Monday, 17 May 2010

On this date: Norway’s National Day

Today is the National Day of Norway, which celebrates the events of 1814 when independence was won and the Constitution which is still in force (making it the second oldest in the world) worked out. The Constitution was passed on 16 May 1814, but was dated 17 May as this was the date it was signed by the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly and some other members – the rest of them signed on 18 May. 17 May 1814 was also the date Christian Frederik was elected King of Norway.
As has been the tradition since 1870, with a few exceptions, Oslo’s schoolchildren today paraded up Karl Johan Street and past the Royal Palace, where the King and Queen, the Crown Prince and Crown Princess and Princess Ingrid Alexandra greeted them from the balcony. As usual Princess Astrid also appeared in a window.
This is now so much part of the celebrations that it is taken for granted, but for many years it was not so. It became customary to celebrate Constitution Day in the years following its 10th anniversary in 1824, but this caused King Carl XIV Johan’s deep displeasure. The King rather wanted Norway to celebrate the union with Sweden and the revised version of the Constitution which were passed on 4 November and saw the celebrations of 17 May as an almost revolutionary act.
In 1827 he chose to close his eyes against the celebrations taking place in Christiania, but the following year he was himself present in the Norwegian capital on 17 May for the first time. The King expected trouble and gathered 20,000 troops just outside the city. The papers of the then Foreign Minister, Gustaf af Wetterstedt, show that the King was prepared to suspend Parliament and the Constitution and dictate a new constitution to his own liking if the MPs took part in the celebrations. However, Parliament decided not to mark the day and the King subsequently wrote to his son that he was relieved he had not “been forced to use the troops to prevent excesses”. At the State Dissolution of Parliament he warned the politicians that official celebrations of 17 May would also in the future be considered a provocation against the King, the Constitution and the union.
In 1829 17 May fell on a Sunday and huge crowds came out on the streets of the capital. When they would not stop cheering and refused to disperse, Baron Ferdinand of Wedel-Jarlsberg, the commander of Akershus Fortress (and also Lord Chamberlain), gave orders for the cavalry to clear the Great Square, the act of (mild) violence which has passed into Norwegian history as “the Battle in the Square”. The King was not directly involved in this, as many seem to believe, but when the investigative committee published its findings the King resolved that no-one should be prosecuted. Most blame was put on the Lieutenant of the Realm, Baron Baltzar Bogislaus von Platen, who died a broken man a few months later (the position, which had by then become very unpopular, was left vacant for seven years).
Ironically this heavy-handed treatment of the celebrators meant that the King had to tread more carefully in the future. In 1836 Parliament for the first time officially celebrated 17 May, but the King chose not to intervene – although this was one of the many actions of that Parliament which displeased the King and in combination led to his showing his displeasure by dissolving Parliament before it had finished its business.
In 1839, the 25th anniversary of 1814, King Carl Johan was again in Christiania on 17 May, but had now resigned himself to the celebrations. In what was some sort of gentlemen’s agreement, the King allowed the celebrations to take place and the crowds made sure to do so in safe distance from the royal residence. King Carl Johan died in 1844 and already the next year his daughter-in-law, Queen Josephina, appeared in a window of the Royal Mansion with Prince Gustaf and Princess Eugénie to greet the crowds celebrating Constitution Day.
However, the union kings generally made sure not to be in Norway on 17 May and although the children’s parade has passed by the Royal Palace ever since its inception in 1870, it was only in 1901 that Crown Prince Gustaf became the first member of the royal family to greet it from the Palace balcony.
King Haakon and Queen Maud picked up the tradition when they came to Norway following the dissolution of the union in 1905. Since then the Palace balcony has been empty on only a handful of National Days: for obvious reasons from 1940 to 1944, but also a century ago this year when the royal family had not yet returned from the funeral of King Edward VII of Britain two days earlier. Following the Nazi surrender on 8 May 1945, Crown Prince Olav was back in Oslo already on 13 May and could thus resume the tradition once again.
In the days of King Haakon the balcony could occasionally be quite crowded as he also allowed foreign royals to join the Norwegian royal family if they were in the country on 17 May. His brother, Prince Gustav of Denmark, did so in 1907 and his sister, Princess Thyra of Denmark, in 1929. In 1947 the Norwegian royals were joined by Prince Carl and Princess Ingeborg of Sweden, which is quite interesting considering that Prince Carl had himself been a (reluctant) candidate for the Norwegian throne in 1905.
In 1953 several royals had stayed behind following Princess Ragnhild’s wedding two days earlier and Princess Margaret of Britain, Prince and Princess Viggo from Denmark, and Count Flemming and Countess Ruth of Rosenborg joined their Norwegian relatives on the balcony. Princess Ragnhild herself made her last appearance there in 1958, joined by her son Haakon Lorentzen, while Princess Astrid has not appeared after her wedding in 1961.
With the disappearances of the married princesses, the deaths of King Haakon and Crown Princess Märtha and Crown Prince Harald studying abroad, the Palace balcony suddenly became very empty and in 1961 and 1962 King Olav appeared alone. By the time of his death in 1991, King Olav had greeted the children from that balcony more than seventy times.
Since King Harald in 2002 decided to make a distinction between the royal house and the royal family, only the five members of the royal house appear on the balcony, although Prince Sverre Magnus made a very brief appearance last year. Princess Ingrid Alexandra, who first appeared on the balcony at the age of four months in 2004, may well break her great-grandfather’s record. Her father, Crown Prince Haakon, has so far missed it six times – in 1977 (when he was ill), in 1992 (when he graduated from senior high school), in 1994 (when he was on military service in Bergen) and in 1997, 1998 and 1999 (when he was studying in the USA).
These days there is no conflict between the monarch and Parliament and when passing the Parliament Building the children are also greeted by the Speaker of Parliament, Dag Terje Andersen, as seen in the last photo.

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