To a Norwegian the 17 May 1814, is what 4 July 1776 is to an American - if
not more. Not only school children have their day off. Everyone who possibly
can has the day off. The day is an official holiday in line with Sundays.
In every town and small place, the children go in a procession, waving their
flags. To the young ones, too young to understand, the grownups explain it as
It started way back in 1319. King Haakon V died without male issue and the
country went into a monarchial limbo with several kings who hardly knew where
the country was, let alone put foot on it. Some order was brought about in
1397 when Norway, Sweden and Denmark were united under one Crown.
Sweden broke out after a short time, but Norway and Denmark remained, with
Denmark as the stronger part. After 400 years, few in Europe, apart from the
Norwegians remembered that the land had once been an independent and mighty
Then came Emperor Napoleon who ravaged, tried to and almost succeeded in
conquering Europe during the years 1796-1815. He passed the summit of his power
in 1812 trying to conquer Russia. The campaign became an unprecedented disaster costing the lives of more than half a million French soldiers. From then on
it was downhill. In 1813 he lost a decisive battle at Leipzig in Germany, a
battle which proved to have a profound effect on Norway's destiny. The victors from Leipzig assembled in Kiel in Germany January 1814 to share the
dividends. That is the start of the modern Norway.
But let's go back a little, to 1800. The still free nations of Europe watched with growing anxiety the success of Napoleon and concocted various
countermeasures. The twin countries Denmark/Norway entered into what was to
be known as armed neutrality with Russia, where Russia had a big army and
Denmark/Norway a naval fleet of no negligible size. England, who was Napoleon's main
opponent, was the undisputed ruler of the seas with a navy larger than all other
navies put together. Yet, the English regarded the Danish/Norwegian navy as a
possible threat, encompassing 61 ships counting big and small. On 2 November
1805 an English squadron sailed into the Bay of Copenhagen and kindly asked
if King Frederick VI would give them his fleet. If not.... they had other
means. King Frederick refused. After all, he regarded England as friend and ally
and there was no need to give up his fleet. The English did not buy that
argument and for three days bombarded Copenhagen with red-hot cannon balls.
Eventually the King had to give in and the English sailed away with the Danish/Norwegian fleet in tow. It is a well known fact that bombing is not the best
way to make friends and King Frederick of Denmark/Norway took a little dislike
to the English after that. Understandably, but unwisely, he entered the war
on Napoleon's side. The English answer was as often before, blockade. Starve
the enemy out! For Denmark with its wheat fields, the blockade was a source of
irritation, but for the not self-sufficient Norway it was a disaster. In
every lead, and outside every port there was an English man-of-war effectively
stopping all traffic and taking the crew as prisoners, including peaceful
natives minding their own business. The blockade not only stopped the food
supplies, but the timber trade where England was the principal customer also came
to an abrupt halt. (England was dependent on timber for their wharves, and
needless to say, an agreement was soon made, allowing the timber trade to
continue). To make matters worse, the harvest failed completely in 1807. The grain
was still green in the fields when the snow came. Matters did not improve
till 1813. Thousands died from starvation, the old ones first, then the small
children and finally men and women in their best years. Reading the church
records from these years is a heartbreaking experience. In Norwegian history, the
years 1808-1812 are known as the Hunger years, known to any school child.
The mighty epic poem Therie Wiighen by Henrik Ibsen, gives a vivid description
of the conditions.
But let's return to the world affairs and direct out attention towards Sweden and Finland. The latter was not a sovereign state, rather a shuttlecock
between Russia and Sweden, depending on war's luck. In 1809 the ball was with
Sweden, but Czar Alexander invaded Finland and the Swedes had just time to flee.
The Swedish nobility did not find this to their liking and removed the King
from his office, choosing another one answering more to their expectations.
Unfortunately, they discovered a little too late that the new King, a cousin
of the former, was a little off his marbles, not putting too fine a point upon
it. In reality, it was the Crown Prince, the new King's son, who was the
ruler. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1810, and Sweden was faced with a
useless King without issue in an international situation which demanded brains
and determination. They had to act quickly, and instead of shopping around in
the Royal houses, they asked one of Napoleon's generals, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte if he kindly would be their new Crown Prince with firm prospects of
becoming King. Bernadotte conferred with his superior, Emperor Napoleon, who
consented, believing he then could add Sweden to his empire. Unfortunately for
Napoleon, his best general , now known as Crown Prince Carl Johan, turned
against him and joined the allies. What Napoleon said when hearing the news is not
known, but can be imagined.
Let's now return to the assembly in Kiel, January 1814, where the victors
were sharing their spoils. Because Bernadotte, or Carl Johan, had been so
obliging, he deserved a reward. Bernadotte wanted Finland back, but as Czar
Alexander also was among the victors, that was regrettably impossible. But as
compensation, would he accept Norway? What the Norwegians thought of it, nobody
bothered to ask. England, however, wasn't too interested in this upstart
becoming too powerful and lodged objections, but in the end gave way, and Norway
was ceded to Sweden as thanks for Carl Johan's efforts against Napoleon.
The news from the Kiel assembly traveled remarkably fast. King Frederick of
Denmark/Norway realized that Norway was lost, and issued a bulletin to be read in all Norwegian churches. The bulleting relieved the Norwegians from their
allegiance to the Danish King. He also recommended the Norwegians to elect
his cousin, Prince Christian Frederick as their new King.
Prince Christian Frederick acted quickly. By an open letter dated 19th February he called a meeting in every parish where two steps were to be taken. One
was that the people should bind themselves by oath to defend the independence of Norway and be prepared to sacrifice life and blood for the beloved
fatherland. Second, having thus committed themselves to the defiance of the Kiel
Treaty, each parish was to send two representatives, one of whom must be a
farmer, to a national assembly to be held at Eidsvold 9 April. The representatives, known as the Eidsvold Fathers, a medley of 47 officials, 37 peasants, 16
townies and 12 military, gave the country a 110 clause constitution, much
inspired by the American from 38 years before, and the French revolution
constitution 23 years earlier. The constitution stated that Norway was to be a free,
independent and indivisible monarchy and they elected Prince Christian Frederick as their new King. On the May 17th the job was done and the constitution
signed. As the final symbolic act they all joined hands and said in unison:
United and Faithful till Dovre falls. (Dovre is a massive mountain plateau in
the central region - not very likely to fall).
The new Swedish ruler did not like the turn of events, and prepared to take
Norway by force if they wouldn't come voluntarily. It also came to skirmishes
along the border, but no decisive battle. in the meantime, diplomatic battles were fought, particularly between England and Sweden. It was not in English
interests to have a strong Scandinavia. No country, not even Denmark, had so
many connections with Norway as England, and there was no secret that England preferred Norway as a British protectorate rather than a Swedish province.
For ex-general Bernadotte with many successful battle behind him, he just
couldn't lose a war against a small starved, ill-equipped and inexperienced
army, so the outcome seemed given. However, if he was too assertive and powerful, he might get England and the other powers against him. The outcome of the
Napoleonic Wars was still finally to be decided by the Vienna Congress - yet
to come. Neither England nor Austria liked the Swedish upstart, so if not
careful, he might lose his gains.
To save face, he won a couple of minor battles, enough to bring him to the
negotiation table. The entire war lasted eight days. The negotiations took
place in Moss, a small town south of Oslo. Here he promised to honor the new
constitution, provided he was elected King. King Christian Frederick formally
abdicated in favour of Carl Jehan and Norway and Sweden went into a union under
a common Crown.
Seen in retrospect, the terms were extraordinarily generous and Norway was
in a considerably better position than she would have been if a war was fought
with the inevitable result of becoming part of Sweden. Norway remained a
separate country with its own laws and its own government, but in union with
Sweden under a common King. It lasted 91 years. 7 June 1905 Norway broke loose
and elected her own King. But that's another story.
So, in the memorable year 1814, the Norwegians woke up as Danish subjects at
war with England, drew up a constitution, declared independence, chose a
king, fought a war, chose another King and went to bed in peace as Norwegian
subjects, albeit with a Swedish ruler who only spoke French.
Norwegian flag of 1814
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