Norway · Pocket Profiles

The Death of King Olav V, Part 2

Note: Much of this 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

It was late in the evening of January 17, 1991. Norway’s king of nearly 34 years, Olav V, died at the age of 87, with his three children: Princess Ragnhild, Princess Astrid, and the brand-new King Harald V by his side.

“Nothing ever prepares you for the loss of your father,” Harald stated when being interviewed in 2016. He was in such a state of shock that he didn’t register the doctor present addressing him as ‘Your Majesty’ until Astrid nudged him and said, “Harald, he’s talking to you.”

While the family was in shock, the plan to inform the Norwegian public about the death of King Olav and transfer the government over to King Harald V was set into motion. The Royal Standard above the palace was lowered to half-mast, the first sign that something had happened. Urgent messages were sent to the Norwegian Telegraph Bureau (NTB) and NRK, the government-owned broadcaster. Harald began preparing to meet with the government and give a speech, his first as monarch, to the Norwegian public. 

The King was dead – long live the King.

1991’s NRK Headquarters, Oslo. Source: NRK.

But the situation quickly turned into a comedy of errors. NRK’s nightly news program, Kveldsnytt, was being covered by substitute anchor Kai Mikalsen, who was given the wrong information. He reported that King Olav had suffered a heart attack. 

“Suddenly there was a message that King Olav was dead,” Mikalsen said when interviewed in 2016, “I tried to get in touch with my news chief and my producer, but it was impossible. There was chaos in the editorial office. So I just sat there and waited with this news.” 

Clearly shocked, Mikalsen made the decision to simply inform viewers that NRK would keep them informed of any further developments. Not only did he not have confirmation the news was real, he and the rest of the channel had to follow a list of rules agreed upon by NRK and the palace to announce the death of the monarch. The honor of announcing the King’s death was reserved for one of three reporters: Herbjørn Sørebø, Bjørn Hansen, or Anne Baggethun. Additionally, the person making the announcement was required to wear black, have a dark backdrop behind them, and have a bouquet of lilies on the table. Mikalsen was wearing a black suit, but with a red tie, with Kveldsnytt’s typical light blue gradient backdrop behind him. No flowers were on the table. While chaos reigned at NRK, the smaller channel TVNorge broadcast the news that King Olav was dead, and Swedish television channel SVT followed suit.

King Olav had been dead for 40 minutes. NRK was struggling to make the announcement, and Norwegians were quickly learning about their King’s death from other sources. All plans were thrown out the window. Mikalsen was asked to break the news. 

Kai Mikalsen announces the death of King Olav shortly after 11 PM Oslo time on January 17. Source: NRK.

“Here is the message we have received,” Mikalsen announced when the channel returned from break, “His Majesty King Olav V is dead, Cabinet Secretary Magne Hagen has just informed us. In the brief message sent from NTB, it only says ‘King Olav is dead’. We will return with an extra news broadcast shortly.”

The chaos of informing people that King Olav was dead was not limited to the newsroom. The new Crown Prince Haakon was still headed towards Kongsseteren to see his grandfather.

“I was driving back from my ski trip with my police protection, and they had turned off the radio because they did not want me to find out my grandfather had died through the radio. So when I got to Kongsseteren, my family didn’t know that I didn’t know. So I didn’t find out right away, since I did not ask. I just asked how everyone’s days had been, how they were doing. It took me a few minutes to find out that Grandfather was dead. My cousin was the one who told me. I then had a conversation with my father, and he told me I was Crown Prince. He didn’t say it directly. He said it in an indirect way. That was when it hit me my grandfather was dead. Then it was real.”

It slowly became real for the rest of Norway. People came to light candles outside the palace in Olav’s memory. The National Ski Championships were canceled. Nightclubs, restaurants, and bars closed down. Norway ground to a halt so its people could mourn.

The memorial for King Olav outside the palace in Oslo. Source: The Royal Court.

Among the royal family, there was no time to sit and mourn yet. King Harald went to the palace, waiting for government ministers to arrive for an Extraordinary Council of State. There, he informed them King Olav was dead and the government confirmed that Harald was king. He then gave a speech, broadcast from NRK which, two hours later, was finally decked out in the predetermined mourning attire. 

The extraordinary Council of State following the death of King Olav V and the ascension of King Harald V. Source: NRK.

“With God’s help, I hope my wife and I can succeed in our tasks for the benefit of the people and the country,” Harald stated, impressing palace staff, government ministers, and the Norwegian people with his fortitude.

A fitful night’s sleep at Kongsseteren followed. January 18 dawned full of grief among the Norwegian people, but at the palace, the finalization of the transition of power continued. Added on was a side trip to Forenbu Airport to pick up the new Queen, Norway’s first since Queen Maud had died 53 years prior, and Princess Märtha Louise. King Olav, meanwhile, was taken to the palace, where he was laid to rest in the Red Salon. 

Queen Sonja takes her first steps on Norway’s soil as its queen. Source: Knut Snare, Aftenposten.

Life went on in the days that followed. King Harald and Queen Sonja arrived at parliament, where Harald, like his father and grandfather before him, pledged to serve Norway and adopted the motto “All for Norway/Alt for Norge”. People continued to come to the palace to mourn, to light candles and leave letters and flowers in Olav’s honor. Funeral arrangements were finalized, heads of state from all over Europe were invited.

King Olav was laid to rest on January 30. Norway stopped once again.

The funeral procession of King Olav V. Source: NTB Scanpix, The Royal Court.

“It was a big task to take over after King Olav died. He had defined the role, and everyone loved him. To take over after that was not an easy task,” said King Harald.

“It is a new situation in life,” added Queen Sonja, “You cannot prepare fully for something like that. You must live through it and figure it out along the way: what is required of you, how you can solve these tasks. So this path is created as you walk through it.”

Harald and Sonja: King and Queen for 30 years. Source: Jørgen Gomnes, The Royal Court.

Hofdame Note: Let’s drop a deep curtsey to Ween for this two part story. It gave me the feels, in all the best ways. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with the community.