History of Norway

History of Norway
The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

Early History

Archaeological findings indicate that Norway was inhabited at least since early in the 6th millennium BC. Pytheas description of Thule as a land six days sailing north of Britain, where there is no nightfall in summer, might be the first written reference to Norway. Later Scandinavia is known for its Iron Age culture. Most historians agree that the core of the populations colonising Scandinavia came from the present-day Germany.

From around the time of the Roman Empire until about 800 AD, many stone inscriptions can be found, written in Runes. In the first centuries AD, Norway consisted of a number of petty kingdoms. According to tradition, Harald Fairhair (Harald Hårfagre) unified them into one, in 872 AD after the Battle of Hafrsfjord in Stavanger, thus becoming the first king of a united Norway.

Viking Age

The period from 800-1066 AD is referred to in Norwegian history as the Viking age. During this period, Norwegians, as well as Swedes and Danes, travelled abroad on longships, as raiders, explorers, settlers and traders. Viking raids affected large parts of Europe. The Norwegian Vikings mainly travelled west, to Britain and Ireland. Emigrants from Norway colonised Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. From Iceland, Greenland was also colonised, and voyages were even made to North America, where remains of Viking dwellings have been found in Newfoundland.

Several historic works, known as the kings’ sagas were written in Norway and Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries, the best known of which is Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (ca. 1220). These provide our main sources for the early history of Norway. However, their accuracy for the earliest period is uncertain, and a much debated topic among modern historians. The stories about the earliest times are partly legendary in nature, and can hardly be taken as accurate history.

The period of the Viking age coincides with the first consolidation of a single Norwegian kingdom. By the time of the first historical records of these events, about the 700s AD, Norway was divided into several petty kingdoms. It is also assumed that Danish rulers often held sway in the Oslofjord-area.

King Harald Fairhair is the king who is credited by later tradition as having unified Norway into one kingdom. According to the sagas, he ruled Norway from approximately 872 to 930. Modern historians assume that his rule was limited to the coastal areas of southern Norway. Kings of Norway until King Olav IV, who died in 1387, claimed descent from Harald Fairhair. After Harald’s death, the unity of the kingdom was not preserved, and for the next century, the kingdom was variously ruled, wholly or in part, by descendants of King Harald or by earls under the suzerainty of Denmark.

During this period, Christianity was introduced to Norway, probably mainly from the British Isles. In terms of church organisation, Norway remained part of the Archdiocese of Bremen until 1152 or 1153. The first Norwegian king to have adopted Christianity was, according to the sagas, Harald Fairhair’s son, King Haakon the Good (ca. 934-961). Haakon did not force his subjects to accept the new religion. His successors, Olaf Tryggvason (ca. 995-1000), and Olaf Haraldsson (1015-1028), resorted to forceful means to convert the Norwegian people. Olaf Haraldsson was probably the first King of Norway to extend his rule to the inland regions of eastern Norway, and to have ruled more or less the whole of the present-day country. His death in the battle of Stiklestad in 1030 is traditionally considered a milestone in the history of the Christianisation of the country, although religion was not one of the issues at stake in that battle. After his death, Olaf was revered as a saint. He became the patron saint of Norway, and by the end of the century, Christianity was the only religion allowed in the country. In theory, later kings of Norway were said to hold the kingdom as vassals of St. Olav.

After Olaf’s death, Norway was ruled from Denmark, as part of the “North Sea Empire” of King Knut the Great. However, Knut was the last Danish king to rule Norway for more than three centuries, and already in 1035, Olaf’s son, Magnus the Good took the throne. His successor, King Harald Hardrada attempted the invasion of England in 1066, but was beaten and killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge, an event which is generally considered the end of the Viking Age.

Middle Ages

By the middle of the 11th century, the Norwegian kingdom was firmly established, although there was still only a very rudimentary administrative framework. The establishment of cities gathered pace, and by the end of the 11th century, the three largest cities of modern-day Norway, Oslo, Trondheim (Nidaros) and Bergen (Bjørgvin) were flourishing, as well as Tønsberg, the most important city in Eastern Norway until ca. 1300. King Olaf Kyrre (1067-1093) was the first Norwegian king to be literate. The Church gradually developed its organisation, and the archdiocese of Nidaros was established in 1152 or 1153. By that time, there were five dioceses in mainland Norway, with bishops in Nidaros, Bjorgvin, Stavanger, Oslo and Hamar. The islands of the North Sea, which had been colonised from Norway, were also part of the archdiocese of Nidaros. Orkney, Shetland and the Faeroe Islands were subject to the Norwegian king. The Hebrides and the Isle of Man were made subject to Norway by King Magnus Barefoot ca. 1100. The rulers of these islands held the title of “king” themselves, but recognised the suzerainty of the Norwegian king. The extent to which the Norwegian king was able to exercise his rule over all of these islands was highly variable, and dependent on the individual kings.

According to the succession practices of the time, all sons of the king had the same right to inherit their father, and this also included illegitimate sons. This led to periods when there were several kings at the same time, at several times three, on one occasion even four. The division of the kingdom does not appear to have been geographical, when there were more than one king, all were kings of the whole country, but they divided the royal income. The unclear succession laws, and the frequent divisions of the kingdom, combined with social and economic conflicts, were some of the main causes of the civil war era, the name given to the period between 1130 and 1240. The civil wars started with the disputed succession after King Sigurd the Crusader, who died in 1130, and flared up at shorter or longer intervals for over a century. In the 1160s, the Church got involved, and made King Magnus Erlingsson the first Norwegian king to be crowned, in 1163 or 1164. The first written succession law was written at this time, stipulating one king, who had to be of legitimate birth. However, this law never came into force, as King Magnus was defeated and killed by Sverre Sigurdsson, who became King Sverre. Sverre was excommunicated by the Church, and the country was placed under an interdict. Although constantly challenged by various pretenders, Sverre fended off his rivals, and when he died in 1202, he was the first King of Norway to have died of natural causes since 1130. By this time, the warring factions had coalesced into two groups: The birchlegs, King Sverre’s party, and the bagler, who were supported by the Church, and tried to place descendants of King Magnus Erlingsson on the throne. From 1208 to 1217, the country was divided between these two factions by a peace treaty. In 1217, the kings of both factions died, and both accepted the young King Haakon Haakonsson as king. Haakon defeated the last royal pretender in 1240, thus ending the civil war era.

The extent to which the civil wars adversely affected the general population at the time has been debated by recent historians. What is clear is that the country came out of the civil wars in 1240 as a much more unified and consolidated kingdom than it had been in 1130. The rule of King Haakon and his successors until 1319 has sometimes been called the golden age of the Norwegian medieval kingdom, by later historians. Under King Haakon Haakonsson, a centralised administration was for the first time built up, with a chancellery in Bergen, which became the first capital city of the country. Clear succession laws were put into place, stipulating one single ruler, who had to be of legitimate birth. The Old Norse language, which had first been written with the Latin alphabet in the 12th century, was used in administration, as well as for the composition of original literature, and the translation of foreign literature. Haakon also brought Iceland and Greenland under Norwegian rule, in the early 1260s, at which point the kingdom of Norway reached its largest territorial extent. Haakon died in 1266 while on campaign against Scotland, defending his claim to the overlordship of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. His successor, King Magnus the Lawmender gave up that claim in the treaty of Perth, but secured Scotland’s recognition of Norwegian rule over Orkney. King Magnus promulgated the first national law-code for all of Norway in 1274, a rare thing in Europe at that time. During the late 13th century, the Norwegian kings attempted to play the part of a great power in international politics, forging wedding alliances with Castile in 1258, and Scotland in 1281. King Eirik II was one of the many claimants for the throne of Scotland in the “Great Cause”, claiming succession from his daughter, Margaret. In 1295, he forged an alliance with France and Scotland against England, whereby Norway undertook to supply the King of France with 300 ships and 50 000 troops. It is clear that Norway could not have the manpower to fulfil the terms of this treaty, however, it was never put to the test.

In 1299, King Haakon V took the throne, and moved the capital of the country to Oslo. Haakon led an active foreign policy, aimed at increasing Norway’s influence in Scandinavia. These policies, which included complex dynastic ties between the Nordic royal houses, were to lead Norway into several centuries of unions with her neighbours. At his death, Haakon left no male issue, and the throne went to his daughter’s son, the King of Sweden, Magnus Eriksson. The union with Sweden was only a personal union, and it was agreed that Magnus’ two sons would inherit one kingdom each. King Magnus abdicated, and his son, Haakon, became King of Norway. However, Haakon, who married Margrethe, the daughter of the Danish king, also vied for the throne of Sweden. Haakon and Margrethe’s son, Olaf, became King of Denmark in 1376. On his father’s death in 1380, Olaf also succeeded to the Norwegian throne, as King Olav IV. With brief exceptions, Norway and Denmark were to be ruled by the same king until 1814.

Kalmar Union & Union with Denmark

In 1319, Sweden and Norway were united under King Magnus Eriksson. In 1349, the Black Death killed between 50% and 60% of the population, resulting in a period of decline, both socially and economically. Ostensibly, royal politics at the time resulted in several personal unions between the Nordic countries, eventually bringing the thrones of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden under the control of Queen Margrethe I of Denmark when the country entered into the Kalmar Union. Although Sweden broke out of the union in 1521, Norway remained until 1814, a total of 436 years. During the national romanticism of the 19th century, this period was by some referred to as the “400-Year Night”, since all of the kingdom’s royal, intellectual and administrative power was centred in Copenhagen, Denmark. Other factors also contributed to Norway’s decline in this period. With the introduction of Protestantism in 1536, the archbishopric in Trondheim was dissolved, and the church’s incomes were distributed to the court in Copenhagen in Denmark instead. Norway lost the steady stream of pilgrims to the relics of St. Olav at the Nidaros shrine, and with them, much of the contact with cultural and economic life in the rest of Europe. Additionally, Norway saw its land area decrease in the 17th century with the loss of the provinces Båhuslen, Jemtland, and Herjedalen to Sweden, as a result of wars between Denmark-Norway and Sweden.

Union with Sweden

In 1814 Denmark-Norway was defeated in the Napoleonic wars and the king was forced to cede Norway to the king of Sweden in the Treaty of Kiel (January 14). The Norwegian dependencies Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands were kept by Denmark. In an attempt to retain control over Norway despite the treaty, the Viceroy and hereditary prince of Denmark-Norway encouraged representatives of various social and political factions to gather at Eidsvoll to declare independence, adopt a constitution and elect hereditary prince Christian Frederik as king. May 17 is still celebrated as the day of the new democratic constitution of independent Norway. Sweden responded later the same year by waging war on Norway. In the peace negotiations, Christian Frederik agreed to relinquish claims to the Norwegian throne and return to Denmark if Sweden would accept the democratic Norwegian constitution and a loose personal union. The Norwegian parliament (Stortinget) then elected the Swedish king as king of Norway on November 4, 1814. When residing in Sweden, the king was represented by a governor-general styled Stattholder, often noble, repeatedly even the Crown Prince (then called Viceroy). The stattholder office, vacant after 1856, was abolished in 1873.

The union was peacefully dissolved in 1905 after several years of political unrest when Sweden recognised Norwegian independence. The parliament offered the throne to Prince Carl of Denmark, who accepted it after a referendum confirmed the monarchy and rejected a republican form of government. On November 18 he ascended the throne under the Norwegian name of Haakon VII.

World War I

Norway remained neutral during World War I, but 829 Norwegian ships were sunk during the war at sea, with the loss of some 2,000 sailors. Despite their neutrality, the Norwegian government went to considerable lengths to accommodate Britain, on account of both British pressure and an anti-German sentiment. These accommodations came in the form of the very large Norwegian merchant fleet, which delivered essential supplies to Britain, which in return supplied Norway with vital coal. This led to Norway occasionally being called ”The Neutral Ally”.

World War II

As World War II erupted, Norway insisted on remaining neutral. In a surprise dawn attack on April 9, 1940, Germany launched Operation Weserübung. The German forces attacked Oslo and the major Norwegian ports (Bergen, Trondheim, Kristiansand and Narvik) and quickly gained footholds in those cities and the surrounding areas. The Norwegian Army, manning a fort in the Oslofjord, sank the German cruiser Blücher. This delayed the Nazi German invasion long enough for King Haakon, his government and the parliament to escape the city with much of the treasury, and to resist the invaders. The Norwegian armed forces, together with allied British, French and Polish forces, kept up an organised military resistance for two months, longer than any other country invaded by Germany, except for the Soviet Union. Eventually, on June 7 the Norwegian forces had to surrender and King and government left Norway to form a government in exile in London.

The Norwegian national socialist politician Vidkun Quisling attempted a coup the same day, but was met with such strong resistance from the people that Nazi Germany deposed him within a week and installed a bureaucratic administration in lieu of a government. In September 1940 the German Reichskommissar Josef Terboven formed a cabinet with himself presiding, and with most ministers recruited among members of Quisling’s Nazi party, plus some independent collaborators. In 1942 this administration was replaced with a semi-independent puppet government headed by Quisling, who was promoted to “minister president” by the Reichskommissar. Quisling’s name has come to mean “traitor” in several languages.

King Haakon and his government fled to Britain on June 7, the same day the allied forces that had retaken Narvik abandoned it and the French forces returned to a quickly disintegrating France. The continued existence of a legitimate Norwegian government gave the exiles considerably more room for action than the French. The worldwide operations of the large Norwegian merchant fleet was a material aid to the Allies.
The Norwegian resistance movement began on a small scale right after the invasion, but gained in strength, especially after the installation of Quisling’s puppet government in late 1940 and its attempt to enforce the native brand of fascism, and to enroll labour, teachers and officials in its organisations.

The resistance became very active towards the end of the war, closely and continuously supported by the British SOE. Norwegian resistance (generally termed the ‘Home Front’), and its military branch (milorg) kept many German divisions tied down in occupation duty, and Norwegian spotters contributed to the destruction of numerous German warships and installations. The Norwegian resistance also smuggled people in and out of Norway during the war (typically to Scotland via the ‘Shetland Bus’, and to neutral Sweden), and, with the SOE, managed to destroy much of the world’s supply of heavy water and cripple the Vemork heavy water plant at Rjukan, thus perhaps preventing Germany from developing an atomic bomb (Operation Gunnerside).

Not all Norwegians sided with the government in exile. 2% of the population became members of Quisling’s National Socialist party (Nasjonal Samling – NS). Numerous opportunists joined his movement initially, while Germany seemed to be winning the war. Six thousand young Norwegians joined German Waffen-SS divisions to fight against the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front.

Following the 1941 raid by British Commandos on the minor port of Vaagsoy, Hitler further reinforced Norway, mistakenly thinking that the British might invade northern Norway to put pressure on Sweden and Finland. By the end of the war the German garrison was 372,000 strong (the Norwegian population at the time numbering a little over 3 million). In May 1945, when the milorg was advised they no longer need act covertly, they were found to number some 50,000 members.

During the entire occupation, the German authorities built the so called Festung Norwegen. Innumerable bunkers, pillboxes, air strips and submarine hangars dotted the coast to fend off any invaders. Coupled with the large number of German soldiers in Norway, the Allies (especially the Norwegian government in exile) were worried that the remnants of the Nazi party would flee to Norway and make their last stand there.

The Norwegian merchant ships that were in Allied waters at the time of invasion were requisitioned by the exiled Norwegian Government in London. The Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission was established in London shortly thereafter, and the name abbreviated to Nortraship, following a suggestion from the British Postal Services. The main duties were those of war transports, supply services etc. including the supply of food, ammunition and reinforcements to the front lines, besides evacuating the wounded. Nortraship had 1,081 ships with 33,000 sailors. 570 ships were lost (these numbers vary according to source), along with 3,734 sailors.

By the end of the war, Norwegian naval vessels were also fighting alongside the British. Norway was counted among the victors in World War II and was a founding member of the United Nations. The first UN Secretary General, Trygve Lie, was a Norwegian.

After the liberation, active members of the National Socialist party and those who had collaborated with the enemy were prosecuted and sentenced. 25 Norwegians, including Quisling, were executed for treason and/or war crimes, and 12 Germans were executed for war crimes.

Post World War II

From 1945 to 1961, the Labour Party held an absolute majority in the parliament. The government, lead by prime minster Einar Gerhardsen embarked on a program inspired by Keynesian economics, emphasizing state financed industrialisation, cooperation between trade unions and employers’ organisations. Many measures of state control of the economy imposed during the war were continued, although the rationing of dairy products were lifted in 1949, while price control and rationing of housing and cars continued as long as until 1960.

The war time alliance with Britain and the US was continued in the post war years. Although pursuing the goal of a socialist economy, the Labour Party distanced itself from the communists (especially after Soviet seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948), and strengthened its foreign policy and defence policy ties with the US. Norway received Marshall aid from 1947, joined the OEEC one year later and NATO in 1949.

Around 1975, both the proportion and absolute number of workers in industry peaked. Since then labour intensive industries and services like factory mass production and shipping have largely been off sourced. In 1969 Philips Petroleum discovered petroleum resources at the Ekofisk field. In 1973 the government founded the State oil company, Statoil. Oil production didn’t become a net income before the early 1980s due to the heavy investments in the petroleum industry required.

Norway was one of the founding members of European Free Trade Area (EFTA). Two referendums to join the European Union failed by narrow margins in 1972 and 1994. In 1981 a conservative government lead by Kåre Willoch replaced Labour with a policy of stimulating the stagflated economy by tax cuts, economic liberalisation, deregulation of markets and measures to curbing of the record high inflation (13,6 % 1981).

Late 20th Century to Present Day

Norway’s first woman prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland of the Labour party, continued many of the reforms of her right wing predecessor, while backing traditional Labour issues like social security, environmentalism and gender equality. By the late 1990s, Norway had paid off foreign debt and started accumulating a sovereign wealth fund. Since the 1990s, one of the dividing issues of politics has been the level of spending of petroleum income.

Norway has advanced in its standard of living beyond many of its European counterparts, in large part to its affluent economy. As a result, for the last several years the UN has ranked Norway as having the highest standard of living in the world. This ranking compares nations’ level of education and income, combined with expected length of life.

Norway also ranked 2nd in a study conducted by World Economic Forum on the gender gap in 58 nations based on measuring the level of equality with men in five areas: Economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Latest Blog Post