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Denmark - 1536-1720 - Reformation and Absolutism

The Denmark of today was only a small part of the huge kingdom which Christian III took over in 1536 after victory in the civil war. At that time, Denmark included Scania, Halland, Blekinge, Gothland and Oesel. Furthermore, Norway and its extensive North Atlantic possessions (the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland) had formed a personal union with Denmark since the Kalmar Union was established in 1397.

The section concerning Norway in Christian III’s coronation charter of 1536 emphasised that Norway was as much part of Denmark as Jutland. Furthermore, the Oldenburg monarch was Duke of Holstein and also Duke of Schleswig, which was under an oath of fealty to the Danish Crown. The period between 1536 and 1720 saw many changes. Economically and socially, the period can be divided into two halves.

The 16th century was a period of boom, but around 1600 a trade crisis set in. The crisis deepened during the following decades and became a long-term slump which only began to abate around 1740. A turnaround in domestic policy occurred in 1660. Christian III’s coronation charter had given the Rigsråd a final say in the affairs of the kingdom. The dominance of the aristocracy lasted until 1660-1661, when absolute monarchy was established in line with other European kingdoms. Great changes took place in the structure of society, and the schism within the clergy in 1536 which resulted in the Lutheran State Church also affected the nation deeply. Both in church and in school, Danes were instructed in the new creed and turned into loyal subjects. Foreign policy was dominated by the rivalry with Sweden and problems concerning access to the Baltic caused by Denmark’s geographical location. Sweden had left the Kalmar Union in 1523 and was intent on challenging Denmark’s leading position in the North.

Danish society was made up of a highly privileged nobility, the clergy, a middle class and an underprivileged peasant class. Little is known about the size of the population during the 16th century. We do know, however, that the number of people in the country was rising. Around 1650, the total population was approximately 800,000 if we include Scania. When Scania was lost in 1660, this total fell to approximately 600,000, but by 1720 it had again reached almost 700,000.

The peasants who managed the 60,000 farms in the country accounted for approximately 75% of the total population, the clergy for around 5% – the same percentage as those without any means. There were approximately 100,000 people living in towns (approximately 15%), of which approximately 30,000 lived in Copenhagen. The nobility counted only around 2000; nevertheless, they owned almost half the land in the country spread across some 700 manors and a large number of copyhold farms.

Denmark was very much a farming community. Corn and cattle, which constituted the only export articles, were mainly sold to the densely populated Netherlands. There was no industry to speak of, even though Christian IV attempted to set up some industry in the capital and also tried to establish a mining industry in Norway. All his attempts were unsuccessful, however, and it was only at the end of the 17th century that wartime conditions gave a boost to international trade. Non-agrarian production and international shipping were still a thing of the future.

The system of government which was obtained between 1536-1660 is generally known as aristocratic government. It was a constitutional form of government in that the king was formally elected by the estates of the realm, in practice by the nobles in the Rigsråd, which, however, always elected the king’s oldest son. The king, in turn, had to sign a constitutional charter which divided the power between the Crown and the Rigsråd. The latter was a council made up of a dozen members of the high nobility who also took the most important government posts. Policies were written by the king and the Rigsråd; the rest of the population had no say in government matters.

The population could only be deprived of all political control because government finances were based on Crown revenue, which meant that the government did not generally impose any direct taxes on the people. In principle, the government was self-financing through the Crown lands, which made up approximately half of the cultivated land in the country, the Sound Tolls and a number of other, minor, sources of income.

This system worked adequately until the beginning of the 17th century. Under normal circumstances, the activities of the state were not very costly, being generally limited to maintaining law and order and to ensuring the privileges of the estates. In addition, the administration had to ensure that the necessary funding existed to finance its foreign policy, which included the army and the navy.

These were only activated in times of war and crisis, however. The many wars that were fought during the 17th century therefore put the system under great pressure. The traditional sources of revenue proved unable to finance the many military campaigns, and the usual revenue increasingly had to be supplemented by direct taxation. This put the Rigsråd into a very awkward position indeed. The members of the nobility were, according to the privileges they had been accorded, exempt from taxation.

This meant that the burden of taxation fell solely on those groups who were least able to meet the demands. After the unsuccessful German War (the Kaiser War) 1625-1629 the frustration felt by the lower classes became obvious. Their anger was directed at the Rigsråd which was accused of looking after their own interests rather than those of the State. The growing financial crisis cast doubt on the credibility of the Rigsråd, and it finally collapsed in 1660-1661 when the country’s political system changed.

Absolutism was a result of the lengthy political crisis and the acute state of emergency which resulted from the last of the Karl Gustav wars against Sweden in 1657-1660. Despite his weak position when elected king in 1648, Frederik III’s political skill allowed him to succeed in ousting two of his main adversaries in the Rigsråd as early as the 1650s. The two were the seneschal Corfitz Ulfeldt and the governor of Norway Hannibal Sehested, who were both Frederik’s brothers-in-law. The king’s heroic conduct during the siege of Copenhagen in the winter of 1659 had, in addition, made him widely popular at a time when the nobility and the Rigsråd were increasingly being discredited. In October 1660, these events led the estates – the nobility only reluctantly – to create a hereditary monarchy.

The new system meant that the king was no longer dependent on the Rigsråd, and he immediately used his new power to introduce absolutism, which was temporarily established on 10 January 1661 in the Hereditary Monarchy Act before being fully set out in Kongeloven (the Royal Law) of 1665, the basic law of Danish absolutism. The change of system in 1660-1661 introduced a hectic period of reforms which culminated during the reign of Christian V (1670-1699), and lasted until the reign of his successor, Frederik IV. The aim was to consolidate the new system of government and to ensure that Denmark became a well-organised, hierarchical society with the absolute monarch as its focal point.

The aristocratic departmental government now became a collegiate administration divided into different government departments. The old division into estates was replaced by a new hierarchy in which the officials of the Crown took the leading positions. The old hereditary nobility were deprived of most of its privileges and were suddenly joined by a large number of ‘new men’. In the course of a lifetime, Denmark was transformed from a self-managing mediaeval society divided into estates to a modern bureaucracy. Legislation was standardised as all laws were collected in a systematically organised Statute Book, Christian V’s Danske Lov 1683 (Danish Law), which applied to the whole country and thereby replaced the old provincial laws.

With the help of the astronomer Ole Rømer, new uniform systems of weights and measures were introduced; the greatest administrative feat, however, was a full survey and registration of all agricultural land in the country. The land register was intended to enable the administration to create a uniform basis for taxation, and proved that the State had discarded the old system of relying on revenue from crown lands and gone over to direct taxation of land owners and land users.

Although the big landowners continued to play an important role in the administration of taxes and the conscription of soldiers, and although the first absolute monarchs found it difficult to find their political position in relation to the new large bureaucracy, there is little doubt that the reforms which were introduced at the end of the 17th century created a solid foundation for the stable bureaucratic absolutism of the 18th century.

The spiritual life of the population was strongly influenced by the Reformation throughout the whole of this period. The Danish Church was subservient to the State, which purposely used the widely ramified organisation and its school system as a useful means of indoctrinating the population with the Lutheran dogma of the divinity of authority. At the end of the 16th century, the reformation rebellion had settled into Lutheran orthodoxy. There was no real reaction against this indoctrination until 1700, when Evangelical movements from Germany brought a call for a devotional life of a more intense personal nature. The national Church allowed the mother tongue to become better established, although Latin continued to play an important role as a language of learning.

The most noteworthy contributions in Danish during this period include Chancellor Arild Huitfeldt’s Danmarks Riges Krønike (The Chronicle of the Kingdom of Denmark) from the 1590s, in which he describes the history of the Danes from Saxo Grammaticus up to his own time in a very pithy style. Also worthy of note are the hymns written at the end of the 17th century by Thomas Kingo, the Bishop of Odense, who admirably demonstrated how expressive the Danish language could be in the hands of an expert. These examples also highlight another contemporary issue: A feeling of Danish national identity was slowly beginning to emerge amongst the leading strata of society.

With a few exceptions, foreign policy was the responsibility of the king. During the reign of Christian III, relations with Sweden were peaceful. Following the religious upheavals, the main goal was to secure Denmark’s position amongst the Protestants, and attention therefore turned towards the German territory. Denmark was the leading power in the North, and the Baltic was still more or less a closed Danish-dominated sea, guarded by the strong Danish navy. Danish sovereignty was best demonstrated when foreign merchant vessels dutifully cast anchor at Elsinore to pay their Sound Tolls to the Danish Crown.

Around 1560, both Denmark and Sweden changed rulers, and the period of peaceful coexistence came to an end. Under the leadership of Erik XIV, Sweden was intent on destroying the supremacy of the Danes, and Frederik II dreamt of resurrecting the Kalmar Union under Danish leadership. These differences finally resulted in Den Nordiske Syvårskrig (the Scandinavian Seven Years’ War) (1563-1570), which eventually ended in mutual exhaustion without any frontiers having been moved.

The next confrontation was the Kalmar War (1611-1613) which was initiated by the Danes. Once again the aim was to force Sweden back under Danish supremacy, and once again the attempt failed. This war was to be Denmark’s last attempt to resurrect the old union. The balance of power in the North now shifted in favor of a dynamic Sweden under the leadership of Gustav II Adolf.

The decisive turning point in Denmark’s foreign policy came in 1625-1629 with Christian IV’s involvement in the Thirty Years’ War. His catastrophic defeat at Lutter am Barenberge in 1626 broke Denmark in military terms. The humiliating peace agreement in 1629 and Gustav II Adolf’s military triumphs in Germany from 1630 onwards clearly showed that Sweden had become the leading power in the Baltic region while Denmark, though its territory was intact, had been beaten and isolated.

For the next 30 years, Denmark’s survival as an independent state was at risk. During the subsequent three Dano-Swedish wars, the Torstensson Feud of 1643-1645 and the two Karl Gustav wars between 1657-1660, it was Sweden who tried to force Denmark into its Baltic Empire, and when Karl X Gustav led the Swedish army across the ice-covered Danish belts in February 1659, the plan almost succeeded.

The catastrophe was only avoided because foreign powers, led by the Netherlands, forced the Swedes to agree to peace. A price had to be paid, however, and Denmark ceded all provinces east of the Sound to Sweden with the exception of Bornholm. The country was thus reduced to around a third of its former size and the main artery of Baltic trade, the Sound, became international waters, which was very much in the interest of the Western naval powers.

The last two Dano-Swedish wars, the Skånske Krig (Scania War) 1675-1679, and Store Nordiske Krig (Great Nordic War) 1709-1720, were both started by the Danes in an attempt to win back Scania from the ailing Swedish superpower, and break the troubling alliance between Sweden and the Dukes of Gottorp. Even though the Danes more or less won both wars, they did not succeed in reclaiming Scania since the big European powers opposed it.

In acknowledgement of this, and because Sweden had again been reduced to the same level as Denmark, the government dropped the Dano-Swedish issue from the foreign policy agenda. The border through the Sound was there to stay. The Gottorp issue was satisfactorily resolved at the same time, and the lengthy Danish-Swedish rivalry was soon replaced by a new partnership in the shadow of the emerging Russian power. The peace of 1720 introduced a long period of peaceful coexistence between the two Nordic kingdoms.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2013 18:53:44 ZULU