Everyone knows that an “Oscar” is an award for outstanding acting in the movies. Long before there was a Hollywood, two “Oscars” were kings of Sweden and Norway: Oscar I (1844-1859) and Oscar II (1872-1907).
Actually, the Oscars were not Scandinavian at all, but French. The stage for this setting in Scandinavian politics came through the wars of Napoleon.
Denmark and Norway shared the same rulers since Queen Margaret I in 1380, when the last Norwegian king of Norway died. The arrangement seemed eternal.
This was made clear to me when I visited Surnadal, a community about 75 miles southwest of Trondheim. King Christian V (1670-1699) traveled from Copenhagen to that Norwegian valley in the summer of 1685. A plaque was made to commemorate the event that now hangs in the Mo Church.
As an American whose family left there in 1892, I was surprised at the importance still attached to that ancient event. The point was that both Denmark and Norway seemed to believe that they would stay together forever.
The political destiny of my ancestral valley, however, was to change radically by new events taking place on the continent of Europe. Napoleon was on the march to conquer the world. Except for a bad winter in Russia, he might have succeeded.
Napoleon ordered his marshal, Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte to occupy Denmark if the Danes would not declare war on England. King Frederick VI (1808-1839) was immediately confronted with an English counter-threat. After weighing his unhappy options, the Danish king cast his lot with Napoleon. He concluded that Denmark had more to fear from the French army than from the British Navy.
On April 12, 1801, Lord Nelson directed the naval bombardment of Copenhagen. The Danish Navy was destroyed and its merchant ships taken to England as prizes of war. The Danes were never compensated. It also meant that Norway was cut off from Denmark’s agricultural products and suffered a severe famine from the blockade. Many people starved to death.
Another surprise took place in Sweden. Sweden’s ruling family, the house of Vasa, had run out of heirs. In searching for new royalty they elected Marshall Bernadotte as Crown Prince, to the pleasure of Napoleon. The French emperor privately disliked and feared the marshal and this was an opportunity to send him off to Sweden.
Once in Sweden, Bernadotte switched sides. He joined the enemies of Napoleon. His reward was Norway.
At the treaty of Kiel, signed on Jan. 14, 1914, Denmark gave up Norway to the king of Sweden (not to the country) under threat from the super powers of the day. It was to be Sweden’s compensation for the loss of Finland to Russia just a few years before.
The French marshal was secretly wishing for Napoleon’s defeat and hoped that he would become the king of France. He accepted the Swedish offer with some private reservations. When that time came, however, the French chose their new king from the House of Bourbon.
Bernadotte chose the name of Karl XIV Johan. English historians refer to him as Charles John. The main street in Oslo leading from the palace to the parliament building is called “Karl Johansgate.” He never did learn to speak Swedish, much less Norwegian.
His son, Oscar I, and his grandson, Oscar II also served as kings of both Sweden and Norway. The Bernadottes are the royal family of Sweden today and Karl XVI Gustaf is dearly loved as a true Swede.
History ought to be read like a detective novel or a mystery story. One of the mysteries to me has been why so many Norwegian families named their sons “Oscar.” After all, Norway had been forced into accepting a Swedish ruler by military threat. Besides, I’d heard some things as a young boy that Swedes and Norwegians were supposed to be “cool” towards each other. Why then did so many Norse immigrant families name their sons after King Oscar who lived in Stockholm?
I think I’ve found the answer. Oscar II was king of Norway from 1872-1905, when he resigned the Norwegian throne. He lived two more years as king of Sweden. That was the main emigrant period from Norway to America. He was a popular king in Norway and had been called the “Norwegian Prince.” Immigrant families honored King Oscar by naming their sons after him.
There may be another reason too. In my home community near Colfax, North Dakota, almost every Norwegian family had a son named “Oscar.” I learned that many of these immigrants were from Trondelag, the area around Trondheim (it was called “Trondhjem” until 1930).
D K. Derry, an English historian who moved to Oslo, pointed out that the early migration into Trondelag had come by way of Sweden and there has always been a pre-Swedish sentiment in that part of Norway.
So one of the great mysteries of my childhood is now solved. I now know why my father was named “Oscar.” If he ever knew the reason, he never told me. And I suspect that he lived his whole life quite unaware of the “French Connection.” At least, he never told me.
Next week: “Syttende Mai — Norway’s Constitution Day”