A Brief History of Norway

As I was nearing the completion of a major update of this site I started thinking that a lot of the stories that are included might be better understood in the context of the history of Norway. So, I decided to include a brief history here. For more information and citations go to the full article. The link is at the bottom of this page.

Viking Age

Reconstruction of a longhouse at Lofotr.

The Viking Age was a period of Scandinavian expansion through trade, colonization and raids. The first raid was against Lindisfarne in 793 and is considered the beginning of the Viking Age. This could take place because of the development of the longship, suitable for travel across the sea, and advanced navigation techniques.

Vikings were well-equipped, had chain mail armor, were well-trained and had a psychological advantage over Christian counterparts since they believed that being killed in combat would result in them going to Valhalla. In addition to gold and silver, an important outcome from the raids were thralls, which were brought to the Norwegian farms as slave workforce. While the men were out at sea, the management of the farm was under control of the women.

The lack of suitable farming land in Western Norway caused Norwegians to travel to the sparsely populated areas such as Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands and the Hebrides to colonize—the latter which became the Kingdom of the Isles. Norwegian Vikings settled on the west coast of Ireland ca. 800 and founded the island’s first cities, including Dublin. Their arrival caused the petty Celtic kings to ally and by 900 they had driven out the Norwegians.

Norwegians discovered Iceland in ca. 870 and within sixty years the island had been divided between four hundred chieftains. Led by Erik the Red, a group of Norwegians settled on Greenland in the 980s. His son, Leif Ericson, discovered Newfoundland in ca. 1000, naming it Vinland. Unlike Greenland, no permanent settlement was established there.

In the mid 9th century the largest chieftains of the petty kingdoms started a major power struggle. Harald Fairhair started the process of unifying Norway when he entered an alliance with the Earls of Lade and was able to unify the country after the decisive Battle of Hafrsfjord.  He set up the very basics of a state administration with stewards in the most important former chieftain estates. His son Håkon the Good, who assumed the crown in 930, established two large things, Gulating for Western Norway and Frostating for Trøndelag, in which the king met with the freemen to make decisions. He also established the ledang, a conscription-based military. After his death in 960, war broke out between the Fairhair dynasty and the Earls of Lade in alliance with Danish kings.

Middle Ages

The Kingdom of Norway (green), ca. 1265, at its greatest extent.

Christianization and abolishing the rites in Norse mythology was first attempted by Olav Tryggvason, but he was killed in the Battle of Svolder in 1000.  Olav Haraldsson, starting in 1015, made the things pass church laws, destroyed heathen hofs, built churches and created an institution of priests. Many chieftains feared that the Christianization would rob them of power in lieu of their roles as heathen priests. The two sides met in the Battle of Stiklestad, where Haraldsson was killed. The church elevated Haraldsson to sainthood, allowing Nidaros (today Trondheim) to become the Christian center of Norway.  Within a few years the Danish rule had become sufficiently unpopular that Norway again became united. 

From the 1040s to 1130 the country was at peace.  In 1130 the civil war era broke out on the basis of unclear succession laws, which allowed all the king’s sons to rule jointly. For periods there could be peace, before a lesser sons allied himself with a chieftain and started a new conflict. The Archdiocese of Nidaros was created in 1152 and attempted to control the appointment of kings.  The church inevitably had to take sides in the conflicts, with the civil was also becoming an issue regarding the church’s influence of the king. The wars ended in 1217 with the appointment of Håkon Håkonsson, who introduced clear law of succession. 

From 1000 to 1300 the population increased from 150,000 to 400,000, resulting both in more land being cleared and the subdivision of farms. While in the Viking Age all farmers owned their own land, by 1300 seventy percent of the land was owned by the king, the church or the aristocracy. This was a gradual process which took place because of farmers borrowing money in poor times and not being able to repay. However, tenants would always remain free men and the large distances and often scattered ownership meant that they enjoyed much more freedom than their continental peers. In the 13th century about twenty percent of a farmer’s yield went to the king, church and landowners.

14th century

Bryggen in Bergen was once the center of trade in Norway under the Hanseatic League trade network, and is now preserved as a World Heritage Site.

The 13th century is described as Norway’s Golden Age, with peace and increase in trade, especially with the British Islands, although Germany became increasingly important towards the end of the century. Throughout theHigh Middle Ages the king established Norway as a state with a central administration with local representatives. 

In 1349 the Black Death spread to Norway and had within a year killed a third of the population. Later plagues reduced the population to half the starting point by 1400. Many communities were entire wiped out, resulting in an abundance of land, allowing farmers to switch to more animal husbandry. The reduction in taxes weakened the king’s position,  and many aristocrats lost the basis for their surplus, reducing some to mere farmers. High tithes to church made it increasingly powerful and the archbishop became a member of the Council of State. 

The Hanseatic League took control over Norwegian trade during the 14th century and established a trading center in Bergen. In 1380 Olaf Haakonsson inherited both the Norwegian and Danish thrones, creating a union between the two countries. In 1397, under Margaret I, the Kalmar Union was created between the three Scandinavian countries. She waged war against the Germans, resulting in a trade blockade and higher taxation on Norwegians, which resulted in a rebellion. However, the Norwegian Council of State was too weak to pull out of the union. 

Margaret pursued a centralising policy which inevitably favoured Denmark, because it had a greater population than Norway and Sweden combined.  Margaret also granted trade privileges to the Hanseatic merchants of Lübeck in Bergen in return for recognition of her right to rule, and these hurt the Norwegian economy. The Hanseatic merchants formed a state within a state in Bergen for generations. Even worse were the pirates, the “Victual Brothers”, who launched three devastating raids on the port (the last in 1427). 

Norway slipped ever more to the background under the Oldenburg dynasty (established 1448). There was one revolt under Knut Alvsson in 1502.  Norwegians had some affection for King Christian II, who resided in the country for several years. Norway took no part in the events which led to Swedish independence from Denmark in the 1520s. 


Sweden was able to pull out of the Kalmar Union in 1523, thus creating Denmark–Norway under the rule of a king in Copenhagen. Frederick I of Denmark favoured Martin Luther’s Reformation, but it was not popular in Norway, where the Church was the one national institution and the country was too poor for the clergy to be very corrupt. Initially, Frederick agreed not to try to introduce Protestantism to Norway but in 1529 he changed his mind. Norwegian resistance was led by Olav Engelbrektsson, Archbishop of Trondheim, who invited the old king Christian II back from his exile in Holland. Christian returned but was ambushed and spent the rest of his life in prison. Then Frederick died and a three-way war of succession broke out between the supporters of his eldest son Christian (III), his younger Catholic brother Hans and the followers of Christian II. Olaf Engelbrektsson again tried to lead a Catholic Norwegian resistance movement but he found little support. Christian III triumphed and sent him into exile and in 1536 Christian demoted Norway from a kingdom to a mere Danish province. The Reformation wasimposed in 1537,  strengthening the king’s power. All church valuables were sent to Copenhagen and the forty percent of the land which was owned by the church came under the control of the king. Danish was introduced as a written language, although Norwegian remained distinct dialects. Professional administration was now needed and power shifted from the provincial nobility to the royal administration: district stipendiary magistrates were appointed as judges and the sheriffs became employees of the crown rather than of the local nobility. In 1572 a governor-general was appointed for Norway with a seat at Akershus Fortress in Oslo. From the 1620s professional military officers were employed. 

The 17th century saw a series of wars between Denmark–Norway and Sweden. The Kalmar War between 1611–13 saw 8,000 Norwegian peasants conscripted. Despite lack of training, Denmark–Norway won and Sweden abandoned its claims to the area between Tysfjord and Varangerfjord. With the Danish participation in the Thirty Years’ War in 1618–48, a new conscription system was created in which the country was subdivided into 6,000 ledg, each required to support one soldier.  Denmark–Norway lost the war and was forced to cede Jämtland and Härjedalen to Sweden. The Second Northern War in 1657 to 1660 resulted in Bohuslän being ceded to Sweden. The Danish monarchy became an absolutist and hereditary one in Norway in 1661.  A new administrative system was introduced. Departments organized by portfolio were established in Copenhagen, while Norway was divided into counties, each led by a district governor, and further subdivided into bailiwicks. About 1,600 government officials were appointed throughout the country.  Ulrik Fredrik Gyldenløve was the most famous viceroy of Norway (1664-1699). 

Battle of Alvøen between the frigateHMS Tartar and Norwegian gunboats nearBergen in 1808

The population of Norway increased from 150,000 in 1500 to 900,000 in 1800.  By 1500 most deserted farms were repossessed. The period under absolutism increased the ratio of self-owning farmers from twenty to fifty percent, largely through sales of crown land to fiance the lost wars. Crofts became common in the absolutism period, especially in Eastern Norway and Trøndelag, with the smallholder living at the mercy of the farmer.  There were 48,000 smallholders in 1800. Compared to Denmark, taxes were very low in Norway, typically at four to ten percent of the harvest, although the number of farms per legd decreased from four to two in the 1670s. Confirmation was introduced in 1736; as it required people to read, elementary education was introduced.  The Norwegian economy improved with the introduction of the water-driven saw in the early 16th century. Norway had huge resources of timber but did not have the means to exploit much of it in the Middle Ages as only hand-tools were available. The new saw mills which sprang up in the fjords changed this. In 1544 a deal was struck with the Netherlands (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) and the Dutch controlled the export of Norwegian timber for the next 150 years. Amsterdam was built on piles from Norway. Tree-felling was done in the winter when farm-work was impossible and it was easy to get the felled trees across the snow to the rivers. In the spring, the logs floated down the rivers to the saw mills by the sea.  By the mid-16th century the power of the Hanseatic League in Bergen was broken; though German craftsmen remained, they had to accept Danish rule. Many Norwegians earned a living as sailors in foreign ships, especially Dutch ones. The crews in both sides of the Anglo-Dutch Wars contained Norwegians.  Norway benefitted from the many European wars of the 18th century. As a neutral power it was able to expand its share of the shipping market. It also supplied timber to foreign navies. 

The entire period saw mercantilism as the basis for commerce, which involved import regulations and tariffs, monopolies and privileges throughout the county granted to burghers. The lumber industry became important in the 17th century through exports especially to England.  To avoid deforestation, a royal decree closed a large number of sawmills in 1688; because this mostly affected farmers with small mills, by the mid 18th century only a handful of merchants controlled the entire lumber industry.  Mining increased in the 17th century, the largest being the silver mines in Kongsberg and the copper mines in Røros. Fishing continued to be an important income for farmers along the coast, but from the 18th century dried cod started being salted, which required fishermen to buy salt from merchants. The first important period of Norwegian shipping was between 1690 and 1710, but the advantage was lost with Denmark–Norway entering the Great Northern War in 1709. However, Norwegian shipping regained its strength towards the end of the century.

Throughout the period, Bergen was the largest town in the country; its population of 14,000 in the mid 18th century was twice the size of Christiania (later Oslo) and Trondheim combined. Eight townships with privileges existed in 1660—by 1800 this had increased to twenty-three. During this period up to two-thirds of the country’s audited national income was transferred to Copenhagen.  In the last decades of the century, Hans Nielsen Hauge started the Haugean movement, which demanded the right to preach the word of God freely.  The University of Oslo was established in 1811. 

Union with Sweden

The Constituent Assembly which approved the Constitution of Norway

Denmark–Norway entered the Napoleonic Wars on France’s side in 1807. This had a devastating effect on the Norwegian economy as the Royal Navy hindered export by ship and import of food. Sweden invaded Norway the following year, but after several Norwegian victories a cease-fire was signed in 1809.  After pressure from Norwegian merchants license trade was permitted with corn from Denmark to Eastern Norway in exchange for Norwegian timber export to the United Kingdom. Following the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the Treaty of Kiel signed on 14 January 1814 ceded Norway to Sweden. 

Christian Frederik, heir to the Danish crown, had since 1813 been governor-general of Norway.  He traveled to Trondheim to gain support for his person and assembled twenty-one prominent citizens at Eidsvoll on 16 February 1814 where he laid claim to the throne. They rejected a new absolute monarch and instead wanted a liberal constitutions; therefor, representatives from the entire country would be elected to create a constitution. The 112 members of the Constituent Assemblygathered and, after six weeks of discussion, concluded the work on the Constitution of Norway on 17 May 1814. Power would be split between the king—a position which Christian Frederik was appointed—and the Parliament of Norway.  King Carl Johan of Sweden invaded Norway in late July; at the Convention of Moss on 14 August Norway surrendered while Sweden accepted the constitution. The union between Sweden and Norway under Carl Johan was approved by Parliament on 4 November. 

Harvesting oats at Fossum in Jølsterduring the 1880s

The Napoleonic Wars sent Norway into an economic crisis, as nearly all the merchants had gone bankrupt during the blockade. Recovery was difficult because of export tariffs and the country underwent strong inflation. The Norwegian speciedaler was established as a currency by the Bank of Norway when it was established in 1816, financed through a silver tax which lasted until 1842.  Under threat of acoup d’état by Carl Johan, Norway reluctantly paid the debt stated in the Treaty of Kiel, despite never having ratified it. Constitution Day on 17 May became an important political rally every year;  in 1829 the Swedish governor-general Baltzar von Platen resigned after he used force against demonstrators in the Battle of the Square.  The first half of the century was dominated by the ca. 2,000 officials, as there were few bourgeois and no aristocracy following a 1821 decision to abolish nobility. From the 1832 election, farmers became more conscious of electing themselves, resulting in a majority of farmers in Parliament. This resulted in rural tax cuts and higher import tariffs, shifting the tax burden to the cities. They also passed the Local Committees Act, which established elected municipal councils from 1838.  Cultural expression from the 1840s to the 1870s was dominated by the romantic nationalism, which emphasized the uniqueness of Norway. 

Røros, a major copper mining town, in 1869

The textile industry started in the 1840s, which was followed up with mechanical workshops to build new machinery as the British embargo hindered import of textile machinery.  An economic crisis hit the country from 1848, resulting in Marcus Thrane establishing the first trade unions and demanding that quality for the law independent of social class. Parliament passed a series of laws abandoning economic privileges and easing domestic trade during the 1840s and 1850s.  Population increase forced the clearing of new land, although some of the growth came in the cities. The population of Christiania reached 40,000 in 1855.  By 1865 the population reached 1.7 million; the large increase was largely caused by better nutrition from herring and potatoes, a sharp decrease of infant mortalityand increased hygiene.  Emigration to North America started in 1825, with the first mass emigration commencing in the 1860s. By 1930, 800,000 people had emigrated, the majority settling in the Midwestern United States.

The population decrease resulted in a labor shortage in the agriculture, which again resulted in increased use of machinery and thus capital. The government stimulated the process through the creation of the Mortgage Bank in 1851 and the State Agricultural College eight years later.  The 19th century saw a large increase of road construction and steamship services commenced along the coast. The first railway, the Trunk Line between Christiania and Eidsvoll opened in 1854, followed a year later by the first telegraph line. Export industry commenced with steam-powered sawmills in the 1860s, followed by canned herring, wood pulp and cellulose. From 1850 to 1880 the Norwegian shipping industry enjoyed a large boom, stimulated by the abolishing of the British Navigation Acts. By 1880 there were 60,000 Norwegian seaman and the country had the world’s third-largest merchant marine.  As the first coast-to-coast railway, the Røros Line connected the capital to Trondheim in 1877. Norway joined the Scandinavian Monetary Union in 1875 and introduced the Norwegian krone with a gold standard,  along with the metric system being introduced. 

The Røros Line through Holtålen in 1877

Annual parliamentary sessions were introduced from 1869 and in 1872 ministers were, though a constitutional amendment, required to meet in Parliament to defend their policies. The king, despite having no constitutional right to do so, vetoed the amendment in three successive parliaments. The 1882 election saw the first two parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, run for election, and subsequently the majority succeeded at impeaching the cabinet.  In 1884 the king appointed majority leader Johan Sverdrup as prime minister, thus establishing parliamentarism as the first European country. The Liberal Party introduced a series of legal reforms, such as increasing the voting rights to about half of all men, settling the language conflict by establishing two official written standards, Riksmål and Landsmål, introduced juries, seven years of compulsory education and, as the first European country, universal suffrage for men in 1889. 

The 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of the labor movement and trade unions became common; the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions was established in 1899 and the Norwegian Employers’ Confederation the following year.  The Labor Partyhad its first parliamentary members elected in 1903. The women’s issue became increasingly dominant through the 1880s and they were gradually permitted to take secondary and tertiary education. Norwegian support of the union decreased towards the end of the 1890s, especially following the 1897 Swedish abolition of the free trade agreement and the lack of a Norwegian foreign minister. Negotiations of independence commenced, but were not effective because of shifting governments and the Swedish threat of war. 


Industry along Akerselva in Oslo in 1912

With the four-party Michelsen’s Cabinet appointed in 1905, Parliament voted to establish a Norwegian consular service. This was rejected by the king and on 7 June Parliament unanimously approved the dissolution of the union. In the followingdissolution referendum, only 184 people voted in favor of a union. The government offered the Norwegian crown to Denmark’s Prince Carl, who after a plebiscite became Haakon VII.  The following ten years, Parliament passed a series of social reforms, such as sick pay, factory inspection, a ten-hour working day and worker protection laws. Waterfalls for hydroelectricity became an important resource in this period and the government secured laws to hinder foreigners from controlling waterfalls, mines and forests.  Large industrial companies established in these years were Elkem,  Norsk Hydro and Sydvaranger. The Bergen Line was completed in 1909,  the Norwegian Institute of Technology was established the following year  and women’s suffrage was introduced in 1913—as the second country in the world.  From the 1880s to the 1920s, Norwegians carried out a series of polar expeditions. The most important explorers were Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen and Otto Sverdrup. Amundsen’s expedition in 1911 became the first to reach the South Pole.

Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen,Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting (l–r) atPolheim, the tent erected at the South Poleon 16 December 1911 as the first expedition.

Norway adopted a policy of neutrality from 1905; during World War I the Norwegian merchant marine was largely used in support of the British, resulting in Norway being classified as The Neutral Ally. Half the Norwegian fleet and 2,000 seamen were killed by the German Atlantic U-boat Campaign. Some merchants made huge profits from trade and shipping during the war,  resulting in an increased division between the classes.  The interwar period was dominated by economic instability caused among other by strikes, lock-outs and the monetary policy causing deflation to compensate for too much money having been issued during the war and thus hindering investments.  Especially fishermen were hit hard in the period, while farmers retained market prices through organizing regulations. Unemployment peaked at ten percent between 1931 and 1933.  Although industrial production increased by eighty percent from 1915 to 1939, the number of jobs remained stable.  The Norwegian School of Economics was established in 1936. 

Norway had nine governments between 1918 and 1935, nearly all minority and lasting an average eighteen months. The Agrarian Party was established in 1920, although this period saw a rise of support for the Conservatives. The Labor Party split in 1921, with the left wing establishing the Communist Party.  Although strong during the 1920s, they were marginalized through the 1930s. A short-lived Labor Government reigned in 1928,  but did not establish a sound parliamentary support until the 1935 Nygaardsvold’s Cabinet, based on an alliance with the Agrarian Party. During the 1920s and 1930s, Norway established three dependencies, Bouvetøya, Peter I Island and Queen Maud Land, annexed Jan Mayen and secured sovereignty of Svalbard through the Svalbard Treaty.

Shipping and hydroelectricity were important sources of income for the country.  Germany occupied Norway between 1940 and 1945 during the Second World War, after which Norway joined NATO and underwent a period of reconstruction under public planning. Oil was discovered in 1969 and by 1995 Norway was the world’s second-largest exporter. This resulted in a large increase of wealth. From the 1980s Norway started deregulation in many sectors and experienced a banking crisis.

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Norway

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