17th May and the Memorable Year 1814

by Geir Ottesen, Norway

This article was posted on the Norway List by one of Geir's US friends.  She introduced him and this article as follows:

     "The author, who is an amateur genealogist and historian, explains how Norway, at the time one of the poorest countries in Europe with a population of 800,000, managed to obtain independence as a result of the Napoleonic wars, the bickering between the great European powers, national determination and a portion of luck." (Thanks Dee)


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 Norway's birthday.

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 one. 

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

==== NORWAY Mailing List ====
Karla's Norwaylist webpages for books, music, lookups, recipes, maps, links


Return to 17th of May Greetings Page