Battle of the Square

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A rendition.

The Battle of the Square (Norwegian: Torvslaget) was a skirmish between Norwegian demonstrators and forces of the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway that that took place in Christiania (now Oslo, Norway) in the evening of 17 May 1829.

The demonstrators were participating in the annual celebration of the Constitution of Norway, which was outlawed by Charles XIV John of Sweden, King of Sweden and Norway, the previous year. The intervention by police and troops roused civic outrage in Norway, and forced Charles XIV to lift the prohibition.

History[edit]

The Union of Sweden and Norway[edit]

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark ceded Norway to the King of Sweden (significantly, not the Kingdom of Sweden) in the Treaty of Kiel signed in January 1814. When this became known to Norwegians, it provoked additional support for an independent Norway. Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark, and viceroy in Norway, was elected on 17 May 1814 as King of Norway by the Norwegian Constituent Assembly under a new constitution.

However, the Treaty of Kiel ultimately prevailed. Frederik was unable to secure international support, which was in support of the treaty. In a short war with Sweden in July and August 1814, Crown Prince Carl John of Sweden, and later King Charles XIV John of Sweden, defeated the Norwegians and ousted Frederik. Carl John's generous peace terms recognized the Norwegian constitution, requiring only those sections which prevented a personal union with Sweden to be modified. On 30 August, King Charles XIII of Sweden (known as Charles II in Norway) was proclaimed the ruler of the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway.

Charles XIII died on 5 February 1818 and was succeeded by Carl John, as Charles XIV John of Sweden and Charles III John of Norway. While he had agreed to allow the Norwegians to keep their constitution, Charles XIV John disapproved of the annual celebrations; he believed they were more in honour of the deposed Christian Frederik rather than himself as King of Norway. Charles XIV John made it a point to attend the celebrations in Christiania, until 1828 when be forbade the celebrations altogether.

Lead up to the celebrations of 1829[edit]

Despite the ban, illegal flyers national anthems and slogans began circulating weeks before 17 May 1829. These were noticed by the Christiania police and forces stationed in the Akershus Fortress. Government authorities learned that the steamer Constitutionen was scheduled to land at Christiania at 6 PM on the 17th. An attempt to sabotage the symbolically-named ship, and prevent it from serving as a potential nationalistic flashpoint at Christiania, failed; the ship arrived on schedule.

At the time, the steamers The Constitution and Prince Carl were sources of national pride in Norway.

17 May was a bright cloudless Sunday in Christiania. The arriving steamer was met by the crowd that customarily gathered to see the ship arrive. However, as feared by the authorities, the ship also served as an outlet for nationalistic fervour. As the ship arrived, the younger boys and gamins began to shout hurrahs; 20-year old Henrik Wergeland, who had placed himself on the castle's dike, shouted "Long live the Constitution!" This instigated a larger response from the crowd, who spontaneously began singing the anthems from the previously circulated flyers. The crowd then moved to the town square in front of the main church, and remained there during the evening. The square had some heaps of cobblestone waiting to be placed in the streets.

Intervention[edit]

The Christiania police department consisted of a superior constable, two deputies and nine regular policemen. Twelve men were normally sufficient for a town of that size, but was inadequate for the developing situation. After summoning civil reinforcements, the police quietly requested the gathering to disperse, but people were curious and refused to leave. A drunken man, wearing a hat with the inscription "Long live 17 May" was brought in for questioning, but was eventually released because he was unable to explain himself. The civil reinforcements began joining the crowd.

In the Akershus Fortress, Swedish viceroy von Platen and Baron Wedel-Jarlsberg, commander of military forces, sought a legal justification to disperse the crowd lest a riot ensue. They settled on the Riot Act of 1685 which prohibited revolt. The chief of police was sent to the square to read the relevant clauses of the Riot Act and order the crowd to disperse, but he had inadequate stature and was largely ignored. Wedel-Jarlsberg then ordered cavalry into the square; some people were ridden down and the terror-stricken remainder fled to the cobblestone heaps and into stairways. The cavalry were joined by light infantry who began beating demonstrators with rifles. Wergeland was beaten flat by a cavalry sabre; he considered it a grave insult to his self-made school uniform.

The commotion drew the regular bourgeoisie, and some were severely beaten as well. One attorney was unable to stand for two weeks afterwards.

Aftermath[edit]

Several people were brought in for questioning. They had to account for songs, toasts, whom they toasted to, and speeches.

Wergeland sent an accusatory letter to the police department for the treatment of his uniform; the style of writing was such that it was reportedly received with some amusement. Wergeland's subsequent questioning made him a public hero and figure for the national day. He hinted that the Baron had not been entirely sober that day; the quotation was omitted from the record but remembered by Wergeland's cousin, who was present. Most famously, when asked to state his age, Wergeland replied, "I am six years older than the Norwegian Constitution. I hope the present gentlemen remember when that constitution was written." This line in particular gave Wergeland the honour of "initiating the day".

Around Norway there was great anger toward the Swedes and the governor in particular. It became a matter of heated discussion in Norwegian newspapers for a year afterwards. To defuse the tensions, King Charles XIV John agreed to lift the prohibition on constitutional celebrations on 17 May.

References[edit]

  • Hammer, S. C. (1923). "Hovedstaden og 17. mai til og med Torvslaget". Kristianias historie (in Norwegian) 4. Cappelen. pp. 107–124. 
  • Arstal, Aksel; Just, Carl, ed. (1966) [1938]. "Torvslaget". Oslo byleksikon (in Norwegian) (2 ed.). Oslo: Aschehoug. 
  • Mardal, Magnus A. "Torgslaget". In Henriksen, Petter. Store norske leksikon (in Norwegian). Oslo: Kunnskapsforlaget. Retrieved 17 January 2012.