Danish history

We visited so many castles and palaces, that the history of the Danish realm became somewhat of a ponderable in our minds. As I’ve said before, I love stories of how we all have managed to get where we are today. And our visit to Kronborg Castle allowed some of the gaps to be filled and a few links to be forged. So if you are not the least bit interested in history, feel free to skip this entry. But I found it to be quite enlightening, so I thought I’d share.

Kronborg Castle Notes
When Kronborg Castle was completed in 1585, Frederik II moved into the building, and created his King’s Chamber. From this room, he could assure that ships out on the Sound paid their respects by lowering their topsails: (In a travel diary from 1593, a foreign visitor notes how, after dinner, he and the king sat looking out at the ships sailing past. One of the ships waited until four warning shots had been fired toward it before lowering the topsail). Because a large share of Frederik II’s and later Danish kings’ income came from the dues paid by ships passing through the sound, the king was personally interested in the respect shown to Kronborg.

Kronborg burned on an autumn night in 1629, but Christian IV, the king at that time, was determined to recreate its splendor. As Denmark’s reputation was at stake, money was no object. Kronborg was modernized during that renovation/rebuilding. Following that fire, and because of the restoration, King Christian IV commissioned a series of 84 drawings depicting heroic themes from Danish history. In addition to being used as preparatory studies for a graphic work extending chronologically from the earliest times of the realm to Christian IV’s era, the drawings were to be models of paintings to embellish the walls and ceilings of Kronborg’s Ballroom. Nine Dutch artists, who (with a single exception) were all associated with the famous Utrecht school of painters, were entrusted with the project.

Neither the graphic work nor the series of paintings was finished according to plan. Still, 44 drawings and 15 paintings in the series have been preserved. The paintings are damaged, however, because they were dismantled and taken to Sweden as spoils of war during the occupation of Kronborg in 1658-60. In Sweden, the paintings were scattered among various castles and manors, where they were mercilessly cut and trimmed whenever they did not fit into their new owners’ required spaces. Ironically, only the painting depicting the triumph of Queen Margrete I over King Albrecht of Sweden remained in Denmark. Today, it is displayed at Kronborg, in the Queen’s Chamber, along with three other paintings in the series that were returned to the castle during the 1900s. The paintings on display at Kronborg tell some of the history of Denmark.

The four paintings are described here.

Frode Fredegod Acclaimed by Many Kings
Dressed in an ermine cloak and with his crown and scepter, legendary King Frode III Fredegod, who allegedly reigned over Denmark in the period around the birth of Christ, sits on his throne. The artist depicted an aging king kneeling before Frode, expressing his submissiveness by placing his crown on the podium at the Danish King’s feet. On the steps of the podium, other crowns are evident, and a group of kings is in readiness to follow the kneeling king’s example.

In his famous Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes, c. 1200), Saxo Grammaticus, author of the narrative of Frode Fredegod, says that King Frode, after having conquered vast territories (including Great Britian and large parts of Germany), won such renown that numerous kings submitted themselves to him in pure awe. During the following thirty years, peace reigned in Frode’s empire, which secured him the familiar surname, Frodegod for “Long Peace.”

The so-called Frode Peace was thus the national counterpart of the emperor Augustus’s famous Pax Romana (Roman peace). In all respects, Saxo Grammaticus’ description of Frode’s reign was an attempt to present the Danish kingdom as a worthy equivalent of the Roman Empire. This was an idea that appealed very strongly to Christian IV.

Margrete I Receives the Swedish Crown from King Albrecht
As guardian of her son, Oluf (the issue of her marriage with the late Norwegian King Haakon VI), Margrete I (daughter of King Valdemar Atterdag), managed to take control of both Denmark and Norway. Oluf died in 1387, and they conveniently ignored the fact that his death meant the lapse of the legal basis for Margrete’s position of power. Nevertheless, Margrete succeeded in maintaining the power in both realms upon Oluf’s death, but she was challenged by the Swedish king, Albrecht of Meklenburg. His attempt to take over her realms, however, was unsuccessful, and he was defeated by the Queen’s armies in 1389, and both he and his son were taken prisoner.

The painting depicts Albrecht’s capture and surrender of the Swedish crown. It shows Margrete raising her scepter, indicating that she is placing the Swedish realm under her power. In the eyes of the Danish kings, the episode was the absolute pinnacle of Nordic history, as Margrete’s victory over Albrecht laid the foundation for the Danish-dominated Kalmar Union (1397-1523).

King Hans in the Battle for Rotebro Before Stockholm
This episode of Danish history, from the reign of King Hans (1481-1512), constitutes the historical apogee of the union policy of the Oldenburg kings. In an earlier attempt to force rebellious Sweden under the Danish-dominated Kalmar Union (founded by Queen Margrete I in 1397), Christian I, King Hans’s predecessor on the Dano-Norwegian throne, had suffered a defeat at the battle of Brukeberg (1471). Christian I never succeeded in reconquering Sweden, but the decisive victory at Rotebro in 1497 laid open the road to Stockholm, where his son, King Hans, triumphantly received the Swedish crown. He had thus taken revenge over his father’s defeat and restored the Kalmar Union.

The crowning ceremony in Stockholm immediately after the victory at Rotebro is the subject of another painting in the Kronborg series (not on display here, but rather in Sweden, at Vittskövle Castle). Christian IV’s enthusiasm for the themes depicted in the series is easy to understand, as they glorify a time in history when Denmark held the dominant position of power in the Nordic countries. In reality, the balance of power had already tipped at the time the series was commissioned and painted, and by an irony of fate, the paintings we taken as spoils of war les than two decades later, and transported to Sweden.

King Frederik I Before the Besieged Copenhagen
Accompanied by three riders, one of whom is barely visible due to a later trimming of the canvas, Frederik I on horseback inspects the besieged city of Copenhagen. He points with his sword to a map of the city, indicating to his lieutenants where their efforts to breach the city’s fortifications should be strengthened. The towering city is shown in the background, while workers in the middle distance are seen to be digging attack entrenchments.

What led up to the war was the Imperial Council’s deposition of Christian II in 1523, due to several accusations of injustices and abuses of power. Frederik, the paternal uncle of Christian II, was elected to replace him, and he would soon control most of the country, even though Christian II still had many loyal followers. Christian II went into exile in the Netherlands, but behind the ramparts of Copenhagen, his sworn adherents managed to hold out for 8 months, confident that the deposed king would return with an army to dethrone Frederik I. But the anticipated reinforcements failed to turn up, and after 8 months of siege, a starving Copenhagen had to surrender to Frederik, in January of 1524.

So that’s a fair summary of Danish history until the 16th century, and even though I have the succession plan written down from there forward, I will spare you those dates and names. Suffice it to say that the Danes seem to alternate Christians and Frederiks for the most part through the Danish kings’ history. For the record, the lighting was so poor on the paintings that I was unable to get actual pix of them with my iPhone, although I managed one or two decent ones with the real camera.

Back to Kronborg, however. In 1760, the north wing of Kronborg was renovated to reflect the tastes of the era: stucco ceilings were installed and the black and white tile of the floors was replaced with wood, and other decorative changes inspired by French Rococo and with the era’s fascination with anything Oriental were made.

Despite the modernization, the castle became inconvenient for the royal family. Frederik V (1723-1766) was the last king to reside at Kronborg. The military took the facilities over in 1785; then abandoned it; and by 1991, they also had withdrawn from the perimeter areas.

Here are some pix of and from the castle.








These are ceiling beams in the Ballroom uncovered when the decorative wooden panels (similar to those in the chapel) were removed. In its day, the Ballroom at Kronborg was the largest in Scandinavia.
















The Kronborg Tapestries
The 7 tapestries of kings in the Little Hall belonged to a series of 43 tapestries originally commissioned by King Frederik II for the ballroom of Kronborg in 1581. A total of 100 Danish kings are depicted on the tapestries, which were made in Elsinore (Hellsinger) under the prudent management of Hans Knieper from Antwerp. One can think of the tapestries as a portrait gallery capturing the distinctions of a royal family. 14 king tapestries, along with 1 of 3 complementary hunting tapestries, survive today.

One I found particularly interesting. A quiet peasant scene and a group of hunters on foot or mounted on horses is seen in the background. This apparently idyllic life is sharply juxtaposed with verses imbedded in the tapestry, including the line: For kingship I did crave/thus my brother I sent to the grave. The wildlife in the foreground carry a hidden symbolism, referring to Abel’s dreadful deed.


On the left side of the king is a falcon, which has put its talons on a small bird while a poisonous snake is quietly slipping away in the shrubbery below.


Historians think the scene is based on the classical theme of “The eagle fighting the snake,” which symbolizes the struggle between good and evil. In this instance, evil, in the form of the snake, slips away while the falcon grips the powerless bird.

“Historically, the evil king was himself killed in an uprising, only two years after the ruthless assassination of his brother,” says the plaque. And with a little bit of further study, I found a link from this tapestry, and the Cain and Abel story to Hamlet (Kronborg is called “Hamlet’s Castle”).

The actual story of Hamlet is based on Danish sources. The core of the story dates back to Saxo’s comprehensive chronicle of the exploits of the Danes, Gesta Danorum written around 1200 and printed in 1514.

The brutal tale centers on the brothers, Orvendil and Fengi, who rule over Jutland under the reign of King Rorik of Denmark. Orvendil weds the king’s daughter Geruth, and they give birth to a son, Amleth. In his chronicle, Saxo describes how Fengi (the fratricide) murders Orvendil and marries his brother’s widow to seize the throne (sound familiar, English Majors?). In fear of his uncle’s next move, Amleth pretends to be insane. It saves his life, and he takes the opportunity to avenge his father’s death.

Hamlet’s link to Kronborg
The castle and Elsinore (today the town/city that is the home of Kronborg is called Hellsinger, but in Shakespeare’s time, it was Elsinore) provide a colorful backdrop for the tragedy of Prince Hamlet of Denmark. But why did Shakespeare choose to set his play at Kronborg? The name Kronborg is not mentioned in the play, but the events take place at the “Castle of Elsinore.”

Rumors of Frederik II’s newly-built castle, and the sumptuous festivities that took place there, must have reached England. By about 1600, Elsinore was known throughout the world, and the Danish king had just completed his magnificent Renaissance castle. The fortifications and impressive royal residence clearly demonstrated the king’s power to friends and enemies alike.

In the play there are many details about life at the castle and in the town, which might indicate that Shakespeare had visited Elsinore. We know that some of the actors who later joined his theater troupe performed at Kronborg in 1585-6. And in the 1590s, there are several years during Shakespeare’s life when his whereabouts are unaccounted for. So it isn’t unthinkable that he visited Kronborg, or at least the town, even if scholars and historians are not in agreement.

While it is unlikely that Shakespeare read Gesta Danorum, the story of the Danish prince who avenges his father’s murder by his brother was read and embellished and retold throughout Europe during the 1500s. Around 1590, the dramatist Thomas Kyd gave the work the action and adventure of a revenge drama, which likely inspired Shakespeare to write The Tragical History of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark around 1600. With this treatment, Saxo’s legendary prince was made immortal.

Of course, Hamlet is the most famous play of all time, having been quite popular already in Shakespeare’s time.

In the play, the audience witnesses Hamlet’s dilemma: the spirit of his murdered father appears before him and demands blood vengeance. Tradition and duty put Hamlet in an impossible position – must he follow the medieval dogma of revenge (an eye for an eye)? Or should he behave like a modern, Renaissance man, and tear himself from the past, to look always toward the future?

Hamlet struggles with transitional challenges, he must choose between two different views of the world, and is thus forced to reflect on his own identity and existence. Hamlet embarks on a lonesome journey inside himself, in an effort to slip the bonds of heritage and environment. He wants to create his own identity, that beyond his father’s, and also be true to his own ideals and sustain his dreams for his imagined future.

As a passage to adulthood, he must make his own choices and take that difficult next step; take responsibility for those choices. These themes are timeless and have survived the test of the ages, where any character in literature or drama who struggles with questions of liberty, identity, and the network of nature and nurture that irrevocably connects our pasts and our futures, is, in fact, another Hamlet.