History, Heritage & Culture


A thousand years ago, present day Copenhagen was nothing but salt marshes and a few small islands providing shelter for a small trading centre.  At the time, commerce centered on selling herring and operating crossings to Scania (now in Sweden). 

By the 1100's, 'Havn' (Harbour), as the town was called by then, had achieved increasing importance and was protected with earthen fortifications.  A little over a half century later, King Valdemar the Great gave the responsibility for governing the city to a cleric, Absalon, Bishop of Roskilde.  In the years that followed, the town grew tenfold in size. Churches and abbeys were founded, including the Copenhagen Cathedral, Vor Frue Kirke (1191).  The town's economy grew dramatically thanks to a thriving fishery trade, which provided large parts of Catholic Europe with salted herring for Days of Abstinence and Lent.

The King's Copenhagen 

Copenhagen is located at the most important approach to the Baltic Sea and the rich North German trading towns of the Hanseatic League.  Unfortunately, the location that provided Copenhagen's prosperity was easily accessible to North German traders, who frequently besieged the town.  In 1416, the Danish King, Erik of Pomerania, regained control of Copenhagen from the Bishop, and actively governed the town.   From this point onward, Copenhagen would belong to the Danish Crown. 

King Christian IV

Despite centuries of power struggles and conflict, the town grew increasingly rich. The Copenhageners did a brisk trade with friend and foe alike. Foreign merchants came to the town. Craft guilds were established and a university founded.

By the time of Christian IV's coronation in 1596, Copenhagen has become rich and powerful. The new king decides to make the town the economic, military, religious and cultural centre for the whole of the Nordic region, and establishes the first trading companies with sole rights to trade with lands overseas. To restrict imports, factories are set up so that the country can manufacture as many goods as possible itself. 

Christian IV expands Copenhagen by adding two new districts: Nyboder (New Booths) for the large numbers of navy personnel and the merchants' new district, Christianshavn (Christian's Harbour), which is modeled on Amsterdam. A modern fortification with earthworks and bastions surrounds the whole of the extended town. Gradually, however, it trammels the town limits, and for the next 200 years or so, traffic entering and leaving Copenhagen has to pass through Copenhagen's four narrow town gates.

Behind the new earthworks, Christian IV commissioned German and Dutch architects and craftsmen to construct magnificent edifices designed to enhance his prestige. The Round Tower (1642), Church of the Trinity (1637), Church of Holmen (1619) and Rosenborg Castle (1603-1634) are all built on the king's initiative. 

By the time of Christian IV's death in 1648, Copenhagen forms a framework for the administration of the realm and a centre of trade in Northern Europe. Today, a statue of the famous king can be seen on horseback outside Rosenborg, his out-of-town residence.

War Against Sweden

In 1657, Christian IV's successor, Frederik III, declares war on Sweden, the unfortunate outcome being that the Danes lose all land east of Øresund.  Copenhagen is no longer at the heart of the realm. In 1659, the Swedes find themselves outside Copenhagen's ramparts after having conquered most of Denmark.  The king and the burghers of Copenhagen join forces to defend the city and resist the Swedish attack. 

Events take on far reaching consequences. The king consolidates his power at the expense of the nobility, and in 1660 Frederik III is acclaimed the first absolute monarch of Denmark.  The citizens' reward for defending the city so bravely is very modest.  Too much liberty and power goes against the grain of the king's sovereign despotism. A council of 32 citizens is created, which nevertheless is subject to royally appointed officials, consisting of mayors and aldermen.

The townsmen's life becomes more and more regulated. A corps of night watchmen is set up, and the offices of police constable and fire chief are introduced, as well as common standards for weights and measures. 

1700: Court Life and Stately Palaces

Large parts of the old medieval town burned down in 1728, and the reconstructed city is made into a veritable Copenhagen of the king and central regime. The new houses have to comply with strict rules regarding height, choice of materials and architecture. These houses are named "fire houses," and are situated at Gammel Mønt. The new castle, Christiansborg, rises into a magnificent edifice, emphasizing the prestige of the crown, and court life flourishes.

In 1749, the king bestows a site for building an entirely new district, Frederiksstaden, which is laid out with straight streets and stately palaces.

This is also the site for the construction of the four palaces, Amalienborg. Starting in 1749, Amalienborg's palaces are constructed by four aristocratic families on what is to become the central square of Frederiksstaden. After the fire at Christiansborg in 1794, Amalienborg becomes the king's permanent residence. Today, Amalienborg is residence of H.R.H. Queen Margrethe the II.

At the end of the 1700's, Denmark is avoiding the wars raging in Europe and America. The country is one of the world's largest naval powers which concentrates on protecting its trade.  Exotic items from all over the world swell the many new warehouses along the port.  The economy blossoms. 

The balance of power in the city slowly changes. The newly well-to-do citizens want their share of the political power.  Newspapers are now published, and scientific and scholarly societies, cultural associations and coffee shops are formed, where the topics of discussion for the new bourgeoisie include the unfairness of the present social order. The French revolution in 1789 has no immediate consequences in Denmark, however. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie rallies loyally around the crown prince, later to become Frederik VI.

1800: A Calamitous Period

Conversely, Copenhagen is struck by new catastrophes. Christiansborg burns in 1794, followed by large parts of the rest of the city the year after that. The city is rebuilt in a classicist style, 'clipping' the corners of buildings to allow fire engines and other traffic to pass more easily.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the English see the large navy of neutral Denmark as a threat and launch a twofold attack on Copenhagen: the first time in 1801, the Battle of Copenhagen; the next time in 1807, when Copenhagen is subjected to the first terrorist bombing in history against a civilian population. The English carry off the Danish fleet, securing absolute mastery of the high seas in the process.

The Golden Age

After the war with the English, the economy is so strained that the state goes bankrupt in 1813. At the same time, however, art and culture enjoy a heyday. In the streets and alleys of Copenhagen such personalities are encountered as the fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the ballet master August Bournonville, the painter C.W. Eckersberg, the natural scientist H.C. Ørsted, who discovers electromagnetism, and the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, who acquires his own museum after many years stay in Rome.

The citizens, who wish to see changes in the way the state is administered, have gradually become the leading lights of the city. With the Local Authorities Act of 1840, a City Council is set up at the Town Hall, elected by and among the city's burghers. Finally, in 1848, the citizens force the king to introduce a free constitution in Denmark. A bloodless revolution has been accomplished and, like the other revolutions in the history of Denmark, it assumes great importance for Copenhagen. 

As a result of the repeal of absolute monarchy, the royal art collection, which originally was located in Christiansborg Castle, was given into the States' charge, and in 1896, the National Museum of Arts was completed.

As an almost symbolic gesture, the 1840's see the construction of the Tivoli pleasure gardens and the first railway station on the old military earthworks. The enclosure of the city behind ramparts and fortifications by the absolute royal power ceases in the 1850's. Copenhagen's gates are flung open and the city grows at an explosive rate. 

The Copenhagen of Entrepreneurs

Now the economy is back on its feet again. Freedom to trade and exercise crafts is introduced, and enterprising new capitalists take up the initiative in Copenhagen. Beyond the ramparts, large enterprises are founded and organized in the form of joint stock companies. The first water and gas works are built, and banks and institutions are created to promote trade and industry. 

The model for this re-development is Paris, with wide boulevards and residential properties inspired by French architecture. The financier, C.F. Tietgen, completes the Marble Church, and the brewer, Carl Jacobsen (Carlsberg), takes the initiative to beautify the city with new art. Large industrial fairs showcase all that is new and highlight progress.

Behind the international facade of elegant department stores and amusements, industrial and working men's quarters mushroom more or less haphazardly, often in the form of unrestrained jerry-building on sites with crowded construction. But the new population of labourers that has emigrated from the country to the new industry in the city, begins to unionise in the 1870's, and demand better living and working conditions.

Modern Times

In 1901, the Municipality of Copenhagen is extended by large tracts of land to the north, south and west of the city. The Sundby villages, Valby, Vanløse, Husum, Brønshøj and Emdrup make room to accommodate the city's growth. Everywhere, institutions and schools are built for the rapidly growing population.

Copenhagen's new town hall is completed in 1905. The Town Hall and Town Hall Square, designed by the architect Martin Nyrop, quickly become the city's new midpoint. Hotels and large, modern buildings envelope the square in the years ahead, bringing out its international flavour. 

During World War II, Denmark is occupied by troops from Nazi Germany. Yet not until 1943-45 is the city seriously war scarred by sabotage operations and isolated bombings. Compared to other European cities, Copenhagen gets through World War II virtually unscathed.

Restoration and Preservation in the Nineties

The city in recent decades, has been characterized by large scale restoration work in the historic districts, and by the demolition and clearance of the old workingmen's quarters from the end of the 1800's. Today urban renewal is forging ahead at full steam in areas including Vesterbro, where the work is being carried out with consideration for the environment. In contrast to earlier times, more properties are being preserved and modern dwellings fitted out with up-to-date installations behind the old facades.

We wish to express our thanks to the Danish Tourist Board in New York, for providing this article. 

For further information:  

Danish Tourist Board

City of Copenhagen: www.kk.dk

Wonderful Copenhagen