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History of Denmark

Table of contents
1 Ancient Denmark
2 Vikings
3 Christianity and the Establishment of Denmark
4 Reformation
5 Early Modern Politics
6 Absolutism
7 Napoleonic Wars
8 Nationalism and Liberalism
9 Early 20th century
10 Post-War

Ancient Denmark

See also: Neolithic and Bronze Age

People lived in what is today Denmark more than 100,000 years ago, but they were likely forced to leave for a time because of the ice cap that covered the land for some of the intervening time during the ice age. It is thought that people have lived continually in Denmark since around 12,000 BC. Agriculture made inroads around 3,000 BC, dramatically changing life in the area.


People who became known as Vikings inhabited much of Denmark for the several hundred years from the 8th to the 11th century AD. They had a more complicated social structure than most previous societies to inhabit the areas and became famous for the raiding and trading throughout the rest of Europe.

During the Viking period, Denmark was a great power based on the Jutland Peninsula, the Island of Zealand, and the southern part of what is now Sweden. In the early 11th century, King Canute united Denmark and England for almost 30 years.

Christianity and the Establishment of Denmark

Various petty kingdoms existed throughout the area now known as Denmark for many years. It is thought that around 980, Harold Bluetooth established a unified kingdom of Denmark. Around the same time, he was visited by a German missionary who, according to legend, survived the ordeal by fire, convincing Harold to convert to Christianity. The new religion, replacing the old Norse mythology, had many advantages for the king. Christianity brought with it some support from the Holy Roman Empire. It also allowed the king to dismiss many of his opponents who were adherents to the old mythology. The church would bring a stable administration to his lands that he could hopefully use to exercise some control over them.

The details of mediaeval politics in Denmark are hopelessly complex, but some attempt will be made to outline some general trends here. After the death of Canute the Great in 1035, England broke away from Danish control and Denmark fell into disarray for some time. Vikings from Norway raided Denmark sporadically. Canute’s nephew Sweyn Estridson (1020-1074) re-established strong royal authority and built a good relationship with the Archbishop of Bremen, who was at that time the Archbishop of all of Scandinavia.

In the early 12th century Denmark became the seat of an independent church province of Scandinavia. Not long after that Sweden and Norway formed their own archbishoprics free of Danish control. The mid 12th century was a difficult time for the kingdom of Denmark. Civil wars rocked the land and created much strife. Eventually, Valdemar the Great (1131-82), gained control of the kingdom, stabilizing it and reorganizing the administration. He and Bishop Absalon rebuilt the country. During Valdemar’s reign a castle was built in the village of Havn, leading eventually to the foundation of Copenhagen, modern capital of Denmark. They built Denmark into a major power in the Baltic Sea, which competed with the Hanseatic League, the Holstein Counts, and the Teutonic Knights for trade, territory, and influence throughout the Baltic. Valdemar and his successors launched various ‘crusades’ to claim terriories, notably modern Estonia. Legend has it that the Danish flag, the Dannebrog fell from the sky during a battle in Estonia in 1219.

The middle ages saw a period of close cooperation between the crown and the church. Thousands of churches were built throughout the country during that time. The economy expanded during the 12th century, based mostly on the lucrative Herring trade, but the 13th century was a period of difficulty and the temporary collapse of royal authority.

Difficulties for the Kings

The kings of Denmark had difficulty maintaining their control of the kingdom in the face of opposition from the nobility and church. There was an extended period of strained relations between the crown and the Popes Rome known as the 'archiepiscopal conflicts.' By the late 13th century, royal power had waned, and the nobility forced the king to grant a charter, considered Denmark's first constitution. A weakened Denmark was a great benefit to both the Hanseatic League and the Holstein Counts. The Holstein Counts began to control large portions of Denmark because the kings would give them fiefs in exchange for money to finance their operations. Consequently, by the 1320s the King was largely bound by the wishes of these counts who owned most of Denmark.

The kingdom continued to fall apart, Scania passing for a while to the King of Sweden. In 1340 the throne fell to Valdemar Atterdag or "New Day." He was a skilled politician and was able to reunite the old kingdom of Denmark by using the counts against each other. The Black Death which came to Denmark during these years also helped his campaign. He continued to try expanding the kingdom after 1360 which brought him into open conflict with the Hanseatic League. He conquered Gotland much to the displeasure of the League since Visby, an important trading town, was located there. Their alliance with Sweden to attack Denmark was initially a fiasco since Danish forces captured a large Hanseatic fleet, ransoming them for an enormous sum. Luckily for the League the Jutland Nobles revolted against the heavy taxes required to fight an expansionistic war in the Baltic; the two forces worked against the king, forcing him into exile in 1370. For several year the Hanseatic League controlled the fortresses on "the sound" between Sweden and Denmark.

Margaret and the Kalmar Union

Main Article: Kalmar Union Margaret I was the daughter of Valdemar Atterdag. She was married to Hċkon VI of Norway in an attempt to join the two kingdoms and perhaps bring in Sweden since Hċkon was related to the Swedish royal family. Originally her son, Olaf III was intended to rule the three kingdoms, but due to his early death she took on the role. During her life the three kingdoms including the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland) and present-day Finland), were unified under her capable rule, in what was called the Kalmar Union, made official in 1397.

Her successor, Eric of Pomerania, was wildly incompetent, and was directly responsible for the break up of the Kalmar Union. However, there was still some enthusiasm for the idea, so when Christopher of Bavaria, a distant relative came to the throne, he managed to be elected in all three kingdoms, briefly reuniting Scandinavia. The Swedish nobility grew increasingly unhappy with Danish rule and the union soon became a legal concept with little practical application. In the early 16th century, Christian II came to power. He is quoted as saying, "If the hat on my head knew what I was thinking, I would pull it off and throw it away." This is apparently in reference to his devious, machiavellian political dealings. He had conquered Sweden in an attempt to reinforce the union, and had about 100 leaders of the Swedish anti-unionist forces, as well as ordinary citizens, women and children killed in what came to be known as the Stockholm Bloodbath. The bloodbath continued during the following months in other parts of the country, with about 500 more killed, and it destroyed any lingering hope of Scandinavian union.


The Reformation, originating in Germany from the ideas of Martin Luther had a strong impact on Denmark; today the national Church of Denmark is Lutheran. The Reformation was introduced in Denmark in 1536. As elsewhere in Europe the spread of protestantism was made possible by the enthusiasm of the government for the idea, mostly because of the increased independence this granted from Rome. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the church and in the early 1530s the people were incited to attack monasteries and churches. When Frederik I died in 1533, a council of Bishops took control of the country and refused to allow the election of Christian III whom they feared would welcome Lutheranism. Armed opposition from nobles and the mayor of Lübeck forced them to accept Christian as king, and sure enough, church lands were soon confiscated (to pay for the armies that had enforced his election) and priests were forced to convert their allegiance to Lutheranism. Quickly Denmark became a part of the heartland of Lutheranism. The seventeenth century became a period of strict Lutheran orthodoxy in Denmark; teachings suspected of representing either Calivinism or the teachings of Zwingli were harshly punished.

Early Modern Politics

See also:
Rise of Sweden as a Great Power and Swedish Empire

Denmark grew wealthy during the sixteenth century, largely because of increased traffic through the Ĝresund which they were able to tax (remember Denmark controlled both sides of the Sound at this time). Denmark was a relatively powerful kingdom at this time. European politics of the sixteenth century revolved largely around the struggle between Catholic and Protestant forces, so it was almost inevitable that Denmark, a strong, unified Lutheran kingdom, would get drawn into the larger war when it came. The Thirty Years' War went badly for the protestant states in the early 1620s, and Denmark was called on to 'save the protestant cause.' Embarassingly for Christian IV the Danish military intervention in Germany was a fiasco; worse still, Sweden later intervened with some success.

Christian IV is none the less widely remembered as one of the great kings of Denmark. He had a very long reign, from 1588 to 1648 and is known as the architect on the Danish throne because of the large number of building projects he undertook. Many of the great buildings of Denmark were constructed during his reign.

After his death Denmark waged a disastrous war against Sweden. An abnormally cold winter allowed Swedish troops to cross the sound on the ice to attack Copenhagen. The peace in 1658 ceded three of Denmark's richest provinces, Scania, Hallandia, and Blechinga, to Sweden under the terms of the Treaty of Roskilde.


As a result of the disaster, King Frederik III was able to convince the nobles to give up some of their powers and their exemption from taxes, leading to the era of absolutism in Denmark. During this time power was increasingly centralized in Copenhagen. The administration and laws were modernized during this period. The last vestiges of feudalism were elliminated, and the economy did fairly well for much of the 18th century.

Napoleonic Wars

Denmark's robust economy was shattered by the expenses and losses of the Napoleonic wars. Denmark had allied with France and had faced several attacks from the British. In 1807 the British fleet bombarded Copenhagen, causing considerable civilian hardship. They captured the Danish fleet and brought it back to Britain. Norway was transferred from the Danish to the Swedish crown in 1814, as a reward to Sweden which had chosen the victorious side. During this period Denmark was literally bankrupt. Merchants fled, and the general population suffered a period of general deprivation. Interestingly, this period is also known as 'the Golden Age' of Danish intellectual history. Literature, painting, sculpture, and philosophy all underwent an unusually vibrant period. Hans Christian Andersen, Kierkegaard, Thorvaldsen, and Grundtvig were all active during this period.

Nationalism and Liberalism

See also: History of Schleswig-Holstein

The Danish liberal and national movements gained momentum in the 1830s, and after the European revolutions of 1848 Denmark became a constitutional monarchy in 1849. The growing bourgeoisie demanded a share in government and in an attempt to avert the bloody revolutions that were occurring elsewhere in Europe, Frederik VII gave in to the demands of the citizens. A new constitution was drawn up dividing powers and granting franchise to all adult males. The king was made head of the executive branch, complemented by a legislative branch consisting of two parliamentary chambers; the Folketing, consisting of members elected by the general population, and the Landsting whose members were elected by landowners. An independent judiciary was also set up.

The Danish king's realm did still consist of four parts: The islands and Jutland, together consisting the kingdom, and then the duchies Schleswig and Holstein, in personal union with the kingdom. Since the early 18th century, and even more so from the early 19th century, the Danes had got used to viewing the duchies and the kingdom as increasingly unified in one state. This was, however, not the view of the German majority in the duchies, who had also been enthused by the liberal and national movements leading to a movement known as Schleswig-Holsteinism. They aimed for independence from Denmark. The First War of Schleswig was ignited by the constitutional change of 1849, and ended with status quo only thanks to the intervention by England and other Great Powers. There was much debate in Denmark as to how to deal with the question of Schleswig-Holstein. National-Liberals demanded that Schleswig be permanently tied to Denmark, but Holstein could do as it pleased. However, international events overtook domestic Danish politics, and Denmark was confronted with war against Prussia and Austria in 1864, in what came to be known as the Second War of Schleswig. The territories had become pawns in Otto von Bismarck's larger political ambitions. Denmark was forced to cede all of Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia and adopt a policy of neutrality.

The war was deeply traumatic for Denmark as a nation, forcing it to reconsider its place in the world. The loss of Schleswig-Holstein was the last in a long series of territorial defeats for the once large kingdom of Denmark. Many of the richest areas of the kingdom, in Sweden and Germany had been lost, so the nation focused on developing the poorer areas of the country. Extensive agricultural improvements were undertaken in Jutland, and a new form of nationalism, emphasizing the 'small' people, the decency of rurual Denmark, and shunning wider aspirations was fostered.

The emerging political situation made possible by the new constitution was quite alarming for many of the existing elites since it inevetably empowered the peasantry. Simple men with little education replaced professors and professionals in positions of power. The peasants in coalition with liberal and radical elements from the cities eventually won a majority of seats in the Folketing. Even though there had been constitutional changes to empower the Landsting, the Left Venstre Party demanded to form the government, but the king, still the head of the executive, refused. A constitutional crisis ensued, which was ended in 1901 by the introduction of parliamentary government. It was decided that no government could rule against the wishes of a parliamentary majority.

Early 20th century

In the early decades of the 20th century the new Radical Party and the older Venstre Party shared government. During this time women were granted the vote (1915), and Denmark's colonial holdings, three islands (St. John, St. Croix, and St. Thomas) in the West Indies were sold to the United States. During this period Denmark inaugurated important social and labour market reforms, laying the basis for the present welfare state.

Denmark remained neutral during World War I, although the conflict affected the country to a considerable extent. There was wide spread profiteering, but commerce was also greatly disrupted by the conflict and the ensuing financial instability in Europe.

In the 1924 election the Social Democrats, under the charismatic Thorvald Stauning, became Denmark's largest party, a position they maintained until 2001. Stauning worked with some of the bourgeois parties, making the Social Democrats a more mainstream party. He was able to broker an important deal in the 1930s that brought an end to the Great depression in Denmark, and also laid the foundation for a welfar state.

Despite its declaration of neutrality at the beginning of World War II, and the conclusion of a non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany, Denmark was invaded by Nazi Germany (Operation Weserübung) on April 9 1940 and occupied until May 5 1945. The occupation of Denmark was unique in that the terms of occupation were initially very lenient. The new coalition government tried to protect the population from Nazi rule through compromise. The Folketing was allowed to remain in session, the police remained under Danish control, and the Nazi German authorities were one step removed from the population. However, the Nazi German demands eventually became intolerable for the Danish government, so in 1943 it resigned and Nazi Germany assumed full control of Denmark. After that point an armed resistance movement grew up against the occupying forces. Toward the end of the war Denmark grew increasingly difficult for Nazi Germany to control, but the country was not liberated until Allied forces arrived in the country at the end of the war.


After the war, with the perceived threat posed by the USSR and the lessons of World War II still fresh in Danish minds, the country abandonned its policy of neutrality. Denmark became a charter member of the United Nations and was one of the original members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, though Denmark had originally tried to form an alliance only with Norway and Sweden. A Nordic Council was later set up to coordinate Nordic policy. Later, in 1973 Danes voted yes to joining the European Community, the predecessor of the European Union. Since then Denmark has been a hesitant member of the European community, opting out of many proposals, including the Euro which was rejected in a referendum in 2000.

1953 saw a further political reform in Denmark, abolishing the Landsting, colonial status for Greenland and allowing the female right of succession to the throne.

See also: List of Danish monarchs