Saturday, 17 May 2014

On this date: 200 years of independence

Today is the National Day and today the celebrations of the bicentenary of Norway’s independence and the Constitution, which was passed on 16 May 1814 and signed and dated the following day, will reach their climax.
The Constitution is the world’s second oldest which remains in force today (following the American), although it has of course been amended on several occasions to adapt it to changing times. The Constitution and Norway’s independence were both results of the Napoleonic Wars.
The election of the heir to the Norwegian throne, Olav Håkonsson, to King of Denmark following the death of his maternal grandfather in 1376 meant that Norway and Denmark entered a personal union when Olav succeeded his father, Håkon VI Magnusson, as King of Norway in 1380. Norway and Denmark remained separate countries, but the gradual weakening of Norway saw Denmark take a dominant role and in 1536 Christian III abolished the Norwegian Council and decreed that Norway should henceforth be a Danish province on par with Jutland or Zeeland.
Towards the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century the new ideas of the Enlightenment and nationhood saw a growing dissatisfaction with Danish absolutist rule among the Norwegian elite, but things would most likely not have happened so quickly were it not for the Napoleonic Wars.
The British bombardment of Copenhagen and seizure of the Dano-Norwegian fleet in 1807 meant that Denmark-Norway entered the Napoleonic Wars on the French side and while other allies deserted Napoléon along with his luck, Frederik VI stuck by his side to the bitter end. Although this has often been lambasted as stubbornness Frederik VI actually had little choice.
After Russia had conquered Finland from Sweden in 1809, the French Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte had been elected Crown Prince of Sweden with the name Carl Johan. He turned everything around when he in 1812 joined Napoléon’s enemies and the allied great powers promised him Norway as some sort of compensation for the loss of Finland. For Frederik VI the most important thing was to retain his realm undivided, but the allied promises to Carl Johan meant that he had nothing to win by changing sides. Frederik VI believed that the Napoleonic Wars would end with a negotiated peace rather than a military victory and hoped that Napoléon at this peace conference would help him retain Norway.
This proved a severe miscalculation and after Napoléon’s defeat at Leipzig in October 1813 Carl Johan led his troops northwards and invaded Denmark, thus forcing Frederik VI to cede Norway to the King of Sweden in the Treaty of Kiel on 14 January 1814.
Since the previous year King Frederik’s cousin and heir, Prince Christian Frederik, had been his Lieutenant of the Realm in Norway and he was not willing to agree to the loss of Norway. He originally intended to proclaim himself King by virtue of Frederik VI’s renunciation, but at a meeting at Eidsvoll (80 kilometres north of Oslo) in February a group of advisers persuaded him that Frederik VI’s renunciation meant that the sovereignty had reverted to the people and that it was now for them to decide their future.
Assuming the title of Regent, Prince Christian Frederik convened a Constituent Assembly, which met at Eidsvoll on 10 April. There the 112 founding fathers in little more than a month produced a Constitution that drew on inspiration from, among others, the constitutions of the USA, France, the Batavian Republic and Sweden and that was one of the most radical of its age.
The Constitution was passed on 16 May 1814 and signed and dated the next day, when the assembly unanimously elected Christian Frederik King of Norway. He accepted the crown two days later, but his reign would only last for one summer.
The great powers stuck to their promises to Sweden, and at the end of July Sweden invaded Norway. This, the last of the many wars fought between the Nordic countries (and Sweden’s last war to this day), saw some Swedish victories and some Norwegians, but in the long term Norway would not have been able to resist the much stronger Swedish military. The war ended with a ceasefire agreed in Moss on 14 August 1814, whereby Crown Prince Carl Johan agreed to respect Norway’s Constitution and independence, while King Christian Frederik agreed to abdicate after convening an extraordinary Parliament that would pass a revised Constitution adapted to a union with Sweden.
King Christian Frederik signed his abdication on 10 October in the Garden Room at Bygdøy Royal Manor and left Norway forever sixteen days later. (25 years on he succeeded to the Danish throne as King Christian VIII). Parliament meanwhile entered into negotiations with Swedish commissioners about a constitutional revision and, led by the able Speaker, Wilhelm F. K. Christie, succeeded in maintaining almost all of it, although changes necessitated by the union were obviously made.
On 4 November 1814 Parliament elected King Carl XIII of Sweden King of Norway and the two countries thereby embarked on a union of crowns. However, this was a union completely different from the one with Denmark, as Sweden and Norway were both independent kingdoms in a very loose personal union. There were separate parliaments, constitutions, governments, laws, courts, churches, armies, navies, bureaucracies, royal households and so on; indeed the King and the foreign service were the only shared institutions. This arrangement lasted until 1905, when Norway seceded from the union.
King Christian Frederik was subsequently criticised for his conduct by people who thought it more honourable if more blood had been shed (even today there is a handful of people who proclaim his view), but today the established view is that by choosing negotiations over defeat Christian Frederik saved Norway’s independence and Constitution. In recognition of this a statue of King Christian Frederik was erected outside the Parliament Building today, where it will be unveiled by Queen Margrethe – a huge admirer of his – in the presence of the King and Queen at noon on Sunday.
Today the usual parades of children will take place all over the country followed by a celebration at Eidsvoll that is expected to attract thousands, including the royal family and the Danish and Swedish monarchs. Unlike the King and Queen of Sweden the Queen and Prince Consort of Denmark will also be present at the Royal Palace during the children’s parade, but will watch from a window rather than joining the royal family on the palace balcony.


  1. TNI, thank you for your clear-eyed exposition of royal history. This is the best brief synopsis I've read about this period. I take it for granted when reading your blog but am reminded anew of your insight and scholarship when I read facile and erroneous accounts elsewhere in the media. -Jack


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