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History of Denmark

Early History

People lived in what is today Denmark more than 100,000 years ago, but they were likely forced to leave for a time because of the ice cap that covered the land for some of the intervening time during the ice age. It is thought that people have lived continually in Denmark since around 12,000 BC. Agriculture made inroads around 3,000 BC. The Nordic Bronze Age period in Denmark was marked by a culture which buried its dead, with their worldly goods, beneath burial mounds. Many dolmens and rock tombs (especially "passage graves") date from this period. Among the many bronze finds from this period are beautiful religious artifacts and musical instruments, and the earliest evidence of social classes and stratification.

During the Pre-Roman Iron Age (4th-1st century BC), the climate in Denmark and southern Scandinavia became cooler and wetter, limiting agriculture and setting the stage for native groups to migrate southward into Germania. At around this time, people began to extract iron from the ore in peat bogs. Evidence of strong Celtic cultural influence dates from this period in Denmark and much of northwest Europe, and is reflected in some of the older place names.

The Roman provinces, whose frontiers stopped short of Denmark, nevertheless maintained trade routes and relations with Danish peoples, attested by finds of Roman coins. The first known runic inscription dates back to c. 200. Depletion of cultivated land in the last century BC seems to have contributed to increasing migrations in northern Europe and increasing conflict of Teutonic tribes with Roman settlements in Gaul. Roman artifacts are especially common in finds from the first century. It seems clear that some part of the Danish warrior aristocracy served in the Roman army.

Occasionally people were killed and thrown in bogs during this time. They are known as bog bodies. Today these people are uncovered very well preserved and are valuable resources of information about the people who lived in Denmark during this period.

Viking Era

During the 8th-11th centuries, the Danes were known as Vikings, together with Norwegians and Swedish Geats. Viking explorers first discovered and settled Iceland in the 9th century, on their way toward the Faroe Islands. From there, Greenland and Vinland (Newfoundland) were also settled. Utilising their great skills in shipbuilding they raided and conquered parts of France and the British Isles. But 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 rivers. The Danish Vikings were most active in the British Isles and Western Europe, and they raided, conquered and settled parts of England (their earliest settlements included Danelaw), Ireland, France, Normandy).

In the early 8th century, Charlemagne's Christian empire had expanded to the southern border of the Danes, and Frankish sources (F.ex. Notker of St Gall) provide the earliest historical evidence of the Danes. These report a King Gudfred, who appeared in present day Holstein with a navy in 804 AD where diplomacy took place with the Franks; In 808, the same King Gudfred attacked the Obotrite, a Wend people and conquered the city of Reric whose population was displaced or abducted, to Hedeby; In 809, King Godfred and emissaries of Charlemagne failed to negotiate peace and the next year, 810, King Godfred attacked the Frisians with 200 ships. The oldest parts of the defensive works of Dannevirke near Hedeby at least date from the summer of 755 and were expanded with large works in the 10th century. The size and amount of troops needed to man it indicates a quite powerful ruler in the area, which might be consistent with the kings the Frankish sources. In 815 AD, Emperor Louis the Pious attacked Jutland apparently in support of a contender to the throne, perhaps Harald Klak, but was turned back by the sons of Godfred, who likely were the sons of the above mentioned Godfred. At the same time Saint Ansgar traveled to Hedeby and started the Catholic Christianisation of Scandinavia.

The Danes were united and officially Christianised in 965 AD by Harald Blåtand, the story of which is recorded on the Jelling stones. The exact extent of Harald's Danish Kingdom is unknown, although it's reasonable to believe that it stretched from the defensive line of Dannevirke, including the Viking city of Hedeby, across Jutland, the Danish isles and into southern present day Sweden; Skåne and perhaps Halland and Blekinge. Further more the Jelling stones attests that Harald had also "won" Norway. The son of Harald, Sweyn I mounted a series of wars of conquest against England, which was completed by Svend's son Canute the Great by the middle of the 11th century. The reign of Knud represented the peak of the Danish Viking age. King Knud's North Sea Empire included Denmark (1018), Norway (1028), England (1035) and held strong influence over the north-eastern coast of Germany.

Medieval Denmark

From the Viking age towards the end of the 13th century, the kingdom of Denmark consisted of Jutland, north from the Elder River and the islands of Zealand, Funen, Bornholm, Skåne, Halland and Blekinge. From the end of the 13th century the lands between Eider River and the river Kongeåen were separated from the kingdom as two vassal duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. In 1658 Skåne, Halland and Blekinge were ceded to Sweden.

Following the end of the 11th century, Denmark underwent a transition from a decentralized realm with a weak and semi-elected royal institution and little to no nobility, into a realm which more reflected European feudalism, with a powerful king ruling through an influential nobility. The period is marked by internal strife and the generally weak geopolitical position of the realm, which for long stretches fell under German influence. The period also featured the first of large stone buildings (mostly churches), a deep penetration by the Christian faith, the appearance of monastic orders in Denmark and the first written historical works such as the Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danes"). German political as well as religious influence firmly ended in the last decades of the 12th century under the rule of King Valdemar the Great and his foster brother Absalon Hvide, Archbishop of Lund; through successful wars against Wend peoples of northeast Germany and the German Empire.

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