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European RoyalsNorway

The modern monarchs of Norway

The Norwegian Royal Family at the end of World War II
By Oslo Museum - CC BY-SA 4.0, Wiki Commons

As King Harald marks his 30th year on the Norwegian throne, we’re looking back at the three very modern monarchs of Norway since the dissolution of Sweden and Norway in 1905 and the independence of a Norwegian monarchy.

King Haakon VII

The very first modern monarch of Norway was elected in a plebiscite by the newly-independent people of his soon-to-be country in November 1905, though before that, he was just another prince of Denmark.

Born Prince Christian Frederik Carl Georg Valdemar Axel of Denmark in 1872, Prince Carl was the second son of King Frederick VIII and Queen Louise (his older brother ascended to the Danish throne as King Christian X, grandfather of Queen Margrethe) and spent his formative years in the country, ultimately serving in the Royal Danish Navy.

Prince Carl married his cousin, Princess Maud (daughter of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) in 1896, and their only child, Prince Alexander, was born in 1903.

Destined for a life of military service as the second son of a monarch, it wasn’t expected that Prince Carl would inherit a throne, but when the union between Norway and Sweden dissolved, the country began looking for a prince to assume the mantle, and he became a leading candidate due to his Scandinavian heritage, his pedigree, and his equally royal wife.

When he was offered the Norwegian throne, Prince Carl demurred and asked that the Norwegian people decide in a plebiscite if that was the path they wanted to take, and in November 1905, 79% of the country voted in favour of retaining a monarchy with Prince Carl as their king.

King Haakon VII and Queen Maud of Norway
King Haakon VII and Queen Maud of Norway
(By Peder O. Aune, CC BY 2.0, Wiki Commons)

Prince Carl became King Haakon VII and his wife became Queen Maud. Their son, Prince Alexander, became Crown Prince Olav. He chose the motto Alt for Norge and immediately went to work on his relationship with his new country.

The early years of his reign were dedicated to learning everything he could about Norway, from its politics to its culture and history. He was introduced to skiing by polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen and became an avid sportsman (a tradition continued by his son and grandson); and his frugality was much appreciated by the people. “Given the debate about Norway’s form of government, the King felt it was important to maintain a modest lifestyle. This was in keeping with Norwegian tradition and reflected the fact that Norway was not a wealthy country,” the Royal House notes.

A lot of Haakon’s decisions and traditions remain to this day, including a children’s parade in front of the Royal Palace in Oslo ahead of Norwegian Constitution Day in May. He exercised his duties as a constitutional monarch and left much of the decision-making to elected government officials, though was always kept abreast at what was happening in the country. He was also very interested in foreign affairs and military affairs, and helped lead Norway through the First World War with its neutrality in place. During the Second World War, Haakon had to flee Nazi occupation and worked with his government from a safe post in England, where he spent the entirety of the war.

The Royal House notes that “King Haakon became the foremost symbol of the Norwegian people’s will to fight for a free and independent Norway, and his radio broadcasts from London served as a source of inspiration for young and old alike.”

Upon his return, along with the rest of the Royal Family, following the war, he was greeted with adoration by the Norwegian people. He toured the country to see how the war had devastated the land and led rebuilding efforts.

In his later years, he spent much of his time aboard his yacht, Norge, a gift from the Norwegian people on his 75th birthday. King Haakon VII died on 21 September 1957 aged 85, and was succeeded by his only child, Olav.

King Olav V

King Olav, like his father, was not born to be a king, but through a quirk of fate he found himself first in line to the newly-independent Norwegian throne at only two years old and by the time of his death in 1991, was known as ‘the People’s King.’

Born Prince Alexander Edward Christian Frederick on 2 July 1903, he was the only child of then-Prince Carl and then-Princess Maud. He was born in England but raised in Denmark for the first years of his life. Just after his second birthday, his father became King Haakon VII of Norway and he became Crown Prince Olav.

He was the first heir to grow up in Norway since the Middle Ages, and followed the royal tradition of military service as soon as he was old enough. Olav graduated from the Norwegian Military Academy with the fourth best scores in his year, then followed up his studies with coursework at Balliol College, Oxford. Unlike his father, when he went into active military service, he joined the army; starting as First Lieutenant and graduating up to Colonel by 1936.

His military knowledge was extensive and strategic, and he was praised as one of the best military men of the era, and an asset to the Allies as the world veered on the edge of the Second World War. He initially wanted to stay in Norway despite Nazi Occupation, though it was deemed too dangerous, and he reluctantly left for England in 1940, joining his father for the government-in-exile there, though he continued to provide military and tactical support.

King Haakon VII, Crown Prince Olav of Norway
King Haakon VII with the then Crown Prince Olav during World War II (Wiki Commons)

After the war ended, Olav returned to Norway before his father, and served as regent for the short period until Haakon VII also returned. Olav continued to support his father over the next decade, acting as regent on several occasions.

Like his father before him, Olav was a sportsman and represented Norway at the 1928 Summer Olympics, winning a gold medal in sailing; he also loved skiing and ski-jumping. His passion for sailing never abated, and Olav was known to be out on the ocean when he found the time.

Olav married his Swedish cousin, Princess Märtha, in 1929 and the couple had three children: Princess Ragnhild, Princess Astrid, and Prince Harald, his heir, born in 1937. Unfortunately, Crown Princess Märtha succumbed to cancer in 1954.

In 1957, Olav ascended to the throne following his father’s death, becoming King Olav V. He was extremely popular with the Norwegian people and endeavoured to be as normal a monarch as possible, which meant he usually drove his own cars or walked around without bodyguards (he once explained that every person in Norway was his bodyguard, and that he was unafraid to walk without official bodyguards).

Without a queen at his side, Olav relied on his daughters during the early years of his reign, however when his son married in 1968, Harald’s bride, Crown Princess Sonj,a became the first lady in Norway and undertook official engagements with her father-in-law.

Olav, also like his father, endeavoured to let the democratically elected government officials make the governing decisions, and instead focused on social issues. He notably gave a speech about immigration and discrimination one New Year’s Eve, and was unafraid of making his feelings known.

Olav represented Norway on the world stage and undertook several royal tours on behalf of the country. He spoke at the United Nations General Assembly and enjoyed his image as a ‘People’s King’ beloved by Norwegians.

In January 1991, Olav became unexpectedly ill again. He’d suffered a period of ill health the year prior, but had, by all accounts, made a great recovery. Olav passed away on 17 January, plunging Norway into deep mourning for their popular king. The grounds outside the Royal Palace became a sea of candles as mourners passed through.

Olav, who was 87 at the time of his death, was succeed by his only son, Harald.

King Harald V

At the time of his birth in 1937, Harald was the first Norwegian prince born in the country for 567 years.

Harald was born on 21 February 1937, the third child and only son of Crown Prince Olav and Crown Prince Märtha. Raised on the Skaugum Estate with his older sisters Ragnhild and Astrid, Harald enjoyed an idyllic few years before he and his family were evacuated from Norway due to the Nazi occupation, which began in 1940 and lasted the duration of the war.

Harald spent those war years in the United States and was present when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in for a fourth term in 1945. After the war, Harald and the Crown Prince’s Family (minus his father, who’d been in England with King Haakon running a government-in-exile) returned to Norway and he enrolled in a state school that autumn, becoming the first Norwegian royal to do so.

Harald’s mother passed away in 1954, when he was 17 years old, and the following year he began university studies at the University of Oslo. In 1959, he graduated from the Royal Norwegian Military Academy, by then the Crown Prince of Norway. He continued his studies in England, beginning in 1960 at Balliol College, Oxford, and read history, politics and economics.

Harald and Sonja of Norway on their wedding day
King Olav with Harald and Sonja on their wedding day. The King showed his support for the couple by walking the bride down the aisle
(By Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway) from Oslo, Norway, Wikimedia Commons)

Much like his father and grandfather, Harald was a keen sportsman and avid sailor, and represented Norway at the Olympics in 1964 (where he was flagbearer), 1968 and 1972. His marriage in 1968, to Norwegian commoner Sonja Haraldsen, caused a stir given her background, and the couple were forced to date (for many years in secret) before Harald issued an ultimatum to his father: either he married Sonja or he’d never marry and the line would die with him. Olav gave his blessing and the couple were married on 29 August.

Harald and Sonja have two children, Crown Prince Haakon (born in 1973) and Princess Märtha Louise (born in 1971). The line of succession was only changed in 1990 to ensure that absolute primogeniture is the law, otherwise Princess Märtha Louise (who has said she was offered the choice to be heir presumptive) would be her father’s successor.

Harald became King of Norway in January 1991 upon the death of his father, and was consecrated alongside his wife (who became the first Norwegian queen to be born a commoner) later that year. Harald’s reign has been marked by maintaining the status quo set by his grandfather and father, focusing on the social issues and allowing the government to govern. Lately, the Royal House notes, his focus has been on children and their welfare.

His reign has also seen a much more open and visible Royal Family and court, and has ushered in social changes including two commoner in-laws in Crown Princess Mette-Marit and the late Ari Behn (who had been married to Princess Märtha Louise), and a much more open approach to media coverage. He has also opened up royal residences to the public, making these venues accessible to the public for the first time in many cases.

Harald marks his 30th anniversary on the Norwegian throne this year.

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.