Akershus: Oslo’s Royal Fortress

Built in the late 13th Century, the castle and fortress at Akershus stands sentinal over the port fjord of Oslo, Norway. It was never taken by force, and served as a residence for Scandinavian royalty for over 700 years. Today it is one of Oslo’s most popular tourist attractions.

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Akershus Fortress

Norway is most commonly known as the home of the Vikings (though Sweden and Denmark were also Viking homelands). From the time of the first recorded Viking raid in England in 793 CE to the two invasions of England by the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada and the Norman-Viking William the Conqueror in 1066, Scandinavian raiding parties terrorized all of Europe. During this time, the many small kingdoms within Norway were united under the rule of a High King, and Norway became a single Christian Kingdom.

By the late 13th Century, however, the raids had ceased, and the Scandinavian kings settled down to rule their new empires. The Norwegians had gained control of territory from Ireland, the Isle of Man, Catihness and the Orkney Islands to Greenland and Iceland. A series of kings in Scandinavia fought each other for control, and fortunes shifted over the years. Norwegian kings dominated Scandinavia until 1380 when the Plague devastated the population, allowing Denmark to become dominant.

After an attack by a nearby nobleman in 1295, the Norwegian King Haakon V began construction of a fortress on the hills overlooking the port town of Oslo, by expanding a smaller fortification at a place known as “Akers House”. The new Akershus fortress was first tested in 1308, when a Swedish duke tried to lay siege to it, and failed.

In 1389, the Danish princess Margrete, just ten years old, was married to the King of Norway, Haakon VI, to seal the political alliance between Norway and Denmark. Queen Margrete established her residence at Akershus. She had the size of the castle increased, and one of the Great Halls at Akershus is still named after her. In 1397, Norway, Denmark and Sweden joined together under one King, Erik of Pomerania, the grandnephew of Margrete. In this “Kalmar Union”, the three countries remained separate, but were all ruled by the same King (though until her death in 1412, Margrete was the real power behind the throne). The Union lasted until 1523, when internal conflicts caused Sweden to break away, leaving Norway and Denmark. During the time of this “double kingdom”, in 1527, the Akershus castle was struck by lightning and much of it burned. The local peasantry was conscripted as labor to rebuild a larger and better-defended castle.

In 1536, the King in Denmark brought the Protestant Reformation to the double kingdom, by royal decree. In Denmark, this was accepted, but Catholic Norway resisted fiercely, and the King dissolved the local Norwegian government council and placed Norway under the authority of the Danish council. Over time, Norway became a Danish province, and in 1572 was placed under the control of a “Statholder” Governor, who established his residence at Akershus.

Things improved for Norway in 1588, when the kingdom’s longest-reigning king, Christiana IV, took the throne. Under his reign, in 1624, the city of Oslo was devastated by a fire, and when he decided to rebuild it, the King carefully planned everything out, including the location of the markets and a rectangular grid of streets. The new city was named “Christiana”. And the fortress at Akershus was once again expanded to better defend the new city.

King Christiana died in 1688. In 1716, a Swedish army of 10,000 men, under King Carl XII, invaded and laid siege to Akershus, which was defended by just 3,000 troops. The fortress held and Carl XII withdrew, only to be killed in battle during another invasion of Norway two years later. After this, however, the Akershus Fortress was no longer maintained, and by the mid 1700’s it was mostly an empty stone shell. In 1808, during the Napoleonic Wars, a new cannon fortress was built on Hovedoya Island in Oslo’s fjord to defend the large naval shipyard there against a possible British attack–which never came. In 1814, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was placed under the rule of the Swedish Crown Prince Karl Johan.

Under the new constitution, Norway once again became an autonomous country, but the King of Sweden was still the head of state and set foreign policy. During this time, the Akershus fortress was restored and used as a prison both for ordinary criminals and for political dissidents, including Socialists and the leaders of the failed Kautokeino uprising by the northern ethnic Sami (“Laplanders”). Christiana itself became an industrial center, and from 1850 to 1900 the population of the city swelled from 50,000 to 230,000.

By 1905, after a political showdown with the Swedish King, the Norwegian parliament declared its independence. Sweden, faced with the possibility of a war it could not win, gave in and renounced its claim to Norway. Prince Carl of Denmark was invited to rule the new nation, and after being approved by plebiscite with 99% of the vote, he took the Norwegian throne as King Haakon VII. Christiana became the official capitol of Norway, and in 1925 the city’s name was changed back to its old Norwegian name, Oslo. Norway became a constitutional monarchy.

In 1940, the Nazis invaded and occupied Norway, installing a puppet government under Vidkun Quisling (whose name soon became synonymous with “collaborator”). The Akershus fortress served as the prison where political opponents and captured Resistance fighters were kept, and the courtyard was used for executions. After the surrender of Nazi Germany, eight Norwegian collaborators, including Quisling, were then imprisoned at Akershus, tried for treason, and executed in the courtyard.

Today, although Akershus Fortress is a popular tourist attraction, it is still an official Norwegian military installation. The Norwegian Armed Forces Museum and the World War Two Resistance Museum are located inside the fortress, and the Norwegian Ministry of Defense has its offices in the Castle. Armed military guards in traditional ceremonial uniform patrol the Fortress grounds. And as military commanders-in-chief, the kings of modern Norway, including Haakon VII, are buried in mausoleums on the fortress grounds.

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