The Norwegian Vikings had a tendency to leave Norway. By 800 AD, they had colonized the Shetlands, Orkneys, Faroes, Hebrides and other places no one else much wanted. Around 820, they planted settlements on the west coast of Ireland, founding some of that island’s great cities (including Dublin). In or about 870 they discovered Iceland and promptly divvied it up between 400 chieftains. A hundred years later they showed up in Greenland, and Leif Erikson landed in North America c. 1000 AD (but didn’t stay long). During all this time, Norway itself wasn’t even unified, but rather made up of several petty kingdoms arguing about who should lead.
Harald Fairhair began the process of creating Norway by stomping on all his rival chieftains at the Battle of Hafrsfjord around 872 (historians are not sure of the date, Viking records being what they are). But it was left to Olaf Haraldsson to truly sit as king of a united Norway, taking the throne in 1015 … not that various lords tried to break away periodically for centuries. “Saint” Olaf was determined to make his nation Christian and get rid of Odin, Thor, and Valhalla. He forced the 'things' (local governing bodies) to pass laws mandating Christianity, the building of churches and tearing down the pagan hofs, and the declaration of Trondheim as the Christian center of Norway. For this, Olaf was killed at The Battle of Stiklestad; nevertheless, Christianity was in Norway to stay.
Although Harald Hardrada fell at Stamford Bridge trying to take the English kingship in 1066, his family would rule Norway until Sigurd Magnusson, known as “the Crusader,” died in 1130. His death unleashed a century of civil wars, until at long last in 1217 Haakon IV sorted it out and established the Sverre dynasty. Under Haakon and his descendants Norway experienced a golden age, both politically and culturally. Norway annexed both Iceland and Greenland. In 1266 Magnus VI “the Lawmender” (he fixed a lot of things that were broken), realizing that he could not defend the Hebrides settlements against the fierce Scots, sold the islands along with Isle of Man to the Scottish crown. (The Shetlands and Orkneys would go the same way in 1468.)
It was time of peace and prosperity in Scandinavia, and the Norwegians made the most of it. Viking traders travelled south to the Middle East, east into the wilds of Russia, and especially to the west to the British Isles, bringing wealth back in exchange for raw materials: fur, fir, fish and ore. Agriculture flourished along the coastlines. Meanwhile, the arts reached heights never before attained. Working with wood and metal, Norwegian craftsmen created high art in a half-dozen distinct styles ranging from the Oseberg to the Urnes. Norse shipbuilders crafted vessels that could sail across the oceans. Norse smiths forged the best weapons and mail to be had in all Europe. Which was just as well, since although there was peace among the Viking kingdoms, the Norse were, as usual, attacking someone else nearby from week to week. But the fun times had to end eventually.
In 1349 or so, the Black Death reached Scandinavia, killing as much as 50% of the population over the next few years. The losses brought a reduction in taxes, naturally, and the central authority of the crown slipped. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church increased its tithes, making it increasingly powerful, to the point where the archbishop of Trondheim demanded – and got – a seat on the Council of State. During the late 14th Century, the Hanseatic League steadily took over the Norwegian trade routes; in 1343 the League had established a kontor (“foreign trading post”) in Bergen, and by 1400 had created its own quarter in the city and established exclusive rights to trade with the fishing fleet. (Bergen would remain under the Hanseatic thumb until the mid-1600s.)
All this led to thoughts of unifying the old Viking kingdoms to face the challenges. Olaf II had inherited the throne of Denmark when he was five years old in May 1376 upon his grandfather’s death; when his father died, he succeeded him as King of Norway. For the next 400 years, Norway would be ruled from Copenhagen, part of a dual kingdom. Soon these were joined to the Swedish throne as well, when Margrete I, queen regent of Denmark forged the Kalmar Union – which included not only the three kingdoms but the overseas Norwegian dependencies as well as Finland (via the Swedish crown). Crafted to counter the growing influence of the Hanseatic League and of the German princes in the Baltic, the Union survived until 1523 when the “Stockholm Bloodbath” triggered Swedish revolution, resulting in the crowning of Gustav Vaasa as the king of “free Sweden.”
The Kalmar Union served Norway fairly well. Except for that mess with the Reformation. Frederick I, king of Denmark-Norway, favored Luther’s heresies. But in Norway, the people did not. And therein lay a serious problem, for in 1529 the king sought to impose Protestantism on the Norwegians. Not surprisingly, resistance was led by the latest archbishop of Trondheim, who invited the aged Catholic king Christian II back from exile. But Christian got captured and imprisoned for the rest of his life. In the civil war that followed Frederick’s death, the Catholic Norwegians tried again, with even worse results. The Danish victor Christian III exiled the archbishop, demoted Norway from a co-kingdom to a mere Danish province in 1536 and imposed Lutheranism on Norway the following year.
After this, things quieted down for a while as the Norwegians settled into the new order of things. There were the occasional wars the hot-tempered Danes dragged them into – the Kalmar War (1611-1613), the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648) and the Second Northern War (1657-1660) – that resulted in changing borders. But in general things went well. The population grew some 750 thousand over 300 years (1500 to 1800). The Danish administrative system was reformed, with Norway divided into counties. Government corruption diminished under a series of able kings, despite there being 1600 government-appointed officials spread across Norway. Unfortunately, at least for the Danes, the country was soon embroiled in the Napoleonic conflagration … on the losing side.
By the time it was all over, Norway was part of Sweden, despite the fact that a national assembly had, well, assembled and drawn up a constitution for a parliamentary monarchy in May 1814. In July 1814, Sweden invaded and with the Treaty of Moss in August agreed to recognize the constitution provided Norway surrendered and behaved. Thus began the constitutional union between Sweden and Norway, with the Swedish monarch Karl Johan elected to wear the two crowns. Norwegian nationalism and liberalism took hold, for the easy-going Swedes gave them a lot of latitude. The Bank of Norway was established in 1816, and with it a national currency (the speciedaler). The old Norwegian aristocracy was abolished by Parliament in 1821. In 1832 the farmers realized there were more of them than any other group, and in elections that year ended up with the majority of seats in the Diet. Thus, rural tax cuts and higher import duties, and the Local Committees Act which established elected municipal councils to run things locally.
When Sweden abolished the free trade agreement with Norway and drew a border between the two and then refused to appoint a Norwegian foreign minister, agitation for independence spread across Norway. When in June 1905 the king again refused to grant Norway its own foreign minister (despite Parliament voting for such a post), Parliament voted to dissolve the union. In the ensuing referendum vote, only 184 people in Norway wanted to maintain it. The new Norwegian government offered the constitutional crown to a Danish prince; he accepted and became Haakon VII (his actual name was Karl). After a half-millennium, Norway was again its own nation.
Over the next decade, it proved itself one of the most progressive nations. In 1913, Norway the second country in the world to adopt women’s suffrage. Parliament passed laws establishing sick pay, factory inspections, worker safety laws, and a ten-hour work day – thus spoiling things for capitalist barons ever since. Railroads were laid along the coast; the Bergen Line was completed in 1909. Industrial plants, especially hydroelectric power plants, were being built faster than anyone could keep track of. Norwegian explorers such as Amundsen (first to reach the South Pole), Sverdrup and Nansen became world famous. Truly, it was Norway’s second golden age.
Like its Scandinavian neighbors, Norway tried to stay out of Europe’s crises and wars. They managed to do so throughout the First World War. But not so the Second. Norway found itself caught between the British, whose navy could interdict the coastal sea-lanes and had no qualms about violating Norway’s waters, and the Germans, who desperately needed iron ore from northern Norway for its industrial war plants; in April 1940 Nazi Germany invaded and quickly overran Norway to insure a land route for the ore shipments. The Norwegian government went into exile and the infamous Vidkun Quisling (whose name has become synonymous with “traitor”) set up a collaboration government. With the exception of some commando raids and partisan actions, however, Norway was generally on the fringe of the war, although some 80% of the nation’s prewar merchant fleet (fourth largest in the world at the time) escaped to serve the Allies.
With the end of the war, Norway returned to its tradition of neutrality, focusing its foreign policy efforts on the United Nations, with native son Trygve Lie becoming the first secretary-general of that august body. But the onset of the Cold War left no one neutral, and in 1949 Norway was one of the founding members of NATO (although it never allowed the stationing of foreign troops nor nuclear weapons on its soil). In 1969 oil was discovered in the North Sea (the Ekofisk field), and billions of dollars poured into the nation’s economy, making the standard of living – given the relatively small population – one of the highest in the world. Overall, the Norwegians have devoted themselves postwar to having a good life, enjoying winter sports, hosting a couple of Olympics, and being overrun by tourists.