Not granted, but won with blood
What happened after the 17th of May and the signing of the Norwegian constitution
Perhaps because the celebration of Norway’s Constitution Day on the 17th of May is now associated with peaceful children’s parades, ice cream and hot dogs, and the happy waving of Norwegian flags, we tend to pay little attention to what happened immediately following the signing of Norway’s constitution. What happened was war; a short but bloody war between Sweden and Norway, the Swedish-Norwegian War of 1814.
Sweden’s Crown Prince Karl Johan (Sweden’s effective ruler at the time) viewed the signing of the constitution as a rebellion against the legitimate authority of Sweden. The Treaty of Kiel, signed by all the “Great Powers” of Europe in January of 1814, had granted control of Norway to Sweden in recompense for the loss of Finland and in recognition of Sweden’s role in the defeat of Napoleon.
Not only had Norway created its own constitution, it had had the further audacity to elect Crown Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark the King of Norway. A frustrated and angry Sweden attacked southeastern Norway on July 26, 1814. At the time Sweden had an experienced and well-trained army of around 45,000 soldiers ready for battle. Norway, in contrast, could only hope to muster some 30,000 largely untrained and inexperienced men to its defense. The war began in the last days of July with a naval attack on the Hvaler Islands, which lie in the extreme southeastern part of Norway. Here Sweden’s strong navy overwhelmed Norway’s small fleet of little gunboats. Next the Swedish army swept into Frederikstad and it soon took the town along with its imposing fortress.
To the north at a place called Lier, between Eidskog and Kongsvinger, things did not go so well for the Swedes. Here, on August 4, 1814, five battalions of Swedish soldiers came up against the fortified positions of three battalions of Norwegian infantry and a contingent of cavalry. Using their light artillery to good effect, the Norwegians knocked back several Swedish frontal attacks and eventually drove the Swedes into a full retreat. Joining the rest of the Swedish army at Matrand near the Swedish border, the retreating Swedes stopped to care for the wounded and rest. On August 5 the Norwegians were in fast pursuit under the command of Lt. Colonel Andreas Samuel Krebs, who had been the successful commander at Lier. Again, the Norwegians took control of the situation and attacked under heavy fire. Through a variety of clever maneuvers they managed to encircle the Swedish army and block the escape of many of the Swedish soldiers. In the end the Swedes were able to launch a bayonet charge through the Norwegian lines and make their way back to Sweden, but they left behind 70 dead and 270 prisoners of war.
The next large engagement between the Norwegians and Swedes was at Langnes on August 9 along the River Glomma to the northwest of Askim, a town near the Swedish border. Here, the Norwegians had built a pontoon bridge to allow their troops to safely cross the Glomma River to escape a pursuing Swedish army. Colonel Diderich Hegermann, the Norwegian commander, had about 2,000 men and several artillery field artillery units at his disposal and he entrenched these forces on the high ground above the bridgehead. His first move was to launch a surprise attack against the advancing Swedish troops before dawn broke. The Swedish troops, numbering around 3,000 men, retreated for a time to regroup. They then attacked the Norwegians across open farm fields in the midst of a heavy rainstorm that slowed their advance by turning the ground muddy. As they approached the Norwegian lines, Hegermann’s artillery opened up with deadly canister shot and mowed down entire ranks of the slowly advancing columns of Swedish soldiers. Again, the Swedes retreated to consider their next move.
For the final attack, the Swedish army assumed a more open skirmish-style formation and temporarily won over the Norwegian artillery positions. Hegermann then called for a fierce counterattack, which drove the Swedes out of the Norwegian lines. In the end the Norwegian casualties were remarkably light but the Swedish had lost around 100 men in the repeated attacks. The Swedes then retreated to the south after having lost the initiative against the Norwegians. This was the last major conflict of the Swedish-Norwegian War of 1814.
The Norwegian victories at Lier, Matrand, and Langnes proved to be of great importance to Norway’s negotiating position with the Swedish government. Sweden realized the conquest of Norway would not be easy and would require the expenditure of a large amount of both men and money. Despite its striking victories, Norway in turn recognized that it could not long sustain a fight against the larger, better-supplied, and trained Swedish army. By August 9 Norway had begun to run out of the ammunition and other resources necessary to pursue the war.
Eager for an end to the hostilities, both Sweden and Norway sat down on August 10 to begin talks to end their mutual conflict. By August 14 an agreement, named the Convention of Moss, was signed by both parties. Under the terms of the agreement, King Christian Frederick of Norway would step down as the ruler of Norway and the Norwegian people would accept the King of Sweden as their new monarch. However, Norway would remain nominally independent within a personal union with Sweden under the Swedish King. And most importantly, Sweden accepted Norway’s right to its own independent constitution, the one that had been signed on May 17, 1814, at Eidsvoll and had originally provoked Sweden to war.
The Swedish-Norwegian War of 1814 put an end to Swedish aggression and also secured Norway’s right to put its newly written constitution to use as the guiding law of the land. The point is that this right was not granted but won by thousands of brave Norwegian soldiers who stepped up to the challenge.
Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.