Cover of Vol 54 No 1, 2015Vol 54 No 1, 2015

The Norwegian Independence and Constitution of 1814: Norway, Great Britain and Beyond


Ola Mestad

(University of Oslo)


Morten Skumsrud Andersen and Iver B Neumann

(Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and LSE & NUPI)

The Danish Empire and Norway's Place Therein


This article argues that Norway’s political status at the point when it was pried from Denmark by the Great Powers in 1814 was that of a semi-core in an empire. The basic premise of the paper is that Denmark and Norway both were polities, with a polity being a social unit that has a distinct identity, a capacity to mobilize persons and a degree of institutionalization and hierarchy. The article begins with a nutshell conceptual history of ‘empire’ and concludes that Denmark was an empire in a conceptual sense. By applying the analytical literature on empire to Denmark, this study demonstrates that Denmark was also an empire in an analytical sense. Having established what kind of polity Denmark was, it goes on to determine the status of the Norwegian polity within it. Empires consist of a core, as well as of a number of peripheries whose closeness to the core varies. Norway was drawn closer to the imperial centre throughout the eighteenth century. It is, in fact, hard to imagine a part of an empire being closer to an imperial core than Norway was to Copenhagen. The article concludes by suggesting the term semi-core to account for Norway’s place within the Danish empire.


Bård Frydenlund

(Næs Iron Works Museum)

British Agents in Norway in 1814: The Norwegian Independence and Constitution of 1814


1814 was a year full of political shifts and geopolitical changes in Scandinavia. As a great power with significant trading interests in Norway, the cabinet in London sent envoys and other agents to watch over the situation and influence the decision making processes according to British interests. This article shows the strategies chosen by three different individuals, the special envoy John Morier, the appointed minister Augustus Foster and the spy Charles Gordon. Differences in obligation, reputation and points of departure, meant different actions and tactical maneuvers concerning how to gather and distribute information and to decide what other measures to be taken. Frydenlund discusses the different approaches taken in relation to the obstacles the British diplomatic network met during the Napoleonic Wars. The case of Norway in 1814 shows that British interests were not wholly uniform at the end of Napoleon’s reign and that the treaty policies met resistance both among diplomatic mediators and in Parliament.


Ola Mestad

(University of Oslo)

The Most Awkward and Embarrassing Question: British Treaty Obligations, the Role of the Law of Nations and the Establishment of the Swedish Norwegian Union in 1814


In 1814, Britain honoured its treaty obligations and supported Sweden in its acquisition of Norway as a reward for its alliance against Napoleonic France. The question of Britain’s support of Sweden’s claims on Norway was, however, seen by the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool as awkward and embarrassing. This article discusses why this may have been the case. It is argued that the answer lies in the stated principles of the Law of Nations and in how they were perceived by the British public, in Parliament and within the British government itself. Examining the teachings of the leading authorities on the Law of Nations of the period, Grotius, Pufendorf, and, above all, Vattel – to whom Liverpool explicitly referred in a letter – this article demonstrates that, even if this was publicly not admitted, the Prime Minister felt bound by the writings of these so-called ‘civilians’ who advocated the rights of a people. This shows how, despite the existence of direct enforcement mechanisms, the Law of Nations may have influenced state leaders’ conduct in international relations.


Dag Michalsen

(University of Oslo)

International Dimensions of the Norwegian Constitution of 1814


What were the international dimensions of the Norwegian Constitution of 1814?  Any constitution is an expression of the law and politics of a specific country. Equally a constitution has international qualities as it expresses ongoing geopolitical processes. The chief aim of this article is to highlight some of these international dimensions of the Norwegian Constitution of 1814. This involves both an understanding of the international contexts behind the making of the constitution and its complex and reciprocal international repercussions after 1814. The article is divided into three parts. The first part deals with methodological issues including the proposal of the concept of international legal act as a way to understand constitutions as part of a number of legal devices in their international functions. Secondly, the article places the Norwegian Constitution of 1814 in its international settings, as well as into its legal-technical, political and geopolitical function. Finally, the article explores the role of Norwegian Constitution in the Congress system that emerged from the Vienna settlement from 1815 to 1818.


David Redvaldsen


‘A Mere Ribbon of Silk‘’? The Abolition of the Norwegian Nobility 1814-1824


The Norwegian Constitution of May 1814 contained several radical provisions. Paragraphs 23 and 108 prohibited the king to create new nobility or bestow other hereditary privileges. While an overwhelming majority at the Constitutional Assembly voted to restrict aristocracy, existing noble families were allowed to retain some of their privileges. This article identifies these families and states what the privileges involved. In November 1814 Norway entered a forced union with Sweden. The remaining rights of the nobility and the institution itself caused dissent between parliament and the Swedish King. In 1816, 1818 and 1821 parliament voted to abolish aristocracy. On the first two occasions the King vetoed the bill, but he reluctantly sanctioned it in 1821. This was because the constitution had established a mechanism whereby parliament could override the royal veto. In return for the king’s sanction, parliament accepted the principle of compensation for lost noble rights and agreed to consider a proposal by the king to institute a new order of nobility without legal privileges. The latter was rejected in 1824 with reference to the constitution. The constitution was thus vital at every stage in abolishing the nobility.


Ruth Hemstad

(National Library of Norway / University of Oslo)

Madame de Staël and the War of Opinion Regarding the Cession of Norway 1813-1814


A pamphlet and propaganda war raged in Great Britain and Europe around 1814 regarding what was called ‘The Norwegian question’. In this war of opinion, the French-Swiss author Madame de Staël played an interesting and contested role. The Swedish Crown Prince since 1810, the former French Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte​, launched an extensive propaganda campaign from 1812 onwards in order to facilitate a union with Norway. In this rhetorical battle, Madame de Staël, as well as her German friend August Wilhelm Schlegel, played prominent roles, almost like spin doctors, defending the Swedish claims on Norway. The British-Swedish treaty of 1813 and the Norwegian upheaval against being transferred to Sweden in 1814 caused a strong debate in Great Britain, in Parliament and the press. Madame de Staël agitated for Bernadotte’s cause in London in 1813-1814. After Napoleon’s defeat, she moved back to Paris, still hoping for Bernadotte to replace Napoleon as French ruler. She did not really care for the Norwegian struggle for independence, but eventually advised Bernadotte to accept the 1814 Norwegian Constitution in order to strengthen his liberal image in France.

Elettra Carbone


The Poetics of 1814: Representations of Norway, Norwegian Politics and Norwegian Culture in The Recluse of Norway by Anna Maria Porter


Few British writers visited and/or wrote literary texts about Norway in the nineteenth century. What then attracted the attention of those who did write about this ‘exotic’ Nordic country? Was it its landscape, its traditions or its complex political situation? Taking as my starting point C. B. Burchardt’s Norwegian Life and Literature (1920), an early account on the representation of Norwegians in British literature, this article addresses these questions focusing primarily on the novel The Recluse of Norway written by Anna Maria Porter (1780-1832) and published for the first time in 1814. Despite being set at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the novel’s historical references inform and are informed by the historical events of 1814, which resulted in the Norwegian Constitution and in the cession of Norway to Sweden. More generally, this novel casts light on British representations of Norway at the beginning of the century. 


Comment and Debate

Elettra Carbone


Research-based Pedagogy in the Norwegian Classroom: UCL Students’ Contributions to the 2014 Celebrations

Read Full Article (Adobe PDF)


Ruth Hemstad

‘Like a Herd of Cattle’: Parliamentary and Public Debates Regarding the Cession of Norway, 1813-14

Akademisk Publisering, Oslo 2014. Pp. 561.

ISBN: 9788281520424

Reviewed by Thomas Munck

The Norwegian constitutional debate of 1814, and the circumstances of the cession of Norway from its long-standing position in the Danish-Norwegian composite state to a rather more liberal constitutional arrangement with Sweden (until 1905), are matters of real historical interest: such events not only create new identities and new political relationships, but also provide clear indication of the extent to which political public opinion was (and remains) volatile and highly susceptible to circumstantial pressures. We need to remind ourselves that most early modern states were peculiarly complex dynastic conglomerates which made little ‘national’ sense, and often lacked the kind of coherence that might be reinforced by a shared language, culture, legal system, educational structure, religion, economic strategy, not to mention governmental structure. We should not underestimate the extent to which the geo-political shape of Europe has changed in the last few centuries: the emergence of the ‘nation-state’ as a meaningful concept is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that we cannot take for granted.

The Norwegian case is particularly interesting because the very difficult political circumstances created during the decades of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars severely tested both established ideas and existing political compromises. Denmark was under an old and theoretically quite extreme form of absolute monarchy, established in the wake of mid-seventeenth-century wars that nearly destroyed the kingdom altogether. Since 1766, the titular ruler, Christian VII, was on the face of it the worst possible example of hereditary kingship: a disturbed and violently unpredictable individual who from as early as 1770 was totally unfit to govern, and who had to be sedated and paraded from time to time to demonstrate that he still existed. What saved the Danish monarchy was the regency set up in 1784 under the titular direction of the crown prince, whose ministerial advisers instituted one of the most successful and durable, but moderate, programmes of enlightened reform seen anywhere in Europe over the subsequent 12 years. However, Norway was not the main beneficiary: frustrations there at Danish foot-dragging over commercial and monetary policies were understandable, not to mention other grievances such as delays in creating a new university. Disastrously, after the British attacks on Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807, the dual kingdom had no working navy, leaving Norway isolated in terms of transport and vital trade links. The death of Christian VII in 1808, and the succession of the crown prince as monarch in his own right (Frederik VI) did little to restore better links between Norway and Denmark or to maintain the dual monarchy. The expedition to Norway in May 1813 by his heir-apparent, Crown Prince Christian Frederik (as Governor of the northern kingdom), though intended to shore up the Danish-Norwegian union against Swedish claims, did not offer any real support. Given the inherent conservatism of the Danish monarchy, a satisfactory solution seemed unlikely.

If Denmark-Norway was a union with major political problems, the situation in Sweden was not much better. Gustav IV Adolph of Sweden was on the face of it not as disastrous a ruler as Christian VII of Denmark, but his loss of Finland to Russia in 1808-09 led to his arrest and forced abdication in the face of a military revolt. The succession of his indecisive and politically inept uncle as Charles XIII merely confirmed the instability of the Swedish monarchy. Since he lacked a legitimate heir, a search for a suitable successor to the Swedish crown started almost immediately, resulting in the ‘election’ of an unrelated outsider, the French military commander, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, as Crown Prince (future Charles XIV John). Frederik VI of Denmark had already in 1809 made a reasonably plausible claim to the Swedish succession, one that, if successful, would have changed the political shape of Scandinavia back in the direction of the pre-1523 Kalmar union. As it was, bitter rivalry between the two Scandinavian monarchies ensued, in which each side was heavily dependent on the Great Powers in Europe for strategic and diplomatic support. Norway became a pawn in the diplomatic horse-trading, whereby Bernadotte was to be rewarded for his role in the international conflict by the cession of Norway to Sweden, as ‘compensation’ for the loss of Finland, whilst Denmark was punished for its unavoidable siding with the French after the British assaults on Copenhagen. In this context, it is not difficult to see why the Norwegian political elite was keen on gaining independence, and why Britain, in particular, was embarrassed by its undignified role in insisting that the Norwegians be handed over ‘like a herd of cattle’ to the Swedish crown. International diplomacy has always had some very unedifying components – but this particular piece of cynical cattle-trading was very obviously open to serious criticism, not only from all the Scandinavian participants, but also from the domestic political opponents/critics of the British government. The scope for a substantive British debate became even greater when Britain imposed a punitive blockade on Norway in April 1814, ostensibly in order to enforce the international treaties of Stockholm and Kiel, according to which the cession of Norway appeared to be an essential diplomatic component of the restoration of ‘stability’ and ‘security’ in Europe. How this was discussed in public, in Britain, is therefore of key interest.

As a framework for her analysis, Hemstad uses the term ‘public diplomacy’ – that is, the kind of diplomacy conducted in part by means of a deliberate generation of public debate as a form of propaganda for a political cause. The phenomenon was strictly speaking not new in 1814. Napoleon had developed it specifically to project his foreign policy to a wider audience in order to foster public acceptance of what he was trying to do. Before him, it is fair to say that the French Revolutionary government had at several key stages shaped political discourse very deliberately for public propaganda purposes, both in respect of internal opponents during the civil wars of 1793, and in terms of its aims to ‘liberate’ neighbouring peoples (notably the Austrian Netherlands, Alsace-Lorraine and Savoy) from the yoke of what was defined as tyrannous ancien-régime government. We could go back further, and note that for example Frederick II of Prussia earned his epithet as ‘the Great’ partly because of his brilliant self-projection as a ‘servant of the state’ through his many writings and through his style of government; or indeed see the Danish-Norwegian government itself, during the later 1780s and 1790s, encouraging public debate  as in part a means of reinforcing moderate reform policies within the dual monarchy. So deliberate reference to public opinion as a tool in politics was not new, but its international deployment as diplomatic propaganda in great-power relations had developed rapidly since the 1790s. British interests in Scandinavia and the Baltic region were in any case very strong, not least for strategic and commercial reasons.

Ruth Hemstad’s book is a landmark in applying this concept of ‘public diplomacy’ to the debate within Britain regarding the cession of Norway, between February 1813 and June 1814. A highly informative Introduction provides a full explanation of the diplomatic and legal context, introducing a rich and well-chosen selection of primary sources including 17 extracts from the Hansard records of the debates in the Houses of Commons and Lords over the crucial period 181314; 2 pro-Swedish pamphlets written as part of Bernadotte’s efforts to persuade the Norwegians as well as the international community (especially in Britain) to understand both his legal claim and the economic and constitutional benefits that would accrue; 2 similarly intended pro-Danish ones published in London; 3 further pamphlets from 1814 arguing various points, including a pro-Swedish one written in French but here translated into English; and some other relevant material altogether amounting to around 500 pages of contemporary political texts, each with a clear editorial commentary. This rich material gives a superb insight into the kinds of political writing that was intended to inform and persuade the British political elite (and perhaps even a wider readership) of the issues to do with Norwegian demands for independence as opposed to international diplomatic commitments concerning its cession to Sweden. Despite older claims to the contrary, the British press was of course far from ‘free’, but the direct restraints of censorship had long since been replaced by the more indirect pressures of libel laws and political manipulation, both of which had been all too visible in the 1790s. Now that a final peace settlement looked possible, British public debate was vigorous, and its terms of reference highly informative. Equally, actual British governmental decisions were crucial both for the Norwegians and for Bernadotte, so there was much to be gained by trying to influence British public opinion from outside. 

The selection of relevant texts included in this volume is broad enough to allow us to draw conclusions concerning the types of arguments used in public discourse and, in other words, the ways in which the Norwegian predicament and the international context could be described by different interested parties in Britain with the intent of influencing parliamentary debates and British policy. Ruth Hemstad also mentions a number of other contemporary publications, allowing her to discern a number of key component strands in the arguments at the time:

(1) arguments based on natural law and the law of nations. When applied in this case there were conflicting outcomes: on the one hand, positive law arguments relevant for international treaty obligations (notably the Treaty of Kiel, and in particular Britain’s legal commitments to Sweden); and on the other, natural law arguments applicable to the rights of subjects (in this case a whole ‘people’) in respect of their sovereign. Arguments based on international positive law had long antecedents going back to Grotius or before, whilst the arguments based on the natural rights of subjects had even more complex origins going further back still. In Britain, one of the key authors cited was Vattel’s The Law of Nations (1759), emphasising the impropriety of handing over a people ‘like a herd of cattle’ to another ruler.

(2) two further strands of argument were deployed by Bernadotte to justify the Swedish position. One was the natural frontier argument – that Norway and Sweden made a natural geographic identity in effect taking up the whole Scandinavian peninsula. Bernadotte himself cleverly used such arguments in public to distance himself from his own former head of state, Napoleon – notably by claiming that Napoleon was himself in manifest breach of the ideas of natural frontiers and international law. The resulting public-relations battle between Napoleon and Bernadotte, conducted through pamphlets using hired writers, by no means restricted itself to just to the Norwegian debate. But it allowed pro-Danish writers to point to the absurdity and cynicism of the ‘natural frontiers’ argument.

(3) Bernadotte also adopted a more sophisticated positive policy of offering significant constitutional concessions and guarantees to the Norwegians in order to make a union with Sweden more attractive. As  we know, this approach eventually led to a significant level of Norwegian autonomy within the new union (1814-1905), and Bernadotte was right in recognising that this was a theme to which the Norwegians would be sensitive. It gave the Danish crown very little effective come-back, and would also go down well in London (where it was first picked up already in May 1813).

(4) In all this, passing reference was made to ‘the real state of the public mind in Norway’ (as described by the Danish publicist Andreas Feldborg, resident in England, but whose pamphlet of August 1813 was also translated for a Norwegian audience in 1814. That translation was no doubt intended to fuel the actual Norwegian resistance which emerged after the signing of the Treaty of Kiel in January 1814 threatening Norway’s hopes of independence. British papers started taking more notice of Norwegian claims to independence rather than submission to Sweden, whilst Norwegian papers increasingly reported on British public debates, hoping that British opposition criticisms of government policy would create scope for securing Norwegian independence. It is worth noting that the ambivalence (not to say hypocrisy) in this respect of the Danish-appointed Governor of Norway, Christian Frederik, who was taking a lead in the Norwegian independence movement although he was also heir-presumptive to the Danish crown, seems to have been brushed under the carpet. In any case the resumption in April 1814 of the British blockade of Norway, to force submission to Sweden, polarised the debate.

(5) By the time Earl Grey in May 1814 launched a full-blown attack in the House of Lords against British government policy, the two paramount issues had now been clarified: British obligations and commitments in international law, versus the arguments based on Norwegian self-determination. The case for self-determination was made obliquely, in terms of the illegality of the cession by the Danish crown. Denmark could hand its rights to govern Norway, but had no right ‘to alienate the sovereignty of Norway without the consent of the people’. Grey argued that Norway had been self-governing under the Danish crown, so its independence now would be the best option, return to Denmark less desirable but legal, and cession to Sweden the worst possible outcome. In law, Britain therefore had no right to starve the Norwegians  into submission. In that context British government propaganda clung to Swedish promises of major constitutional concessions to Norway, as a way of making the deal seem more reasonable.

This book of course focuses on the British debate: the question of how far Norwegian domestic opinion itself can be determined is another story. It is nonetheless interesting to note that the process whereby the Norwegians drafted their own constitution in 1814 gave considerable momentum towards an internationally acceptable compromise solution, which, as we know, ultimately involved a very brief Swedish-Norwegian war, the abdication of the Danish Crown Prince from his brief spell as King of Norway, and the election of the Swedish King as the new sovereign of Norway. Significantly for the Norwegians, they had to undertake only minor amendments of their new constitution.

What matters in the context of this book is the complex international debate, in public, over the legalities and rights of the different government positions – a debate which in Britain does genuinely fit the label ‘public diplomacy’, given that parliamentary debates on foreign policy were both promoted and followed-through by means of detailed reasoning in the press and in pamphlets. For historians who search for solid evidence of the shape and extent of political awareness in the broader reading public, the British debate is interesting not just because of what it says about British public opinion, but also for the evidence it provides about external input into that debate (in this case from those favouring Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and indeed French perspectives on the basis for, and nature of, Norwegian self-determination). The selection of contemporary source material included in this volume (a good 500 pages of it) represents a broad range, from formal parliamentary debates, through carefully reasoned arguments intended to achieve substantive clarification, to much more brazen propaganda pieces favouring either the Swedish or the Danish side. Each of the different types of material is prefaced by a short and extremely helpful editorial comment. And no less significantly for historians of print, we are also given a list of editions, translations and reprints of each text (in those cases where they had a longer shelf-life). 

The rate of reprinting and/or translation of such material can of course signify several different things: it may mean that publishers thought more money could be made from what had become a text in demand, but equally, it may merely signify a text which had the backing of a rich or persistent patron. For example, one of the pro-Swedish pamphlets, written by the German pamphleteer August Wilhelm Schlegel in association with Madame de Staël and with Bernadotte, and laying out the Swedish case in extravagant rhetoric, went through no less than 21 editions (including translations into many languages, an achievement that will certainly have been based not so much on its limited literary or intellectual merits as on the support of its two powerful patrons. Indeed Madame de Staël was one of Bernadotte’s most enthusiastic supporters, and in due course also promoted his candidature to the Napoleonic succession in France itself (which of course made him highly suspect in British eyes).

Other pamphleteers, however, also had some success, amongst them the pro-Danish Andreas Felborg. His style of argument can be gauged from the second of his pamphlets included here. In a passage mischievously describing how Sweden could gloat at the highly destructive British bombardment of Copenhagen, he notes (p. 528):

Gustavus may therefore be excused for going to the nearest spot in his own dominions whence he could most conveniently witness the memorable transactions off Copenhagen in 1807. It was indeed but natural, that he who struck out the first thought of those proceedings should himself enjoy as much as he could, consistently with his personal safety, of the grand and imposing spectacle which Copenhagen at that moment exhibited. The ministers of a friendly power do not every day burn for stage effect a capital in alliance, merely to astonish people and look vigorous.

There are many other wonderful examples, amongst these sources, of political shrewdness coloured with irony and open criticism. For example, Henry Peter Brougham, who intervened in the debate on the side of Early Grey, was quoted in the Edinburgh Review in May 1814, at the height of the crisis, questioned what right the British government  had to force Norway to accept cession, by force. No less important, he noted (pp. 495f) that:

A thousand facts prove, that any attempt at giving happiness to a people who detest you, by taking them under your protection whether they will or no, can have no other effect but to crush their spirit, while it extinguishes the very possibility of improvement. This must infallibly be the fate of such a scheme, even where it is conceived in perfect good faith; but, on the part of Sweden, in the present instance, it is the vainest and most insulting of all pretences. The Norwegians feel no grievances under their present government. It is not a free one; – but it is, whether from policy of indolence, or necessity, an inactive and a mild administration. Its existence is, in scarcely any shape whatever, felt by the people. – The Danes are not much loved; – they are not strong; – they are distant, – and they let the Norwegians alone. – No oppressive taxes, – no feudal privileges; – no conscription, except to serve in their national militia; – no standing army which can endanger their repose. All they want is that which Sweden has in reality not much more of, than Denmark, – formal securities and checks to the royal prerogatives. They may obtain these for themselves from their hereditary Danish rulers: from their Swedish conquerors they never can expect it.

There are many other wonderful forms of expression of political ideas in the many texts included in this volume. They remind us how much thought went into ‘public diplomacy’, and indeed political public opinion generally, in the aftermath of the tumultuous previous 25 years of change in Europe. More specifically, they remind us of the kind of language, and mental constructs, within which public debate operated. We observe, for example, how contemporaries reconciled themselves to the pragmatic need to adhere to international positive law, even when it was in conflict with natural law. We can also observe a refreshing frankness in opposition criticisms to British government policy, a kind of opposition which was rare elsewhere in Europe at that point, and had made only a fleeting appearance in France during the early 1790s. But it is no less interesting to observe at first hand how the core notion of national self-determination was beginning to find some kind of expression in political debate, even if no-one as yet had any clear idea how it might be defined or how it might be measured. Everyone recognised the ideal, in terms of Norway’s traditions and political position by this stage; but in this particular international forum, at this stage, there was no clear precedent or protocol for its actual implementation. Thanks to the source material and analysis in this volume, we can now see precisely how the main arguments were formulated in public debate, in Britain, and how important print had become by 1813-14 in disseminating key political and legal concepts. 

Bård Frydenlund

Spillet om Norge. Det politiske året 1814

Gyldendal, Oslo 2014. Pp. 359.

ISBN: 9788205463554

Reviewed by Morten Nordhagen Ottosen

The period commonly referred to as ‘1814’, which is usually regarded as spanning the seven years from 1807-1814, is arguably the most researched period in Norwegian historiography, probably even more  so than World War 2. From the twists and turns of the Napoleonic Wars in Scandinavia emerged modern independent Norway, with a set of political and national institutions that have survived to this day. While the main events leading up to Norway’s 1814 have appeared clear enough to historians, the reasons why these events occurred and why Norway emerged independent are much disputed. These disputes particularly revolve around the question of whether Norway’s independence was all but an inevitable occurrence that owed to long standing internal developments, or a freak accident, as it were, brought about by the external pressures of war and great power politics. These opposite views have shaped Norwegian historiography since the mid-nineteenth century and have left a vast body of research and literature in their wake. Against this backdrop, it would certainly be forgivable to think that, come the bicentenary in 2014, the debate on all things 1814 would be quite exhausted. Yet, the bicentennial influx of new research – including the three monographs under review here – goes to show that there is indeed still much more to be said about Norway, Scandinavia and 1814.

These three books are primarily concerned with the political history of Norwegian (and, to an extent, Scandinavian) élites and are all based on plenty of new research and findings, while still taking the massive body of earlier historiography into consideration. As political histories, they complement each other quite well: although they overlap on a number of crucial events and topics, their narratives stretch across slightly different time spans. Between them, they offer slightly different views and interpretations, which will help introduce readers braving all three books to many of the complexities and ambiguities that confront scholars working within this particular field of Norwegian and Scandinavian history. In return, they offer a broad and certainly the most updated political history to date of Norway in the age of Revolution and Napoleon.

Lee Sather, Professor Emeritus of Weber State University, is a rare example of an American scholar taking on the subject of Napoleonic Scandinavia. In some ways The Prince of Scandinavia is a continuation of Sather’s 1975 Ph.D. dissertation on Prince Christian August of Augustenburg, the later Crown Prince of Sweden, but is written anew to tie in with recent research and historiography. The result is a monograph that serves less as a biography of the Prince and more as a detailed and enlightening analysis of Scandinavian politics from 1807 to 1810.

Bård Frydenlund’s Spillet om Norge. Det politiske året 1814, offers an overview and analysis of the political events and course of the year 1814, with the years preceding Norway’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’ – as some contemporaries labelled it – serving mainly as an introductory background. Frydenlund focuses especially on the political and commercial élites and their role in the political events that shaped Norway’s year of independence. In this way he guides the reader through the political turns of 1814, concluding that what happened in Norway was nothing short of a revolution.

Carl Emil Vogt offers a biography of Count Herman Wedel Jarlsberg, one of the key figures in Norwegian politics and society in 1807-1814 and beyond. Wedel Jarlsberg served in various prominent positions as a civil servant prior to 1814, before becoming Minister of Finance, President of the Parliament and eventually Viceroy. Vogt covers Wedel Jarlsberg’s life in the context of the political events in which he took a prominent, if not crucial, part, thereby writing Norwegian political history as a biography of the count – or vice versa.

The year 1809 was crucial for Norway and Scandinavia alike. Two years previously the United Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway had been drawn into the Napoleonic Wars through Britain’s attack on Copenhagen. This sent the Danish-Norwegian government spiralling into the arms of Napoleon, whose condition for an alliance was that Denmark-Norway helped France and Russia to force Sweden to sever its ties with Britain. The Swedish government would have none of it, and thus a Scandinavian war ensued in 1808, during which Sweden mounted an invasion of Norway. British blockade and the struggle against Sweden left Norway in a very precarious situation, dependent as it was on Denmark for corn, credit, military supplies and indeed government. From this evolved Norwegian discontent with Danish rule, as the absolutist King Frederick was increasingly blamed for having left Norway in a two-front war to avoid a French invasion of Denmark proper. As the scope of Norway’s economic crisis and food shortages grew, so did discontent in élite circles with the government in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, Sweden’s military setbacks in Norway and Finland had caused a group of officers to depose King Gustav IV Adolph in March 1809, leaving the Swedish throne and, with it, the question of Scandinavia’s future wide open.

This brought Prince Christian August, the supreme military and civilian commander in Norway, and Count Herman Wedel Jarlsberg – by then a member of a temporary government body established to administer Norway as long as relations across the Skagerrak were severed – into the centre of Scandinavian politics. In the spring of 1809 the Swedes began to look to Christian August as a possible successor to their deposed king and Wedel Jarlsberg strove to cast off Danish rule and unite Norway with Sweden. Naturally, these are crucial matters especially to Vogt and Sather, although the two do not agree as to the policies and significance of Christian August and Wedel Jarlsberg.

As portrayed by Vogt, Wedel Jarlsberg was a tireless Norwegian patriot driven by rightful disdain of King Frederick VI, whose stubborn absolutism and reckless foreign policy had driven Norway into a state of destitution. The count saw Norway’s salvation in a union with Sweden, albeit one based on a liberal constitutional arrangement guaranteeing extensive Norwegian home rule, and in this he had a powerful ally in the Swedish officer Georg Adlersparre, one of the main men behind the coup in March. Wedel Jarlsberg and Adlersparre placed their hopes in Christian August, expecting that his popularity with the Norwegians would draw them voluntarily into a union with Sweden, as it were, once he ascended the Swedish throne. In July Christian August was duly elected as successor to the Swedish throne by the Riksdag (the deposed king’s aging, childless and increasingly senile uncle Karl having meanwhile been elected king), followed by a targeted campaign by Adlersparre and Wedel Jarlsberg to sway Norwegian opinion in favour of a union with Sweden. Thus Vogt goes some way in making Christian August little more than a chip in Adlersparre’s and Wedel Jarlsberg’s plots, although not a very compliant one at that.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sather sees things much the other way around. Although he agrees that Adlersparre and Wedel Jarlsberg were important figures, he argues that none of the two had the confidence of Christian August. Whereas Vogt, for example, argues that Wedel Jarlsberg was ill and therefore, at least initially, opted not to follow Christian August to a meeting with Adlersparre at Kongsvinger on 14 December 1809 (p. 27), Sather asserts that Christian August deliberately left Wedel Jarlsberg in the lurch because he did not trust him, or for that matter Adlersparre (p. 401). Thus, in Sather’s narrative Christian August is portrayed as an independent and influential character with plans of his own, though not any that mirror accusations of treachery and personal ambition in connection with his election as Crown Prince of Sweden and refusal to mount an invasion of Sweden. Above all, Christian August wanted peace and a united Scandinavia. After unsuccessful attempts at persuading King Frederick VI to rule a federal or confederal Scandinavia as constitutional monarch, he accepted his own election to the Swedish throne in a bid to unite Scandinavia, for it to serve as a bulwark against Russian expansion and a means of constitutional reforms. However, these plans were ultimately as unsuccessful as Wedel Jarlsberg’s and Adlersparre’s efforts to unite Norway and Sweden, owing perhaps above all to the Crown Prince’s sudden death in May 1810. His death left the course of Scandinavian politics wide open yet again and thus opened the door for France’s Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who was elected new Crown Prince of Sweden three months later and sought to accomplish anything but a union of Scandinavia. Instead, Bernadotte – better known as Charles John in Scandinavia, which was the royal name he took, was determined to unite Norway and Sweden and succeeded by way of bold diplomatic manoeuvres.

Vogt, Sather and Frydenlund all agree that Count Herman Wedel Jarlsberg was and remains a very controversial figure in the events of 1809 insofar as he strove to cast off Danish rule and unite Norway with Sweden. They do not agree as to exactly what the count’s plans were, however. Citing a number of Swedish documents as well as considering circumstantial evidence, Sather goes some way in suggesting that Wedel Jarlsberg was not only quite prepared to starve out his fellow countrymen to force them to accept a union with Sweden, but also made deliberate efforts to do so and might even have been the driving force behind such plans. Frydenlund disagrees, noting that Wedel  Jarlsberg was everything but a “useful idiot” for Adlersparre and the Swedes (p. 36). Vogt argues that plots to starve out the Norwegians would have been so serious a case of double-dealing in the capacity of the count’s role as head of the Provisioning Commission in Norway that it would have been almost unthinkable for him to do so. Rather, Vogt argues that Wedel Jarlsberg was working frantically to supply the Norwegians with corn by working with the Swedish government headed by Adlersparre to amass some 100,000 bushels (tønner) in Sweden that were to be shipped to Norway once the ties to Denmark – Norway’s traditional breadbasket – had been severed. This, Vogt argues on, was ‘instructions to avoid famine – to Wedel, salvation was supposed to come from Sweden’ (p. 121). Yet, this only appears to strengthen Sather’s point in that Wedel Jarlsberg had plenty of corn at his disposal in Sweden in the late summer of 1809, albeit ostensibly intended for Norwegians only once they had rebelled against the Danish government. In the context of the horrible conditions that prevailed in parts of Norway at this point, it is difficult to see for what other reason than utter desperation the Norwegians would rebel against the Danes, even more so if they knew that their reward would be Wedel Jarlsberg’s 100,000 bushels of corn. The question is thus not whether these bushels were intended for the Norwegians or not, as seems to be Vogt’s main point, but when. From this it would only appear logical that Wedel Jarlsberg would rather not see too much corn landing in Norway – a sentiment he also explicitly expressed on one occasion – until the rebellion against Denmark was completed. None of it was to be, however, as the whole ‘policy of starvation’, whoever was behind it, ran aground after the government in Copenhagen allowed licensed trade with Britain from August 1809. However, Sather quotes a suggestive letter dated 1 October 1809 from Adlersparre to Sweden’s King Carl XIII, which stated that, ‘in Norway [our] Swedish friends are unhappy the English have neglected the severity [of the blockade] and have therefore gone from the starvation system to another plan, that agrees much more closely with my principles’ (p. 361). There is no secret, as all three authors would admit, that Adlersparre’s best Swedish friend in Norway was Count Wedel Jarlsberg. 

Even if his discussion of Wedel Jarlsberg’s undertakings in 1809  leaves a lot unsaid, Vogt makes sure, in return, to bring the reader quite close to the energetic, enterprising, restless, temperamental, impatient and intelligent character of Herman Wedel Jarlsberg as well as his personal life with his wife Karen and their children. In this Vogt has written a biography in the true sense of the term, and the book is above all intended to serve as such. Yet, by making sure to outline and discuss political events, some of which Wedel Jarlsberg did not play a direct or very prominent part in, Vogt succeeds in providing a rich political context for Wedel Jarlsberg’s aims, ambitions and actions. Consequently, the reader does not necessarily have to consult other works for historical context. It may be objected, however, that Vogt’s depiction of the policies of King Frederick VI is sometimes quite onesided in its dismissal of the king, which in turn serves to make the opinions and aims of Wedel Jarlsberg appear slightly more justified than a somewhat more balanced discussion of King Frederick’s policies might have. Moreover, whereas some 150 pages are devoted to the seven years from 1807 to 1814, crucial though they were, less than a 100 pages discuss Wedel Jarlsberg’s career as a minister and vicroy from 1814 to his death in August 1840, in Wiesbaden. These years arguably marked some of Wedel Jarlsberg’s greatest achievements, and were even his claim to be a statesman, and should have been covered in more detail.

Having long worked to fulfil the aim of a union of Sweden and Norway, Herman Wedel Jarlsberg was hardly a supporter of what Bård Frydenlund labels the Norwegian revolution in 1814. This took shape as a rebellion against the cession of Norway to the King of Sweden through the Peace of Kiel, followed by the creation of a liberal constitution that was essentially the last of the revolutionary constitutions, modelled in part on the French constitution of 1791 and the American constitutions that preceded it. Frydenlund uses his expertise on the Norwegian political and commercial élites to demonstrate how politics in Norway over the course of the year in no small part revolved around a number of key actors, their established networks, contacts and friendships, by which the political course in part was determined by informal meetings and discussions amongst them. Although applied by Frydenlund in previous works, concerned above all with the commercial magnate Peder Anker, Norway’s wealthiest and arguably most influential individual at the time, this approach offers a fresh and enlightening approach to the political history of 1814.

It is not a complete political history of 1814, however. Frydenlund says little of how the broader segments of the population perceived of and took part in these events and developments, although recent research has had much to say on this subject. It may also be argued that the aims and influence of Christian Frederick – the Danish heir presumptive who took a leading part in the Norwegian rebellion in 1814 and was elected king at Eidsvoll – are somewhat downplayed in favour of that of the political élites in Norway. To what extent 1814 was a ‘revolution’ is also a matter of debate. Even if the term ‘revolution’ in the context of events in Norway in 1814 is narrowed down to imply a ‘political revolution’, as Frydenlund occasionally does, it remains largely a matter of semantic discussion. While the Norwegian policy of national independence was in defiance of international law and politics, it was very much in line with the reasoning of natural law and, perhaps more importantly, did not overthrow an established political regime as much as it exploited a political power vacuum left by the very international politics it defied.

While certainly transforming the political landscape and as such paving the way for the political future, the events of 1814 did little to transform Norwegian society as a whole, especially in the short run. Apart from the trauma of war, shortages and mortality, most people – especially the popular classes – would hardly have been able to tell the year 1815 apart from 1807. In other words, though some 40 % of Norwegian males above the age of 25 were given the right to vote, the population as a whole was affected much less by the events of 1814 than was France by those of 1789, or much of Western and Central Europe by Napoleonic rule or influence between 1800 and 1814. Politics mattered, but not yet as much as to matter much for the vast majority of the population, even among those given the right to vote and participate.

It is a testament to the quality of the three books under review here that they have so much new to say on such a thoroughly researched subject matter as Norway’s 1814 and the upheaval in Scandinavia caused by the Napoleonic wars. The points of criticism voiced above notwithstanding, the three books are all important contributions to Scandinavian history as a whole and show that, a geographic periphery though they may have been, Norwegian and Scandinavian politics were matters of contemporary European importance and, especially on the part of the political order that prevailed in Norway, a case that would be highlighted by liberals and radicals all over Europe in the coming decades. 

Carl Emil Vogt

Herman Wedel Jarlsberg. Den aristokratiske opprøreren

Cappelen Damm, Oslo 2014. Pp. 408.

ISBN: 9788202446888

Reviewed by Morten Nordhagen Ottosen

Reviewed along with Bård Frydenlund, Spillet om Norge and Lee Sather, The Prince of Scandinavia (See above)

Lee Sather

The Prince of Scandinavia

Prince Christian August and the Scandinavian Crisis of 1807-1810

Forsvarsmuseet, Oslo 2015. Pp. 553.

ISBN: 9788291218663

Reviewed by Morten Nordhagen Ottosen

Reviewed with Bård Frydenlund, Spillet om Norge and Carl Emil Vogt, Herman Wedel Jarlsberg (See above).

Rasmus Glenthøj, Morten Nordhagen Ottosen

Experiences of War and Nationality in Denmark and Norway, 1807-1815

Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York 2014. Pp. 327.

ISBN: 9781137313898

Reviewed by Michael Rowe

We are not well served when it comes to histories of Scandinavia in the Napoleonic period. An objective of Glenthøj and Ottosen’s book is to fill the gap, at least insofar as the Danish-Norwegian monarchy is concerned; the other is to contribute to an understanding of nationalism, patriotism and memory in this period. That this book succeeds on both counts is in large measure due to the fact that the Danish-Norwegian monarchy was, in many respects, a fairly typical composite-style state. Its experience therefore serves as something of a case study in state formation and nation building in the early nineteenth century.

Just how sprawling and vulnerable this entity was is made clear at the outset: not only did its king, resident in Copenhagen, have to balance the interests of the two main components, Denmark and Norway, physically separated by the Skagerrak; he also needed to weigh the needs of Schleswig and Holstein, the latter containing a preponderance of German speakers. There were also overseas holdings, including the Norwegian dependencies of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, and colonial specks in the Caribbean, East Indies and West Africa. Within this entity lived subjects with multiple identities. In particular, ‘national patriotisms’, as were developing in places like Norway, did not automatically preclude adherence to the wider Danish-Norwegian ‘empire’; nor did they supersede enduring localisms. From this perspective again Scandinavia serves as a microcosm of Europe, and is comparable especially to other composite formations like the Habsburg Monarchy and even Britain. Glenthøj and Ottosen note how on the eve of the Napoleonic period there was a fair degree of mutual irritation between Germans, Danes, and Norwegians, including national stereotyping, and overlay between social, political and linguistic divisions. However, there was no reason to suppose that the Danish-Norwegian union should not continue. Indeed, the early war years – up to 1807 – were on the whole good ones for all northern European neutrals, who benefitted from the displacement of trade away from the belligerents.

The Franco-Russian treaty of Tilsit (1807) changed the situation, forcing Copenhagen to abandon neutrality and join Napoleon’s Continental System. This sparked a war with Britain, the most dramatic events of which were the bombardment of Copenhagen and destruction of the Danish fleet in 1807, followed by a maritime version of asymmetric guerrilla war conducted by the Danes and Norwegians against the Royal Navy. The second major turning point came in 1812/early 1813, with the conclusion of the alliance between Sweden and Russia, the destruction of Napoleon’s army in Russia, and recognition by Britain, Prussia and Russia of Sweden’s claims to Norway. Glenthøj and Ottosen go beyond this narrative, and vividly demonstrate just how total the Napoleonic Wars were for ordinary people, especially in Norway. This found itself isolated after 1807, cut off from Denmark, its economy – dependent upon timber exports to Britain – wrecked, and its people eventually starved by the blockade. Cheer was only provided by some minor victories obtained in 1808 against the Swedes, who menaced the eastern borderlands – triumphs whose main significance lay in the subsequent mythical status they acquired. In this sense, the wars helped forge a stronger Norwegian identity over the longer term – one directed not only against Sweden, but also against Denmark that had allegedly abandoned its subjects across the Skagerrak. In reality, so Glenthøj and Ottosen, there was little practical sign of Norwegian unity during the wars, but instead plenty of localism.That said – and this book is full of qualifications – a degree of popular mobilisation was not entirely absent. In particular, the fleet of gunboats constructed after 1807 was financed in part through patriotic donations by members of the public – both Danish and Norwegian – that was genuinely outraged at the British assault. Similar public donations were also made to aid Danish and Norwegian sailors in British captivity. Profit mingled with patriotism as a motive behind the investments made by the public in the 900 or so vessels engaged in privateering activities, directed again – but not exclusively – against the British.

Dynastic politics intrude prominently at various points in the narrative. Given the wider geo-politics it is difficult to envisage how even a genius could have safely guided the Danish-Norwegian monarchy through intact. Unfortunately, Frederick VI fell far short, not least because of his stubborn adherence to absolutism. This alienated potential support not only in his own realms, but also in neighbouring Sweden where the throne effectively became vacant with the deposition of Gustav IV Adolph in 1809. Frederick’s absolutism made him unacceptable to the Swedes, thereby precluding a Scandinavian union. This might still have come about had the winning candidate – Carl August – not died soon after of a stroke in May 1810, or a second Danish prince (Christian Frederick, the future Christian VIII of Denmark) been trumped by the French Marshal Bernadotte. Key people in Stockholm believed Bernadotte, who assumed the name Charles John as Swedish Crown Prince, to enjoy the backing of Napoleon, but this apparently was a misunderstanding. One is left with one of those intriguing historical ‘what ifs’, pondering the possibility of a Scandinavian union as an outcome of the Napoleonic Wars, and of the capacity of dynastic accident to shape state formation even at this late juncture.

In conclusion, this book demonstrates how historians writing on lesser-known peripheral areas often bring in a wider comparative perspective. There is a breadth here that one would not expect to see in work devoted to say Napoleonic France, Germany or Italy. Throughout, parallels are drawn between the Danish-Norwegian case and analogous entities. If there is one obvious weakness, it is in the use of English language. It often reads badly, and it is a shame this was not improved during the final editing. That said this volume achieves its objective in both filling a need for more on Scandinavia in the Napoleonic era, and above all in increasing our understanding of state formation and nation building in this formative period of European history.





Photo Credits

Grunnlovsplakat / Constitution Poster (1836) by J. C. Walter, Nasjonalbiblioteket / National Library of Norway, plktr_05873_gammel.

Photograph used on cover of 2015-1 issue