Wednesday, 9 September 2009
From a bygone age: The Norwegian nobility
“A monarchy without nobility can of course impossibly exist, but was nevertheless established in Norway”, wrote the new Queen of Norway, Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta, when her husband, Carl XIII of Sweden, had been elected King of Norway in November 1814. Perhaps it was not such an unreasonable thought. As Ellis Wasson points out in his book Aristocracy and the Modern World (2006), “Monarchs needed the cooperation of a powerful aristocracy to rule effectively. There was no contradiction between a strong monarchical state and strong nobility”.
Yet, 195 years on, history has proven Queen Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta wrong. In an egalitarian country as Norway there would have been no place for an aristocracy, whose privileges would have been resented and who might have become some sort of buffer zone between the monarchy and the people.
The Norwegian Constitution which was signed on 17 May 1814 forbade the creation of new noble titles and privileges, but did not take the final step and abolish the aristocracy altogether. However, when the first ordinary Parliament met in 1815, they passed a bill to do so, which the King refused to sanction. A similar bill was passed in 1818 and again in 1821, thus becoming law even without the King’s assent.
King Carl XIV Johan, who had succeeded Carl XIII in 1818, was staunchly opposed to abolishing the nobility – he wanted to have the possibility to award deserving people with noble titles and mentioned non-hereditary titles for life as a possible compromise. He also saw a Norwegian nobility as a means to even out the differences between Norway and his other kingdom, Sweden, which had an influential aristocracy.
Naturally he also saw the aristocracy as a possible powerbase – certain nobles such as Peder Anker (of Bogstad Manor), his son-in-law Count Herman Wedel Jarlsberg (of Jarlsberg Manor) and Severin Løvenskiold (of Fossum Manor) had supported Carl Johan in the struggle for Norway in 1814. On the other hand, some, such as Carsten Anker (of Eidsvold Manor), Peder Anker’s cousin, had supported his rival, King Christian Frederik.
The King failed in convincing the Parliament of the advantages of an aristocracy and veiled threats such as assembling soldiers just outside the capital did not work. The act of Parliament of 1 August 1821 abolished the nobility in Norway, but accorded the noble titles and privileges to those born before that date for their lifetimes.
Wedel Jarlsberg and Løvenskiold were the most important noble families in Norway, but the country’s nobility was not large. Yet the kings of the House of Bernadotte were to find many of their courtiers and trusted advisors among the ranks of these noble families. As a side note, one member of a former noble family, Anniken Huitfeldt, is Minister of Children and Equality in the present government, but, as a Social Democrat, is not particularly proud of her noble background.
Peder Anker served as Norway’s first Prime Minister in the years 1814-1822, while his daughter Karen later became Mistress of the Robes and her husband, Count Herman Wedel Jarlsberg, was Minister of Finance during Anker’s premiership and later became Speaker of Parliament and Governor-General of Norway. Severin Løvenskiold was Prime Minister 1828-1841 and then succeeded Count Wedel as Governor-General in 1841, which he remained until 1856. Their mutual grandson, Carl Otto Løvenskiold (of the Bærums Verk branch), served briefly as Norwegian Prime Minister in Stockholm in 1884, while his wife (and cousin) Elise, née Wedel Jarlsberg, was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Sophia. Ida Wedel Jarlsberg was a lady-in-waiting of Queen Sophia’s.
Many other members of the former aristocracy also found employment at the court of the Bernadottes. Count Wedel’s brother, Baron Ferdinand Wedel Jarlsberg, was head of the Norwegian court 1839-1857, a position which later received the title “hoffsjef” (Lord Chamberlain). Severin Løvenskiold’s son Ernst also became Lord Chamberlain, and so did his nephew Herman Severin, Carl Otto’s brother, to name just some prominent examples.
To a certain extent this continued even after the end of the Swedish-Norwegian union in 1905. At the outbreak of World War II one would find Peder Anker Wedel Jarlsberg (heir to Jarlsberg Manor) as Marshal of the Court and Borghild Anker (of Rød Manor) as Mistress of the Robes. In 1985 King Olav V appointed Ingegjerd Løvenskiold (of the Bærums Verk branch) as Mistress of the Robes, a position she still holds even if she has been relieved of her duties since her remarriage to American millionaire Robert D. Stuart in 1995, which saw her moving to the USA. There will most likely be no successor to the position.
The members of the former nobility are scattered around the country and the globe, but some of the families have retained their manors – such as the Wedel Jarlsbergs at Jarlsberg, the Løvenskiolds at Fossum and Bærums Verk and the Treschows at Fritzøehus.
The last titled Norwegian noblemen were the brothers Count Peder Anker Wedel Jarlsberg and Baron Harald Wedel Jarlsberg. The Count died on 23 June 1893 and when the Baron died on 4 January 1897, the Norwegian aristocracy came to an end. The diplomat Frederik “Fritz” Wedel Jarlsberg used the title Baron, but as he was born as late as 1855, he had no right to do so. When asked what using such a title should be good for, he replied that it was at least very useful if one wanted to make a good marriage.
The photos show, from the top, the arms of the Wedel Jarlsberg family, Bogstad Manor, Fossum Manor and a bust of Peder Anker, ancestor of much of the land-owning former nobility.