Av Harald Nissen
Because Norway lies on the northern periphery of Europe, cultural currents tend to
reach it late. This applied to heraldry, too. Norway was not on the regular route for
troubadours and wandering knights, who were always able to disseminate changing fashions.
On the other hand, it was easier for opinions on style to become more established and only
adapt to national traits.
During the reign of King Håkon Håkonson (1217-1263), contact with European, and
especially French, culture increased. Influence was exerted on the visual arts and the
first signs appeared that the interest of Norwegians was being awakened by the flourishing
The king adopted the princely symbol that was common to the rest of Europe, the lion, this
being subsequently armed with a battle-axe. St Olav or King Olav Haraldson had fallen at
the Battle of Stiklestad in Norway in 1030, being in part killed by blows from an axe. The
lion with the battle-axe therefore symbolises St Olav or the immortal King of Norway, as
he was later called.
The first coloured reproduction of the Norwegian royal coat-of-arms is in the Wijnbergen
roll of arms (about 1265-1288) and depicts gules a lion rampant armed with a battle-axe,
all or. In the Gelre roll of arms (about 1369-1395), the rampant lion wears a crown and
has a battle-axe argent; the author knew nothing of other Norwegian arms. Nowadays, the
crowned lion has an axe with a handle or and an axe head argent.
The first armorial seal known from Norway that did not belong to the Royal House
post-dates the earliest of those known from Denmark and Sweden (which then included
Finland). This is the seal of a knight named Basse Gudthormson, and was reproduced in 1286
(Dipl. Norv. V, 16). It was on a document on which he testifies that he was present when
Arnbjørn of Heimnes made his last will and testament.
The number of armorial seals and reproductions in colour, such as church decorations,
enamel objects and drinking horns increased during the 14th century. French and Scottish
heraldry influenced the arms of some important noblemen. One of these was a baron named
Audun Hugleikson who had an equestrian seal (1295) and a privy seal (1295) depicting a
rose with double tressure flory-counterflory. Another nobleman, Nikulas Halsteinson, had a
seal bearing a coat-of-arms comprised of three legs (Dipl. Norv. X, 51), a motif
resembling the arms of the Isle of Man.
In Norway, as in Denmark and Sweden, the 14th century showed the appearance of arms
depicting a leg with a spur, as is found now in the arms of various families in several
countries. Several Skanke families in Norway now have arms with one leg, but no connection
between the Skanke families and Medieval armigerous families has been proved.
A contemporary Norwegian family of noble origin, the Galtung family, claims to trace its
ancestors back to the Middle Ages and now uses as its arms argent a boar sable.
The Black Death, which reached its peak in Norway in 1349, debilitated the country both
economically and politically. Of the seals that are known today, only 10 originated in
1349 and 3 in 1350, whereas there were 40 new ones in 1348. A number of years passed
before more than 30 new seals are known to have appeared in a single year.
Norway was in personal union with Sweden from 1319, and later with Denmark, too, King
Håkon VI having married Margrethe, a daughter of the Danish king, Valdemar Atterdag.
Their son Olav, who died at the age of 17, became King of Norway and was also elected King
of Denmark. In 1389, a union was established between Denmark, Norway and Sweden (the
Kalmar Union). Sweden left in 1521, but the union between Denmark and Norway lasted until
1814 when Norway was united with Sweden. This lasted until 1905 when the Danish prince,
Carl, was elected King of Norway. He took the name Haakon VII and was the
great-grandfather of the present king, Harald V.
During the union with Denmark, the king and his court lived in Denmark and seldom visited
Norway. The few high Norwegian nobility died out and the gentry had little political
power. The few noble daughters who inherited large estates were married to Danish
noblemen, and Norway obtained a number of noble families of foreign origin in the period
prior to the Reformation in 1536.
It is not known whether there was any heraldic institution in Norway. Danish heralds are
mentioned in connection with tournaments during the reign of the Danish hing, Erik Menved
(1286-1319). Heralds are also mentioned during the reigns of Valdemar Atterdag and Erik of
Pommerania, who succeeded Queen Margrethe in 1412 as King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
An heraldic institution was created during the reign of Christian I (who reigned from 1448
to 1481) and was maintained by his successors; this presumably took place in connection
with the establishment of the Elephant Order in Denmark. References are made to the King
of Arms Denmark, the herald Sealand and the pursuivant Lolland. Archduchess Margrethe of
Austria (ruler of the Netherlands) writes in a letter to the Danish King of Arms Norway,
dated 23rd June 1508, that she is willing to help the citizens of Hamburg with their
outstanding account with the Dutch States General. There were certainly two Kings of Arms,
one named Denmark and the other Norway, from the end of the 16th century.
The heralds of the Danish-Norwegian kings seem to have been used on ceremonial occasions
and for political missions, but nothing is known of visitations, and when letters patent
were ennobled with the new arms of the ennobled person, the signature and seal were those
of the king.
After absolutism was introduced in 1660, the heralds became less prominent, only being
used when a new king was proclaimed or the Supreme Court was opened.
Tournaments have taken place in Scandinavia, among them several in Copenhagen, and others
in Kalmar (1337), Lund (1406) and Stockholm (1438). Tournaments took place in Trondheim in
1449 (the coronation of Karl Knutson Bonde) and 1450 (the coronation of Christian I)
where, respectively, 15 and 22 noblemen were knighted. It is not known whether the
combatants in the Scandinavian tournaments used heraldic shields, crests, horse trappings,
etc., but evidence from Medieval tombstones and equestrian seals shows that such equipment
was known in Norway.
The oldest arms in Norway are assumed arms. The granting of arms in connection with
ennobling is known from the reign of Erik of Pommerania (1397-1439), but the practice may
be older in both Denmark and Norway.
The king was not the only one to grant arms. The Norwegian archbishop, Erik Walkendorff,
who resided in Trondheim, granted arms on 3rd May 1517 to one of his bailiffs, Simon
Svensson, for faithful and willing service, for himself and his descendants for eternity.
He and his wife were simultaneously enfeoffed with some estates from the archdiocese for
their lifetime. The original letter no longer exists, but the text in Dipl. Norv. (X, 315)
shows that the coat-of-arms granted to Simon Svensson was azure a demi stag or and as a
crest a pair of attires or.
Another letters patent known to have been granted presumably had a similar content. It is
only known through the "absolutely truthful pronouncement" of 20th July 1543 by
the Lord Lieutenant of Bergen, Christopher Huitfeldt, that he had seen it (Dipl. Norw. X,
718). This letter from Archbishop Erik Walkendorff enfeoffed his bailiff, Oluf Mogensson,
with estates, but the letter was destroyed in a fire in the archbishop's castle on
Christopher Huitfeldt gives no information about arms. However, a lexicon of noble
families in Denmark, Norway and the Duchies, dated 1787, states that Oluf Mogensson bore
arms per fess with a cross of passion in each field. It says nothing about the tinctures
of this coat-of-arms.
Following the Reformation in 1536, the last archbishop of Norway sailed to the Netherlands
in April 1537, but Simon Svensson and Oluf Mogensson had retained their estates and become
aldermen in Trondheim, the latter becoming High Court Judge in Trondheim in 1538.
Norwegian trade increased in the 16th and 17th centuries. Peasants bought farms on former
Crown land confiscated from the Catholic Church, and ship-borne trade was promoted. This
society that offered enhancing opportunities attracted people from various social classes
from the frequently war-torn Europe. The Danish-Norwegian kings welcomed foreigners as
officers of the Crown, and they were also recruited into the
business community. Some of these people originated from armigerous families, and others
assumed arms after settling in Norway. A few were ennobled by the king, but it is not
possible to distinguish such a class in the group of higher Crown officers and landowning
merchant lords because the new noblemen were drawn from that group. When ennoblement took
place, new coats-of-arms were granted.
Following the introduction of absolute monarchy in 1660, Royal Decrees were issued
concerning the kinds of crowns and coronets to be used by the Royal House, the aristocracy
(including counts and barons) and untitled nobility.
Some officials born as commoners were given the same privileges as the untitled nobility
of noble birth. They were regarded as noblemen for their lifetime, as were their wives and
children. They were therefore permitted to use an open helmet turned half dexter with four
visible bars. If they rose to become higher officers (for instance, colonel or higher rank
in the army, bishop or lord lieutenant), their rank in the nobility became heritable.
Today, there are no regulations in Norway concerning the use of an open or closed helmet.
Present-day descendants of officials from the period of absolutism often use an open
helmet with bars.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, there were still a few descendants in Norway of Danish
noblemen who had married ladies from Norwegian families and inherited their estates. It
was important for these to show their seize quartiers. A very rare example is the
coat-of-arms around the gate of the manor house of Austraat beside Trondheimsfjord. This
manor, widely known through the play, "Lady Inger", by Henrik Ibsen, was built
by Ove Bielke in 1654-1656. A 13th century church was incorporated in the manor house and
is now represented by the great hall and the manor chapel beneath it. The Bielke arms,
argent two bars azure, are flanked by the arms of his first and second wives, Maren Juel
bearing a star or and three bars wavy argent, and Regitze Gedde an azure a pike (Esox
lucius) in bend argent. But the figure shows that the pike has mistakenly become per bend
sinister. At the top is the sacred monogram, IHS (Greek for Jesus) and the inscription
STIRPEM SERVORUM SERVA DEUS ALME TUORUM (Gracious God, protect the descendants of your
servants). Below the coat-of-arms of Ove Bielke and his two spouses are the arms of his
father Jens Bielke and his mother Sophie Brockenhuus, per pale argent and gules three
roses in pale azure. Further down on the left side of the gate are the arms of the
ancestral mothers on the paternal side, and on the right those on the maternal side. Using
modern spelling the names are as follows:
LEFT SIDE (PATERNAL MOTHERS) RIGHT SIDE (MATERNAL MOTHERS)
Bielke 1 Brockenhuus
Thott 2 Juel
Gyldenløve 3 Gyldenhorn
Krabbe 4 Lunge
Bing 5 Bild
Rømer 6 Flemming
Rønnow 7 Gris
Rosenkrantz 8 Friis
Bølle 9 Rønnow
Passou 10 Glaab
Kane 11 Nielsen
Lunge 12 Lunge
Splid 13 Sehested
Flemming 14 Biørn
Strutz 15 Kane
Thott 16 Lunge
Jens Bielke is succeeded below by Thott, quarterly gules and or, the arms of his paternal
grandmother Margrethe Thott. Then there are the arms of the two great-grandmothers, Lucie
Gyldenløve (Golden Lion) per fess or with a crowned lion gules and lozengy or and gules
(as a token of courtesy, the lion is turned to face the arms on the right side of the
gate), and Vibeke Krabbe gules a fess argent. Then there are the arms of 4
great-great-grandmothers and finally 8 great-great-great-grandmothers. Incidentally,
number 6, Rømer, per bend argent and sable, represents Inger Ottesdatter Rømer who was
the model for Ibsen's play, "Lady Inger", although the play is not historically
correct even though this was a very dramatic period in Norwegian history.
The same system of arms is found on the right side of the gate, and is as follows:
1 9 5 13 3 11 7 15 2 10 6 14 4 12 8 16
1 5 3 7 2 6 4 8
1 3 2 4
This system has been discussed by Galbreath (1977, pp. 326, 269-270) and Sir Thomas Innes
of Learney (1978, pp. 99-101). In Scandinavia, the system has been most thoroughly
discussed by the Danish heraldist Knud Prange (1982, 1985) who also mentioned it in his
lecture at the 20th International Genealogical and Heraldic Congress in Uppsala 9-13
August 1992. The system has been used in Denmark and Norway and must have originated in
The genealogical table of the Austraat arms illustrates the family connections between the
noble families in Scandinavia during the late Middle Ages and the first years after the
Reformation in 1536. Gyldenløve (Golden lion), Gyldenhorn (Golden horn), azure a hunting
horn gules), Kane (azure a bend gules over a bend sinister argent between four roses
argent), Nielsen (azure a fess sable between three demi fleur-de-lys or) and Strutz
(argent an ostrich with a horseshoe in its beak all sable and a sun in the dexter canton
and a rose in the dexter base) are Norwegian families.
Bielke, Bing and Thott are from Scania, which was Danish before 1658 when it was
surrendered to Sweden. Rønnow is from Holstein, and Flemming and Moltke are from Germany.
All the others are from Denmark.
Juel, Krabbe, Moltke and Sehested are present-day nobility in Denmark, and Thott is a
noble family in Sweden, whereas Rosenkrantz is a noble family in both Denmark and Sweden.
Most of the Danish-Norwegian nobility used no hereditary titles. However, after the
introduction of absolutism in 1660, 28 counties (estates for counts) and 32 baronies were
established between 1671 and 1848. Two of these counties and one barony were in Norway.
The Norwegian parliament abolished all hereditary noble titles and privileges in 1821, but
those who had been born before the Act was passed were able to retain their titles and
privileges until they died. Of these three counties and baronies, only the county of
Jarlsberg now exists as an entailed estate for the Wedel Jarlsberg family which has been
in residence since 1684.
There are still 19 families living in Norway that are included in the Danish nobility and
registered in the Adels Aarbog (the Danish Yearbook of Nobility).
In 1969, the Norwegian heraldist, Hans Cappelen, published Norske slektsvåpen (Norwegian
coats-of-arms). This book lists families that have been using the same arms, starting no
later than 100 years ago. Additional conditions were that the families had had some
influence in Norwegian social life for three generations or more, and members of the
family had to be living in Norway in 1969. The book gives information about 355 families,
including drawings and blazons of their arms.
In addition to families that have their roots in Norway, the book illustrates the
immigration to Norway of foreign families during the 17th and 18th centuries. Excluding 12
families whose origins are uncertain, there are 100 Norwegian families, 89 from Denmark,
73 from Germany, 29 from Schleswig-Holstein, 12 from the Netherlands, 10 from France, 7
from England, 7 from Switzerland, 6 from Sweden, 4 from Scotland, 4 from the Baltic
States, 1 from Poland and 1 from Austria. They come from a variety of social classes,
nobility, landed gentry, burgher families, artisans and peasantry. Some of the families
had arms before they came to Norway, others assumed them after settling in Norway.
The Norwegian private heraldry now leads a humble existence, perhaps a bookplate or a
signet ring. On the other hand, Norway has a very visible official heraldry. Cities such
as Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Tønsberg use their medieval seals as arms. Some towns were
granted arms by Royal Decree during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Some private
individuals during the 19th century also attempted to create arms for towns, and some arms
were used by the local authorities.
In the years before and especially after the Second World War, the Norwegian heraldist,
Hallvard Trätteberg (1898-1987) worked on Norwegian official heraldry. He was a deputy
archivist in the National Archive Office in Oslo and adviser for the Government on
heraldic questions. He also provided rules for municipal heraldry. He designed simple arms
with distinctive charges, one metal and one colour. External supporters, compartments,
etc. were omitted. Local authorities and counties use their arms to mark road signs and
To acquire approval by Royal Decree, a local authority has to apply to the Ministry of
Local Government, through the county governor. The Ministry consults the National Archive
Office, which has experts on heraldry. If an heraldic proposal is not satisfactory and is
not recommended by the National Archive Office, the proposal of arms will not attain
approval by a Council presided over by the King.
Other official institutions use arms or badges, too. The Norwegian Church uses the arms of
the Norwegian archdiocese, dating from before the Reformation.
The Norwegian Army, Navy and Air Force also use heraldry. Major-general Torbjørn
Bergersen, an excellent heraldic artist, has designed the arms of all the units in the
Norwegian Army. The arms and badges of the Norwegian Air Force are in the same style as
those in the RAF, a tradition from the Second World War when a new Norwegian Air Force had
to be built up in Great Britain and Canada (Little Norway).
Norway has an heraldic association with about 150 members. The most active members are
also members of Societas Heraldica Scandinavica, and some also belong to the Heraldry
Society of London and the Heraldry Society of Canada.