The news that the Bastille had fallen did not unduly excite the Danes, who had already, in 1772, abolished serfdom and judicial torture, reformed the law, the courts and the police, cleansed the civil service of corruption and jobbery, proclaimed toleration for all religions, and encouraged literature and art. The Danes looked upon their royal family as a stake of stability in the conflicts of classes and the flux of politics; and when Louis XVI—who, like their own kings, had supported liberal measures—was attacked by the Parisian populace, and was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Assembly, the Danes agreed with their King that they wanted no such ecstasies. Napoleon was soon forgiven for calling a halt to the Revolution and restoring order in France. Denmark refused to join in the coalition against Bonaparte.
On the contrary, the Danish government challenged the claims of the British Admiralty to the right of its naval captains to board, and search for contraband, any vessel bound for France. On several occasions in 1799 and 1800 British captains had boarded Danish vessels, and one commander had captured, and had held in a British port, seven Danish merchantmen that had resisted him. In August, 1800, Czar Paul I invited the Kings of Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark to join him in a Second League of Armed Neutrality pledged to resist British search of neutral vessels.*On December 16–18, 1800, the four Baltic Powers signed a declaration of principles which they agreed to defend:
(1) that every neutral vessel may navigate freely from port to port on the coasts of nations at war; (2) goods belonging to the subjects of the belligerent Powers, with the exception of contraband, are free [from search when carried] on neutral vessels; … (5) the declaration of the officer commanding the vessel or vessels of the Royal or Imperial Marine… that his convoy has no contraband on board shall suffice to prevent any visit.8
Napoleon expressed his pleasure with this declaration. Paul I invited France to join Russia in an invasion of India, with a view to ending British power there.9 England felt that the dispute had reached a critical point, for the combined navies of the neutral powers and France could put an end to British control of the seas; and that control seemed the only barrier to Napoleon’s invasion of England. The British government concluded that either the Danish or the Russian fleet had to be captured or destroyed; the Danish preferably, for a prior attack on Russia would leave the British fleet in danger of attack from the rear.
On March 12, 1801, a British fleet under Sir Hyde Parker left Yarmouth with instructions to go to Copenhagen, to demand that Denmark withdraw from the League of Armed Neutrality, and, if rebuffed, to seize or destroy the Danish Navy. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, aged forty-two, second in command, fretted over his subordination to Admiral Parker, who, aged sixty-two, had shown a disposition to caution alien to Nelson’s temperament.
They reached the west coast of Jutland on March 17, sailed cautiously north and around the Skaggerak point of the peninsula, then south into the great bay of Kattegat to Sjaelland Island, then through the narrow strait between Swedish Hälsingborg and Danish Helsingör (Hamlet’s Elsinore), where they were fired upon by the batteries of Kronborg Castle. The British fleet survived, and moved south into the “Sound” to the narrowest strait of all, where Copenhagen seemed unreachably sheltered by forts and the Danish Navy—seventeen vessels arranged in a line from north to south, each armed with from twenty to sixty-four guns.
Admiral Parker decided that his larger ships, of deeper draft than Nelson’s, could not enter this shallow strait without danger of being grounded and destroyed. Nelson, having transferred himself and his flag from the St. George to the Elephant, led twenty-one lighter vessels into the strait, and stationed them directly opposite the Danish ships and forts. The battle (April 2, 1801) was fought at such close range that almost every shot carried destruction or death. The Danes fought with their usual bravery, the English with their usual discipline and trained accuracy of fire. Almost every vessel in the engagement was brought close to helplessness. Nelson’s position seemed so critical that Admiral Parker waved him the famous “Signal No. 39” to disengage and retreat into the Sound. An English account says that Nelson looked at the signal by deliberately putting the telescope to his blind eye; in any case he later swore that he never saw the call to retreat. He continued to fight.
The “great gamble”10 succeeded; the Danish vessels were one after another disabled or sunk. Nelson offered a cease-fire; it was accepted; and Nelson son, undertaking (like Napoleon) diplomacy as well as war, went on shore to discuss terms of peace with the Danish Regent, Crown Prince Frederick. The Prince had received the news that Czar Paul I had been assassinated (March 23, 1801); the League of Armed Neutrality was falling apart. Frederick agreed to withdraw from it. The British government confirmed Nelson’s arrangement, and he returned to another triumph. He rested on his honors until the nation called upon him (1805) to save, at Trafalgar, Britain’s control of the seas.
Denmark survived, and England joined the rest of Europe in respecting her. During the next six years the little kingdom struggled to maintain its neutrality between the nations—Great Britain and Russia—that controlled the neighboring seas, and the French armies that patrolled the lands adjoining the precarious peninsula. Generally the Danes inclined to favor Napoleon, but they resented his repeated urging of a more decided partiality. After the Peace of Tilsit he sent the Danish government a message insisting upon its complete exclusion of British trade, and the cooperation of its new Navy with the French.
Now, as in 1801, the British government took challenge by the forelock, and sent a massive fleet, with 27,000 troops, into Danish waters (July 26, 1807), alleging the most pacific intentions. But George Canning, foreign minister, persuaded his government that Napoleon was planning to use the Danish Navy as part of a flotilla that would attempt a landing in Scotland or Ireland.11 On July 28 Canning instructed the British representative in Denmark to inform the Danish Crown Prince that it was essential to the security of Great Britain that Denmark should ally itself with England and put its Navy at England’s disposal. The Prince refused, and prepared to resist. British ships thereupon surrounded Sjaelland, and British troops closed the circle around Copenhagen; the city was subjected to bombardment from land and sea (September 2–5, 1807), with such “terrible effect” that on September 7 the Danes surrendered to England their entire fleet—eighteen ships of the line, ten frigates, and forty-two smaller vessels.12 Denmark fought on, and thereafter, till 1813, aligned itself with France.
Between wars—and often inspired by them—the Danes made significant contributions to science, scholarship, literature, and art. Hans Christian Oersted (1777–1851) discovered that a pivoted magnetic needle will turn at right angles to an object carrying an electric current; the word oersted entered into all European and American languages to indicate a unit of strength in a magnetic field. Oersted founded the science of electromagnetism through thirty years of experiment.
Nikolai Grundtvig managed, in his eighty-nine years, to be a liberal theologian, a bishop, a philosopher, an historian, an innovating educator, a pathfinder in the study of Norse legends and Anglo-Saxon literature, and the author of an epic poem and songs and hymns still loved in Scandia.
Denmark in this dramatic age had a lively theater, whose comedies served as a gadfly to social pretenses; so Peter Andreas Heiberg (1758–1841) made fun of class distinctions in De V onner og de V anner (The V ons and the V ans), and earned so many enemies that he had to seek safety in Paris, where he served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Talleyrand. He left to posterity a son, Johan Ludvig Heiberg (1791–1860), who dominated the Danish theater in the following age.
Danish literature now produced at least two poets whose interests and renown surmounted the barriers of nation and language. Jens Immanuel Baggesen (1764–1826) was doubly gifted with an attractive character and graceful style. Charmed by his early verse, the Duke of Augustenburg paid for the youth’s visits to Germany and Switzerland. Jens met Wieland, Schiller, Herder, and Klopstock; he felt the Romantic longings of Rousseau, and rejoiced over the French Revolution. He immersed himself in the Kantian stream that was nourishing German philosophy; he added Kant’s name to his own. He put his wanderings of body and mind into Labyrinthen eller Digtervandringer (Labyrinths of a Wandering Poet, 1792), which almost rivaled Laurence Sterne in humor and sentiment. Back in Denmark, he missed the excitement of Weimar and Paris. From 1800 to 1811 he lived in France, watching Napoleon transform liberty into order, and republic into empire. In 1807 he issued a lively poem, Gjengengeren og han selv (The Ghost and Himself), in which he examined with wit and penetration his wavering between the classical ideals of order, truth, and moderation and the Romantic exaltation of freedom, imagination, and desire. In 1811 he received a professorship in the University of Kiel. Two years later he fell into a wearing war with the greatest of Denmark’s poets.
Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger (1779–1850) had an unusually happy youth. His father was caretaker of a suburban palace; the boy had the garden for his playground, the hall for his art gallery, the library for his school. His imagination prodded him into becoming an actor, but his friend Hans Christian Oersted drew him into the University of Copenhagen. He lived through the British bombardment of fleet and capital in 1801, and felt the influence of the Norwegian philosopher Henrik Steffens. Finally he reached his own note in Digte (Poems, 1802), which established the Romantic movement in Danish literature.
He advanced his campaign with Poetiske Skriften (1803), a cycle of lyrics paralleling the life of Chirist with annual changes in nature. The Established Church condemned this as heretical pantheism, but the Danish government awarded him a grant for travel in Germany, Italy, and France. He met Goethe, and perhaps from his example learned to check his Romantic subjectivity and sentiment. In Nordiske Digte (Northern Poems, 1807) he turned to Scandinavian mythology with an epic celebrating the journeys of the god Thor, and with a drama about Haakon Jarl, who ruled Norway from 970 to 995 and fought a losing battle against the spread of Christianity. When Oehlenschläger returned to Copenhagen (1809) he was received as Denmark’s greatest poet.
He took advantage of his popularity to publish a succession of hastily written works. Jens Baggesen publicly condemned them as negligent and inferior productions. A controversy flared, in which Oehlenschläger took little part; his friends, however, fervently defended him, and challenged Baggesen to a duel in the form of a Latin disputation. Meanwhile Oehlenschläger published Helge and Den lille Hyrdedreng; Baggesen was so pleased with them that he welcomed the return of “the old Adam.”13 In 1829 Oehlenschläger was crowned with laurel in Lund by Esaias Tegnér. On November 4, 1849, his seventieth birthday, he was acclaimed by contemporary poets as “the Adam of our Parnassus.”
In art Denmark offered Europe a sculptor who, at his zenith, had no living rival but Canova. Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770–1844) won a scholarship at the Copenhagen Academy, and settled in 1797 in a Rome that was still in artistic surrender to Winckelmann’s gospel of Hellenic sculpture as art’s ideal. He caught the attention of Canova, and followed him in making statues of pagan deities, and of contemporary celebrities in Greek or Roman pose and garb; so, in 1817, he modeled a nude bust of Byron as a grave Antinoüs. He succeeded Canova as leader of the neoclassic school in sculpture, and his fame spread so far that when he left Rome in 1819 for a stay in Copenhagen his progress through Vienna, Berlin, and Warsaw was almost a triumphal procession.14 Now (1819) he made the model from which Lucas Ahorn hewed out of sandstone rocks the massive Lion of Lucerne, commemorating the heroism of the Swiss Guards who died defending Louis XVI in 1792. Copenhagen complained when he again left it for Rome, but in 1838 it proudly celebrated his return. By this time he had carved his way into a fortune, part of which he gave to endow a museum to display his works. Outstanding among these is the statue that he left of himself, not quite classical in its honest obesity. He died in 1844, and was buried in the garden of his museum.