|Chapter 1||Main index||Chapter 3|
|A brief history of Denmark
by Peter Ravn Rasmussen
|Chapter 2 : A.D. 800 - 1536|
|Denmark in the middle ages
A treaty of A.D. 811 sets the southern border of Denmark at the Ejder [Eider] river. The first mention of "Danmark" is made in the 880s. At this time, Denmark certainly included Skåne [Scania]; the islands of Fyn and Sjælland [Zealand] and ancillary lesser isles; Jylland [Jutland]; Viken, Bohuslen and Halland seem to have also been considered part of Denmark. Blekinge, on the other hand, was Swedish in the 880s. Later, when the border between the kingdoms was fixed, around 1050, Blekinge, Skåne and Halland were part of Denmark.
At various intervals, parts of Denmark were sundered from the whole. From 1332 until 1360, Skåne and Blekinge were Swedish (as was Halland, in the latter part of the period). The duchy of Sønderjylland [South Jutland], later known as Slesvig [Schleswig], which existed from around 1130, became independent around 1300, as a principality in vassalage to the Danish king. From 1375, the counts of German Holsten [Holstein] held the fief, the original line (a sept of the Danish royalty) having died out. In 1460, however, the holder of the fief was the Danish king, who simultaneously became count of Holsten and Stormarn (effectively uniting the region into a single political entity, Slesvig-Holsten, the fate of which was to play an integral part in Danish history until 1920).
Population and ethnic groups
From the evidence of characteristically Danish placenames, we know that the Danes have been resident within the limits of the "original" Denmark (including Slesvig and the various parts of Skåne) for about 2000 years.
From around A.D. 1000, a migration of Frisian settlers commenced into the SW parts of Slesvig, continuing throughout the middle ages. Shortly after the beginning of the Frisian migration, a corresponding German migration into Southern Slesvig commenced, and this migration accelerated in the 12th century. By the 16th century, the region below Slesvig (the town, not the duchy) was largely Germanized, though Danish (Jutlandic) law applied.
Sporadic migrations of Wends to the southern islands, particularly Lolland, in the 12th century, were not to have any lasting effects on the ethnic composition of those regions.
The viking-era expeditions resulted in a significant emigration. The expatriate vikings kept their original language, and Danish was still spoken in Normandy at the time of William the Conqueror. The Danish domains in England (the "Danelaw") were likewise home to many Danish-speakers (as witness many present-day placenames in that region). Later periods of Danish expansion were less significant, as far as emigration was concerned.
The population as a whole is generally estimated at around 1 million in 1231, but may have declined slightly prior to the Reformation in 1536.
International position and major political events
As a major player in the struggle to establish dominance over Holstein, Saxony, and Frisia from ca. 800 on, Denmark's main opponent was the Empire of the Franks, and later Germany (the eastern remnant of the Frankish Empire). Around 808, the fortification of Dannevirke ("Danewall") was constructed across part of South Jutland, in an apparent effort to stop rapid enemy troop movements north into Jutland (a perennial Danish military concern).
During this same period, Danish vikings made significant raids and outright conquests to the west and southwest. The Danish monarchy seems to have undergone a period of flux in the 10th century, with a short-lived Swedish dynasty (891-934) at Hedeby [Haithabu] in South Jutland, and possibly a brief German rule, ending in 983. This may be the basis for the claims of the greater Jelling runestone, according to which King Harald Blåtand [Harald Bluetooth] "won all of Denmark". With Danish dominance over Norway, and with the conquest of large parts of England in 1013 and the establishment of a Danish dynasty in England, the Danish monarchy was the dominant power of the North and Baltic Seas.
The Danish monarchy in England was not destined to last, however, being supplanted in 1042 - but not before King Knud den Store [Canute the Great] had used England as the base for four major military expeditions into the Nordic countries. For a brief period (until 1066) after the dissolution of the Danish-English united monarchy, Norway, now an independent kingdom, established dominance over Denmark. In consequence hereof, the main thrust of Danish foreign policy at this time was to the north and south, keeping hostile and expansive neighbours at bay. Meanwhile, close relations to the papal court were established, and Denmark was often favoured over Germany.
A failed naval venture under King Knud den Hellige [Canute the Holy] ended Danish hopes of westward expansion, and from this period on, Germany became the main foreign policy adversary of the Danish monarchy. From 1134 until 1184, Denmark at intervals recognized the German monarch as feudal suzerain.
From 1185, a Danish expansion commenced, thrusting into Northern Germany, annexing Ditmarsken, Holsten, Lauenburg, Mecklenburg, Venden [Wagria], and Pomerania. This expansionary phase came to a close with the defeat of Valdemar II "the Victorious" at the battle of Bornhøved in 1227. Portions of the region remained on Danish hands, however; Femern [Fehmarn] continued to be Danish for some time after 1227; Rygen [Rügen] from 1169 until 1348; and Northern Estonia from 1219 until 1346.
The gradual consolidation of the monarchies in Norway and Sweden brought these nations into periodic conflict with Denmark, and the North German cities played a recurring rôle in the complex game of trade alliances and power plays between the Nordic states. A brief period of attempted Danish expansion in North Germany, from 1301 to 1319, under King Erik VI Menved (whose curious cognomen derives from a common oath or exclamation), failed with the death of the king.
The new king, Christoffer II, mortgaged large parts of the Danish crown lands to the counts of Holstein. In concert with the Swedish monarchy, the Holstein counts secured an uneasy control over the kingdom, from 1332-1340. The restoration of the Danish monarchy under King Valdemar IV Atterdag, which took place over a number of years (1340-1360), culminated with Valdemar's conquest of the island of Gotland, in 1361. Gotland remained in Danish hands, off and on, until 1645. This period also saw open warfare with the cities of the Hansa Alliance.
The Kalmar Treaty of 1397 (cementing a process of union that had been underway for a decade) united the three Nordic kingdoms under a single monarch, although the three nations were still separate entities, legally and structurally - a fact that was, in the long term, to prove ultimately fatal to the Union.
By 1451, the internal disputes between the monarchies of the Union had progressed to a point where peace was no longer possible. The Union Wars with Sweden began in this year, and from 1460 they were augmented by the struggles for the Duchies of Slesvig and Holsten, now being held directly by the Danish monarch.
From 1441, Denmark and the Netherlands had been working closely together on the international political arena, and this was emphasized by the marriage, in 1514, of King Christian II to a princess of the Habsburgs. The breakup of the Kalmar Union, however, was in full progress, and the violence culminated in the Bloodbath of Stockholm, in 1520, when Christian II had a number of Swedish nobles and prelates executed. The unpopularity of Christian II with his own nobility led to his ouster in 1523, which again caused political difficulties between Denmark and the Habsburg Empire, difficulties which weren't resolved until the peace of Speyer, in 1544.
The Hanseatic Alliance, though still strong at this time, was unable to stay the distance, and was severely weakened as a result of Grevefejden [The Count's Feud], the civil war from 1534-1536 that resulted in Christian III's accession to the throne.
In August of 1536, Christian III entered Copenhagen, which had surrendered after a prolonged siege, and had the Catholic bishops imprisoned. In October, he declared his sovereignty over the Church in Denmark, seized all Church lands, and Denmark converted to Lutheran Protestantism.
Copyright © 1999-2001 Peter Ravn Rasmussen - all rights reserved.
This page was last updated on August 18, 2005