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The death of King Olav V

Harald and Sonja of Norway on their wedding day
By Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway) from Oslo, Norway - Ekteparet Sonja og Harald hilser publikum fra slottsbalkongen sammen med HM Kong Olav, No restrictions, Wikimedia Commons

On 17 January 1991, King Olav of Norway suffered a fatal heart attack, following nearly a year of health problems, and passed away at the age of 87. He was succeeded by his son, Harald, who marks 30 years on the Norwegian throne today.

Though he’d been born Prince Alexander of Denmark at Sandringham in the United Kingdom, once his father was named king of a newly independent Norway, Alexander, whose name was changed to Olav, became a Norwegian icon. He was often referred to as the Folkekongen – the People’s King.

In Olav’s obituary from The New York Times, they wrote, “Olav’s egalitarian geniality was epitomised in a popular photograph of him in the early 1970s, carrying skis aboard a local train on the way from the royal palace in Oslo to a nearby slope. At the time, his subjects were being exhorted to use public transit to conserve oil, nearly a decade before North Sea explorations made Norway an important oil and gas producer.”

Olav had been ill since the summer of 1990 when he suffered a stroke and his son, Crown Prince Harald became regent. Just prior to his stroke, he’d been travelling around the country attending celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the defeat of Nazis in Norway. He rallied, though, and seemed to have made a partial recovery by Christmas; however, mid-January 1991, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

His family rushed to his bedside at the Royal Lodge, and it was there that he passed away at the age of 87. His son, Crown Prince Harald, succeeded him immediately as King and was said to be so shocked by the events that when a doctor called for “Your Majesty,” that it wasn’t until a relative prodded him that he realised the doctor was talking to him.

In the past, King Harald has hinted at his father’s grief over the first Gulf War, which started the day Olav died, as a trigger for the fatal heart attack. Olav had been central in Norway’s resistance efforts during the Second World War and would have clearly remembered his father’s work on behalf of the country during that difficult time.

Olav passed away on a Thursday evening, and the Norwegian Royal Family attended a special service at the Royal Chapel in Oslo on Sunday. Outside the Royal Palace in Oslo, mourners lit thousands of candles in honour of their beloved King.

At the time of his death, Olav was the oldest reigning European monarch (a milestone since passed by Queen Elizabeth II, who is currently 94-years-old).

His funeral was held on 30 January 1991, attended by royals including Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrik and Prince Joachim of Denmark; King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden; Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands; King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía of Spain; King Constantine and Queen Anne-Marie of Greece; The Prince of Wales and The Princess Royal; Grand Duke Jean and Grand Duchess Joséphine Charlotte of Luxembourg; Prince Hans-Adam of Liechtenstein; Prince Albert of Monaco; Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn of Thailand; and Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan.

He was buried next to his wife, Crown Princess Märtha, who predeceased him by 37 years, at the Royal Mausoleum.

About author

Jess is the Senior Royal Reporter and Editorial Assistant at Royal Central. Her interest in royalty started in her teenage years, coinciding with The Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002 and grew from there. She specializes in the British Royal Family (with emphasis on the Cambridges) and the Danish Royal Family, and has provided royal commentary for media outlets in Canada, the United States, the UK and Australia.