He was born on December 8, 1832 at the farmstead of Bjørgen in Kvikne, a remote village in the Østerdal district, some sixty miles south of Trondheim. In 1837 his father, who had been pastor of Kvikne, was transferred to the parish of Nesset, in Romsdal; in this romantic district the childhood of Bjørnson was spent. After some teaching at the neighbouring town of Molde, he was sent at the age of seventeen to a well-known school in Christiania to study for the university; his instinct for poetry was already awakened, and indeed he had written verses from his eleventh year. He matriculated at the university of Christiania in 1852, and soon began to work as a journalist, especially as a drama critic.
In 1857 he published Synnøve Solbakken, the first of Bjørnson's peasant novels; in 1858 this was followed by Arne, in 1860 by En glad gut (A Happy Boy), and in 1868 by Fiskerjenten (The Fisher Maiden). These are the most important specimens of his bonde-fortellinger or peasant-tales — a section of his literary work which has made a profound impression in his own country, and has made him popular throughout the world. Two of the tales, Arne and Synnøve Solbakken, offer perhaps finer examples of the pure peasant-story than are to be found elsewhere in literature.
Bjørnson was anxious "to create a new saga in the light of the peasant," as he put it, and he thought this should be done, not merely in prose fiction, but in national dramas or folke-stykker. The earliest of these was a one-act piece the scene of which is laid in the 12th century, Mellom slagene (Between the Battles), written in 1855, but not produced until 1857. He was especially influenced at this time by the study of Baggesen and Oehlenschläger, during a visit to Copenhagen 1856—1857. Mellom slagene was followed by Halte Hulda (Lame Hulda) in 1858, and Kong Sverre (Kong Sverre) in 1861. All these efforts, however, were far excelled by the splendid trilogy of Sigurd Slembe (Sigurd the Bastard), which Bjørnson published in 1862. This raised him to the front rank among the younger poets of Europe.
At the close of 1857 Bjørnson had been appointed director of the theatre at Bergen, a post which he held, with much journalistic work, for two years, when he returned to the capital. From 1860 to 1863 he travelled widely throughout Europe. Early in 1865 he undertook the management of the Christiania theatre, and brought out his popular comedy of De Nygifte (The Newly Married) and his romantic tragedy of Mary Stuart in Scotland. Although Bjørnson has introduced into his novels and plays songs of extraordinary beauty, he was never a very copious writer of verse; in 1870 he published his Poems and Songs and the epic cycle called Arnljot Gelline; the latter volume contains the magnificent ode called Bergliot, Bjørnson's finest contribution to lyrical poetry.
Between 1864 and 1874, in the very prime of life, Bjørnson displayed a slackening of the intellectual forces very remarkable in a man of his energy; he was indeed during these years mainly occupied with politics, and with his business as a theatrical manager. This was the period of Bjørnson's most fiery propaganda as a radical agitator. In 1871 he began to supplement his journalistic work in this direction by delivering lectures over the length and breadth of the northern countries. He possessed to a surprising degree the arts of the orator, combined "with a magnificent physical prestige".
From 1874 to 1876 Bjørnson was absent from Norway, and in the peace of voluntary exile he recovered his imaginative powers.His new departure as a dramatic author began with En fallit (A Bankruptcy) and Redaktøren (The Editor) in 1874, social dramas of an extremely modern and realistic cast.
The poet now settled on his estate of Aulestad in Gausdal. In 1877 he published another novel, Magnhild, an imperfect production, in which his ideas on social questions were seen to be in a state of fermentation, and gave expression to his republican sentiments in the polemical play called Kongen (The King), to a later edition of which he prefixed an essay on "Intellectual Freedom", in further explanation of his position. Kaptejn Mansana (Captain Mansana), an episode of the war of Italian independence, belongs to 1878.
Extremely anxious to obtain a full success on the stage, Bjørnson concentrated his powers on a drama of social life, Leonarda (1879), which raised a violent controversy. A satirical play, De ny system (The New System), was produced a few weeks later. Although these plays of Bjørnson's second period were greatly discussed, none of them (except A Bankruptcy) pleased on the boards.
When once more he produced a social drama, En handske (A Gauntlet), in 1883, he was unable to persuade any manager to stage it, except in a modified form, though this play gives the full measure of his power as a dramatist. In the autumn of the same year, Bjbrnson published a mystical or symbolic drama Over Ævne (Beyond our Powers), dealing with the abnormal features of religious excitement with extraordinary force; this was not acted until 1899, when it achieved a great success.
Meanwhile, Bjørnson's political opinions had brought upon him a charge of high treason, and he took refuge for a time in Germany, returning to Norway in 1882. Convinced that the theatre was practically closed to him, he turned back to the novel, and published in 1884, Det flager i byen og paa havnen (Flags are Flying in Town and Port), embodying his theories on heredity and education. In 1889 he printed another long and still more remarkable novel, Paa Guds veje (In God's Way), which is chiefly concerned with the same problems. The same year saw the publication of a comedy, Geografi og kjærlighet (Geography and Love), which met with success.
A number of short stories, of a more or less didactic character, dealing with startling points of emotional experience, were collected and published 1894. Later plays were a political tragedy called Paul Lange og Tora Parsberg (1898), a second part of Over Ævne (Beyond our Powers II) (1895), Laboremus (1901), På Storhove (At Storhove) (1902), and Daglannet (Dag's Farm) (1904). In 1899, at the opening of the National Theatre, Bjørnson received an ovation, and his saga-drama of Sigurd the Crusader was performed.
A subject which interested him greatly, and on which he occupied his indefatigable pen, was the question of the bondemaal, the adopting of a national language for Norway distinct from the dansk-norsk (Dano-Norwegian), in which most Norwegian literature has hitherto been written. Bjørnson's strong and sometimes rather narrow patriotism did not blind him to what was considered the fatal folly of such a proposal, and his lectures and pamphlets against the målstræv in its extreme form were very effective.
Bjørnson had done as much as any other man to rouse Norwegian national feeling, but in 1903, on the verge of the rupture between Norway and Sweden, he preached conciliation and moderation to the Norwegians.
He died on the April 26, 1910 in Paris, where for some years he had always spent his winters, and was buried at home with every mark of honour and regret, a Norwegian warship having been sent to convey his remains back to his own land.