She was once accused of being a threat to the Norwegian monarchy but on Tuesday Queen Sonja was being hailed for saving it. As she turned 80 on the 4th of July, the commoner who married then-Crown Prince Harald 49 years ago was finally getting credit for reforming an institution that most Norwegians willingly admit is an anachronism that nonetheless enjoys strong public support.
Both Queen Sonja and her husband, now King Harald V, turned 80 this year and their birthdays were officially celebrated in May, midway between them. The queen nonetheless was being treated to a full day of festivities, starting with the unveiling of a new statue in her honour on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Oslo. Then she’d officially receive her birthday gift from King Harald, a renovated royal stable also on the palace grounds that’s being turned into a public hall for art and culture called KunstStallen.
After that there was to be a picnic in the palace park for invited guests, followed by a birthday dinner at the historic royal summer home on Bygdøy called Kongsgård. All the events would be attended by royal family members including the couple’s two grown children, Crown Prince Haakon and Princess Martha Louise, and the king’s older sister Princess Astrid.
The sun was even shining in Oslo as festivities began, always taken as a sign that anyone celebrating their birthday has been especially good during the past year. In Queen Sonja’s case, she’s admittedly tried hard to “be good” since her engagement to Crown Prince Harald was finally announced back in 1968, nine years after they first met.
The prospect of their marriage set off a near-constitutional crisis because it was unheard of at the time for a royal heir to marry a commoner. The Center Party-led government was against it, with its justice minister opposed in principle and fearing such a marriage would undermine the monarchy. “If they marry,” warned government minister Dagfinn Vårvik of the Center Party, “the monarchy’s days are numbered.”
King Olav V, Harald’s father, also believed that “Norwegians were not ready” for a royal marriage that did not involve purely blue blood, according to a biography written by Per Egil Hegge. King Olav was not convinced by “discreet investigations” undertaken by the country’s defense minister at the time that Sonja Haraldsen was in fact a “pretty” and “well-educated” young woman who was discreet herself.
Crown Prince Harald resisted an arranged marriage with a European princess, however, and ultimately told his father that if he couldn’t marry Sonja Haraldsen he would remain a bachelor. With both of his sisters already married to commoners, there were no other prospects for a blue-blooded succession in the event of an abdication or Harald dying without a child. The king and a reluctant government finally relented, and Crown Princess Sonja emerged from the cathedral in Oslo after the royal wedding on August 29, 1968.
Commentator Harald Stanghelle, writing about the stormy history of the royal romance in newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday, noted that the entire fuss over it can seem “absurd” today. But it was dramatic for the couple themselves and especially for Sonja, who has revealed that she felt not just unwanted but almost a target of hatred. She also faced a male-dominated royal palace full of “military men” who’d surrounded King Olav since he became a widower while still a crown prince. It took another 22 years before Sonja was given her own office at the palace.
“I have myself felt how gruesome it is to not be accepted, and to be blamed for ruining the monarchy,” Sonja is quoted as saying in Ingar Sletten Kolloen’s biography of her. There was debate as late as 1991, when she finally became queen and Harald king upon the death of his father, as to whether Queen Sonja should be by King Harald’s side at the opening of Parliament. She ultimately was, and has been since.
‘Great transformation’ of the monarchy
Queen Sonja has been breaking through barriers throughout her royal career and today, Stanghelle and others were arguing that Sonja is the most important of the three women married to royal heirs since the monarchy was re-established in 1905. Queen Maud, the British princess married to the Danish prince who became Norway’s King Haakon VII 112 years ago, was viewed as “passive, often absent and not very good at fulfilling royal obligations,” wrote historian and author Trond Norén Isaksen in Aftenposten on Tuesday. Crown Princess Martha, married to Haakon’s and Maud’s only child Olav, produced three heirs including Harald and played an important and inspirational role from exile in the US during World War II, but she didn’t live to become queen. Sonja, meanwhile, has spent the past 49 years contributing to reforms and modernization of the monarchy, and paving the way for all the other commoners who have since married royal heirs in the world’s remaining monarchies.
“She represents the great transformation of the Norwegian monarchy, as a pioneer and architect of the new Norwegian queen’s role,” wrote Stanghelle. She’s already teaching it to Crown Princess Mette-Marit, another controversial commoner who married Sonja and Harald’s son and heir-to-the-throne Haakon. Sonja reportedly has been grooming Mette-Marit for her future role for several years already, and the two get on well.
Stanghelle called Queen Sonja “the monarchy’s saviour” of sorts, who today could stand forth, whether she likes it or not, as the “triumphant” character in a fairy tale. “That’s how we like it here in the kingdom, with a happy ending,” Stanghelle wrote. Scores of other Norwegian “queens” from “ski queen” Marit Bjørgen to “crime-author queen” Unni Lindell and “business queen” Kristin Skogen Lund were among those hailing her on Tuesday.
Queen Sonja, meanwhile, won’t be taking off on summer holidays like most Norwegians do in July just yet. Next Thursday she’ll be opening the Riddu Riddu indigenous people’s music festival in Kåfjord in Northern Norway, and an art exhibit in Henningsvær two days later. After that, the Royal Palace was not showing any further scheduled events on its royal calendar, leaving the queen perhaps free to wander in the mountains as she has for years, or spend time at her family’s seaside summer home on the island of Tjøme. There she can gear up for next year’s celebration, the royal couple’s 50th wedding anniversary.