Post-classical history


Medieval Denmark was situated in ultimis finibus terre (at the ultimate end of the world), as narratives and papal letters stated repeatedly. Yet Danes had strong ideological and political reasons for participating in the early crusades to Jerusalem, which the Christian West regarded as the center of the world.

Denmark was converted to Christianity in the eleventh century. The founder of the ruling royal family, Harald Bluetooth, had been converted around 965, and he established his rule through Christian missionary wars. King Sven Estridsen (1047-1074/1076) was closely connected to the ecclesiastical reform movement in Cluny and was also a papal vassal; he carried on wars against the heathen Wends along the Baltic shores, having been promised the status of a martyr by the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen around 1055 if he fell. One of Sven’s many sons married into the family of the count of Flanders, another into the ducal family of Burgundy, and close links were established to almost all prominent military leaders of the First Crusade (1096—1099). Beyond the royal family, there was a strong feeling of the importance of Jerusalem because of the great number of Scandinavians who followed military careers in the Byzantine army and became accustomed to fighting Muslims and making pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

Crusades to the Holy Land (1097-1307)

According to the chronicler Albert of Aachen, King Sven’s son Sven led a substantial Danish contingent to Jerusalem in 1097. According to the well-informed Ekkehard of Aura, Sven’s expedition was the fulfillment of a plan that had been negotiated by Godfrey of Bouillon with the Danes and the Normans of Sicily. Sven’s army was delayed and could not travel with the main armies of the First Crusade (1096-1099). It decided to cross Anatolia on its own, but it was ambushed by the Turks and wiped out to the last man before reaching the Holy Land. The Danish king Erik I Eje- god was probably the first European king to go on a crusade, but he died on Cyprus in 1103 before completing his pilgrimage. Shortly afterward Charles, who was the son of Erik’s brother, King Knud the Holy (d. 1086), fought as a crusader alongside the army of Baldwin I of Jerusalem. After Charles succeeded to the county of Flanders (1119), he was even offered the throne of Jerusalem during the captivity of Baldwin II, but declined (1123).

Throughout the twelfth century, Danish nobles and ecclesiastics participated in crusades to the Holy Land, but it is extremely difficult to know how many. After the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, a general crusade was preached in Denmark. A company of nobles set out with their following toward Palestine, but arrived to find that an armistice had been negotiated between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, and they returned to Denmark without having fought. The spiritual importance of their expedition was defended in a short treatise known as Historia deprofectione Danorum in Hierosolymam, which shows the importance of crusading ideas in Denmark and which is also the only source for the papal bull Quum divina of Pope Gregory VIII. Other narratives relate that other Danish fleets made substantial contributions during the siege of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) in 1188. Participation in crusades to the East continued throughout the following century, and most of the (admittedly few) testaments from nobles had large donations intended to support others on crusade to the Holy Land. The last known will of this kind was made by a noblewoman named Cecilia in 1307.

Areas of Danish crusading activity in the Baltic Region

Areas of Danish crusading activity in the Baltic Region

Crusades in the Baltic Region (1108-1346)

The kings of Denmark soon adapted crusading ideas to areas closer to their homeland. The first proof of such an extension of the crusading idea is from no later than 1108: this was the famous Magdeburg charter, in which King Niels (1103-1134) promised to contribute substantially to the wars against the pagan Slavs, because he had been promised the same indulgence as those who went to Jerusalem. From this date, wars against Slavic Wends, Prussians, Finns, and Estonians were conducted as proper crusades under papal authorization that promised indulgences for the participants. If participants fell during such wars, their souls would be in heaven before their blood turned cold on earth, as the two rival Danish kings, Sven III Grathe and Knud V claimed, when they were both fighting the Wends in the city of Dobin in 1147. This “Wendish” crusade was initiated by the cardinal Hubald, who visited Denmark in 1146, and formed part of the several coordinated expeditions that made up the Second Crusade of 1147-1149.

A heavy militarization of Denmark took place during the twelfth century, both as part of a general European development and because of a civil war in 1146-1157, but also to organize society for religious wars. Towns were fortified and town militias established, for example in the frontier city of Schleswig, from which Duke Knud Lavard (d. 1131) raided the Slavic lands of Schleswig and Holstein and in 1127 was installed as king over the Abodrites by Count Lothar of Sup- plingenburg, the later Holy Roman Emperor. These raids aimed at expanding Christianity and developed into more permanent wars, involving settlement, colonization, and the establishment of ecclesiastical structures. The burgesses of the town of Roskilde formed a military confraternity under the leadership of one Wetheman around 1150, which manned ships and raided among infidels in the Baltic region. Its prime concern was to liberate Christian prisoners and transport them back home.

An important military instrument for the crusades in the Baltic region was the so-called leding, the name given in the Scandinavian languages to the general naval conscription organized by the royal government. The whole country was divided into units that each had to provide a ship; each ship unit was subdivided into forty-two further units that were each to provide a warrior to man the ship. There has been much discussion among Danish historians as to whether the leding was a very old or a twelfth-century institution, and whether it was solely for coastal defense or also for aggressive warfare. The contemporary Latin translation of the vernacular leding was expeditio, one of the most common designations for crusade, and the great Gesta Danorum by the chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1200) reserves the Latin term almost solely for twelfth-century warfare, both aggressive and defensive; if the leding was not a new institution, it was almost certainly reorganized and redirected toward crusading. A great number of castles were also built during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Many were placed on the southern shores of present-day Denmark, from where they could be used as starting points for aggressive expeditions across the sea. Some were built in the newly conquered areas; old Slavic fortifications were either demolished or taken over by the crusaders and refortified.

In 1223 King Valdemar II Sejr (1202-1241) was captured and held prisoner for two years by his enemy, Count Henry of Schwerin, which thus curtailed the expansion in the eastern Baltic region that Valdemar had begun immediately after his coronation. Up to that time, Danish crusade expeditions probably crossed the Baltic Sea almost every year, initially to the southern shore, and later to Livonia, Estonia, and Finland. In 1213 the Annales Waldemariani noted the remarkable event that “this year there was no crusade in Denmark” (expedicio in Dacia quieuit) [Ellen Jørgensen, ed.,Annales Danici Medii Aevi (Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad, 1920), p. 98]. A decisive victory in these continuous crusades was won when King Valdemar I the Great (1157-1182) conquered the great pagan fortress and temple of Arkona on the island of Rügen in 1168. The pagan idol of Svantevit was cut down and burned; churches were built and monasteries established, and the crusades then continued further eastward. From at least 1206, Danish crusades led by the king or by his nephew Count Albert of Orlamünde were directed toward Estonia. In 1219 this led to the decisive conquest of Reval, whose Estonian name, Tallinn, means “the city of the Danes.” Estonia was Christianized, and it was ruled by Denmark until it was sold to the Teutonic Order in 1346.

Danish contacts with the Teutonic Order became closer during this period, especially after the order’s headquarters were moved to Marienburg (mod. Malbork, Poland) in Prussia in 1309. As early as 1241, Danish vassals from Estonia fought alongside the order’s forces in the famous Battle on the Ice at Lake Peipus in 1241 against the prince of Novgorod, Alexander Nevskii. A peace treaty in 1314 between King Erik VI Menved (1286-1319) and the order lasted for nine years only, but in 1327 and again in 1338, the Danish vassals and bishop in Estonia supported the order against accusations of heresy and prevention of the infidels’ conversion by its brutality. After the sale of Estonia by Denmark to the Teutonic Order in 1346, the changing power balance among Denmark, the order, Sweden, and Poland led to a number of shifting alliances over the following two centuries, until the order was secularized under the Lutheran Reformation and the last grand master converted and married a Danish princess.

Inscription on the funeral plaque of Valdemar the Great (d. 1182). (Courtesy Kurt Villads Jensen)

Inscription on the funeral plaque of Valdemar the Great (d. 1182). (Courtesy Kurt Villads Jensen)

Ideology, Finance, and Military Orders

A crusade ideology was developed in Denmark during the twelfth century. Some churches were built as copies of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; wall paintings in churches showed the conquest of Jerusalem by the First Crusade and scenes from later Danish crusades in the Baltic; in hagiography and iconography, St. Knud Lavard was presented as a crusader. Above all, the only substantial historical narrative of the period, Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, was composed as a vivid description of Danish crusades against the pagan Wends, who were depicted as inherently unjust, almost inhuman, and always aggressive, so that the wars against them might be regarded as just defense.

Participation in crusades was financed by the collection of money during crusade sermons, by mortgages of land, by loans (often from the Cistercian Order), and from royal and ecclesiastical taxation. From the early thirteenth century, almost regular taxation of church income was imposed by papal decree and continued until the Lutheran Reformation. The income from this tax was received by papal collectors, who were often emissaries from the papal Curia, but from the fourteenth century more usually local ecclesiastics. Often the tax was shared with the king, who received (typically) half of the revenue for his crusades in the Baltic region, while the other half was transferred to the papacy at Rome or Avignon. Normally, the system worked well. In 1351, King Valdemar IV (1340-1375) even proposed a new papal crusading tax on the churches in his realm. In 1455, King Christian I (1448-1481) simply confiscated the money collected to support a crusade to liberate Cyprus, but he claimed that it was necessary for his own crusades and that he would repay it all later. Whether he actually did so has not been recorded.

From the 1160s at the latest, convents of the Order of the Hospital of St. John were founded in Denmark, and King Valdemar I donated to the order a general tax of one penny from every household in Denmark, which is probably the earliest known example of general taxation in favor of a mil itary order. This great privilege was reissued by later kings at least ten times until 1527. The order became well established with more houses and was favored by the nobility throughout the Middle Ages. At the time of the Reformation in 1536, their chief priory of Antvorskov was the second largest religious house in Denmark. The extent of the Hospitallers’ actual participation in the Danish crusades is difficult to establish because of the paucity of sources, but it was probably substantial. The Danish national flag is a white cross on red and according to a late tradition, it fell down from heaven during a battle at Fellin in Estonia in 1208 (not at Reval in 1219, as has commonly been believed since 1600). It is tempting to see a connection between this flag and the emblem of the Hospitallers.

There is no good evidence that any other of the international orders established themselves in Denmark, except perhaps that during the dissolution of the Order of the Temple in the early fourteenth century the pope also admonished the Danish king to confiscate Templar lands. But we do not have any other indications of Templar possessions in Denmark. It is probable, however, that a local crusading order was established under the patronage of St. Knud Lavard, possibly around 1170 when he was canonized. This order developed into a religious and mercantile confraternity during the thirteenth century.

Crusading in the Later Middle Ages

Danish crusaders took part in the late medieval attempts to reconquer the Holy Land after the loss of Acre to the Muslims in 1291. In 1363-1364 Valdemar IV traveled around in Europe to seek political support for his wars within Denmark, and as a means toward gaining support he both visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and, while at Avignon, took the cross and promised to help King Peter I of Cyprus to recover Jerusalem. He never did so, but crusading and crusading vows were obviously an important part of Danish kings’ European policy. In 1457, four years after the loss of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, Christian I promised to contribute to a common European crusade with 200,000 Danish crusaders if he could first make peace with Sweden and the Teutonic Order. It never happened, but many hundreds of individual Danish crusaders joined subsequent crusading initiatives in 1464 and went through Hungary to Venice and Ancona, but had to return when the planned crusade was abandoned because of the death of Pope Pius II. In 1471, the imperial German diet in Regensburg decided to follow a new, grand crusading plan proposed by Christian I consisting of three coordinated armies: one led by Christian in person with crusaders from Scandinavia, Scotland, and England through Russia; another overland led by the emperor; and a third led by the pope, sailing from the Italian city-states. The unwillingness of the German princes and the death of the pope prevented the fulfillment of this plan. Later Danish kings were assigned an important role in common European crusading plans until the early sixteenth century, for example in 1512, when Emperor Maximilian suggested that King Hans of Denmark (1481-1513) should negotiate a peace between the pope and the king of Aragon as preparation for a new crusade.

The crusade also became an important element in Danish internal policy, in both practice and theory. In 1259 King Christopher I (1252-1259) had imprisoned the archbishop of Lund, and the only bishop who supported his metropolitan, Peder of Roskilde, fled to the most remote part of his diocese, the island of Rügen. From here he led an army together with Prince Jarimar of Rügen via Bornholm to Copenhagen, which was taken in the early summer, and then on to the small town of Næstved, where a royal army was totally defeated in June. The royal soldiers were buried in pits like dogs (this mass grave was excavated in the 1990s), an indication that they were regarded as heretics and that Bishop Peder considered his war a just crusade against a heretic king. In 1294, KingErik VI Menved also imprisoned his archbishop, and Pope Boniface VIII had to threaten the king with a crusade against Denmark before the archbishop was released and a formal legal process begun at the papal court in Rome. Around 1400, Margaret I (d. 1412), queen of the newly founded Kalmar Union, comprising Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, complained to Pope Boniface IX that her realm was being attacked by enemies from all directions and was difficult to defend because of the long coastline. The reply came promptly. In 1401 the pope commissioned the three Nordic archbishops to preach the crusade in Scandinavia and the Baltic region in support of Queen Margaret. All participants were promised the same indulgence as those who went to Jerusalem if they fought or supported fighting against the enemies of the queen, whether heathens or Christians. This bull is a unique example of a pope speaking unreservedly about crusading against Christians.

After the Lutheran Reformation in 1536, the papal indulgence disappeared, but ideas of gaining spiritual rewards by fighting against the Turks or other infidels and the idea of war as a penitential act persisted unchanged, at least until the late seventeenth century it seems, though this has not been researched at all until very recently. Treatment of the Nordic crusades disappeared from Danish history writing after the middle of the nineteenth century. The last substantial contribution to the topic was Paul Riant in 1865, but his book has been totally ignored by Danish historians. Since the loss of Denmark’s German-speaking provinces of Schleswig-Holstein (1864), historians have concentrated almost exclusively on the internal history of present-day Denmark. A strong tradition of social and economic history has meant that scholars have researched the nobility as land-owners, but never as warriors, and any mention of crusading in Danish medieval sources was normally dismissed as a pretext for political aggression and economic exploitation. During the 1990s, a new and strong interest in crusades, military history, and history of mentalities has created new research milieus and led to a number of recent publications on Denmark and the crusades in both Danish and English.

Kings and Queens of Denmark

during the Period of the Crusades

Erik I Ejegod




Erik II Emune


Erik III Lam


Sven III Grathe


Knud V Magnussen


Valdemar I the Great


Knud VI


Valdemar II Sejr


Erik IV Plovpenning




Christopher I


Erik V Klipping


Erik VI Menved


Christopher II


Valdemar III


Christopher II (again)


Valdemar IVAtterdag


Oluf II


Margaret I (also Norway and Sweden)


Erik VII (also Norway and Sweden)


Christopher III (also Norway and Sweden)


Christian I (also Norway and Sweden


to 1464)


Hans (also Sweden to 1501)


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