Beyond Atlantic Crossing
Crown Princess Märtha: The real life of a beloved princess
The Norwegian American
Like many Norwegian Americans, I watched the PBS miniseries Atlantic Crossing as it aired this spring. With the understanding that it is a fictionalized account of Crown Princess Märtha’s stay in Washington, D.C., during the Second World War, I really enjoyed the show. An avid fan of period dramas and a trained historian in early 20th-century Europe, I loved watching a PBS Masterpiece special that approached an oft-told era of history from a new angle for American viewers.
That said, I, like many viewers, had a lot of questions while I watched the series, mostly about the crown princess. Here was a story of a strong, committed, and fiercely loving woman, yet all I know about her comes from this six-year period of history, from 1939 to 1945. I wanted to know how such an incredible woman like this was forged. What was her life like before she fled to the United States with her children and before she became crown princess of Norway? So, I set out to discover what her life was like before the events of Atlantic Crossing take place.
Disappointingly, there is relatively little information available in English about Märtha’s life before her escape to America during World War II, and even less about her life before she married Crown Prince Olav. Much of what is available to non-Norwegian and non-Swedish readers on her life is dedicated to her wartime experiences, especially now after the media boom inspired by Atlantic Crossing. Nevertheless, we can still glean a bit about what her pre-World War II life was like.
The crown princess was born Princess Märtha of Sweden and Norway in Stockholm on March 28, 1901, the second child of Prince Carl of Sweden and Princess Ingeborg of Denmark. Prince Carl was the third son of the King Oscar II, then the king of Sweden-Norway. Märtha was 4 years old when the union between Norway and Sweden was dissolved, and her maternal uncle was elected king of Norway as Haakon VII. After the dissolution, she, like the rest of the Swedish royal family, was restyled as Märtha, princess of Sweden.
Märtha grew up with her two sisters, Princess Margaretha and Princess Astrid, and younger brother, Prince Carl, in Stockholm. Along with her sisters, Märtha was educated primarily at home in aspects of homemaking, childrearing, and first aid. One of the princesses’ teachers was Jenny Åkerström, author of the famous Prinsessornas kokbok (The Princesses’ Cookbook). Of all Åkerström’s recipes in the cookbook, her “green cake” is said to have been the favorite of Märtha and her sisters. The cake is now more popularly known as prinsesstårta (princess cake) and remains a popular Swedish dessert.
As was expected for royal families at the time, Märtha and her sisters made strong dynastic marriages. Margaretha married Prince Axel of Denmark, while Astrid married the future king of the Belgians, Leopold III. Märtha remained close to her sisters throughout her adulthood, and after Astrid’s sudden death in a car accident in 1935, Märtha and Margaretha helped support Astrid’s three young children. Olav reportedly said that it took Märtha nearly a decade to recover from her sister’s death.
For Märtha’s marriage, she looked to Norway. Olav and Märtha had met many times during their childhood at their shared grandparents’ home in Denmark. Olav, an eligible bachelor in royal circles, was the center of much media attention regarding who he would marry. After many false rumors were published, it was announced that Olav had proposed to Märtha during the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, where Olav was competing. It turned out to be a spectacularly successful Olympics for Olav: he won a gold medal for sailing, and Märtha had said yes to his proposal!
Märtha and Olav’s engagement came just over 20 years after the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden. After decades of tension and pushes for Norwegian independence from Sweden in the 19th century, it must have certainly been significant that the first Norwegian heir to the throne raised on Norwegian soil chose a Swedish princess to be his wife. The official website of the Norwegian Royal House writes about the match: “It was taken as a sign that there was no longer any tension following the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden.” While this feeling was presumably not held by every Norwegian at the time, Märtha did become a beloved and well-respected crown princess of Norway.
The royal couple married on March 21, 1929, in Vår Frelsers church (now Oslo Cathedral). They had three children: Princess Ragnhild, born in 1930; Princess Astrid, born in 1932; and Prince Harald, born in 1937. Prince Harald, who would eventually become King Harald V, was the first heir to the Norwegian throne born in Norway in 567 years.
My favorite story about Märtha and Olav I discovered in my research occurred just two months after their marriage. A New York Times article from July 13, 1929, reports on a successful rescue by the crown prince and princess of two drowning sailors in the Oslofjord. While on vacation at their summer villa in the hills above the fjord, Märtha and Olav saw a small fishing boat in distress. They jumped into their own small boat, rowed to the struggling boat, and Märtha threw the sailors a rope to pull them to safety. Apparently, the two sailors didn’t realize until later that their saviors had been the crown prince and princess—what a surprise that would be!
In the years following her stay in America during World War II, Märtha’s health declined. After several years of battling cancer, Märtha died on April 5, 1954, just a few days after her 53rd birthday. Olav was crowned king just three years later in 1957, after the death of his father, King Haakon VII. Märtha is buried at Akershus Castle, and her legacy continues to live on nearly 70 years after her death. A statue of her stands at the entrance of the Norwegian Embassy in Washington D.C., with two replicas standing in her two countries: one in the courtyard of the Royal Palace in Oslo and one outside of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Stockholm.
- The Princess and the President by Scott Larsen, The Norwegian American, March 26, 2015
- The American story of a norsk princess by Christine Foster Meloni, The Norwegian American, June 15, 2018.
- Atlantic Crossing: From fact to fiction by M. Michael Brady, The Norwegian American, Dec. 25, 2020.
- Affair between FDR and a crown princess? There’s no there, there by Scott Larsen, The Norwegian American, March 12, 2021.
- Midway through Atlantic Crossing by Lori Ann Reinhall, The Norwegian American, May 5, 2021.
This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.