The Danish Lion – of Christian IV
Okay, so as you all know by now, I am Swedish. If I may say so myself, a relatively international Swede, having lived and worked in various parts of the world, but when things come to a crunch I’m as Swedish as IKEA’s meatballs and pickled herring (although the Dutch would probably argue pickled herring is as Dutch as it is Swedish, and those IKEA meatballs, well…) Never mind: the point is that I’m Swedish, I’m a history nut and I have a particular fondness for the 17th century, a time at which Sweden and Denmark were constantly at war – in truth very much ”same old, same old” compared to previous centuries – and in which Sweden forced Denmark to a couple of very humiliating treaties. One could say that the Swedish Empire expanded at the expense of the Danes. And some of that expansion has remained under Swedish control ever since, notably the region I live in, Skåne (or Scania).
Anyway, despite my nationality, I have a lot of admiration for various Danish kings. One such king is the larger-than-life Christian IV, a man who lived life to the full, constantly bit off more than he could chew, and still managed to somehow swallow and get on with things. Plus, the man knew how to wear ear-rings, hair-braids and bucket-topped boots, having an instinctive flair that must have had women melting like butter atop a newly baked scone. (Which is probably why this king left behind an impressive number of children – more than two dozen, all told)
Christian IV was born in the 16th century, the result of the very happy union between his mother and father – this despite an age difference of 21 years. Unfortunately, his parents weren’t destined to live for all that long together – his father died in 1588, leaving the eleven-year-old Christian to become king. As an aside, while I have plenty of time for Christian IV, I have very, very little for his father. I simply can’t forgive Fredrik II for what he did to the Earl of Bothwell (see here). I know, I know; by now water under the bridge, but to chain a big, strong handsome man to a post and leave him to live out his days in the dark like some tethered beast – no, not done.
Boys are rarely allowed to rule their kingdoms – and as the proud mother of three boys I must express just how happy that makes me. Christian was guided by his father’s excellent counsellors, and in general his minority was a reasonably stable period. By the time our young king turned nineteen, he was considered capable to rule all on his own, and was therefore crowned in 1596.
Young and personable, newly crowned, he now set about fulfilling his royal duties by wedding Anne Catherine of Brandenburg. In difference to the uxorious bliss of his parents, Christian found little contentment with his wife, albeit that she dutifully presented him with seven children, of which three would live beyond childhood.
Anne Catherine was very devout. She was also a quiet woman who handled her husband’s infidelities with silence – such a handsome, virile king could not be blamed for leaping happily from bed to bed – and instead invested her time and energies in her children and her faith.
Christian IV was an energetic king, burning with desire to reform his country, making it better, richer and preferably larger. A true Renaissance prince, he thought big, had an interest in a number of matters, and in general attempted to pull his people up by their bootstraps and introduce them to Modern Time. His court rang with music – the king himself danced like a god – he was passionate and creative, intelligent and determined. Like all kings of his time, he was mostly about Number One, setting his own best interests first at all times.
Christian was also obsessed with witches – a little hobby he shared with his brother-in-law, James VI of Scotland (and soon to be James I of England). It is interesting to note that here we have two young kings, well-educated men with more than air between their ears, and yet it sufficed to say the word “witch” and any common sense they had flew out the window, leaving them superstitious – and cruel.
Denmark did a lot of witch-burning in the 17th century. Many of those poor witches met their death due to their king’s avid interest in all things supernatural. In some cases, the king advocated torture, being of the opinion that witches had to be contained – no matter with what means. Once the poor wretch had admitted her sins, she (because it was almost always a she) was burned – thou shalt not suffer a witch to live and all that. The unfortunate woman would be tied to a ladder, offered a stiff drink or two, and, if lucky, someone would tie a bag of gunpowder to her back, ensuring she exploded before she burned. Ugh. Our Christian, however, insisted he was merely doing his Christian duty…
Other than with witches, Christian was also busy with warfare. In 1611, he declared war on that hereditary scum of an enemy, Sweden. A modernised fleet, a modernised army, and Christian carried the day against Sweden’s boy-king, Gustavus Adolphus, at the time no more than seventeen. I’m betting Gustavus Adolphus gnashed his teeth and promised revenge, but for the time being the ambitious Swedish king had no choice but to accept terms. With this feather in his cap, Christian could return to more pleasurable pastimes.
While zealous regarding his duties when it came to witches, Christian had a substantially more relaxed attitude when it came to such minor sins as fornication. Other than his long-suffering wife, he had at least three named mistresses, who gave him a number of illegitimate children. But when Anne Catherine died in 1612, the king was genuinely distressed – mostly because he hadn’t been a good enough husband to this loyal and devoted spouse. It is said that when the time came to close Anne Catherine’s coffin, someone suggested that the queen’s jewellery be removed first – the dead woman was adorned with the equivalent of a minor fortune. Christian shook his head. “They were hers. They stay with her.” (And to this day, they still do)
Henry VIII of England had his great matter with Anne Boleyn. Christian IV of Denmark was equally robbed of his senses when he first clapped eyes on Kirsten Munk in 1615. By all accounts, the young girl was lovely – and equipped with an impressive mother, Ellen Marsvin, who had no intention of sacrificing Kirsten’s virtue without adequate payment. After all, Ellen Marsvin came from one of the oldest – and finest – lineages in Denmark. An extended period of negotiation ended with Ellen made all the richer and Kirsten in a morganatic marriage with the king.
The pretty, plump Kirsten was to give Christian twelve children (well, eleven for sure; the twelfth was always considered a cuckoo by Christian). Kirsten was not the nicest – or smartest – of people. Besides, she had the bad taste of being jealous when Christian now and then went for variation in his bed. When upset, Kirsten screamed and yelled, she threw things, kicked things, tore things. She taunted the king for being old – and he was, compared to her. Plus, of course, he had other matters to deal with, principally the total disaster of his participation in the Thirty Years’ War.
This devastating, bloody conflict is often portrayed as being a fight between Protestants and Catholics. To some extent it was, but things weren’t that simple. Instead, one could argue this was a war in which the Holy Roman Empire, as represented by Emperor Ferdinand II, was attempting to take advantage of the political instability resulting from the Reformation of the previous century to expand its power base – and reclaim land lost to the heretics. This was something no one liked: neither the Protestant principalities and kingdoms, nor the very Catholic France. (Spain, of course, supported Ferdinand – if nothing else because the Emperor and the Spanish Hapsburg king were “like that”, related every which way.) Not that Ferdinand cared about public opinion, especially not initially, when his troops smashed through the opponents’ armies.
Catholic forces moved north, coming uncomfortably close to Denmark. Already in 1623, the Danish council proposed action. Christian procrastinated, worried that if he went to war, Gustavus Adolphus might stab him in the back. No longer a boy of seventeen, the king Christian had slapped down in 1611 was becoming something of a military celebrity. The Swedish king missed no opportunities to advance himself as a champion of the Protestant cause, and it was the fear of being overshadowed by this Swedish pest that ultimately tipped the scales for Christian. In 1625, he went to war, leading his 20 000 men or so south.
In August of 1626, the Danish army hit the dust, routed by John Tilly, loyal general of the Emperor, at the battle of Luttern. Even worse, that mad if brilliant general Wallenstein joined forces with Tilly, and suddenly half of Denmark had been invaded. Oh dear: Christian IV risked having no kingdom to be king of. No wonder he had little time for Kirsten’s tantrums. Christian IV had to swallow his pride and beg Gustavus Adolphus for help.
Together, the Swedes and the Danes managed to put Wallenstein on the back foot, and in 1629 Christian signed a treaty with the Holy Roman Empire. It gave him back Denmark – but it also explicitly forbade Christian to participate in the ongoing Thirty Years’ War. The hitherto so proud and successful Danish king returned to Copenhagen with his pride in shambles. It didn’t exactly help when he heard the rumours…
You see, Kirsten remained dissatisfied. Dangerously, Kirsten started to look elsewhere for bedsport, wanting someone younger and fitter and preferably entirely dazzled by her. (By now, she’d had eleven children over thirteen years, but this does not seem to have detracted from her attraction) She found what she was looking for in Otto – and when the king found out, he went spectacularly ballistic. Kirsten’s marriage hung by a thread. More importantly – at least from Ellen’s perspective – her mother risked losing her fat landholdings. Kirsten didn’t care as long as she could keep Otto in her bed – or so she said.
Ellen decided to implement some damage control, so she invited the king to dine with her. What follows is decidedly weird. The king was not entirely happy visiting his mother-in-law, but was gratified by the fact that she so clearly sided with him, bemoaning the fact that she had a slut for a daughter. So Ellen served food and wine, she prepared her best bedchamber for her royal guest – and on top of this, she acted the procurer, presenting the king with the innocent Vibeke Kruse, previously one of Kirsten’s maids, but dismissed from her service because jealous Kirsten did not like how the king looked at her servant.
The king, apparently, had need of comfort. Vibeke was willing to offer him that. Kirsten was sent off to Jutland where she was kept under strict confinement. Vibeke had a couple of babies – but by now the novelty of babies had worn off for Christian, as he had well over twenty sons and daughters.
Instead, he concentrated on restoring Denmark’s financial strength after the debacle in the war. Being a smart man, he decided to do this by raising the Sound Dues (all ships wanting to enter the Baltic Sea had to go through Öresund, the Sound, controlled by Denmark. An excellent source of income, as per Christian). This measure made Christian very popular at home. Money came pouring in, the empty Danish coffers filled up neatly, and everyone was happy. Not. The Swedes were pissed off, as were the Dutch. Our elderly king (because by now Christian was fast approaching his sixty-fifth birthday) had a new war on his hands.
Under the command of the brilliant Swedish Field Marshal Torstensson, the Swedes invaded most of Denmark. All, it seemed, was lost. Christian IV was not about to roll over that easily. The king rallied his men, raised his armies, repaired his ships, and in general succeeded in stopping Torstensson from advancing any further. At the battle of Colberger Heide, the king himself was present when his Danish fleet intercepted Torstensson’s attempts to penetrate deeper into Denmark. Despite being wounded when a cannon exploded just beside him, the king refused to leave the deck until the Danes had won the day, thereby setting an example to his frightened and tired men.
Ultimately, it didn’t help. The Swedes emerged victorious, and Christian had to sign away substantial parts of his kingdom in the Treaty of Brömsebro in 1645. The last years of his life were clouded by constant conflicts with his son-in-laws, especially Corfitz Ulfeldt (For more about him,his spirited wife, Leonore Christine, and their adventurous life, see here). Familial harmony eluded him, his children by various women locked in constant feuds. Interestingly enough, when Christian lay on his deathbed, he asked to see Kirsten Munk, a woman he hadn’t clapped eyes on for close to twenty years. She did come, hurrying as best as she could, but by the time she arrived, her former husband was dead, and so the man who had been king of Denmark for fifty-nine years was laid to rest at Roskilde Cathedral (as have all Danish kings, more or less) in early 1648.
When he began his reign, Denmark controlled the Baltic Sea, when he died, that position of power had passed to Sweden. Christian’s son inherited a smaller kingdom, but he also inherited a veritable treasure chest of beautiful buildings, of art and culture. And, of course, there was Christian IV himself: larger than life, passionate and intelligent, he lived his life to the full. As should we all, IMO – every day, every moment. This, I think, is why I like him so much. Or maybe it’s that little braid of his – who knows.