A Brief History of Norway

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Norway

The first people arrived in Norway after 7,000 BC when rising temperatures after the end of the last ice age made the country habitable. The first Norwegians lived by hunting (elk, deer, seals, and whales) and by fishing.

After 3,000 BC farming was introduced into Norway. The earliest farmers made tools and weapons from stone but after 1,500 BC bronze was used. After 500 BC Norwegians used iron. About 200 AD they began to use a form of writing called runes.

Viking Norway

During the 9th century, Vikings from Norway raided Scotland, England, Ireland, and France. They even raided as far south as Spain, which at that time was in Muslim hands. But the Norwegians were not just raiders. They settled in the Hebrides (islands west of Scotland). And the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Norwegians also settled on the Isle of Man (between England and Ireland).

However, in the 9th century, Norway was divided into several kingdoms. Norway took longer than the other Scandinavian states to become united. At the end of the 9th century, Harald Fairhair gained control of the western coast and he called himself king of Norway but he only ruled part of it. He was followed by Eric Bloodaxe (900-935). The next king of Norway was Haakon I (935-960). He attempted to convert Norway to Christianity but he was not successful.

Olaf who ruled from 995-1000 converted the coastal area of Norway to Christianity. Olaf Haraldson 1015-1030 was the first effective king of Norway and he converted the inland areas to Christianity.

After Olaf’s death, his son Magnus was elected king of Norway. He was followed by Harald Hardrada in 1047. In 1066 Harald Hardrada tried to make himself king of England. However, he was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. Harald’s army was routed. That ended any Norwegian political involvement with England.

Norwegian society was divided into 3 classes. At the bottom were the thralls or slaves. Being a slave was, no doubt, horrid as they were made to do the hardest and most unpleasant work. Above the thralls were the freemen. A freeman could be quite wealthy or he could be very poor depending on how much land he owned. Above them were the nobles or jarls.

Norway was converted to Christianity in the 11th century. In 995 Olav Tryggvason made himself king of Norway (except for the southeast which was in Danish hands).

Norway in the Middle Ages

Despite Harald Hardrada’s death in 1066, his family ruled Norway until 1130. However, after the death of Sigurd the Crusader Norway suffered a long series of civil wars.

Peace and stability returned to Norway under Haakon IV (1217-1263). Under Haakon Norway became great. Norway annexed both Iceland and Greenland. Haakon was followed by his son Magnus known as the Lawmender. In 1266 Magnus realized it was not feasible to defend the Hebrides against attack from Scotland. So he sold the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to the Scottish king. (The Shetlands and Orkneys were given to Scotland in 1468).

In 1319 Norway was temporarily united with Sweden. King Erik of Norway was elected king of Sweden. The 2 kingdoms remained united until 1355.

Meanwhile, in 1349-1350 the black death struck Norway. It devastated the country and probably killed half of the population. Later in the 14th century, Norway was joined to both Denmark and Sweden. Margaret I was the queen of Denmark and Sweden. The Norwegians recognized her nephew as heir apparent to the Norwegian throne. In 1397 he was crowned king of all 3 kingdoms at Kalmar. Sweden broke away in 1523 but Norway remained united with Denmark until 1814.

Norway 1500-1800

In the 1530s the Reformation reached Norway. The Norwegians followed the Danes in accepting Lutheran doctrines.

During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries trade and commerce in Norway grew. In the early 17th century Norwegian towns grew. In 1624 Oslo was destroyed by a fire but the Danish king Christian rebuilt it and renamed it after himself, Christiania. (The old name of Oslo was restored in 1924). In the 17th century, Norway exported fish, timber, iron ore, and copper. In the 18th century, ironworks were founded in southern Norway and they made all kinds of iron goods. The Norwegian merchant navy also grew substantially.

In 1769 a census showed that Norway had a population of 728,000. The largest town was Bergen with a population of 14,000.

However, the growth of trade and industry should not be exaggerated. In the 18th century, the vast majority of Norwegians were farmers and fishermen.

Norway in the 19th century

In 1813 Swedish forces invaded Denmark. In January 1814 Denmark was forced to surrender Norway to Sweden. However, some of the Norwegians rebelled against the move. They were led by Crown Prince Christian Frederick. He called an assembly On 17 May 1814 the Norwegian assembly drew up a constitution. Christian Frederick was elected king. However, in July 1814 the Swedes invaded Norway. Christian Frederick stepped down and the Norwegians accepted the Swedish king. However, he agreed to accept the constitution. Although the Swedish king controlled foreign affairs Norway was allowed a considerable amount of autonomy.

A Bank of Norway was founded in 1816 and the Norwegian nobility was abolished in 1821. However, the years after 1815 were ones of economic hardship for Norway partly because the British timber market was lost to Canada.

Yet things improved from the 1840s onward. In the late 19th century Norwegian agriculture and its timber industry flourished. The Norwegian merchant fleet grew rapidly and by the end of the century, it was the third-largest in the world after the Americans and the British.

The population of Norway also grew rapidly in the 19th century. At the beginning of the century, it was only 883,000 but by the end of the century, it had reached 2,240,000. That was even though many Norwegians emigrated to the USA in the late 19th century.

Meanwhile, nationalism in Norway grew in the 19th century. Matters came to a head in 1882. The Norwegian parliament or Storting passed a law, which stated that members of the government must take part in debates in the Storting. The Storting passed the law 3 times but each time the Swedish king Oscar II vetoed it.

Eventually, the Norwegians decided to impeach the entire government. They were impeached and convicted in 1884 and forced to resign. Afterward, the king was forced to give in. From then on Norway was a parliamentary democracy. In 1898 all men (except those receiving poor relief) were given the vote.

Norway in the 20th century

Norwegian Independence

From 1891 the Norwegians demanded a separate consular service. However, the Swedes refused. Negotiations were held but they broke down early in 1905. The Storting took unilateral action. It passed a law creating a Norwegian consular service. The Swedish king vetoed the bill. The Norwegian government then resigned. The king could not form a new government. In June 1905 politician Christian Michelsen argued that the Swedish king had effectively abdicated by failing to appoint a new government. He was no longer acting as king of Norway. So the Storting declared that the union with Sweden was dissolved because of ‘the king ceasing to function as a Norwegian king’. On 13 August 1905, the Norwegians voted in a referendum and overwhelmingly approved of independence for Norway.

Negotiations were held with the Swedes and an agreement was reached on 23 September 1905. The Swedish king formally gave up all claim to the Norwegian throne on 26 October 1905. The question of who should be head of state in Norway was answered by a referendum on 12-13 November 1905. The Norwegians voted for a monarchy. Prince Carl of Denmark became King Haakon VII.

Women were given the vote in local elections in 1907 and in national elections in 1913.

After independence, the Norwegian economy prospered. Hydroelectricity boomed and in 1915 a ten-hour day was introduced.

During the First World War Norway remained neutral. However, as a result of unrestricted German submarine warfare half of the Norwegian fleet was sunk and about 2,000 Norwegian sailors lost their lives.

In the 1920s and 1930s unemployment was high in Norway. However, the depression of the 1930s was less serious in Norway than in many parts of Europe.

Meanwhile, in 1925 Norway annexed Spitsbergen.

When the Second World War began in 1939 Norway remained neutral. However, on 9 April 1940, the Germans invade Norway. They quickly captured Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen, and Oslo. The French and British sent help. They recaptured Narvik on 26 May. However, the military situation in France was deteriorating and the British and French were forced to withdraw their forces on 7 June. Also on 7 June the king and the government fled to Britain. Despite their brave resistance the Norwegians were forced to capitulate on 10 June. Norway was occupied for the rest of the war.

A traitor, Vidkun Quisling, co-operated with the Germans but many Norwegians resisted. About 35,000 of them were arrested by the Germans. Furthermore, the Norwegian merchant fleet fled to Britain. Norwegian merchant ships were a considerable help to Britain but half of them were sunk during the war.

After 1945 Norway gave up the policy of neutrality and in 1949 she joined NATO. Norway soon recovered from the war and the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were years of prosperity. There was full employment. However, unemployment rose in the late 1980s.

In the 1970s Norway began to exploit vast reserves of oil and gas found in the North Sea. Meanwhile, the number of jobs in traditional industries like agriculture and timber declined while the number of people employed in service industries increased.

In 1962 the first rocket was launched from Andoya Space Center in Norway.

In 1972 the Norwegians voted by 53% to 47% to join the Common Market (forerunner of the EU). In 1994 the Norwegians voted against joining the EU in another referendum.

Norway in the 21st century

Today Norway is a prosperous country and its people have a high standard of living. Norway also escaped the recession of 2009 relatively unscathed. Unemployment in Norway was only 3.1% in 2012 much lower than in most European countries. In 2024 the population of Norway was 5.4 million.

Last revised 2024