At the beginning of the Napoleonic era, Norway was not its own country, but rather the junior partner in the unequal combination of Denmark-Norway. Just before Bonaparte was defeated and exiled (for the first time), somehow Norway ended up detached from Denmark and “unified” with Sweden, in an act of diplomatic legerdemain that left the Norwegians fuming, the Swedes boastful and just about everyone else bewildered. As it turned out, the Norwegians decided not to take their wholesale selling-out lying down, and in 1814 an independence movement blossomed which, 91 years later, would become the basis of the modern nation of Norway that we know today. The story of this process is supremely complicated but quite interesting, featuring war at sea and on land, the intrigues of kings and princes, and a fundamental sea change in how nations are built and defined.
In this episode of Second Decade, the first of a two-part series, historian Dr. Sean Munger takes you into the convoluted backdrop of Scandinavian politics in the Napoleonic era and how Norway came to be a distinct national and cultural entity. In this episode you’ll learn a bit of European geography and medieval history; you’ll find out what kind of craft the Danes decided to build to challenge the British Navy in a war that might otherwise have seemed hopeless; you’ll meet a French field marshal who dreams of becoming Swedish royalty, a Danish crown prince who fancies the Norwegian throne, and a timber merchant and part-time diplomat who designed an independence movement from the ground up. Various other characters from the long story of the Napoleonic era make cameo appearances, including one-eyed, one-armed Lord Nelson submerged in a coffin of brandy and the little Corsican upstart himself, on his way down after the epic clowning he took in Episodes 10 through 12 of this podcast.
Additional Materials About This Episode
[Above] Christiania, later known as Oslo, the capital of Norway as it appeared in 1814. Much of the country’s political business was conducted here, especially after the war with Britain and the blockade cut Norway off from the rest of Denmark (the country it was supposed to be a part of). Norway was thought of, at this time, as a poor and unimportant backwater of Europe.
[Above] The British bombardment of Copenhagen, September 1807. This was the second attack by the British against the Danish capital; the previous was aimed mainly at Denmark’s navy, but the second attack was clearly motivated to terrorize the Danish people and force a surrender to the British. Fires ignited by the rockets spread quickly and gutted the city of Copenhagen. The attack was condemned by minority politicians in the British Parliament, but the government of the Duke of Portland was unmoved, having decided that no measures were off the table to strike against Napoleon.
[Above] Jean Bernadotte, the French field marshal who wound up as Crown-Prince of Sweden after a political deal to replace Sweden’s aged and heirless king. Bernadotte, born in Pau, France, had to convert to Lutheranism to take the Swedish crown. His idea to “swap” Norway for Finland as a consolation prize to Sweden was the genesis of Norwegian independence. Though he was in de facto control from early on, Bernadotte formally ascended to the Swedish throne as King Carl XIV Johann in February 1818. He was still reigning at his death in 1844.
[Above] Crown Prince Carl Frederick of Denmark-Norway, pictured in 1813. Though he started out as a fairly standard-issue Scandinavian nobleman, Carl Frederick’s somewhat Quixotic quest for Norwegian independence, which may have been hatched at least partly out of self-interest, was to have profound consequences long after his death. He is revered today as a Norwegian national hero.
[Above] Carsten Anker, one of Norway’s most prominent citizens, who was one of the major movers behind the independence movement that Carl Frederick was to lead. Anker had traveled around Europe on diplomatic and business errands, rubbing shoulders with important people in Denmark, Sweden and England. It was his estate, connected to the Eidsvoll ironworks (which he owned), that hosted the constitutional meetings of spring 1814. Anker died in 1824, having lost yet another fortune.
[Above] Eidsvoll Manor, also known as Eidsvollsbygningen, where the independence and constitutional meetings took place, as it appears today. It’s now a Norwegian national shrine. Image from Google Maps.