Danish-Swedish Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

This series of wars between two Scandinavian kingdoms over control of the Baltic Sea trade and tolls resulted in military exhaustion for both and allowed Prussia and Russia eventually to dominate the Baltic.

Summary of Event

The Union of Kalmar (1397) united the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under a single monarch. While the nobles still handled local and regional issues, effective control of Scandinavia and of the Baltic Sea was centered in Denmark. Of particular significance was the Danish monarch’s control of the resund, the narrow strait that separates Sweden and Denmark. Militarily, the Danish navy made it into an effective barrier to hostile powers seeking either to enter or to leave the Baltic. More important, however, was the international trade that passed through the resund. Trade;Baltic region Danish-Swedish Wars (1497-1720)[Danish Swedish Wars (1497-1720)] Gustav I Vasa Gustav II Adolf Christian IV Gustav I Vasa Christian IV (king of Denmark) Gustav II Adolf

The significance of the Baltic region during the early modern era cannot be underestimated. From the cities and countries around the Baltic came grain, naval stores, semiprecious gems, and furs; to the Baltic areas went wine, fish, oil, and spices. The Hanseatic League had dominated this trade during the medieval period, but Denmark now controlled it, and all ships traversing the resund paid a toll. These tolls were critical to Danish monarchal power, for control of the tolls meant revenue for building military power. It was also an attractive reason for others to challenge Danish control. For nearly three centuries, competing factions in Sweden and Denmark sought to control not only this strategic waterway but also the Baltic area in general. Eventually the Scandinavian powers fell victim to larger, more powerful states, but the Danish-Swedish Wars, which lasted well into the eighteenth century, were an integral part of the emergence of the Baltic as a significant region in early modern Europe.

The Kalmar Union itself was seldom effective, as the size of the area and primitive transportation and communication made control by Denmark virtually impossible. More important, Swedish nobles had little desire to be controlled by a Danish king, and frequent clashes between the two groups occurred throughout the fifteenth century. Finally, in 1497, after a Swedish victory in the Swedish-Russian War (1495-1497) Swedish-Russian War (1495-1497)[Swedish Russian War (1495-1497)] , Swedish nobles attempted to secede. A Danish force restored the Union, but Danish pacification often consisted of actions such as the Bloodbath of Stockholm (1520) Stockholm, Bloodbath of (1520) , wherein Swedish nobles were rounded up and executed. Under the leadership of Gustav Eriksson Vasa, Danish control of Sweden was ended and he was elected Swedish king (Gustav I) in 1523. During the next forty years, Denmark made Norway into a possession instead of a kingdom, Lutheranism was implemented, and the king of Denmark became an absolute monarch. Lutheranism;Denmark Danish strength was based more on naval power and control of the Baltic Sea than upon a strong army. In Sweden, the Vasas adopted Lutheranism, created a centralized monarchy, and focused on building a strong army, which was used to extend Swedish power into Poland and Livonia (1557-1571). Lutheranism;Sweden


The wars between Denmark and Sweden in the late fifteenth century were only the beginning of an ongoing series of conflicts that did not end until the eighteenth century and essentially shaped the modern states known today.

For the next 150 years (1563-1720), Swedish and Danish kings confronted each other intermittently for Baltic hegemony. However, the riches of the region assured its being a target for other imperialistic powers of the era: Austria, Prussia, Russia, the Netherlands, and England. The first major confrontation between the two was the Scandinavian Seven Years’ War (Den Nordiske Syv �rskrig, 1563-1570), Scandinavian Seven Years’ War (1563-1570)[Scandinavian Seven Years War (1563-1570)] Seven Years War, Scandinavian (1563-1570)[Seven Years War Scandinavian] which ended with both kingdoms exhausted and having suffered much destruction. Forty more years of relative peace between the two kingdoms followed, but the wars of religion between Roman Catholics and various Protestant sects ensured international instability. In an effort to solidify Danish control of the western Baltic against Austrian Habsburg ambitions in the Holy Roman Empire, Christian IV of Denmark unsuccessfully attempted to force Sweden to rejoin the Union in the Kalmar War (1611-1613) Kalmar War (1611-1613) . His failure was largely due to the emergence of a Swedish military genius, Gustav II Adolf, the newly crowned, teenaged king of Sweden.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)[Thirty Years War (1618-1648)] was a continent-wide series of religious-political wars. Despite their shared religion, Denmark and Sweden were usually hostilely neutral or overtly active against each other during various phases of this war. Following Habsburg victory in the Bohemian phase of the war (1618-1624), Christian IV attempted to repel Habsburg efforts to dominate the Holy Roman Empire by organizing a Protestant coalition against the Catholic emperor. His failure to gain the support of Gustav II Adolf resulted in a series of humiliating defeats by Habsburg forces that forced him to retire almost entirely from the Baltic mainland. By 1628, Habsburg forces under Count Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein had extended imperial control to the Baltic Sea, at which point Swedish forces participated actively, but only after displacing Danish forces.

For four years, until his death at the Battle of Lützen in 1632, the Swedish monarch terrorized Habsburg generals as he extended Swedish control from the southern shore of the Baltic to Bavaria. He offered Christian IV a subordinate role in the war, but the Danish monarch chose neutrality instead. In the final stage of the Thirty Years’ War, Denmark was attacked by Sweden (1643-1645). In the Treaty of Brömsebro, the Danes ceded much of their possessions on the Swedish peninsula to Sweden and exempted Swedish vessels from tolls. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) effectively made the Baltic into a Swedish lake, for it gave Sweden control of the mouths of major rivers along the Baltic as well as eliminating the Habsburgs as a threat to northern Germany.

This hegemony did not last for long: The newly emerging powers of Prussia and Russia soon contested Swedish control. When Swedish forces under Charles XI invaded Poland in 1655, a coalition of Russia, Denmark, and Austria then attacked Sweden. Unfortunately for Denmark, a severe winter froze the coastal waters, allowing a Swedish army to march across the ice to take numerous Danish islands. The Peace of Roskilde (1658) cost Denmark part of Norway as well as Scania (the provinces east of the resund). The border between the two kingdoms now passed through the center of the resund; Denmark had lost perhaps its most valuable holding. In 1659, the Swedes renewed the conflict by attacking the Danish capital of Copenhagen, but failed. Neither the Netherlands nor England wanted Denmark reduced to Swedish vassalage; thus, in 1660, the Roskilde treaty was renewed.

The final wars between the two countries were the Scania War (Sk �nske Krig, 1675-1679) and the Great Northern War (Store Nordiske Krig, 1700-1721), during which the Danes fought Sweden between 1709 and 1720. While Denmark could claim to have won the wars, the Danes failed to regain Scania—their reason for both wars. The peace at Stockholm in 1720 ended the long series of wars between the two Scandinavian kingdoms and initiated a peaceful coexistence between the two that continues today. In neither war was Denmark a significant factor, as Sweden, under Charles XII, was fighting for its existence at the hands of Russia and Prussia. Those wars resulted in the virtual elimination of Sweden as a power along the southern Baltic shoreline.

The series of wars between the two Scandinavian states of Denmark and Sweden were critical in their evolution as modern states. In each area the wars resulted in a reduction of power for the nobles and for the church. In both cases a strong monarchy dominated the social, political, religious, and economic structures of the respective states. The wealth of the Baltic region, which neither owned outright but which both, at one point or another, controlled through possession of vital trade points, allowed each to develop military power to protect their interests. Although the wars between the two certainly weakened each, in the end neither was capable of defeating the rising economic and military powers of Europe. In a sense their two-hundred-year struggle for control of the Baltic was either a prelude to or a side clash within the conflicts between the Great Powers in the post-1618 era. Indeed, Swedish-Danish wars were often subsumed by the great wars of the period, and by 1720, neither Scandinavian country was considered a significant Baltic power.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State, and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2000. This survey of the Baltic wars of the period is particularly good on the Livonian Wars from 1558 to 1583 and the emergence of Russia as a Baltic power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirby, David. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World, 1492-1772. New York: Longman, 1995. Excellent survey of the Baltic wars, particularly useful for understanding the difficulties of waging war in that area.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirchner, Walther. The Rise of the Baltic Question. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1954. Although somewhat dated, this monograph provides a sound introduction to the issues and personages involved in the struggles for control of the Baltic in the early modern era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oakley, Stewart P. War and Peace in the Baltic, 1560-1790. New York: Routledge, 1993. Provides an excellent overview of the struggles for Baltic control and the rise of Russia to preeminence.

Oct. 19, 1466: Second Peace of Thorn

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

1523: Gustav I Vasa Becomes King of Sweden

1557-1582: Livonian War

Categories: History