4. Foreign policy

Denmark’s defeat to its main rival Sweden in the Second Northern War (1657–1660) and a subsequent desire for revenge came to play a crucial role in the country’s foreign policy for the next sixty years. The king also wished to subsume the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein into Denmark’s hereditary monarchy and state law. The Gottorp duke originally owned half of Schleswig and Holstein, and had taken Sweden’s side during the Danish–Swedish wars. In the decades that followed, this situation and the complicated legal conditions in the duchies created a number of conflicts, and the desire to expel the Gottorps from Schleswig was high on the foreign policy agenda.

The desire for revenge

The first absolute monarchs had clear ambitions to re-conquer Denmark’s lost territories and reduce the threat from Sweden. These ambitions not only played a key role in foreign policy but also motivated the establishment of a strong and efficient state administration, since the primary role of the administration was to collect taxes from the population in order to finance a reliable military apparatus. A similar development took place in Sweden, meaning that from the beginning of the eighteenth century and even before, the two Nordic kingdoms were the most militarised states in Europe. The power struggle between Denmark and Sweden took place not only in Scandinavia but also in the northern German regions, where both states had territories.

The Baltic Sea region continued to play a major role in northern European shipping and trade. Large quantities of grain, as well as materials to build ships, such as wood and tar, were sailed from Poland and Prussia to densely populated areas in western Europe via the Baltic Sea. This gave Denmark’s location a strategic significance in relation to western naval powers such as England, France and the Netherlands. For the Danish kings, the Sound toll, which was collected in Helsingør, were an important source of income and a way of gaining both political prestige in the Øresund and a strong position in foreign policy. It was not, however, in the interests of the major western powers to support Denmark’s desire to re-take the Skåne provinces it had lost to Sweden – and thus regain dominion over both sides of the Øresund and the Kattegat. But nor were they keen for Sweden to control both sides, so they contributed to maintaining the status quo in the Danish–Swedish balance of power, where the border between the two countries went through the Øresund.

The Skåne War, 1675–1679

In the years immediately after 1660, money was required to pursue Denmark’s ambition to regain its lost territories. The country was impoverished after having been ravaged and plundered by foreign troops, but the state made great efforts to raise taxes to finance rearmament; large areas of the Crown’s land were also sold. By the mid-1670s, the Crown’s financial position had improved considerably, and it was once again possible for it to pursue its foreign policy goals. After the introduction of absolutism, Denmark had initially attempted to stay out of armed conflicts between the great powers by adopting a cautious and restrained alliance-based neutrality. However, France attacked the Netherlands in 1672, and over the next three years a major European war developed with France, England and Sweden on the same side. Denmark was forced to take a side in the conflict and joined Sweden’s enemies: the Netherlands, Spain, Austria and Brandenburg. As a part of this alliance, Christian V chose to enter the Skåne War by attacking Swedish troops in northern Germany. He did this together with Brandenburg, one of the strongest states in northern Europe.

The Skåne War became one of the most intensive the country had ever fought. One of its largest and bloodiest battles took place at Lund on 4 December 1676. Over half of the soldiers who fought in the battle lost their lives, amounting to approximately 6,000 men, most of whom were Danish. In addition, a couple of thousand men were injured and the Swedish army took approximately 1,500 Danish prisoners of war.

Sea battle of Køge Bay on 1 July 1677

The Swedish and the Danish fleets engaged in the sea  battle of Køge Bay on 1 July 1677. Under the leadership  of the Danish admiral Niels Juel, the Swedish fleet was defeated. This great victory at sea made Niels Juel one of Denmark’s greatest naval heroes. Painting by Anton Melbye (1818–1875), from 1855. Photo: National Gallery of Denmark

The Great Northern War, 1700, 1709–1720

Despite this catastrophic defeat, Denmark’s strategy largely succeeded in the first two years of the war. However, the situation soon turned to Sweden’s advantage. France, which was the major power on the European continent, intervened in the war as Sweden’s ally, entering Germany and Oldenburg to rescue the Swedes. In the late summer of 1679, a peace treaty was dictated by the French King Louis XIV in Fontainebleau. Neither Christian V nor the Swedish king was able to reject the treaty, which stipulated that Denmark was to return territory gained during the war and revert to the status quo. A hard lesson from the war, for both Nordic kingdoms, was that the scope of their foreign policy and their opportunities to meet military goals depended entirely on the great powers.

The persistent Danish–Swedish disputes had major consequences for the population of Skåne. When Denmark’s troops landed in 1676, Christian V encouraged the province’s former Danish subjects to join the fight on their side. A movement of guerrilla fighters, the so-called snaphaner, pursued resistance against the Swedes, carrying out assassinations and assaults. The Swedes came down hard on the partisans’ sabotage and responded by burning down entire villages. After the Skåne War, Sweden initiated an active policy of ‘Swedification’. Trade connections across the Øresund were severed, higher taxes were imposed on the population, and men were conscripted into the Swedish army.

Despite the outcome of the Skåne War, Denmark’s desire for revenge and to re-take the lost territories continued to form a central part of foreign policy. In combination with this, the overall security policy objective was to avoid a Swedish expansion that could threaten the existence of the Danish state. As alliance systems broke up and changed, Denmark attempted to stay on good terms with the major powers, albeit without much success. Between 1700 and 1721, the Great Northern War was fought between Sweden and several northern European states. Denmark participated in two stages of the war, in 1700 and then again in 1709–1720. In alliance with Poland and Russia, in 1700 it attacked Swedish territories in northwest Germany. The Swedes subsequently launched their own attack from the south. The large western powers were alarmed at the situation in the duchies, and a combined English-Dutch navy was sent to Danish waters in an attempt to persuade the Danish government to cease hostilities. In July 1700, Swedish troops landed in northern Sjælland, where they met little resistance and quickly gained a sufficient foothold to surround Copenhagen. Under these circumstances, and at the request of the great powers, a peace settlement was reached in the Holstein town of Travental on 18 August 1700, which once again reset the situation to its pre-war starting point.

The main front in the war was between Russia and Sweden, and when the Swedish king, Karl XII, suffered a defeat to the Russians in 1709, Denmark’s Frederik IV saw an opportunity to regain his lost territories. A Danish army went ashore in Skåne, having entered into an alliance with Sweden’s enemies Saxony and Russia. Despite the withdrawal of the army the following year, the war raged back and forth for several years without decisive progress for any of the parties. As had been the case during the Skåne War, the Danish were strongest at sea and the Swedish were best on land.

The great powers wished to avoid either significantly weakening the Swedish army or strengthening Denmark-Norway, and this formed the basis for the peace settlement that was entered into at Frederiksborg Castle on 3 June 1720. In the following year, Sweden and Russia also entered into a peace agreement, which ended the Great Northern War and with it the position of Sweden as a great power. The Danish–Swedish peace settlement resulted in the preservation of the original balance of power between the two kingdoms, and Denmark did not achieve its desired territorial gains in the Skåne provinces. The Danish king was, however, granted possession of the duchy of Schleswig, which the Gottorp dukes had previously owned and exploited in alliance with Sweden. According to the Treaty of Frederiksborg, Sweden was forbidden from providing the Gottorp dukes with assistance at the expense of Denmark, and it was also no longer exempt from paying Sound toll.

Foreign policy after 1720 and the Gottorp question

At the end of the Great Nordic War, Danish rulers put aside their ambition to regain the territories lost in 1658, though they still dreamed of it, and maintained a high level of militarisation. The many wars of the previous century between the two neighbouring countries therefore ended, to be followed by a period of eighty years of relative peace. Denmark’s relationship with Sweden continued to cause unrest on occasion, but it did not escalate to war. Throughout the rest of the eighteenth century, the aim of foreign policy was to maintain peace by remaining neutral and aligning with the European alliance systems.

An essential part of maintaining peace was ensuring a long-term solution to the so-called ‘Gottorp question’, which remained unresolved after 1720. Since 1657, the powerful Gottorp dukes in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein had taken Sweden’s side in the wars. Even though the Gottorp part of Schleswig was transferred to the Danish Crown in the peace treaty of 1720, the Gottorp dukes still ruled parts of Holstein and retained a strong position through marriage into the Swedish and Russian royal families. Military confrontations almost broke out in 1743 and again in 1762, when the Gottorp duke Karl Peter Ulrich became appointed tsar in Russia under the name Peter III. The Gottorp question was only finally solved with the exchange of territories and privileges contained in the Treaty of Tsarskoye Selo (Mageskifte-traktaten) in 1773, which was to constitute a shift in the history of Danish foreign policy. According to this treaty, a division of land and rights was agreed in which the Russian tsar renounced all his rights in Schleswig in exchange for the counties of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst. The Gottorp dynasty thus finally gave up its share of Schleswig and ceded its part of Holstein to the Danish king, so that the king became sole duke. In this way, the Oldenburg kingdom could finally be described as a ‘conglomerate state’ that included Denmark-Norway as well as Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg.

From the League of Armed Neutrality to the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801

For a long time, the Danish state succeeded in remaining neutral and staying out of the many armed conflicts between other European powers. Neutrality enabled the establishment of a considerable overseas trade, since Danish ships were able to carry goods for the various warring parties. The merchant fleet under the neutral flag contributed significantly to economic growth in line with expanding and thriving trade, which is why the period from the 1770s is also referred to as the ‘period of efflorescent trade’ (den florissante handelsperiode) in Denmark.

In the late 1790s, Denmark switched to a proactive policy of neutrality, in which merchant ships were accompanied by naval vessels in an attempt to prevent the inspection of cargoes by the warring powers, from whom Denmark continued to profit by transporting their goods. Armed conflicts were largely fought between the two colonial powers of Britain and France, and Denmark had exploited its lucrative neutrality in order to sail goods for France to Britain’s enemies. This proved to be a thorn in the side of the British, who came to regard the Danish merchant fleet as hostile. Following pressure from Russia, Denmark joined the League of Armed Neutrality – a military defence alliance against Britain – with Sweden, Prussia and Russia in 1801. The French Napoleon I and Russia’s Tsar Paul I had also previously entered into an agreement to block the British from European ports. The British responded by demanding that Denmark withdraw from the League of Armed Neutrality. When this demand was refused, Britain sent a large naval force to the Danish capital.

These circumstances resulted in the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, as part of what is known in Danish historiography as the first English War. With the vice admiral and naval hero Lord Nelson at the helm of a large fleet, the English won the sea battle at Copenhagen’s harbour inlet (Københavns Red), an anchorage near the capital. During the five-hour battle, news reached the Danish crown prince, Frederik (VI), that the Russian tsar had died a week earlier. Denmark surmised that Russian foreign policy would change and that it could therefore withdraw from the League of Armed Neutrality without finding itself at war with its allies. Britain’s demands were accepted, and what was actually a military defeat could be spun by the Danish government as a draw, so that the country’s honour remained largely intact.

The English Wars, the seizing of the fleet, and the Treaty of Kiel in 1814

The conflict with Britain was temporarily over, and Denmark returned to a defensive policy of neutrality in an attempt to avoid a new conflict with major powers. However, in 1807, this strategy – and with it the lucrative use of neutrality to stimulate foreign trade – collapsed. The French emperor Napoleon had won great victories, and ruled most of Europe. France was at war with shifting coalitions of the other major powers, but in the summer of 1807 France and Russia made peace and demanded that neutral countries such as Denmark join an economic blockade – the Continental System – which forbade trade with Britain. The Danish state also faced an ultimatum from Britain: either enter into a British alliance or hand over its fleet unconditionally, which the country feared would be taken by the French.

In the middle of August 1807, Britain sent fifty ships into Danish waters north of Copenhagen. Soldiers were put ashore on Sjælland and subsequently managed to surround the capital. Denmark was thus forced to choose sides in the war between France and Britain. The country’s regent, Crown Prince Frederik (VI), decided to reject British demands and instead joined forces with Napoleon. Since the demand to surrender the Danish fleet had not been met, the British launched a major bombardment of Copenhagen between 2 and 5 September, leaving the city devastated by bombs and fire, with hundreds of its inhabitants killed or wounded. The commander of Copenhagen was forced to sign a capitulation, and the British seized almost all the Danish fleet and sailed off with it. The loss of the fleet was serious, severely weakening the country’s military position. A vital part of Denmark’s means of defending its neutrality had been taken, and the country was at war with Great Britain.

The bombardment of Copenhagen on the night of 4 September 1807

The bombardment of Copenhagen on the night of 4 September 1807. The painter C.W. Eckersberg (1783–1853) was staying in the capital during the British attack from 2 to 5 September. He subsequently painted some of the dramatic events, in which around 6,000 grenades and fire rockets hit the city. The picture shows women, children and the wounded fleeing Copenhagen for Christianshavn over the Langebro bridge. This coloured engraving by G.L. Lahde (1765–1833) was based on Eckersberg’s painting from 1807. Photo: Royal Danish Library

Following the bombing of Copenhagen and the seizing of the Danish fleet, France and Denmark entered into a defence alliance, as the crown prince feared that Napoleon would otherwise invade Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland, and that Sweden would then be able to attack Sjælland. The alliance with France proved costly once the war turned against Napoleon. In January 1814, as part of the Treaty of Kiel, Denmark had to cede Norway to Sweden.