The Rise of the North



LET us look at the map, for maps, like faces, are the signatures of history.

When Frederick II ascended its throne in 1559, Denmark was one of the strongest and most far-reaching states in Europe; it had not yet learned how clever it is to be small. In the perennial contest with Sweden for control of the commerce between the North Sea and the Baltic, Denmark was at first the victor, even extending its rule across the Skagerrak to and throughout Norway, and across the Kattegat into what is now south Sweden. It held the strategic cities of Copenhagen and Helsingor on the west side, and Malmö and Helsingborg on the east side, of the öresund, or Sound—the swirling waters, in one place only three and a half miles wide, that now separate Denmark from Sweden. Farther east it held, through most of this period, the islands of Bornholm, Gotland, and ösel, thereby controlling the Baltic Sea. On the south it included the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, and far away in the northwest it ruled Iceland and Greenland. The tolls charged by Denmark on commerce passing through the straits between the seas were the chief source of the kingdom’s revenues and wars.

Political power resided in the eight hundred nobles who owned half the land, kept the peasants in serfdom, elected the king, and ruled the country through the Rigsdag, or National Diet, and the Rigsraad, or Council of State. They had profited from the Reformation by absorbing most of the property formerly belonging to the Catholic Church. In return for exemption from taxation, they were expected, but they often refused, to arm and lead their peasants in war at the call of the king. The Protestant clergy, shorn of wealth, had a minor social standing and little political influence; however, they controlled education and held a censorship over literature, which consequently produced mainly theology and hymns. The general population, numbering a million, enjoyed heavy meals and heavy drinking. A barber-surgeon advised his clients: “It is very good for persons to drink themselves intoxicated once a month, for the excellent reasons that it frees their strength, furthers sound sleep, eases the passing of water, increases perspiration, and stimulates general well-being.”1

Two Danes in this period have a special claim on history: Tycho Brahe, the greatest astronomer of his generation, and Christian IV, who not only was King of Denmark for sixty years (1588–1648) but would have been a leader of men even without the advantage of royal birth. We pass by his father, Frederick II, merely noting that for him the Flemish architect Anthonis van Obberger designed (1574–85) the fortress of Kronborg Castle at Helsingör—Hamlet’s Elsinore.

When Frederick died (1588), Christian was a boy of eleven; a regency of four nobles ruled for eight years; then Christian took the reins. For the next half century he lived the abundant life with such exuberance and versatile energy that all Europe marveled. He bettered the instruction of the aforesaid barber-surgeon, for he regularly required to be helped home after an evening’s carouse. His profanity set a standard that few of his subjects surpassed. The number of his bastards created a problem in accountancy. His people laughed these popular faults away and loved him, for he danced at their weddings, joined in their labor, and risked his life repeatedly in their service. To all this he added a knowledge of Latin and science, an educated taste in the arts, and a simple religious faith that raised no sophomoric questions about credibility and no qualms about fun. In his spare time he helped to make Copenhagen (Købmannehavn, merchants’ harbor) one of Europe’s most attractive capitals. His building program doubled the circumference of the city.2In his reign Schloss (Castle) Rosenborg took form; soon thereafter the Bourse spread its vast façade and raised its twisted steeple high. He reformed the government of Norway, developed its industries, and rebuilt its capital, which for three centuries bore his name as Christiania. (It was renamed Oslo in 1925.) In Denmark he improved administration, promoted manufactures, organized commercial companies, founded colleges and towns, and raised the condition of the peasants on the Crown estates.

Ambition toppled him, for he dreamed of reuniting all Scandinavia under one head, his own. The nobles objected that Sweden was unconquerable, and they refused their support. Chiefly with foreign mercenaries he waged against Sweden the Kalmar War (1611–13). When the Thirty Years’ War came he found himself uncomfortably allied with Sweden in defense of the Protestant cause. That peril over, he resumed the struggle with Sweden (1643), though he was now sixty-seven years old. He led his inadequate forces with romantic ardor. In the naval battle of Kolberg (1644) he fought all through the day, despite twenty wounds and a blinded eye, and won a temporary victory. In the end Sweden proved stronger, and the Peace of Brömsebro (1645) freed Sweden from paying dues for her commerce in the Sound, and ceded to her Gotland, ösel, and three provinces on the Scandinavian peninsula. When Christian IV died, after fifty years of constructive labor and destructive wars, his kingdom was smaller than at his accession, and the ascendancy of Denmark had passed away.

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