Christian III of Denmark

Christian III of Denmark
Christian III
King of Denmark
Reign 1534–1559
Coronation 12 August 1537, Copenhagen
Predecessor Frederick I
Successor Frederick II
King of Norway
Reign 1537–1559
Coronation 12 August 1537, Copenhagen
Predecessor Frederick I
Successor Frederick II
Spouse Dorothea of Saxe-Lauenburg
Anna, Electress of Saxony
Frederick II of Denmark
Magnus, Duke of Holstein
John II, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg
Dorothea, Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneburg
House House of Oldenburg
Father Frederick I of Denmark
Mother Anna of Brandenburg
Born 12 August 1503(1503-08-12)
Died 1 January 1559(1559-01-01) (aged 55)
Burial Roskilde Cathedral
Religion Lutheranism

Christian III (12 August 1503 – 1 January 1559) reigned as king of Denmark and Norway. He was the eldest son of King Frederick I and Anna of Brandenburg.[1]



Christian was born in 1503 at Gottorf Castle which Frederick I had made a primary residence. In 1514, when he was just ten years old, Christian's mother died. Four years later, his father remarried to Sophie of Pomerania (1498–1568).

Frederick was elected king of Denmark in the place of his nephew, Christian II in 1523. The young prince Christian's first public service after his father became king was the reduction of Copenhagen, which stood firm for the fugitive Christian II. As stadtholder of the Duchies of Holstein and Schleswig in 1526, and as viceroy of Norway in 1529, Christian III displayed considerable administrative ability.

Religious Views

Christian's earliest teacher, Wolfgang von Utenhof, and his Lutheran tutor, the military general Johann Rantzau, were both zealous reformers who had a influence on the young prince. At their urging, while traveling in Germany in 1521, he made himself present at the Diet of Worms to hear Martin Luther speak. Luther's arguments intrigued him. The prince made no secret of his Lutheran views. His outspokenness brought him into conflict, not only with the Catholic Rigsraad, but also with his cautious and temporizing father. At his own court at Schleswig he did his best to introduce the Protestant Reformation, despite the opposition of the bishops.

There was some talk of passing him over in the succession to the throne in favour of his younger half-brother John the Elder (Hans den Ældre), who had been brought up in traditional Catholic Christianity.

Early Reign

Seal of Christian III

After his father's death, in 1533, Christian was proclaimed king at an assembly in Rye, a town in eastern Jutland, in 1534. The Danish State Council (rigsraad), dominated by the still Catholic bishops and nobles, refused to accept Duke Christian as king and turned to Count Christopher of Oldenburg in order to restore Christian II to the Danish throne (Christian II had supported both the New and Old Faiths at various times). In opposition to King Christian III, Count Christopher was proclaimed regent at the Ringsted Assembly (landsting), and at the Skåne Assembly ( landsting) at St Liber's Hill at Lund Cathedral.

This resulted in a two-year civil war, known as the Count's Feud (Grevens Fejde, 1534–36), between Protestant and Catholic forces.

Civil War (Count's Feud)

Count Christopher had the support of most of Zealand, Scania, the Hanseatic League, and the small farmers of northern Jutland and Funen. Christian III found his support among the nobles of Jutland.

In 1534, the Catholic peasants under Skipper Clement began an uprising in northern Jutland, pillaging the holdings of Lutheran nobles. An army of nobles and their vassals assembled at Svendstrup and suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the peasants. Realizing his hold on the throne was in imminent danger, Christian III negotiated a deal with the Hansa States which allowed him to send his trusted advisor Johan Rantzau north with an army of Protestant German mercenaries. Clement and his army fled north, taking refuge inside the walls of Aalborg. In December, Rantzau's forces breached the walls and stormed the city. In the following days 3,000 people were massacred and the city was plundered by the Protestant German mercenaries. Clement managed to escape the slaughter, but was apprehended a few days later. He was tried and beheaded in 1535. His body was cut apart and placed on a sty, a lead crown was placed on Clement's spiked head.

With Jutland more or less secure, Christian next focused on gaining control of Scania. He appealed to the Protestant Swedish king Gustav Vasa for help in subduing the rebels. Gustav immediately obliged by sending two armies to ravage central Scania and Halland. The Catholic peasants suffered a bloody defeat at Loshult. The Lutheran Swedes moved against Helsingborg Castle, which surrendered in January 1535 and was burned to the ground.

Rantzau moved his army to Funen and defeated Count Christopher's army at Øksnebjerg in June 1535. Count Christopher's forces held out in Malmø and Copenhagen until July 1536 when they surrendered after several months of siege by Christian II's forces. With their capitulation, Christian III was firmly emplaced upon Denmark's throne, and the Catholic forces in Denmark were subdued.

After the war

A mutual confidence between a king who had conquered his kingdom and a people who had stood in arms against him was not attainable immediately. The circumstances under which Christian III ascended the throne exposed Denmark to the danger of foreign domination. It was with the help of the gentry of the Germanic duchies that Christian had conquered Denmark. Holsatian and other German noblemen had led his armies and directed his diplomacy. The first six years of Christian III's reign were marked by a contest between the Danish Rigsraadet and the German counsellors, both of whom sought to rule through the king. Though the Danish party won a victory at the outset, by obtaining the insertion in the charter of provisions stipulating that only native-born Danes should fill the highest dignities of the state, the king's German Lutheran counsellors continued paramount during his early reign.

The triumph of a German speaking Lutheran like Christian III would eventually bring about an end to traditional Christianity in Denmark, but Catholics still controlled the Council of State. Christian III ordered the arrest of three of the bishops on the State Council by his German mercenaries (12 August 1536). Martin Luther wrote to the king congratulating him on his success.

Christian's debt for the Count's Feud was enormous and confiscating the Church lands (farmed by peasants who had been free from vassalage duties to the nobles) enabled him to pay down the debt to his creditors. The ultimate gainers from the confiscations were the nobles who led the New Faith imported from Germany.

Christian's Protestant policies led Denmark toward the establishment of the Danish Lutheran Church as the national church of Denmark (Folkekirke). This occurred officially on 30 October 1536 when the reconstituted State Council (purged of Catholics) adopted the Lutheran Ordinances designed by the German Johannes Bugenhagen, which outlined church organization, liturgy, and accepted religious practice.

Monasteries, nunneries, priories were closed and the property taken by the crown (see Chronicle of the Expulsion of the Grayfriars). Vast tracts of land were handed out to the king's supporters. Churches were closed, cathedral schools terminated, and recalcitrant priests turned out of their parishes. Catholic bishops were imprisoned unless they agreed to marry and give up their privileges. Some submitted after years of imprisonment; others refused to accept the New Faith and became martyrs.

Later reign

The dangers threatening Christian III from the emperor Charles V and other kinsmen of the imprisoned Christian II convinced him of the necessity to lessen the discontent in the land by relying on Danish magnates and nobles.

First Treaty of Brömsebro: Christian III's meeting with Gustav I of Sweden in Brömsebro, 1541 (watercolor reproduction of a lost painting made during the Swedish King's reign)

At the Herredag of Copenhagen, 1542, the newly enriched nobility of Denmark voted Christian a twentieth part of all their property to pay off his heavy debt to the Holsatians and other Germans.

The pivot of the foreign policy of Christian III was his alliance with the German Protestant princes, as a counterpoise to the persistent hostility of Charles V, who was determined to support the hereditary claims of his nieces, the daughters of Christian II, to the Scandinavian kingdoms. War was declared against Charles V in 1542, and, though the German Protestant princes proved faithless allies, the closing of the Sound against Dutch shipping proved such an effective weapon in King Christian's hand that the Netherlands compelled Charles V to make peace with Denmark at the diet of Speyer, on 23 May 1544.

Partition of Holstein and Schleswig

Until this peace, Christian III ruled the entire Duchies of Holstein and of Schleswig also in the name of his then still minor half-brothers John the Elder (Hans den Ældre) and Adolf. They determined their youngest brother Frederick, Prince of Denmark for a career as Lutheran administrator of an ecclesiastical state within the Holy Roman Empire.[2]

In 1544 the elder three brothers partitioned Holstein (a fief of the Holy Roman Empire) and Schleswig (a Danish fief) in an unusual way, following negotiations between the brothers and the Estates of the Realm of the duchies, which opposed a factual partition. So the revenues of the duchies were divided into three equal shares by assigning the revenues of particular areas and landed estates to each of the three brothers, while other general revenues, such as taxes from towns and customs dues, were levied together but then shared among the brothers. The estates, whose revenues were assigned to the parties, made Holstein and Schleswig look like patchworks, technically inhibiting the emergence of separate new duchies, as intended by the estates of the duchies.[3]

The secular rule in the fiscally divided duchies thus became a [(international law)|condominium] of the parties. As an effect both separate duchies, Holstein and Schleswig, with shares of each party scattered in both duchies, provided them with a condominial government binding both together, partially superseding their legally different affiliation as Holy Roman and Danish fiefs. As dukes of Holstein and Schleswig, the three brothers bore the formal title of "Duke of Schleswig, Holstein, Ditmarsh and Stormarn". John the Elder conveniently called Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Haderslev produced no issue, so no branch emerged from his side. Adolf founded a cadet branch of the royal Danish House of Oldenburg called House of Holstein-Gottorp, a convenient usage for the technically more correct Duke of Schleswig and Holstein at Gottorp.

Similarly Christian III's youngest son John the Younger gained for himself and his heirs a share in Holstein's and Schleswig's revenues in 1564, comprising a third of the royal share, a ninth of Holstein and Schleswig from a fiscal point of view. John the Younger and his heirs, however, had no share in the condominial rule.


The foreign policy of Christian's later days was regulated by the peace of Speyer. He carefully avoided all foreign complications; refused to participate in the Schmalkaldic war of 1546; mediated between the emperor and Saxony after the fall of Maurice of Saxony at the Battle of Sievershausen in 1553.

King Christian III died on New Year's Day 1559 at Koldinghus and was interred in Roskilde Cathedral.[4]


Christian married Dorothea of Saxe-Lauenburg on 29 October 1525 at Lauenburg Castle. They were the parents of five children;



  1. ^ Christian 3 (Dansk Konge)
  2. ^ In 1551 Frederick became administrator of the Lutheran Prince-Bishopric of Hildesheim, comprising ecclesiastical and secular power, and, however, lacking secular power Bishop of Schleswig with the pertaining revenues from episcopal estates.
  3. ^ Cf. Carsten Porskrog Rasmussen, "Die dänischen Könige als Herzöge von Schleswig und Holstein", Frauke Witte and Marion Hartwig (trls.), in: Die Fürsten des Landes: Herzöge und Grafen von Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg [De slevigske hertuger; German], Carsten Porskrog Rasmussen (ed.) on behalf of the Gesellschaft für Schleswig-Holsteinische Geschichte, Neumünster: Wachholtz, 2008, pp. 73-109, here pp. 87seq. ISBN 978-3-529-02606-5
  4. ^ Christian 3. King of Denmark · Norway 1534-59 (Danish Kings and Their History)


Christian III
Born: 12 August 1503 Died: 1 January 1559
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Frederick I
King of Denmark
Succeeded by
Frederick II
King of Norway
Preceded by
Frederick I
and Christian II
Duke of Holstein and Schleswig
with Frederick I (1523-1533)
John (1544-1559)
Adolf (1544-1559)
Succeeded by
John the Elder,
Adolf and Frederick II

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