Christian IV (1577-1648) was Denmark's most renowned king. He led his country through a period of political and cultural ascendancy, but also mired it in a costly war against Sweden and the devastating Thirty Years' War in Germany.
At Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod, Denmark, the future Christian IV was born on April 12, 1577, to Frederick II, king of Denmark and Norway, and Sophia of Mecklenburg. The young boy was given an intense education typical of other European princes. Among his many subjects, he was instructed in the art of fencing, dancing, military command, and navigation; he also studied Latin, German, French, and Italian. In 1588, when 11-year-old Christian's father died, the young prince became king. He would have to wait until 1596, however, until he reached 19—the age of majority—for his coronation and the start of his personal rule. Meanwhile, Denmark was governed by a regency from the rigsraad ("privy council"), the very body which Christian IV would later battle for his political authority.
In 1597, Christian married Anna Catherine of Brandenburg. Though she died in 1612, she bore him a son and heir, the future King Frederick III. Three years later, Christian remarried, this time to a Danish woman named Kirsten Munk who was to bear him 12 children. But Christian eventually banished his second wife from the court for having committed adultery. Considering Christian's own reputation for promiscuity, this charge was, at the very least, incongruous.
Christian's personal life was renowned for his gambling and heavy drinking. An English visitor to the Danish court once noted, "Such is the life of that king, to drink all day and lye with a whore every night." And such was the influence of Christian's personality that the customary heavy drinking of the Danish court became fashionable among other Protestant princes in Germany. Nevertheless, Christian attended to matters of much more seriousness, and his influence went well beyond mere indulgence.
Throughout his career, Christian's greatest concern was the protection and invigoration of the power of his crown. The aristocracy in Denmark had put itself in an enviable political position with respect to the monarchy. The rigsraad, which was dominated by the wealthy landowning nobility, held extensive powers, including the right to approve extraordinary taxes and the right to veto the declaration of war. Moreover, the regency government prior to 1596 had been reasonably successful in its management of finances, and landowners generally benefited handsomely from an overall prosperity in Denmark. Thus, from the outset of his personal rule, Christian was challenged to defend his authority against a powerful and wealthy nobility.
Christian undertook many projects aimed at improving the economy of his country. He realized that developing his financial strength was the most effective method of preserving his political independence. Among his many activities, the sound management of his personal finances was to be his most resounding success. Through land speculation (with many interests in north Germany) and by lending money, he accrued a vast personal fortune. In this way, he was able to bind much of the Danish nobility to him politically. For example, from 1618 to 1624 (a time of economic crisis) he provided much needed capital. It was his wealth (or, his "ten tons of gold," as it was called), and the corresponding political independence that it afforded him, that was to make Christian one of the most powerful figures in early 17th-century Europe.
Crucial to Christian's personal finances was the control of narrow Danish waterways that gave the only access in and out of the Baltic Sea. Where the Sound is narrowest, the Danes had erected a number of castles, including one at Elsinore (Helsingör), as elaborate tollbooths on one of Europe's busiest channels. For 428 years, ships had to pay Sound dues ("a toll") and dip their flag as they passed the castle. Much to the chagrin of neighboring countries, whenever Denmark needed revenue, it raised the tolls. In 1599, Christian headed to North Cape: in part, to exploit Danish holdings in the far north of Norway; in part, to prevent the discovery of a northerly sea route to Russia, which could bypass the Sound and weaken Danish control. Any such opening threatened both Denmark and Christian personally.
At this time, Sweden clearly presented the greatest challenge to Denmark. Up to 1570 (the Treaty of Stettin), Sweden had struggled to escape Danish control. Now, Sweden's growing military strength (including direct involvement in the eastern Baltic) actively threatened Danish dominance. Equally, an increasing Swedish presence (especially from 1606-09) jeopardized Denmark's presence in Norway. Despite the Danish Council's desire to maintain peace with Sweden and to pursue an isolationist foreign policy with respect to the maelstrom of European politics, Christian spent a considerable amount of money preparing for war. He built up a significant naval force and fortified important cities and fortresses along the Swedish frontier.
Finally, on April 4, 1611, Christian had his way, and Denmark declared war on Sweden. Very quickly, the important holding of Kalmar fell to the Danes. By October, upon the death of the Swedish king Charles IX, it appeared that a precarious situation would be inherited by his successor, the illustrious Gustavus Adolphus. Over the next two years, Denmark continued to fight Sweden in order to protect its powerful interests in the Baltic and in the north. The Dutch, in whose interest it was to stabilize the Baltic and ultimately to free the Sound from the Danish monopoly, intervened to end the fighting and act as intermediaries between the belligerents. At the Peace of Knäred (January 1613), Sweden agreed to renounce its expansionist intentions and pay exacting reparations to Christian personally.
Christian was in a very favorable position. Having successfully controlled Danish foreign policy and established himself as a military figure of some note, he now enjoyed unprecedented fortune and independence. Yet his influence was not restricted to the Baltic. Christian was also the Duke of Holstein. As such, he held a great deal of influence among the other Lutheran princes of Germany. Thus, the Dutch and their allies increasingly hoped to involve this wealthy and newly powerful force in the Protestant struggle on behalf of Frederick V of the Palatinate against the emperor Ferdinand II and Catholic hegemony in Germany.
In 1624, when Gustavus Adolphus was invited to lead an allied army against the forces of the Catholic emperor, Ferdinand II, Christian perceived this as a threat to his position. On January 1625, he rashly offered to raise and lead an army himself. This he did over the protests of his Council and without securing the necessary assurance of support from his allies. Assuming the role of Defender of the Protestant Faith, he led an army of about 20,000 mercenary soldiers south in June of that year.
At the time, it looked as if the Danish invasion of Germany would be straightforward. Yet unbeknownst to Christian, Ferdinand II had brought into his employ the wealthy Albrecht von Wallenstein, who had assembled an army of about 30,000 men. Threatened by this additional force, Christian was compelled to withdraw.
The king lost much of his international support, but at the Hague Convention, in December 1625, the English and Dutch agreed to continue to back Christian's army. The next year, at a time when Wallenstein was distracted, Christian invaded again. By August he had set forth from Wolfenbuttel. After days of heavy fighting in the rain at Lutter-am-Barenberg, Christian was soundly defeated, losing half his men and artillery. After this disastrous defeat, Denmark was left vulnerable to foreign invasion. In a strangely matter-of-fact tone, however, Christian's diary entry for August 26, 1626, reads simply: "Fought with the enemy and lost. The same day I went to Wolfenbuttel."
Thereafter, Christian's fortunes did not improve greatly, whereas Wallenstein met with many successes against the Protestant forces, including a decisive rout of Christian's army at Wolgast in September 1628. While awaiting Christian's surrender, Wallenstein invaded and occupied the entire Jutland peninsula, enabling Ferdinand to issue enormous demands (Edict of Restitution). Christian was to renounce any claims to territory in Germany, cede all of Jutland, and pay overwhelming reparations. For their support of Christian, the dukes of Mecklenburg were stripped of their titles. These were given to Wallenstein.
All this, Christian and the Protestant cause could not allow. Even Sweden joined in a defensive alliance with the king early in 1629. Together, these reluctant allies successfully defended Straslund against Wallenstein in 1628. But Denmark was desperate for peace and reentered negotiations with Ferdinand II. By the Treaty of Lübeck of May 1629, Christian was allowed to regain his lost territories. Nevertheless, his military failures left him exhausted and utterly discredited.
This Danish phase of the Thirty Years' War cost Christian and Denmark enormously. The forests of Jutland were devastated, finances were drained, and the resentful population was forced to pay the occupying imperial army for which they suffered greatly. Heavy taxation, epidemic disease, and a bad harvest added to the people's misery. Personally, Christian no longer had the luxury of his fortune. Yet his ambitions were not satisfied, and he hoped to consolidate his position and to continue to spend on defense.
The Council was willing to raise more money for its king, but insisted that it control the collection and distribution. Initially, Christian was furious with any such attempt to restrict his authority and demanded an unconditional offer, even threatening to refuse to abide by the peace with Ferdinand II. Since further war would have been devastating, the Council agreed. By 1637, however, Christian had spent the new funds and was forced to accept the fact that the aristocracy would have significant control over the administration of taxes. To counter this dependence, Christian attempted to extract more revenue from the Sound tolls. Not surprisingly, this antagonized Sweden, whose power had grown notably after successful intervention in Europe from 1630. Once again Denmark was in serious danger.
To make matters worse, Christian again interfered in German affairs. He managed to persuade Ferdinand II to use him as the mediator between the German Empire and Sweden. If necessary, Christian suggested that he might even join forces with the Empire. In exchange, Christian hoped to gain control of Hamburg and the mouth of the Elbe, which his naval forces blockaded early in 1643. At the same time, Christian made overtures to Poland, Russia, and the German Emperor about an offensive alliance that he hoped to direct against Sweden. Under such provocation and pressure, Sweden declared war on Denmark on May 25, 1643.
Soon the Swedish forces in Bohemia headed toward Denmark and, in 1644, Jutland again was easily overrun. In a disastrous naval battle, in which the Dutch intervened on Sweden's behalf, Christian lost an eye. He also lost the islands of Oesel and Gotland. By the Peace of Bromsbero (August 25, 1645), Sweden won almost complete exemption from the Sound tolls. Moreover, Sweden was given important territory on its side of the Sound, effectively ending Denmark's exclusive control of the straits and its status as a major European power.
The withdrawal of Swedish forces was followed by renewed harvest failure and plague in Denmark from 1647 to 1651. The population fell by almost 20% in this period of general suffering. In February 1648, Christian died a broken man, conceding military defeat to his neighbors and political defeat to the aristocrats of his country. Indeed, his son had to bargain for months just to secure his election to the throne.
Although Christian failed in his attempts to be a great military leader, he was an industrious king who tried to epitomize the ideal of the Renaissance prince. He concerned himself with the minutest details in the administration of his country (not simply with military and naval hardware). He personally set Denmark's mercantilist policies and founded companies. His interests were varied. As a result, he brought many of the early Renaissance cultural influences to Denmark. Numerous cities were founded and built under Christian IV, including Kristiania (modern-day Oslo). He is even credited with considerable architectural achievement. Moreover, he subsidized students and built a residential college in Copenhagen. Notes historian Palle Lauring: "He worked and he gave orders. More than 3,000 letters originating from his hand have been preserved. He was indefatigable. Nothing escaped his attention and he poked his nose into everything. He ruled his two kingdoms rather in the manner of a careful country squire, and completed one building after another in the manner of an efficient building contractor."
Despite his military failures and their destructive legacy, Christian personally brought Denmark into the politics of Europe as a major power and led it through a period of greatness. He was a leader of tremendous influence, and he remains one of Denmark's most popular kings.
Europe and Scandinavia: Aspects of the Process of Integration in the Seventeenth Century, edited by G. Rystad, Scandinavia University Books, 1983.
Lauring, Palle, A History of the Kingdom of Denmark, translated by David Hohnen, HØst and SØn, 1963.
Parker, Geoffrey, Europe in Crisis: 1598-1648. Cornell University Press, 1979.
The Thirty Years' War, edited by Geoffrey Parker, Military Heritage Press, 1987.