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The history of Denmark dates back about 12,000 years, to the end of the last ice age, with the earliest evidence of human inhabitation. The Danes were first documented in written sources around 500 AD, including in the writings of Jordanes and Procopius. With the Christianization of the Danes c. 960 AD, it is clear that there existed a kingship in Scandinavia which controlled roughly the current Danish territory. Queen Margrethe II can trace her lineage back to the Viking kings Gorm the Old and Harald Bluetooth from this time, making the Monarchy of Denmark the oldest in the Europe.
Denmark's history has particularly been influenced by its geographical location between the North and Baltic seas. This meant that it was between Sweden and Germany and thus at the center of the mutual struggle for control of the Baltic Sea (dominium marisbaltici). Denmark was long in disputes with Sweden over control of Skånelandene (Scanian War) and Norway, and in disputes with the Hanseatic League over the duchies of Schleswig (a Danish fief) and Holstein (a German fief).
Eventually Denmark lost the conflicts and ended up ceding first Skånelandene to Sweden and later Schleswig-Holstein to the German Empire. After the eventual cession of Norway in 1814, Denmark retained control of the old Norwegian colonies of the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland. During the 20th century Iceland gained independence, Greenland and the Faroese became integral parts of the Kingdom of Denmark and North Schleswig reunited with Denmark in 1920 after a referendum. During World War II Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany and liberated in 1945, after which it joined the United Nations.
In his description of Scandza (from the 6th century work, Getica), the ancient writer Jordanes says that the Dani were of the same stock as the Suetidi (Swedes, Suithiod?) and expelled the Heruli and took their lands.
The Old English poems Widsith and Beowulf, as well as works by later Scandinavian writers — notably by Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1200) — provide some of the earliest references to Danes.
With the beginning of the Viking Age in the 9th century, the prehistoric period in Denmark ends. The Danish people were amongst those known as the Vikings during the 8th–11th centuries. Viking explorers first discovered and settled in Iceland in the 9th century, on their way from the Faroe Islands. From there, Greenland and Vinland (probably Newfoundland) were also settled. Utilizing their great skills in shipbuilding and navigation they raided and conquered parts of France and the British Isles.
They also excelled in trading along the coasts and rivers of Europe, running trade routes from Greenland in the north to Constantinople in the south via Russian and Ukrainian Rivers rivers, most notably along the River Dnipro and via Kiev, then being the capital of Kiev Rus. The Danish Vikings were most active in Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy where they raided, conquered and settled (their earliest settlements included sites in the Danelaw, Ireland and Normandy). The Danelaw resulted when Alfred the Great was forced to cede half his kingdom to the Vikings, who then settled there for a time and engaged in peaceful trade, but attacks eventually resumed and the English kings had to pay tribute (Danegeld).
The history of Christianity in Denmark overlaps with that of the Viking Age. Various petty kingdoms existed throughout the area now known as Denmark for many years. Between c. 960 and the early 980s, Harald Bluetooth appears to have established a kingdom in the lands of the Danes which stretched from Jutland to Skåne. Around the same time, he received a visit from a German missionary who, according to legend, survived an ordeal by fire, which convinced Harold to convert to Christianity.
During the disastrous reign of Christopher II (1319–1332), most of the country was pawned off to the counts (except Skåne, which went to Sweden) after peasant revolts and conflicts with the Church. For eight years after Christopher's death, Denmark had no king, and was instead controlled by the counts. After one of them was assassinated in 1340, Christopher's son Valdemar was chosen as king, and gradually began to recover the pawned territories, which was completed in 1360.
The Black Death, which came to Denmark during these years, also aided Valdemar's campaign. His continued efforts to expand the kingdom after 1360 brought him into open conflict with the Hanseatic League. He conquered Gotland, much to the displeasure of the League, which lost Visby, an important trading town located there.
The Reformation, which originated in the German lands in the early 16th century from the ideas of Martin Luther (1483–1546), had a considerable impact on Denmark. The Danish Reformation started in the mid-1520s. Some Danes wanted access to the Bible in their own language. In 1524 Hans Mikkelsen and Christiern Pedersen translated the New Testament into Danish; it became an instant best-seller. Those who had traveled to Wittenberg in Saxony and come under the influence of the teachings of Luther and his associates included Hans Tausen, a Danish monk in the Order of St John Hospitallers.
The Dano-Norwegian Kingdom grew wealthy during the 16th century, largely because of the increased traffic through the Øresund, which Danes could tax because Denmark controlled both sides of the Sound. The trade in grain exports from Poland to the Netherlands and to the rest of Europe grew enormously at this time, and the Danish kings did not hesitate to cash in on it. The Sound duty was only repealed in the 1840s.
The Danish economy benefited from the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648) in the Netherlands because a large number of skilled refugees from that area (the most economically advanced in Europe) came to Denmark. This helped to modernize many aspects of society and to establish trading links between Denmark and the Netherlands.
As a result of the disaster in the war against Sweden, King Frederick III (reigned 1648–1670) succeeded in convincing the nobles to give up some of their powers and their exemption from taxes, leading to the era of absolutism in Denmark. The country's main objective in the following decades was the recovery of its lost provinces from Sweden. In the 1670s Denmark–Norway had regained enough strength to start a war with Sweden to recover its lost provinces. However, in spite of Denmark's outside support, naval dominance and initial support from the population of the former eastern provinces, the war ended in a bitter stalemate. A renewed attack during the Third Northern War (1700–1721) first resulted in the unfavourablePeace of Travendal, but after Denmark's re-entrance in the war and Sweden's ultimate defeat by a large alliance, meant that Sweden no longer was a threat to Denmark. However, the great powers opposed any Danish territorial gains, which meant the Treaty of Frederiksborg did not return the former eastern provinces to Denmark. Furthermore, Denmark was even forced to return Swedish Pomeraniaheld by Danish forces since 1715 to Sweden. Denmark now had no hope of recovering its lost provinces from Sweden. As noted earlier, the rest of Europe was simply against the Sound being controlled by a single nation again.
Denmark maintained a number of colonies outside Scandinavia, starting in the 17th century and lasting until the 20th century. Denmark also controlled traditional colonies in Greenland and Iceland in the north Atlantic — held through the union with Norway. Christian IV (reigned 1588–1648) first initiated the policy of expanding Denmark's overseas trade, as part of the mercantilist trend then popular in European governing circles. Denmark established its own first colony at Tranquebar, or Trankebar, on India's south coast, in 1620. In the Caribbean Denmark started a colony on St Thomas in 1671, St John in 1718, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. Denmark maintained its Indian colony, Tranquebar, as well as several other smaller colonies there, for about two hundred years.
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, and later Prussia and Russia. The British fleet attacked Copenhagen in 1801 (Battle of Copenhagen (1801)), destroying much of Denmark's navy. Denmark nonetheless managed to remain uninvolved in the Napoleonic Wars until 1807. The British fleetbombarded Copenhagen again that year, causing considerable destruction to the city. They then captured the entire Danish fleet so that it couldn't 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.
The Danish liberal and national movements gained momentum in the 1830s, and after the European revolutions of 1848 Denmark became a constitutional monarchy on June 5, 1849. The growing bourgeoisie had demanded a share in government, and in an attempt to avert the sort of bloody revolution occurring elsewhere in Europe, Frederick VII gave in to the demands of the citizens. A new constitution emerged, separating the powers and granting the franchise to all adult males, as well as freedom of the press, religion, and association. The king became head of the executive branch. The legislative branch consisted of two parliamentary chambers; the Folketing, comprising members elected by the general population, and the Landsting, elected by landowners. Denmark also gained an independent judiciary.