Akerhus Castle is one of the oldest and largest medieval fortresses on the Scandinavian Peninsula. Originally built to protect the city of Oslo from the Swedes, it is also one of the oldest castles in Europe still actively used for military purposes, and as such has been exceptionally well maintained over the centuries. Akerhus Castle’s military record is impressive, having only been occupied by a foreign power on one occasion in over seven centuries of existence. Akershus has become the enduring architectural symbol of Oslo and Norway, in much the same way that the Tower symbolizes London. Akershus is one of the most visited historical and cultural sites in Scandinavia.
As the age of the Vikings dwindled in the 11th century, the tiny kingdoms and tribal holdings of Scandinavia were slowly consolidated into larger states. One of the greatest of these was Norway, which was created by the efforts of the Sverre Dynasty, and which reached its height under King Haakon V who reigned in the late 13th century. Desirous of strengthening the area around Norway’s capital at Oslo, Haakon began constructing a number of important fortifications in and around the city, most notably Akershus Castle. Akershus also served periodically as a monarchial residence, but its purpose was primarily military in nature.
Because Oslo was located near the Swedish frontier, Akershus Castle was frequently a point of action between the Norsemen and the Swedes. In fact, some experts believe that Akershus was the primary reason that Norway was never absorbed into Sweden as a province. Sweden made its first attempt at capturing Akershus in the early 14th century but failed, and has continued to fail ever since. The castle was expanded and upgraded in the 1600s to better accommodate gunpowder warfare.
Unfortunately, Akershus could not protect Norway from political threats, and eventually the country was incorporated into a Scandinavian union ruled from Copenhagen during the 15th century. Although Sweden later left this union, Norway remained under Danish rule through a period known as the 400-Year Night that did not end until 1814. Through its ties to the Danes, Norway was dragged into numerous conflicts on the European continent. This lasted until the Danes sided with Napolean. After Napolean’s defeat, Norway took the opportunity to get out of the alliance. Throughout this period, Akershus survived largely unscathed.
After Napolean, things were quiet for Akershus for more than a century, until the Germans arrived in World War II. After sweeping through most of the country in April 1940, the Nazis took Oslo with minimal effort. Undefendable, Akershus was ceded for the first time ever to a foreign power. It was used by the German military for occupation purposes and the incarceration of prisoners. The castle was liberated along with Oslo in 1945. Vidkun Quisling, one of history’s greatest turncoats, was executed here just after the war. Since the end of the war, Akershus Castle resumed its role as a base for the Norwegian military.
Akershus is one of the world’s finest harbor-side castles. To add to the general ambiance of the castle, when Akerhus is viewed from the harbor, a number of tall ships are often anchored in front it, visually transporting the viewer back to an earlier age. Originally built in the Middle Ages and significantly upgraded during the Renaissance, Akershus blends the two period styles well. The ancient medieval battlements line both the harbor side and land side. Incidentally, from the rear, Akershus appears to crown a steep hill, thus offering an alternatively spectacular view. Akershus is especially beautiful at night, when the castle and harbor are illuminated.
While Akershus was first and foremost a military site, it was designed to accommodate the royal family, especially during its restoration in the 17th century. The castle is home to a full compliment of governmental staterooms, banquet rooms, royal apartments and the like. From a biographical perspective, the highlight of the castle is the small Royal Chapel and Mausoleum, where a number of members of the royal family are buried, including Haakon VII and Olav V. Akershus’ military use areas remain eerily medieval in appearance, especially those places beneath the main castle, including the dungeons. In addition to the castle, Akershus is also home to the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum, which houses exhibits featuring arms, armor, military pieces and other artifacts of Norway’s history, and the Resistance Museum, which honors those who died during the Nazi occupation of Norway.
Akershus Castle is located in the heart of Oslo on a small bulge of land that juts out into the city harbor opposite Hovedoya Island. The castle is open daily year-round. From May to August the castle is open from 9:00am-5:00pm (opens at 11:00am on weekends); and September to April from 9:00am-4:00pm (opens at 11:00am on weekends). Admission is free. Web: www.forsvarsbygg.no (official website).
Akershus Castle was one of several built during the Middle Ages to protect Norway from the Swedes. The second most important after Akershus was Bohus Castle, which unfortunately was not as successful as Akershus as it is now located in Sweden. Norway’s other famous castle, the Kristiansten Fortress in Trondheim, was built much later during the 17th century, although with the same purpose: protection from the Swedes. Also in Norway is the imposing Bergenhus Fortress.