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This day in Norwegian history Posted by on May 17, 2017 in History

Gratulerer med dagen! It’s 17. mai again, Norges nasjonaldag (Norway’s national day). This time, let’s celebrate by taking a look back at how it all started…

Oscar Wergeland’s famous painting of the riksråd meeting at Eidsvoll. (Painted in 1885, copyright expired.)

Many foreigners think that 17. mai is Norway’s independence day – which is only partially true… What is being celebrated is actually Norway’s grunnlovsdag (constitution day), the day the nation got its own grunnlov (literally “ground law”). It’s the day the country got its own driving licence, so to speak – but was only allowed to take a short ride in the car.

On May 17th 1814 [attn fyortn] 112 men from various places in Southern Norway solemnly accepted the Constitution in Eidsvoll, a bit to the north of Oslo. Eidsvollmennene (the Eidsvoll men) had been working on the draft for weeks. Det var et stort øyeblikk for Norge. (It was a great moment for Norway.)

For the first time ever, Norwegians had defined for themselves which kind of country they wanted to live in. Compared to other European constitutions in 1814, the Norwegian one was really freedom-loving and ahead of its time. (Still, there were some quirks. People who were younger than 25, not male, and not members of the most “in” and wealthy groups, could not vote. Also, for a long time, the grunnlov did not allow Jewish people to visit Norway.)

So, why did these 112 men all of a sudden decide to sit down and write a constitution? And why wasn’t Norway fully independent? Let’s take the whole story in a few points. 🙂

  • For 400 years, Norway had been in a union with Denmark called Danmark-Norge. The capital was in Copenhagen, and many Norwegians had mixed feelings about their king being so far away. But they were mostly too busy farming and fishing to rally for separation.
  • It all changed in 1813, when Napoleon – that crazy French general, remember – lost his wars against other Europeans. Denmark-Norway was on team Napoleon and lost, too. Sweden was on the other team, and their king Karl Johan really wanted to create a Sweden-Norway instead…
  • Afraid of losing contact with Norway across the water, in 1814 Danish king Frederik 6th sent his cousin Christian Frederik to cheer up the Norwegians and do some PR for Copenhagen.
  • In early 1814, Sweden and its allies held a meeting in Kiel (Germany) to discuss how to punish Napoleon and his friends. It was decided that Denmark should give Norway to Sweden.
  • Prince Christian Frederik was confused. Should he proclaim himself king of Norway, now that the people in Kiel had officially cut the link to Denmark? Instead, he branded himself as Norway’s “regent”.
  • CF launched a working group that met for some weeks in Eidsvoll to create a grunnlov. On May 17th it was accepted. The Eidsvollmenn declared independence with Christian Frederik as their king.
  • No way! Karl Johan thought. A few weeks later, Swedish soldiers invaded Norway. The Norwegians were forced to enter a union with Sweden. Karl Johan was kind enough, though, to let them keep their beloved grunnlov – with a only a few changes, so Norway could be part of a union.
  • 1905. Norge blir helt selvstendig (Norway gets fully independent.)
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About the Author:Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.


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