Golden moments in Danish History

An overview of Danish expansions and reductions

At the end of the last glacial period, which was about 11,700 years ago people slowly moved into what we now know as Demark. That doesn’t mean that Denmark emerged as a fully-fledged country: there’s no mention of the Danes until 500 AD. In the 8th – to the 10th Century we know of about eighteen kings, but Gorm the Old was the first recognized King of the Danish area. His son, Harald I Bluetooth took over in 958. The monk Popo convinced Harald to convert, and in the upshot Harald Christianised the Danes.

I won’t go into every detail of the Danish kings, but there are certain periods and personalities of interest, notably Canute the Great. In the summer of 1015, Canute set sail for England with a Danish army of nine to ten-thousand, in two-hundred longboats. The army included Vikings from all over Scandinavia. They fought Edmund Ironside and finally conquered him on the eighteenth October of 1016. Edmund and Canute met to negotiate the terms of peace near Deerhurst. They agreed that Canute should reign over England north of the Thames until Edmund’s death, when Canute would ascend to the throne. Canute was crowned King of England at Christmas that year and reigned for nearly two decades. In 1018 Canute went to Denmark to affirm his succession to the Danish crown. He stayed two years before returning to England. Canute presented himself as a religious man, even though he maintained a sinful relationship with two wives. Also, he has no qualms about treating his fellow Christian opponents harshly.

In 1027 his reign over England and a large part of Scandinavia was stable enough to allow him to witness the accession of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. After Canute’s death Denmark fell into a period of disorder with a power struggle between the pretender to the throne Sweyn Estridsson, son of Ulf, and the Norwegian king. If his sons hadn’t died within a decade after Canute’s death, his reign might well have been the foundation for a political union between England and Scandinavia, a North Sea Empire with blood ties to the Holy Roman Empire.

Jumping ahead to 1157, Valdemar the Great ascended to the Danish throne. His reign ended a long period of intern squabbles. He fought the Wends, who had taken advantage of the previous unrest caused by a weak government to invade the Southern parts of Denmark. Conquering the main Wend city, Waldemar seized Rügen and drove the Wends out of Denmark.

Later Valdemar entrusted his friend and foster brother Bishop Absalon with the fortress at Hafn, later known as København (Copenhagen). Waldemar’s chronicler was Saxo Grammaticus, author of Gesta Danorum, known as Achievements of the Danes. For the next hundred years Denmark was a prosperous kingdom.

The Baltic empire didn’t last.

In 1223 Henrik of Schwerin captured Valdemar the Victorious. In ransom Valdemar gave up his North German territories. Valdemar turned his attention to legislation and his ‘Jutland-law’ is still the basis for Danish lawgiving.

Things went from bad to worse and, in 1252 Denmark was literally open for assaults from North German princes. Seven years later Erik the fifth, known as Erik Klipping (the cropper) kept his throne, but had to sign a charter forced on him by Danish nobles. He devaluated the legal tender. But it didn’t help him. On the 22 of November 1286, a few of Erik’s closest vassals murdered him in his sleep. That was the last regicide in Denmark, so far.

Afterwards nothing worked for years and by 1332 most of the country was pawned. Also, there was no king until the next Valdemar Atterdag (his nickname is best translated as ’tomorrow is another day’) ended an eight-year long interregnum. Perhaps, the plague of 1351 helped Valdemar, re-conquest parts of the lost territory. He managed to redeem the rest of the mortgaged country and showed his diplomacy in dealings with his peers.

After Valdemar’s death without male offspring, his five-year old grandson, Oluf came to the throne. His mother Margrethe ruled for him, and stayed on after Oluf’s death. Margrethe the First was a successful regent. Her greatest achievement was the Kalmar Union, in which she united Scandinavia. Norway came to Denmark through Oluf, who was the next in line when Hakon the sixth died, and Sweden preferred Margrethe to the alternative, the unpopular King Albrecht of Mecklenburg.

Unfortunately, the cooperation soured, as Denmark too advantage of its position at the helm of the union. The problem came to a head when Christian the Second, chopped the head of several Swedish bishops in 1523. Sweden pulled out of the Union when Gustav Vasa celebrated his victory over Christian the Second. Norway remained with Denmark, but Christian lost the throne, and ended his life imprisoned for 27 years, first in Sønderborg Castle until 1549, and afterwards at the castle of Kalundborg.

Christian the fourth was a true renaissance king. He engaged the best musicians and built castles all over the place. On the other hand, his foreign policy was disastrous. His engagement in the thirty-years’ war and his skirmishes with Gustav Adolph of Sweden cost the country territory in Schleswig as well as in Sweden. All the same, he remains one of the most popular kings in Danish history.

Frederik the Third became the first absolute monarch in Denmark. That didn’t stop the Swedish king Charles X from invade Danish territory on the 17th July 1658. The war raged back and forth, notably through the icy winter of 1657. That was Gustav Adolph’s chance, because the straits between Jutland, Fyn and Zeeland froze. His army walked from Fredericia to Korsør and mounted a siege of Copenhagen.  Frederik stayed there prepared ‘to die in his nest’, and leading the defence of the city. The invasion went on for two years lasted until 1660, when Denmark ceded Scania, Halland and Blekinge to Sweden.

By this time Denmark was sorely reduced, but worse was to come.

Hundred years of war plague and bad economy took its toll, but eventually things became better. In 1750 a general economic improvement in Europe helped considerably. Also, Denmark managed to stay neutral in the various skirmishes. The only drawback was an insane monarch: Frederik the Seventh. His personal physician Struensee gained vast power and influenced the realm considerably. At the same time, he fell in love with the queen Caroline Amalie, and their love affair eventually caused Struensee’s downfall. His life ended with a traitor’s death, broken on the wheel.

The French revolution didn’t change much for Denmark, especially as serfdom was abolished in 1788. In the war following the revolution, Denmark tried to remain neutral, but that gave Nelson an excuse to bomb Copenhagen and demolish the Danish navy. Ultimately, Frederik the Sixth admiration for Napoleon resulted in Denmark losing Norway, which went to Sweden through the former Marshal Bernadotte, present king Charles XIV John of Sweden.

Sorely reduced, but still holding Greenland, Iceland the Faroe Islands, as well as territories in India (Tranquebar), The Caribbean St Thomas, St Jan, and St Croix), and Afrika (Ghana), Denmark went bankrupt in 1813. The oversea territory was sold, and Denmark became a small and poor country.

So, the people of this insignificant country shook themselves and went about life. What emerged? A period, where Danish culture blossomed like never before. Young talents flourished in architecture (M.G. Bindesbøll), ballet (August Bournonville), poetry (N.F.S. Grundtvig), literature (Hans Christian Andersen), visual arts (C.W. Eckersberg & Bertel Thorvaldsen), and philosophy (Søren Kierkegaard). The nineteenth century became a golden age through the national crisis.

Out of this golden age evolved a new political awareness, which finally resulted in demands for freedom and liberty:  on the fifth of June 1845, Frederik the Seventh signed Denmark’s new constitution and turned Denmark into a constitutional monarchy.

Around this time, people in Schleswig-Holstein began to clamour for their rights. In Holstein the majority was of German descent, they spoke German and felt they belonged to the German empire. Likewise, in Schleswig, but here the majority was of Danish descent. Still, there were many German speakers, and they felt like the people of Holstein. Out of this nationalistic conflict started the first Schleswig-Holstein war. The Danes won this time round.

Drunk with victory, Denmark decided to boot out Holstein, and integrate Schleswig. This was a clear breach of the London Protocol of 1852, and Otto von Bismarck declared war. The result was another catastrophe for Denmark. Reduced to its smallest size ever, the Danish border moved north to Kongeå south of Kolding. A conservative government took over from the national liberals.

Hvad udad tabes skal indad vindes (what’s lost outwards must be won inwards). Farmers everywhere worked harder, new land was ploughed up, especially on the heath in central Jutland. Denmark increased its crop export, primarily to England. Most towns expanded, and new railways spread everywhere. All in all, Denmark prospered. As a result of the industrialization, a new worker community grew, and eventually that brought Denmark democracy in 1901. Also, the Danish women gained the right to vote, but that didn’t happen before 1915, on the fifth of June.

During the Great War, Denmark remained neutral.

The German defeat paved the way for a plebiscite in South Jutland and the reunification with a large part of the territory lost in 1864. There’s still a Danish minority south of the Danish/German border and a German minority north of it.

© HMH, 2018

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