Nobility and KingTheme
The age of the nobility
In October 1536, King Christian III (1534-59) introduced the Reformation in Denmark. He was in close contact with Martin Luther and the other German reformers, and in order to help establish a new church, the king asked Luther's close friend, Johann Bugenhagen, to come to Denmark. In 1537, Christian issued the Lutheran Ordinance, establishing the Danish Lutheran Church with the king as its head.
A more powerful state
The Lutheran Reformation had a number of important effects on Danish society. During the Middle Ages, three important aspects of society – social services, education and marriage – were church matters. After the Reformation, they came to be regulated by the state, allowing it to exercise much greater power over the country than before. By taking over the Church, the king assumed responsibility for ensuring that Danes lived as good, informed Christians. What Christian III began was intensified by his successors, not least Christian IV (1588-1648).
Royal efforts to make sure people lived a moral, decent life were part of an overall modernisation in the 16th and 17th centuries that saw the development of a strong state with a firm grasp on power. On the international stage, Denmark's kings built up its power by increasing the size of its fleet and establishing an army of conscripted peasants. But this required money, and initially the Crown was able to fund the build-up by confiscating the Catholic Church's property. Soon though, income was being secured through ever-increasing taxes.
Property and taxes
In the Middle Ages, royal properties were the Crown's most important source of income, taxes were only demanded in extraordinary situations. The Crown's economic capacity was limited, since it only owned about 10 percent of arable land. The situation changed decisively after the Reformation. By confiscating Church property, which amounted to 40 percent of all arable land, the Crown had expanded its economic potential considerably.
The first of the Catholic properties to be confiscated by the state were Catholic bishops' estates. During the 1540s, Christian III implemented reforms to ensure more effective administration of the new properties. In addition, the king modernised many of the bishops' palaces and castles he took over.
Along with trying to earn as much as possible, there were a number of other motives for confiscating Church property. It was important for the monarch to have suitable residences when he travelled throughout his kingdom, and the king also wanted to make sure his properties were connected by good roads. King Frederik II (1559-88) later sought to connect various hunting grounds, particularly in North Zealand. During this period some of the country's most important castles were modernised to be able to withstand cannon balls.
More power to the nobility
Confiscation of Church property increased the amount of land held by the nobility to about 45 percent from 35 percent. Efforts by successive kings to link Crown territories often meant that confiscated Church property was sold or swapped for property held by the nobility. During the 17th century, even more royal property was sold to the nobility after the Crown began to base its income on taxes, rather than on property.
During the Middle Ages, bishops always had seats on the Council of State, but after the Reformation, the nobility muscled in. Also when it came to state administration, Church scribes were gradually replaced by secretaries of noble blood. Locally, the nobles were responsible for administration of fiefdoms and served as judges. In both the army and the navy, noble families occupied leading positions. The nobility had always served as the military class, and they used that status to maintain their exemption from paying taxes.
Upper class nobility
The period after the Reformation saw the continuation of a trend begun in the late Middle Ages towards a thinning out in the ranks of the nobility. As the lowest ranking nobles came to lose their titles during the 16th and 17th centuries, those that remained came to hold more and more property. They also formed an increasingly smaller group of people with the right to buy confiscated Church property or property put up for sale by the Crown.
Particularly the richest of the remaining nobility exploited the situation to their own gain by using strategic marriage alliances to acquire even more property. Using this strategy helped some nobles to come to possess multiple manors.
Monument of noble power
Some nobles amassed fantastic wealth, and the riches were used in many cases to modernise and renovate existing manors or build new ones. In the decades after the Reformation, nobles built Renaissance-style manors to replace outmoded Medieval castles. Most still stand today and serve as monuments to the rise of the Danish nobility.
On the cultural front, the nobility was also widely represented. Young sons of noble families were sent on Grand Tours to the most important European seats of learning. Many manors became centres for a secular noble culture that often involved cataloguing folk songs and their lineage.
Bourgeoisie and absolutism
During the first half of the 17th century, the nobility's importance for the military began to shrink considerably. A richer and more powerful middle class – particularly in Copenhagen – began questioning why the nobility was exempt from paying taxes, as well as their monopoly on political influence. This paved the way for the rise of the absolute monarchy in 1660, and the end of the age of the nobility.
Suggested further reading
Paul Douglas Lockhart: Denmark, 1513-1660. The Rise and Decline of a Renaissance Monarchy, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2007.