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Denmark - 1086-1536 - The Middle Ages

The murder in 1086 of Knud the Holy (Knud IV) by the Danish nobles put a temporary stop to the radical expansion of the Danish royal power. After this, the kings were forced to accept that they had to rule in accordance with the interests of the great nobles and the clergy. The position of the Church was strengthened after the creation of an independent Danish archiepiscopal see at Lund in 1103 and up to the middle of the 12th century, the royal power was further weakened by internal strife between the descendants of Svend Estridsen. The fight for the throne led to a number of murders within the royal family. In 1131, Prince Magnus killed his rival Knud Lavard in Haraldsted Skov near Ringsted. This period of violence only ended in 1157 when Knud Lavard’s son, Valdemar the Great (Valdemar I), defeated his opponents and seized the throne.

The Great Period of the Valdemars [1157-1241] is how Danish historians describe the period which followed. Under Valdemar the Great (Valdemar I), and his two sons Knud VI and Valdemar the Victorious (Valdemar II), the power of the Crown was decisively strengthened. The Wendic tribes which had terrorised the land were also defeated at this time, and the Danish territory expanded considerably. In 1169 the Danes took over Arkona, a Slavic place of worship on the island of Rügen, and put it under the Episcopal seat of Roskilde. In 1219 they gained control of Estonia during the crusades. Holstein was also incorporated into the extensive kingdom of the Valdemars and the town of Lübeck paid homage to the Danish king as their overlord.

Danish power culminated around 1200, and Valdemar II rightly bore the byname Valdemar the Victorious. But soon the kingdom crumbled. Valdemar and his son were taken prisoner on the island of Lyø, and the king was only released on payment of a large ransom. The control of the Baltic was lost and attempts to regain it led to the defeat at Bornhöved in Holstein in 1227. The great period had come to an end. Economic growth, which corresponded to European developments in general, went hand in hand with the extension of the Crown’s powers.

The administration increased its income by taxes and fines and by mintage, and people were increasingly able to pay their way with money. One source in particular, King Valdemar’s Cadaster (survey), gives an insight into the many resources available to the throne around 1200. The old military duty to serve, the leding, was partially replaced by monetary charges. At the same time, the king introduced privileges which meant that the clergy and the lords of the manor serving in the military were exempt from paying taxes.

With the help of the Church, the Crown gradually gained more control over the judiciary powers of the local things, and Jyske Lov ( Jutlandic Law) from 1241 marks the king’s wish to be seen as the nation’s lawgiver. The clergy, however, led by the Archbishop of Lund, quickly created a separate clerical legal system and gained extensive independence underpinned by the acquisition of land and the introduction of tithes.

It was the affluent Church which created links with the European centres of learning, including Paris. Archbishop Anders Sunesen’s Latin poem Hexaëmeron, written around 1200, perfectly summed up international theological ideas, and Saxo Grammaticus’ official history, Gesta Danorum, written at the beginning of the 13th century, gave the country a clearer conception of its national identity. For the first time ever, the Danes were able to read the history of the heroic deeds of their forefathers.

The population of Denmark grew to more than 3/4 million people. Space was made for all these new mouths by new forest clearings and new rural settlements, but a growing number of towns were also able to accommodate the growing population. A network of market towns appeared as the economy of the country developed, allowing every farmer access to a market where he could sell his product within the distance of a day’s journey. The society which gradually developed in the urban areas differed from the rural aristocratic one. Whereas the villages were characterised by the small landowners who were tied to the larger farms, the 13th century saw the rise of a municipal system of government by a council located in cathedral cities and market towns.

The character of international trade also changed, and instead of trading luxury goods such as skins, furs and slaves, people began to buy and sell everyday products. The old Nordic-Slav trade which was centred around Schleswig and Gothland gradually diminished and was replaced by new trade tied to the expanding town of Lübeck and the other new cities in the north of Germany.

After the death of Valdemar II, the years between 1241 and 1340 were characterised by conflict and disintegration. ‘When he died, the crown tumbled from the head of the Danes’ states one historical record. Rivalry within the royal family resulted in the murder of two kings. In 1250, Count Abel of South Jutland had his brother Erik Plovpenning (Erik IV) murdered. Yet another regicide took place in 1286, when Erik Klipping (Erik V) was killed by his own men.

The internal strife within the royal family became linked to its bitter struggle with the two archbishops, Jakob Erlandsen and Jens Grand. It seems as if the royal power was consolidated around 1300 under Erik Menved (Erik VI), but it turned out that it was instead heading for total ruin. The Crown was forced to borrow huge sums, not only to cover the cost of the attempts to expand the kingdom into North Germany, but also to pay for the Court and the new castles that were being built.

It tried to raise the necessary funds by imposing new extraordinary taxes, but the nobility was reluctant to approve them. The only thing the Crown could really do to raise funds was to pawn its land and len. In administrative terms, the 200 or so districts in the country had gradually been grouped into larger units known as len. Each len had a royal castle as its centre and was headed by a bailiff or a lord lieutenant as he was increasingly known. Individual len and entire regions were now pawned to princes and wealthy members of the nobility in capitalisation of power. By 1325, half the len had been leased and between 1332-1340, when the country had no ruler, the entire kingdom was under the control of Holstein or Sweden. The Crown was a hollow shell devoid of power.

Denmark underwent radical social changes during these years and emerged as a divided nation made up of a number of estates of the realm. The lords of the manor became a separate military and land-owning class exempt from paying taxes, gradually absorbing Europe’s culture of chivalry. The clergy were also different in that they extended separate legal powers, and the same was true of the towns where separate city laws were introduced. When it came to running the country, it was still only the great nobles and the church leaders that had any say. Decisions were generally taken at the national assemblies which became known as hof (danehof).

Here, taxes were granted and new kings were forced to agree to coronation charters which guaranteed the privileged position of the nobility and the Church. Everyone in this new society needed a master, and many peasants sought the protection of a lord or a member of the clergy against payment. The higher classes strengthened their power by building a large number of castles, and by 1330 almost every parish in the country had a fortified castle. It was only in 1396 that the Crown was able to take on these private castles.

These two were to shape the reign of Valdemar Atterdag (Valdemar IV) in the years between 1340-1375. ‘The Black Death’ reached Denmark in 1350 and wiped out a large part of the population. It returned in 1360 and 1368-1369 and led to a crisis and a number of social changes; in the countryside, many fields and farms were deserted. At the same time Valdemar Atterdag tried, with both cunning and violence, to regain the parts of the kingdom that had been pawned. In 1360 he succeeded and a new, stronger royal power emerged.

The nature of the relationship between the king and the people was set out in the King’s Peace of 1360, a national contract between the two parties which confirmed the existing division into estates of the realm. In 1361, a successful attempt was made to enlarge the kingdom by conquering Gothland, which resulted in a war with the North German Hanseatic towns that felt their privileges were under threat. Even though the Hanseatics won the war, the episode indicated that their political leadership was no longer unchallenged. Valdemar Atterdag’s greatest triumph in foreign policy proved to be the marriage between his daughter Margrete and King Håkon VI of Norway. After Valdemar’s death in 1375, Margrete’s son Oluf was elected king of Denmark and she ruled in his name. After the deaths of Håkon and Oluf, Margrete was elected Queen of Denmark in 1387; the following year she became the queen of Norway and soon after, the Swedish nobles made her the ruler of Sweden. In 1397, the Kalmar Union created a constitutional basis for the union of the three states when Erik of Pomerania (Erik VII), one of Margrete’s relatives, was made king of all Scandinavia. Norway remained under Danish rule until 1814, but the alliance with Sweden never gained the same permanence since the Swedes made repeated attempts to break away from the Danish predominance.

The first Swedish fight for independence was the uprising of 1434-1436; after that, the Swedish rådsstyre (ruling council) alternated between self rule and subservience to the Danish Crown throughout the 15th century. Christian II’s brutal attempt to pacify Swedish resistance at the Massacre of Stockholm in 1520, where more than 80 union opponents were executed, had the exactly opposite effect. Under the leadership of Gustav Vasa (Gustav I), a new Swedish uprising finally led to the dissolution of the Union, and Sweden became a new north European kingdom in keen competition with Denmark-Norway.

South Jutland, or Schleswig as it came to be called, had been lost to Holstein during the troubled years of the 14th century, and repeated attempts by Valdemar Atterdag, Queen Margrete and Erik of Pomerania to regain the duchy ended in defeat at the Peace of Vordingborg in 1435.

Events took a surprising turn in 1459, when the childless Prince Adolf VIII of Schleswig-Holstein died. In 1460, the Schleswig-Holstein nobility and the Danish King Christian I came to an agreement which made him Duke of Schleswig and Count of Holstein. In return, he had to promise that the countries would never be divided, which proved to be vital during the 19th century’s national struggle. An attempt to expand the kingdom even further by taking over the peasant freestate of the Ditmarshes in 1500 failed pitifully.

After the crises of the 14th century, the country recovered its strength and experienced renewed economic growth during the late Middle Ages. The deserted farms were rebuilt during the course of the 15th century, and approximately 80,000 farmers were able to make a living on the larger farms in a more independent position. With the help of the Crown, the towns began to free themselves from Hanseatic dominance. The revenue which the Danish king had previously received from the Hanseatic-dominated Scania markets, was now instead collected as customs duties from the many Dutch and English ships which sailed through the Sound. The basis of the Crown’s revenue was further improved by the Crown lands which Valdemar Atterdag and Margrete had acquired, and which were put under the management of the len.

The central administration also became more established and Copenhagen was increasingly acknowledged as the country’s capital after Erik of Pomerania took over the city from the Bishop of Roskilde. The central position of the town was strengthened when a university was founded there in 1479. While the lesser nobility were troubled by declining incomes from the peasants, the wealthiest part of the nobility gained more land and built up huge estates. The clergy and these prominent estate owners sat in the Rigsråd (national assembly) and ran the country together with the king.

The other estates, citizens and peasants, had little say in the affairs of the kingdom. They were only rarely given their say at the assemblies of the Estates of the Realm which were convened very infrequently, usually for the purpose of sanctioning royal taxes. A number of popular uprisings, which culminated in the civil war known as Grevens Fejde (The Count’s Feud) in 1534-1536, only made the ruling classes stick closer together.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2013 18:53:43 ZULU