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Norwegian nobility and aristocracy are persons and families who in early times belonged to the supreme social, political, and military class and who later were members of the institutionalised nobility in the Kingdom of Norway. It has its historical roots in the group of chieftains and warriors that evolved before Norway was unified as a single kingdom. However, modern-time ennoblement of farmers and burghers as well as of foreign noblemen has supplied the nobility with members who did not originate from this ancient warrior class.
The old nobility, which in the 13th century was institutionalised during the formation of the Norwegian state, became a great political factor in the Kingdom. Their land and their armed forces, and also their legal power as members of the Council of the Kingdom, made the nobility remarkably independent from the King. At its height the Council had the power to recognise or to choose inheritors of or pretenders to the Throne. In 1440 they dethroned King Eric III. The Council sometimes even chose its own leaders as regents, among others Sigurd Jonsson (Stjerne) to Sudreim. This aristocratic power lasted until the Reformation, when the King in 1536 illegally abolished the Council. This removed nearly all of the nobility’s political foundation, and when the absolute monarchy was introduced in 1660 the old nobility was basically disappeared from governing institutions.
After 1537 the old nobility was gradually replaced by a new. It consisted on the one hand of medieval Danish noble families moving to and settling in Norway, representing a new era in the Kingdom, and on the other hand of persons who had recently been ennobled. Dominant elements in the new nobility were the office nobility (Norwegian: embetsadel), i.e. persons who because they held high civilian or military offices received noble status for themselves, their wives, and children, and in some cases also for patrilineal descendants, and the letter nobility (Norwegian: brevadel), especially prominent in the 18th century, i.e. persons who for military or artistic achievements or for monetary donations received letters patent.
The Constitution of Norway of 1814, which had been established in the spirit of the principles of the French Revolution and greatly inspired by the Constitution of the United States, forbade the creation of new nobility, including countships, baronies, family estates, and fee tails. The 1821 Nobility Law initiated a long-range abolition of all noble titles and privileges, a process in which the current bearers were allowed to keep their noble status and possible titles as well as some privileges for the rest of their lifetime. Many Norwegians who had noble status in Norway also had it in Denmark, and thus remained officially noble. Even today many patrilineal descendants of these families enjoy official recognition from the Danish government and are, as well, included in the Yearbook of the Danish Nobility, published by the Association of the Danish Nobility.
Even though officially granted privileges were abolished and official recognition of titles was removed, several families maintained an aristocratic profile, for example based on their estate and by marriage with other persons of the nobility, and still bear their inherited name and coat of arms. After 1821 and until the Second World War members of these families continued to play a significant rôle in the political and social life of the country. Today this social class is a marginal factor in the community, culturally and socially as well as politically. A handful of families, like Løvenskiold, Treschow, and Wedel-Jarlsberg, still possess considerable wealth.
The earliest times in today’s Norway (ca. 10000 BC–ca. 1800 BC) had a relatively flat social structure, people being hunters and gatherers who in small parties moved over distances. However, in the latest part of the Stone Age, somewhen in the time before 4000 BC, permanent settlements were in gradually increasing numbers established.
During the Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC–ca. 500 BC), these societies became more organised and divided into classes. A new dimension appeared in societies: socio-economical differences based on an élite’s access to (1) homely natural resources and (2) foreign metals. In exchange for by foreigners desired goods from Norway, such as furs and walrus teeth, leading persons and families received expensive, imported bronze. The bronze came to be their power’s foundation and as well an expression for their power. The bronze was important also militarily. It gave a limited number of possessors the possibility to make weapons stronger than those of stone, and unlike weapons of stone, broken weapons of bronze could be melted and reshaped. Common people continued to use tools and weapons of stone during the whole Bronze Age.
These social élites of each regional or local level, by some historians called a ‘bronze aristocracy’, came to constitute the first aristocracy in today’s Norway. There was already in ca. 1500 BC an established aristocracy in several regions. This is known primarily through burial mounds, for example the to ca. 1200 BC dated mound at Jåsund in Western Norway, where a mighty man was buried together with a big bronze sword. Other mounds were full of weapons and art made of bronze, for example rings, necklaces, and decorative daggers. The biggest mounds could be up to 8–9 metres in height and 40 metres in diametre. A construction like this demanded ten men’s work for approximately four weeks.
Despite an established aristocracy, the Bronze Age’s pyramidal social structure is not immediately similar to or comparative with the feudal system of the much later Medieval Age. It is suggested, beside other factors, that the Bronze Age’s production of food were insufficient to supply an élite which itself did not participate in the acquiring process, i.e. the agriculture. It is suggested as unlikely that there were a small upperclass which sat on all power and wealth in the society. Social élites’ position might have been based on religious and ancestral factors—for example impressive burial mounds were intended to consolidate imaginations of a clan’s right to an area—instead of e.g. explicit privileges based on a régime of force or violence.
The bronze aristocracy was through trade and cultural exchange a part of the contemporary civilisation in Europe, despite being placed in the geographical outskirts of it. Impulses from the continent, for example new religious customs and decorative design, arrived relatively early.
The aristocracy met a challenge when the position of bronze was taken over by iron. Unlike bronze, which through the whole age remained the aristocracy’s metal, iron was in rich amounts found in the Norwegian nature, especially in bogs, and was therefore owned and used by broader layers of the population.
In the Early Iron Age (ca. 400 BC–ca. 500 AD), the distance between social classes grew bigger and also lacked near personal or familiar relations between all members. There is documented, based on archeological examination of graves, a three-class division of societies: farmers were burned and buried in simple, flat graves (they were in the Bronze Age buried in ditto; the cremation was merely a new custom from continental Europe, and not a particular burial process imposed on farmers), grand farmers and aristocrats were buried together with rich goods, and chieftains were buried in mounds.
It was in this age that the aristocracy began to sacrifise humans to be placed in graves together with deceased aristocrats. Contemporary sources as well as archeological examinations document this custom. For example the Arab Ahmad ibn Fadlan tells in his writings that he in a Nordic burial in Russia witnessed that a female slave was killed for this purpose. Grave goods of this age are dominated by items of iron.
In the beginning of the Late Iron Age (ca. 500–ca. 793; in Norway known as the Merovingian Age), the society experienced changes in several regards, for example through poorer ornaments in art and syncopation of the spoken language. Burial customs in several regions were drastically simplified; stone coffins (stones placed together as a coffin protecting the body within a grave or a mound) were no longer used, and mounds became, in this period, smaller or replaced by flat graves. Also grave goods appear to have been lesser in amount than before.
Some historians have interpreted this change negatively. Some suggest that it were plagues or interregional conflicts, while others believe that the reduced amount of mounds reflects that aristocracy’s power was consolidated, wherefore big and splendid monuments no longer were necessary.
In the last centuries of the Newer Iron Age and in the beginning of the Viking Age (793–1066), there appear bigger regional territories with power centra and chieftains,—the so-called petty kingdoms. They were the successors of the regional and local entities known from previous ages. Between ca. 872—the Battle of Hafrsfjord—and ca. 1050, these kingdoms were gradually unified in a bigger kingdom,—the beginning of today’s Kingdom of Norway. There existed in these centuries at least approximately 20 petty kingdoms with their own petty king and aristocracy, whereof Agder, Hålogaland, Rogaland, Trøndelag, and Vestfold.
The regional aristocracies, especially in Western and Northern Norway, came after ca. 800 under bigger pressure by the national king, who with military threats demanded supremacy and also, be it, to receive goods and taxes. The ancient chieftain seat Borg in Northern Norway was among the seats that were abandoned. Refusing to accept King Harald I Halfdanson as their king, many aristocrats migrated to Iceland, where the so-called landnåm (lit. ‘taking of land’) began in ca. 874 and lasted until ca. 930.
In the process of getting possession and control over more land (the so-called ‘unification of Norway’), the national kings built their power on cooperation with the aristocracy in each of the former petty kingdoms. In return for recognition of and military support to the King, the aristocrats received vassalage titles like earl (Norwegian: jarl), given to former petty kings and chieftains, and lendmann, given to ordinary aristocrats.
However, a strong clan mentality made these aristocrats’ loyalty to the King weaker than desired and thus represented a threat. That is why the King established a new title, årmann, which was given to persons of lower origin. These persons, who reported directly to the King, were considered having stronger loyalty as they did not have the same family alligation to the aristocratic clans. An årmann would act as a local observer and send reports to the King. This dual set of aristocrats was intended to secure the new monarchial system.
Though aristocratic structures had existed in the petty kingdoms, it was during the unification that the first national class of aristocrats appeared. In the upper classes of this aristocracy were, for example, the Bjarkøy Dynasty, which had been a chieftain dynasty in Northern Norway and, after having recognised the national king, continued to hold a prominent position for three hundred years after the final unification of Norway around 1050, and the Giske Dynasty.
In the decades after the death of King Olaf II in 1030, the territorial unity and thus also the throne were consolidated. The secular aristocracy was primarily centered around the new, relatively stable royal power.
Two primary factors, i.e. (1) kings who died without having produced a legitimate male heir and (2) lacking or unclear rules of throne inheritance, caused disagreement about the throne. This contributed to the creation of military conflicts between various pretendents and their supporters, subsequently leading to the civil war (1130–1240).
The Lendman Party (Norwegian: Lendmannsflokken or Lendmannspartiet), which appeared after the 1150s, and its successor, the Baglers, formed in 1196, were movements consisting of persons of the secular aristocracy (feudal lords) and of the clerical aristocracy (bishops), among others Earl Erling ‘the Slanted’ Ormsson, who, preferably with a descendant of Olaf ‘the Holy’, sought to introduce a one-king hereditary monarchy on the continental European model. The civil war, in which various groups fought for their candidate to become king, ultimately led to the victory of the Birchlegs and the House of Sverre, which thereby took over the throne from the previous royal house.
Beginning with the ascent to the throne of King Sverre in 1184, he and his descendants ousted their enemies who belonged to groups like the Baglers (1196–1217) and the Ribbungs (1219–1227), thus eliminating and replacing considerable parts of the ancient aristocracy. Sverre had in fact before battles proclaimed to his soldiers that he who killed a lendman, should himself become a lendman. However, some former enemies swore loyalty to King Sverre and therefore continued into the class which later became the old nobility.
Primarily between the 800s and the 13th century, (vassal) kingdoms and earldoms were created overseas. Norwegian aristocracy was thus not limited to mainland Norway, but appeared in and ruled parts of the British Isles as well as Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Among the entities established or possessed by Norwegians, were the Kingdom of Dublin (839–1171), the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles (836–1164), the Earldom of Orkney (800s–1470), and the Mormaerdom of Caithness (900s–1476).
The medieval secular aristocracy was originally known as the hird and since the 16th century under the term adel (English: nobility). The group of persons and families who constituted the medieval aristocracy, alias the old nobility, may be traced back to the time of the formation of the Norwegian state in the 13th century. Not later than during King Magnus VI’s reign, the secular aristocracy can be said to be identical with the members of the King’s hird. Some of these families had their origin in the ancient aristocracy. Others were recruited based on their ability to provide services to the King.
The hird was divided into three classes, of which the first had three ranks. The first class was hirdmann with lendmann as the 1st rank, skutilsvein as the 2nd rank, and ordinary hirdmann as the 3rd rank. Below them were the classes gjest and kjertesvein.
The lendmen, having the first rank in the group of hirdmen, had the right to hold 40 armed housecarls, to advise the King, and to receive an annual payment from the King. They normally also held the highest offices in the state. The foundation for their rights was the military duty which their title imposed.
The kjertesveins were young men of good family who served as pages at the court, and the gjests constituted a guard and police corps. In addition, there was a fourth group known as housecarls, but it remains uncertain whether they were considered a part of or rather served the hird.
The system of hirdmen—regional and local representatives for the King—was stronger and lasted longer in the Norwegian tributary lands Shetland, Orkney, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, and also in Jemtland, originally an independent farmer republic which Norwegian kings used much time and efforts to gain control over.
During the second half of the 13th century, the continental European court culture began to gain influence in Norway. In 1277, the King introduced continental titles in the hird: the lendmen were now called barons, and the skutilsveins were called ridder. Both were then styled Herr (English: Lord). In 1308, King Håkon V abolished the lendman/baron institution, and it was probably also during his reign that the aristocracy seems to have been restructured into two classes: ridder (English: knight) and væpner (English: squire).
It is difficult to determinate exactly how many knights and squires there were in the 14th and the early 15th century. When King Håkon V in 1309 signed a peace treaty with the Danish king, it was sealed by 29 Norwegian knights and squires. King Håkon promised in addition that 270 knights and squires would give their written recognition. This were perhaps the approximate number of knights and squires at this time.
The Black Death, which came to Norway around 1349, had serious consequences for the nobility. In addition to loss of their own members, the death of approximately two thirds of the population killed by the plague led to reduced income from taxes and other sources and reduced available manpower.
In the 14th century, the members of the hird continued in various directions. The lower parts of the hird lost importance and disappeared. The upper parts, especially the former lendmen, became the nucleus of the nobility of the High Medieval Age: the Knighthood. They stood close to the King and as such received seats in the Council of the Kingdom as well as fiefs, and some even had family connections to the royal house. There was a significant social distance between the Knighthood and ordinary noblemen. Most of the latter sank in the 15th and the 16th centuries to the level of yeoman farmer, in their respective districts taking leading rôles as lensmann (a man holding the upper police authority), traders, and shippers. Unlike common farmers, this farming nobility often owned their ancestral farm and land.
The Council of the Kingdom (Norwegian: Riksrådet) was the Kingdom’s governing institution, consisting of members of the upper secular and the clerical aristocracy, including the Archbishop. Originally, in the 13th century, having had an advisory function as a king’s council, the council became in the 15th century remarkably independent from the King. At its height, it had the power to choose or to recognise pretenders to the throne, and it demanded an electoral charter from each new king. It even sometimes chose its own leaders as regents (Norwegian: drottsete or riksforstander), among others Sigurd Jonsson (Stjerne) to Sudreim and Jon Svaleson (Smør). This aristocratic power lasted until the Reformation, when the King in 1536 illegally abolished the council. The aristocratic reign was over when Archbishop Olav Engelbrektsson, who also was noble and the council’s president, left the Kingdom in 1537.
In Norway as well as in Denmark and Sweden, it was in this period that the idea and the principle of riksråd constitutionalism had arisen, i.e. that the council was considered as the real foundation of sovereignty. Although the kings were formal heads of state, the council was powerful. Their power and active rulership, especially as regents, have caused historians characterise this state as de facto a republic of the nobility (Norwegian: adelsrepublikk).
The old nobility was mainly a fief-based aristocracy, holding power and jurisdiction within their area beside seats in the Council of the Kingdom. This was also the power base which made them independent. After the Reformation, two primary factors contributed to reduce the importance of fiefs in favour of a new and centralised apparatus of royal administration: a national army and high officials on regional and local levels.
Military-technical development made the nobility’s military function outdated. Also, paid soldiers became more important in battles, and King Christian IV's instituted in 1628 a national army of soldiers recruited directly from the farmer estate and controlled by the King.
In place of the former organisation based on fiefs governed by the nobility, the country was to be controlled through a centralised administrative apparatus seated in Copenhagen. A direct connection was established between the central apparatus and the regional and local administrations, and the men who were appointed to such positions in Norway were mainly Danish noblemen and burghers. For strategic reasons, the Norwegian nobility was deliberately under-represented when new high officials were appointed. However, another reason for the dominance of non-Norwegian officials was that the educational sector was considerably better developed in the duchies of Sleswick and Holsatia than in Denmark and especially Norway. Only nobles who sent their children to foreign universities, among others the family Benkestok, could hope to keep or obtain high offices.
Following the abolition of the Norwegian Council of the Kingdom in 1536, which de facto ceased to exist in 1537, the nobility lost most of its formal political foundation. The Danish Council of the Kingdom took over the governing of Norway. However, the nobility, now having a more ceremonial and superficial political function, continued to take part in the country's political life, especially at homages to new kings. When the absolute monarchy was introduced in 1660, the old nobility no longer had formal legislative or executive power in the Kingdom.
The old nobility was extensively reduced during the last part of the Late Medieval Age. Many factors contributed to extinction.
An important factor is that families did not produce a sufficient amount of male descendants. As noble status was inherited patrilineally, the lack of men lead to families’ extinction. A reason is that noblemen as warriors were exposed to greater risks than the population in general and therefore died in a young age and without issue.
Another factor is that the Norwegian nobility to a large extent married persons of the estate of commoners. So-called unequal marriages, of which there came to be many especially in lower parts of nobility, led after 1582 and 1591 to the loss of noble status, noble estates, and similar. In an application to the King in 1591, the nobility requested that since it ‘[...] often [happens] that noblemen here in Norway marry unfree women, and their children inherit his estate, [...] which is the nobility to reduction and shame [...]’, their children should not inherit noble status or noble estate.
It is also a factor that noble status not automatically was inherited. If a family for generations no longer provided services to the King, they could due to oblivion lose their position. An example is the Tordenstjerne family, whose members in the 16th century were squires, but who due to political and military inactivity in the 17th century had to get their noble status confirmed in the 18th century.
It is often claimed that the old nobility ‘died out’ in the Late Medieval Age. This is mostly but not entirely correct. The term ‘extinction’ includes not only families dying out, but also disappearance from the written sources of formerly noble families which had lost their political power and importance. This has obscured the link between the such families before and in the 16th century and their farmer descendants who appear in sources beginning in the late 17th century. In other words, families of the old nobility may in actuality have survived without knowing it or being able to prove it.
The nobility of the 16th century was of a marginal size, thus being socially more exclusive, but also politically more vulnerable. For example after the Reformation in 1536, the number of nobles was reduced from approximately 800 and to approximately 400, i.e. under 0.2 percent of the population and approximately 1/7 of the size of the Danish nobility. After 1536, only 15 percent of Norwegian land was in noble possession.
Gissur Þorvaldsson († in 1268) was in 1262 given the title of earl, indicating and imposing that he should rule Iceland on behalf of Norway’s king. In the following centuries, it is known that approximately 20–30 Icelandic men had the title of knight, thus being members of the Norwegian nobility, among others Eiríkur Sveinbjarnarson in Vatnsfjörður († in 1342) and Arnfinnur Þorsteinsson († in 1433).
It was in the years after the death of Olaf ‘the Holy’ in 1030 that Norway finally was Christianised, whereby the church gradually began to play a political rôle. Together with the King and his men, the clerical aristocracy, which until the Reformation operated and developed parallelly with the secular aristocracy, constituted the power class in the Kingdom.
The Archbishop of Nidaros had his own organisation and court. Among his men were they known under the term setesvein (not to be confused with the noble title of skutilsvein), who were seated along the coast of Western and Northern Norway. A register of 1533 shows that there were 10 skutilsveins in Helgeland and Salten, 5 in Vesterålen and Lofoten, 16 in Troms and Senja, and 18 in Finnmark, altogether 49 setesveins. Their function was to administrate the land estate and the taxes of the Archbishop, and they also traded partly themselves and partly on behalf of the Archbishop.
After the Reformation in 1536, when King Christian III abolished the Catholic religion and the Archbishop went into exile, the King punished setesveins who had supported the Archbishop. Many of them got their houses robbed as the King and his soldiers raided the coast.
The modern aristocracy is known as adel (English: nobility). The part of the nobility that in Norway is classified as new, consisted of the old nobility of Denmark—the few families which had survived the Medieval Ages—, recently ennobled persons, and persons whose (claimed) noble status was confirmed or, for foreigners, naturalised by the King. Danish noblemen came to Norway in order to administer the country and to fill civilian and military offices. The strategy of sending Danish noblemen to Norway was a part of the King’s tactics for consolidating his power and control in the Kingdom, but also the lack of Norwegian noblemen with qualified education—Norway did not have a university—was a reason for that the King had to send foreigners.
In 1671, two classes were created in addition to the class of nobles: the class of barons (Norwegian: friherrestand) and the class of counts (Norwegian: grevestand). A noble was per definition untitled, and barons and counts did not belong to the class of nobles, but to their respective classes. However, all three constituted the estate of the nobility.
Being an absolute monarch since 1660, the King could ennoble and for that sake remove the noble status of anyone he wished and, unlike earlier, without approval from the Council of the Kingdom. He could even elevate dead humans to the estate of nobles. For example, Hans Eilersen Hagerup was in 1781, four days after his death, ennobled under the name de Gyldenpalm. This made as well his legitimate children and other patrilineal descendants noble.
A considerable element in the new nobility was the office nobility (Norwegian: embetsadel, sometimes called rangadel; equal to the French noblesse de dignité). A person holding a high-ranking office within one of the three highest classes of rank automatically received ennoblement for himself, his wife, and his children, and in some cases also for his patrilineal descendants. However, basically all such ennoblements were annulled when King Christian VI, tired of his father’s generosity, acceded to the throne in 1730, and only those who received special recognition after making an application retained their noble status. Royal decrees of 1746 and 1808 introduced a more restrictive policy, under which noble status dependent on offices was limited to the person concerned, his wife, and his children, and was thus not inheritable. The office nobility has later been considered with lesser regard, and for example the Yearbook of the Danish Nobility does not include such persons and families.
It became especially in the 18th century customary to ennoble persons by letters patent for significant military or artistic achievements, and there were also persons who were ennobled in this way after making monetary donations.
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway of 1814, which had been established in the spirit of the principles of the French Revolution and greatly influenced by the Constitution of the United States of America, forbade the creation of new nobility, including countships, baronies, family estates (Norwegian: stamhus), and fee tails (Norwegian: fideikommiss). Beside being in accordance with the contemporary political ideology, the prohibition effectively removed the possibility for Norway’s king, who after 1814 also was Sweden’s king, to create a nobility of Swedes and loyal Norwegians.
The Nobility Law of 1821 (Norwegian: Adelsloven) initiated a long-range abolition of all noble titles and privileges, while the current nobility were allowed to keep their noble status, possible titles and in some cases also privileges for the rest of their lifetime. Under the Nobility Law, nobles who for themselves and their children wished to present a claim to nobility before the Norwegian parliament were required to provide documentation confirming their noble status. Representatives of eighteen noble families submitted their claims to the Parliament.
The Parliament had in 1815 and 1818 passed the same law, and it was both times vetoed by the King. The King did not possess a third veto, so he had to approve the law in 1821. Shortly afterwards, the King suggested the creation of a new nobility, but the attempt was rejected by the Parliament.
Many of the Norwegians who had noble status in Norway had noble status also in Denmark and thus remained noble. This and the fact that many Norwegian nobles did not live in the country may have contributed to reduced resistance to the Nobility Law. However, there was resistance, which found its most significant expression in Severin Løvenskiold, who had fought against the democracy and who worked for stopping the Nobility Law. Being an important politician and an allied of the King, Løvenskiold was not without power. Løvenskiold argumented against the law that Norway’s king, and thus the Kingdom’s government, had granted his family eternal noble status, and the letter patent of 1739 uses the expression ‘eternally’. At the same time, the Constitution’s § 97 in fact stated: ‘No law must be given retroactive force.’
The last Norwegian count with official recognition was Peder Anker, Count of Wedel-Jarlsberg, who died in 1893. His younger brothers were Herman, Baron of Wedel-Jarlsberg, who died in 1888, and Harald, Baron of Wedel-Jarlsberg, who died in 1897. The cousins Ulriche Antoinette de Schouboe (1813–1901) and Julie Elise de Schouboe (1813–1911), as well as Anne Sophie Dorothea Knagenhjelm (1821–1907), died early in the 1900s as some of Norway’s last persons who had had official recognition as noble.
Although the institution of nobility gradually was dissolved, members of noble families continued to play a significant rôle in the political and social life of the country, mainly until the Second World War. For example Stewards and Prime Ministers such as Count Herman Wedel-Jarlsberg (Steward, 1836–1840), Severin Løvenskiold (Steward, 1841–1856, Prime Minister, 1828–1841), Peder Anker (Prime Minister, 1814–1822), Frederik Due (Prime Minister, 1841–1858), Georg Sibbern (Prime Minister, 1858–1871) and Carl Otto Løvenskiold (Prime Minister, 1884) had aristocratic backgrounds.
Aristocrats were active also in the dissolution of the Swedish-Norwegian union in 1905. Most prominent were diplomat Fritz Wedel Jarlsberg and world-famous polar explorer Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen. Nansen, who otherwise became Norway’s first ambassador to London (1906–08), was pro dissolving the union and, among other acts, travelled to the United Kingdom, where he successfully lobbied for support for the independence movement. Also in the ensuing referendum concerning monarchy versus republic in Norway, the popular hero Nansen’s support of monarchy and his active participation in the pro-monarchy campaign is said to have had an important effect on popular opinion. After the dissolution of the union, the leading person in the creation of the new state’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was Thor von Ditten, a Norwegian of foreign nobility.
In newer days, the nobility is a marginal factor in the society, culturally and socially as well as in politics. Members of noble families are only individually prominent, like Anniken Huitfeldt (b. 1969). However, a handful of families, like Løvenskiold, Treschow, and Wedel-Jarlsberg, still possess considerable wealth. This includes fame and regular appearance in newspapers and also coloured magazines. The Knagenhjelm family is by many associated with WW2 resistance hero Nils Knagenhjelm (1920–2004).
Although privileges were abolished and official recognition of titles was removed, some families still consider themselves noble by tradition and—lawfully—still bear their inherited name and coat of arms. Claims to nobility have no effect or support in law. There are still Norwegians who enjoy official recognition from the Danish government;—the nobility in Denmark still exists. They are likewise included in the Yearbook of the Danish Nobility, published by the Association of the Danish Nobility.
There were two types of medieval fiefs. To the first belonged castle fiefs (Norwegian: slottslen) or main fiefs (Norwegian: hovedlen), to which the King appointed lords, and under them petty fiefs (Norwegian: smålen), which had varying connections with their respective castle fief. In the 1400s there were approximately fifty fiefs in Norway. In the late 1500s and the early 1600s there were four permanent castle fiefs and approximately thirty small. Thereafter the amount of petty fiefs was reduced in favour of bigger and more stable main fiefs. Lords of castle fief resided in the biggest towns, where the royal farms or the castles were.
The second type were estate fiefs (Norwegian: godslen), i.e. private, noble estates that constituted independent areas of jurisdiction.
Norway has in modern times had two countships (Norwegian: grevskap) and one barony (Norwegian: friherreskap or baroni). There were also two marquisates, which were given to the Italian families Accoramboni and di Ratta. They did not live in the Kingdom.
|Name||Receiver||Year of creation||Year of abolition||Norwegian name|
|Marquisate of Lista||Hugo Octavius Accoramboni||1709||Markisatet Lista|
|Marquisate of Mandal||Franciscus di Ratta|
Guiseppe Carlo di Ratta
Luigi di Ratta
|Countship of Larvik||Ulrik Frederik Gyldenløve||1671||1817||Grevskapet Larvik|
|Countship of Jarlsberg||Peder Schumacher||1673||1893||Grevskapet Jarlsberg|
|Barony Rosendal||Ludwig Holgersen Rosenkrantz||1678||1723||Baroniet Rosendal|
|Barony Rosendal||Gerhard Marcus af Rosencrone||1779||1811||Baroniet Rosendal|
|Barony Rosendal||Christian Hendrich af Hoff-Rosencrone||1812||1837||Baroniet Rosendal|
The old nobility had several arenas on which they gathered. Beside the Council of the Kingdom, which was abolished in 1536, the nobility met at (1) homages to new kings (Norwegian: kongehylling), (2) meetings of the nobility (adelsmøte), (3) meetings of the estates (stendermøte), and (4) days of the lords (herredag). The nobility’s function after 1536 was mainly ceremonial and advisory, for example at homages.
The homage of 1591 at Akershus Fortress provides information about the Norwegian nobility in the late 16th century. The Norwegian noblemen who were represented at the homage consisted of some Danes—names like Gyldenstierne, Lange, Juel, and Huitfeldt—, some Norwegians—names like Benkestok—, a couple of foreigners—Mowat (Scottish) and Norman de la Navité (French)—, and approximately 30 Norwegians with patronyms (names ending on -sen).
In 1648, the nobility requested in a letter to the King that ‘[...] we and our descendants must be held by the Christian right faith and the Augsburg Confession, so [that] it here in the Kingdom shall be maintained, protected, and shielded’ and that ‘we and our descendants of the noble estate here in Norway must be held by Norway’s law and right, [...] and enjoy the same privileges [...] as the nobility in Denmark [has received]’. Himself being Evangelical Lutheran, the King confirmed that ‘[...] the true and pure religion remains unfalsified in lands and kingdoms [...]’.
The noble privileges consisted of freedoms (Norwegian: frihet), rights (Norwegian: rettighet), and prerogatives (Norwegian: forrettighet). There were two primary sources for such privileges: the letters of privilege and the electoral charters, both issued by the King.
The royal decrees on the order of precedence, introduced in the 17th century, created the office nobility (Norwegian: embetsadel, rangadel), i.e. persons who by holding a high civilian or military office or by belonging to, most often, one of the three highest classes of rank automatically received noble status for themselves as well as for wife and legitimate children.
The decree of 1808 was the last of its kind to be in introduced in Norway. The personal union between Denmark and Norway was dissolved in 1814. In Denmark, the decree of 1746, with some changes and amendments, still exists.
The noble privileges of 1582, given before the Meeting of the Nobility in the same year, decreed that a noblewoman who married a non-noble man should lose all her hereditary land to her nearest co-inheritor. The rule was designed with the intention of keeping noble land in noble hand and thus strengthening the nobility’s power base. A similar clause in 1591 stated that a nobleman who married a non-noble woman should forfeit noble status for their children.
The noble privileges of 1661 (1) reconfirmed the neck and hand, (4) reconfirmed the right for the nobility on their estates and in thereto belonging woods and waters to hunt and fish, (5) stated jura patronatus, but together with a duty to maintain the church buildings and such, (7, 8) stated that the nobility shall enjoy rank and honour above all others, (10) stated that the nobility when on travels representing the King shall receive a certain monetary compensation, (13) stated that no nobleman may be sentenced from honour or life by others than the King and his highest court, (14) stated that no nobleman may be arrested, and (22) reconfirmed the birk right.
Noblemen enjoyed personal tax freedom, although this was later abolished. Tax freedom for their seat farms remained.
Noblemen had other economic privileges, among others freedom from duty on imported and exported goods, such as beer and wine.
Seat farms (Norwegian: setegård, setegard) were until 1660 an exclusive privilege of the nobility. A seat farm, a form of feudal demesne, was a nobleman’s main residence; the place where he had his seat. Seat farms had, especially, freedom from tax and tithes.
While previously any farm on which a nobleman decided to reside would thereby acquire the status of seat farm, the right to become a seat farm was remarkably limited in 1639, when the law was changed to require a farm to have been a seat farm for a minimum of 40 years in order for it to be officially recognised. After 1800, the tax freedom was modified, and under the 1821 Nobility Law, the tax freedom was ended at the then current owner’s death.
Weekday farmers (Norwegian: ukedagsbønder, vekedagsbønder) were persons who, as tenants of the noble, had a duty to work on the seat farm on weekdays. The system came from Denmark before 1600. It became most widespread in Eastern Norway, where the concentration of seat farms was highest, but existed also in other parts of the Kingdom. From 1685 on, the duty work was limited to farmers who lived within two miles of the seat farm.
The feud right (Norwegian: feiderett) was the right to officially proclaim a feud between two or more persons. A murder committed after the proclamation of a feud was considered an ‘honest murder’, and unlike ordinary murders, which normally received capital punishment, could be expiated with fines. The feud right is mentioned in almost all electoral charters from 1513 to 1648.
The King and noblemen, as well as high officials, had the right to receive conveyance from farmers. The right was never a formal right, but rather a consequence of the ‘conveyance duty’ which was imposed on farmers. Conveyance duty (Norwegian: skyssplikt) is known since the 12th century and functioned as indirect taxation. In 1816, the duty was changed from being a free service to receiving payment per trip. However, the partial tax freedom which conveyance farmers had was abolished at the same time.
In 1646, the nobility achieved the possibility of having ‘neck and hand right’ (Norwegian: hals- og håndsrett), that is, the authority to arrest and to prosecute persons and to execute judgments. This right was limited to farms or fiefs over which noblemen had jurisdiction.
Related to the neck and hand right was the ‘charge and fine right’ (Norwegian: sikt- og sakefallsrett), that is, the authority to raise a charge against and to fine persons. This right, too, was limited to each nobleman’s area of jurisdiction.
The birk right (Norwegian: birkerett) was the authority to appoint judges at the birk court, etcetera; birks were an ancient form of local jurisdiction adopted in Norway on the Danish model. Nine birks were created in 1649, but abolished already in 1651. The first real birks came in 1671 with the creation of the Countship of Larvik, in 1673 with the creation of the Countship of Griffenfeld, and in 1678 with the creation of the Barony of Rosendal. In addition the birk right was granted to the Halsnøy Monastery in 1661, the Lysekloster Estate in 1661, and the Svanøy Estate in 1685. The two countship birks and the barony birk lasted until 1821, when they were ‘entirely abolished’.
The jus patronatus (patronage right) consisted of jus presentandi, the right to propose clergy for a specific church, and later became jus vocandi, the right to appoint such clergy. Furthermore, the patron had the right to part of the church taxes and other income of the church. Jus patronatus did not have any relevance in Norway until after the 1640s, when a few noblemen began to receive it. This privilege was never widespread in the Kingdom.
Around 1277, lendmen and skutilsveins received tax freedom for themselves and two members of their household, and ordinary members of the hird received the same, but for one member of their household.
The use of coats of arms was originally a custom developed and maintained by the nobility, but it was not exclusive to this estate. Norwegian farmers and burghers, as well as the non-noble parts of the clergy, had since early times borne arms in addition to more commonly used house marks.
While the arms of the old nobility were of ancient origin and inherited through generations within each family, and therefore were not a (known) privilege from the King, the arms of the new nobility were often granted by the King upon ennoblement. In some cases, the ennobled person’s former coat of arms or his wishes could be regarded in the process of composing new arms and achievements.
According to Dano-Norwegian custom, both nobles and non-nobles could use an open helm above the shield. (In Sweden, open helms were a privilege exclusive for the nobility.) Nobles used one, barons used two, and counts used three helms. Alternatively, counts’ helms had eleven bars and barons’ helms had seven bars.
Noble coronets (Norwegian: adelskrone) or coronets of rank (rangkrone), whether physical coronets or appearing in heraldic artwork, were reserved for the nobility. There were specific coronets for counts, barons, and nobility. In addition, the Golden Lions (Norwegian: Gyldenløvene), illegitimate royal descendants, had an exclusive coronet.
The use of physical coronets has been rare in Norway, used mainly at homages.
Supporters were normally given only to counts.
Almost unique internationally and different from the continental nobility, where families have named themselves after the piece of land that they possess, Nordic nobles have since the 1500s in general adopted family names of an abstract and artistical character, often based on their respective coats of arms. For example the noble family whose arms were a golden star, took the name Gyldenstierne (English: Golden Star). As this custom of the old nobility established itself as permanent, also the new nobility, that is persons and families ennobled after the Medieval Ages, often received similar names when ennobled.
Other examples are Anker (English: Anchor), Gyllenpistol (Golden Gun) in Sweden, Hästesko (Horseshoe) in Sweden, Huitfeldt (White Field), Løvenørn (Lion Eagle), Natt och Dag (Night and Day) in Sweden, Rosenvinge (Rose Wing), Svanenhielm (Swan Helm), Svinhufvud (Swine Head) in Sweden, and Tordenskiold (Thunder Shield).
The use of particles like af, von, and de—all these mean of—was no particular privilege for the nobility, but on the other hand almost exclusively used by and associated with them. Especially in the late 17th century and the 18th century, one would often receive a particle together with one’s old or new name when ennobled. Examples are families like de Gyldenpalm (lit. ‘of Goldenpalm’) and, with two particles, von Munthe af Morgenstierne (lit. ‘of Munthe of Morningstar’).
A nobleman had the right to write himself to (Norwegian: til) the seat farm(s) or the estate(s) on which he resided, for example ‘Sigurd Jonsson til Sudreim’. This preposition must not be confused with predicates, which were a part of names.
A large number of Norwegians may trace ancestral lines back to the old nobility. They must very often cross numerous cognatic links (Norwegian: kvinneledd) and go back to the 16th century in order to establish a connection to the nobility. Also, that particular cluster of families is often the only which they have in their ancestry, which otherwise consists of farmers and burghers, the other parts of the estates of commoners in the Norwegian feudal society. An important consideration is also that many experts dispute some popularly accepted family relations, which they consider undocumented or obviously wrong. For these reasons, a distant connection to a family of the old nobility is often merely considered as a curiosity. Queen Sonja of Norway, born a commoner, has noblemen among her distant forefathers.
A considerably smaller number of Norwegians descend from the new nobility, patrilineally as well as through cognatic links. In addition to less time having passed, this number is much smaller because this mainly Danish-rooted nobility, as also the old nobility had done, lived relatively separated from the ordinary population, especially with respect to whom they married, and often returned to Denmark when leaving their office in Norway.
Concerning descent from royalty through nobility, nobility expert Tore Vigerust has stated, though as a conservative estimate, that roughly 10,000 Norwegians living today can document with certainty their descent from the old kings of Norway and European royal houses. Vigerust has identified the noble families Gyldenløve of Austrått and Rosensverd as families whose royal descent is verifiable.
Even though a family could lose their noble status, they would usually for generations keep their fortune and remain rich and influential. There are examples of farmer descendants inheriting earlier noble land many centuries after the noble family concerned had become patrilineally extinct. One example is the estate of the Benkestok family, who lost their noble status in the late 16th century and disappeared patrilineally in after 1672. The estate originally consisted of land in Eastern, Western, and Northern Norway as well as on the Faroe Islands and Shetland. While the first generations of inheritors received large portions of an estate, it would subsequently be divided into smaller and smaller parts so that inheritors of later generations each received, be it, a relatively large farm.
The medieval aristocracy called themselves hird and later ‘free men’ likewise as commoners were called ‘unfree’. Knights were gathered in a particular class known as the Knighthood (Norwegian: ridderskap), which stood above what was called ‘ordinary nobility’ (Norwegian: menig adel). The aristocracy did not adopt and use the term ‘nobility’ (Norwegian: adel) until the late 15th/early 16th century. However, the entity was identical before and after the introduction of this term.
It is in some cases difficult to draw a clear border between old nobility (medieval aristocracy) and new nobility (modern aristocracy). A consensual definition is that new nobility are persons and families who by letters patent were ennobled by Norwegian monarchs, primarily monarchs after and including Queen Margaret. Even though the term ‘new nobility’ often is considered as identical with ‘post-medieval nobility’, a not unconsiderable amount of so-called letter-noble families were ennobled and operated politically and militarily in the Late Medieval Age, among others the Rosenvinge family of 1505.
Old nobility in Denmark is considered as new nobility in Norway. This is illustrated not least by that men of old families in Denmark, e.g. Bielke, married women of ditto in Norway, e.g. Gyldenløve and Rømer.
The high nobility consisted of titled persons and families as well as of families whose members have had seats in the Council of the Kingdom.
Uradel (English: lit. ‘primeval nobility’) is an originally German term coined in the 1820 and later adopted into the Norwegian language as well as Danish and Swedish. The term refers to the medieval aristocracy.
Farmer nobility (Norwegian: bondeadel) refers to farmers who were noble.
This term may also be used unofficially to describe farmers who had been noble or who had such ancestry through cognatic links and within a short genealogical timeframe. They were not a part of the Norwegian nobility.
For example in 1768, when asked by the authorities in Copenhagen whether there still lived old nobility in the districts Senja and Troms in Northern Norway, a Danish-rooted official wrote: ‘Of old nobility I know nothing here in the north, but here is far too much farmer nobility or Benkestok nobility!’ As an immigrant to the region, he was unfamiliar with the strong feeling of pride among the so-called page nobility (see below) and the farmers of aristocratic origin.
After Norway achieved constitutional independence in 1814, in the period of romantic nationalism that followed, the urban ‘cultural élite’ as well as some farmers themselves began to consider the ‘Norwegian farmer’ as representative or a symbolic figure of ‘Norwegianness’. Norwegian farmers had always been relatively free compared to farmers in continental Europe, something to which the lack of a large and strong nobility had contributed. Farmers had in general sufficient amounts of food, and lived ‘in peaceful and natural circumstances’. Furthermore, from the middle of the 18th century, and peaking in the 19th, many Norwegian farmers managed to buy their own farms. Factors like these contributed to some farmers coming to regard themselves as a kind of farmer nobility. Such ideas are reflected, for example, in romantic nationalistic literature, but the term has never had any legal currency in Norway, and such farmers were and remained commoners.
For example the teacher Andreas Austlid wrote in his book Salt fraa folkehøgskulen (1926) about his home parish: ‘An old parish of wealth, broad and satisfied and good – the most beautiful in the whole valley. A kind and calm farmer nobility - but self-supplied [with food], with much good and much low ancestry ...’
Page nobility (Norwegian: knapeadel; knape means page or boy) was and is a non-legal term referring to historical and in many cases biological descendants of the clerical setesveins in Northern Norway. As traders and shippers, these descendants in the late 16th and the 17th centuries constituted the leading non-noble class in the region. In the 18th century, however, the term knape was in general used for all non-privileged traders and shippers regardless of their backgrounds.