A new day dawns on the royal family

royal family

The royal couple and the royal family pose for a photograph at the Royal Palace. From left: Ingrid Alexandra, Crown Princess Mette-Marit, Sverre Magnus, Crown Prince Haakon, Queen Sonja, King Harald, Leah Isadora, Emma Tallulah, Märtha Louise, and Maud Angelica.

Professor Emeritus
University of Washington, Seattle

While the modern Norwegian monarchy and royal family date from 1905, the origins of the monarchy go back to the Viking Age and the political unification of Norway as one kingdom. Saga writers and chroniclers in the 12th and 13th centuries, such as Snorri Sturluson, considered Harald Fairhair (Hárfagri) to be the first single ruler of Norway, a territory stretching from Finnmark to the Göta River. The scope of the united kingdom was precarious following Harald’s death, but subsequent claimants to the throne, such as Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf), and Harald Sigurdsson, all claimed sovereignty over Norway as descendant of Harald Fairhair, claims that modern historians consider unlikely.

The dynastic claims were, nevertheless, solidified as the monarchy built its position in concert with the Roman Church. Following the missionary activities of Olaf Tryggvason, St. Olaf, with the help of English bishops and priests, enforced the spread of Christianity by introducing church organization and church law. The death of St. Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, spearheaded by the Danish/English King Knud the Great, emphasized the growing conflict between Norwegian and Danish claims for the control of Norway. The comparable strength of the Danish and Norwegian kingdoms by the late 11th and early 12th centuries, however, resulted in an internal political stabilization while the kings, especially Harald Hardråde (1045-1066) and Sigurd the Crusader (1103-1130), were active expansionists.

The death of Sigurd the Crusader in 1130 brought to an end a period of relatively stable internal conditions and introduced several decades of conflict over royal succession, a period known as the “Civil Wars.” Ironically, the years from 1130 to 1319, chaotic as they were, also saw the development of a more organized and centralized kingdom. The elimination of rival claims to the throne and joint rule, issues that regularly fueled the “Civil Wars,” were addressed with the establishment of a “Law of Succession” in 1163 after the coronation of Magnus Erlingsson with the powerful support of the church and the new archbishop of Nidaros. The succession law stipulated the rule of primogeniture and established that Norway was to have one king. The power of the church associated with the establishment of the Law of Succession was challenged by King Sverre (1184-1202), who claimed secular authority directly through the grace of God rather than through affirmation by the Roman Church. Sverre also popularized the idea of St. Olaf as the “eternal king” of Norway-perpetuus rex Norvegiæ.

Through the 13th century, the Norwegian monarchy reflected the country’s internal political strength, marked especially by the long reign of Haakon IV Haakonsson (1217-1263) and the establishment of several legal initiatives and law codes. Under Haakon IV, Norway’s interest in the North Atlantic islands was dominant. This changed under his successors, however, as the royal residence was moved from Bergen to Oslo, mirroring the shift of economic and political interests toward the south and east.

The line of monarchs of an independent Norway ended in the vagaries of circumstance at the end of the 14th century when the monarchy moved to Copenhagen following the emergence of Queen Margarete in the wake of the death of her husband, Haakon VI, and her son Olav IV, who had also succeeded to the throne of Denmark. With the establishment of the Kalmar Union of the three Scandinavian states in 1397, the Norwegian monarchy was subsumed into the Danish monarchy where it would remain through the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and into the Napoleonic era. Of the monarchs during the Danish-Norwegian dual monarchy, Christian IV had the most interest in Norway. With his mercantilist policies, he established the cities of Kongsberg and Kristiansand, relocated a rebuilt Oslo following a destructive fire in 1624, and renaming it Christiania, after himself.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars between 1789 and 1815 affected Norway and the monarchy significantly. Repelled by Great Britain’s preemptive bombardments of Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807, Frederick VI allied the dual monarchy with the fate of Napoleon. Sweden, allied against Napoleon, forced Denmark to cede Norway under the Treaty of Kiel, signed Jan. 14, 1814. Rejecting the terms of the treaty, the heir to the Danish throne, Christian Frederik, rallied Norwegians to oppose the transfer.

He called a national assembly to write a new liberal constitution, which was signed on May 17, 1814. Christian Frederik was elected king, an office he held until August when, under the terms of the Convention of Moss, he abdicated and returned to Denmark. Norwegians agreed to a union with Sweden after Carl Johan accepted that they could retain the constitution. Carl XIII of Sweden also became Carl II of Norway until 1818, when Carl Johan succeeded as King Carl III Johan of Norway.

Four kings of the Bernadotte line reigned in Norway between 1814 and 1905. The last Bernadotte, Oscar II, spoke and wrote Norwegian as a native speaker. It was not animosity toward the reigning Swedish-Norwegian monarchy that fueled the dream of Norwegian independence but the desire to fulfill the fundamental aspects of the 1814 constitution. When that finally happened in 1905, it was the promise of a new “national” Norwegian monarchy that defined it. Offered the throne following an overwhelming popular vote, Prince Carl of Denmark took the name Haakon VII, thereby demonstrating that the new monarchy was directly tied to the last sole Norwegian king before the unions with Denmark and Sweden.

Taking the motto: “Alt for Norge,” Haakon became the representation of Norway’s constitutional monarchy and symbol of the nation. Nothing demonstrated that more keenly than his words and deeds when Nazi German forces invaded Norway on April 9, 1940. The tradition of sacrifice, service, and constitutional propriety that Haakon VII embodied were transferred to his successors, Olav V and Harald V. To the extent that future monarchs maintain that tradition, the Norwegian monarchy will prevail as much a beacon for the future as it has been a monument of Norway’s past.


This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Terje Leiren

Dr. Terje Leiren is Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington where he has taught Scandinavian history, including the history of the Vikings, for over 40 years.