03 July 2017

Norway's Norwegian Queen

Queen Sonja's official
                                      80th birthday photo in 2017
Photo: Lise Åserud, NTB scanpix
The current Queen Consort of Norway grew up in Oslo as a shopkeeper's daughter, who often made her own clothes. Born Sonja Haraldsen, her family never dreamed that she would one day help to lead the nation. Here are some things you might not know about her.

She Sometimes Celebrates Her Birthday Twice
Although she does not have a real birthday and an official birthday like Queen Elizabeth II in Britain, Queen Sonja does have two "birthdays" in some years. Since she and her husband, King Harald, were born in the same calendar year, they have usually celebrated landmark birthdays with a big joint party featuring guests from all of the other monarchies. In 2017, they held their 80th birthday gala over the course of several days at the end of May. (His actual birthday is February 21 and hers is July 4, so May is a good midway point.) Royals from across Europe joined in a balcony appearance, a white-tie-and-tiara gala, a concert, and a boat tour of the Oslofjord. They were also surrounded by their children and grandchildren, who memorably performed a traditional birthday dance on the palace balcony.

She's the first Norwegian Consort Born in Norway in 700+ Years
First established in the 9th century, the Norwegian throne went through long periods of time when it was ruled by Danish or Swedish kings and other periods of interregna with no monarch at the head of the nation. Over the course of those 11 centuries, the consorts were also drawn mostly from among the leading Danish, Swedish or various German dynasties, with notable intermarriages with the Scottish and later British royals. Rarely, however, did they choose a Norwegian lady to marry the King whether than king was Norwegian, Swedish or Danish. The most recent Norwegian-born consort before Sonja was a woman named Margrete Skulesdatter in the 13th century, whose father actually claimed the throne as a rival to her husband, King Haakon IV. They were married in an attempt to prevent her dad, Jarl Skule Bardsson from pressing his claim, but the effort failed and war still broke out between her father and her husband. The jarl was eventually killed by the king, whose successors didn't marry another Norwegian again for more than seven centuries.

She Was One of Only Two Norwegian Queens in the 20th Century
During the Napoleonic Wars, Norway had managed to escape Danish rule only to be scooped up Sweden. (It's notable that the "main" street in Oslo that runs from the Royal Palace to the Stortinget, or Parliament building, is still called Karl Johans Gate after the Frenchman who Napolean made King Carl XIV Johan of Sweden.) However, the Norwegians, who were still able to maintain a separate government under a joint monarchy, wanted total independence. It took nearly a century, but in 1905, the Norwegian parliament voted for independence and the country elected a new king, who just happened to be the son of Danish king. Prince Carl of Denmark, who changed his name to King Haakon VII, was married to the British Princess Maud (who kept her name). The couple's only son, Prince Alexander, only two years old at the time, was renamed Olav. When he grew up, he married Princess Martha of Sweden, but she died at the age of just 53 before her husband inherited the throne. Olav never remarried and therefore never had a queen. When his only son married Sonja Haraldsen, she became Norway's official first lady while still the Crown Princess. After Olav's death in 1991, her immediate predecessor as consort, Queen Maud, had been dead for nearly 64 years.

She Had to Wait a Decade for Her Prince
Although you could never tell by looking at this grand lady today, Sonja was considered an inappropriate match for Crown Prince Harald when they fell in love in the 1950s. His father, an old school royal and great-grandson of Queen Victoria, refused to allow his son and heir to marry a woman whose father was merely a local merchant in Oslo. She had absolutely no aristocratic, much less royal, lineage. Harald was stern about his choice and eventually wore his father down with his obstinacy: he refused to marry anyone else, which would have meant the end of the dynasty and the monarchy. King Olav and the parliament at last relented and the couple married in 1968. Sonja eventually won over her detractors and was a great support to her father-in-law as Norway's official hostess during the last two decades of his reign. (Read my review of Rachel Wisdom's novel about this royal romance.)

She Has Visited Every Continent
Queen Sonja has visited every major nation in the world, which has taken her to all six of the permanently settled continents on the globe. You can find photos of her at all of the world's iconic locations. In 2005, however, she added the one continent missing from her travel itinerary becoming the first queen to visit Antarctica, where she opened a new research station in Queen Maud Land, which was named for her husband's grandmother. Much of her international travel is done through state or otherwise official visits to support foreign partnerships and tourism for Norway. But, she also is frequently working on behalf of charities like Red Cross and in support of refugees.

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