Unique glimpse at royal days gone by

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A small publishing firm in Oslo has compiled a large book that’s being called a “royal family album” of sorts. It’s packed with photographs of Norway’s royal family taken mostly from the 1930s to the mid-1950s, some of them never before made public.

King Haakon (from left), Queen Maud, Crown Princess Märtha and Crown Prince Olav on official duties in 1938, just before Maud's death in England later that year. PHOTO: Bastion Forlag

The book focuses on the years when the late Crown Princess Märtha was at the center of attention and when, as author Morten Ole Mørch claims, Norway’s monarchy evolved into a strong institution. Märtha was a Swedish princess and the cousin of her suitor, Norway’s dashing young Crown Prince Olav, father of today’s King Harald V.

There are many photos of today’s king as a little boy, along with his two older sisters, princesses Ragnhild and Astrid. The book, however, concentrates on their mother, Crown Princess Märtha, and, to some degree, her mother-in-law Maud, the British princess who married a Danish prince and eventually, as fate and politics would have it, became queen of Norway while continuing to speak English.

Queen Maud at her desk in the Royal Palace in Oslo. PHOTO: Bastion Forlag

The vast array of photos is accompanied by straightforward biographical history of the royal family members and the times themselves, from the roaring 20s through the 1930s, the war years and the post-war years, when the royals came home from exile in Britain and the United States to a nation suffering after the German occupation but keen to rebuild. There’s a lot of history packed between the covers, including detailed accounts of major events like the death of Queen Maud, and the book is available in English as well as Norwegian, instead of only being in Norwegian with some English summaries or captions.

What’s arguably most intriguing with the book, however, are the photos themselves, and the rich detail they offer of a a bygone era. The clothing, the knick-knacks in the royal homes, the art on the walls and treasures on the shelves, the gifts displayed in connection with the wedding of Märtha and Olav – the reader can spend hours poring over these details to get a feel for what life was like in their times and privileged universe. Indeed, the book’s original title in Norwegian translates to “How they lived: The Royal Family during the years with Märtha.” The English version is simply called “The Royal House of Norway” and doesn’t fully reveal the degree of the insight on tap.

Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha arriving at her family's summer home in Sweden with their young princesses, Ragnhild and Astri. PHOTO: Bastion Forlag

Those familiar with the Oslo area can also enjoy the photographs taken around town, both involving royal events and everyday life: Crown Princess Märtha, for example, photographed while out shopping on the street known as Grensen, or with her children and in-laws at a circus performance in 1937. There are also photos of the crown couple’s official tour of the US in 1939.

There are many carefully posed photographs, just like the royals pose for photo ops today, but there are also many candid snapshot-type photos taken while out swimming, on family picnics or out on the crown prince’s beloved sailboats. There are formal events and casual ones as well, offering insight into fashion and the style of the era, along with large “family photos” featuring members of most of the royal houses of Europe before the war.

Prince Harald holding hands with his older sister, during a visit from American students at their family home at Skaugum after the war. PHOTO: Bastion Forlag

The relatively care-free days that the royals enjoyed during the 1930s, however, took an abrupt turn when the family was split up following the German invasion of Norway in 1940. The book’s text offers only a puzzling account of the invasion itself, but there’s lots of coverage of the royals during their war years in London and Washington DC, where Crown Princess Märtha found a special protector and benefactor in the form of US President Franklin D Roosevelt. He arranged housing for Märtha and her children at a palatial estate outside the capital, and even bought her a Buick that she took home to Norway with her when the war was over. Coverage of the royal family’s triumphant return to Norway in 1945 is extensive.

The book ends with the illness and death of Märtha in the spring of 1954, only 53 years old. Author Mørch is already working on the publication of the diary of King Haakon’s Lord Chamberlain, so more details of the Norwegian royal family’s early years can be expected.

(The Royal House of Norway, by Morten Ole Mørch, translation by Diane Oatley, Bastion Forlag, Oslo).

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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