Christian II of Denmark (r. 1513–23) was as colorful a character as the Gustavus Vasa who defeated him in Sweden. Forced by the barons to sign humiliating “capitulations” as the price of his election, he surrounded himself with middle-class advisers, ignored the Rigsraad of highborn magnates, and took as his chief counselor the mother of his beautiful Dutch mistress. This privy council must have had some ability and spirit, for Christian’s domestic policy was as constructive as his foreign adventures were futile. He labored assiduously in administration, reformed the government of the cities, revised the laws, put down piracy, improved the roads, began a public postal system, abolished the worst evils of serfdom, ended the death penalty for witchcraft, organized poor relief, opened schools for the poor, made education compulsory, and developed the University of Copenhagen into a light and haven of learning. He incurred the enmity of Lübeck by restricting the power of the Hanse; he encouraged and protected Danish trade; and he put an end to the barbarous custom by which maritime villagers had been privileged to plunder all ships wrecked on their shores.
In 1517 Leo X sent Giovanni Arcimboldo to Denmark to offer indulgences. Paul Helgesen, a Carmelite monk, denounced what seemed to him the sale of these indulgences; and in this he anticipated Luther’s Theses.5 Legate and King quarreled over the division of the proceeds; Arcimboldo decamped to Lübeck with a part, Christian confiscated the rest. Finding excellent reasons for Protestantism in the real abuses and available wealth of the Church, Christian brought Helgesen to a post in the University of Copenhagen, where, for a time, this eloquent Danish Erasmus led the movement for reform. When Helgesen turned cautious, Christian asked Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony to send him Luther himself, or-at least some theologian of Luther’s school. Carlstadt came, but did not stay long. Christian issued some reform legislation: no one was to be ordained without having studied sufficiently to expound the Gospel in Danish; the clergy could not legally own property or receive bequests unless they married; bishops were bidden to moderate their luxury; ecclesiastical courts lost jurisdiction where property was involved; and a supreme court appointed by the King was to have final authority over ecclesiastical as well as civil affairs. However, when the Diet of Worms placed Luther under the Imperial ban Christian suspended his reforms, and Helgesen advised reconciliation with the Church.
While these domestic policies were exciting his people, Christian lost the reins by his failures in foreign affairs. His cruelty in Sweden turned many Danes against him. Lübeck declared war on him for his attacks upon Hanseatic shipping. Nobles and clergy, alienated by high taxation and hostile legislation, ignored his summons to a national assembly, and proclaimed his uncle, Duke Frederick of Schleswig-Holstein, as the new king of Denmark. Christian fled to Flanders with his queen, the Protestant sister of Charles V; he made his peace with the Church, hoping to get a kingdom for a Mass; he was captured in a futile attempt to regain his throne, and for twenty-seven years he lived in the dungeons of Sönderborg with no companion but a half-wit Norwegian dwarf. The paths of glory led him with leisurely ignominy to the grave (1559).
Frederick I found no happiness under his challenged crown. Nobles and clergy had accepted him on many conditions, one of which was that he would never allow a heretic to preach in Denmark. Helgesen, while continuing to criticize the shortcomings of the Church, now turned most of his passionate polemics against the Protestants, urging that gradual reform was better than turbulent revolution. But he could not stem the tide. Frederick’s son, Duke Christian, was already a Lutheran, and the King’s daughter, with his consent, had married Albrecht of Brandenburg, the Lutheran ex-head of the Teutonic Knights. In 1526 Frederick veered with the wind, and appointed as his chaplain Hans Tausen, who had studied under Luther. Tausen left his monastery, married, and openly advocated Lutheran ideas. Frederick found it convenient to order that episcopal confirmation fees should be paid to him, not to the pope. Lutheran preachers took courage and multiplied; the bishops asked for their expulsion; Frederick answered that he had no lordship over men’s souls, and was resolved to leave faith free—a most unusual proceeding. In 1524 a Darihï; translation of the New Testament appeared; in 1529 a much better version was published by Christian Pedersen, which immensely advanced the Protestant development. The people, eager to end tithe payments to the clergy, readily accepted the new theology; by 1530 the Lutherans dominated Copenhagen and Viborg. In that year, at the Diet of Copenhagen, a public debate was held between Catholic and Protestant leaders; both King and people gave the victory to the Protestants; and the Confession of Faith presented there by Hans Tausen remained for a decade the official creed of the Danish Lutherans.
Frederick’s death (1533) ushered in the final act of the Danish Reformation. The merchant princes of Denmark joined with their old enemies in Lübeck in an attempt to restore Christian II; Count Christopher of Oldenburg led the Lübeck forces and gave his name to the “Count’s War”; Copenhagen fell to him, and Lübeck dreamed of ruling all Denmark. But the burghers and peasants rallied to the standard of Frederick’s son Christian; their army defeated Oldenburg, and captured Copenhagen after a year’s siege (July 1536). All bishops were arrested, and were released only on promising to abide by the Protestant regime. The national assembly, in October 1536, formally established the Lutheran State Church, with Christian III as its supreme head. All episcopal and monastic properties were confiscated to the King, and the bishops lost all voice in the government. Norway and Iceland accepted Christian III and his legislation, and the triumph of Lutheranism in Scandinavia was complete (1554).