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HISTORY OF DENMARK
 
 


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Lutheran Denmark, Norway and Iceland: 1536-1550

The nobles of Denmark's electoral council, the rigsraad, depose Christian II in 1523 and elect to the throne his uncle Frederick, duke of Schleswig-Holstein. Frederick I rarely visits his kingdom of Denmark. But when he does so, the rigsraad is alarmed to observe that he appears to sympathize with the Lutheran heresy.

On his death in 1533 the Catholic majority in the rigsraad attempts to withhold the crown from Frederick's son, Christian, who is known to be an even more committed Lutheran. The result is a civil war, which ends in Christian's favour.
 









Christian III becomes king of Denmark (and with it Norway and Iceland) in July 1536 after capturing Copenhagen. He immediately arrests the Catholic bishops, confiscates their property and dissolves the monasteries. Vast funds flow into the royal exchequer.

In October of that same year the Danish Lutheran Church is formally established. Next it is the turn of Norway, whose monasteries bring the crown further riches. The Norwegian Lutheran Church is in existence by 1539. Iceland resists a little longer, but it too is Lutheran by 1550. Brought to the new faith in a few short years, on the personal conviction of one powerful ruler, all three countries nevertheless remain firmly Lutheran.
 







When Christian III dies, in 1559, Denmark is stable, prosperous and well placed to play a commanding role in the affairs of the Baltic - to which it literally holds the key. The entire southern and western coast of the Scandinavian peninsula, from modern Karlskrona all the way to Oslo, is part of the Danish kingdom.

This gives Denmark a potential stranglehold on the other new Lutheran kingdom of the north. The only access which Sweden has to the North Sea, without her ships having to sail through narrow Danish waters, is from one harbour close to modern Göteborg. Warfare between Denmark and Sweden over the southern part of the peninsula becomes a feature of the next two centuries.
 






Denmark and Sweden: 1523-1574

Control of the Baltic, and of its entrance through the narrow Sound, first becomes an issue between Denmark and Sweden after the separation of the two kingdoms in 1523. The Swedish king Gustavus I makes plain his ambitions in the Baltic when he founds Helsinki, in 1550, as a trading post for the natural resources of Finland.

From 1559 a new king on the Danish throne, Frederick II, takes an aggressive stance by controlling the passage of foreign ships through the Sound - thus potentially severing Sweden's main channel of trade. Denmark's action is feasible because the Sound is only three miles wide at its narrowest point, and at this period both shores are part of the Danish kingdom.
 









By 1563 Denmark and Sweden are at war over the issue. The conflict lasts until 1570, becoming known as the Seven Years' War of the North. It achieves no territorial gain for either side, but Denmark wins international recognition of certain Danish rights over the narrow waterway.

After the war, ended by the peace of Stettin, it is accepted that Denmark may levy a toll on ships passing through the Sound. To ensure collection of the payment, Frederick II builds (from 1574) the world's most impressive tollbooth - the great Renaissance castle of Kronborg at Elsinore, overlooking the narrowest part of the channel. The toll is collected until 1857. Meanwhile, in the 17th century, Denmark intervenes rashly in the Thirty Years' War.
 






An unwise excursion: 1625-1627

Denmark's next major military campaign is less successful. The turmoil in Germany during the Thirty Years' War tempts the Danish king, Christian IV, to join in. As a Lutheran monarch, he has good cause to support Protestant states in north Germany under threat from Catholic neighbours. He is also eager to keep Catholics away from the Baltic. He has been promised a subsidy by England if he intervenes in Germany's wars. And he is interested in extending his own territory southwards to the estuaries of the Elbe and the Weser.

In May 1625 he marches into Germany.
 









Christian IV is an unskilled commander, and he has the misfortune to have ranged against him the two most experienced generals of the age. Tilly commands the Bavarian army on behalf of the Catholic League. Wallenstein is at the head of the separate imperial army which he has raised for Ferdinand II.

Christian's first defeat is at the hands of Tilly, at Lutter in August 1626. Between them, Tilly and Wallenstein then drive the Danes north, clearing them from the Baltic coast, pursing them into the peninsula of Denmark and eventually confining Christian IV and his army to the Danish islands.
 






Swedish and Danish wars: 1643-1660

After losing much of his territory to the Catholic armies of the empire in 1627, the Danish king Christian IV recovers them in the peace of Lübeck in 1629. This is thanks partly to the support of his fellow Lutheran monarch, Gustavus II of Sweden. But it is the last occasion in this century when there is any cooperation between the Baltic kingdoms.

Between 1643 and 1660 they engage in two wars, both of which bring great advantage to Sweden.
 









The first begins in 1643 when the Swedish general Lennart Torstensson makes a lightning raid from the south and occupies Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland. The conclusion of that campaign, agreed in the peace of Brömsebro in 1645, is that Denmark cedes to Sweden the Baltic islands of Gotland and Ösel and part of the mainland north of the Baltic. She also exempts from tolls in the Sound all goods destined for Swedish territories.

The second war, beginning in 1657, is initiated by Denmark. The Swedish king, Charles X, is engaged in a war against Poland. Frederick III of Denmark hopes to use the opportunity to recover some of the lost Danish territory. The result is the opposite of what he intends.
 








Charles X, repeating Torstensson's tactic of an attack from the south, occupies Jutland in the autumn of 1657. He follows this with an extremely bold move. A cold spell early in 1658 freezes the sea between peninsular Denmark and the islands. Charles marches his army across the ice to the island of Sjaelland on which Copenhagen stands.

On this occasion the Danes rapidly yield (though the citizens of Copenhagen resolutely withstand a Swedish siege later in 1658). In terms finally agreed in Copenhagen in 1660 Denmark cedes a region of immense strategic value to Sweden - the Skåne provinces at the southern end of the Swedish peninsula. This brings to an end Denmark's control of both shores of the Sound.
 







A new ancien régime: 1660-1788

The humiliations and expense of the recent war lead to a constitutional revolution in Denmark. The powerful and privileged nobles are blamed for much of the crisis, yet even now they are reluctant to forgo their exemption from taxes. By contrast the king, Frederick III, is popular with the citizens of Copenhagen (he has led them in the siege of 1658). So there is pressure from the other two estates, the clergy and the commons, for political reform.

When Frederick III was elected king, in 1648, he had to accept a charter from parliament limiting his powers. Now the proposal is that he should reign as an absolute monarch, on the pattern of Louis XIV in France.
 









The nobles yield to the pressure for reform. In October 1660 the three estates release Frederick III from the terms of his coronation charter and acclaim him as a hereditary monarch. In January 1661 a document is distributed, for signature by all prominent citizens, granting the king absolute power.

This concept is enshrined in a constitution of 1665, known as the Kongeloven (King's Law), which confers the same degree of power on Frederick's heirs, charging them only with two specific duties - to keep the Danish kingdom undivided, and to ensure that Denmark remains Lutheran.
 







For another five generations, to the end of the 18th century, the Danish crown passes from father to son - in an unbroken line alternating the names Frederick and Christian in each successive generation. The first four successors of Frederick III use their absolute power responsibly and even timidly (two of the four are extremely pious). Denmark does not greatly prosper under their guidance, but there are minor gains.

Frederick IV intervenes twice in the Northern War, briefly and disastrously in 1700 but with more success in 1709-20 when Sweden's fortunes are low. The treaty of Frederiksborg in 1720 brings the duchy of Schleswig into the hands of the Danish crown.
 







Denmark maintains neutrality in the later wars of the 18th century, bringing benefits in trade. But in rural Denmark the condition of the peasants deteriorates. Agricultural profitability is low, and the Danish crown appeases the landowners by binding the peasants to the land in conditions approximating to serfdom. Absolute monarchy has resulted in elements of a medieval society.

This leads to rapid change after a coup d'état in the fifth reign of the 18th century. Unlike his ancestors, Christian VII is feeble, debauched and mentally unstable. In 1784 his 16-year-old son, the future Frederick VI, takes power in a move planned with members of his father's cabinet.
 







Sweeping reforms are introduced in 1788 by the crown prince Frederick and his ministers. Peasants are emancipated, being allowed now to move at will and to work for any employer, with the opportunity of acquiring their own freehold plot of land. Educational measures are introduced, and systems of poor relief.

The resulting liberation of Danish agriculture leads to rapid improvements in productivity. And with Europe on the brink of a mighty war, Denmark's policy of neutrality makes it well placed to profit from the hostilities. But even neutrality brings its dangers.
 






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