Meet the dar­ing ad­mi­ral who rules the Baltic seas


Dur­ing the ro­man­tic Age of Sail in the early 18th cen­tury, Peter Wessel Tor­den­skjold be­came the em­bod­i­ment of naval hero­ism and der­ring-do. A dare­devil com­bi­na­tion of dash­ing war­rior and gen­tle­man ad­ven­turer, his ex­ploits against Swe­den turned him into the Scan­di­na­vian equiv­a­lent of Ad­mi­ral Lord Nel­son. His brief life story was a me­te­oric blaze of fire dur­ing the Great North­ern War that con­sumed the re­gions around the Baltic Sea for over 20 years. How­ever, like a cu­ri­ously high num­ber of young peo­ple who achieve rapid achieve­ments, Tor­den­skjold be­came a self-de­struc­tive vic­tim of his own suc­cess. An ob­scure fig­ure in in­ter­na­tional his­tory, he is nev­er­the­less a na­tional hero in both Nor­way and Den­mark.

Am­bi­tion in a dual king­dom

The fu­ture ‘Tor­den­skjold’ was born as Peter Jansen Wessel in 1690 to a wealthy mer­chant fam­ily in Trond­heim, Nor­way. He was the 14th of 18 chil­dren and as a youth he was re­put­edly un­con­trol­lable and in­volved in many fights. Even­tu­ally, the teenage Wessel ran away to sea with hopes of be­com­ing an of­fi­cer in the Royal Dano-nor­we­gian Navy.

Den­mark and Nor­way had been united since 1523 with Den­mark be­ing the dom­i­nant coun­try. Con­sist­ing of the two coun­tries as well as Ice­land, Green­land, the Faroe Is­lands and the Ger­man duchies of Sch­leswig and Hol­stein, Den­mark-nor­way was a for­mi­da­ble Scan­di­na­vian power. Much like the union be­tween Eng­land and Scot­land, Den­mar­knor­way was a le­gal state of ‘Twin Realms’ with a sin­gle Dan­ish monarch and a con­cen­tra­tion of in­sti­tu­tions in the larger cap­i­tal, which was Copen­hagen. There were also some dif­fer­ences with both king­doms hav­ing sep­a­rate le­gal codes, cur­ren­cies and gov­ern­men­tal bod­ies.

Nor­way was the ju­nior part­ner and al­though later Nor­we­gian his­to­ri­ans dis­par­aged the con­nec­tion with Den­mark as the ‘400-year night’, it was largely not per­ceived like that at the time. Nor­way ac­tu­ally pros­pered with a thriv­ing econ­omy and was one of the wealth­i­est coun­tries in the world through­out the union.

This fil­tered through the mil­i­tary sys­tem and it was com­mon for Nor­we­gian men to take up ser­vice in the Dan­ish armed forces as it was seen as a lu­cra­tive ca­reer op­por­tu­nity, par­tic­u­larly in the Royal Dano-nor­we­gian Navy.

Wessel was one of those am­bi­tious Nor­we­gians who wished to earn his for­tune as a naval of­fi­cer but he was ini­tially re­jected as a cadet. He in­stead spent three years serv­ing on mer­chant ships that sailed to Guinea and the Caribbean. In 1710, he was fi­nally ac­cepted as a cadet and al­though he was only 20 years old he was al­ready a highly ex­pe­ri­enced sailor.

Over the next ten years he would ex­pe­ri­ence rapid pro­mo­tions thanks to his reck­less courage and mil­i­tary skill.

In the spring of 1711, Wessel be­came a sec­ond lieu­tenant and served as sec­ond-in­com­mand of the frigate Pos­til­lion from July of the same year. He soon be­came the pro­tégé of the Nor­we­gian ad­mi­ral Walde­mar Løven­dal who pro­moted him to cap­tain-lieu­tenant of a four­gun sloop called Or­men.

The Great North­ern War

At this time Den­mark-nor­way was in­volved in the Great North­ern War (1700-21), a huge con­flict that was pri­mar­ily fought be­tween Rus­sia and the Dano-nor­we­gians’ great ri­val – Swe­den. Un­der the rule of the for­mi­da­ble sol­dier-king Charles XII, Swe­den was a great power and had a large Euro­pean em­pire that was the envy of the re­gional Baltic coun­tries. Rus­sia, Sax­ony-poland-lithua­nia and Den­mar­knor­way formed an al­liance to chal­lenge the supremacy of the Swedes but Charles XII won a series of im­pres­sive mil­i­tary vic­to­ries in the early stages of the con­flict.

Den­mark-nor­way had been one of the first vic­tims of Charles XII’S suc­cess when he at­tacked the Dan­ish main­land in 1700. Copen­hagen was bom­barded and Den­mar­knor­way was ini­tially forced out of the war by the terms of the Peace of Traven­dal. How­ever,


when Charles was de­ci­sively de­feated by Tsar Peter the Great at the Bat­tle of Poltava in 1709, Den­mark-nor­way re-en­tered the war in a new anti-swedish al­liance.

There were sig­nif­i­cant land cam­paigns in this phase of the war but naval con­fronta­tions be­tween the Dano-nor­we­gians and the Swedes were also com­mon­place. Wessel ea­gerly par­tic­i­pated in these en­gage­ments and started out by cruis­ing along the Swedish coast in the Or­men on re­con­nais­sance mis­sions. Pro­moted to the com­mand of an 18-gun frigate called Løven­dals Galej in June 1712, he quickly gained a rep­u­ta­tion for ran­domly at­tack­ing Swedish ships re­gard­less of the odds and al­ways evad­ing cap­ture.

These ac­tions prompted the Swedes to put a price on his head, which only served to en­hance his rep­u­ta­tion. Far from pleas­ing the Dano-nor­we­gian ad­mi­ralty, Wessel had ac­tu­ally only been given his com­mand of Løven­dals Galej by his men­tor, Ad­mi­ral Løven­dal. This was against se­nior ad­vice be­cause other naval of­fi­cers per­ceived that Wessel was an im­pul­sive young man. He never con­sid­ered the con­se­quences of his ac­tions and his ar­ro­gance of­ten earned the wrath of his su­pe­ri­ors.

For ex­am­ple, on 12 Au­gust 1713, Wessel wrote a mock­ing let­ter to the Swedish gover­nor of Gothen­burg. He ac­cused them of let­ting their pri­va­teers at­tack mer­chant ships in­stead of fight­ing real war­ships and cheek­ily urged the gover­nor to send a ship for him. This was be­cause there was a re­ward on his head and he wanted to be col­lected for im­pris­on­ment in style. The gover­nor did not share Wessel’s sense of hu­mour and com­plained to a se­nior gen­eral in Nor­way. He con­se­quently re­ceived a rep­ri­mand from King Fred­er­ick IV of Den­mark-nor­way but the con­fi­dent sea­man was not to be de­terred.

A gen­tle­manly duel

The prime ex­am­ple of Wessel’s ro­man­tic, buc­ca­neer­ing spirit oc­curred dur­ing 26-27 July 1714, when Løven­dals Gallej fought a Swedish frigate called De Ol­bing Gal­ley. This ship was dis­guised by an English flag and com­manded by a mys­te­ri­ous English­man with a Ger­manic name called Bact­mann. Wessel him­self was fly­ing un­der a Dutch flag and when the two ships re­alised their true colours they opened fire and fought for over 14 hours. Wessel met a con­sid­er­able match in Bact­mann, al­though the Swedish ship at­tempted to es­cape af­ter pro­longed fight­ing. This only en­cour­aged Wessel to raise more sails and pur­sue the frigate.

Even­tu­ally, af­ter tak­ing much dam­age, Wessel ran out of am­mu­ni­tion and mes­saged his sit­u­a­tion to Bact­mann. He thanked him for a fine duel and boldly re­quested the English­man for more am­mu­ni­tion so that the fight could con­tinue. Bact­mann de­clined this


out­landish re­quest but the two ships came to­gether. Both crews cheered and drank to each other’s health be­fore the cap­tains agreed to sail away in op­po­site di­rec­tions. Wessel was court-mar­tialled for this gen­tle­manly fight on the or­ders of Fred­er­ick IV but he was ac­quit­ted and then pro­moted to cap­tain.

Through­out 1715, Wessel re­mained the scourge of the Swedes, par­tic­u­larly off the coast of Swedish Pomera­nia (now the Ger­man­pol­ish Baltic coast). Dur­ing a bat­tle off Kol­berg (Koło­brzeg) he cap­tured the Swedish Rear­ad­mi­ral Hans Wacht­meis­ter and a frigate called Vita Örn (White Ea­gle). This was granted as Wessel’s flag­ship and it was re­named Hvide Ørn.

On 8 Au­gust 1715, he dis­tin­guished him­self again at the Bat­tle of Rü­gen un­der the com­mand of Peter Raben. Twenty-five Danonor­we­gian ships fought 22 Swedish ves­sels in a clash that was tac­ti­cally in­de­ci­sive but a strate­gic suc­cess for Raben’s fleet. Wessel was per­son­ally able to chase away en­emy ships in Hvide Ørn by sheer courage and skill. He was now a val­ued as­set for the high com­mand and was knighted by Fred­er­ick IV on 24 Fe­bru­ary 1716. The king per­mit­ted him to adopt the name of ‘Tor­den­skjold’, which lit­er­ally trans­lates as ‘Thun­der Shield’. The for­mer Peter Wessel was only 25 years old.


While Tor­den­skjold was wreak­ing his unique brand of naval havoc, the war con­tin­ued to go badly for Swe­den. The Bat­tle of Poltava had be­gun a down­ward trend in Charles XII’S for­tunes that, with a few ex­cep­tions, proved to be ir­re­versible. Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary con­fi­dence was in­creas­ing and while Tor­den­skjold was

A con­tem­po­rary por­trait of Peter Wessel Tor­den­skjold by Dutch­dan­ish painter Ja­cob Con­ing (1647-1724) who was a pop­u­lar por­traitist at the Dan­ish court OP­PO­SITE PAGE: The Royal Arms of Den­mark-nor­way above an 1897 pho­to­graph of Tor­den­skjold’s pis­tol PETER WESSEL TOR­DEN­SKJOLD

Wessel’s crew toast the health of their du­elling part­ners af­ter the clash of the Løven­dals Gallej and De Ol­bing Gal­ley, 27 July 1714

Tor­den­skjold painted at the pin­na­cle of his ca­reer as a vice-ad­mi­ral

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