Saturday, 24 January 2015

At the road's end: Johan Martin Ferner (1927-2015), businessman and royal husband

The business man Johan Martin Ferner, Princess Astrid's husband, passed away at the age of 87 at the National Hospital in Oslo at 5.25 this morning, the royal court has announced. Ferner was the most anonymous member of the royal family and during his 54 years as the Princess's husband he was the very essence of discretion and loyalty.
Born in Oslo on 22 July 1927, Johan Martin Jacobsen was the third and youngest child of Ferner Jacobsen and his wife Ragnhild Olsen. In November of the same year, the children adopted their father's first name as their last name. His father ran a men's clothing store, Ferner Jacobsen A/S, founded in 1926 and still in existence in Parliament Street in Oslo. Johan Martin studied at London Polytechnic Institute, Bradford Technical College and the University of Lyon and worked at Harrods and Austin Reed in London before joining his father's company, where he worked his way up through the ranks until taking over the company jointly with his older brother Finn Christian on their father's death in 1964.
Johan Martin Ferner was a keen yachtsman and won a silver medal at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. The previous year he had for the first time gone sailing with Princesses Ragnhild and Astrid, and they remained part of each other's social circle. In 1953, Ferner married a friend of the princesses, Ingeborg "Bitte" Hesselberg-Meyer (1931-1997), but the marriage was dissolved in 1956. Ferner's and Princess Astrid's friendship gradually evolved into love, but it would be several years before King Olav gave his permission for them to marry. When writing my biography of her, Princess Astrid told me that after her elder sister had married a commoner she was convinced that it would not be possible for her too to do the same, and the fact that Ferner was a divorcé obviously complicated the matters (this was about the same time as Princess Margaret of Britain had to give up her relationship with the divorcé Peter Townsend). Attempts were made to stop the relationship, but eventually the King gave in.
The storm that broke out when the engagement was announced on 13 November 1960 was considered the worst the royal family had so far experienced and contained many of the same arguments that would come up again when the Princess's nephew married a single mother in 2001. Two members of Parliament's presidium boycotted the congratulatory visit to the Palace, while the Christian newspaper Vårt Land declared itself in mourning and thundered against the Princess and her choice of husband. The wedding was set for Asker Church, the parish church near the royal estate Skaugum, but the parish council refused to allow the marriage to be celebrated there. It was only after the King had appealed to the Church Ministry that the decision was overturned. The Bishop of Oslo was unwilling to marry divorces, but the more liberal Bishop of Nidaros, Arne Fjellbu, agreed to do so. The couple were eventually married on 12 January 1961 in the presence of royal guests from Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg and Britain.
Johan Martin Ferner and Princess Astrid, Mrs Ferner, as she was now styled, settled in a villa on Oslo's west side and had five children between 1962 and 1972: Cathrine, Benedikte, Alexander, Elisabeth and Carl-Christian. Until 1968 the Princess, despite ill health, combined her role as wife and mother with that of first lady of the realm and she had continued to take on many royal duties also after her brother's marriage meant that her sister-in-law Sonja tok over as first lady. Johan Martin Ferner kept a very low profile and did not carry out any public engagements, only occasionally accompanying his wife to major events. I believe the interview he gave to Aftenposten on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 1997 was the only interview he ever gave. Instead he focused his attention on the family business, which was eventually taken over by his son Carl-Christian and his nephew Christian, but until recently Johan Martin Ferner still paid regular visits to the store.
King Harald made his brother-in-law a Commander of the Order of St Olav shortly after the couple's golden wedding anniversary in 2011. By then the 84-year-old Johan Martin Ferner had given up on attending evening events and was only occasionally seen at royal events. His last public appearance was the wedding of his youngest son to Anna-Stina Slattum Karlsen on 4 October 2014.


  1. Thank you for this obituary, which fleshed out a little-known royal spouse for me. The strength of opposition to the Ferners' marriage was surprising to read about.

    Would you mind clarifying Princess Astrid's statement that "after her elder sister had married a commoner she was convinced that it would not be possible for her too to do the same"? One might have expected it would set a favorable precedent, or that a princess's marriage would not be much of an issue in the mid-twentieth century because her husband and children would not be princes(ses) of Norway, members of the royal family, or successors to the throne. I assume Erling Lorentzen and Johan Martin Ferner's membership of the royal family was decided sometime during King Harald's reign.

    Thank you again for these fascinating details from a bygone time.

    1. Apparently, at that time it rather appeared to be the other way around: Royals were still expected to marry royals, so when one princess had married a commoner that was seen as "enough" and her sister expected that she could not do the same. Obviously that turned out to be wrong. Much of the opposition to such marriages was based on fear that the royal in-laws would become some sort of "semi-nobility", which was undesirable in a country where the actual nobility was abolished in 1821. That no such thing happened was thanks to the discretion of the Lorentzens, Ferners and Haraldsens.

      Yes, Erling S. Lorentzen and Johan Martin Ferner (and Ari Behn, Marius Borg Høiby and Princess Märtha Louise's children) became members of the royal family in 2002.

  2. Thank you for elaborating. An understandable fear, and possibly why foreign spouses have been preferred in other monarchies.

    Was there a specific date in 2002 on which the royal family's membership was expanded?

    1. There was no official announcement to that effect, but I remember first hearing of it in early August 2002.


Comments are welcome, but should be signed - preferably by a name, but an initial or a nick will also be accepted. Advertisements are not allowed. COMMENTS WHICH DO NOT COMPLY WITH THESE RULES WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED.