The Royal Dano-nor­we­gian Navy had Me­dieval ori­gins and achieved spec­tac­u­lar vic­to­ries as well as no­table de­feats


With large coast­lines, Den­mark-nor­way long had an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with the sea. Vik­ings from both coun­tries were renowned sailors but it wasn’t un­til the 14th cen­tury that records of a uni­fied navy in West­ern Scan­di­navia be­gan to ap­pear. Queen Mar­garet I of Den­mark (r. 1387-1412) or­dered the build­ing of a navy to be main­tained for the Dan­ish monar­chy. How­ever, a full naval force was not of­fi­cially en­shrined in law un­til 1510, un­der King Hans I. This still pre­dated the es­tab­lish­ment of the Royal Navy of Eng­land, which oc­curred in 1542. By this time, Den­mark was uni­fied with Nor­way and so the navy was known as the Royal Dano-nor­we­gian Navy or the ‘Com­mon Fleet’.

In the be­gin­ning, the navy’s role was to counter the power of the Hanseatic League and se­cure con­trol of the Baltic Sea with Swe­den be­com­ing its main ri­val. The fleet was con­sid­ered to be the Dan­ish monarch’s per­sonal prop­erty and the ‘King’s Wa­ters’ were ex­ten­sive. The navy’s reach in­cluded seas off Ice­land, Green­land and the

Faroe Is­lands as well Arc­tic wa­ters off the North Cape and Spits­ber­gen.

Be­fore the Great North­ern War, the fleet had suc­cess dur­ing the Sca­nian War (1675-79) where it won a de­ci­sive bat­tle against the Swedes in 1677 at Køge Bay. In Tor­den­skjold’s day, there were 19,000 en­rolled per­son­nel – the ma­jor­ity of whom were Nor­we­gian. In the later 18th cen­tury there were vic­to­ries against the Bar­bary States in the Mediter­ranean Sea that stopped at­tacks against Scan­di­na­vian mer­chant ship­ping. How­ever, the Dano-nor­we­gians twice suf­fered de­feat at the hands of the Bri­tish Royal Navy dur­ing the Napoleonic Wars.

Two bat­tles were lost at Copen­hagen in 1801 and 1807. The first was one of Lord Nel­son’s fa­mous vic­to­ries while the sec­ond forced the sur­ren­der of the en­tire fleet. Den­mark and Nor­way sep­a­rated only seven years later in 1814 with the Com­mon Fleet be­ing split into what is now the Royal Dan­ish and Royal Nor­we­gian navies.

fight­ing ship-to-ship du­els, the Im­pe­rial Rus­sian Navy won its first de­ci­sive vic­tory against the Swedes at Gangut.

Dur­ing this time, Charles XII had been in en­forced ex­ile in the Ot­toman Em­pire. By the time he re­turned to Swe­den he found him­self fight­ing a re­duced, defensive war for the first time. His pri­mary foe was now Den­mark-nor­way and he de­cided to split the union by in­vad­ing Nor­we­gian ter­ri­tory. By at­tack­ing Nor­way, Charles aimed to cut Den­mark’s sup­ply lines and force the Danes to with­draw from Swe­den’s south­ern­most prov­ince of Sca­nia.

The in­va­sion be­gan in 1716 with the Nor­we­gian cap­i­tal Chris­tia­nia (Oslo) be­ing oc­cu­pied. By May 1716, Charles was be­sieg­ing the fortress of Fredrik­sten in the city of Halden, with Swedish troops be­ing trans­ported to Nor­way by sea. Tor­den­skjold was or­dered to sail from Copen­hagen to stop the Swedish ship­ping and on 7 July 1716 he learned that a Swedish troop es­cort fleet had an­chored at Dynek­ilen. This was a nar­row fjord north of Strön­stad in the Väs­tra Gö­ta­land re­gion of west­ern Swe­den near the Nor­we­gian bor­der.

Tor­den­skjold com­manded a small fleet of seven war­ships con­tain­ing 931 men. These were out­num­bered by the Swedes who had 13 war­ships and 1,284 men as well as a land bat­tery and 14 ad­di­tional mer­chant ves­sels. The Swedish ships were ar­ranged de­fen­sively and the bat­tery of six 12-pounder guns was placed on an is­land in the fjord. Sol­diers were also placed on both sides of Dynek­ilen har­bour to pro­vide cross­fire. Tor­den­skjold was un­de­terred by these de­fences and on 8 July 1716 he sailed his ships into the fjord in a sur­prise at­tack that be­gan at 4.00am.

The Dano-nor­we­gian ships were quickly an­chored and opened fire on the Swedes. The en­su­ing bat­tle lasted all morn­ing and into the af­ter­noon of 8 July. At 1.00pm, Tor­den­skjold’s men cap­tured the bat­tery and the largest Swedish ship, Sten­bock, sur­ren­dered. The Danonor­we­gians had ef­fec­tively won the bat­tle but the Swedes were de­ter­mined to scut­tle their fleet. By the late af­ter­noon the ma­jor­ity of the Swedish fleet was sink­ing, burn­ing or be­ing de­lib­er­ately run aground. Tor­den­skjold, who was never one to miss lu­cra­tive prizes, be­came de­ter­mined to cap­ture as many Swedish ves­sels as pos­si­ble.

The stricken en­emy ships were or­dered to be made sea­wor­thy and the Dano-nor­we­gians made great ef­forts put out the fires on board the Swedish ships and free the ones that had run aground. This was done de­spite the dan­gers of the var­i­ous in­fer­nos and mus­ket vol­leys from the Swedish sol­diers on the shore. By 9.00pm, Tor­den­skjold left Dynek­ilen with over two dozen cap­tured ships and his own fleet in­tact.

This im­pres­sive vic­tory forced Charles XII to end his in­va­sion of Nor­way and he re­turned to Swe­den. Tor­den­skjold was pro­moted to post­cap­tain and given the com­mand of the Kat­te­gat Squadron while his sub­or­di­nates were each awarded a gold medal.

A sud­den demise

Af­ter Dynek­ilen, Tor­den­skjold’s ca­reer con­tin­ued to flour­ish. On 19 De­cem­ber

1718, he heard ru­mours that Charles XII had been killed at the re­sumed Siege of Fredrik­sten. When the ru­mour was con­firmed he im­me­di­ately trav­elled to Copen­hagen where he con­veyed the news to Fred­er­ick IV. The king was so pleased that he pro­moted Tor­den­skjold (who was still only in his late 20s) to rear­ad­mi­ral on the spot.

In 1719, Rear-ad­mi­ral Tor­den­skjold di­rected a dev­as­tat­ing at­tack against the Swedish Gothen­burg fleet that lay at Marstrand. The coastal city had a stone fortress called Carl­sten, which Tor­den­skjold tricked the Swedes into sur­ren­der­ing. He claimed there was a huge Dano-nor­we­gian force in Marstrand but this was an elab­o­rate bluff. The ad­mi­ral ac­tu­ally passed the same troops in and out of the town square to make it look as though there were more sol­diers than there ac­tu­ally were. Some his­to­ri­ans have claimed this in­ci­dent is a myth but Tor­den­skjold was again pro­moted to vicead­mi­ral shortly af­ter­wards.

Den­mark-nor­way even­tu­ally con­cluded peace with Swe­den on favourable terms in

July 1720 at the Treaty of Fred­eriks­borg but Tor­den­skjold’s fight­ing spirit strug­gled to adapt in the ab­sence of war. He trav­elled to Ger­many and be­came em­broiled in a gam­bling scan­dal within months. While he was stay­ing in Hanover, he heard that sev­eral men had cheated one of his friends dur­ing a card game at a party. Dur­ing the telling of this ru­mour, one of the ac­cused men – Colonel Axel Ja­cob Staël von Hol­stein – in­tro­duced him­self. He de­nied any wrong­do­ing and de­manded an apol­ogy.

The hot-headed Tor­den­skjold de­fended his friend and a brawl broke out that ended with


von Hol­stein chal­leng­ing the ad­mi­ral to a duel. On 12 Novem­ber 1720, Tor­den­skjold and von Hol­stein faced each other at Glei­din­gen in Lower Sax­ony. It was an un­even match be­cause von Hol­stein was armed with a mil­i­tary rapier while Tor­den­skjold only had his cer­e­mo­nial dress sword. De­spite this, the vet­eran swashbuckl­er re­fused to back out of the fight and was stabbed through the chest by von Hol­stein. Tor­den­skjold died in the arms of his ser­vant aged only 30 and his corpse was brought to Copen­hagen. He was buried with­out cer­e­mony in the Hol­men Church be­cause du­elling was il­le­gal un­der Dan­ish law.

De­spite his un­nec­es­sary death and ig­no­min­ious burial, Tor­den­skjold has since be­come a na­tional hero in both Den­mark and Nor­way. Af­ter Charles XII, he is re­garded as the most heroic Scan­di­na­vian fig­ure of the Great North­ern War. The Dan­ish and Nor­we­gian navies have named sev­eral ships af­ter him along with street names and five stat­ues. He is men­tioned by name in the Nor­we­gian na­tional an­them and the Dan­ish royal an­them and has also been the sub­ject of two films and a mu­si­cal. For a man who em­bod­ied an ex­clu­sively Nordic brand of swash­buck­ling hero­ism, this adu­la­tion seems to be well founded.

The Bat­tle of Køge Bay is re­garded as the great­est vic­tory in Dan­ish naval his­tory be­cause it gave Den­mark-nor­way con­trol of the Baltic Sea ABOVE: The 1807 bom­bard­ment of Copen­hagen re­sulted in 3,000 Dano-nor­we­gian ca­su­al­ties com­pared to just 42 Bri­tish sailors killed

Tor­den­skjold cheek­ily en­quired why the Swedish com­man­dant of Marstrand had not sur­ren­dered in 1719 with the words, “What is tak­ing you so long?”

On 1 De­cem­ber 1717, Tor­den­skjold’s four­gun ves­sel was pur­sued by a much larger Swedish ship. Tor­den­skjold shot the Swedish cap­tain af­ter he was asked to sur­ren­der and man­aged to es­cape in the en­su­ing con­fu­sion

Tor­den­skjold’s sar­coph­a­gus in Hol­men Church, Copen­hagen

Tor­den­skjold’s valet Chris­tian Kold prays over his corpse af­ter his death in a duel

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