Norwegian Royal drinking Horn © Natmus/Lennert Larsen cc-by-sa

The Royal Drinking Horns of Norway

The National Museum in Copenhagen has a fine collection of medieval drinking horns. Two of these are the so-called Royal Horns from Norway. Currently, Norwegians are trying to lobby for a return of at least one of the horns

The small Norwegian Royal Drinking Horn © Natmus/Lennert Larsen cc-by-sa
The small Norwegian Royal Drinking Horn © Natmus/Lennert Larsen cc-by-sa

The drinking horn, which is usually called the “Royal Horn of Norway” is a very large drinking horn from the 14th century. The length of the horn measures 86 cm with a diameter is 17 cm. The silver mount of the rim measures 7.2 cm in the height and is finely engraved with a frieze showing eight heraldic shields. The central escutcheon on the larger horn shows the royal Norwegian coat of arms with the upstanding lion wielding an axe. Below the frieze is a matching heraldic shield, which is probably a later addition. The same symbol is repeated in an enamelled furnishing fitted to the horn further down. The tip of the horn is decorated with gothic arcades within which we find reliefs of kings and queens.

The second horn is slightly smaller, measuring 67 cm with a diameter of 16 cm and a rim of 5.8 cm. As with the other horn, the frieze shows the royal symbol alternating with Gothic arcades in which we find at the royal couple consisting of a standing king and his queen. In the other arcades, the king is seated on his throne and coupled with bishops. Below, the horn is embellished with a round crystal, below which is red cross, the same which may be found among the oats of arms rendered on the larger horn. This escutcheon has been identified as belonging to Jon Bjarneson, royal treasurer in Bergen and Member of the royal council in the first decades of the 14th century.

Both horns differ from the more ordinary Scandinavian drinking horns. Usually the metal furnishing would be made of gilded copper. On these horns, though, they were made of gilded silver.

Detail of Norwegian Royal Drinking Horn © Natmus/Lennert Larsen cc-by-sa
Detail of Norwegian Royal Drinking Horn showing the addition of the heraldic shield of the Galtungs © Natmus/Lennert Larsen cc-by-sa

Detailed studies of the royal symbol by Asgaut Steinnes, director of the National Archives in Norway in the 20th century have shown that the royal symbol on the smaller horn has used the royal seal from 1308 – 1312 as its source. Due to a minor difference, he dated the royal heraldic symbol on the larger horn to 1313. This date fits well with the conclusion reached by the art historian, Thor Kielland in the 30s (Kielland 1935). According to him, the two heraldic shields on either side of the royal escutcheon, belonged to Bjarne Erlingssøn (1250 – 1313) showing a griffin, while the other refers to Hafthor Jonssøn (1275 – 1319) showing a rose. Both were prominent nobles during the reign of king Håkon Magnusson (1270 – 1319). Later studies of the horns by Widar Halén and Jorunn Fossberg (Halén & Fossberg 1997) have supplemented this by some art-historical explorations. The have found that there is not just a commonality between the royal symbols on either horns, but also commonality in the design of the royal couple in the Gothic arcades on the tip of the larger horn as well as the rim of the smaller. Added to this is the fact that the presence of Jon Bjarneson’s device on both horns has led to the conclusion that they were both commissioned by him and made by the same artist in Bergen at the beginning of the 14th century.

With the mixture of Swedish and Norwegian coast of arms, it has also been speculated the horns may have been crafted in 1312 to commemorate the marriage between two Norwegian princesses with two Swedish dukes. It is not likely, though, the larger horn was made for the King or royal family. In this case, the coats of arms would probably have been those of the family and royal allies of the king. The smaller horn, however, with its admixture of the royal symbol and the alternating royal scenes may originally have been made for the royal family. Soon, however, it was owned by Jon Bjarneson and fitted with his own device. On a more practical level, it has also been suggested that the drinking horns – especially the larger one – were part of the paraphernalia attached to a royal order or guild.

Due to the horns later history, it has also been hypothesized that the artist was Hallgreim from Bergen, who was one of two royal guardeins, appointed to assay the purity of the work of the moneyers there. The background for this identification is that Hallgreim was by family related to the family of the Galte or Galtung, who later owned and embellished the larger horn and whose descendant, Ivar Holm, whose name is inscribed on the smaller horn was royal governor of Iceland in the 15th century. It is likely, he brought the two horns to Iceland, where they ended up in the archbishop’s treasure in Skarholt. From here they were brought to Copenhagen, where they ended up in the Royal Collection in the 18th century.

Detail of rim. Smaller Norwegian Royal drinking Horn © Natmus/Lennert Larsen
Detail of rim. Smaller Norwegian Royal drinking Horn © Natmus/Lennert Larsen

Alternative theories

Another historian (Clouston 1937), though, has suggested the larger drinking horn was made during the reign of Margaret I of Denmark. She was married to the Norwegian king in 1363. After the death of her father in 1375, she brought her son Oluf to Denmark and had him crowned as king. When her husband died in 1380, Norway and Denmark was united under the same rule. Later, Sweden was conquered and from1397 she ruled all three Scandinavian countries in the name of her sisters son, Eric of Pomerania, whom she had adopted in 1387 her own son, Oluf, had died in 1387. Clouston did not accept the identification of the device on the coat of arms as that of Bjarne Erlingsson. Rather he identified the griffin as the device of Eric of Pomerania, thus dating the horn to post 1387. With this date, the horn turned into a central symbol for the Nordic Calmar Union of 97, which Margaret forged, and which was the historical background for the unified rule of Denmark and Norway until 1814. Clouston also identified some of the coats of arms as belonging to nobles on the Orkney Islands and claimed the horn had been made in Scotland. Asgaut Steinnes later refuted this. The horn, however might nevertheless have had an afterlife, which linked them to the elite circle surrounding queen Margaret.

The adoration of the magi. Fresco from Tuse church c. 1460 - 80. Notice the large drinking horn carried by second king. Source: wikipedia
The adoration of the magi. Fresco from Tuse church c. 1460 – 80. Notice the large drinking horn carried by second king. Source: wikipedia

As mentioned above, the large horn was at a later point furnished with a heraldic shield featuring the device of the family of Galte or Galtung showing a wild boar and a St. James’ mussel. It is possible, this particular coat of arms referred to Gaute Eiriksson (c. 1340 – 1412), who was one of the more prominent Norwegian nobles in the later 14th century. His first wife, Ingrid Knutsdatter, was daughter of Knut Algottsson and Märta Ulfsdotter. The latter was foster-mother to the Danish Queen Margaret, who grew up under her tutelage in Oslo; later chronicles tell us Margaret and Ingrid were like sisters. Gaute was knighted at the coronation of Erik of Pomerania in 1397 and the horn might indeed have been made for this occasion, had not the art-historical evidence pointed to the earlier date. What we do know, however, is that Gaute possessed drinking horns. Another Norwegian noble belonging to the same inner circle of Queen Margaret was Jon Marteinsson to Sørum (c. 1350 – 1430). In his last will and testament dated c. 1400, he testated no less than thirteen drinking horns to his family and friends. One of these was “a horn furnished with silver, which he gave to his brother-in-law, Gaute Eiriksen. It is the first horn, Jon mentions, and may have been one of his more prized possessions. Jon probably grew up in the household of Knut Algottson (DN XVI, No. 42; see also Opsahl 1998) along side Ingrid and Margaret.

Whether the horn in this testament really was the large royal horn, we shall never know. What this source and several others tell us, though, is that such horns were prized heirlooms and a type of treasure, of which any nobleman seemed to have possessed numerous. Also, we know that such horns must have been regular recycled inside close families and kin-groups. One of these consisted of the elite group of people surrounding Queen Margaret, of whom several were related to the Galte family

It is thus likely, the horns were originally made for Jon Bjarneson in the beginning of the 134th century and may have featured at the festivities surround the events in 1312 and later. But it is also likely, they were re-circulated as gifts among friends and families inside the Scandinavian elite surrounding the different royal dynasties who were vying for royal supremacy in the 14th century. In the end, the Danish crown won the wars; and the horns ended up in the Danish treasury.

As a curiosity it should in this connection also be noted that such horns probably also played a significant role as part of a “Nordic” or “Northern European” revival. One of the intriguing characteristics of a drinking horn is that it does not “stand”, which means it has to be passed around until it is emptied of its drink – whether beer, wine of mead. As such, it is destined to forge community as opposed to the chalice or goblet, which can be kept personal or a least in principle reserved for the few. It has been speculated that drinking horns became popular in Northern Europe in the 13th century when the withholding of the chalice from the lay congregation became gradually more widespread. (Most stands fitted to drinking horns are of a later date). It is likely, the reinvention of the tradition of old Germanic drinking feasts at this time was a precursor to the reformation. Perhaps, it was also culturally linked to the Danish and Norwegian fight to suppress the German dynasty on the Swedish throne after 1363. This hypothesis remains to be explored.

National Controversy

Recently, the larger of these two horns – the Royal Nordic Horn – has become the object of a slight controversy between the Norwegians and the Danes. The reason is that the Norwegians are currently building a whole new museum to house their National Museum in Oslo. Intended as the largest art-museum in Scandinavia the plan is to combine the Norwegian collections of art, architecture and design in a new and spectacular setting. Part of these collections consists of medieval art. The challenge however, is that most of the Norwegian treasures from the Middle Ages belong to the Museum of Cultural History in Central Oslo and at Bygdøy. How nice, someone has thought, if the Royal Horns could be returned to Norway as a gift to the Norwegian people, who – so the national Norwegian myth – were brutally subjugated in the more than 400 years, the two kingdoms were untied. This would enhance the medieval collection immensely.

A few days ago, this idea was raised by Asle Toje, present director of the National Nobel Institute and known as a prominent Cultural Conservative voice in Norway. He suggested the larger Royal Horn should be presented as a gift from Denmark to the opening of the New National Museum in 2020. With his contacts to the National Folk Party in Denmark, it is not curious that the idea was immediately taken up by Axel Ahrendtsen, a prominent spokesperson for his party. Axel Ahrendtsen’s suggestion was that Denmark, Norway and Sweden should appoint a commission to discuss the relocation of such national treasures as for instance the medieval gown of Queen Margaret in Uppsala, which was stolen by the Swedes from Roskilde in 1660. In this connection, the future fate of the Royal Norwegian Horn(s) might be debated.

The Official Politics

Exhibition of drinking horns in the National museum in Copenhagen. Source: pinterest
Exhibition of drinking horns in the National museum in Copenhagen. Source: pinterest

Meanwhile, curators in the large museums as well as professional historians are being obtuse. Recognising this as a political agenda less than a scholarly or scientific, they also are aware of the international convention, which should make politicians pause. Fundamentally the general rule since the 1954 Hague Convention has been that art-works acquired legally before WW2 are not redeemable. Should a court be asked to rule in questions of restitution, four questions should be raised:

  • How important is the art to the national pride of a claiming entity? Or the “soothing of national injury”)
  • Was the looting illegal when it occurred?
  • What is the current prevailing public opinion about the morality of the theft?
  • How will returning the works of art affect the international art community and art scholars?

Whether or not the particular horn(s) may be said to be important to the Norwegian national pride is of course not easy to decide. In these populist times it is easy to whip up a feeling of national bereavement even if the historical facts does not fit the bill. Yet, one might at least point to the fact that the entire history of the two horns expresses the fluid social landscape of the Scandinavian elite in the fourteenth century more than any precise royal connection. Further: if the horns were “looted”, it took place in the 18th century and via Iceland; and not as part of a war. As such, the horns were described in connection with the official report on the national Icelandic treasures in Danish collections, which later led to the return of the famous manuscripts. In this report, it was noted that the horn(s) did not originate in Iceland. Hence, they should not be returned, was the conclusion in 1951. It thus seems farfetched to claim that any obvious theft took place. Finally, the returning of the horns would in no way affect the international art community. The horns are on permanent view as well as available for even long-term loans and scholarly as well as scientific studies, as the National Museum in Copenhagen has said

More than anything, it just seems as if (some) Norwegian curators wish they possessed such horns in their national collection. And voiced their irritation  perhaps at a conference or dinner in Oslo. This ignited the fantasy of Asle Toje, who started a media-storm.

The political character of the “demand” is revealed by the fact that the proper candidate for the title: the Royal Horn of Norway, should – if at all – fall to the second and smaller horn, which might perhaps have had a more “royal” connection. The history of the horns, though, show that their role was probably much more to be re-circulated inside a Scandinavian elite-group operating and owning land across the national boundaries. In this perspective, the horns belong as much to Danish history as to Norwegian.


Om de såkalte norske kongshornen I København.
Af Widar Halén
I. Morgenbladet 31. Januar 2018

Det norske “kongehorn” i det danske Nationalmuseum.
By Thor B. Kielland
In: Aabøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie 1935, pp.129 – 154

Det norske “kongehorn” – et svar og nogle nye tolkningsforsøg.
By J. Storer Clouston
In: Aabøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie (1937), p. 254 – 268

Drikkehorn of Hallgrim Guldsme
By Jorunn Fossberg and Widar Halén
In: Arvesølvet – Norsk sølv i tusen år p. 22 – 23
Orfeus 1997
(English edition: Norway’s Silver Heritage, Oslo 1997)

Hr. Jon Marteinsson til Sørum – en svenske med suksess I Norge. En aristokrats politiske og sosiale vilkår I Norge rundt år 1400.
Erik Opsahl
In: Middelalderen på Romerike, årbok XIX, 1998

Mapping the limits of Repatriable Cultural Heritage: A Case study of Stolen Flemish Art in French Museums
By Paige S. Goodwin
In: University of Pennsylvania Law Review (2008) Vol 157: 673 – 705

Betænkning vedrørende de I Danmark beroende Islandske Håndskrifter og Museumsgenstande.
Afgivet af den af Undervisningsministeriet under 13. Marts 1947 nedsatte Kommission.
Schultz 1951


The Story of the Dinking Horn. Drinking Culture in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages.
By Vivian Etting
Nationalmuseet 2013







Eufemia. Norges middelalderdronning af Bjørn Bandlien 2012 CoverEufemia. Oslos middelalderdronning.
Ed. by Bjørn Bandlien
Oslo/Dreyers forlag 2012.