Today is the 562nd anniversary of the first coronation to take place in Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, now considered Norway’s foremost national monument and the obvious coronation church since time immemorial.
But it was in fact only on 20 November 1449 that such a ceremony took place in the great cathedral. Earlier coronations, which are known in Norway from 1163/1164, took place first in Bergen and later in Oslo, when that town succeeded Bergen as capital.
The Kalmar Union, which had been founded in 1397 and which united the three Scandinavian realms under one monarch, fell apart when King Christoffer on 5 or 6 January 1448 died suddenly in Helsingborg on his way to Sweden.
The Danes subsequently elected Count Christian of Oldenburg their new king, while the Swedes chose the nobleman Karl Knutsson of the Bonde family. Norway was no longer strong enough to stand alone and thus had to choose between Christian and Karl.
There were parties in favour of both candidates, but in June 1449 the Norwegian Council of the Realm chose Christian as King of Norway. This marked the transition from hereditary monarchy to electoral monarchy and Christian I thus issued a royal contract, the first such in Norwegian history.
But Karl’s supporters, led by Archbishop Aslak Bolt, did not give up. In June they managed to get the populace at the assembly called Frostating to declare their willingness to elect Karl king on certain conditions. The election took place at Hamar on 25 October and Karl continued north to Trondheim, where his coronation took place on 20 November.
We know little about the actual coronation, except that the Archbishop placed the crown on the King’s head with the assistance of the Bishop of Hamar and that several men were subsequently knighted.
Four days later an open letter to Christian I was issued in the name of the Norwegian people, where he was encouraged not to come to Norway as one had now elected and crowned Karl in the place where “rightful kings should be elected and crowned, which is in Trondheim”.
But this was not quite true, given that no kings had ever before been crowned in Trondheim. However, Nidaros, as Trondheim was called then, was where kings had been installed (or “taken as king”, as the term said) since at least the tenth century and since 1152/1153 it was also the seat of the powerful archbishop. And Nidaros Cathedral was the shrine of King Olav Haraldsson, Norway’s patron saint. Thus there were several reasons to hold a coronation there.
A practical reason was obviously that the Cathedral was the Archbishop’s own church and his crowning the King there was a visual demonstration of his role as kingmaker and underlined the position of the powerful church in relation to the King. One reason why Archbishop Aslak Bolt supported Karl’s candidature in the first place may well have been that he seemed likely to be a weaker monarch than Christian, which the church would benefit from. The royal contract issued by Karl was indeed more generous towards the church than Christian’s, which it otherwise closely resembled.
The coronation of Karl Knutsson, which contravened the Council of the Realm’s decision and could therefore be considered revolutionary, meant that there were now two rival kings of Norway. King Karl went back to Sweden to collect an army, but the following year he failed in his attempt at taking Akershus Castle in Oslo.
Negotiations were held in Halmstad, where the Swedish representatives, much to Karl’s chagrin, agreed that he should renounce his rights to Norway in favour of King Christian. Karl had little choice but to accept the outcome and on 10 June 1450 he ratified the Halmstad agreement.
Later that summer Christian I was crowned in Nidaros Cathedral, obviously in order to cancel out the usurper’s coronation. Christian’s son, King Hans, was also crowned there in 1483, but thereafter no coronations were held in Nidaros Cathedral until 1818, by which time the Constitution of 1814 had decided that kings should be crowned in that church.
Karl Knutsson’s remaining life was turbulent and marked by continued struggles with Christian I over supremacy in the north. He was twice driven from the Swedish throne, but returned in 1467 and reigned until his death in 1470. Much to the irritation of King Christian he also continued to use the title “King of Norway”. The Norwegian lion is also incorporated into his arms on his sarcophagus in the Riddarholm Church in Stockholm (second photo), which was executed by Lukas van der Werdt around 1574.
Unlike other claimants and usurpers Karl Knutsson is still included in the official lists of the kings of Norway. The reason for the difference in treatment seems to be the fact that he was indeed crowned in the national monument that is Nidaros Cathedral.