It’s been 30 years since King Harald V became Norway’s monarch after his father, the popular King Olav, suffered a fatal heart attack while watching the Gulf War break out live on TV. Now the world is in the midst of a war against a virus, halting public celebrations of Harald’s reign, so he and Queen Sonja sent out a video greeting to Norwegians instead.
“Today we feel deeply grateful,” King Harald said in their video from home, where everyone else is also spending most of their time these days. He claimed that traveling around the country during the past three decades “and meeting people” is what they’ve valued most, and now miss the most.
“We want to thank you all for the warm receptions we have received when we come to visit,” Queen Sonja said during the video that topped NRK’s nightly newscast on Sunday. Long-planned royal tours, private holiday travel and sudden appearances after accidents and natural catastrophes have left the royals with many important memories, King Harald added.
“We have shared both good and fun experiences, and both sad and difficult,” the couple noted in a statement accompanying the video. “We have met a public that in its diversity exhibits creativity, persistence and endurance, (people) who see opportunities and, above all else, care about each other. We’ve met people all over the country who are so fond of their homes, their local community and their neighbours. That fills us with immeasurable joy and pride.”
A reign filled with ‘exciting development’
The vast majority of Norwegians continue to strongly support their constitutional monarchy, with public opinion polls showing as many as 70-80 percent still backing it. The support has continued during what King Harald called the “exciting development” of Norway during the past several decades, a period when the country’s oil wealth became increasingly visible and Norwegian society modernized at a rapid rate. Even though a monarchy can be viewed as a paradox, undemocratic and anachronistic, and defying principles of equal opportunity over privilege, Norwegians and most all of their political parties still view the royal family as a unifying factor especially in uncertain times.
King Harald, who has been the subject of several new biographies in recent months, has admitted that he was mostly “scared to death” when he formally took over for his father at a hastily called Council of State following the long-widowed King Olav’s death late on the night of January 17, 1991. The former Crown Prince Harald addressed the Norwegian people as monarch on national radio for the first time on the morning of January 18. Norway abolished coronations years ago but both Harald and Sonja were later “blessed” as king and queen at a highly formal ceremony at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim on June 23.
It meant Norway also had a royal couple and a queen for the first time since 1938, when King Olav’s mother, Queen Maud, died. Olav’s wife, Crown Princess Märtha, died before he ascended to the throne in 1957, so he reigned for just over 33 years alone. Harald and Sonja embarked together on an effort to modernize the monarchy, renovate royal properties and open them more up to the public. King Olav had been enormously popular but also adhered to strict royal protocol and never fully allowed his son to assist him or take part in decision-making, according to Harald himself. Olav also initially opposed Harald’s marriage to Sonja, who was a commoner, instead of to another European princess at the time, and forced the couple to wait nine long years before finally giving his royal nod to their wedding in 1968.
“Both King Haakon (Harald’s grandfater) and Olav were kings who did things alone,” King Harald told journalist and author Harald Stanghelle in one of the new biographies, Kongen forteller (literally, “The king talks”). “My father never let me do anything at all.”
He and Sonja have consciously opted to delegate royal duties and work in cooperation with their son and heir, Crown Prince Haakon, and his wife Mette-Marit, also a commoner. “These are different times,” Harald told Stanghelle. “I call us a team, made up of the palace staff, the crown couple and us. That’s a strength.”
Humour, humanity and inclusion
The formerly nervous King Harald has evolved into a monarch now known for his sense of humour, humanity and inclusion. He created headlines with a speech on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his reign, in which he referred to his own childhood as a refugee in the US during World War II and stressed how many of today’s Norwegians include people rooted in many other nationalities, religions and walks of life. It marked a breakthrough in his reign, and King Harald has since become a symbol of consolation and support, especially during the ongoing Corona crisis and, most recently, a fatal landslide north of Oslo.
“The queen and I miss being able to hug our children and grandchildren just like all grandparents,” he said during his annual New Year’s address to the nation. The king and queen, both age 83, have just received their first Corona vaccine, since the over-80 age group is first in line in Norway.
Crown Prince Haakon has been taking on an increasing share of royal duties recently and traveled often before the Corona crisis set in, but his father has no intention of retiring or stepping down. “When you’ve made a vow (to be monarch) to Parliament, it lasts the rest of your life,” Harald told Stanghelle. “I think I’m lucky. It’s good to have something to do, and I hope it’s meaningful.”
He and Queen Sonja made it clear in their new video greeting that they also look forward to resume meetings with Norwegians, attend various public events and travel again, as soon as Corona restrictions end. “Thanks for following along on the journey,” King Harald concluded metaphorically, “so far,” added Queen Sonja.