King Harald V is celebrating his Silver Jubilee as Norway’s monarch this weekend, with Queen Sonja by his side. Their role as a royal couple didn’t come easy though, and their romance back in the 1960s was seen as a direct threat to the monarchy.
Much has been written about how Harald and the then-Sonja Haraldsen had to wait nine years before they were allowed to marry in 1968. It’s lesser known, as Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported recently, that their romance and determination to marry set off a constitutional crisis.
Their romance was highly controversial, and kept under wraps at the time, because she was a commoner, the daughter of an Oslo clothing retailer. Crown Prince Harald was supposed to marry a princess, and several were available in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Harald was a young man and among the world’s most eligible bachelors.
In 1959, however, Harald met Sonja at a dinner hosted by some fellow friends, and when NRK asked them years later whether it was “love at first sight,” they both laughed, with Sonja saying “yes, it probably was.” She claims they’d actually met a few years earlier, as young teenagers at a sailing event, and that young Harald had tugged at her scarf. He claims he doesn’t remember that.
The romance blossomed, their friends kept their lips sealed and even King Olav V, Harald’s father wasn’t aware that his son was in love with a “girl of the people,” as Sonja came to be called. In an ongoing series of documentaries about their lives, NRK reported how Olav invited her along with other friends to a birthday dinner for his son at the palace and she happily attended.
No longer welcome
The invitations from the palace stopped when Olav finally became aware that his son was serious about Sonja Haraldsen. The monarch made it clear such a marriage was out of the question for an heir to the throne. Harald’s future queen had to have “blue blood,” King Olav believed, otherwise it would put the future of the monarchy at risk.
Many other top politicians believed the same when it eventually leaked out that Harald, even after leaving Norway to study at Oxford, and after Sonja went off to study and work in both France and Switzerland, only had eyes for each other. Their separations were difficult, and they told NRK they tried to break up on several occasions, but both were miserable.
The press in Norway, meanwhile, kept quiet about the romance, only daring to write a few lines after reports of their relationship had made news in the British and Swedish press. No Norwegian editor wanted to challenge the palace, which remained silent. It wasn’t until 1964 that local newspapers wrote about the “rumours” that had been reported abroad.
The Labour Party government at the time saw constitutional problems with any marriage between Harald and Sonja, and the powerful Labour Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen was firmly opposed to one. He sent out a press release claiming that no question of marriage had crossed his table, a move viewed as a denial of any pending engagement announcement. More years passed and then Crown Prince Harald finally found the courage to tell his father that if he couldn’t marry Sonja Haraldsen, he would be remain unmarried. And that really did put the monarchy at risk. His two sisters were both married to commoners, and it was unclear who would then be heir to the throne after Harald.
After a conservative coalition took over for the Gerhardsen government, the new Prime Minister Per Borten was informed of Harald’s ultimatum. That led to high political drama and the issue split Borten’s government. Some ministers, most notably Defense Miniseter Otto Grieg Tidemand, knew Sonja’s family and spoke highly of her. Justice Minister Elisabeth Schweigaard Selmer was strongly opposed to the marriage.
King Olav then seemed to relent a bit himself, after Harald’s joyless 30th birthday celebrations in February 1967. After Sonja turned 30 herself on the 4th of July that year, the king invited her on board his yacht, but still didn’t give them his blessing. It was unusual at that time for a young woman like Sonja Haraldsen to remain unmarried at that age, and Harald told NRK he worried he would ruin her life. “We just kept waiting and hoping that they’d all finally back down,” he said. In the meantime, Sonja’s mother Dagny Haraldsen allowed the couple to meet at her home. That was among their only free space.
Borten took ‘the easier way out’
King Olav finally gave in to the idea but still needed a green light from the government. He asked Borten what his government thought. No answers came. Finally, wrote Dagsavisen editor Arne Strand, Borten took the easier way out, and said his government would not advise against the marriage. It wouldn’t support it, but it wouldn’t challenge it either. “He played the coward,” argued Strand.
In the early spring of 1968, their engagement was finally announced, and they married on August 29, spending part of their honeymoon heading for the Olympics in Mexico City where Harald was competing in sailing races.
“The 1960s royal wedding drama is quite hard to understand in our time,” Strand wrote, in connection with this weekend’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. When Harald and Sonja’s own son, the current Crown Prince Haakon, fell in love and wanted to marry a single mother with a history of wild partying behind her, they supported him and King Harald didn’t ask the Stoltenberg government for advice but merely informed it that a weddig loomed.
“The monarchy in Norway is tough and tenacious,” Strand concluded. “It has survived a public referendum in 1905, a world war and two marriages (Harald’s and Haakon’s) between royals and commoners.” It also currently has around a 70 percent approval rating among Norwegians, although debate over and criticism of the monarchy occasionally flares up.