A Brief History of Denmark

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Denmark

The first humans in Denmark arrived about 10,000 BC after the last Ice Age. The first Danes were Stone Age, hunters and fishermen. However, about 4,000 BC farming was introduced into Denmark. The earliest Danish farmers used stone tools and weapons. However, in about 1,800 BC bronze was introduced into Denmark. Danish craftsmen soon became experts at making goods from bronze. By 500 BC iron was introduced into Denmark.

The Iron Age Danes had contact with the Romans. They sold Roman merchants slaves, furs, skins, and amber in return for Mediterranean luxuries. Furthermore, by about 200 AD, the Danes had started to use Runes (a form of writing) for inscriptions.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th century, the Danes continued to trade with the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire.

Like the rest of Europe Denmark suffered a terrible outbreak of plague in the 6th century, which killed a large part of the population. Despite this trade flourished and in the 8th century the first trading settlements in Denmark grew up at Hedeby and Ribe.

Viking Denmark

In the 9th century, Denmark was divided into different kingdoms. However, during the 10th century, it became one.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Danes raided other parts of Europe such as England and Ireland. However, they were more than just raiders. The Danes created the first towns in Ireland, Limerick, Cork, and Dublin.

In the early 9th century the Danes raided English monasteries and took people as slaves. However, in the later 9th century they turned from raiding to conquest. In 865 the Danes invaded England (which was then divided into 3 kingdoms). By 874 only the southernmost kingdom remained. However, under their leader, Alfred the English defeated the Danes in 878. In 879 Alfred and the Danish leader, Guthrum made a treaty. England was divided between them, the Danes taking the eastern part. Guthrum also became a Christian.

The Danish part of England was called the Danelaw and over the following decades, the English conquered it piece by piece. The English and the Danes settled down and lived together peacefully.

However, in 1002 Ethelred the Unready, king of England ordered the massacre of Danish settlers. Among the dead were relatives of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard.

Sweyn became king of Denmark in about 985 and 1000 he conquered Norway. Enraged by the murder of his relatives he attacked England and demanded money in compensation. Afterward, for some years, Sweyn demanded money for not attacking England. Nevertheless, in 1013 he drove out the English king Ethelred and he became king of England. However, he died in 1014.

His son Canute fled to Denmark, fearing the revenge of Ethelred. Moreover, in 1015 Norway became independent of Denmark. However, Ethelred died in 1016. Some of the English were willing to accept Canute as their king but some elected a man named Edmund Ironside. The two fought for the crown.

Edmund was defeated but Canute allowed him to rule part of England until his death. Conveniently Edmund died the same year (1016). Canute then became king of England as well as Denmark. In 1028 he also conquered Norway and became the ruler of a northern empire. However, his empire did not long survive his death. England became independent in 1042 and Norway became independent in 1047.

In 826 a monk named Ansgar went to Hedeby to try and convert the Danes to Christianity, but he had little success. However, in about 960 King Harald Bluetooth became a Christian and most of his subjects followed.

Denmark in the Middle Ages

In 1047 Sweyn Estridson became king of Denmark. He increased the power of the crown and during his reign, Denmark was divided into 8 bishoprics (areas presided over by a bishop). Sweyn was followed by 5 of his sons in turn. However, in 1131 the king’s son Magnus the Strong murdered one of his relatives Cnut Lavard, fearing that Cnut might try to claim the throne one day. The result was a civil war that dragged on for 26 years until Valdemar the son of Cnut became king of Denmark in 1157.

Valdemar went to war with a people called the Wends who lived between the River Elbe and the River Oder. In 1169 he captured an island called Rugen. In 1184 his son Absalom conquered Pomerania and Mecklenburg. His brother Valdemar II, known as the victorious, followed him. Valdemar II was ambitious and he wished to control all the Baltic. By 1215 he controlled all the land between the Elbe and the Oder. In 1219 he invaded Estonia. He crushed the Estonians at the Battle of Lydanis and became their ruler.

However, in 1223 Valdemar was captured by a German Prince. He was released in 1225 on condition he surrendered all his conquests except Rugen and Estonia (in 1346 a Danish king, desperate for money sold Estonia).

In Viking times land in Denmark was farmed on a 2-field system. One half was sowed with crops and one half was left fallow. In the 12th century, a more advanced 3-field system was used. The land was divided into 3 large fields. One was sowed with Spring crops, one with autumn crops while the third was left fallow. Denmark grew steadily richer. Trade in the Baltic region prospered and Danish towns grew larger and more important. However, in 1349-1350 Denmark, like the rest of Europe was devastated by the Black Death, which probably killed 1/3 of the population.

Later in the century, a lady named Margaret became regent of both Denmark and Norway. In 1388 Swedish nobles rebelled against their king and declared Margaret regent of Sweden. In 1389 her soldiers captured the Swedish king although his supporters held out in Stockholm until 1398.

In 1397 Erik, grandson of her sister was crowned king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway at Kalmar. This union of three kingdoms was called the Union of Kalmar. Its capital was Copenhagen.

However, in 1434, a rebellion broke out in Sweden. It spread and in 1348 Erik was deposed as king of Denmark. In 1439 he was deposed as king of Sweden and in 1442 as king of Norway. In 1440 he was replaced as king of Denmark by his nephew Christopher, who later became king of Sweden and Norway as well. However, Christopher died in 1448 and the union broke up. In 1449 the Danes elected Count Christian of Oldenburg king.

In 1481 John became king of Denmark. In 1483 he also became king of Norway. The Swedes also recognized him as their king but he was not crowned until 1497. Furthermore, his reign over Sweden was short-lived. In 1501 the Swedes rebelled against him. From 1506 to 1513 John fought against Sweden but failed to regain the Swedish crown.

Denmark in the 16th Century

Nevertheless, his son Christian II was made King of Sweden in 1520. However, his reign was short. The Danes rebelled against Christian and imprisoned him in 1523. His uncle was made King Frederick I of Denmark and Norway in his place. Meanwhile, the Swedes chose one of their own people as king of Sweden. Afterward, Sweden was separated from Denmark forever.

When Frederick I died in 1533 the Reformation was splitting Europe. His oldest son Christian favored Lutheranism, while his younger son, Hans, was brought up a Catholic. After Frederick’s death, the election of a new king was postponed for a year. Then in 1534, the people of Lubeck sent an expedition under Count Christopher of Oldenburg to demand that the former King Christian II be released from prison and reinstated. The expedition landed in Zealand and civil war ensued. The people of Copenhagen supported the expedition and the people of Jutland rose in rebellion in support of ex-king Christian.

However, a man named John Rantzau, a Lutheran noble crushed the rebellion in Jutland and the Danes defeated Lubeck at sea. In 1536 Copenhagen was starved into submission and the civil war, known as the Counts War ended. Subsequently, Lutheranism became the religion of Denmark.

Both Denmark and Sweden sought to control the Baltic States. The result was a war in the years 1563-1570. Neither side was able to defeat the other and the Peace of Stettin ended the war. The devastation caused by the war was followed by a long period of peace. However, the king of Denmark was forced to pay for the war partly by imposing taxes on farmers and partly by charging duties on cargo carried through the Sound.

Denmark in the 17th Century

In 1611-1613 yet another war was fought between Denmark and Sweden. Neither side was able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other. n Meanwhile Christian IV (1588-1648) founded new towns in Denmark and gained overseas possessions. However Christian insisted on intervening in the Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-1648). However, in 1626 the Danish army was severely defeated and was forced to retreat. The enemy army occupied Jutland for 18 months. In 1629 Christian made peace by the treaty of Lubeck.

In 1643 Denmark and Sweden fought again. Denmark was defeated and was forced to make peace in 1645.

The Danes and the Swedes fought again in 1658-1660. The Treaty of Copenhagen ended the War. For Denmark the terms were humiliating. The Danish king was forced to surrender territory to the Swedish king. The Swedes were also granted exemption from tolls charged on ships passing through the Sound.

Nevertheless, after the war, the king of Denmark greatly increased his power. In 1660 the Danish assembly, the Rigsdag, granted him autocratic powers. From then on the Danish king was an absolute monarch, at least in theory.

In 1675-1679 Denmark and Sweden went to war again. The great Danish admiral Niels Juel defeated the Swedes at sea. Nevertheless, after the war, the Danes were forced to surrender Skane in Southern Sweden.

Denmark in the 18th Century

By 1700 the population of Denmark was about 2/3 of a million.

During the 18th century, Denmark was an overwhelmingly agricultural society. There was little industry. The peasants were not free. Each man had to live in the village he was born in between the ages of 4 and 40 and he had to spend some of his time working on his landlord’s land rather than his own.

Denmark took part in the Great Northern War 1709-1720 against Sweden but at the end of the war had little to show for it. However, most of the 18th century was a peaceful one for Denmark and quite a large merchant navy was built up.

From 1784 Crown Prince Frederick was Regent of Denmark and he introduced reforms. Peasants were made free and no longer had to work on their lord’s land. Tenant farmers often became small landowners. Furthermore, rich landowners no longer had the right to physically punish their tenants e.g. by whipping them. Trade was also deregulated and tariffs on imported goods were cut.

Denmark in the 19th Century

During the war, the British navy tried to stop France from importing war materials so they stopped and searched vessels from neutral countries. In 1794 Denmark and Sweden formed armed neutrality to stop the British from doing this. In 1800 Russia and Prussia joined. Britain decided to take action. In 1801 a British fleet under Nelson attacked a Danish fleet in Copenhagen Harbor and destroyed part of it.

In 1805 the French fleet was destroyed at Trafalgar. Britain feared the French might seize the Danish fleet and use it to attack Britain. Therefore the British fleet attacked Copenhagen. The British ships bombarded the city and fired rockets at it. Parts of Copenhagen were burned. Copenhagen was forced to surrender and the British took the Danish fleet. Worse was to come. In 1813 the Swedes attacked Norway. In 1814 Denmark was forced to surrender Norway to them.

On a brighter note in 1814 universal primary education was introduced into Denmark.

Moreover, during the 19th century, the king’s power was gradually reduced. In 1834 the king created 4 assemblies called Diets for the islands (including Iceland), Jutland, Schleswig, and Holstein. Only men who owned a certain amount of property could vote and the diets only had the power to advise the king but it was a start.

Furthermore between 1837 and 1841 local self-government was created in Denmark. Yet the liberals demanded more reforms. So finally in 1849, King Frederick VII agreed to a new constitution. A new assembly was formed made up of 2 houses, the Folketing and Landsting. Freedom of the press and religion were also granted in Denmark.

Joined to Denmark were two duchies, Holstein and Schleswig. Holstein was German but Slesvig had a mixed German and Danish population. The Danes tried to make Slesvig an integral part of Denmark. As a result, a rebellion began in Schleswig-Holstein. The Prussians and other Germans intervened but the Tsar persuaded them to withdraw. The war against Schleswig-Holstein ended in January 1851. By agreements of 1851 and 1852, the Danes agreed not to try and make Slesvig closer to Denmark than Holstein.

However, war began again in 1864. Despite the agreement, Denmark tried to absorb Slesvig in 1863. On 1 February 1864 Prussian and Austrian forces crossed the Eider. The Danes fought bravely but the Germans occupied Jutland and they captured the island of Als (a Danish stronghold). So on 20 July peace talks began. In October the two duchies were surrendered to Prussia and Austria by the Treaty of Vienna.

Despite this disaster, the Danish economy grew rapidly in the late 19th century. The land was drained for farming. The brewing and sugar beet industries boomed.

Engineering and shipbuilding flourished. Meanwhile, Copenhagen grew very rapidly. By 1911 it had a population of 560,000. In 1870 only about 25% of the population of Denmark was urban but by 1901 it had reached 44%. (Today the figure is about 70%).

Denmark in the 20th Century

Denmark remained neutral during the First World War and in 1915 the constitution was changed to make it more democratic. Women in Denmark were granted the right to vote.

Denmark suffered severely during the Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment soared. At the worst point in 1932-1933, it reached 32%. The government responded by creating public works to reduce the number of unemployed. At the same time, several laws were passed to create a generous welfare state.

When the Second World War began in 1939 Denmark stayed neutral. However, the Germans occupied Denmark in 1940. On 9 April 1940, the German army crossed the border and German troop transports sailed to Copenhagen. The Germans threatened to bomb Copenhagen and so the Danes surrendered. At first, the Germans treated the Danes leniently as they wanted the Danish food supply. However Danish resistance gradually increased. Acts of sabotage took place and on 29 August 1943, the Germans clamped down. They declared a state of emergency. The Danish army was disarmed and the Danish fleet was seized. The Danish cabinet was replaced by a group of civil servants who ran the country. However, during the Second World War, nearly 7,000 Jewish Danes were smuggled into Sweden.

After the German surrender in May 1945, some 46 Danes were executed for collaborating with the enemy. However, the country benefited from the Marshall Aid, which was given by the USA in the years 1948-1953. It helped Denmark to recover and in 1949 Denmark joined NATO. Then in 1953, the Danish constitution was changed.

The 1960s were years of prosperity for Denmark. There was full employment. Danish agriculture became highly mechanized and Danish industry grew rapidly. In 1973 Denmark joined the Common Market (forerunner of the EU). Meanwhile, television began in Denmark in 1951.

Unfortunately in the late 1970s the Danish economy deteriorated. Unemployment rose. (It reached 10% in 1983). In the 1980s the government introduced austerity measures to try and curb inflation.

Denmark in the 21st Century

In the early 21st century the Danish economy flourished and unemployment was low. Like the rest of Europe Denmark suffered a recession in 2009 but soon recovered. Today Denmark is a prosperous country with a high standard of living. In 2015 Andreas Mogensen became the first Danish astronaut. In 2024 the population of Denmark was 5.9 million.


Last revised 2024