Sunday, 12 February 2012
On this date: Princess Astrid’s eightieth birthday
The second daughter of the future King Olav V and Crown Princess Märtha, Princess Astrid Maud Ingeborg was born on 12 February 1932 at Villa Solbakken in Aker (now in Oslo), which served as the crown princely family’s temporary home after Skaugum had burned down in 1930.
The family moved back to Skaugum in August 1932 and Princess Astrid spent some happy childhood years there before the German invasion forced Crown Princess Märtha to bring her three children to safety in her native Sweden on 9 April 1940. In August that year the Crown Princess and her children went on to the USA, where they found a home in exile until the liberation of Norway in 1945.
Having attended school in the USA and Norway, Princess Astrid went to Oxford in 1950 to study economics, philosophy and political history. The choice was not hers, but her father’s, and was chosen because it was the only programme which lasted only two years, the maximum of time it was considered possible for her to be absent due to the illness of her mother.
The Crown Princess’s illness and the fact that her elder sister, Princess Ragnhild, married and moved to Brazil in 1953, meant that Princess Astrid had to take on an increasing amount of public engagements after her return to Norway. The most spectacular of these was accompanying her parents to London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, where Princess Astrid was supposed to stand in for her mother if the Crown Princess was not strong enough.
The seriousness of her mother’s illness was only explained to Princess Astrid shortly before Crown Princess Märtha died at the age of 53 in the morning of 5 April 1954. Her death made Princess Astrid the country’s first lady at the age of only 22. Duty has always been important to the Princess and it never occurred to her to say no to the momentous responsibilities that there now placed upon her young shoulders. Two years later King Haakon rewarded his granddaughter with the Grand Cross with Collar of the Order of St Olav, making her only the second Norwegian woman to receive this honour.
Her responsibilities increased further when King Haakon died in 1957 and her father succeeded to the throne as King Olav V. While Crown Prince Harald was preoccupied with his education, Princess Astrid was the only family member available to support King Olav, and she became, in the words of her brother, their father’s right hand.
In 1958 and 1959 she accompanied King Olav on his journeys across the country in connection with his consecration. The stress of the first of these journeys caused Princess Astrid to fall ill with rheumatic fever, an illness which would cause her much pain until it was finally cured some ten years ago.
At that time Princess Astrid had fallen in love with Johan Martin Ferner, a businessman whose brief marriage to her friend Ingeborg Hesselberg-Meyer was dissolved in 1956. King Olav, who was head of the Norwegian state church, feared what would be the public reactions to his second daughter also marrying a commoner, and even a divorced one, and consequently withheld his consent for five years.
When the engagement was announced in November 1960 it did indeed lead to much criticism, described at the time as the worst storm the royal family had yet experienced. As the Bishop of Oslo, Johannes Smemo, was unwilling to marry divorcees, King Olav asked the Bishop of Nidaros, Arne Fjellbu, to officiate at the wedding, which was held in Asker Church on a bitterly cold winter day, 12 January 1961. Last year the couple were able to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary.
At the time of the wedding, the Princess gave up the style Royal Highness and has since been officially styled as Princess Astrid, Mrs Ferner. She also gave up the civil list income she had been granted in 1956. It was, however, made clear that she would continue to carry out her royal duties. This was indeed sheer necessity as the Princess was the only female member of the royal family resident in Norway and would thus remain the country’s first lady until her brother married.
And this turned out to be a long way off, as King Olav was, perhaps understandably, even more reluctant to give his consent to the heir’s marriage to Sonja Haraldsen, the commoner he had fallen in love with in 1959. Meanwhile Princess Astrid carried on with her royal duties, while simultaneously establishing her own home, battling illness and giving birth to the first three of her five children: Cathrine in 1962, Benedikte in 1963 and Alexander in 1965.
It was only in 1968 that King Olav finally felt on sure enough ground to give his consent to the marriage of Crown Prince Harald and Sonja Haraldsen. When they married on 29 August 1968, Princess Astrid, after fourteen years, ceded the position as first lady to her sister-in-law.
While other princesses, such as Mathilde of France or Antoinette of Monaco, have resented giving up the position as first lady to a newcomer, Princess Astrid was in a way relieved to do so and became a great help and support in introducing Crown Princess Sonja into her new role.
However, Princess Astrid did not disappear from the royal scene, but continued to take on a fair share of public engagements, in particular related to the numerous organisations of which she are patron. Meanwhile the Ferner family was completed by the birth of Elisabeth in 1969 and Carl-Christian in 1972. Today Princess Astrid and Johan Martin Ferner are also the grandparents of five.
When King Olav died in January 1991, Princess Astrid came to serve her third king, her brother, Harald V. The King and Queen both have nothing but praise for the selfless way in which Princess Astrid has always been there for them, knowing only one answer when asked to help in one way or another. On the occasion of her seventieth birthday in 2002 the government recognised her loyalty to the crown and the nation by granting her a pension of honour for the rest of her life.
At the age of eighty Princess Astrid remains active, although her public engagements are now rather few. This she herself explains by the fact that people seem to prefer to invite the younger or more high-profile members of the royal family in preference to her.
Princess Astrid has always been close to the King, with whom she shares a human warmth and sense of humour as well as their dedication to duty. She is also an excellent storyteller, blessed with a good recollection and a sense of history which makes her something of the royal family’s living memory. This I came to experience personally when writing my biography of her, Kvinne blant konger (“A Woman Among Kings”), which was published in 2007.
Princess Astrid rarely misses a state banquet, to which she will turn up wearing one of her five tiaras (two of which will eventually revert to the King), the broad version of the sash of St Olav (rather than the narrower now given to women) as this was what she was given by King Haakon 56 years ago, and the family orders of Haakon VII, Olav V and Harald V. She is the only member of the royal family to wear more than one family order, but insists that her way is the correct and that all family orders should be worn. In her case it is also a visual reminder of the fact that she is alone in having served all three monarchs.