15 January 2024

From Margrethe to Frederik: Danish history as told by royal lines

Manuscript of the Month

On Sunday, 14 January 2024, a new chapter was written in Danish history. After 52 years on the throne, Queen Margrethe II abdicated and her eldest son ascended the throne as King Frederik X.

Two open manuscripts
The manuscripts AM 854 4to (left) and AM 855 4to (right) both contain Mogens Madsen's historical work, Series regum daniæ. (Image: Suzanne Reitz)

A succession to the throne is always an important moment in the history of a monarchy. The reign of a monarch is looked upon afterwards as either a good or bad period of history; a period of peace or war; of surplus or famine. It is then not surprising that written histories often take their point of departure in the reigns of monarchs and dynasties.

Written histories of Denmark from the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period often follow royal lineages as highlights. This is true for both the medieval historian Saxo, whose Gesta Danorum follows the history of Danish kings from the legendary Dan until Canute VI (r. 1182-1202), and for later historians such as Thormod Torfæus, whose Series dynastarum et regum Daniæ traces the royal line back to Skjǫldr, son of the god Óðinn, rather than to Dan.

At the end of the sixteenth century the bishop and historian Mogens Madsen (1527-1611) in Lund wrote a history in Latin that, following Saxo’s example, traces the line of Danish kings from Dan up to Christian III (r. 1537-1559). Each monarch is introduced with a short description followed by the major historical events given by year. The history thus covers a period stretching from 600 BC to AD 1579.

Mogens Madsen was priest in the court of Prince Frederik (later King Frederik II) at his residence Malmøhus (today in southern Sweden) for a short period. After Frederik became king in 1559, Madsen went on to become a lecturer in theology at Lund Cathedral and later superintendent (i.e. bishop) of Lund in 1589. He must have written his Series regum daniæ (“Series of Kings of Denmark”) around this time, as he names himself in the work as Schaniæ Superintendens (“Superintendent of Scania”) in an entry for his birth year, 1527.

Madsen’s work was never published during his lifetime, though the second half (from Christopher II, who reigned 1320-1326) was later edited by Holger Frederik Rørdam (1887: 81-246).

No manuscript of Series regum daniæ survives in Mogens Madsen’s own hand. However, the text survives in a number of handwritten copies; Rørdam (pg. 118) lists seven, of which two are found in the Arnamagnæan Collection.

One of the Arnamagnæan manuscripts, AM 854 4to, is dated to around 1600 and is therefore not much younger than the text itself. The manuscript consists of 189 paper leaves (measuring 195 x 170 mm) bound in a parchment binding from Árni Magnússon’s time. The text is written in a fine humanistic script which is characteristic for learned works from the period. On the title page, the title Regum Daniæ Series etc. is found, followed by an author attribution.

Regum Daniæ Series una cum notatione succincta temporum et rerum maxime memorabliium, quæ singulis regnantibus per Daniam et in vicinia acciderunt. Collectore Magno Matthia Th. Lectore et Canonico Lundensi.

Following the title page is a list of the 97 kings discussed in the work, with the header Nomenclatura et series regum Daniæ. However, there are actually 99 kings listed, as the following two, Frederik II (r. 1559-1588) and Christian IV (r. 1588-1648) are also listed. 

The text itself is written in a writing area measuring 155 x 125 mm with 18 lines per page. An outer margin (30 mm) provides space for keywords such as names and other subsection headers.

In addition to this manuscript, a younger manuscript of Series regum daniæ is also found in the Arnamagnæan Collection. AM 855 4to is dated to 1646 and was written in Copenhagen by a scribe who names himself as And[reas] J. Hegelund.

Eric Lam was the last king to abdicate

There has only been a single abdication in Danish history before, nearly 900 years ago. King Eric III, also known as Eric Lam, ruled from 1137 until he contracted a fever and entered the St. Canute Monastery in Odense in 1146. As he did not have any legitimate heir, there was no clear successor to the throne. Instead, three noblemen vyed for the Danish throne: Sweyn Grathe, Canute Magnussen, and Valdemar Knudsen. Following nearly ten years of civil war, the latter proved victorious and ascended the throne as Valdemar I, also known as Valdemar the Great.

Håndskreven tekst
The description of Eric Lam's abdication in 1146. (AM 854 4to, s. 93. Image: Suzanne Reitz. Click to enlarge.)
Tandem febri correptus in Fioniam, quæ ipsi patria erat, proficiscitur & in monasterium se abdit Regno relicto.

Eric Lam’s reign is described in the manuscript on pages 91-93. The section opens with a description of his nickname Lam, meaning “lamb”, which is rendered in Latin as agnus (“lamb”) and oviculam (“little sheep”).

Regarding the actual abdication, Mogens Madsen writes only a single sentence: “Seized by a fever, he went to Funen, which was his homeland, and resided in a monastery after having left the kingdom [i.e. abdicating].”

Margaret I, Denmark's Guardian

There have only been two female regents in the Danish royal lineage. Before Queen Margrethe II, there was Margaret I, who was the de facto ruler from 1376-1412. She was the daughter of Valdemar II (and therefore 4x-great-granddaughter of Valdemar the Great) and married to the Norwegian king Haakon VI.

Margaret I is remembered in Danish history as a formidable woman who exercised great power over the entire Nordic region, not least with the establishment of the Kalmar Union in 1397. However, she was never technically declared Queen of Denmark, but rather acted as the guardian for her son, the child king Oluf (r. 1376-1387), and later for her fosterson, Eric of Pommerania (r. 1396-1439).

Et håndskrevet blad
The history of Margaret I opens by calling her "Margaret Valdemarsdatter." (AM 854 4to, s. 203. Image: Suzanne Reitz)
Margareta Waldemari filia, Haquino Noruagiæ Regi nupta, unicum habuit ex Haquino filium, Olaum cuius intuitu ipsa quoque ad regnum peruenit, Daniæ, Gubernatrix primum constituta filij nomine.

The history of Margaret’s reign is introduced on page 203 in the manuscript with the description of her as “Margaret, Valdemar’s daughter, wife of King Haakon of Norway, with whom [Haakon] she only had one child, Oluf, for whom she also came to Denmark, at first as guardian in the name of her son.”

Oluf’s appointment as King of Denmark is mentioned as the only entry for the year 1376. It reads “on 3 May 1376 Oluf, son of Margaret, was elected in Slagelse as King of Denmark as a six-year-old boy.” Following this entry are the historical events for Margaret’s 36 years as de facto regent, a description which fills a total of ten pages in the manuscript.

Frederik I, the last Catholic King of Denmark

Ever since 1449 when Christian I ascended the throne, the Danish monarch has belonged to the House of Oldenborg. Each monarch has either been called Christian or Frederik, with two exceptions: King John (r. 1481-1513) and Queen Margrethe II. Now, for the tenth time, Denmark has a King Frederik.

The first King Frederik was the son of Christian I, though he in fact took over the throne from his nephew, Christian II. The latter had come into conflict with the nobility and left Denmark in 1523, living in exile in the Netherlands. Denmark was at the time still a Catholic country, but Christian II had eventually become Protestant — he even met the reformer Martin Luther.

When Frederik I ascended the throne, he promised to be the protector of the Catholic Church. However, he also instituted a form of religious freedom in Denmark. For example, he protected the reformer Hans Tausen by appointing him as his own personal chaplain and also gave Lutheran ministers permission to preach the Gospels.

Et håndskrevet blad
Introduction to the history of Frederik I. (AM 854 4to, s. 293. Image: Suzanne Reitz)
Fridericus Christierni I filius Johannis regis frater, Slesuici tum & Holsatiæ Dux, Nepoti Christierno profugo succedit, ab Episcopis plerisque et regni senatus vocatus & electus.

The introduction for Frederik I in Mogens Madsen’s chronicle of kings is shorter than the introduction for Margaret I. It reads “Frederik, son of Christian I, who was the brother of King John, Duke in Schleswig and Holstein, succeeded his nephew Christian, called and elected by the majority of bishops and nobles.”

As has already been mentioned, Mogens Madsen’s chronicle ends with the son of Frederik I, Christian III. His successor, Frederik II, is also briefly mentioned in the description of Frederik I. An entry for 1534 reads “on 1 July, Frederik, son of Christian, by his mother Dorothea, Duke Magnus of Saxony’s daughter and whose younger sister Catharine was married to Gustav [Vasa], was born in Haderslev.” The entire work also ends with Frederik II, who in 1579 had a grave monument prepared for his father in Roskilde Cathedral.


Long live King Frederik X!