Denmark's size is deceptive: this corner of Scandinavia has played a significant role in shaping the region. By the late 4th century, the Jutes had invaded and settled in England, followed centuries later by the Vikings, whose own presence spanned from Newfoundland to Baghdad. By the beginning of the 19th century, Denmark's colonial power reached four continents. Yet even with the dramatic shrinking of Danish territory, the Danes have continued to inspire, influence and shape the global sphere.
Of Stone, Bronze & Iron
Humans first trod the Danish earth and dug the region’s flint tens of thousands of years ago as retreating glaciers let lichen and mosses grow, attracting herds of reindeer. Permanent settlements sprang up in about 12,000 BC.
Stone Age culture relied primarily on hunting, but as the climate gradually warmed, these hunters resettled near the sea, subsisting on fish, seabirds and seals. Small-scale agriculture followed and villages developed around the fields.
Around 1800 BC the first artisans began fashioning weapons, tools, jewellery and finely crafted works of art in the new metal, bronze, traded from as far away as Crete and Mycenae.
Locally available iron led to superior ploughs, permitting larger-scale agricultural communities. Present-day Denmark’s linguistic and cultural roots date to the late Iron Age arrival of the Danes, a tribe thought to have migrated south from Sweden about AD 500.
At the dawn of the 9th century, the territory of present-day Denmark was on the perimeter of Europe, but Charlemagne (r 768–814) extended the power of the Franks northward to present-day northern Germany. Hoping to ward off a Frankish invasion, Godfred, king of Jutland, reinforced an impressive earthen rampart called the Danevirke. However, the raiding Franks breached the rampart, bringing Christianity to Denmark at sword point.
To the modern imagination, the word 'Viking' commonly conjures images of bearded thugs in horned helmets, jumping from longships and pillaging their way through early Christendom. While some of these Northmen (as they were known in Britain) were partial to a spot of looting and slaughter – not to mention slave trading – the real history of these Scandinavian seafarers is far more complex.
The Viking era spanned several centuries and took on different characteristics throughout that time. Although unrecorded raids had probably been occurring for decades, the start of the Viking Age is generally dated from AD 793, when Nordic Vikings ransacked Lindisfarne Monastery, off the coast of Northumbria in northeastern England. Survivors described the Vikings’ sleek square-rigged vessels as ‘dragons flying in the air’ and the raiders as ‘terrifying heathens’.
Early Viking raiders often targeted churches and monasteries for their wealth of gold and jewels. Books and other precious but perishable cultural artefacts were just some of the raids’ collateral damage. Roughing up monks – who wrote the history of the age – hardly endeared the Vikings to posterity.
The Vikings were initially adventurous opportunists who took advantage of the region’s turmoil and unstable political status quo, but in time their campaigns evolved from piratical forays into organised expeditions that established far-flung colonies overseas.
They were successful traders, extraordinary mariners and insatiable explorers whose exploits took them to Byzantium, Russia and North Africa, and even as far as the Caspian Sea and Baghdad. They also established settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.
The Vikings settled in several places too, including northern France and the British Isles, proving to be able farmers. They were also shrewd political players, establishing their own kingdoms and intermarrying with local nobles or squeezing protection money from local kings. Even the historically pivotal 1066 Battle of Hastings can be thought of not as a battle between England and France, but essentially a fight between two leaders descended from this Nordic stock (William and Harold).
Settlement and assimilation was one reason for a decline in raiding and fighting. The Jelling Stone of Harald I (Bluetooth) that still stands in the churchyard in Jelling is the document of an even more important factor: in the 10th century Scandinavia embraced Christianity and thus a degree (very relatively speaking) of ‘civilisation’.
A (Quasi) Unified Denmark
By the early 9th century Jutland (and parts of southern Norway) were more or less united under a single king. In the late 9th century, unification of the territories that make up modern-day Denmark inched forward when warriors, led by the Norwegian chieftain Hardegon, conquered the Jutland peninsula; Hardegon then began to extend his power base across the rest of Denmark’s territory.
The current Danish monarchy traces its roots back to Gorm the Old, Hardegon’s son, who reigned in the early 10th century from Jelling in central Jutland. His son, Harald Bluetooth, who ruled for 35 years, concluded the conquest of Denmark as well as completing Denmark’s adoption of Christianity, partly to appease his powerful Frankish neighbours to the south who, a century earlier, had sent the missionary Ansgar to build churches in the Danish towns of Ribe and Hedeby.
Harald Bluetooth’s son Sweyn (Svend) Forkbeard (r 987–1014) and grandsons Harald II (r 1014–18) and Canute the Great (r 1019–35) conquered England, establishing a short-lived Anglo-Danish kingdom over much of the British Isles. Canute the Great was the first true Danish king to sit on the throne of England, reigning in much the same manner as an English king except that he employed Scandinavian soldiers to maintain his command.
When Canute’s son Hardecanute died, the balance of power shifted to the English heirs of Alfred the Great, although many of the Danes who had settled in England elected to stay on.
Unsuccessful attempts by the Danes to reclaim England followed and the defeat of the Norwegian Vikings by Harold II of England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 heralded the end of the Viking era.
The Bloody Middle Ages
Internal strife, plots, counter-plots and assassinations involving rival nobles, wealthy landowners and corrupt church leaders blighted the early medieval era.
King Valdemar I eventually united a war-weary country and enacted Denmark’s first written laws, known as the Jyske Lov (Jutland Code), in Vordingborg, southern Zealand. His successors enacted other laws that were quite progressive for their time: no imprisonment without just cause, an annual assembly of the hof (national council), and the first supreme court.
Margrethe, who had assumed de facto control of the Crown after her young son Oluf died in 1387, became the official head of state and Denmark’s first ruling queen. The next year Swedish nobles sought Margrethe’s assistance in a rebellion against their unpopular German-born king. The Swedes hailed Margrethe as their regent, and in turn she sent Danish troops to Sweden, securing victory over the king’s forces.
A decade later Margrethe established a formal alliance between Denmark, Norway and Sweden known as the Kalmar Union, to counter the powerful German-based Hanseatic League that had come to dominate regional trade.
In 1410 King Erik of Pomerania, Margrethe’s grandson, staged an unsuccessful attack on the Hanseatic League, which sapped the Kalmar Union’s vitality. This, together with Erik’s penchant for appointing Danes to public office in Sweden and Norway, soured relations with aristocrats in those countries. In 1438 the Swedish council withdrew from the union, whereupon the Danish nobility deposed Erik in 1439.
Erik’s successor, King Christopher III, made amends by pledging to keep the administrations of the three countries separate. However, the union continued to be a rocky one, and in 1523 the Swedes elected their own king, Gustav Vasa. The Kalmar Union was permanently dissolved, but Norway would remain under Danish rule for another three centuries.
The Lutheran Reformation & Civil War
The monarchy and the Catholic Church played out a pivotal power struggle during the Danish Reformation. Caught in the middle of this religious and political foment was King Frederik I, who over the course of 10 years went from promising to fight heresy against Catholicism to inviting Lutheran preachers to Denmark. When Frederik died, the lack of a clear successor left the country in civil war.
The following year (1534) Hanseatic mercenaries from Lübeck (now in Germany) invaded southern Jutland and Zealand. By and large, the Lübeckers were welcomed as liberators by peasants and members of the middle class, who were in revolt against the nobility.
Alarmed by the revolt, a coalition of aristocrats and Catholic bishops crowned the Lutheran Christian III as king. Still, the rebellion raged on. In Jutland, manor houses were set ablaze and the peasants made advances against the armies of the aristocracy.
Christian’s general, Rantzau, took control, cutting Lübeck off from the sea and marching northward through Jutland, brutally smashing peasant bands. Rantzau’s troops besieged Copenhagen, where merchants supported the uprising and welcomed the prospect of becoming a Hanseatic stronghold. Cut off from the outside world, Copenhagen’s citizens suffered starvation and epidemics before surrendering after a year in 1536.
Christian III quickly consolidated his power, offering leniency to the merchants and Copenhagen burghers who had revolted in exchange for their allegiance. Catholic bishops, on the other hand, were arrested, and monasteries, churches and other ecclesiastical estates became the property of the Crown.
Thus the Danish Lutheran Church became the only state-sanctioned denomination and was placed under the direct control of the king. Buoyed by a treasury enriched by confiscated Church properties, the monarchy emerged from the civil war stronger than ever.
War & Absolute Monarchy
A period of peace marked the early reign of Christian IV, who then spoiled it by embarking on what would become the ruinous Thirty Years’ War. The aim of the war was to neutralise Swedish expansion; its outcome for Denmark was morale- and coffer-sapping losses.
Seeing a chance for revenge against Sweden, following its troubled occupation of Poland, Christian IV’s successor, Frederik III, once again declared war in 1657. For the Danes, ill-prepared for battle, it was a tremendous miscalculation.
Sweden’s King Gustave led his troops back from Poland through Germany and into Jutland, plundering his way north. During 1657–58 – the most severe winter in Danish history – King Gustave marched his soldiers across the frozen seas of the Lille Bælt between Fredericia and the island of Funen. King Gustave’s uncanny success unnerved the Danes and he proceeded without serious resistance across the Store Bælt to Lolland and then on to Falster.
The Swedish king had barely made it across the frozen waters of the Storstrømmen to Zealand when the thawing ice broke away behind him, precariously separating him and his advance detachment from the rest of his forces. However, the Danes failed to recognise their sudden advantage; instead of capturing the Swedish king, they sued for peace and agreed to yet another disastrous treaty.
In 1658 Denmark signed the humiliating Treaty of Roskilde, ceding a third of its territory, including the island of Bornholm and all territories on the Swedish mainland. Only Bornholm, which eventually staged a bloody revolt against the Swedes, would again fly the Danish flag.
Absolute monarchy returned in 1660, when King Frederik III cunningly convened a gathering of nobles, placed them under siege, and forced them to nullify their powers of council. Frederik declared his right of absolute rule, declaring the king the highest head on earth, above all human laws and inferior to God alone.
In the following decades the now all-powerful monarchy rebuilt the military and continued to pick fruitless fights with Sweden. Peace of a sort eventually descended and for much of the 18th century the Danes and Swedes managed to coexist without serious hostilities.
By the turn of the 19th century, Denmark’s trading prowess was worrying Britain, by now the world’s preeminent sea power. When Denmark signed a pact of armed neutrality with Sweden, Prussia and Russia, Britain’s navy attacked Copenhagen in 1801, heavily damaging the Danish fleet and forcing Denmark to withdraw from the pact.
Denmark managed to avoid further conflicts and actually profited from the war trade until 1807, when a new treaty between France and Russia once again drew the Danes closer to the conflict.
Wary of Napoleon’s growing influence in the Baltic, Britain feared that Denmark might support France. Despite Denmark’s neutrality, the British fleet unleashed a devastating surprise bombardment on Copenhagen, setting much of the city ablaze, destroying its naval yards and confiscating the entire Danish fleet.
Although the unprovoked attack was unpopular enough back home to have been roundly criticised by the British parliament, Britain nonetheless kept the Danish fleet. The British then offered the Danes an alliance – they unsurprisingly refused the offer and instead joined the continental alliance against Britain, who retaliated by blockading both Danish and Norwegian waters, causing poverty in Denmark and famine in Norway.
Despite the disastrous early years of the 19th century, by the 1830s Denmark was flourishing again, economically and culturally. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, theologian Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig and writer Hans Christian Andersen emerged as prominent figures. Sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen bestowed his grand neoclassical statues on Copenhagen, and Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg introduced the Danish school of art.
When revolution swept Europe in the spring of 1848, Denmark’s new political parties, which had arisen from the debating chambers of the new provincial assemblies, waxed with the waning power of the monarchy. The new Danish king, Frederik VII, under pressure from the new liberal party, abolished the absolute monarchy and drew up a democratic constitution, establishing a parliament with two chambers, Folketing and Landsting, whose members were elected by popular vote.
Although the king retained a limited voice, parliament took control of legislative powers. The constitution also established an independent judiciary and guaranteed the rights of free speech, religion and assembly. Denmark had changed overnight from a virtual dictatorship to one of the most democratic countries in Europe.
When Denmark’s new constitution threatened to incorporate the border duchy of Schleswig as an integral part of Denmark, the German population in the duchy allied with neighbouring Holstein, sparking years of unrest. In 1864 the Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, declared war on a militarily weak Denmark and captured Schleswig. Further eroding Denmark’s sovereignty, it raised doubts about Denmark’s survival as a nation.
In the wake of that defeat, a conservative government took and retained power until the end of the century. The conservatives oversaw a number of economic advances: extending the railway throughout the country and rapid industrialisation that established large-scale shipbuilding, brewing and sugar-refining industries.
The 20th Century
Denmark declared neutrality at the outbreak of WWII, but Germany, threatened by the growing Allied presence in Norway, coveted coastal bases in northern Jutland and in April 1940 seized key Danish strategic defences and occupied the country.
Managing to retain a degree of autonomy, the Danes trod a thin line, running domestic affairs under close Nazi supervision until August 1943 when the Germans took outright control. A Danish resistance movement quickly mushroomed.
Although the island of Bornholm was heavily bombarded by Soviet forces, the rest of Denmark emerged from WWII relatively unscathed. With the country officially free from German control on 5 May 1945, Danes took to the streets, burning the black shades used to cover their windows during bombing raids.
The Social Democrats led a comprehensive social-welfare state in post-war Denmark and cradle-to-grave medical care, education and public assistance were established. As the economy grew and the labour market increased, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers and household incomes reached new heights.
In the 1960s a rebellion by young people, disillusioned with growing materialism, the nuclear arms race and an authoritarian educational system, took hold in the larger cities. The movement came to a head in Copenhagen in 1971, when protesters tore down the fence of an abandoned military base at the east side of Christianshavn and turned the site into the still-thriving commune of Christiania.
Denmark’s external relationships were not without their troubles either. It joined the European Community, the predecessor of the EU, in 1973, but has been rather more hesitant about the subsequent expansion of the EU’s powers. Denmark rejected the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (which set the terms for much greater economic and political cooperation) as well as the adoption of the euro.
Meanwhile, Denmark maintained its leadership stance for socially liberal policies, including same-sex unions (instituted in 1989) and aggressive implementation of alternative energy sources.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the government was a coalition of the centre-right Venstre party and the Conservative People’s Party, sometimes also calling on the support of the generally nationalist right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP). This new power structure led Denmark to impose some of the toughest immigration laws in Europe in 2002, including restrictions on marriage between Danes and foreigners.
The first decade of the 21st century proved somewhat turbulent by Danish standards. Concerns over immigration – particularly from Muslim countries – saw a resurgence of the political right and increased support for the traditionalist DPP. In practical terms, the DPP’s participation contributed to Denmark’s joining the USA, UK and other allies in the 2003 Iraq War and Denmark’s commitment to maintain its role in Afghanistan.
In 2006 Denmark found itself in the unfamiliar role of villain in the eyes of many Muslims following the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed – a deep taboo for many Muslims but an issue of freedom of speech for liberal news editors – in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper. The depiction sparked violent demonstrations across the world, and the beamed images of protestors burning Danish flags shocked a nation not accustomed to such intense, widespread vitriol.
By 2010 the political pendulum began swinging to the left again as discontent over the country’s stuttering economic performance grew. In 2011 parliamentary elections saw a new, centre-left coalition take over after a closely fought election. At the helm was Denmark's first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Thorning-Schmidt's one-term reign was ended when the pendulum swung again at the next general election in mid-2015. A minority government was formed under Lars Løkke Rasmussen, head of the Venstre party. The government later formed a coalition with other conservative parties.
The next general election is scheduled to be held by June 2019.