Late on the evening of June 23, 1955, a flotilla of ships sailed up the Oslofjord to the delight of watching crowds from the shore. Fireworks were set off and bonfires pricked the gloom near the island of Maerdøy. At the front of the flotilla, which was otherwise composed of British Royal Navy frigates and the Norwegian destroyers, Oslo and Stavanger, was the Royal Yacht Britannia which had sailed from Rosyth in Scotland on 21 June. Faintly visible on deck were the ‘yacht’s’ principal occupants: Queen Elizabeth II and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, who were about to commence a State Visit to Norway next day (the first of the Queen’s reign to a country outside of the British Commonwealth).
After anchoring overnight in the Fjord, at 11 a.m. on 24 June, the Britannia entered the inner harbour at Oslo and the guns on the ramparts of historical Akershus Fortress roared out in greeting. By now, the Royal Yacht was surrounded by a selection of small craft, all jostling in the waves so their occupants might better obtain a sighting of the royal couple. Similarly, the surrounding quaysides were filled with curious onlookers. Crown Prince Olav, a first cousin of the Queen’s late father King George VI, set off from the quay in his launch for the Britannia to welcome the distinguished guests to Norway on behalf of the King and bring them safely ashore. Later, at the Quay of Honour (Honnorbrygga), 82-year-old King Haakon carefully descended the steps to greet the Queen (who also happened to be his Great-Niece) with a courtly bow and a kiss of her hand. The Duke of Edinburgh, sporting the ribbon and the star of the Grand Cross of the Order of St Olav on his Admiral’s uniform, received a firm handshake.
After a ceremonial drive up Carl Johan, Oslo’s main thoroughfare, which was packed to bursting with spectators (including 400 British schoolchildren) the royal party reached the Royal Palace. Although not on the official schedule, the British royalty made an appearance on the balcony with their Norwegian counterparts, who included Princess Astrid (acting as official hostess, a role she had assumed following the death of her mother, Crown Princess Märtha, the previous year) and her elder sister, Princess Ragnhild, who had made a special journey from her home in Brazil.
The Queen’s first engagement was a visit to the fortress of Akershus, accompanied by the Duke and King Haakon, to pay her respects to Norway’s war dead and lay a wreath of white lilies and roses at the War Memorial. The royal party then moved on to the City Hall where the Mayor, Brynjulf Bull, led them on a tour of the magnificent murals, sculptures and tapestries. It is fair to say Her Majesty was greatly interested in what she observed and asked many questions of her host. However, the commemoration of those who had perished in battle was once again the focus when the Queen and Duke visited the British War Graves section at Vestre Gravlund cemetery. This was a very British occasion, with the Royal Marine’s band (from Britannia) playing the British National Anthem and the Queen laying a wreath of white roses at the British War Cross, followed by buglers sounding the Last Post and Reveille. Her Majesty subsequently made a point of inspecting the graves and meeting with Mrs Inga Kristoffersen who tended the grounds.
From there, the royal party drove out to Holmenkollen to observe the ski jump ‘in summer dress’ with empty stands and a distinct absence of snow. Earlier, they had taken tea nearby with the Canadian Minister to Norway, Mr Chester Rønning, at the Canadian Legation (for it must be remembered that Her Majesty is also the Queen of Canada). Then came the climax of the first day, the State Banquet at the Royal Palace, where the British visitors shook hands with the guests in the Red Room, to the accompaniment of tunes played by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation band. In the Banqueting Hall, the tables had been dressed with red, blue and white flowers as a nod to the colours of the British Union Jack flag. In his welcoming speech, King Haakon referred to the many Norwegians who had spent time in the Britain during World War II and emphasised his belief that there ‘will always exist the strongest bonds of friendship’, between the Britain and Norway. The Queen replied by stating that ‘we were truly happy to have so many gallant Norwegians with us’ and noted that King Haakon had ‘sustained and uplifted’ her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, during the Second World War by his ‘courage and resolution.’
On their second day in Norway, a Saturday, the Queen and the Duke visited the Bygdøy Peninsula. The couple first paid a visit the Folk Museum, where they were much impressed by the 12th century wooden Stave Church from the village of Gol in Viken county, which had been painstakingly re-erected on the present site, in 1884, thanks to funds provided by King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway. The duo also toured a traditional Norwegian farmstead and a selection of rooms in townhouses furnished in the style of different historic periods. The inspection ended with a display of folk dancing accompanied by fiddle music. Just as exciting was Her Majesty’s meeting with the adventurer Thor Heyerdahl as she arrived to inspect the Kon-tiki raft in which he had sailed 8,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Tuamotu Islands. Thor kindly presented the Queen with a model of the raft. The nautical theme continued when the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh subsequently visited the polar exploration vessel ‘Fram’ used by the Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen on their Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. The Viking Long Ships-the oldest relics of Norway’s maritime tradition-were also examined.
Around 4pm, the British royalties arrived at the British Embassy to preside over a garden party attended by 1500 invitees, the majority being from the British community in Norway. The Queen, dressed in a floral print dress, was escorted throughout by the British Ambassador, Mr Peter Scarlett. They made a wide sweep of the gardens as Her Majesty was anxious to speak to as many of her guests as possible and she questioned them about where they lived and what had brought them to live in Norway. The Queen later planted a cherry tree as a memento of her visit.
In the evening, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh joined King Haakon, members of the Norwegian royal family, government ministers and members of the diplomatic corps for a performance of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt at the National Theatre. Her Majesty made an impressive sight as she took her seat in the dress circle wearing an ice blue evening dress accessorised with a diamond tiara and necklace. The red ribbon and the star of the Grand Cross of the Order of St Olav-with which the Queen had just been invested-provided a striking contrast.
Despite the lateness of the hour the previous evening, the British royal duo were up bright and early to attend Divine Service at St Edmund’s Anglican Church, the neo-gothic style church of the British community in Oslo (and once frequented by the Queen’s late Great-Aunt, Queen Maud, the British-born Consort of King Haakon). Inside, the altar was decorated with pink carnations as this was known to be one of the Queen’s favourite flowers. The Bishop of Fulham-who has episcopal oversight over Anglican churches in Norway-presided, assisted by the British Embassy Chaplain.
Thereafter, the Queen and the Duke drove out to the village of Asker, twelve miles south-west of Oslo, to have lunch at Crown Prince Olav’s private home on the Skaugum estate. Princess Astrid, Olav’s youngest daughter, again acted as hostess on this semi-private occasion where other guests included the British Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan. Then all too soon it was time for the British royal party to leave for Oslo.
When the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s car arrived at the Quay of Honour at 6.25pm, the Norwegian and British vessels which would escort Britannia out to sea were already departing. King Haakon had preceded the Queen to the Quay and the farewell ceremony between the two Sovereigns was brief. The King of Norway, in a sombre suit, conducted Her Majesty to the bottom of the steps to her waiting launch, bent down and kissed her hand. To the delight of the watching crowd, the Queen impulsively stroked His Majesty’s cheek before joining the Duke on board. Suddenly, the watching crowd erupted,’ Come Back! Come back again soon!’ Meanwhile, in the background, the guns of Akershus Fortress echoed across the Oslofjord.
At 7.25pm the Norwegian royal family and some other notables, were taken out to the Britannia for a final dinner. Then, as the Royal Yacht prepared to get up steam, King Haakon and his party boarded the Norwegian Royal launch, Stjernen, which then proceeded in the direction of a small reef south of Bygdøy, on which stands the Dyna lighthouse. At 9.41pm the Britannia slipped her moorings and slid gracefully down the fjord passing the launch and the lighthouse. The Norwegian State Visit of 1955 had now ended in the most delightful fashion on an evening of pale blue sky and pink clouds.