Absolutism

History of Denmark between 1659 - 1770

The 16th century was a period of boom in Denmark, but around 1600 a trade crisis set in. The crisis deepened during the following decades and became a long-term slump which only began to abate around 1740. A turnaround in domestic policy occurred in 1660. Christian III’s coronation charter had given the Rigsråd a final say in the affairs of the kingdom. The dominance of the aristocracy lasted until 1660-1661, when absolute monarchy was established in line with other European kingdoms.

Denmark was very much a farming community. Corn and cattle, which constituted the only export articles, were mainly sold to the densely populated Netherlands. There was no industry to speak of, even though Christian IV attempted to set up some industry in the capital and also tried to establish a mining industry in Norway. All his attempts were unsuccessful, however, and it was only at the end of the 17th century that wartime conditions gave a boost to international trade. Non-agrarian production and international shipping were still a thing of the future. The growing financial crisis cast doubt on the credibility of the Rigsråd, and it finally collapsed in 1660-1661 when the country’s political system changed.

Absolute power

Frederik 3 by window
Frederik III of Denmark

Absolutism was a result of the lengthy political crisis and the acute state of emergency which resulted from the last of the Karl Gustav wars against Sweden in 1657-1660. Despite his weak position when elected king in 1648, Frederik III’s political skill allowed him to succeed in ousting two of his main adversaries in the Rigsråd as early as the 1650s. The two were the seneschal Corfitz Ulfeldt and the governor of Norway Hannibal Sehested, who were both Frederik’s brothers-in-law. The king’s heroic conduct during the siege of Copenhagen in the winter of 1659 had, in addition, made him widely popular at a time when the nobility and the Rigsråd were increasingly being discredited. In October 1660, these events led the estates – the nobility only reluctantly – to create a hereditary monarchy.

The new system meant that the king was no longer dependent on the Rigsråd, and he immediately used his new power to introduce absolutism, which was temporarily established on 10 January 1661 in the Hereditary Monarchy Act before being fully set out in Kongeloven (the Royal Law) of 1665, the basic law of Danish absolutism. The change of system in 1660-1661 introduced a hectic period of reforms which culminated during the reign of Christian V (1670-1699), and lasted until the reign of his successor, Frederik IV. The aim was to consolidate the new system of government and to ensure that Denmark became a well-organised, hierarchical society with the absolute monarch as its focal point.

The aristocratic departmental government now became a collegiate administration divided into different government departments. The old division into estates was replaced by a new hierarchy in which the officials of the Crown took the leading positions. The old hereditary nobility were deprived of most of its privileges and were suddenly joined by a large number of ‘new men’. In the course of a lifetime, Denmark was transformed from a self-managing mediaeval society divided into estates to a modern bureaucracy. Legislation was standardised as all laws were collected in a systematically organised Statute Book, Christian V’s Danske Lov 1683 (Danish Law), which applied to the whole country and thereby replaced the old provincial laws.

With the help of the astronomer Ole Rømer, new uniform systems of weights and measures were introduced; the greatest administrative feat, however, was a full survey and registration of all agricultural land in the country. The land register was intended to enable the administration to create a uniform basis for taxation, and proved that the State had discarded the old system of relying on revenue from crown lands and gone over to direct taxation of land owners and land users.

Although the big landowners continued to play an important role in the administration of taxes and the conscription of soldiers, and although the first absolute monarchs found it difficult to find their political position in relation to the new large bureaucracy, there is little doubt that the reforms which were introduced at the end of the 17th century created a solid foundation for the stable bureaucratic absolutism of the 18th century.

Culture

The spiritual life of the population was strongly influenced by the Reformation throughout the whole of this period. The Danish Church was subservient to the State, which purposely used the widely ramified organisation and its school system as a useful means of indoctrinating the population with the Lutheran dogma of the divinity of authority. At the end of the 16th century, the reformation rebellion had settled into Lutheran orthodoxy. There was no real reaction against this indoctrination until 1700, when Evangelical movements from Germany brought a call for a devotional life of a more intense personal nature. The national Church allowed the mother tongue to become better established, although Latin continued to play an important role as a language of learning.

The most noteworthy contributions in Danish during this period include Chancellor Arild Huitfeldt’s Danmarks Riges Krønike (The Chronicle of the Kingdom of Denmark) from the 1590s, in which he describes the history of the Danes from Saxo Grammaticus up to his own time in a very pithy style. Also worthy of note are the hymns written at the end of the 17th century by Thomas Kingo, the Bishop of Odense, who admirably demonstrated how expressive the Danish language could be in the hands of an expert. These examples also highlight another contemporary issue: A feeling of Danish national identity was slowly beginning to emerge amongst the leading strata of society.

Dano-Swedish Wars

The last two Dano-Swedish wars, the Skånske Krig (Scania War) 1675-1679, and Store Nordiske Krig (Great Nordic War) 1709-1720, were both started by the Danes in an attempt to win back Scania from the ailing Swedish superpower, and break the troubling alliance between Sweden and the Dukes of Gottorp. Even though the Danes more or less won both wars, they did not succeed in reclaiming Scania since the big European powers opposed it.

In acknowledgement of this, and because Sweden had again been reduced to the same level as Denmark, the government dropped the Dano-Swedish issue from the foreign policy agenda. The border through the Sound was there to stay. The Gottorp issue was satisfactorily resolved at the same time, and the lengthy Danish-Swedish rivalry was soon replaced by a new partnership in the shadow of the emerging Russian power. The peace of 1720 introduced a long period of peaceful coexistence between the two Nordic kingdoms.

References: GlobalSecurity.org

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