A Fairytale's Ending - the Changing Status of Norway's Royal House

By Helleve, Eirik | The World and I, September 2001 | Go to article overview

A Fairytale's Ending - the Changing Status of Norway's Royal House


Helleve, Eirik, The World and I


In 1841, Asbj[inverted question mark]rnsen and Moe published one of the most popular of Norwegian books: a collection of fairytales gathered from all parts of the country. A storyline repeated in many of them is reminiscent of the Horatio Alger stories. Oskefisen, a boy from a poor family, ends up marrying a princess and becomes heir to the throne. Last year Mette- Marit Tjessem H[inverted question mark]iby, a young girl from Kristiansand, became a real-life female version of Oskefisen. Her engagement to Haakon, the royal heir, was made public in early December 2000. The wedding was scheduled for August 25 of this year and would be the first royal marriage in Norway since 1968.

The announcement stirred the excitement of the Norwegian public, but not all reactions were positive. The engagement became the starting point for a popular debate concerning the future of Norway's political system. Even traditional monarchists feel that the time has come for a change. Ingrid Houmb, a retired nurse living in Oslo, is one of them. She has an extensive knowledge of the European royals but feels that the current Norwegian monarchy has reached its end. "Though I have always been fond of our royal family, I am happy that the country is now turning into a republic," she says. "The royal children have made me change me mind."

It is not hard to fathom why the engagement has created such a commotion. Both Haakon and his sister, Mertha Louise, are living like commoners. In fact, they are trying to act like ordinary people. The consensus appears to be, however, that royals should live like royals. "These days, where a monarch has no political powers, the royal family does nothing more than act as a unifying symbol for the nation," says Trond Nordby, a professor at the University of Oslo and a declared republican. "The lifestyles of the royal children cannot be regarded as unifying, seeing that so many are opposed to them. This means that we are left with a royal family that doesn't unite the people. It divides them."

Norway may have reached a crossroads in its history. According to polls taken by the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet, the popularity of the royal family has reached an all-time low. This April only 59 percent felt that the country should remain a monarchy, down from 71 percent a year earlier. Has the time really come for a change?

A young royal house

Norway's royal house has been popular and uncontroversial, compared to those in other European nations. Its history is relatively short. The country was without a king of its own for more than five hundred years, having been the weaker part in a union with Denmark between 1387 and 1814 and in a union with Sweden from 1814 until 1905. That year, a referendum in Norway produced a dramatic result: Only 184 of the 368,392 votes cast supported the union with Sweden. The newly independent Norwegian government invited a Danish prince, Carl, to become king of Norway. He accepted on one condition: He wanted a new referendum to ensure that Norwegians really wanted him as a king. He gained almost 80 percent support.

Consequently, Carl changed his name and became Haakon VII. He moved to Norway with his English wife, Maud, and reigned for over fifty years. His popularity was at its height during World War II. Following the German invasion, he refused to surrender, and he was pursued through Norway by the Nazis. Finally he and the royal family managed to escape to England. They remained in exile there until the end of the war.

His son, Olav V, was crowned in 1957. Olav's natural charm and ability to communicate with everyone endeared him to his people. During the oil shortage in 1974, he not only insisted on using public transport but paid his own fare. In doing this, he sent a message to his people that their problems were his problems. Olav died in 1991, at the age of eighty-seven, on the very night that American troops crossed the border into Kuwait.

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