The Danish Revolution


Danish Army, 1st Northern War, mid 17th Century.


In September 1660, four months after peace was signed, Frederik III summoned the Rigsdag to deal with a disastrous financial situation which threatened to overwhelm the government. The cost of fighting two wars in such a short time had been substantial. The army had risen from 20,000 in 1655 to 40–50,000 at its peak in October 1657; required to disarm by Roskilde, by the summer of 1658 it had dropped to 229 companies (just over 20,000 men), compared with 530 in October 1657. Since the increase had favoured the more expensive cavalry units, which had risen sixfold compared with the three-and-a-half-fold rise in infantry units, and since the Danes had to bear the costs of the Swedish occupation from February until May, the state was already heavily burdened when Charles launched his second invasion. With Jutland and the duchies rapidly occupied by Swedish forces, recruiting a new army was both difficult and expensive, but Frederik managed to field 30,000 men, raising eight additional regiments of foot and fourteen of horse. Now he faced the substantial costs of demobilisation for the second time in two years, at a point when his debts had risen to over 5 million rigsdalers.

Although Frederik’s election charter gave substantial power to the Council, his aristocratic ministers reverted to the standard procedure of calling the Rigsdag in a crisis. On this occasion, however, it did more than settle the government’s debts. During protracted negotiations over taxation, the nobility’s robust defence of its traditional exemptions was met by fierce opposition from the clergy and particularly the burghers. When stubborn noble resistance brought deadlock, the leaders of the other estates, Hans Svane, the bishop of Zealand and Hans Nansen, senior burgomaster of Copenhagen, introduced on 14/24 October a revolutionary proposal for a fundamental restructuring of the Danish state, based on the introduction of a hereditary monarchy through the annulment of Frederik’s election charter and the abolition of noble privileges. Although the nobility rejected this radical document, Frederik backed the non-noble estates in what amounted to a military coup. On the evening of 20/30 October, he made it unofficially known that he was prepared to accept the offer without noble agreement and placed Copenhagen under martial law, having already tightened military control across the country. The Council was comprehensively outmanoeuvred and had to yield. Three days later, Council representatives and delegates from the Rigsdag unanimously offered the hereditary throne to Frederik and his successors. A Commission was established, in which nobles were heavily outnumbered, to consider the constitutional implications, and on 27 October (OS), Frederik’s coronation charter was ceremoniously returned to him. Twelve years after the most radical curtailment of royal power in Danish history the king was given absolute power by his subjects to establish a new constitution.

The break was decisive. On 20/30 January 1661 Frederik issued the Act Concerning Absolute and Hereditary Government which was circulated and signed by 183 nobles, 987 clerics and 381 burghers from fifty-seven towns, and which constituted one of the most radical claims to unlimited royal power by any contemporary state. Although there was something of a retreat from this extreme position in the 1665 Royal Law, the power it gave the Crown was substantial: the ‘absolute and hereditary’ monarch was explicitly stated to be above all human laws and – apart from upholding Lutheranism as laid down in the Augsburg Confession, and maintaining Denmark’s territorial integrity and the hereditary succession – the king was explicitly freed from all constraints on his power.

The Danish Revolution was a stunning defeat for the narrow group of high noble families which had dominated politics for so long. It did not, however, mark quite such a radical break with the past as was once believed. The foundations of noble power in Denmark had long been crumbling. Partly this was due to socio-economic factors unconnected with the changing military situation, but the gradual transformation of Denmark’s military establishment after 1614 and Denmark’s involvement in the wars of 1625–9, 1643–5, 1657–8 and above all 1658–60, played a decisive part in this process, and in provoking the political crisis.

The Danish nobility was not numerous, comprising a mere 181 families in 1600, or some 1,850 individuals, of whom 4–500 were adult males. Although there was no titled nobility, and all nobles were legally equal, between the revolution of 1536 which established the Council’s extensive powers, and 1648, noble solidarity was seriously undermined. The restricted membership of the Council, which consisted of twenty-three members by 1650, concentrated power in the hands of a narrow elite, while economic trends since 1600 had opened up a growing gap between a small group of wealthy families and the rest: if the nobility’s share of cultivated land remained relatively steady at about 44 per cent, the richest 10 per cent of the nobility held 27.5 per cent of noble land in the 1550s, but 42 per cent by 1625. As the Council nobility distanced itself from the rest of the estate, the lesser nobility, which had suffered badly from inflation, challenged Council authority, using the 1648 debates over Frederik’s election charter to demand greater political decentralisation.

The strains within the nobility emerged after Torstensson’s War. Hitherto, the Council had pursued a policy of neutrality, which had enabled Denmark to remain a domain state, in which the Crown, which owned 52 per cent of Denmark’s cultivated land, was expected to live off its own, with extraordinary taxation only agreed in an emergency. This policy had been reasonably successful until the 1640s, and the government’s debts at the end of the wars in 1570 and 1629 had been paid. Although the Council’s opposition to Christian IV’s wars protected it from attack over the increased taxation burden, its domination of the government left it vulnerable in the very different climate after 1643. Already the creation of the small permanent army after 1614 had brought a new charge upon the government which represented a constant drain on resources, especially after the destruction of Christian’s healthy financial position after 1625. The 1630s saw a growing debate over the increasingly difficult position of the national finances, as the domain state demonstrated its inability to meet the new demands placed upon it. The annual deficit was running at 425,000 rigsdalers in 1646, and 344,700 rigsdalers in 1651; in 1650 treasurer Oluf Daa estimated the national debt at 4,850,000 rigsdalers. Thus the inelasticity of the domain state was already causing problems before the disasters of the 1650s; indeed, the Council was already moving towards the collegial principles of government which were adopted after 1660 in an attempt to solve some of the problems. The dramatic increase of the tax burden by 500–600 per cent between 1600 and 1640 had already created serious discontent even before the three wars fought on Danish territory in the space of seventeen years brought devastation.

It was the 1658–60 war which hit Denmark hardest, as it suffered the depredations not only of the Swedes, but also of its own allies. The Poles in particular were demanding guests, and there were frequent complaints that the allies extracted far higher rates of contributions than the Swedes. In February 1659 the allies took from the 400–500 inhabitants of the parishes of Grindsted and Grene 2,292 rigsdalers, 246 horses, 887 cattle and 3,762 smaller animals: on average the war years cost each homestead 2 horses, 6 cows and 30–35 smaller animals, 16–17 rigsdalers and 2–3 barrels of grain. By 1662, twenty-eight of sixty-four homesteads were deserted. No wonder Pasek praised Denmark as a land flowing with milk and honey. The devastation was heightened by the arrival of typhus in 1658. Death rates rose alarmingly: in six parishes in Varde, Åbenrå and Velje, which normally saw 6 deaths per month, the figure reached 133 in August, 134 in September, and 100 per month until the end of the year; the death rate from August to November, usually about 25, passed 450, an eighteenfold rise. In 1662, some parishes claimed over 75 per cent deserted homesteads. Even if one accepts a degree of exaggeration, it is incontestable that the experience was devastating.

It was against this background of distress that the Rigsdag assembled in September 1660. Although peasants were not directly represented, the clergy were well aware of their problems and adopted a hard line. Neither were the burghers in any mood to listen to noble pleas. The war of 1658–60 had destroyed any military justification that the nobility might have for its privileged position. This was partly a matter of perception: although rostjeneste had provided hardly any troops for the Swedish wars, nobles did serve in relatively large numbers. The officer corps of the new army was dominated by the native nobility between 1614 and 1658, with six out of seven infantry regiments still commanded by native nobles in 1656, while noble domination among cavalry officers was even greater; in all, 200 out of 400 nobles of military age served in the Swedish wars. Moreover, the nobles bore much of the cost of mobilisation in 1657–8 when the contribution of Danish and Holstein nobles was not much short of that of the state – 83,000 rigsdalers compared with 100,000.

Other estates had also contributed, however. The summoning of the opbud, even if its military contribution was negligible, underlined the fact that all had a responsibility to defend the fatherland, yet only nobles used their service to justify fiscal privileges. Moreover, between 1658 and 1660 war, noble domination of the officer corps was decisively undermined, as its size doubled in under a year, and officers were recruited regardless of social background. Fourteen of the new regiments had hardly a nobleman above subaltern rank, eight had none at all, and eleven had only one. In 1659, it was the Copenhagen burghers who defied the Swedes, for which Frederik granted the city as a corporate body full noble privileges. Satires questioning the military worth of the nobility, which had circulated since Torstensson’s War, became more frequent, while the fact that many nobles owned property across the Sound, in territory seized by Sweden, often made them reluctant to fight and the object of popular suspicion.

The Danish nobility was simply too small and most of its members were too poor to perform the functions which might justify the extensive claims they made for social privilege, while the loss of the provinces across the Sound further reduced the number of nobles able or willing to serve. In the chaos of 1658–9, wealthier nobles found it impossible to fulfil their traditional role of military entrepreneur, and the state took over. From 1614, the king had maintained control of commissions: captains and subalterns were appointed by him, not by regimental commanders. By 1657 the noble-dominated provincial commissions which ran the army were consolidated into a newly established central War College. Officers were thus dependent for their careers on the king, and Frederik had built up a loyal core of support, both noble and non-noble.

With firmer central control of the military, and an officer-corps in which commoners, foreigners and new nobles had, by 1660, swamped the old nobility, the army was unlikely to oppose moves to strengthen royal power. Military change since 1614 had helped undermine noble rule. The policy of neutrality had been wrecked by Christian’s ambition and Swedish aggression, while the domain state had crumbled: in effect Denmark was a tax state long before the massive sales of royal land after the establishment of absolutism sealed the fate of the old fiscal order. Finally, the increasing divisions within the nobility rendered the Council helpless in the face of its opponents; by 1660 it represented only itself.

If the 1660 reforms were the culmination of a series of long-term developments, their revolutionary nature must be recognised. The Rigsdag deliberately destroyed the old order and placed the destiny of the state in the monarchy’s hands. The publication of the new estates privileges in June 1661 demonstrated that the old nobility’s status as a distinct social group was no more, as the king suspended for ten years – in practice forever – the requirement to perform military service; in consequence, the nobility was stripped of its tax-exemption and its monopoly on many offices. By 1700, the number of top political advisers from the old nobility had dropped from 95 to 20; in the local administration from 93 to 19. Nobles began to pay the new land-tax, introduced in 1662; in 1688, the compilation of a comprehensive land-register provided a proper basis for the new tax-state.

Yet the reforms were more a redefinition of nobility than an attack upon it. The emphasis on birth and the equality of the nobility was downplayed; in its place, the new system stressed the concept of service and constructed a new social hierarchy based largely on merit. In May 1671, the government promulgated a table of ranks for members of the administration, with the monarchy at the top, which undermined traditional concepts of the social order: the emphasis was on the kind of service performed, not social background; commoners with important posts were ranked above well-born but more lowly servants of the state, while the creation of ranks of count and baron stressed that the concept of nobility itself was not under attack. In 1679, public servants of non-noble origin were given a series of privileges; in 1693 the process was completed with the grading of the nobility into a hierarchy of ranks and the automatic ennoblement of commoners in the three highest ranks of the administration.

Denmark’s experience of war had demonstrated that traditional government structures and social roles no longer adequately provided for the defence of the realm. By 1660, the demands of war had forced the Danish Council into a series of ad hoc measures which widened the gap between theory and practice. The disaster of 1658–60 created a coalition of forces which succeeded in pushing through the absolutist coup that placed the destiny of the state in the monarchy’s hands and completed in a more systematic manner the reforms begun in an uncoordinated fashion under Christian. The new, cameral system was to survive in its essentials until 1849 by integrating the old elite of birth with the new elite of service. After the hiatus of 1658–60, old nobles flocked back into the officer corps; the number of foreign officers was reduced and the noble presence increased absolutely and relatively in all positions, although the small size of the Danish nobility ensured that, unlike other contemporary states, nobles only ever constituted between a fifth and a quarter of all army officers. The way was open for a new assertiveness in Danish foreign policy and a war of revenge on Sweden. In Denmark the Military Revolution was over.

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