Sunday, 16 September 2012

At the road’s end: Princess Ragnhild of Norway, Mrs Lorentzen (1930-2012)

Princess Ragnhild, who has died of cancer at the age of 82, was the princess Norway never really got to know.
Princess Ragnhild was born on 9 June 1930 and first saw the light of day at the Royal Palace in Oslo, the family home Skaugum in Asker having burned down to the ground just a few weeks before. She was the eldest child of the then Crown Prince Olav and his Swedish-born wife Märtha and was born two days after the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the personal union between the two kingdoms.
Moreover, she was the first royal person to be born on Norwegian soil since the birth of the future King Olav Håkonsson in 1370 and the first princess to be born in Norway since Ingebjørg Håkonsdatter in 1301.
The names chosen pointed to her royal heritage. Ragnhild was the name borne by both the wife and the mother of Harald the Fairhaired, the king who first united Norway into one kingdom in the late ninth century. The second name, Alexandra, was for her great-grandmother, Queen Alexandra of Britain.
The Princess was christened in the Palace Chapel on 27 June 1930. Her grandmother Queen Maud held her over the baptismal font, and her other godparents were her grandfather King Haakon VII, her maternal grandparents Prince Carl and Princess Ingeborg of Sweden, her great-uncle King Gustaf V of Sweden, her great-aunt Princess Victoria of Britain, her aunt Princess Margaretha of Denmark, and her father’s first cousin, Prince Albert of Britain, Duke of York (later King George VI).
She spent her first years at Villa Solbakken, just outside Oslo, until the new Skaugum was ready in August 1932. By then she had been joined by a sister, Princess Astrid. At the time, women did not have succession rights in Norway, but as the years went by after the births of the two princesses and no brother seemed to appear, one started to think of introducing female succession.
If so, Ragnhild might have become Queen Regnant, a fate she would later say she was happy to escape. And these discussions came to an end with the birth of a brother, Prince Harald, the present King, on 21 February 1937.
With barely one and a half year between them, the two princesses were inseparable. When it was time for Ragnhild to start school, a few girls of “good families” were chosen to join her and Princess Astrid for private schooling at Skaugum and later, when the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, caused petrol to be rationed, at the Royal Palace.
In the early hours of 9 April 1940, Germany attacked Norway, and Princess Ragnhild and her siblings were awakened by their parents and told to pack a suitcase with their favourite toys. The sinking of the German battleship “Blücher” in the Oslofjord gave the royal family, the government and most of the MPs time to escape from the capital before the Germans marched in.
However, as it was clear that it would be a long fight and one could obviously not take children along on a military campaign, it was decided that the Crown Princess would bring the children to safety abroad. In the evening of 9 April she crossed into her native Sweden, not knowing if she would ever see her husband again.
Later in the summer Crown Princess Märtha and the children made the dangerous crossing of the Atlantic to the USA, where they stayed for five years under the supervision of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became something of a substitute grandfather to the three children. Their father only came for Christmas, making the children particularly dependent on their mother.
Following liberation, the royal family returned to Norway on 7 June 1945, two days before Princess Ragnhild’s fifteenth birthday. They were met by ecstatic crowds and in the photos from that day the royal children, who had led peaceful, ordinary lives in the USA, look frightened.
Obviously it was a major change to return to a public life they had mostly forgotten. They had attended an ordinary school in the USA, but now that they were back home their parents wanted to go back to the pre-war arrangement with schooling at home. The princesses, and Ragnhild in particular, absolutely refused and in the end got their way. It was not the last time that Princess Ragnhild would make it clear that she had a strong will.
Among the royal bodyguards during that first summer of peace was Erling S. Lorentzen, the son of a shipping magnate and a veteran of the elite resistance group Company Linge. He was entrusted with the task of teaching the princesses to sail, and by 1946 the Princess was in love.
With hindsight it might seem a perfect match: the princess and the dashing war hero falling in love in the hour of victory. But this was not how it appeared at the time. There had been princesses marrying commoners before – for instance Patricia of Britain in 1919, Dagmar of Denmark in 1922 and Eikaterini of Greece in 1947 – but it was not yet quite normal.
King Haakon and Crown Princess Märtha went to considerable lengths to try to put an end to the relationship between Princess Ragnhild and Mr Lorentzen, while Crown Prince Olav apparently could not stand for his daughter’s tears – she was always the apple of his eye.
In the end Ragnhild got her way and on 15 May 1953 the happy couple walked down the aisle of Asker Church, just down the road from Skaugum. The problem of what if any official position should be given to the non-royal spouse of a princess was solved with the announcement that the couple would live abroad for the first years.
The choice fell on Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where the Lorentzen family had business interest. The plan was that they would stay for two years, but two years eventually became the rest of their lives. The Princess relinquished the style “Her Royal Highness” and became known as Princess Ragnhild, Mrs Lorentzen. When abroad she was accorded the style of “Her Highness”.
Apparently it was expected that Princess Ragnhild’s marriage to a commoner would be an exception rather than the rule, and Princess Astrid has said she thought she would not be able to marry a commoner as her sister had already done so. However, Princess Ragnhild’s marriage turned out to be a ground-breaker, and both her siblings as well as the children of the current King have followed her example.
Crown Princess Märtha was very ill at the time of her daughter’s wedding, but was looking forward to the birth of her first grandchild, expected in the late summer of 1954. However, just a few days before her and Crown Prince Olav’s silver wedding in March 1954, the Crown Princess’s health took a sudden turn for the worse and her pregnant daughter dashed across the Atlantic to get there in time. The Crown Princess died on 5 April 1954.
In August Princess Ragnhild gave birth to her first child in August 1954 and named him Haakon for his great-grandfather. The second child, born in 1957, was named Ingeborg for her great-grandmother, Princess Ingeborg of Sweden, Haakon and Ingeborg themselves being siblings. The afterthought, born in 1968, was named Ragnhild Alexandra for her mother, and was the only of the Lorentzen children to be born in Brazil and attain Brazilian citizenship.
King Haakon died in 1957 and Ragnhild’s widowed father succeeded to the throne as King Olav V. While Princess Ragnhild went on with her life in Brazil, her younger sister took on their mother’s mantle as first lady of Norway. Princess Astrid thus remained highly visible at home, while Princess Ragnhild gradually faded from the public stage. She held only one patronage and her only public duty, which she gave up in the mid-1990s, was the opening of the annual Christmas bazaar at the Norwegian seamen’s church in Rio.
She did, however, maintain close links with Norway, in particular her group of friends from school, her sister and her father. Despite the 24-hour journey and her fear of flying, she made frequent visits to Norway, where she always stayed with her father. Thus she came close to him in a way neither of her siblings did. When not together, father and daughter wrote to each other on a weekly basis (it caused quite a furore when Princess Ragnhild announced some ten years ago that she had burned her father’s letters).
Following King Olav’s death in 1991, the Princess invested in her own apartment at Frogner, a fashionable area of Oslo. When turning the key to the flat, it dawned on the 61-year-old Princess that it was actually the first time in her life that she was entirely alone.
To her biographer Lars O. Gulbrandsen the Princess explained that the difficult thing was that when travelling between Norway and Rio, she felt she was going home both ways. She always insisted on celebrating traditional Norwegian Christmas at the height of the Brazilian summer, but as the years went by and the Lorentzen children decided to make Brazil their future, it became clear that the Princess and her husband would never return permanently to Norway.
As is often the case with people settling outside their native land, the Princess’s opinions eventually became rather out of touch with Norwegian reality. In the mid-1990s she voiced her opposition to the increasingly common practice of couples living together before being married, an opinion she repeated when her nephew Crown Prince Haakon chose to live together with his future wife before they were neither married nor engaged.
Her great mistake, which had grave consequences for her public image, came a few years later, when the King and Queen made a state visit to Brazil in November 2003. The King had not visited his sister for 35 years and the Princess looked greatly forward to entertaining him for lunch in her home. However, the King and Queen cancelled on short notice in order to watch a beach volleyball match. The Princess apparently felt publicly humiliated and let her hurt feelings get the better of her by giving an interview to TV 2 in which she made some very critical comments about the Crown Prince’s and Princess Märtha Louise’s choices of partners – opinions she, as a member of the royal family, ought to have saved for the King’s ear only.
The interview caused a huge furore when it was broadcast in early 2004, and the public image of Princess Ragnhild – by then unknown to many Norwegians – became that of a bitter old woman more or less “exiled” to Brazil. I am told the Princess herself greatly regretted it all, but, being a wise man, the King chose to forgive and forget. His only comment was that he would not allow this to ruin family relations.
Princess Ragnhild rarely missed a family occasion in Norway, but as the years began to take their tolls her journeys to Norway became fewer. The passing of time also meant that she had fewer friends and acquaintances on this side of the Atlantic. Her bond to her sister was always very strong, although the two did not meet very often. Of her other royal relatives she was close to her uncle, Prince Carl Bernadotte, and his wife Kristine, as well as three of her first cousins and their spouses: King Baudouin of the Belgians, Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte of Luxembourg and Count Flemming of Rosenborg. The Brazilian connection also meant an increasingly close relationship to the Queen of Sweden, herself half Brazilian by birth.
In February 2007 Princess Ragnhild declined her invitation to attend the King’s seventieth birthday, and in July of the same year she attended only parts of the Queen’s seventieth birthday celebrations. Her own eightieth birthday was celebrated at the Royal Palace in June 2010.
Her last but one visit to Norway was in February this year, when she attended the celebration of Princess Astrid’s eightieth birthday. By that time, Princess Ragnhild had begun using a wheelchair. She fractured her hip during Easter, and it was then that it was discovered that she suffered from cancer. When the great war hero Gunnar Sønsteby, an old friend who had been Erling Lorentzen’s best man died in May of this year, Lorentzen travelled to Norway to attend the funeral without his wife. She was however able to come to Norway to spend some summer weeks at the family’s island holiday home.
At the age of 82, Princess Ragnhild died in her home in Leblon in Rio de Janeiro at 9.45 a.m. local time today (2.45 p.m. Norwegian time). Although she chose Brazil in life, she had made it known already a few years ago that she would choose Norway in death and be buried in the cemetery of Asker Church.
Princess Ragnhild had a strong personality with some sharp edges and she and was always ready – sometimes perhaps too ready – to voice her opinions. But her shyness meant that the public never got to see the other sides of her personality, such as her dry sense of humour and her sharp powers of observation. These characteristic were highly evident when one met her privately, as I had the chance to do on a couple of occasions, and it is indeed unfortunate that they remained hidden to the public.

The photo is a press handout by Sven Gj. Gjeruldsen/the Royal Court.


  1. Mycket intressant blogpost (som alltid). Tack! / Karin i Sverige

  2. Thank you for this obituary!
    I´ve just read a post by a certain Pedro on Scandinavian royals MB saying late Princess Ragnhild had no private contact with Brazilian royals. This is not correct. Since her arrival in Brazil the princess formed a lastlong friendship with Princess Esperanza of Bourbbon Two-Siciles, both princesses being from Europe and living in tropical Brazil.
    Princess ragnhild attended all wedding of Princess Esperanza´s children that took place in Brazil and also the wedding of Prince D. João(zinho) in the middle 1980s.
    Alberto Penna Rodrigues


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