It is presumably accepted only because it has been reached in this orderly manner.

The althing resolves that everyone in Iceland be baptized. The date of this event is uncertain. It may be 999. But it is equally possible that it occurs in the millennial year of1000.

A Christian commonwealth: AD 1000-1262

Christian Iceland has its first native bishop from 1056. From 1106 the island is divided between two episcopal sees. The small commonwealth is independent, at ease with itself and relatively prosperous from fishing and sheep farming.

But church and state in Norway are eager to win control over this distant Viking outpost. When Norway acquires an archbishop (of Trondheim, in 1152), the two Icelandic sees are placed within his province. From 1238 Norwegians are appointed to both the bishoprics in Iceland. They support the policies of a Norwegian king, Haakon IV, who has strong territorial ambitions.

Norwegian and Danish fief: 13th - 20th century AD

The interference in Icelandic affairs by the Norwegian king Haakon IV leads to bitter internal strife in the island. The upshot is that by 1262 Haakon is able to impose his rule, bringing to an end the Commonwealth.

Iceland becomes a personal fief of the king of Norway. With the union of the crowns of Norway and Denmark (in the person of the young Olaf iv in 1380), Iceland passes to Denmark, the stronger of the two kingdoms, and with it becomes Lutheran in the 16th century. Under distant monarchs, the once proud and independent Commonwealth endures centuries of decline during which it is either neglected or exploited as a provincial outpost.

Greenland, Iceland's own proud colony, suffers an even worse fate. Here too the settlers become Christian in about 1000, with their own bishop from 1126. Here too they form themselves into a Commonwealth. Like Iceland, they finally succumb to Haakon IV of Norway (though a year earlier, in 1261).

But the interests of Greenland are so neglected that the colonists gradually abandon the struggle and migrate to Scandinavia. The last ship returns to Norway in 1410. If any Europeans remain behind, their families have died out by the time a Norwegian missionary, Hans Egede, arrives in 1721 to convert the Eskimos.

This History is as yet incomplete.