Composed of a flat and sandy peninsula and a cluster of islands, Denmark is tiny. But despite its small size, its strategic position at the mouth of the Baltic has made Denmark one of the most coveted terrains in the world. Consequently, Denmark's struggles to secure its sovereignty and independence from the larger, stronger military forces that surround it on every side have repeatedly shaped Danish history. And although modern Danes are somewhat embarrassed when confronted with their country's militaristic past, Denmark used to be known as a fiercely aggressive nation, jockeying for territory, prestige, and strategic advantage with other empire-building nations such as England, Austria, and the precursors of modern-day Germany.
Prehistoric Denmark & the Romans
The mystery that surrounds early Denmark stems from the fact that the Romans and their legions never managed to transform it into a colony. Consequently, while former Roman provinces like France and Germany were depicted by numerous historians, including Julius Caesar himself, little was ever recorded about ancient Denmark. There is evidence of early trade. Amber found only in the Baltic has been identified within Egyptian jewelry, and some historians cite Danish trade with the Eastern Mediterranean, in which the Danes exchanged fur and slaves for bronze utensils and gold jewelry.
Concentrations of bones from various grave sites, and stone implements that archaeologists estimate at 80,000 years old, have been unearthed in regions of Jutland, but despite those discoveries, Denmark has never produced the wealth of archaeological finds that are commonplace, say, in Greece, Italy, or Egypt. Part of the reason might stem from the great ice sheets that made much of Denmark uninhabitable for thousands of years.
Later, as the ice sheets receded northward, hunter-gatherers eked out a modest living. Their communal grave sites and the stone dolmens that mark their entrances show proficiency at erecting stone lintels and markers.
Ironically, the high acid and iron content within Denmark's peat bogs has had the macabre effect of preserving the bodies of at least 160 unfortunates, all of whom died violently, in some cases many thousands of years ago, and all of whom appear to have been unceremoniously dumped into bogs. Among the most famous of these is the well-preserved, 2,400-year-old body of the Tollund Man, who was probably strangled to death, and whose body was discovered in the 1950s in a Jutland peat bog. His body revealed some clues about what life was like in prehistoric Denmark: A wool cap covered his head, stubble on his chin and cheeks indicated that the fashion at the time involved shaving, and the remains in his stomach showed that his last meal consisted mostly of barley.
As for literary references, other than a few cryptic comments that appear within such early English sagas as Beowulf, and the cryptic descriptions by the medieval Scandinavian historian Saxo Grammaticus of a long line of (otherwise undocumented) early medieval Danish warlords, there isn't a lot of documentation about post-Roman Denmark. Historians conclude that Denmark was a land of frequent migrations, frequent annihilations of one tribal unit by another, and continual changeovers of the racial texture of the peninsula as one tribe of people was either annihilated or ousted by others.
Vikings Terrorize Europe
Denmark developed a reputation for violence as the Vikings ravaged regions of central and southern Europe.
So, ironically, the country with one of the most peaceful reputations in Europe today was originally a hell-raising land that, along with such other Viking areas as Norway and Sweden, was associated with terror for the rest of Europe. Lustfully pagan and undeterred by the belief that Christian churches and monasteries were sanctified, they exacted rich plunder from whatever monastery or convent they happened to judge as weak enough to be attractive.
Their longboats were especially feared: Measuring about 18m (60 ft.) from the dragon-shaped prow to stern, longboats were powered by 30 oars and a sail. They were still light enough, however, that their crews could drag them across land, thereby "hopping" from rivers to lakes, across sandbars, and across isthmuses that would otherwise have been unnavigable. It's no small wonder that the Danes would eventually become proficient as both mariners and traders.
Through rape and intermarriage, the Vikings mingled bloodlines with future English, French, Germans, and Russians. Despite the mayhem they unleashed on conquered lands, Vikings brought with them regimented rituals; for example, unlike most European peoples at the time, they bathed every Sunday, regardless of temperature or weather.
The most distinct threat to Danish territoriality came from Charlemagne, whose Frankish empire covered what is today France and Germany. If Charlemagne hadn't focused most of his territorial ambitions on richer, more fertile lands in central Europe and Spain, it's likely that what's known today as Denmark would have become a vassal state of the Franks. As it was, the Franks only took a slight imperial interest in Jutland. Godfred, the first recorded Danish king, died in 810 after spending most of his reign battling the Franks.
Godfred's successor, Hemming, signed a treaty with the Franks marking the Eider River, an east-west stream that flanks southern Jutland, as the southern boundary of his sovereignty. That boundary functioned more or less as the Danish border until 1864.
Two famous kings emerged from Denmark during the 10th century, Gorm the Old (883-940) and his son, Harald Bluetooth (935-85). Their reigns resulted in the unification of Denmark with power centralized at Jelling in Jutland. Harald, through the hard work of a core of Christian missionaries trained in Frankish territories to the south (especially in Hamburg), also introduced Christianity, which eventually became the country's predominant religion. As part of his attempt to obliterate Denmark's pagan past, he transformed his father's tomb, which honored a roster of pagan gods and spirits, into a site of Christian worship.
Harald eventually extended Danish influence as far as neighboring Norway. The links he established between Denmark and Norway weren't severed, at least politically, until the 1800s. Harald's son, Sweyn I, succeeded in conquering England in 1013, more than 50 years before the Norman invasion in 1066. The Normans, ironically, were also of Danish origin, through invasions several centuries before.
Under Sweyn's son, Canute II (994-1035), England, Denmark, and part of Sweden came under the rule of one crown. After Canute's death, however, the Danish kingdom was reduced to only Denmark. Canute's nephew, Sweyn II, ruled the Danish kingdom, and, upon his death, his five sons governed Denmark successfully. In 1104, the foundation was laid for a Danish national church that was distinct from the ecclesiastical administration in Hamburg.
The Baltic: A Danish "Lake"
The few remaining links between Denmark and the Frankish Holy Roman Empire were severed under Archbishop Eskil (1100-82) and King Valdemar I (1131-82). During a celebration at Ringsted in 1190, the Danish church and state were united, partly because of the influence of Archbishop Absalon (1128-1201), a soldier and statesman who is honored today as the patron saint of Copenhagen. Inspired by monarchical ideas, Absalon became a fierce and militaristic guardian of Danish independence. The hostilities became a religious confrontation, pitting the Christian Danes against the pagans to the south, as well as a territorial conflict. Absalon's most dramatic disfigurement of a pagan god occurred on the now-German island of Rügen around 1147, when he chopped Svantevit, the four-headed wooden figure, into little pieces and distributed them as firewood among his nominally Christian soldiers.
In 1169, Denmark began what would evolve into a long series of conquests that increased its sphere of influence within city-states along the Baltic, including the ports of Estonia (which was conquered by the Danes in 1219), Latvia, eastern Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia. Part of Denmark's military and mercantile success derived from the general weakness of the German states to the south; part of it was because of a population explosion within Denmark, which increased the pressure for colonization.
Valdemar II (1170-1241) strengthened Denmark's control over the Baltic and came close to transforming it into a Danish lake. Grateful for their help, he ennobled many of his illegitimate sons and empowered many of his military cohorts with aristocratic titles and rewarded them with land.
The result was a weakening of the monarchy in favor of an increasingly voracious group of nobles, whose private agendas conflicted with those of the king. Valdemar's son, Eric IV (1216-50), also known as Eric Ploughpenny, argued with church bishops and with his brothers over royal prerogatives, and was assassinated by his younger brother, Duke Abel of Schleswig, who proclaimed himself king of Denmark in 1250.
Civil wars ensued, and three of the four successive kings were killed in battle. Eric VI (1274-1319) also waged wars with Norway and Sweden, which led to Denmark's debilitation and the mortgaging of large parcels of the kingdom to pay for unsuccessful military campaigns.
Between 1332 and 1340, Denmark had no king and was ruled by an uneasy coalition of nobles. Valdemar IV Atterdag (1320-75) retained his grip on the Danish throne only by signing the peace treaty of Stralsund in 1370 with the towns of the Hanseatic League (a federation of free towns in northern Germany and adjoining countries formed around 1241 for economic advancement and mutual protection). Its enactment did a lot to improve the fortunes of the city-states of the Hanseatic League, as it granted them enviable commercial privileges. The resulting prosperity of the Hanseatic League led to architectural enhancements, whose effects were visible all around the Baltic.
A United Scandinavia
Valdemar IV died in 1375, leaving Denmark without a male heir. Finally, Olaf (1375-87), the infant son of Valdemar's daughter Margrethe, through her marriage with King Haakon VI Magnusson (1339-80) of Norway, came to the throne. (Through a complicated chain of bloodlines, the infant Olaf was the nominal heir to all of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.)
During Olaf's infancy, Margrethe ruled the country as regent. When her husband, Haakon, and 12-year-old Olaf both died, she was acknowledged as queen of Norway and Denmark. A patroness of the arts and a savvy administrator of the national treasury, she was eventually granted wide political leeway in Sweden.
Although the three nations had already been combined under the stewardship of Margrethe, they were merged into a united Scandinavia in 1397 as The Union of Kalmar. One of the largest political unions since the collapse of the Roman Empire, it extended from Iceland and the fledging communities in Greenland as far east as the western coast of Finland. It included the entire Danish archipelago as well as the Faroe, Shetland, and Orkney islands.
Acknowledging her advanced age and the need for a male figurehead at the reigns of power, Margrethe arranged for her nephew, Eric of Pomerania (1382-1459), to be crowned king of all three countries as Eric VII. Margrethe, however, firmly committed to the superiority of Denmark within the trio, continued to rule behind the scenes until her death in 1412. (A contemporary historian said of Margrethe's comportment at public events, "All the nobility of Denmark were seized by fear of the wisdom and strength of this lady.") Despite later attempts to expand the Scandinavian union to northeastern Germany, the concept of a united Scandinavia was never as far-reaching or powerful as it was under Margrethe. There were many 19th- and 20th-century visionaries who hoped in vain for the eventual unification of "the three separate nations of the Scandinavian north."
Margrethe's designated heir, Eric VII, was childless. He was dethroned in 1439 and replaced by his nephew Christopher of Bavaria. His reign lasted only about 9 years, after which Sweden pressed for autonomy. It elected Karl Knutson (Charles VIII) as its Stockholm-based king in 1471. Denmark and the relatively weak Norway shared King Christian I (1426-81). Although Christian I lost control of Sweden, he did gain sovereignty over Schleswig and Holstein, ancient territories to the south of modern-day Denmark. But it was a troubled and culturally ambiguous acquisition that would vex the patience of both Denmark and the German states for centuries, as its citizens waffled in their allegiances.
Throughout the rest of the 15th century, the Danish church accumulated great wealth, and the merchant class profited from increases in agricultural production. By around 1500, about 12,000 Danes were estimated to own their own farms; about 18,000 Danes operated farms on land leased by the Danish king, and some 30,000 Danes maintained lease lands belonging to either Danish nobles or the increasingly wealthy (tax-exempt) Catholic Church. Denmark became an exporter of foodstuffs, especially beef and grain, and livestock, especially horses.
The early 15th century marked a fundamental change in the definition of nobility. Prior to that, any Dane could become a noble by contributing a fully equipped private army, invariably composed of feudal-style serfs and vassals, to the king's war efforts. In exchange for this, he would be granted an exemption from all taxes generated by his estates. After around 1400, however, only nobles who could prove at least three generations of aristocratic lineage could define themselves as noble, with all the attendant privileges that such a title implied. With no new blood coming into the pool of Danish aristocrats, the number of noble families decreased from 264 to 140 between 1450 and 1650. Shakespeare borrowed the names of two of those families, the Rosencrantz and the Guildenstern, for his drama about the mythical Danish prince, Hamlet.
The 16th century also saw changes in Danish religious practice as critiques of Catholicism began to gain currency across Europe. One of Denmark's most devoted Reformation-era theologians was Paul Helgesen, a staunch opponent of the corruption of Denmark's church. He was appointed to a position of academic prominence within the University of Copenhagen in 1519 and was a particularly vocal critic of the idea of buying salvation through the sale of indulgences. Ironically, Martin Luther's break with the Catholic Church in 1521, from a base in nearby Germany, transformed the reputation of Paul Helgesen into something of an archconservative defender of Danish Catholicism.
The 16th Century
Christian II (1481-1559) ascended the throne in 1513. Sympathetic to the common man during his regency over the throne of Norway, he was mistrusted by conservative nobles. Their distrust was exacerbated by his commitment to seeking financial and military advice from commoners. He went so far as to turn over control of the kingdom's finances to his mistress's mother, Sigbrit Villoms, the frugal and canny widow of a Dutch burgher. A former alchemist, who claimed to have a telepathic hold over the king, she contributed to a reign alternating between bouts of genius and bouts of blood-soaked madness. Despite the massacre of more than 600 Danish and Swedish nobles in the "bloodbath of Stockholm" in 1520 and other violent atrocities, many Renaissance-style reforms were activated under Christian II's reign, without which Denmark might have erupted into full-fledged revolution.
Christian II recaptured Sweden in 1520 but was defeated by the Swedish warrior-king Gustavus Vasa a year later. Christian was deposed in 1522, whereupon he fled to the Netherlands. In the spring of 1532, he returned to Denmark, where he was incarcerated until his death, first in Sønderborg Castle and then in Kalundborg castle.
His successor, Frederik I (1471-1533), signed a charter granting the nobility many privileges. Under his regime, the Franciscans, an order of Roman Catholic monks, were expelled from their conspicuously wealthy houses of worship, and Lutheran ministers were granted the freedom to roam throughout Denmark preaching. Upon Frederik's death, the Reformation took earnest hold within Denmark. Conflicts between Lutherans and Catholics erupted in a civil war, with Catholic power centered in Copenhagen and with Lutherans mainly based on the islands of Funen and Jutland. The war ended in 1536 with the surrender of Copenhagen. In the process, vast Catholic-owned estates were forfeited to the Danish crown.
The Danish Lutheran Church was founded in 1536 during the reign of Christian III (1534-59). Before the end of the 1570s, Protestantism was firmly entrenched within Denmark. A Danish church organized in accordance with German Lutheran models ousted virtually every trace of Catholicism. Disciples of Martin Luther were brought in to organize the new Reformed Church of Denmark, which soon took on patriotic and nationalistic overtones, as hymn books, liturgies, and sermons were eventually conducted exclusively in vernacular Danish. As for the monarchy, its finances were vastly improved at the end of the Reformation thanks to its confiscation of the vast wealth formerly controlled by the Catholic Church.
Wars with Sweden
Much of the 17th century in Denmark was consumed with an ongoing series of wars with its archenemy, Sweden. Despite that, the reign of the Danish king Christian IV (1577-1648) was one of relative prosperity. The Danes worked hard, investing time and money in the development of their "overseas territory," Norway. That territory's capital, Christiania (now known as Oslo), was named after their king.
Sweden was understandably concerned about Denmark's control of the entrance to the Baltic, the sea on which Sweden and many members of the Hanseatic League depended. Denmark, thanks to its control of the narrow straits near Copenhagen, its ownership of such Baltic islands as Ösel and Gotland, and, in the Atlantic, its control of Iceland and the Faroe Islands, could be accused of being far more imperial than its size and present-day pacifism would imply.
Denmark continued to meddle in German and English politics throughout the 1600s, notably in the Thirty Years' War, which ripped apart the principalities of Germany.
Tensions between Denmark and Sweden also intensified during this period and were exacerbated by Sweden's emperor Charles V, who argued that Sweden held the right of succession to the Danish throne.
Sweden invaded Jutland and quickly defeated the Danes. Military scholars attribute the victory to Sweden's reliance on well-trained Swedish peasants who filled the ranks of the Swedish army. The Danes, in contrast, relied on paid, and less committed, mercenaries. By the Treaty of Christianople, Denmark was forced to cede to Sweden many of its former possessions, including scattered communities in Norway and the Baltic island of Gotland. Simultaneous with the loss of its territories in southern Sweden was the completion of two of Denmark's most-photographed castles: Frederiksborg, in Hillerød, and Rosenborg, in Copenhagen, both finished under the regime of Christian IV.
Danish king Frederik III (1609-70) tried to regain the lost territories when Sweden went to war with Poland, but Charles X defeated him. Frederik ended up giving Sweden additional territory, including the island of Bornholm. Charles X attacked Denmark in an attempt to take control of the whole country, but this time Denmark won, regaining its lost territories. Sweden ended the war after the death of Charles X in 1660.
The Skane War (1675-79) was an ill-advised military campaign started by the Danish king Christian V (1646-99). Its outcome included Denmark's loss of Skane, a valuable territory in southern Sweden, which, because of its architectural appeal, is known today as Sweden's "château country." After the signing of the peace treaty that ended the war, Denmark managed to retain its claim on the island of Bornholm and on cities in northern Norway, such as Trondheim.
Frederik IV (1671-1730), Christian V's successor, resumed the war with Sweden in 1699. Named the Great Northern War, it raged, more or less inconclusively, from 1699 to 1730. Southern Sweden was not recovered, but part of Schleswig-Holstein (northern Germany) was ceded to Denmark by the German states.
During the 18th century, Denmark achieved many democratic reforms. Thanks to its navy and its seasoned core of merchant vessels, it also gained control of a group of islands in the West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) as well as the barren, snowy expanse of Greenland. Agriculture and trade prospered, and Copenhagen developed into a quietly prosperous but formidable guardian of the western entrance of the Baltic Sea.
The 19th Century & the Napoleonic Wars
At the start of the Napoleonic wars, with France squarely opposed to most of the other nations of Europe, Denmark was engaged in a booming business of selling grain to both England and France. Despite the sweeping changes in the map of Europe engendered by Napoleon's military campaigns, Denmark strongly defended its right to remain neutral, and, as such, worked hard to ensure free passage of ships from other neutral nations within the Baltic.
This refusal to take sides, combined with the rich contracts that Danish merchants were able to acquire transporting supplies between hostile parties, infuriated England -- the sworn enemy of Napoleon's France. In 1801, fearing that Denmark's formidable navy might be persuaded to cooperate with the French, England destroyed part of the Danish fleet in a battle at sea.
In 1807, as the threat of Napoleon's conquest of Europe became more and more of a reality, in one of the most arrogant acts of coercion in 19th-century history, England ordered the Danes to transfer their navy to British rule within 8 days or be bombarded. When the Danes refused, English warships opened fire on Copenhagen and destroyed the city's cathedral, its university, and hundreds of homes. England's treatment of Denmark forced the youthful king Frederik VI (1808-39) to ally Denmark with France and the policies of Napoleon. Later, after all of Napoleon's European allies abandoned him, Denmark remained loyal.
This led to a series of humiliating disasters for Denmark, especially when Napoleon was roundly defeated by an alliance of European countries in 1814. Because of England's embargoes on Denmark and the destruction of many Danish ships, Denmark lost control over its overseas colony of Norway, and its trade came to an almost complete standstill after the loss of its navy.
At a treaty that was signed at Kiel the same year, Denmark was forced to yield Norway to Sweden and Heligoland to England. The only remaining gems in Denmark's once-mighty empire included Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.
Without a navy and crippled by huge debts and a loss of much of its prestige, Denmark sank into poverty. In 1813, the national treasury went bankrupt. Several years later, especially between 1818 and 1824, the price of grain virtually collapsed, which culminated in many farm failures and a massive exodus from Denmark to the New World. The country's precarious financial and military position also put a virtual end to any hope of liberal reforms.
Following the Napoleonic wars, the rulers Frederik VI and his successor, Christian VIII, formed very conservative governments. In 1848, as revolts and revolutions broke out across Europe, the Danes demanded a more liberal constitution. Representatives elected under a new constitution that was signed on June 5, 1849, tempered the absolute rule of the Danish monarchs.
The liberal reforms inaugurated in 1849 eventually applied to a smaller, more compact nation. In 1850, after a 2-year revolution, Schleswig-Holstein seceded from Denmark and allied itself with its German-speaking neighbor to the south, Prussia. After several years of indecisive referendums, military interventions, and the politicking of such European nations as Austria, Schleswig-Holstein was ceded to Prussia in 1866 under the Treaty of Prague.
On July 28, 1866, a new constitution was adopted, but it was more conservative than the earlier one (1849), and granted more power to those who paid the highest taxes -- in other words, the landowners.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Denmark's conservatives struggled against reform-minded liberals. Conservatives pledged to build up trade incentives and military fortifications around Copenhagen. In the event of war, liberals argued, most of the Danish countryside would be sacrificed to the invaders, and only Copenhagen would be defended.
Members of the left favored social reforms, a downsizing of the Danish army, and an official allegiance to political neutrality. Despite opposition, a process of liberalization continued apace with the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. In 1891, a system of old-age pensions was introduced; in 1892 came an early form of health insurance; and in 1899, funds were allocated for the acquisition of farmland by individuals who qualified for assistance from the Danish government.
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