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Denmark History

Jelling Stone
Photo by Bjørn Giesenbauer

21st century Denmark is a relatively small country on the world map, but it once was one of the most developed and important countries in Europe. Despite this, the past of this country very much differs from what it is today.

Current Danes are peaceful, friendly and tolerant, while the ancestors of this nation not only led a conquering policy, but were also described as great warriors.

The neutrality of Denmark began during the World Wars, when Denmark did its best not to enter the war.

The name Denmark was first mentioned on a Jelling Stone, which bears runic inscriptions about Christianizing the nation and dates back to 900 AD.

Pre-Viking Period

Tollund body
Photo by LodewijkB

The Ice Age, or more specifically its ending, brought life to Denmark for the first time. The early settlers of the territory of current Denmark were hunters and fishermen, which later changed their lifestyle and adjusted it to farming.

This took almost 9000 years and lasted from 10.000 BC to 1500 BC. Cultural and linguistic roots of today’s population of Denmark conduct to a tribe Danov, migrating from the south of modern Sweden approximately in 500 AD.

People of early Iron Age, and more specifically their lifestyle and traditions are known to us mainly from bog bodies, which were naturally preserved under ground.

Grauballe Man
Photo by Bjørn Giesenbauer

The skin, clothing, the hair and even the facial expressions of the corpses are so well preserved that archaeologists and scientists could analyze the conditions of their life and death.

Some of the most famous bog bodies found on the territory of Denmark are the Tollund Man, Elling Woman, Grauballe Man, Huldremose Woman and so on.

The Bodies are signs of traditional sacrificial rituals, which were carried out in Northern countries like Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. They were meant to please the gods and were usually implemented by hangings.

Danes obtained skills in agriculture and cattle breeding, gradually mastering such metals as bronze, iron and so on.

Trading relations were established with Romans, gradually making Denmark an important center for commerce.

Viking Period

Photo by erikki

The mentioned society developed till the 8th century to acquire a new name and style. Vikings. These were Norwegians that occupied Jutland and united the tribes living in that area.

The entire Denmark history, culture and identity of Denmark is based on Vikings. The heritage left by them is undeniable and invaluable for the entire Northern Europe.

Vikings were particularly good at sailing. Viking-style ships are exhibited in almost all Danish museums that somehow cover the Danish history.

They discovered Iceland by accident in the 9th century. There are also records about Vikings discovering Vinland, which is the territory of today’s Newfoundland, Canada (the Land of Wine).

The first event that played a decisive role in further development of the country was the Christianizing of the people living under the reign of Vikings. One of the first Danish royalties was Herald Bluetooth, the grandson of Hedragon, the conqueror of Jutland.

Herald Bluetooth finished the task of uniting all tribes and converted them to Christianity. The first Danish Christian church is the Ribe Cathedral, the church of Our Lady. It is located in Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark, and is today available for tourists’ eyes.

Starting from the 9th century Vikings started to disturb some Western European countries, particularly the British Isles.

Vikings & Saxons
Photo by Chris Wild

After the reign of Bluetooth, Vikings conquered the English coast and declared themselves as Danish-English monarchs. During this period, there were no significant differences between the Danish and English.

English monks were allowed to serve in Danish churches, linguistic differences were almost absent. This is understandable, as the history of Great Britain also evolves around Vikings. Apparently the British integrated into the new culture very quickly.

In fact, the Danish monarchy is the oldest in the whole world. Another Danish monarch, Canute the Great (1014 – 1035), brought Denmark, England and Norway together.

A small part of Sweden, located in the south of the country, was also a part of Danish Kingdom until the 17th century. Canute’s death caused a civil war, as a result of which the country was torn into several parts.

Danish Constitution

Danish constitution
Photo by Statens Arkiver – Danish State Archives

The year 1282 gave birth to the first Danish constitution, also known as the Great Charter. Eric V, who was on the throne at that time, had to start consulting the parliament and the Council of Nobles in decision-making.

The medieval period is noted by race for power, plots, attempts and murders. Queen Margaret reunited Denmark, Sweden and Norway in 1397. Almost two centuries later Sweden acquired independence.

Religious Disputes

The downfall of Viking power was in the 16th century, when the Catholic Church gave up its positions to the Danish Lutheran Church in 1536.

Despite the solution of the religious dispute, the epoch of blossoming of trade came to the end in first half of 17th  century, when Christian IV came to power.

Wars with Sweden

Because of the thirty-year war with Sweden, Denmark lost lands and lots of money, and the king as well. In some decades Christian’s successor, king Frederik III (Frederick III), led Denmark to even more destructive defeat from Sweden. Denmark slowly shifted its position from battles and wars, and focused more on social reforms.

Denmark and Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte
Photo by Imperialmanifesto.

 The big mistake Denmark made was supporting Napoleon.

Although Denmark declared itself neutral, the English couldn’t take the possibility of Denmark’s cooperation with France.

This is why England bombarded Copenhagen after Denmark refused to transfer its fleet under English control.

This served as a good reason for Denmark joining Napoleon and remaining the most loyal ally throughout the war. And probably that’s why it got punished later.

After the war, the Congress of Vienna of 1814 resulted in changes of Danish borders. Naturally, the former Nazi-ally lost some lands to Sweden.

Norway was given to Sweden. Moreover, the city of Copenhagen has been attacked by the British twice, the last time living it half destroyed.

World Wars

Nazi Denmark
Photo by

Taking the path of democracy, Denmark became a constitutional monarchy in 1849. Some disagreements concerning the new constitution ended in passing the province of Schleswig to Germany.

Although Denmark was seen as a target by Austria, it didn’t take sides during WWI. The same scenario was planned for the Second World War, only this time it didn’t work quite well. Denmark was occupied by Germany.

Despite public resistance, Nazis soon took full control over the country, starting the implementation of the traditional plan, extermination of Jews.

Interestingly, it didn’t go as planned. Denmark was the only country under the Nazi control, that managed to save the Jews living on its territory. Thousands of Jews were moved to other countries as soon as the Nazi plan was revealed to Danish officials.

Post-war Denmark

The disastrous war left Denmark on a new page, which served as a perfect foundation for today’s Danish society. To start with, the country went through serious territorial changes. First, Iceland, which was included in the kingdom 1380, declared independence. Secondly, Faroe Islands gained home rule, while Greenland joined Denmark.

The state takes care of all citizens, making sure equality before the law and in opportunities is provided.

Modern Denmark

Danish Parliament
Photo by Troels Dejgaard Hansen

Due to this close relationship with its government, Danes have been named the most happy nation in the world.

In the 20th century Denmark became a member of some of the key political institutions. It joined NATO in 1949, European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The latter was renamed European Union in 1993. Denmark became the founding member of the United Nations in 1945.

In September 2000 Denmark refused to pass to Euro, motivating it with the fact that delegation of power in carrying out the monetary policy to all-European structures can damage the system of social guarantees for Danish citizens.

Danish Prime Minister
Photo by European Parliament

Denmark is an example of close-to-perfect democracy. However, it functions as such only for its citizens and those, who have been granted the permission of residing in the country.

In 2001 Anders Fogh Rasmussen became the prime minister and immediately restricted the permission for asylum seekers.

Naturally, the social benefit seemed very tempting for foreigners, which is why Denmark was for some period a target for immigrants. Rasmussen corrected the situation by introducing an extra-strict procedure.

The scene changed in 2011, with the election of Denmark’s first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She has promised to open Denmark for immigrants a little more.

Quick Facts

  • First settlers of Denmark – hunters and fishermen 10.000 BC – 1500 BC.
  • First mention of Denmark – Jelling Stone, 900 AD
  • Bog Bodies  – Tollund body, Elling Woman, Grauballe Man, Huldremose Woman, etc.
  • First Christian Church – Ribe Cathedral
  • Danish monarchy– the oldest one in the world
  • Current territories – Greenland and Faroe Islands
  • First constitution – 1282
  • Researches  – Danes as the happiest nation in the world
  • Memberships – UN (1945), NATO (1949), European Economic Community (1973), European Union (1993)

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