A new take on the oldest parliament | Letters

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Theresa May referred to the UK parliament as the ‘oldest of all’ but she was mistaken, writes John McKinnell. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

The world’s oldest parliament (or at any rate, the oldest European parliament) is neither that of the UK, as claimed by Theresa May (Report, 24 March) nor the Manx Tynwald, as Rosemary Bentley states in her letter of 29 March. It is the Icelandic Althingi, which was founded in 930 and for which we have an unbroken list of law-speakers (presiding officers) from that date onwards, with an exact number of years for which each of them held office. Until 1800, it met in the open air at Thingvellir (assembly fields), the same Old Norse word as Tynwald. The same name was also applied to local assemblies, and survives in place names such as Tingwall (Orkney), Thingwall (two examples, Cheshire and Liverpool), Tinwald (Dumfriesshire) and Dingwall (Easter Ross), besides several examples in Scandinavia.
John McKinnell
Emeritus professor of medieval literature, Durham University

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