Colonized by the Vikings (I): The Union

Updated: Mar 11

The British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese all left their marks in colonized states across the globe. Yet it seems that the Scandinavians, the descendants of the powerful Viking warriors, barely left their marks. Or is that true?

This article is part of the Tracing the Vikings' Footsteps Series.

Early European colonization

Vikings colonization Denmark Faroe Islands Iceland Greenland
Journeys undertaken by the Vikings (Credit: en:User:Bogdangiusca, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Viking Age started around 800 A.D. when a vast number of Norsemen, people who were native to northern Germany and Scandinavia, left their homelands and became sea warriors. Many of them raided other countries looking for fortunes. Some of them, though, also colonized and settled on foreign lands.

Between 800 A.D. and 1000 A.D., the Vikings who headed west arrived at and started settling on three islands: the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. Despite a period of self-rule initially, these settlers eventually became subjects of their former rulers. The Faroe Islands submitted to the Kingdom of Norway in 1035, followed by Greenland in 1261 and Iceland in 1264.

During this period, Denmark also began its rise as a great military and mercantile power under King Valdemar II, also proclaimed as Valdemar the Conqueror. In 1202, a fourth crusade was started in an attempt to re-capture Jerusalem. See the opportunity, Valdemar the Conqueror began its own crusade to conquer non-Christian lands. The first targets were in today's northern Germany, but then the Conqueror soon turned to Estonia, which had been a disruptive force in the Baltics Sea.

At this point, Estonia remained one of the last corners in Europe yet to be Christianized. In 1219, working with a group of crusaders called the Teutonic Order, Valdemar II landed on mainland Estonia. But according to legend, on June 15, 1219, at the Battle of Lyndanisse, the Danes were really struggling, and it looked like they were going to lose to the Estonians.

This was when Danish Bishop Anders Sunesen came to rescue. He went to a hill that was overlooking the battle and started praying with his arms raised. Miraculously when his arms were raised, the Danish soldiers were able to push forward. But when his arms came down, the Danes were repelled by the Estonians.

But the Bishop's arms were getting tired, so two soldiers held them up for him. Soon, the Bishop was really, really exhausted and he could barely hold on. But then God answered the Bishop's prayers. He sent a red flag with a white cross from the sky. King Valdemar II received it and showed it to his troops. The troops were so encouraged by god's gift that they went on and defeated the Estonians, thus turning Estonia into a Danish colony. Of course, this flag also became Denmark’s flag which remains in use today.

The moment when the Danish flag appeared from the sky. (Credit: Christian August Lorentzen, CC0)

Estonians were baptized, and their territory was split up. The northern Estonian provinces of Harria and Vironia (known as Duchy of Estonia) would be ruled and controlled by the King of Denmark. On the other hand, the southern part of Estonia belonged to the Teutonic Order. The Conqueror later died in 1241, but Denmark would continue to rule Estonia for over a century.

In 1332, when King Christopher II of Denmark, Denmark fell into political turmoil. Denmark did not have a king for eight years, and the country was divided up by provincial counts. The indigenous Estonian population staged an uprising to rid themselves of the Danish rulers and the Christian religion brought by them. This was put down by the Teutonic Order, who subsequently purchased Danish Estonia from the Danish King for 19,000 Köln marks in 1346, marking the end of the Danish colonization.

An unhappy Nordics union

Order was restored in Denmark by 1360, with the Danish King Valdemar IV recovering most of the country which had been divided by the provincial counts. He was succeeded by his daughter, Margaret I, who was married off to Håkon VI of Norway.

Håkon VI of Norway had kinship ties to the Swedish royal family, and with the Denmark's neighbour, the Germans, quickly expanding the three countries came together under one monarch to face this threat. The Kalmar Union was formalized as one monarch under Denmark's Margaret I in 1397. An immediate result of this is that the colonies of Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Greenland were all incorporated into the Kalmar Union.

Map of the Kalmar Union

It was always difficult to hold the union together though, as Swedish nobles were firmly against the Danish influence. They were also upset that the Danes were waging wars against the Germans, which affected the export of Swedish ores. A century later, wars broke out between Sweden and Denmark, and Sweden stopped recognizing the King of Denmark and Norway as their king in 1501. The King of Denmark and Norway, Christian II, fought back, and he would re-capture Sweden in 1520.

But Christian II then committed a major mistake. On November 4, 1520, Christian II summoned close to 100 Swedish noble leaders to his crowning banquet. For three days, the guests dined and drank. But the mood suddenly changed on November 7. Christian II order the imprisoning of most of the Swedish leaders and they were eventually executed.

This would be remembered by the Swedes as the Stockholm Bloodbath, which led to rivalries between Denmark and Sweden for the next centuries. The Swedes rebelled again in 1521 and became independent in 1523.

Beginning the European Age of Discovery

During this period of the failed Scandinavian integration experiment, European explorers were undertaking a series of journeys to explore new trade routes.

As early as 1295, Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, had reached China and India. He brought back knowledge of other parts of the world. At the start of the 1400s, when Margaret I first united the Nordics, Portuguese explorers were the first to have travelled beyond Europe. Madeira was discovered in 1419 and the Portuguese had reached modern-day Brazil, as well as Kalmar Union's colony, Greenland, by 1500.

During this period, the Portuguese established a series of bases in Africa, such as Cabo Verde, that helped with their later journeys. They also enjoyed relative peace between 1385 and 1475, a rarity for medieval times. After the unification of Spain, they began to challenge Portugal to become the dominant power. The Spanish’s bet on Christopher Columbus, who was rejected by other monarchs, of course, proved to be a massive success.

Early European voyages were monopolized by the Portuguese and the Spanish, with few other nations involved. Even though a small Danish navy had been set up, its main job was to defend the empire and to keep Swedish independence in check. The Scandinavian countries were too busy handling their internal turmoil to look beyond Europe.

The Nordics also remained much smaller than its mainland European rivals. In 1500, the estimated population of the Kalmar Union was 1.7m people, compared to the Spanish Empire of 8.5m and Portuguese Empire of 3m. The Kalmar Union was, however, still larger than the Habsburg Netherlands (less than 1m).

The Rivalry Over the Baltics Sea

When Sweden declared its independence in 1523, Denmark unilaterally declared Norway as a Danish province. To this effect, Norway's overseas territories, including the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland all became part of the Dano-Norwegian Realm.

Denmark-Norway was growing once again. It became richer as it imposed taxes on commercial traffic through the Sound, a strait that was important for trade between Poland in the East to the Netherlands in the West.

Ships travelling between the west (Netherlands) and the east (Poland) must pass through the Sound.

Also, as a result of the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Netherlands, a large number of skilled Dutch refugees also moved to Denmark, further creating prosperity.

The Teutonic Order, which had control over Latvia and Estonia (following the purchase from Denmark), was in decline by the mid-16th century. The areas, together called Livonia, were repeatedly invaded by Russia. Subsequently, the nobles turned towards both the Danish and the Swedish Kings for protection.

In 1559, King Frederick II of Denmark agreed to protect the western part of Estonia. With Danish influence expanding in the region, the Swedish King, Eric XIV, felt insecure. He sent his troops in to protect the lands of Harjumaa, Virumaa, and Tallinn. Those areas accepted Swedish rule and became a Swedish colony. The fact that these areas were previously part of a Danish colony only intensified the rivalry between Denmark and Sweden.

War broke out between Denmark and Sweden between 1563 and 1570, in what is now known as the Northern Seven Years' War. Frederick II of Denmark, crowned in 1559, wanted to restore the Kalmar Union, whilst Eric XIV of Sweden wanted to break the Danish dominance in the region. The war resulted in many deaths but a stalemate in territorial gains for both parties. It should be noted that this was also one of the first major naval warfare between the two Scandinavian powers.

End of Part I

As we stand now in year 1570, at the end of the Northern Seven Years' War, we saw two competing powers being established in the Nordics. Denmark-Norway held colonial possessions in Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Greenland. Sweden, on the other hand, ruled over Estonia.

The long seven-year war ending in 1570 was just the first of many wars to come between the two Scandinavian powers. By gaining a foothold in Estonia, Sweden now has a way to access Central Europe, which allowed it to escape the influence of Denmark, and even challenge Denmark. One of the greatest military commanders in modern history will do just that.

Map of year 1570, focusing on Denmark and Sweden
Year 1570: Denmark in Green, Sweden in Pink. (Created using the Geacron Project)

In mainland Europe, the Portuguese and Spanish naval explorers had now established trade routes around the world, connecting China, India, Europe, and the Americas. The world had been connected while the Scandinavians were busy fighting each other and over tiny Baltics.

This article is part of the Tracing the Vikings' Footsteps Series.