Waldemar IV (ca. 1320-1375) reunited the kingdom of Denmark under his rule, presenting a strong, nationalistic challenge to the mercantile Hanseatic League.
Waldemar IV was born to a bankrupt crown. In 1320, the year he was born, his father, King Christoffer II, was trading royal power to Denmark's nobles and clergy in an effort to maintain his rule. It was a narrow balancing act that had Christoffer II and his predecessors spending Denmark's wealth and their political resources on fruitless wars within their realm and military campaigns against their own nobility. At the time of Waldemar's birth, the state's creditors were demanding payment.
The province of Holstein, one of the wealthiest within the Danish realm, had become one of the leading lenders to the king's court. By 1326, Count Gert of Holstein, had amassed enough wealth and power that he schemed to replace the king with an underage pretender, Valdemar, Duke of Slesvig. In Scania, the nobility elected in the early 1330s to switch their loyalties away from the Danish throne, and chose Magnus Eriksson, then the underage King of Norway and Sweden, as their king. Christoffer II died in 1332, leaving the Danish state in shambles.
In the midst of the intrigues that swirled between the Danish nobility and the Danish Court between 1332 and 1340 was the influence of the German Hanseatic League. Founded in the mid-13th century, the Hanseatic League was an association of medieval German towns that drew together to advance their common commercial interests. The League's name was derived from the Old High German word "hansa," which means "association." The Hansa was formed by mercantile towns in the north of Germany that united to quash piracy in the Baltic and North Seas and to provide safety from brigands for their traders on land. The League grew out of numerous smaller associations. As its power grew it devised commercial laws, prepared charts and navigational aids, and used its growing power in diplomatic ways to win concessions for its textile merchants, grain traders, and other trade representatives.
From the death of Christoffer II in 1332 until 1340, previous wars and court intrigues added to the debts owed to the Counts of Holstein and to other creditors, and combined to prevent Denmark from having a king. All taxes and wealth from the lands owned by the Danish Crown were due to its creditors, and eliminated the monarchy's income. Without an income, the Danish Crown could not, indeed, afford to have a king.
In this eight-year period, Denmark was ruled by the Counts of Holstein. Gert and his brother lorded over the Danish peasantry and, in turn, were lorded over by Germans from the Hanseatic League. The Holsteiners had borrowed heavily from the Hansa, and acted as vassals to their German creditors.
The German control was deeply resented by other Danish nobles, and the Danish peasantry deeply resented the rule of the Holsteiners. Gert and his brother drove the Danish peasantry severely to raise taxes they wanted to repay their debts. As a result, there were numerous revolts against the Holsteiners. During one of these revolts, in April 1340, Count Gert of Holstein was slain. With his death, the unity of the Holstein faction was shaken. Gert's sons agreed to allow King Christoffer II's son, the 20-year-old Waldemar, to be appointed king.
While Denmark was experiencing the rule of the Holsteiners, Waldemar was being reared in the court of Louis IV of Bavaria. Louis was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1328, and had become related to Christoffer of Denmark through the marriage of Christoffer's daughter to Louis' son, the Margrave of Brandenburg. Waldemar benefited from that alliance, and was schooled in the Court of the Margrave of Brandenburg.
Waldemar's upbringing served him well. On being put on the Danish throne, he shocked the Holstein faction that had thought they would easily control and influence the young king. Waldemar quickly consolidated his power and set to building ties with the Catholic Church, the Danish nobility, and the Danish people to establish national unity and to circumvent and displace the Holstein faction.
While the sons of Count Gert continued to control the estates that were mortgaged to their father, Waldemar used the support of the Danish people, nobility, and the Catholic Church to restore national unity and royal power. Over a period of 20 years, Waldemar won back lands alienated in the waning years of his father's rule and in the interregnum. He raised money through a variety of ways, including the sale in 1346 of lands claimed by the Danish throne in northern Estonia to the Order of the Teutonic Knights, and the efficient management of royal estates. He used the money to relieve the debts owed by the throne of Denmark. His taxes were less burdensome on the people of Denmark than those imposed previously by the Holsteiners.
In rebuilding Denmark and restoring its wealth, his people conferred upon Waldemar the honorific title of Atterdag. This translates from the Danish literally as "Again Day," or, more broadly, as "New Day," and signifies the way the new regime led the country from the dark rule of foreigners and renewed its spirit. He became known as a subtle diplomat, an artful politician who was not reluctant to use chicanery to achieve his goals, and as a powerful ruler who could resort to naked force to advance his cause. The people of Denmark grew ever more respectful of their new king even as the nobility, with which he had forged new relations, grew to fear his growing power and increasing popularity. Even so, Waldemar ruled Denmark during one of the greatest disasters of medieval times.
Nearly ten years into his rule, Denmark, like the rest of Europe, was struck by the bubonic plague. Waldemar's political prowess and his skilled management could not deter the Black Death, which reached Denmark's shores in the late 1340s. While there are no historical census figures available for Denmark, evidence from surrounding countries indicate that as much as 25 percent of Waldemar's subjects were killed by the time the plague subsided in the early 1350s. For comparison, the hometowns of the Hanseatic League in northern Germany typically lost 40 percent of their populations in the same period.
The effects of the Black Death were similar across western Europe. The death of a large portion of the population led to a decline in agricultural production and a decline in the budding mercantile classes. Meanwhile, small landowners were forced into the ranks of tenant farmers, and wealth tended to concentrate with larger, richer landlords. For Denmark, this meant a weaker economy, greater unrest and the concentration of power again with the merchants of the Hanseatic League. Waldemar watched in the late 1350s as German culture and influence increased in his domain, and as his Danish subjects grew restless.
Waldemar took advantage of the growing unrest to launch a series of battles that he had hoped would restore the Danish kingdom to the extent it had reached before his birth.
In 1360, Waldemar reconquered Scania, and the provinces of Halland and Blekinge, which, like Scania, previously bolted from Danish rule. The following year, he went on to increase his dominion by seizing the island of Gotland, a Swedish possession. By taking Gotland, Waldemar breached relations with the Hanseatic League. Gotland was home to the city of Visby, one of the League's most valuable ports on the Baltic Sea. From Visby, League merchants conducted their trade with Norway and Russia. The League was loath to have it in the hands of the Danish king.
The inhabitants of Visby also did not like the Danish king, and revolted against him. In putting down the revolt, Waldemar forced the city to pay a ransom that he used to pay the wages of his army. Having its attention focused by the ransom transaction, the Hanseatic League launched a fleet from the city of Lubeck to deliver Gotland from the Danes.
The Hanseatic League's fleet was defeated. The League began arduous negotiations for a truce, and saw to it that the negotiations were drawn out. During the truce negotiations, the League quietly formed a coalition to block Waldemar's ambitions, and drew together Sweden and the old enemies of the Danish throne, the Counts of Holstein, and the Duke of Slesvig.
Waldemar sought help against those combined powers in 1367 from Charles IV of Luxembourg, who had succeeded Louis IV as Holy Roman Emperor in 1347. While Waldemar was parlaying with the emperor, his enemies took and plundered Danish towns. Finally, the council of nobles that ruled Denmark in Waldemar's absence sued for peace, and stuck an onerous treaty.
The Treaty of Stlsund (variously spelled Stalsund) in 1370, gave the Hanseatic League control of the markets in Scania, then the wealthiest province of Denmark. It also granted League merchants the rights for a period of 15 years to castles along the western coast of Scania from which they could trade and service their fleets. When Waldemar returned home, he honored the terms of the treaty with the Hanseatic League. Finding his realm in disorder, however, he took up arms against the Holsteiners and subdued them and again thwarted their ambitions. The Duke of Slesvig died in 1375, giving Waldemar the chance to retake his lands. Waldemar himself died a few weeks later, at the age of 55, before he could do so. The cause of his death is unknown.
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