Norway’s 400-Year Night 1397–1814

Norwegian Coat of Arms from an earlier period (12th-13th century)

The history of Norway is quite engaging and rich. While there is much known about the country during the Viking Age, Norse explorations, Kalmar Union, and period from 1814-present, there exists a large gap — a gap referred to as the ‘400-year night.’ In 1397, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway were all united in a union under one monarch — Queen Margaret I. This union — the Kalmar Union — lasted until Sweden left in the 1520s. This resulted in a union only between Denmark and Norway, which would last until 1814. Though the Danish stranglehold on Norway strengthened considerably during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Norwegian culture survived. The impact of the Renaissance was barely felt and the Reformation was imposed by the absolutist Danish monarchy in order to strengthen that institution’s power and turn Norway into little more than a puppet state of the Danish crown. This article will look at the Norwegian experience during these centuries of foreign rule right up to the Napoleonic Wars.

Map of Norway (1662) by Joan Blaeu

The liberties of the Norwegian people of ancient times were guarded by firm resolve and assemblies called ‘things.’ Norse Paganism was a defender of Norwegian liberties and served as the metaphysical substructure of Scandinavian civilizations. The rise of Christianity, while benign at first, contributed to the rising absolutism of foreign rulers over the centuries. The strength of Norwegian sovereignty in the days of King Harald Fairhair (9th century) — the king who first unified Norway — did not last. While Norwegians were among those who settled Iceland and traveled to Greenland and Canada, Norway fell increasingly under foreign influence. Hanseatic towns like Bergen were dominated by German merchants and Danish influence became stronger. At the end of the fourteenth century, Queen Margaret I of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway united the three into a single political entity. While Sweden managed to free itself in the 1520s, Norway remained part of the Danish sphere of influence for centuries to come. Christianity in the Middle Ages and Protestant Evangelism in the centuries after both served to undermine the liberties of the Norwegian people and strengthen foreign authoritarian rule in the country.

If one looks at the history of Danish monarchy in particular, or European monarchy more generally, one would see a trend towards absolutism in the seventeenth century. Monarchs claimed that their god had given them a divine right to rule. Danish absolutism lasted from 1660 to 1849 and this had a major impact on Norway for nearly all of that time. Copenhagen was the center of politics for both Denmark and Norway. The beginnings of this trend toward absolutism can be seen in the Protestant Reformation. While the Reformation had the benefit of allowing greater local rule for kings across Europe, thus undermining the superficial ‘pangloss’ of a superstate, this development in religion and politics led to greater absolutism, top-down rule but from a different elite. The monarchy, based in Copenhagen, imposed Lutheranism by force on the people of Norway throughout the course of the sixteenth century. Norway was demoted to a lower status within the Kingdom of Denmark and Danish, rather than Norwegian, was the official language of state in Norway. For centuries, Danish rule in Norway would be imposed from the pulpit.

As the Danish stranglehold on Norway solidified, the Hanseatic center of Bergen declined in importance. Denmark also engaged in wars with Sweden which had the effect of strengthening the demand for timber from Norway. The Danish kings participated in the Thirty Years’ War as well. One king, Christian IV of Denmark, was memorable in Norway because he took an interest in its mineral wealth. He also renamed Oslo ‘Christiania,’ a name it would retain until the 1920s.

Absolutism gave way to decadence and decline. During the reign of Christian VII, real power was exercised by a reform-minded physician (originally employed to help the king with his mental issues). Christian VII and his successor proved so ineffectual as leaders that they ended up losing Norway to Sweden.

nineteenth-century depiction of Christian VII’s court

The last king of Denmark-Norway, Frederick VI of Denmark, was of weak constitution and pushed into allying with Napoleon against the United Kingdom. With Napoleon’s downfall, Frederick VI ceded Norway to Sweden and became increasingly reactionary as king of Denmark. The year 1814 was monumental for Norway, but ultimately tragic. The Norwegians used the chaos of war and weak position of Denmark to assert their independence while a Danish prince used this development to try to maintain Danish influence by getting himself declared king of Norway. The Norwegians also passed the second-most liberal constitution in the world, after that of the United States, in May 1814. While Sweden did eventually get Norway into a personal union (see the details of the Treaty of Kiel and final result of the Congress of Vienna), the Norwegian Constitution remained intact. The seeds of Norwegian nationalism were sown and the nineteenth century would see a cultural flourishing in Norway.

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