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Akershus Castle – Once a vital defence in Norway

Posted in Castles, History on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

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This edited article about Akershus Castle originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 927 published on 7 October 1979.

The harbour of the Norwegian capital city of Oslo is today, as it has been for hundreds of years, dominated by the old castle of Akershus. This has in the past guarded the city from its impregnable position on the top of a steep cliff.

Akershus Castle, Oslo, Norway. Illustration by Harry Green

Akershus Castle, Oslo, Norway. Illustration by Harry Green

Today, however, this castle, which the Norwegians call Akershus Slott, no longer defends the city from foreigners. Instead, it welcomes them as tourists and introduces them to Norway’s history, which goes back hundreds of years.

This strongly built castle, with its many turrets, towers and solid walls, has played a very important part in the story of Oslo. It is still used when guns from its defences boom on royal birthdays. And the great halls of the castle are still used for ceremonial banquets, especially when there are state visits from abroad.

The first king of Norway to own this castle was Haakon Magnusson. When he was at sea with his fleet south of Oslo, he sent important messages back to the royal household, which lived at his newly erected castle called, at that time, Akersnes.

He had planned the castle well. The fortifications were excellent. There was an almost perpendicular drop from the west side to protect the castle from Norway’s enemies. A sharp, prow-like cliff on the south side protected its walls, whilst marshy ground to the north and east made it virtually impossible for attackers to reach the fortification from those directions. The only way that the walls could be reached from land was from the north-east. To guard these walls, a moat had been made, overlooked by a strongly-fortified gate-house called the Maiden Tower.

To admit friends to the castle, a drawbridge would be lowered across the moat. Enemies who managed to cross the moat were confronted by an ingenious mode of defence – the Morkegangen or “Dark Passage”. This was a narrow, torch-lit passage which led steeply upwards. Forcing one’s way through this passage was enough to daunt the courage of even the bravest and most determined of foes.

The castle was also defended by its main tower, called the Vagehalsen or Daredevil. With its walls three metres thick and 17 metres high, it would severely test the strength of invading soldiers.

Many foreign armies besieged Akershus Castle throughout the centuries, without success. The Swedes in particular tried to force the castle defenders to surrender many times, but each time they were defied and driven away.

In fact, soon after the castle had been completed, the Swedish army under Duke Erik encamped outside its walls. But not once was the castle in the slightest danger of being captured.

In 1716, there was a very strong attack by the Swedes. On 21st March, the guards sighted Swedish forces moving up towards the castle under their King Charles XII. At the time, the castle’s garrison consisted of one artillery company, three infantry battalions and six companies of dragoons; a total force of 3,000 men.

The Swedes cut off the water supply to the castle, but Akershus had so many water reservoirs inside the walls that no shortage was threatened. The besieged soldiers shot at and killed very many Swedes, who were waiting for signs of the castle’s surrender. The many Swedish flags were also made the target of the Norwegians’ bullets. One report of the time describes how “the Norwegian soldiers hit the Blue and Yellow (the Swedish colours) with their excellent marksmanship.”

Only once was Akershus Castle attacked by Norwegians. This was during a revolt by peasants who were led by Knut Alvsson, but he was captured by a ruse. After he had been killed, his body was placed on the western tower walls and remained there unburied for 12 years as a warning to other rebels. This tower was thereafter called Knut’s Tower.

Though Norwegian people remember the valiant role that it played in the defence of their kingdom, Akershus Castle today is a symbol of welcome to the world to visit Norway in peace.

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