Norway · Pocket Profiles

The Death of King Olav V, Part 1

Hofdame Note: The 17th of January marked 30 years since the death of King Olav V, the beloved King of Norway. Thank you to Ween for this comprehensive post. We know you will find it as touching and inspiring as we did. Look for Part 2 tomorrow.

Ween Note: Much of the material is taken from the second episode of King and Queen for 25 Years: The King is Dead – Long Live the King (Konge og dronning i 25 år: Kongen er død – leve kongen), which originally aired as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations back in 2016. I have included the link if you would like to watch it for yourself. 

The morning of January 17, 1991, much like the morning of January 17, 2021, dawned on a world full of uncertainty. But instead of monitoring a global pandemic, the eyes of the world were turned on the Persian Gulf. Five months earlier, Iraq had invaded neighboring Kuwait over financial and oil disputes. Many countries, including Norway, were debating whether or not they wanted to join a United States-lead coalition to liberate Kuwait from its larger neighbor. Norway had even more to worry about at home between the unemployment rate and a high interest rate.

But one thing Norwegians were certain of was the steadfastness of their king.

87-year-old King Olav V was in the midst of a celebrated reign. The world’s oldest monarch, he had been a symbol of Norway from the moment he was carried onto its soil by his father as a toddler in 1905. He was known as Folkekongen – The People’s King – thanks to his down-to-earth attitude. Beloved for leading the resistance during World War II, his popularity was sealed in 1973, when he was pictured taking the tram to ski slopes just outside of Oslo during the height of the oil crisis.

When asked why he would travel on the tram without bodyguards, Olav simply answered, “I have four million bodyguards.” Norway’s population was approximately four million people in 1973. Source: Jan A. Martinsen, NTB Scanpix.

In 1990 he had been as active as ever: marking the 50th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Norway during World War II, standing on the palace balcony and happily waving to the children parading past on Constitution Day, meeting with government ministers and ambassadors. But that June, he suffered a debilitating stroke which had left him hospitalized for weeks. Crown Prince Harald quickly took over as regent so his father could recuperate. All seemed to be going well despite Harald continuing his regency into the fall, even giving the “throne speech” at the opening of Storting; Olav’s recovery had been uneventful enough that he was present, though visibly frail, at the Christmas Day service at Holmenkollen Chapel. 

King Olav arrives at Holmenkollen Chapel to attend Christmas Day Service on December 25, 1990. Source: NRK.

The mood of January 17 was also visibly frail. Operation Desert Storm had begun at 12:45 AM Oslo time; President George H.W. Bush addressed the American people to inform them coalition forces were bombing military targets in Iraq. Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland raced home from Helsinki; the Norwegian Coast Guard had a ship in the Persian Gulf. Odd Karsten Tveit, the sole Norwegian reporter left in Saudi Arabia, was broadcasting live from his hotel room in Riyadh. King Olav woke up to the news everyone was dreading.

Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland returns to Oslo following the start of Operation Desert Storm. Source: NRK.

Despite the bad news, King Olav had a seemingly normal, if reduced, schedule on the last day of his life. He met with then-President of the Storting, Jo Berkow, to be interviewed for a book Berkow was writing about Norwegian history. Following their conversation at the palace, King Olav invited President Berkow to Kongsseteren, his primary residence following his stroke, for lunch. As Berkow took his leave following the meal, King Olav said “We shall meet again next Thursday, Mr. President. Thank you for coming today.” It was the last words he would ever say to Berkow. He then sat back down in his armchair and turned on the television to watch the 24/7 news coverage of the start of the war.

Not to be outdone, Crown Prince Harald joined his father at the palace, where he met with the Defense Minister, held six audiences, and watched the National Ski Championships. He then had a quick lunch and drove over to the Maritime Museum for the opening of their new exhibit. 

Crown Prince Harald leaves the palace. He will return that night as King Harald V. Source: NRK.

As day turned to evening, King Olav continued watching the news. But one of the staff at Kongsseteren quickly realized something was wrong. He quickly called a nurse, who diagnosed King Olav with a severe myocardial infarction: a fatal heart attack.

“I consider him to be the first casualty of the war,” King Harald would say later, “He had a heart attack while watching it on the news. He thought World War III had broken out, and he wanted nothing to do with it.”

The Crown Prince was informed that King Olav was seriously ill, and he needed to get to Kongsseteren following his visit to the Maritime Museum. He was joined there by his two older sisters, Princesses Ragnhild and Astrid. King Olav had been revived, but was drifting in and out of consciousness. Harald quickly called the rest of his family, who weren’t home: Crown Princess Sonja was taking French classes in Villefranche-sur-Mer, Princess Märtha Louise was training for the show jumping championships in England, and Prince Haakon Magnus was on a skiing trip with friends. Everyone began making their way back to Oslo.

Kongsseteren, King Olav’s home for the last months of his life. Source: NTB Scanpix.

At Kongsseteren, Princess Astrid told her father that she and her siblings were by his side. “Good,” he said. It was the last word he would ever say.

King Olav V died peacefully at 10:20 PM Oslo time.