The Age of Enlightenment and Napoleonic Wars

History of Denmark between 1771 - 1814

New propriety and Enlightenment ideas became popular among the middle classes of Denmark, arousing increased interest in personal liberty. In the last 15 years of the 18th century the authorities relaxed the censorship which had existed since the beginning of the 17th century. At the same time, a sense of Danish nationalism began to develop. Hostility increased against Germans and Norwegians present at the royal court. Pride in the Danish language and culture increased, and eventually a law banned "foreigners" from holding posts in the government. Antagonism between Germans and Danes increased from the mid-18th century on.

In the 1770s, during the reign of the mentally unstable Christian VII (1766–1808), the queen's lover, a German doctor named Johann Friedrich Struensee, became the real ruler of the country. Filled with the ideas of the Enlightenment, he attempted a number of radical reforms including freedom of the press and religion. But it was short-lived. The landlords feared that the reforms were a threat to their power, while the commoners believed that religious freedom was an invitation to atheism. In 1772, Struensee was arrested, tried, and convicted of crimes against the majesty. Struensee was beheaded his remains were quartered and put on display on top of spikes on the commons west of Copenhagen. The next 12 years were a period of unmitigated reaction until a group of reformers gained power in 1784.

Denmark became the model of enlightened despotism, partially influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution. Denmark thus adopted liberalizing reforms in line with those of the French Revolution, with no direct contact. Danes were aware of French ideas and agreed with them, as it moved from Danish absolutism to a liberal constitutional system between 1750-1850. The change of government in 1784 was caused by a power vacuum created when King Christian VII took ill, and influence shifted to the crown prince (who later became King Frederick VI) and reform-oriented landowners. Between 1784 and 1815, the abolition of serfdom made the majority of the peasants into landowners. The government also introduced free trade and universal education. In contrast to France under the ancien regime, agricultural reform was intensified in Denmark, civil rights were extended to the peasants, the finances of the Danish state were healthy, and there were no external or internal crises. That is, reform was gradual and the regime itself carried out agrarian reforms that had the effect of weakening absolutism by creating a class of independent peasant freeholders. Much of the initiative came from well-organized liberals who directed political change in the first half of the 19th century.

Napoleonic Wars

Slaget på reden
The Battle of Copenhagen, 1801.

The long decades of peace came to an abrupt end during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain felt threatened by the Armed Neutrality Treaty of 1794, which originally involved Denmark and Sweden. The British fleet attacked Copenhagen in 1801, destroying much of Denmark's navy. Denmark nonetheless managed to remain largely uninvolved in the Napoleonic Wars until 1807. The British fleet bombarded Copenhagen again that year, causing considerable destruction to the city. They then captured the entire Danish fleet so that it could not be used by France to invade Britain (as the French had lost their own fleet at Trafalgar in 1805), leading to the Gunboat War (1807–1814). The confiscation of the Danish navy was widely criticised in Britain.

In 1809 Danish forces fighting on the French side participated in defeating the anti-Bonapartist German rebellion led by Ferdinand von Schill, at the Battle of Stralsund. By 1813, Denmark could no longer bear the war costs, and the state was bankrupt. When in the same year the Sixth Coalition isolated Denmark by clearing Northern Germany of French forces, Frederick VI had to make peace. Accordingly, the unfavourable Treaty of Kiel was concluded in January 1814 with Sweden and Great Britain, and another peace was signed with Russia in February.

The post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna demanded the dissolution of the Dano-Norwegian union, and this was confirmed by the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. The treaty transferred Heligoland to Great Britain and Norway from the Danish to the Swedish crown, Denmark was to be satisfied with Swedish Pomerania.

Interestingly, this period also counts as "the Golden Age" of Danish intellectual history. A sign of renewed intellectual vigor was the introduction of compulsory schooling in 1814. Literature, painting, sculpture, and philosophy all experienced an unusually vibrant period. The stories of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) became popular not only in Denmark, but all over Europe and in the United States. The ideas of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) spread far beyond Denmark, influencing not only his own era, but proving instrumental in the development of new philosophical systems after him. The sculptures of Thorvaldsen (1770–1834) grace public buildings all over Denmark and other artists appreciated and copied his style. Grundtvig (1783–1872) tried to reinvigorate the Danish National Church and contributed to the hymns used by the church in Denmark.

References: Wikipedia

Previous historical period: Absolutism (1659-1770)

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

Wieskirche

The Pilgrimage Church of Wies (Wieskirche) is an oval rococo church, designed in the late 1740s by Dominikus Zimmermann. It is located in the foothills of the Alps in the municipality of Steingaden.

The sanctuary of Wies is a pilgrimage church extraordinarily well-preserved in the beautiful setting of an Alpine valley, and is a perfect masterpiece of Rococo art and creative genius, as well as an exceptional testimony to a civilization that has disappeared.

The hamlet of Wies, in 1738, is said to have been the setting of a miracle in which tears were seen on a simple wooden figure of Christ mounted on a column that was no longer venerated by the Premonstratensian monks of the Abbey. A wooden chapel constructed in the fields housed the miraculous statue for some time. However, pilgrims from Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and even Italy became so numerous that the Abbot of the Premonstratensians of Steingaden decided to construct a splendid sanctuary.