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When a brave British King secured Norwegian sovereignty

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

This article is dedicated to King Edward VII in appreciation for his endeavours to help Norway re-establish its national independence, 116 years ago.

King Edward VII
King Edward VII

The UK finally left the EU on 31.12.2020 after almost 5 years of obstruction from politicians, media and pundits alike. The elite classes pulled every trick in the book to thwart the decision to leave the union. Nevertheless, a minor majority of British eurosceptics came out winners during the Brexit debacle.

Norway and Great Britain share many cultural values, not least the love for civil liberties and national sovereignty. Norwegians may have been the most sympathetic to the Brexit cause. Norwegians rejected the EU in the 1972 and 1994 referendums, although the political establishment strongly supported membership. Polls show that EU skepticism is growing. 70% of Norwegians oppose the EU today.

Harald Hårfagre - Harald Fairhair
Monument - Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872

Norwegians have a proud national history from the Viking era. Harald Fairhair united a significant number of petty Norse kingships into a single realm in 872 when he defeated his enemies in the battle of Hafrsfjord (close to modern Stavanger). This battle makes the Kingdom of Norway the oldest kingdom in Europe before Denmark (935) and Sweden (970), and even England (927).

Norway also produced its "Magna Carta" in 1276 named Landsloven (the law of the land). While the Magna Carta is known to the world as a hugely significant attempt to limit royal power, the Landslov deserves to be recognized as the earliest comprehensive national law published and put into common use in European history. Later in 1814 Norway got its current Constitution, the second most liberal constitution in the world after the US.

Norway's last King from the middle ages, Olav IV Haakonsen, died 1387, a few decades after the Black Death. From being a significant player in its region, the nation went into obscurity for centuries. Norway lost its independence and came effectively under foreign rule till 1905. First, the all-Scandinavian union Denmark-Sweden-Norway 1397-1523, then as an integrated part of the Danish kingdom (1450-1814) and ultimately a union with Sweden 1814-1905.

Denmark-Norway found itself on the losing side of the Napoleonic wars in 1814 against the allies and the UK. Denmark was forced to cede Norway to Sweden. Norway had many skirmishes with Swedish forces during the Napoleonic wars, and there was little appetite for a new union under Swedish rule. When the Norwegians learnt that Denmark had lost Norway to Sweden, it strongly envigorated the independence movement. However, centuries under foreign rule had made the nation weak, and there was no other realistic alternatives but accepting continuous foreign control.

Political changes happened very quickly from 1814, when the Napoleonic wars drew to a close. Norwegian nationalists plotted to reestablish Norwegian independence once they understood that Denmark would lose the war as an ally to Napoleon and France. Norway aimed to get the institutional arrangements completed before the Swedish King Karl Johan returned from the continent with the battle-hardened Swedish army. A Norwegian Assembly of notables elected a King in February, and on May 17, 1814 Norway enacted a Constitution and proclaimed independence.

Sweden became infuriated and threatened with war. Four major powers attempted to mediate. Despite sympathy for Norway, not least from the UK, the arbitration ended with no results and war broke out between Norway and Sweden on July 26. Sweden had the strongest army and advanced swiftly against Norwegian strongholds. Sweden defeated the Norwegian army and the newly-made Norwegian King had to flee the country. Norway agreed to negotiate on August 8, and the hostilities came to an end.

Norwegians tasted independence only three months before the nation yet again was forced into a union as the inferior part. It took almost a century to gain enough strength and confidence to make another attempt for freedom.

Sweden offered Norway to keep constitutional autonomy under Swedish rule and with a common King. Nevertheless, Norway quickly created its own institutions, such as a national assembly, central administration, national banking, courts, and university. The union relations brought up frictions but were predominantly peaceful until the 1860s when nationalism flared up, and union skepticism grew stronger. Repeated conflicts between the King and the Norwegian parliament rose to a significant political crisis in 1895. Sweden threatened yet again with the sabers. The Norwegians were defiant and decided to rearm and introduce mandatory conscription for military service. More contentious issues flared up again in 1904. The Norwegian PM, Christian Michelsen from Bergen, seized the initiative and staged a well-organized diplomatic rebellion against Swedish rule. He masterfully navigated the Swedes into a political corner where the Swedish King Oscar II refused to sanction a Norwegian bill granting Norway freedom to establish consular services. The King's refusal gave Michelsen the justification he needed to resign the Norwegian government. As Mr Michelsen saw it, the King was then constitutionally unable to form a new Norwegian government. Consequently, the Swedish King "had failed to function as King of Norway". So, on June 7, 1905, Mr Michelsen deposed the Swedish King, established a provisional government, and proclaimed Norway as an independent and sovereign nation.

Following the union breakout, the two nations mobilised military units at vital strategic points along the border. War was imminent but delayed when Sweden reluctantly granted Norway to hold a referendum on August 13, 1905. The result was decisive, with 368 208 Norwegians in favour of leaving, while 184 opposed. In other words, practically unanimous vote in favour of dissolving the union.

Negotiations on Norway's formal withdrawal began on August 31, 1905. Relations were tense, and military forces faced each other along the border. The Swedish King Oscar II was very disappointed but wanted a peaceful solution. Many Swedish parliamentarians were furious and opted to discipline the ungrateful Norwegians by war. However, the Swedish Parliamentary majority eventually opted for a peaceful solution, and a conclusion came on September 23, with a bitter Swedish King accepting formal abdication from the Norwegian throne. This decision troubled the Swedish King to his grave.

It was pretty clear to Norwegian nationalists that plotting independence could bring war and not least severe penalties if it failed. Recognition of Norway's independence was a risky business and could also spark hostilities between the major powers. Sweden had strong ties to Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm. Norway, with its maritime traditions, had built close relations with the British for centuries. It was also known that Kaiser Wilhelm, on numerous occasions, had offered to assist Sweden in "chastening Norwegian nationalists". Hence, Mr Michelsen engineered a plan to secure support from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801-1922).

A part of the plan was to offer the Norwegian throne to the Danish Prince Charles, married to British princess Maud, daughter of reigning King Edward VII (1841-1910) of the UK. A Norwegian diplomat, Count Fritz Wedel Jarlsberg became a key player in securing UK's support for Norwegian freedom. Count Wedel had an extensive network of continental political contacts, visited London on June 19, 1905, intending to sow the seeds. He wanted to meet with the British Minister of foreign affairs, Lord Lansdowne, and maybe the King himself. Roomers that Kaiser Wilhelm would support a Swedish armed attack on Norway had already caught King's attention. King Edward and Kaiser Wilhelm II loathed each other despite being uncle and nephew. The British feared increased German and Russian influence in Scandinavia.

Count Wedel met with Lord Glenesk, owner of Morning Post. Mr Glenesk offered his support, and shortly after, The Times issued a warning to Sweden "not to prevent Norwegian aspirations for freedom". The next day, Count Wedel met with Lord Lansdowne and expressed concern for a possible German and Russian influence in Norway. Lord Lansdowne listened carefully when Mr Wedel suggested British political pressure to let Norway leave the union on friendly terms. The Lord declined to give any direct answers to the request, but he made favourable remarks to the idea of a British princess and her husband on the Norwegian throne.

Count Wedel acknowledged that King Edward would not breach protocol and meet with a representative for an unrecognised nation. By luck, the Count met an old friend, Sir James Rennel Rodd, who also happened to be King Edward's friend. Mr Wedel asked a favour of Sir James, who promptly jumped on the train to Ascot where he talked to the King during a horserace. The very same afternoon, he returned with a personal message from King Edward to Count Wedel:

His Majesty has requested me to tell that the King has noted Norway's intentions. As a Constitutional Monarch, he was prevented from saying more, but he took to mind the idea of his son in law and daughter as King and Queen of Norway."

British newspapers picked up on the Prince and Princess  a few weeks later but dismissed it as rumours.
Daily Mirror 13 July 1905

The King also requested to be kept updated. From this moment on, the cordial but correct mannered British King Edward VII worked behind the scenes to help Norway regain its independence. The 64 year old King Edward, Queen Victoria's vital son, was the regent of an empire and known to have his wits about politics. He was a political lion in a cage, but still, he sends multiple letters, telegrams, and instructions during summer 1905 to secure Norwegian freedom. No one seems to have more knowledge and understanding of the political play than King Edward himself. His letters to the Danish Prince Carl (Charles) offering strong support for Prince Charles on the Norwegian throne with encouragement to resist German opposition.

As colonial rivalry increased at the end of the 19th century and the British foreign policy was to steer clear of entangling alliances with foreign powers. The tactful and patient Lord Lansdowne feared the political implications of the King's personal efforts and attempted to slow down the process. Edward was quite familiar with his political limitations but was adamant about not having more irritations from his German nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm. When King Edward learned that the Swedish King might prefer a Norwegian Republic, it instantly became an intolerant issue for all major powers. Not even France or Russia wished to see a Republic with the potential to destabilise the region. King Edward pressed on in a significant political play where war could break out in its worst consequence. He exerted influence over Danish and Swedish Royals, politicians and diplomats.

The union was ultimately and peacefully dissolved, without a single shot fired. The political play had many actors, but Only King Edward seemed to know all the details. It was said that King Edward only smiled when asked about his involvement.

At King Edward's command, the bells of St. George's Chapel, Windsor, were rung in honour when his daughter and son in law were coronated in Norway. A salute of 41 guns was fired in the afternoon in St. James's park by a battery of the Royal Horse Artillery. Royal salutes were also fired at Portsmouth, Devonport, Chatham, Sheerness, Kingstown Harbour and elsewhere.

Charles, Maud, Alexandra Edward

It took historians more than 70 years to build an almost complete picture of what happened. Most evidence comes from British archives. Many questions are still unanswered, but it seems indisputable that Norway owes much to King Edward VII and his closest diplomats. The King demonstrated excellent diplomatic skills when he secured support from major powers while preventing new wars over the issue. Without his courage, wisdom, and personal conviction, there is no saying what would have become of Norway in 1905. Norway may still be in a union with Sweden and then most certainly with the EU.

Western populations show declining interest in our history and cultural values. History shows that the civil liberties we take for granted, do not come free.

Norway's struggle for freedom and end to foreign rule ended well and without bloodshed. It happened many generations ago but should not be forgotten. Equally important should we honour the diplomatic efforts of the brave King Edward VII.

Edward VII died in 1910. He was a thoroughly modern monarch and was considered to be the uncle of Europe. Edward was loved by the British populace for his diplomatic skills, easy-going charm and, perhaps, his headline-grabbing transgressions. the first truly constitutional British sovereign and also the last sovereign to exercise any real political power. Although, unknown to most, Norwegians owe their freedom to King Edward VII and our British friends.

Author: Thor Williams Lihaug

Unlinked References:

/1/ “Spillet om tronen” Kjell Arnljot Wig /2/ Sunderland Daily Echo – 280742 /3/ Longford Journal – 300606 /4/ Daily Mirror – 130705

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