Among all the royal houses of Europe, one in particular holds a special relation with the British Crown. It is the European monarchy whose roots are as old as the British monarchy and whose family has intermarried with English and British blood the longest. It is not a defunct German principality or the historic monarchy of France, but rather the very much live-and-kicking monarchy of Denmark. Danes and Brits have been influencing each other’s monarchies for a thousand years. This first of a two-part blog post will explore one side of this two-way exchange by showcasing royal Danes that have featured prominently in English and Scottish history, starting with the Danish dynasty that ruled England in the 11th century.
The history of Danish influence in Britain first begins in the 5th-6th century when the first Anglo-Saxon tribes began to settle in England. The Angles and Jutes originated from the Jutland peninsula and island of Funen in Denmark. Three centuries later Viking raiders from Denmark and Norway began once again to invade England and gradually settled in the eastern part of the country, forming the Danelaw. Alfred the Great and his descendants united the different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 9th-10th century in order to fight the Vikings living in the Danelaw, and by opposing them they formed the Kingdom of England in the process (see my previous post).
The Danish monarchy was also born in the 10th century, when Gorm the Old united the tribes of Jutland in the 930s and became the first recognised King of Denmark. The interactions between the Danish and English royal houses began shortly after, around the year 1000 during the reign of Aethelred the Unready. It began with a bloody affair. Aethelred, a mediocre leader who was badly advised (‘unread’ means ‘ill advised’ in Old Anglo-Saxon), had to contend with periodic Viking raids upon the country and a sizable Danish population already settled in England. In November 1002, in an attempt to find quick solution to his Danish problem, he authorised (doubtlessly under bad advice) what must rank as the most incomprehensible folly in Anglo-Saxon history: an order to exterminate all Danes living in England. It is unclear how many Danes were murdered in the resulting St Brice Day Massacre on 13 November 1002, but the political and diplomatic ramifications were fatal for Aethelred, and led to the establishment of the short-lived Danish dynasty on the English throne.
Sweyn was the third king of Denmark since the country’s monarchy was established, following Gorm of the Old and Harald Bluetooth. An archetypal Viking ruler, he was a strong and ruthless fighter who deposed his father Harald and went on to conquer large parts of Norway. In 1003 he began to lead raids into England, partly to retaliate against Aethelred the Unready for the St Brice Day massacre, and partly as a way to expand his North Sea empire. After several organised raids, in 1013 he led a full invasion of England, taking advantage of the continued political instability caused by Aethelred’s weak rule. Sweyn brought town after town under submission over a long summer and autumn, and finally captured London by the end of the year. Many people in England welcomed a strong ruler after Aethelred’s weak leadership, and Sweyn was crowned king on Christmas Day 1013, while Aethelred fled into exile in France. Sweyn’s success was short-lived, however, as he died suddenly five weeks into his reign, on 3 February 1014 while wintering in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. His body was taken back to Denmark where it still lies buried in Roskilde Cathedral, near Copenhagen, and his new English empire almost collapsed as the people recalled Aethelred from exile.
On Sweyn Forkbeard’s death his empire was divided between his two sons. Harald received Denmark and Cnut received England, but Cnut had to fight for his inheritance because the English recalled Aethelred the Unready from France, who together with his son Edmund tried to re-establish their dynasty on the throne. Cnut benefited from a double stroke of luck when both Aethelred and Edmund died within seven months of each other in 1016, leaving Cnut as the only logical choice left to be proclaimed king. He proved to be one of Medieval Europe’s greatest kings, still described as ‘Cnut the Great’ in Denmark. After the death of his brother Harald in 1018 he became king of his homeland as well, and following in his father’s fighting footsteps he went on to conquer most of Norway as well as southern Sweden. It is significant, however, that he chose to base himself in England, where he ‘went native’, marrying the widow of King Aethelred, Emma of Normandy, and ruling his northern empire from southeast England. Anglosaxon England at the time was the most efficiently governed realm in Europe thanks to the reforms put in place by the earlier Anglosaxon kings, and Cnut followed in their footsteps by centralising government and issuing laws that promoted justice . Unlike William the Conqueror 50 years later, he did not replace local Anglo-Saxon nobles with his compatriots, and only replaced nobles when they threatened his security.
Cnut's full integration into Anglo-Saxon England resulted in the country enjoying two decades of peace in a very long century of warfare and instability. With time he even turned into a pious Christian king, fully supporting the English church and founding religious institutions. Because of this spiritual transformation he is sometimes described in Danish history as ‘the Month of March: enters as a lion and exits like a lamb.’ This newfound element of humility in his character is confirmed by the famous story of the waves, when Cnut supposedly placed his throne in the rising tide waters of the Thames in London to show that he was subject to the power of God’s nature as everyone else. When he died in 1035, he was buried not in Denmark but with his native Anglo-Saxon predecessors in Winchester, where his bones still remain, mixed with the bones of the kings he chose to emulate.
Despite his full integration into Anglo-Saxon England, Cnut stuck to one Viking tradition: having two wives. There is some dispute as to whether or not he cast aside his first wife Aelgifu to marry Emma of Normandy, but he did have legitimate sons by both of them, causing family conflicts after his death. Cnut named his son by Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut, as his heir to both Denmark and England, but on his death in 1035 Harthacnut was away in Denmark and his half-brother Harold, the son of Aelgifu, took advantage of the absence by having himself proclaimed King of England instead. Harold was only 19 years old and his short reign was marked by blood feuds including the murder of a stepbrother and the exile of his stepmother Emma. He then died in mysterious circumstances at the age of 25 and was buried in the old Westminster Abbey, the first English king to be buried there. When his half-brother Harthacnut finally succeeded him on the throne he took revenge on Harold by having him exhumed, decapitated and thrown into a swamp. Some kind souls rescued the body and eventually reburied him on the site of the present church of St Clement’s Danes, the old church of the Danish community in London.
Harthacnut’s name literally means ‘deadly Cnut’ and he proved to be a ruthless Viking ruler in the mould of his grandfather Sweyn Forkbeard. Most historical evidence points to the fact that he was groomed to be Cnut’s successor during his father’s lifetime, and that he was a very active prince in England, but his character seemed to have hardened after his half-brother Harold usurped the English throne on their father’s death while Harthacnut was away. After reigning in Denmark for five years, where he is known as King Cnut III, he returned to England to finally claim that throne following the death of Harold. His short reign was marked by high taxation, violence and brutal repression of dissent. His death ended up being more memorable than his life. During a great Viking bridal feast in Lambeth, near London, he raised a toast to the bride, drank, then fell to the ground in terrible convulsions and died. He was possibly poisoned, but no one in England seemed to mind his death and there were no repercussions. Edward the Confessor, the last remaining son of Aethelred the Unready, was offered the throne, and the short-lived dynasty of Danish Kings of England came to an end.
The official line of Danish monarchs might have ended with Harthacnut, but Danish blood continued to be present on the English throne until the Norman Conquest of 1066. Both Queen Edith of Wessex, spouse of King Edward the Confessor, and Harold Godwinson, who reigned after Edward and was defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, were half Danish. Their mother was Gytha Thorkelsdottir, daughter of Thorkel Sprakalagg, a Danish chieftain. Theirs was an influential family in Denmark. Gytha’s brother, Ulf Thorkelsson, married Estrid Svensdatter, a daughter of Sweyn Forkbeard, and their son Swyen succeeded to the Danish throne after the death of the childless Harthacnut, founding the royal dynasty that ruled Denmark until the 15th century. Harold’s Danish roots are evident in his given name (Danish: Harald), while Edith’s original name before her royal marriage was Gytha, the same Danish name as her mother.
Margaret was the daughter of King Christian I of Denmark, the founder of the royal dynasty of Oldenburg that ruled the country from 1448 to 1863, and who at the time also ruled Norway. The marriage of his only daughter to James III, King of Scotland, was arranged for diplomatic reasons and the two were married when James was 17 and Margaret was 13 years old. The marriage was successful at first but the couple drifted apart, one of the reasons supposedly being that Margaret only wanted to have sexual relations with James to beget heirs, leading James to seek mistresses. He was not a successful monarch in Scotland, though Margaret became popular in her own right through her kindness and piety. She was greatly interested in the arts, a passion that she passed on to her son James IV, Scotland’s great Renaissance King.
Her greatest legacy to Scotland was the annexation of the Orkney and Shetland islands. Subject to the Norwegian crown since the 10th century, the islands were pledged as security against the dowry money Christian I was supposed to pay for Margaret’s marriage. After the dowry payments defaulted in 1472 the Orkneys and Shetlands were annexed by Scotland and have been part of the country ever since. Their ancient heritage is reflected in their local flags, both of which show the same Nordic cross used in the Danish and Norwegian flags.
Denmark was one of the countries offering suitors to English princes during the Tudor age. Christina of Denmark, daughter of King Christian II, was seriously considered as a fourth wife for Henry VIII after Jane Seymour died. She was slim, tall and beautiful, and a widow at only 16 years of age after marrying the ill Duke of Milan, Francesco II Sforza. Henry pursued her for two years, sending the artist Hans Holbein to Brussels where she was staying to paint a portrait of her in 1538 (now hanging in the National Gallery in London). Henry did have his reservations about marrying a slim woman, famously saying 'I am big in person, and I have need of a big wife', but he was willing to overcome his reservations for the sake of Christina’s beauty and widely-praised qualities. She, however, was not willing to overcome her own reservations about marrying Henry. Aware of the way he had treated his previous wives, Christina, who was famously straightforward in her speech, refused to contemplate any marriage to Henry, famously telling his ambassadors that if she had had two heads, she would willingly have put one at his service. Henry went on to marry Anne of Cleves instead.
England had another chance to gain a Danish royal consort during the reign of Elizabeth I. King Frederick II became one of the many suitors to the Queen during the first part of her reign, although not in person. He sent an envoy to Elizabeth’s court who gained both praise and ridicule for walking around in a crimson velvet doublet embroidered with a heart pierced by an arrow 'to demonstrate the King’s love for the Queen of England.' As with all suitors to Elizabeth’s hand his offers came to naught, but he did receive the Order of the Garter from Elizabeth as a reward for his wooing, only the third Dane to receive the order since 1348.
England finally got a Danish royal consort in 1603 when one of the two daughters of King Frederick II, Anne, ascended the throne as the wife of King James I. Anne and James had married in 1589, before his accession to the English throne when he was King of Scotland, and she holds the distinction of being the only woman to have been separately both Queen of England and Queen of Scotland. She was also the first Queen Consort England had had since Catherine Parr sixty years earlier. The marriage ceremony between the two was to be held in Scotland but when storms kept Anne from making the crossing by sea, James sailed impetuously to Norway where she had been stuck, and married her in Oslo. They then spent their honeymoon visiting her relatives in Denmark.
Their marriage was loving at first, but their relationship became distant over the years as James began to adopt male favourites. After their accession to the English throne they were visited in London by Anne’s brother, Christian IV, the new king of Denmark and one of the country’s greatest monarchs. Christian was known as a great Renaissance prince in Denmark, so James and Anne devised a series of grand entertainments in his honour, long remembered after the visit. Like her brother, Anne shared a love for the arts and she patronised painters, writers and architects, including playwright Ben Jonson and artist Inigo Jones. She also had a passion for jewellery, spending large amounts of money creating new pieces, which she sometimes wore to show her pride in her family origins, as shown in the painting below.
Danish royals bookended the beginning and end of the Stuart Age in England. Queen Anne, last of the Stuarts, ascended the throne in 1702 married to Prince George of Denmark. George was the second son of King Frederick III and brother of King Christian V, the two kings who established absolutism in Denmark. There were no absolutist tendencies in George’s character though. Modest and effacing, he was mostly interested in eating, drinking and looking after his wife, and took little part in politics. His only vigorous exertion seemed to have taken place in the bedroom where he made Anne pregnant seventeen times in sixteen years. Unfortunately most of those efforts ended in miscarriages, stillbirths, and one child who died at the age 10, leaving George and Anne no descendants. George, however, did leave an important legacy: his passive role as the first official British Prince Consort reinforced the notion that Queens Regnant in Britain were monarchs in their own right, and did not need a King with whom to share political power. Another legacy was the ‘Prince of Denmark’s March’ used in many royal wedding ceremonies today which was written in George's honour by Jeremiah Clarke around 1700.
There were no Danish royals in Britain during the Georgian period (the exchange during that time went the other way around, more in the next post), and no Danes entered the British Royal Family until Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward, took a wife in the 1860s. Alexandra was the eldest daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark, one of the successful marriage matches that he arranged for his children which earned him the nickname of ‘Father-in-Law of Europe’. Her British wedding to Edward in 1863 was marked by great festivities, but their marriage, though loving. was testing because of Edward’s many mistresses. Called Alix in the family, she became very popular in the country and remains the longest-serving Princess of Wales in history after spending 37 years in that role. Her reign as Queen Consort was short as her husband, Edward VII, died after only 9 years on the throne.
As a proud Danish princess, Alexandra retained a lifelong dislike and suspicion of Germany, especially after that country defeated Denmark in the Schleswig-Holstein War of 1864 and stripped it of 20% of its territory. She often caused controversy in the family by refusing to meet German officials and royals at functions. Conversely, she remained close to her Danish family and continued to spend long periods of time in Denmark after moving to Britain, first at Fredensborg Castle during the summer, and later by buying a house in Hvidore, near Copenhagen.
Prince Edward was not the only child of Queen Victoria to contract a Danish match. Although it is often neglected, Princess Helena's husband, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, was also of Danish stock. True, he was German-speaking but he was born in Denmark of illustrious Danish ancestry. His father was a grandson of King Frederick VII of Denmark and his mother belonged to the Danneskiold-Samsoe noble family, itself descended from Danish monarchs. His area of birth, Schleswig-Holstein, was annexed by Germany in the war of 1864, making him a landless prince, so he became fully Englicized upon his marriage in 1866, living both at Windsor and the Isle of Wight. In 1917 he was forced by George V to relinquish his German-sounding title, even though Schleswig itself was ethnically half Danish, and in the same year Prince Christian died of old age at 86. Ironically, three years after his death the northern part of Schleswig was re-annexed by Denmark after a referendum.
Princess Alexandra’s younger sister, Thyra, didn’t exactly marry into the British Royal Family but she was the last holder of the title of Duchess of Cumberland, a British royal dukedom first given by George III in 1799 to one of his sons, Ernest Augustus. He later became King of Hanover and was the grandfather of the man Thyra married in 1878, also called Prince Ernest Augustus. The two had met in England in 1875 while Thyra was visiting her sister at Sandringham in Norfolk, and after their marriage they lived in Germany. No other woman bore the title of Duchess of Cumberland after Princess Thyra because George V stripped her husband of the British title in 1917 for supporting Germany in the First World War.
Before he legally changed his name to Philip Mountbatten in 1947, Prince Philip’s official name was ‘Prince Philip of Greece of Denmark’. Although he was a member of the royal family of Greece, their royal line was only a few generations removed from their Danish roots. King George I of Greece, Prince Philip’s grandfather, was a Prince of Denmark before he was offered the Greek throne in 1863, one of the sons of Europe’s ‘Father-in-Law’ King Christian IX. Alexandra of Denmark, mentioned above, was Prince Philip’s great-aunt. Philip is in fact a direct male descendant of Christian IX, which means that technically the future monarchs of the United Kingdom will belong to the same royal dynasty reigning in Denmark today, the house of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksborg, more commonly shortened in Denmark to ‘Glucksborg’. The chances of this very foreign-sounding name being adopted by the British monarchy however are remote as back in the 1950s both the government and royal household let it be known that, despite Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage to Prince Philip, the dynasty was going to continue to be known as the House of Windsor.
Nevertheless, genealogically speaking it is a paternal Danish royal line that will reign on the British throne when the current Queen dies (as, by the way, is already the case in Norway since the first modern King of Norway, Haakon VII, who took the throne in 1905, was born as Prince Carl of Denmark, one the sons of King Frederick VIII). Prince Philip’s Danish roots were highlighted recently in a new official portrait by artist Ralph Heimans which showed him wearing the Order of the Elephant, Denmark’s highest honour, given to him by King Frederick IX of Denmark in 1947, shortly before his marriage. To emphasize his roots even more, the portrait was first shown to the public in Denmark, at an exhibition at Frederiksborg Castle, one the royal residence museums near Copenhagen. The portrait was exhibited later in the United Kingdom.
One thousand years after Danish kings first sat on the English throne, Danes are still part of the British Royal family. Prince Philip’s Danish roots might be far removed, but the present Duchess of Gloucester is a Dane through-and-through. Birgitte Van Deurs was born in Odense, Denmark—the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen—as the daughter of Asger Henriksen and Vivian Van Deurs, taking up her mother’s name when her parents separated. She studied at the University of Copenhagen; met her current husband, Prince Richard of Gloucester, while studying in Cambridge; and the two were married in 1972 when she was working at the Danish Embassy in London. Each of their three children carries a Danish middle name. Their son Alexander carries ‘Gregers’ (Danish for Gregory), their daughter Davina has ‘Benedikte’ (the name of one of the sisters of Queen Margrethe II), while their daughter Rose carries the same name as her mother, Birgitte.
Prince Richard and Birgitte were never meant to inherit the royal dukedom of Gloucester but six weeks after they were married Prince Richard’s elder brother died in a plane accident, and the two became the new Duke and Duchess of Gloucester just two years later, when Prince Richard’s father died at the age of 74. In the last 43 years as Duchess of Gloucester Birgitte has become patron of over 75 organisations and an honorary colonel of several regiments. She has also received from Queen Elizabeth II the Royal Victorian Order, an honour that is bestowed on individuals who have given distinguished service to the British monarchy.
Finally, even though she is not a member of the British Royal Family, a quick mention must be made of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark (who is herself a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth II). The current Danish monarch has a special connection to Britain by holding the position of Colonel-in-Chief of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, known as 'the Tigers'. The tradition started with Margrethe’s father, King Frederick IX, who was Colonel-in-Chief of the Queen’s Regiment. When Margrethe succeeded him in 1972 she was given her father’s position in the Queen’s Regiment, which was then amalgamated with the Royal Hampshire Regiment in 1992 to form the current Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment. Queen Margrethe, as the website for the regiment proudly states, takes a keen interest in the regiment, visiting battalions and hosting social events for soldiers both in Britain and Denmark.
It is just one more example of the many ways members of the Danish royal family have played a role in the life of England and Great Britain for the last 1,000 years.
Simon Schama, A History of Britain. Volume One. (London: BBC Publishing, 2000).
Thomas Cussans, The Times Kings and Queens of the British Isles. (London: TimesBooks, 2004).
David Starkey, Crown and Country. (London: HarperPress, 2010).
Chili Turell and Erla Sigurdardottir, Kings and Queens of Denmark. (Copenhagen: Gudrun Publishing, 2006).
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography--Wikipedia