Norway officially kicked off the bicentennial celebrations of its Constitution (Grunnloven) on Sunday, 200 years to the day that a group of 21 men gathered in a wealthy businessman’s home in Eidsvoll, north of Oslo. The decisions made at that meeting on February 16, 1814 led to the drafting of a Norwegian Constitution that was approved three months later, on May 17th, and led to an 89-year-long campaign to get Norway recognized as its own sovereign nation.
The men meeting in Eidsvoll were unhappy that Norway, which had been part of Denmark for more than 400 years, was being turned over to Sweden as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Denmark/Norway had sided with Napoleon during the years of war, while Sweden sided with Great Britain. When Napoleon lost and the British won, a peace treaty signed in Kiel dictated that the Danish king at the time must cede Norway to the Swedish king.
Sentiment was already growing for Norway to become an independent country in its own right. Danish Prince Christian Frederik was keen to become king of a new independent Norway, and he joined the men meeting in Eidsvoll, who included a bishop, several businessmen and military officers. Most were landowners and politicians as well, and they all supported an independence movement for a country based on democratic principles.
They convinced Prince Christian Frederik not to name himself King of Norway just yet but rather hold elections for a Norwegian national assembly that would write a constitution and elect a king for the new Norwegian state. That was done in record time, mostly during the month of April in 1814, and Prince Christian Frederik was duly elected King of Norway just after the constitution was approved on the 17th of May. That didn’t last long, however, with the victorious British supporting the idea of Norway’s Constitution, but maintaining that the Swedish king must still assume power over Norway through a new union between Sweden and Norway.
The union was an unhappy one, finally leading to Norway’s emergence as a sovereign nation with its own foreign policy and, ultimately, its own king in 1905. It’s the actual drafting of the constitution that formed the basis for Norway’s independence movement and democracy, though, that’s being celebrated in Norway this year.
Bicentennial events got underway with an outdoor ceremony Sunday evening on the grounds of the newly restored manor house at Eidsvoll where it all began. Festivities began at precisely 20:14 (8:14pm) with an historic synopsis of events 200 years ago, an address by King Harald V and various entertainment. In the audience were members of the Royal Family, the president of the Parliament, dignitaries and members of the government, with Prime Minister Erna Solberg straight off the jet from the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The historic mansion in Eidsvoll, where the constitution meetings were held, will reopen to the public on Tuesday for guided tours and special events throughout the year (external link). The building, which has been in state ownership since the mid-1800s, has been through a major NOK 382 million refurbishing to bring it back to exactly how historians claim it appeared in 1814.
The building was the property of businessman and politician Carsten Anker, who lived in Copenhagen for 37 years before taking over an ironworks at Eidsvoll and moving there. He was a personal friend of the Danish prince and traveled to London in March 1814 to promote Norwegian independence. He made his home available for the constitutional meetings and it was used, not least because it was relatively easy to reach for many of the landowners, farmers and businessmen from in and around Oslo (then still called Christiania) who were attending.
Anker didn’t attend the meetings himself, however, and he went bankrupt in 1822. The house and its furnishings were sold and Anker died in 1824. The building was later taken over by the state and became Norway’s first historical monument in 1837.
Year-long program of events
The Parliament Building in Oslo is also offering special guided tours of its historic meeting halls along with a new exhibition entitled Skjebneåret 1814 (The year of destiny, 1814), every Monday at 5:15pm and on Thursdays at 11:15am through May 26. The tours, at no charge, begin promptly from the Akersgata entrance to the Parliament Building, can accommodate up to 30 persons and last about 30 minutes.
Museums all over Norway are also hosting special exhibits tied to the bicentennial, including a major one on the political drama between Denmark and Norway which runs through July 31 at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo.
Another exhibit at the National Gallery in Oslo displays paintings and objects directly related to the dramatic events of 1814. Called Tidsbilder: Norge 1814, it runs through May 18. A separate exhibit opened earlier this month at the Museum of Applied Arts (Kunstindustrimuseet) that features clothing, ceramics and furniture from the period, while a third exhibit at the National Museum for Architecture portrays Oslo/Christiania at the time and how the city landscape developed.
All told, around 100 bicentennial events will be held throughout the year, including special programs on the 17th of May along with events tied to other historic events in Norway from its invasion by Nazi Germany on April 9, 1940 to Liberation Day on May 8, 1945. Churches around Norway will conduct special services on Sunday tied to the constitution and Norway’s democracy on February 23.
Prince Christian Frederik hasn’t been forgotten, and a statue of him will be placed in front of the Parliament. Around 30 new books will be published in connection with the bicentennial events.