Ancient Denmark

Denmark is one of the oldest kingdoms in the world and was the ancestral birthplace of the ancient seafaring warriors known as the Vikings.

The Ancient World of the Vikings

Viking Chess Piece, Danish or Norwegian 12th Century, Found on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Denmark is one of the oldest kingdoms in the world and dates back to the first Danish monarch, King “Gorm the Old” who established his reign in the 10th century. He was succeeded by his son King “Harald Bluetooth” , who erected a runic stone in year 965 over his parents burial plot at Jelling in Jutland. The stone has an inscription that praises himself for making all Danes Christians. “The Harald who won the whole of Denmark and Norway and turned the Danes to Christianity.” The runic stones at Jelling are considered as the birth certificate of the Danish kingdom. Although Denmark is a small nation their impact on European history is very profound. Being at once the ancestral home of the Vikings, and at one time controlling much of Sweden and Norway as well, the Danish managed to settle lands that were barely known of in ancient times. Today one forgets that the largest isalnd in North America, Greenland, is still a Danish possession, and many inhabitants from Ireland to Thule can claim to have descent from early Danish colonists.

Founding of Denmark

A statue of Gorm the first King to unify the Danes

The oldest existing evidence of human habitation in Denmark is traces of hunters’ settlements from the end of the last Ice Age c. 12500 BC. Organized farming communities did not appear until the Neolithic Age c. 3900 BC and villages are known from the centuries before Christ’s birth. Regular towns, such as Ribe, do not appear until the Germanic Iron Age c. 400-750 AD.

The unification of the country under a central power began 700 AD. As the Frankish empire declined, a stable royal power developed which, although it probably did not cover the entire Danish territory, nonetheless managed to defend itself against enemy invasions from the south.

The unification of the country was finally completed under the son of Gorm the Old, who was born in 910, and became King of Denmark 930, and reigned until his death on 958). His son, Harold I Bluetooth ws born in 911, and was crowned King in 958 after the death of his father(d. 987). This is stated on his runic stone in Jelling, where the word Denmark appears for the first time. The Jelling stones are often regarded as Denmark’s first appearance as unified state in Europe.

Denmark’s place in European history essentially began with the Viking Age, around 800 AD, when the Danes became notorious for plundering churches and monasteries. By 878 the Danes had conquered northern and eastern England. During the Viking Age, c. 800-1100, in Denmark a royal power developed, as is demonstrated for instance by several strategically placed circular fortresses of impressive size. The period was characterized by the frequent Viking expeditions which led to the conquest of England for a short period in the 11th century and took the pillaging Vikings as far away as Ireland, Northern France and Russia. The Vikings’ long boats brought rich booty back to their native country, but the Danish Viking kings never managed to turn their conquests into a lasting empire. By the 11th century King Canute (1014-35) ruled over a vast kingdom that included present-day Denmark, England, Norway, southern Sweden, and parts of Finland. Christianity was introduced to Denmark in 826 and became widespread during Canute’s reign. The murder of Canute IV the Holy in 1086 ended the strong royal power, which had been one of the secrets behind the victorious Viking expeditions. After his death, Canute’s empire disintegrated.

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The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus

Saxo Grammaticus, the first to describe Danish History

Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-1220) also known as Saxo cognomine Longus is thought to have been a secular clerk or secretary to Absalon, Archbishop of Lund. He is the author of the first full history of Denmark.

Saxo’s history of the Danes was compiled from sources that are of questionable historical value. He drew on oral tales of the Icelanders, ancient volumes, letters carved on rocks and stone, and the statements of his patron Absalon concerning the history that the Archbishop had been a part of. Saxo’s work was not strictly a history or a simple record of old tales, rather it was “a product of Saxo’s own mind and times,”[10] he combines the history and mythology of the heroic age of Denmark and reworks it into his own story that exemplifies the past of the Danes.

The history is composed of sixteen books and extends from the time of the founders of the Danish people, Dan I of Denmark and Angul into about the year 1187. The first four are concerned with the history of the Danes before Christ, the next four with the history after Christ, books 9-12 Christian Denmark and 13-16 promote Lund and the exploits early before and during Saxo’s own lifetime. It is assumed that the last eight books were written first, as Saxo drew heavily on Absalon’s testament for evidence of the age of Saint Canute and Valdemar I and Archbishop Absalon died in 1202, before the work was completed. The first eight volumes share a likeness with the works of Snorri Sturluson. They deal with mythical elements such as giants and the scandinavian pantheon of gods. Saxo tells of Dan the first king of Denmark who had a brother named Angul who gave his name to the Angles. He also tells the stories of various other Danish heroes, many who interact with the scandinavian gods. Saxo’s “heathen” gods however were not always good characters. They were sometimes treacherous such as in the story of Harald, legendary king of the Danes, who was taught the ways of warfare by Odinn and then was betrayed and killed by the god who then brought him to Valhalla.

Saxo’s word is seen to have had very warlike values. He glorifies the heroes that made their names in battle far more than those who made peace. His view of the period of peace under King Frode was very low and was only satisfied when King Knut brought back the ancestral customs. Saxo’s chronology of kings extends up to Saint Canute and his son Valdemar I. What is arguably the most important part of Saxo’s entire history of the Danes is the story of Amleth, the first instance of Hamlet. Saxo based the story on an oral tale of a son taking revenge for his murdered father. There is concrete evidence that suggests Shakespeare was aware of Saxo’s original however it is not conceivable as Saxo’s prose already contains many subtleties of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Saxo finished the history with the Preface, which he wrote last, about 1216 under the patronage of Anders Sunesen who replaced Absalon as Archbishop of Lund. Saxo included in the preface warm appreciation of both Archbishops and of the reigning King Valdemar II.

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Legendary Danish Origins

The Jelling Stone, depicting Runes describing Denmark, and considered the birth certificate of the Danish Kingdom

The Jelling Stone, depicting Runes describing Denmark, and considered the birth certificate of the Danish Kingdom

The Chronicon Lethrense explains that when the Roman Emperor Augustus went against Denmark in the time of David, Denmark consisted of the territory Jutland, Funen, Zealand, Møn, Falster, Lolland and Skåne, but was not called Denmark (Dania) because they were governed by King Ypper of Uppsala. He had three sons, Nori, Østen and Dan. Dan was sent to govern Zealand, Møn, Falster and Lolland, which became known jointly as Videslev. When the Jutes were fighting Emperor Augustus they called upon Dan to help and upon victory made him king of Jutland, Fuen, Videslev and Skåne. After a council about what to call this new united land, they named it Denmark (Dania) after the new king, Dan. Saxo relates that the legendary Danish King Dan, son of Humbli, gave the name to the Danish people, though he does not expressly state that he also is the origin of the word “Denmark”. Rather he tells that England ultimately derives its name from Dan’s brother Angle.

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The Vikings

The Viking warrior shown wearing a helmet without the distinctive horns as is mythologized in the the human imagination

The word ” Viking,” in the sense in which it is used to-day, is derived from the Icelandic (Old Norse) Vikingr (m.), signifying simply a sea-rover or pirate. There is also in Icelandic the allied word viking (f.), a predatory voyage. As a loan-word viking occurs in A.S. poetry (vicing or wicing), e.g. in 1Vidsith, Byrnoth, Exodus. During the Saga Age (900-1050), in the beginning of Norse literature, vikingr is not as a rule used to designate any class of men. Almost every young Icelander of sufficient means and position, and a very large number of young Norsemen, made one or more viking expeditions. We read of such a one that he went “a-viking” (fara i viking, ver y i viking, or very often fara, &c., vestan i viking). The procedure was almost a recognized part of education, and was analogous to the grand tour made by our great-grandfathers in the 18th century. But the use of vikingr in a more generic sense is still to be found in the Saga Age. If the designation of this or that personage as mikill vikingr or rauba vikingr (red viking) be not reckoned an instance of such use; we have it at all events in the name of a small quasi-nationality, the Jomsvikingar, settled at J6msborg on the Baltic (in modern Pomerania), to whom a saga is dedicated: who possessed rather peculiar institutions evidently the relic of what is now called the Viking Age, that preceded the Saga Age by a century. Another instance of such more generic use occurs in the following typical passage from the Landnamabok (Sturlabok), where it is recorded how Harald Fairhair harried the vikings of the Scottish isles – that famous harrying which led to most of the settlement of Iceland and the birth of Icelandic literature: ” Haraldr en harfari herjaoi vestr am haf … Hann lagsi ” undir sig alla y Sudreyjar…. En er hann for vestann slogust ” i eyjernar vikingar ok Skotar ok Irar ok herjusu ok ra ntu ” visa ” (Landn., ed. Jonsson, 1906, p. 335).

A village in Ancient Denmark as it may have looked during the Viking era

A village in Ancient Denmark as it may have looked during the Viking era

It is in this more generic sense that the word “viking ” is now generally employed. Historians of the north have distinguished as the ” Viking Age ” (Vikingertiden) the time when the Scandinavian folk first by their widespread piracies brought themselves forcibly into the notice of all the Christian peoples of western Europe. We cannot to-day determine the exact homes or provenance of these freebooters, who were a terror alike to the Frankish empire, to England and to Ireland and west Scotland, who only came into view when their ships anchored in some Christian harbour, and who were called now Normanni, now Dacii, now Danes, now Lochlannoch; which last, the Irish name for them, though etymologically ” men of the lakes or bays,” might as well be translated ” Norsemen,” seeing that Lochlann was the Irish for Norway. The exact etymology of vikingr itself is not certain: for we do not know whether vik is used in a general sense (bay, harbour) in this connexion, or in a particular sense as the Vik, the Skagerrack and Christiania Fjord. The reason for using ” viking ” in a more generic sense than is warranted by the actual employment of the word in Old Norse literature rests on the fact that we have no other word by which to designate the early Scandinavian pirates of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century. We cannot tell for the most part whether they came from Denmark or Norway, so that we cannot give them a national name. ” Normanner ” is used by some Scandinavian writers (as by Steenstrup in his classical work Normannerne). But ” Normans ” has for us quite different associations. And even those who have preferred not generally to use the word ” vikings ” to designate the pirates and invaders, have adhered to the term ” Viking Age ” for the period in which they were most active (cf. Munch, Det Norske Folks Historie, Deel I. Bd. i. p. 356; Steenstrup and others, Danmarks Riges Historic, bk. ii. &c.). At the same time, the significance which the word ” viking ” has had in our language is due in part to a false etymology, connecting the word with ” king “; the effect of which still remains in the customary pronunciation vi-king instead of vik-ing, now so much embedded in the language that it is a pedantry to try and change it.

We may fairly reckon the ” Viking Age ” to lie between the date of the first recorded appearance of a northern pirate fleet (A.D. 789) and the settlement of the Normans in Normandy by the treaty of St Clair-sur-Epte, A.D. 911 or 912.1 For a few years previous to that date our chief authority for the history of the piracies and raids in the Frankish empire fails us: 2 we know that the Norsemen had a few years before that date been driven in great numbers out of Ireland; and England had been in a sense pacified through the concession of a great part of the island to the invaders by the peace of Wedmore, A.D. 878. Although, outside the information we get from Christian chroniclers, this age is for the people of the north one of complete obscurity, it is evident that the Viking Age corresponds with some universal disturbance or unrest among the Scandinavian nations, strictly analogous to the unrest among more southern Teutonic nations which many centuries before had heralded the break-up of the Roman empire, an epoch known as that of the Folk-wanderings (V olkerwanderungen).

The Skuldelev ship, the best preserved Danish vessel, 1090 AD

The Skuldelev ship, the best preserved Danish vessel, 1090 AD

The Annales Vedastini. impulse which was driving part of the Norse and Danish peoples to piracies in the west was also driving the Swedes and perhaps a portion of the Danes to eastward invasion, which resulted in the establishment of a Scandinavian kingdom (GarOariki) in what is now Russia, with its capital first at Novgorod, afterwards at Kiev. 3 This was, in fact, the germ of the Russian empire. If we could know the Viking Age from the other, the Scandinavian side, it would doubtless present far more interest than in the form in which the Christian chroniclers present it. But from knowledge of this sort we are almost wholly cut off. We have to content ourselves with what is for the greater part of this age a mere catalog of embarkations and plundering along all the coasts of western Europe without distinctive characteristics.

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The Viking Raids and Eventual Settlement

The Danes raided villages and monasteries in Ireland developing a reputation for barbarity

For all record which we have, the Viking Age was inaugurated in A.D. 789 by the appearance in England on the Dorset coast of three pirate ships ” from Haerethaland ” (Hardeland or Hardyssel in Denmark or Hdrdeland in Norway), which are said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to be ” the first ships of the Danish men ” who sought the land of England. They killed the port-reeve, took some booty and sailed away. Other pirates appeared in 793 on a different coast, Northumbria, attacked a monastery on Lindisfarne (Holy Island), slaying and capturing the monks; the following year they attacked and burnt Jarrow; after that they were caught in a storm, and all perished by shipwreck or at the hands of the countrymen. In 795 a fleet appeared off Glamorganshire. They attacked Man in 798 and Iona in 802. But after this date for the lifetime of a generation the chief scene of viking exploits was Ireland, and probably the western coasts and islands of Scotland.

The usual course of procedure among the northern adventurers remains the same to whatever land they may direct their attacks, or during whatever years of the 9th century these attacks may fall. They begin by more or less desultory raids, in the course of which they seize upon some island, which they generally use as an arsenal or point d’appui for attacks on the mainland. At first the raids are made in the summer: the first wintering in any new scene of plunder forms an epoch so far as that country or region is concerned. Almost always for a period all power of resistance on the part of the inhabitants seems after a while and for a limited time to break down, and the plunderers to have free course wherever they go. Then they show an ambition to settle in the country, and some sort of division of territory takes place. After that the northerners assimilate themselves more or less to the other inhabitants of the country, and their history merges to a less or greater extent in that of the country at large. This course is followed in the history of the viking attacks on Ireland, the earliest of their continuous series of attacks. Thus they begin by seizing the island of Rechru (now Lambay) in Dublin Bay (A.D. 795); in the course of about twenty years we have notice of them on the northern, western and southern coasts; by A.D. 825 they have already ventured raids to a considerable distance inland. And in A.D. 832 comes a large fleet (” a great royal fleet,” say the Irish annals) of which the admiral’s name is given, Turgesius (Thorgeis or Thorgisl ?). The new invader, though with a somewhat chequered course, extended his conquests till in A.D. 842 one-half-‘of Ireland (called Lethcuinn, or Con’s Half) seems to have submitted to him; and we have the curious picture of Turgesius establishing his wife Ota as a sort of viilva, or priestess, in what bad been one of Ireland’s most famous and most literary monasteries, Clonmacnoise. Turgesius was, however, killed very soon after this (in 845); and though in A.D. 853 Olaf the White was over-king of Ireland, the vikings’ power on the whole diminished. In the end, territory was – if by no formal treaty – ceded to their influence; and the (Irish) kingdoms of Dublin and Waterford were established on the island.

An ancient map depicting the early formation of Denmark, 16th century

An ancient map depicting the early formation of Denmark, 16th century

This brief sketch may be taken as the prototype of viking invasion of any region of western Christendom which was the object of their continuous attacks. Of such regions we may distinguish five. Almost simultaneously with the attacks on Ireland came others, probably also from Norway, on the western regions (coasts and islands) of Scotland. Plunderings of Iona are mentioned in A.D. 802, 806. In the course of a generation almost all the monastic communities in western Scotland had been destroyed. But details of these viking plunderings are wanting. On the continent there were three distinct regions of attack. First the mouth of the Scheldt. There the Danes very early settled on the island of Walcheren, which had in fact been given by the emperor Louis the Pious in fief to a Danish fugitive king, Harald by name, who sought the help of Louis, and adopted Christianity. After the partition of the territory of Charlemagne’s empire among the sons of Louis the Pious, Walcheren and the Scheldt-mouth fell within the possessions of the emperor Lothair, and in the region subsequently distinguished as Lotharingia. From this centre, the Scheldt, the viking raids extended on either side; sometimes eastward as far as the Rhine, and so into Germany proper, the territory assigned to Louis the German; at other times westward to the Somme, and thus into the territory of Charles the Bald, the future kingdom of France. In the event, toward the end of the 9th century all Frisia between Walcheren and the German Ocean seems to have become the permanent possession of the invaders. In like fashion was it with the next district, that of the Seine, only that here no important island served the pirates for their first arsenal and winter quarters. The serious attacks of the pirates in any part of the empire distant from their own lands begin about the time of the battle of Fontenoy between Louis’ sons (A.D. 841). The first wintering of the vikings in the Seine territory (A.D. 850) was in ” Givoldi fossa,” the tomb of one Givoldus, not far from the mouth of the river, but no longer exactly determinable. Their first attack on Paris was in A.D. 845: a much more important but unsuccessful one took place in A.D. 885-87, unsuccessful that is so far as the city itself was concerned; but the invaders received an indemnity for raising the siege and leave to pass beyond Paris into Burgundy. The settlement of Danes under Rollo or Rolf on the lower Seine, i.e. in Normandy, dates from the treaty of St Clair-sur-Epte, A.D. 912 (or 911).

Vikings raiding from their shallow hulled vessels that were capable of navigating the rivers and waterways of Europe

Vikings raiding from their shallow hulled vessels that were capable of navigating the rivers and waterways of Europe

The third region is the mouth of the Loire. Here the island point d’appui was Noirmoutier, an island with an abbey at the Loire mouth. The northmen wintered there in A.D. 843. No region was more often ravaged than that of the lower Loire, so rich in abbeys – St Martin of Tours, Marmoutiers, St Benedict, &c. But the country ceded to the vikings under Hasting at the Loire mouth was insignificant and not in permanent occupation.

Near the end of the 9th century, however, the plundering expeditions which emanated from these three sources became so incessant and so widespread that we can signalize no part of west France as free from them, at the same time that the vikings wrought immense mischief in the Rhine country and in Burgundy. The defences of west France seem quite to have broken down, as did the Irish when Turgesius took ” Con’s half,” or when in A.D. 853 Olaf the White became over-king of Ireland. Unfortunately at this point our best authority ceases; and we cannot well explain the changes which brought about the Christianization of the Normans and their settlement in Normandy as vassals, though recalcitrant ones, of the West Frankish kings.

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Danish Vikings in England

An English sculpture depicting an early viking raid found in an abbey

DANEGELD, an English national tax originally levied by ‘Ethelred II. (the Unready) as a means of raising the tribute which was the price of the temporary cessation of the Danish ravages. This expedient of buying off the invader was first adopted in 991 on the advice of certain great men of the kingdom. It was repeated in 994, 1002, 1007 and 1012. With the accession of the Danish king Canute, the original raison d’être of the tax ceased to exist, but it continued to be levied, though for a different purpose, assuming now the character of an occasional war-tax. It was exceedingly burdensome, and its abolition by Edward the Confessor in 1051 was welcomed as a great relief. William the Conqueror revived it immediately of ter his accession, as a convenient method of national taxation, and it was with the object of facilitating its collection that he ordered the compilation of Domesday Book. It continued to be levied until 1163, in which year the name Danegeld appears for the last time in the Rolls.

The death of Balder form a 10th century manuscript, soon the raiding ended and the Danes took to writing and documenting their past

The death of Balder form a 10th century manuscript, soon the raiding ended and the Danes took to writing and documenting their past

DANELAGH, the name given to those districts in the north and north-east of England which were settled by Danes and other Scandinavian invaders during the period of the Viking invasions. The real settlement of England by Danes began in the year 866 with the appearance of a large army in East Anglia, which turned north in the following year. The Danes captured York and overthrew the Northumbrian kingdom, setting up a puppet king of their own. They encamped in Nottingham in 868, and Northern Mercia was soon in their hands; in 870 Edmund, king of the East Anglians, fell before them. During the next few years they maintained their hold on Mercia, and we have at this time coins minted in London with the inscription “Alfdene rex,” the name of the Danish leader. In the winter of 874-875 they advanced as far north as the Tyne, and at the same time Cambridge was occupied. In the meantime the great struggle with Alfred the Great was being carried on. This was terminated by the peace of Wedmore in 878, when the Danes withdrew from Wessex and settled finally in East Anglia under their king Guthrum. This peace was finally and definitely ratified in the document known as the peace of Alfred and Guthrum, which is probably to be referred to the year 880. The peace determined the boundary of Guthrum’s East Anglian kingdom. According to the terms of the agreement the boundary was to run along the Thames estuary to the mouth of the Lea (a few miles east of London), then up the Lea to its source near Leighton Buzzard, then due north to Bedford, then eastwards up the Ouse to Watling Street somewhere near Fenny or Stony Stratford. From this point the boundary is left undefined, perhaps because the kingdoms of Alfred and Guthrum ceased to be conterminous here, though if Northamptonshire was included in the kingdom of Guthrum, as seems likely, the boundary must be carried a few miles along Watling Street. Thus Northern Mercia, East Anglia, the greater part of Essex and Northumbria were handed over to the Danes and henceforth constitute the district known as the Danelagh.

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  1. Eric Jones 5 years ago

    The statue of the man setting with his sword and shield is Holger Danske, he and his army joined forces with Charlemagne to stop a Muslim invasion in Europe. Notice that he is sleeping, legend says, when Denmark is in trouble he will wake up and pick up as again.

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    ancientweb 5 years ago

    Interesting, several sources say it’s Gorm the old, do you know where this statue is located in Denmark?

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