Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The English Invaders and the Danish Fleet

The Napoleonic wars filled all Europe with tumult and disorder, the far-northern realms of Norway and Sweden and the far-eastern one of Turkey alone escaping from being drawn into the maelstrom of conflict. Denmark, the Scandinavian kingdom nearest the region of conflict, did not escape, but was made the victim of wars with which it had no concern to a disastrous extent.

Christian VII. was then the Danish king, but he was so feeble, both in mind and body, that the Crown Prince Frederick was made regent or joint-ruler in 1784, and was practically king until his father's death in 1808, when he came to the throne as Frederick VI. Count Bernstorf was minister of foreign affairs and kept Denmark at peace until his death in 1799, when troubles at once broke out between Denmark and England.

It was a different state of affairs now from that far-off time of Canute and the vikings, when the Danes overran England and a Dane filled its throne. The tide had long turned and Denmark was an almost helpless victim in the hands of the great maritime island, which sought to control the politics of the whole continent during the terrible struggle with Napoleon.

For some years the English made complaints against Denmark, saying that it was carrying food and forage into French and German ports in defiance of the laws of neutrality. As these laws were of English origin the Danes did not feel inclined to submit to them, and after the death of Bernstorf Danish men-of-war were sent to sea to protect their merchant vessels.

Quarrels and hostile feeling arose from this, but the crisis did not come until the summer of 1800, when Russia, Sweden, and Prussia formed a treaty for an "armed neutrality" and invited Denmark to join it. England at once took alarm. While the other nations were powerful enough to defy her, Denmark was poor and quite unprepared for warlike operations, and when, in the spring of 1801, a fleet under Admirals Parker and Nelson appeared on her waters she was by no means in readiness for such a demonstration.

Taken by surprise as they were, however, the Danes had no thought of weakly submitting to this hostile movement, and did their best to prevent the English from passing the Sound. Their chief defence was the fortress of Cronberg, near Elsinore, where heavy cannon were mounted to command the narrow strait here separating Sweden and Denmark. But by closely hugging the Swedish coast Parker kept beyond the range of these guns, and in April, 1801, cast anchor in the harbor of Copenhagen. His fleet consisted of fifty-one vessels, twenty of them being line-of-battle ships.

Alarmed by the coming of the fleet and taking advantage of the delays in its movement, the Danes had made every possible preparation for a vigorous resistance. Strong batteries defended the city and an imposing array of heavily armed ships, drawn up behind a shoal, presented a formidable line of defence.

Some delay took place, against the wish of the fiery Nelson, who was second in command of the fleet. Nelson was eager for an immediate attack, and finally Parker gave way and left the matter in his hands.

Nelson was in command of the Elephant, but finding that ship too large for the waters before him he removed his flag to the St. George and led the way to the attack with the smaller vessels of the fleet, Parker remaining at anchor some miles distant with the larger vessels.

A fierce and bloody conflict ensued, lasting from four to five hours. Nelson closed on his foe by getting within the shoal, but he met with a stout and vigorous resistance, the Danish seamen, under their able commander Olfert Fischer, fighting with the daring for which their people had been noted in the far past. Three times the aged Fischer left one burning ship to hoist his flag on another, and several of the younger captains fought their ships against Nelson's larger vessels as long as the shattered hulks kept above water.

So protracted and obstinate was the defence that Parker grew alarmed and signalled Nelson to retreat. This was the last signal to be thought of by a man like Nelson and, clapping the glass to his blind eye, he said, "I really do not see the signal," and kept on fighting.

Nelson was between two fires, that from the shore batteries and that from the ships, and though he destroyed the first line of the Danish defence and threatened the capital with serious injury, the batteries were not silenced and the English ships were suffering severely.

He therefore sent an English officer on shore with a flag of truce, declaring that unless the Danes on shore ceased firing he would burn the ships in his hands without being able to save the crews, and pointing out that these crews were the worst sufferers, as they received a great part of the fire of both parties.

A suspension of hostilities was agreed upon to permit of the prisoners being removed, and in the end the crown prince, against the wishes of his commanders, stopped all firing and agreed to discuss terms of peace. Thus ended a battle which Nelson said was the fiercest and best contested of the many in which he had taken part.

The peace that followed lasted for several years, and Denmark, freed from connection with the hostilities existing in southern Europe, rapidly increased in trading activity. During these years, indeed, the Danes served as the commerce carriers for the other countries of Europe, and this prosperous state of affairs lasted till 1807, when new troubles arose and England repeated her violent act of 1801.

The English government either had, or fancied it had, good grounds for suspecting that Denmark had joined Alexander of Russia in a treaty with France, and on the plea that the fleet of Denmark might be used in the cause of the French emperor, an array of fifty-four ships of war was sent to demand its immediate delivery to England.

Denmark was taken more fully by surprise than before. Its army was absent in Holstein to guard against an attack which was feared from Germany, and Copenhagen was thus left without protection. General Peymann refused to comply with the preposterous demand of the English admiral, whereupon an army of thirty-three thousand men was landed and the city attacked by land and sea.

For three days a fierce bombardment continued, and not until a large portion of the almost unprotected city was laid in ashes and the remainder threatened with like destruction did the general consent to admit the English troops into the citadel of Frederikshavn.

The outcome of this brigand-like attack, which had nothing more definite than a suspicion to warrant it, and is ranked in history as of the same type with the burning of Washington some years later, was the seizure of the entire Danish fleet by the assailants. The ships carried off included eighteen ships-of-the-line, twenty-one frigates, six brigs and twenty-five gunboats, with a large amount of naval stores of all kinds.

The act was no more warrantable than were the viking descents upon England centuries before. The latter were the acts of barbarian freebooters, and England, in an age of boasted civilization, put herself in the same position. The Danes were nearly crushed by the blow and many years passed away before their bitter resentment at the outrage decreased.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


The political result of it was that Denmark allied herself with Napoleon, a measure which gave that unhappy land no small amount of trouble and distress and led in 1814 to the loss of Norway, which for four hundred years had been united with the Danish realm. Norway was handed over to Swedish rule, while England took for her share of the spoils the island of Heligoland, which she wanted to secure for the command of the Elbe. Thus the birds of prey gathered round and despoiled the weak realm of Denmark, which was to be further robbed in later years.