Norway may have become the epitome of a modern, peaceful country, but its history is soaked in blood. How one led to the other is one of world history’s great epics. It is a story peopled with picaresque characters and always revolving around recurring grand themes – a battle against the hostile elements, the advanced and adventurous spirit of the Vikings, the undercurrent of Christianity and the perennial struggle to be taken seriously as a sovereign, independent country.
Some of the most lasting impressions travellers carry with them after visiting Norway – a land of snow and ice, a bountiful coast, extreme climatic conditions and a thinly populated land – have been present here since the dawn of Scandinavian civilisation. Indeed, the human presence in Norway was for thousands of years overshadowed by Norway’s geography and climate, which have strong claims to being the most enduring personalities of Norwegian history.
During the last ice age, Norway was barely inhabitable. If Norway was less than hospitable, it was a paradise compared to northern Russia at the time and, as the ice began to melt, it was from the east that the first major, lasting migration to Norway took place when, around 11, 000 years ago, the Komsa, who would later become the Sami, arrived in Norway’s Arctic north.
As the climate warmed and Norway became increasingly habitable, migrations of the Nøstvet-Økser people of central Europe began arriving along the southern Norwegian coast, drawn by relatively plentiful fishing, sealing and hunting. Wild reindeer also followed the retreating ice, moving north into the still-ice-bound interior, and the hunters that followed them were the first humans to traverse the Norwegian high country. Their presence was, however, restricted to itinerant, seasonal camps and there remained few human footholds in an otherwise empty land dominated by glaciers and frozen wastes.
Over the millennia that followed, settled cultures began to take root, to the extent that during the later years of the Roman Empire, Rome provided Norway with fabric, iron implements and pottery. The iron tools allowed farmland to be cleared of trees, larger boats were built with the aid of iron axes and a cooling climate saw the establishment of more permanent structures built from stone and turf. By the 5th century Norwegians had learned how to smelt their own iron from ore found in the southern Norwegian bogs. Norway’s endless struggle to tame its wild landscape had begun.
Few historical people have captured the imagination quite like the Vikings. Immortalised in modern cartoons (Asterix and Hägar the Horrible to name just a few) and considered the most feared predators of ancient Europe, the Vikings may have disappeared from history, but as a seafaring nation with its face turned towards distant lands, they remain very much the forerunners of modern Norway. But who were these ancient warriors who took to their longboats and dominated Europe for five centuries?
Under pressure from shrinking agricultural land caused by a growing population, settlers from Norway began arriving along the coast of the British Isles in the 780s. When the boats returned home to Norway with enticing trade goods and tales of poorly defended coastlines, the Vikings began laying plans to conquer the world. The first Viking raid took place on St Cuthbert’s monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 793. Soon the Vikings were spreading across Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe with war on their minds and returning home with slaves (thrall) in their formidable, low Norse longboats.
The Vikings attacked in great fleets, terrorising, murdering, enslaving, assimilating or displacing local populations. Coastal regions of Britain, Ireland, France (Normandy was named for these ‘Northmen’), Russia (as far east as the river Volga), Moorish Spain (Seville was raided in 844), and the Middle East (they even reached Baghdad) all came under the Viking sway. Well-defended Constantinople (Istanbul) proved a bridge too far – the Vikings attacked six times but never took the city. Such rare setbacks notwithstanding, the Viking raids transformed Scandinavia from an obscure backwater on Europe’s northern fringe to an all-powerful empire.
For all of their destruction elsewhere, Vikings belonged very much to the shores from which they set out or sheltered on their raids. Viking raids increased standards of living at home. Emigration freed up farmland and fostered the emergence of a new merchant class, while captured slaves provided farm labour. Norwegian farmers also crossed the Atlantic to settle the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland during the 9th and 10th centuries. The world, it seemed, belonged to the Vikings.
Harald Hårfagre (Harald Fair-Hair), son of Svarta-Hvaldan (Halvdan the Black), was more than the latest in a long line of great Viking names. While most Viking chieftains made their name in foreign conquest, Harald Fair-Hair was doing something that no other leader had managed before – he united the disparate warring tribes of the Viking nation.
Harald’s greatest moment came in 872 at Hafrsfjord near Haugesund when he emerged victorious from one of world history’s few civil wars to be decided at sea. When the dust settled, Norway had become a single country.
The reign of Harald Hårfagre was such an odd and entertaining time that it was recorded for posterity in the Heimskringla, the Norwegian kings’ saga, by Icelander Snorre Sturluson. According to Snorre, Harald’s unification of Norway was inspired by a woman who taunted the king by refusing to have relations with a man whose kingdom wasn’t even as large as tiny Denmark. Through a series of confederations and trade agreements, he extended his rule as far north as what is now Trøndelag. His foreign policies were equally canny, and he even sent one of his sons, Håkon, to be reared in the court of King Athelstan of England. There is no record of whether the woman in question was sufficiently impressed. Harald died of plague at Avaldsnes on Karmøy Island around 930.
The king who unified the country could do little about his own family, however. He married 10 wives and fathered a surfeit of heirs, thereby creating serious squabbles over succession. The one who rose above them all was Erik, his last child and only son with Ragnhild the Mighty, daughter of the Danish King Erik of Jutland. The ruthless Erik eliminated all of his legitimate brothers except Håkon (who was safe in England). Erik, whose reign was characterised by considerable ineptitude, then proceeded to squander his father’s hard-won Norwegian confederation. When Håkon returned from England to sort out the mess as King Håkon den Gode (Håkon the Good), Erik was forced to flee to Britain where he took over the throne of York as King Erik Blood-Axe.
The Vikings gave Norwegians their love of the sea and it was during the late Viking period that they bequeathed to them another of their most enduring national traits – strong roots in Christianity – although this overturning of the Viking pantheon of gods did not come without a struggle.
King Håkon the Good, who had been baptised a Christian during his English upbringing, brought the new faith (as well as missionaries and a bishop) with him upon his return to Norway. Despite some early success, most Vikings remained loyal to Thor, Odin and Freyr. Although the missionaries were eventually able to replace the names of the gods with those of Catholic saints, the pagan practice of blood sacrifice continued unabated. When Håkon the Good was defeated and killed in 960, Norwegian Christianity all but disappeared.
Christianity in Norway was revived during the reign of King Olav Tryggvason (Olav I). Like any good Viking, Olav decided that only force would work to convert his countrymen to the ‘truth’. Unfortunately for the king, his intended wife, Queen Sigrid of Sweden, refused to convert. Olav cancelled the marriage contract and Sigrid married the pagan king, Svein Forkbeard of Denmark. Together they orchestrated Olav’s death in a great Baltic sea-battle, then took Norway as their own.
Christianity was finally cemented in Norway by King Olav Haraldsson, Olav II, who was also converted in England. Olav II and his Viking hordes allied themselves with King Ethelred and managed to save London from a Danish attack under King Svein Forkbeard by destroying London Bridge (from whence we derive the song ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’). Succeeding where his namesake had failed, Olav II spread Christianity with considerable success. In 1023 Olav built a stone cross in Voss, where it still stands, and in 1024 he founded the Church of Norway. After an invasion by King Canute (Knut) of Denmark in 1028, Olav II died during the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. For Christians, this amounted to martyrdom and the king was canonised as a saint; the great Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim stands as a memorial to St Olav and, until the Protestant Reformation, the cathedral served as a destination for pilgrims from all over Europe. His most lasting legacy, however, was having forged a lasting identity for Norway as an independent kingdom.
Of the kings who followed, none distinguished themselves quite as infamously as Harald III (Harald Hardråda, or Harald ‘Hard-Ruler’), half-brother of St Olav. Harald III raided throughout the Mediterranean, but it was a last hurrah for the Vikings. When he was killed during an ill-conceived raid in England in 1066, the Viking air of invincibility was broken. Snorre Sturluson’s King Harald’s Saga loosely follows the events of Harald’s life.
The Vikings may have been fast disappearing into history, but Viking expansionism, along with the coming of Christianity, planted the seeds – of success, of decline – for what was to come. As Norway’s sphere of international influence shrank, Norway’s neighbours began to close in, leaving this one-time world power having to fight for its independence.
In 1107 Sigurd I led an expedition of 60 ships to the Holy Land. Three years later, he captured Sidon, in modern-day Lebanon. But by this stage foreign conquest had become a smokescreen for serious internal problems. Sigurd died in 1130 and the rest of the century was fraught with brutal civil wars over succession to the throne. The victorious King Sverre, a churchman-turned-warrior, paved the way for Norway’s so-called ‘Golden Age’, which saw Bergen claim the title of national capital, driven by Norway’s perennial ties to foreign lands and, in particular, trade between coastal towns and the German-based Hanseatic League. Perhaps drawn by Norway’s economic boom, Greenland and Iceland voluntarily joined the Kingdom of Norway in 1261 and 1262, respectively.
But Norway’s role as a world power was on the wane and Norway was turning inward. Håkon V built brick and stone forts, one at Vardø to protect the north from the Russians, and another at Akershus, in 1308, to defend Oslo harbour. The transfer of the national capital from Bergen to Christiania (to become Oslo) soon followed. When Håkon V’s grandson Magnus united Norway with Sweden in 1319, Norway began a decline that would last for 200 years. Once-great Norway had become just another province of its neighbours.
In August 1349 the Black Death arrived in Norway on board an English ship via Bergen. The bubonic plague would eventually kill one-third of Europe’s population. In Norway, land fell out of cultivation, towns were ruined, trading activities faltered and the national coffers decreased by 65%. In Norway, as much as 80% of the nobility perished. Because their peasant workforce had also been decimated, the survivors were forced to return to the land, forever changing the Norwegian power-base and planting the seeds for an egalitarianism that continues to define Norway to this day.
By 1387 Norway had lost control of Iceland and 10 years later, Queen Margaret of Denmark formed the Kalmar Union of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, with Eric of Pomerania as king. Margaret’s neglect of Norway continued into the 15th century, when trade links with Iceland were broken and the Greenland colonies mysteriously disappeared without trace.
In 1469 Orkney and Shetland were pawned – supposedly a temporary measure – to the Scottish Crown by the Danish-Norwegian King Christian I, who had to raise money for his daughter’s dowry. Just three years later the Scots annexed both island groups.
Buffeted by these winds of change Norway had become a shadow of its former self. The only apparent constant was the country’s staunch Christian faith. But even in the country’s faith there were fundamental changes afoot. In 1537, the Reformation replaced the incumbent Catholic faith with Lutheran Protestantism and the transformation of the Norway of the Vikings was all but complete.
Talk to many Norwegians and you’re likely to find that there’s no love lost between them and their neighbours, Denmark and Sweden. Here’s why.
A series of disputes between the Danish Union and the Swedish crown were played out on Norwegian soil. First came the Seven Years War (1563–70), followed by the Kalmar War (1611–14). Trondheim, for example, was repeatedly captured and recaptured by both sides and during the Kalmar War an invasion of Norway was mounted from Scotland.
In two further wars during the mid-17th century Norway lost a good portion of its territory to Sweden. The Great Nordic War with the expanding Swedish Empire was fought in the early 18th century and in 1716 the Swedes occupied Christiania (Oslo). The Swedes were finally defeated in 1720, ending over 150 years of warfare.
Despite attempts to re-establish trade with Greenland through the formation of Norwegian trading companies in Bergen in 1720, Danish trade restrictions scuppered the nascent economic independence. As a consequence, Norway was ill-equipped to weather the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’, from 1738 to 1742. The failure of crops ensured a period of famine and the death of one-third of Norwegian cattle, not to mention thousands of people.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain blockaded Norway, causing the Danes to surrender on 14 January 1814. The subsequent Treaty of Kiel presented Norway to Sweden in a ‘Union of the Crowns’. Tired of having their territory divided up by foreign kings, a contingent of farmers, businesspeople and politicians gathered at Eidsvoll Verk in April 1814 to draft a new constitution and elect a new Norwegian king. Sweden forced the new king, Christian Frederik, to yield and accept the Swedish choice of monarch, Karl Johan. War was averted by a compromise that provided for devolved Swedish power. Norway’s constitution hadn’t lasted long, but it did suggest that Norwegians had had enough.
Norway may have spent much of the previous centuries as a subservient vassal to foreign occupiers and its days as a world power had long ago ended, but not all was doom and gloom. It took almost a century after their first constitution, not to mention nine centuries after Harald Fair-Hair first unified the country, but Norwegians were determined to once and for all become masters of their own destiny.
During the 19th century, perhaps buoyed by the spirit of the 1814 constitution, Norwegians began to rediscover a sense of their own, independent cultural identity. This nascent cultural revival was most evident in a flowering of musical and artistic expression led by poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen, composer Edvard Grieg and artist Edvard Munch. Language also began to play its part with the development of a unique Norwegian dialect known as landsmål (or Nynorsk). Norway’s first railway, from Oslo to Eidsvoll, was completed in 1854 and Norway began looking at increased international trade, particularly tied to its burgeoning fishing and whaling industries in the Arctic north.
In 1905 a constitutional referendum was held. As expected, virtually no-one in Norway favoured continued union with Sweden. The Swedish king, Oskar II, was forced to recognise Norwegian sovereignty, abdicate and re-instate a Norwegian constitutional monarchy, with Haakon VII on the throne. His descendants rule Norway to this day with decisions on succession remaining under the authority of the storting (parliament). Oslo was declared the national capital of the Kingdom of Norway.
Newly independent Norway quickly set about showing the world that it was a worthy international citizen. In 1911 the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Two years later Norwegian women became among the first in Europe to be given the vote. Hydroelectric projects sprang up all around the country and prosperous new industries emerged to drive the increasingly healthy export economy.
Having emerged from WWI largely unscathed – Norway was neutral, although some Norwegian merchant vessels were sunk by the Germans – Norway grew in confidence. In 1920 the storting voted to join the newly formed League of Nations, a move that was opposed only by the Communist-inspired Labour Party, an increasingly militant and revolutionary party that dominated the storting by 1927. The 1920s also brought new innovations, including the development of factory ships, which allowed processing of whales at sea and caused an increase in whaling activities, especially around Svalbard and in the Antarctic.
Trouble, however, lay just around the corner. The Great Depression of the late 1920s and beyond almost brought Norway to its knees. By December 1932 there was 42% unemployment and farmers were hit especially hard by the economic downturn.
Norway had chosen a bad time to begin asserting its independence. The clouds of war were gathering in Europe and although Norway had been spared the ravages of WWI, it could not escape for long.
By the early 1930s Fascism had begun to spread throughout Europe. Unlike during WWI, Norway found itself swept up in the violent convulsions sweeping Europe. In 1933 the former Norwegian defence minister Vidkun Quisling formed a Norwegian fascist party, the Nasjonal Samling. The Germans invaded Norway on 9 April 1940, prompting King Håkon and the royal family to flee into exile, while British, French, Polish and Norwegian forces fought a desperate rearguard action.
Six southern towns were burnt out and despite some Allied gains the British, who were out on a limb, abandoned Arctic Norway to its fate. In Oslo, the Germans established a puppet government under Vidkun Quisling, whose name thereafter entered the lexicon as a byword for those collaborators who betray their country.
Having spent centuries fighting for a country to call their own, the Norwegians didn’t take lightly to German occupation. In particular, the Norwegian resistance network distinguished itself in sabotaging German designs, often through the assistance of daring Shetland fishermen who smuggled arms across the sea to western Norway. Among the most memorable acts of defiance was the famous commando assault of February 1943 on the heavy water plant at Vemork, which was involved in the German development of an atomic bomb.
The Germans exacted bitter revenge on the local populace and among the civilian casualties were 630 Norwegian Jews who were sent to central European concentration camps. Serbian and Russian prisoners of war were coerced into slave labour on construction projects in Norway, and many perished from the cold and an inadequate diet. The high number of worker fatalities during the construction of the Arctic Highway through the Saltfjellet inspired its nickname, the blodveien (blood road).
Finnmark suffered particularly heavy destruction and casualties during the war. In Altafjorden and elsewhere, the Germans constructed submarine bases, which were used to attack convoys headed for Murmansk and Arkhangelsk in Russia, so as to disrupt the supply of armaments to the Russians.
In early 1945, with the Germans facing an escalating two-front war and seeking to delay the Russian advance into Finnmark, the German forces adopted a scorched-earth policy and devastated northern Norway, burning fields, forests, towns and villages. Shortly after the German surrender of Norway, Quisling was executed by firing squad and other collaborators were sent off to prison.
Although there were initial fears in the post-war years that Norway would join the Eastern Bloc of Communist countries under the Soviet orbit – the Communist party made strong gains in post-war elections and even took part in coalition governments – the Iron Curtain remained firmly in place at the Russian border. More than that, Norway made a clear statement of intent in 1946 when it became a founding member of the UN. Ever conscious of its proximity to Russia, the country also abandoned its neutrality by joining NATO in 1949. Letting bygones be bygones, Norway joined with other Scandinavian countries to form the Nordic Council in 1952.
There was just one problem: Norway was broke and in desperate need of money for reconstruction, particularly in the Arctic north. At first, it appeared that the increasingly prosperous merchant navy and whaling fleet would provide a partial solution. Norway struggled through (post-war rationing continued until 1952) as best it could.
That would soon change in the most dramatic way possible. Oil was discovered in the North Sea in the late 1960s and the economy boomed, transforming Norway from one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of its richest.
Since oil transformed the Norwegian economy, successive socialist governments (and short-lived conservative ones) have used the windfalls (alongside high income taxes and service fees) to foster one of the most extensive social welfare systems in history, with free medical care and higher education, as well as generous pension and unemployment benefits. It adds up to what the government claims is the ‘most egalitarian social democracy in Western Europe’.