The story of medieval Christian Scandinavia, after the various regions convert in the 10th and 11th century, is of dynasties in Denmark, Norway and Sweden struggling to establish stable kingdoms – with sometimes the added ambition of bringing the other two into a unified realm.
The earliest recognizable kingdom is that of Hemming in southern Denmark from 811; but the king’s successors fail to hold his territory. Another century passes before the whole of Denmark is united in a single kingdom, under the rule of Harald Bluetooth – who is baptized a Christian in about 960.
In the way of royal converts, he sees this personal event as the conversion of all the Danes (an achievement commemorated in Denmark’s famous Jelling Stone).
Harald’s son Sweyn extends the Danish kingdom to England in 1013, and his grandson Canute rules an empire which includes Denmark, England and even for a while (1030-1035) the kingdom of Norway.
Norway has only a few years previously become a single kingdom. Olaf II, ruling from 1015 to 1030, unites the whole region under one crown. Sweden achieves similar unity rather later; not until the dynasty established by Birger Jarl in the 13th century does the Swedish kingdom have the stature to match Denmark or Norway.
At various times different regions become dominant within this Scandinavian triangle. Valdemar I and his son Valdemar II extend Danish influence along the Baltic coast between 1169 and 1222. From about 1240 Haakon IV gives Norway an expansive period, asserting control over distant Iceland and Greenland. In 1323 Sweden is strong enough to incorporate much of Finland, agreeing a boundary in that year with the Russians of Novgorod.
Meanwhile, incessantly, the rulers of the Scandinavian kingdoms engage in two closely related methods of affecting the balance of power among themselves. They go to war against each other. And they marry each other’s daughters. One such marriage, in 1363, leads at last to the union of the three crowns.
Union of the crowns: AD 1363-1523
Margaret, who unites the three crowns of Scandinavia, is the daughter of Valdemar IV, king of Denmark. In 1363, at the age of ten, she is married to Haakon VI, the 23-year-old king of Norway. Seventeen years later her father and her husband are dead, but she has a young son, Olaf. She secures his acceptance as king of both Denmark and Norway, and rules very effectively in his name.
In 1387 the young king dies. Margaret’s authority is now such that she is accepted in her own right, in 1388, as the ‘sovereign lady and ruler’ of both countries. In that same year she is given the opportunity to add Sweden to her portfolio. The Swedish nobles, accustomed to electing their kings, are discontented with the present incumbent. They enlist Margaret’s help.
Before marching against the present king (Albert of Mecklenburg), Margaret declares her terms. She is to be sovereign lady and ruler of Sweden as of the other kingdoms (the phrase effectively means regent) and the Swedes are to accept her choice of the king to succeed her. With this agreed, she defeats Albert in battle in 1389 and takes control.
Stockholm holds out against her (it is virtually an independent city run by the German merchants of the Hanseatic League). But in 1398, in return for confirmation of the league’s commercial privileges, it too becomes part of her domain. The three Scandinavian countries are now a united regency. And the regent has already selected an infant king, to create a united kingdom.
In 1389 Margaret declares that her 8-year-old great-nephew Eric of Pomerania (grandson of her elder sister) is king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The three realms become formally united when he is crowned at Kalmar in 1397. Margaret is officially regent only until Eric is declared of age (in 1401), but she continues to rule in his name – as effectively as ever – until her death in 1412.
In subsequent decades Eric follows the same policies as his great-aunt, but he is unable to hold the union together. Uprisings against him in all three kingdoms lead to his deposition in Denmark and Sweden in 1439, followed by Norway in 1442.
For almost another century there are attempts, sometimes briefly successful, to restore the union of the three realms under a single king. The last such king is Christian II, who rules in Denmark and Norway from 1513. He has to fight for his Swedish crown. After three years of war he takes Stockholm, in 1520, but it proves a brief triumph. He is crowned on November 4. Four days later a massacre in Stockholm prompts the uprising which results in the Vasa dynasty and an independent Sweden.
Christian loses his other two crowns, of Denmark and Norway, in 1523. From now on, although Norway does not achieve independence until 1905, the story of each Scandinavian country is clearly distinct.
Lutheran Denmark, Norway and Iceland: AD 1536-1550
The nobles of Denmark’s electoral council, the rigsraad, depose Christian II in 1523 and elect to the throne his uncle Frederick, duke of Schleswig-Holstein. Frederick I rarely visits his kingdom of Denmark. But when he does so, the rigsraad is alarmed to observe that he appears to sympathize with the Lutheran heresy.
On his death in 1533 the Catholic majority in the rigsraad attempts to withhold the crown from Frederick’s son, Christian, who is known to be an even more committed Lutheran. The result is a civil war, which ends in Christian’s favour.
Christian III becomes king of Denmark (and with it Norway and Iceland) in July 1536 after capturing Copenhagen. He immediately arrests the Catholic bishops, confiscates their property and dissolves the monasteries. Vast funds flow into the royal exchequer.
In October of that same year the Danish Lutheran Church is formally established. Next it is the turn of Norway, whose monasteries bring the crown further riches. The Norwegian Lutheran Church is in existence by 1539. Iceland resists a little longer, but it too is Lutheran by 1550. Brought to the new faith in a few short years, on the personal conviction of one powerful ruler, all three countries nevertheless remain firmly Lutheran.
A Danish annexe: AD 1536-1814
Rule by Christian III and his descendants, over a period of nearly three centuries, reduces Norway to a political backwater in the affairs of Europe. The region is administered by Danish officials; it suffers economic restrictions whenever its trade seems to compete with that of Denmark; and it is dragged by the parent kingdom into a succession of costly wars against Sweden.
Nevertheless Norway retains certain natural and political advantages. A developing timber trade, particularly with Britain, brings increasing prosperity. And peasants in Norway are free, whereas their counterparts in Denmark are reduced during the 18th century to conditions of serfdom.
In the later part of the 18th century Denmark adopts a policy of neutrality, bringing great benefit to Norwegian trade during the French Revolutionary wars and the early years of the Napoleonic wars. But in 1807, at Tilsit, Napoleon and the Russian tsar agree to force Denmark to side with them against Britain.
When Denmark does so, in October of that year, Norway suffers an immediate British blockade. This has severe economic consequences, as well as sealing the country off from any contact with the government in Copenhagen. It proves to be only a prelude to a more complete severance from Denmark.
Of Napoleon’s allies in 1807, Denmark is one of the incautious few who fail to change sides during the next seven years. As a result, after the defeat of the French armies at Leipzig in October 1813, Danish territory is legitimately invaded by a Swedish army under Bernadotte.
In the subsequent treaty of Kiel, signed in January 1814, Denmark is compelled to cede Norway to Sweden.
The Kiel agreement is immediately rejected by the Norwegians, who take the opportunity of claiming their own sovereign rights. In an extraordinarily prompt response, they convene an assembly, write a national constitution (based on the examples of the USA and France) and elect a king – all by May 1814.
The result is a Swedish invasion, soon followed by a negotiated settlement. The Norwegians keep their constitution and become an independent kingdom. But their throne is to pass to the king of Sweden, uniting the crowns but not the realms. It is an uneasy compromise, with great potential for friction and resentment. Even so, this union of the crowns lasts for nearly a century.
Norway and Sweden: AD 1814-1905
Both Norway and Sweden benefit from a 19th century which is free of wars. They can concentrate instead on developing their substantial natural resources. Industry is established, railways are built, and in Sweden the Göta canal is completed in 1832 – enabling sea-going ships to cross the entire peninsula, over a distance of some 300 miles, from Göteborg to a point south of Stockholm in the Baltic.
But politically the attention of both countries is focused, above all, on the problems resulting from the union of the two crowns.
The Swedes, more numerous than the Norwegians, with a long and often glorious history as an independent kingdom, are convinced that they are the senior partner. They view Norway almost as a neighbouring colony, acquired by conquest.
The Norwegians, in contrast, have it in writing that they are equal and independent – in the terms agreed in 1814. Moreover the constitution which they devised for themselves in that year includes a storting, or parliament, based on a franchise broad for its time. All peasants owning their land, or renting it for more than five years, have a vote. The storting is able to provide an articulate expression of popular resentment against any sign of Swedish hegemony.
The grounds for complaint are numerous. The shared king lives mainly in Sweden and is represented by a viceroy in Norway. The very existence of this office is offensive. To make matters worse, it is occupied until 1829 by a Swede.
Offence derives also from other issues of the kind which invariably inflame nationalist sensiblities – what design of flag is to be flown on ships of the two kingdoms, what is to be the first language of documents, is the ruler to be described as the king of Sweden and Norway or of Norway and Sweden?
The Bernadotte monarchs themselves (Oscar I, 1844-59; Charles XV, 1859-72; Oscar II, 1872-1905) are eager to soothe ruffled Norwegian feelings on most of these issues. But they often find their wishes frustrated by a strong nationalist reaction in Sweden.
Diplomatic representation is the issue which provokes the final crisis. It has always been accepted that foreign affairs are the king’s personal responsibility, but one result of this is that diplomats representing the two kingdoms have usually been Swedish – and foreign ministers invariably so.
During the 1890s Norwegian demands for equal representation in diplomacy gradually evolve into a campaign for a separate Norwegian consular service. In March 1905 the Norwegian storting passes a bill unilaterally establishing such a service. When Oscar II refuses to sanction the bill, the storting responds with another dissolving the union with Sweden.
Many in Sweden urge strong action against the rebels, but the king – with the support of liberals in the riksdag – proposes a referendum on the issue in Norway. The result is 368,208 votes in favour of ending the union, and only 184 against. In October 1905 Oscar II relinquishes the crown of Norway.