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Norwegian Nobility

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Norwegian Nobility

The aristocracy of Norway refers to modern and medieval aristocracy in Norway. For the Viking Period see: Early Scandinavia, Viking Age.

Additionally, there have been economical, political, and military élites that—relating to the main lines of Norway's history—are generally accepted as nominal predecessors of the aforementioned. Since the 16th century, modern aristocracy is known as nobility (Norwegian: adel).

The nobility—known as hird and then as knights and squires—was institutionalised during the formation of the Norwegian state in the 13th century. Originally granted an advisory function as servants of the King, the nobility grew into becoming a great political factor. Their land and their armed forces, and also their legal power as members of the Council of the Realm, made the nobility remarkably independent from the King. At its height, the Council had the power to recognise or choose inheritors of or pretenders to the Throne. In 1440, they dethroned King Eric III. The Council even chose its own leaders as regents, among others Sigurd Jonsson of Sudreim. This aristocratic power, which also involved the Church, lasted until the Reformation, when the King illegally abolished the Council in 1536. This removed nearly all of the nobility's political foundation, leaving them with mainly administrative and ceremonial functions. Subsequent immigration of Danish nobles (who thus became Norwegian nobles) would further marginalise the position of natives. In the 17th century, the old nobility consisted almost entirely of Danes.

After 1661, when absolute monarchy was introduced, the old nobility was gradually replaced by a new. This consisted mainly of merchants and officials who had recently been ennobled, but also of foreign nobles who were naturalised. Dominant elements in the new nobility were the office nobility (noble status by holding high civilian or military offices) and—especially prominent in the 18th century—the letter nobility (noble status via letters patent in return for military or artistic achievements or monetary donations). Based on the 1665 Lex Regia, which stated that the King was to be revered and considered the most perfect and supreme person on the Earth by all his subjects, standing above all human laws and having no judge above his person, [...] except God alone, the King had his hands free to develop a new and loyal aristocracy to honour his absolute reign. The nobilities in Denmark and Norway could, likewise, bask in the glory of one of the most monarchial states in Europe. The titles of baron and count were introduced in 1671, and in 1709 and 1710, two marquisates (the only ones in Scandinavia) were created. Additionally, hundreds of families were ennobled, i.e. without titles. Demonstrating his omnipotence, the monarch could even revert noble status ab initio (as if ennoblement had never happened) and elevate dead humans to the estate of nobles. A rich aristocratic culture developed during this epoch, for example family names like Gyldenpalm (lit. 'Golden Palm'), Svanenhielm (lit. 'Swan Helm'), and Tordenskiold (lit. 'Thunder Shield'), many of them containing particles like French de and German von. Likewise, excessive creation of coats of arms boosted heraldic culture and praxis, including visual arts.

The 1814 Constitution forbade the creation of new nobility, including countships, baronies, family estates, and fee tails. The 1821 Nobility Law initiated a long-range abolition of the nobility as an official estate, a process in which current bearers were allowed to keep their status and possible titles as well as some privileges for the rest of their lifetime. The last legally noble Norwegians died early in the 20th century. Many Norwegians who had noble status in Norway also had it in Denmark, where they remained officially noble.

During the 19th century, members of noble families continued to hold political and social power, for example Severin Løvenskiold as Governor general of Norway and Peder Anker and Mathias Sommerhielm as Prime Minister. Aristocrats were active in Norway's independence movement in 1905, and it has been claimed the union with Sweden was dissolved thanks to a 'genuinely aristocratic wave'. Baron Fritz Wedel Jarlsberg's personal effors contributed to Norway gaining sovereignty of the arctic archipelago Svalbard in 1920. From 1912 to 1918, Bredo Henrik von Munthe af Morgenstierne was Rector of the University of Oslo. When Norway co-founded and entered NATO, ambassador Wilhelm Morgenstierne represented the Kingdom when US President Truman signed the treaty in 1949. Whilst they now acted as individuals rather than a unified estate, these and many other noblemen played a significant public rôle, mainly until the Second World War (1940–1945).

Today, Norway has approximately 10-15 families who were formerly recognised as noble by Norwegian kings. These include Anker, Aubert, Falsen, Galtung, Huitfeldt, Knagenhjelm, Løvenskiold, Munthe af Morgenstierne, Treschow, Werenskiold, and the Counts of Wedel-Jarlsberg. In addition, there exist non-noble families who descend patrilineally from individuals who had personal (non-hereditary) noble status, for example the Paus family and several families of the void ab initio office nobility. There is even foreign nobility in Norway, mainly Norwegian families who originate in other countries and who have or had noble status there.


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Categories: Norwegian Nobility