A brief history of Denmark 800-1536
by Peter Ravn Rasmussen
The word viking (Old Norse vikingr, possibly a term for "one who
anchors in a cove") is a word, the significance of which is hotly
Generally speaking, vikings were Nordic raiders or war parties,
doing battle and undertaking raids both inside the Nordic region,
and as far away as Ireland in the West, Rome and Byzantium in the
South, and the Caspian Sea in the East. There seems to have been
little differentiation, as far the use of the word vikingr was
concerned, between a small piratical raid, with three or four ships
involved, and a full-scale naval expedition with 700 or more ships.
The "viking era" is generally considered to have begun in 793, with
the first major viking raid, on the monastery at Lindisfarne on the
coast of England. The end of the period is more diffuse and
difficult to date, but the Norman conquest of England in 1066 may
fairly be described as the last of the great viking expeditions.
According to contemporary sources, a viking force of 40,000 besieged
Paris (885-86), though this figure is likely to be an exaggeration.
The vikings have been greatly demonized (as well as romanticized -
such attitudes have a tendency to go hand-in-hand) by later
historians and storytellers. It is unfair to describe the vikings as
uncultured barbarians - though they may well have seemed so to the
victims of their raids.
The facts bear witness that the vikings had a vibrant and complex
culture of their own, with a well-developed tradition of poetry, art
and technological innovation.
The descendants of the viking-established states in Normandy and
Sicily contributed significantly to the general history of Europe.
William the Conqueror was a viking descendant, and his opponent,
King Harold, was also an heir to this rich and varied heritage.
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
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 expnsive 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
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 on 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
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.
Kings and queens of Denmark
813-814 Haarik I
935-950 Gorm "the Old" (den Gamle)
950-986 Harald "Bluetooth" (Blåtand)
986-1014 Svend "Cleftbeard" (Tveskæg)
1014-1018 Harald II
1019-1035 Knud "the Great" (den Store)
1042-1047 Magnus "the Good" (den Gode)
1047-1074 Svend II Estridsen
1074-1080 Harald III "Whetstone" (Hen)
1080-1086 Knud IV "the Holy" (den Hellige)
1086-1095 Oluf I "Hunger"
1095-1103 Erik I "the Kind" (Ejegod)
1134-1137 Erik II "the Memorable" (Emune)
1137-1146 Erik III "the Lame" (Lam)
1146-1157 Three simultaneous kings:
Svend II Grathe
Knud V Magnussen
Valdemar I "the Great" (den Store)
1157-1182 Valdemar I "the Great" (den Store)
1182-1202 Knud VI
1202-1241 Valdemar II "the Victorious" (Sejr)
1241-1250 Erik IV "Plowtax" (Plovpenning)
1252-1259 Christoffer I
1259-1286 Erik V "Cutpenny" (Klipping)
1286-1319 Erik VI Menved (transl. imp.)
1320-1326 Christoffer II
1326-1330 Valdemar III Eriksen
1330-1332 Christoffer II (again)
1340-1375 Valdemar IV "Day Again" (Atterdag)
1376-1387 Oluf II
1387-1412 Margrethe I
1412-1439 Erik VII "of Pomerania" (af Pommern)
1440-1448 Christoffer II "of Bavaria" (af Bayern)
1448-1481 Christian I
1513-1523 Christian II
1523-1533 Frederik I
1534-1559 Christian III
c. 825 First Danish coinage issued.
c. 965 Danes convert to Christianity.
1171 The canon law for the island of Sjælland [Zealand], the eldest
written Danish law.
c. 1200 The Gesta Danorum of Saxo.
1219 Battle of Lyndanisse in Estonia - during which, according to
legend, the Danish flag, Dannebrog, fell from the sky as a portent
of Divine favour for Denmark.
c. 1350 First occurrences of the Black Death (plague) in Denmark.
1397 Treaty of Kalmar unites Denmark, Norway and Sweden (the "Kalmar
1520 The "Bloodbath of Stockholm".
1523 Final dissolution of the Kalmar Union.
1534-36 Grevefejden (civil war).
1536 The Danish Reformation.