Though people have been present in the region that would become Denmark from the Neolithic era, it was the Vikings who first brought the people of Denmark to world consciousness. The people known as the Vikings lived in what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and from the 10th century, Iceland. While Vikings are often portrayed simply as brutal raiders, the reality was much more complex.
The Vikings were superb shipbuilders and sailors, which they used to trade and raid from Constantinople (now Istanbul) to Novgorod (in modern Russia), linking Europe to the Islamic and Byzantine trade networks. To the west, Vikings went as far afield as Greenland, and even Newfoundland (in North America). Though Viking society was mostly not literate, it had a rich oral tradition that produced enduring sagas that are still read today.
The Danes mostly headed west, to England and Ireland, where they established settlements. Famously, Danes moved primarily to the eastern part of England, which became known as the Danelaw, because, quite literally, it was under the law of the Danes.
In the first half of the 10th century, the kingdom of Denmark was consolidated under King Gorm the Old. Gorm’s son, Harald I claimed to have conquered Norway and Christianised the Danes.
While no clear line can be drawn, the Viking age essentially ended by the middle of the 11th century. The Christianisation of Scandinavia and the establishment of central control meant that the independence vital to the Viking tradition of exploration was gone. Where once small warrior bands could just leave, often establishing new societies, Harald and his successors began to introduce a system more akin to feudalism, in which peasants were tied to the soil and delivered goods in exchange for military protection. Denmark never introduced serfdom fully – peasants either owned their own land or were tenants on crown or aristocratic lands – but serfdom-like arrangements existed on many of the smaller islands, and class distinctions rapidly increased over the Middle Ages.
The Protestant Reformation would lead to civil war in Denmark. When the Reformation broke out, though King Frederick I promised Denmark’s Roman Catholic bishops that he would fight heresy, in actuality he invited Lutheran preachers to the country, hoping to expand royal power against the church. Following his death, the bishops postponed the election of a new king, fearing that Frederick’s oldest son Christian would immediately introduce Lutheranism.
In 1534, the mayors of Malmö (now in Sweden) and Copenhagen, along with the North German city of Lubeck invaded Denmark under the pretext of restoring the exiled Christian II, who had been king before being deposed by his uncle, Frederick I.
Despite their earlier misgivings the nobles and powerful Catholic bishops rallied around Frederick’s son Christian, in the face of the incursion. By contrast, Jutland peasants and the emerging middle classes supported Christian II, who was famous for having fallen in love with a middle class woman, the Dutch Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, and for supporting the rights of common people.
Frederick’s son, Christian III won the war. Once in power, he arrested the Catholic bishops and confiscated all church property, bringing vast estates to the crown. In October 1536, the Danish Lutheran Church was established. New bishops were of the Burgher class, perhaps an attempt to appease the middle classes who had supported Christian II, but had little of the power that the Catholic bishops had possessed.
In the centuries following the Reformation, the power of the central monarch increased at the expense of the nobility. This ended following the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848, in which the absolute monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy.
For more information on the history of Denmark, check out our other articles: Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen’s Magical Theme Park, Viking’s Woolen Sails and Discover Scandinavia in Denmark.