Kings, Princes and Norway’s 90 years long civil war

Even though it is Christmas, take some time to learn more about Norway’s history.

We are now 1000 years back in time when Norway broke out in a civil war which lasted for many decades. Around the year 1000, Norway had been established as a separate and stable kingdom. The question was who this kingdom belonged to.

King Harald I Hårfagre and his sons had their power base in Western Norway. In Trøndelag, different lords controlled the area, while the Danish king for long periods controlled the southern Oslo fjord. With King Olav Haraldsson’s death in 1030, Norway became a part of the Danish Empire. However, when Knut the Mighty died in 1035, Danish rule over Norway and England fell.

King Olav’s death during the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo via Wikimedia Commons.

After 1035, Norway was ruled by Norwegian kings, who had occasionally also claimed Denmark. Often there were several kings at the same time, who shared the power. The king’s power lay like a thin mine over self-governing communities. The kings travelled from the royal farms to the royal palaces. The journey was a necessity both for gathering support, weapons, men and for power policy reasons, to ensure supplies and control.

To have several kings at the same time was an appropriate way of governing Norway because the vast distances made it difficult for one king to control the whole kingdom. This way of control demanded of course that the ruling kings were good friends. This was not the case for most of the time, and the rivalry between them was almost permanent.

Hamar church and the fortress of Hamarhus was the only city in Norway`s inland that was central during the civil war. The town was one of Norway’s most powerful for many centuries even after the civil war ended. Photo: Hamar Museum.

The “Civil War” is often considered to start when King Sigurd Jorsalfar’s died in 1130, and there was an open conflict between Sigurd’s son, Magnus and King Harald Gille. When King Magnus Erlingsson was crowned King by the Norwegian Church in 1163, the civil war seemed to be over.

However, the controversy continued when Sverre Sigurdsson came to Norway from the Faroe Islands in 1177. For seven years, he conducted a war against King Magnus Erlingsson, who ended with the death of Magnus in 1184. Then followed a long-standing war among their supporters from 1196.

Tunsberghus fortress was essential during the civil war. This model shows the fort at its largest. Today there are only ruins left of the fortress that was destroyed and burned down in 1503. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

After King Sverre’s death in 1202, the parties approached each other, but it was not until 1240 that the last rebellion against the King’s power was fought down. The question of what was the cause of civil war has been widely discussed among Norwegian historians. Many believed that the troubles were due to an increasing resource crisis in Norway.

One possible reason is that the resource crisis hit the farmers hardest because of the population growth without the resources growing. Another reason could be that the crisis struck the wealthiest men, who had fewer resources after the Viking era ceased, and the King gave land to the church instead of the lords and landowners.

The two-year-old Prince Haakon, who would later end the war of war as King Haakon IV, was safely transported across the mountains by the Norwegian soldiers. Painting by Knud Bergslien via Wikimedia Commons.

When the civil war era in Norway ended, Norway entered the High Middle Age era. This era lasted until the Reformation came to the country in 1537. Norway at this time had both unified state power and an independent church organisation, and the period is characterised by economic prosperity and growth. This was thanks to the unity that was established by King Haakon IV.

King Haakon IV Haakonsson, sometimes called Haakon the Old, was the King of Norway from 1217 to 1263. His reign lasted for 46 years, longer than any Norwegian king since Harald I. Under Haakon’s rule, medieval Norway is considered to have reached its zenith or golden age. His reputation and formidable naval fleet allowed him to maintain friendships with both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, despite their conflict. At the end of his rule both Iceland and the Norse Greenland community were added to his kingdom, leaving Norway at its territorial height.

About author

Senior Europe Correspondent Oskar Aanmoen has a master in military and political history of the Nordic countries. He has written five books on historical subjects and more than 700 articles for Royal Central. He has also interview both Serbian and Norwegian royals. Aanmoen is based in Oslo, Norway.