Supplementary Appendix 306.1

The Battle of Copenhagen [*]


During the wars of the Revolution, England kept encroaching further and further upon the commercial liberty of neutral nations, seeking especially to give a broad and hitherto-unheard-of interpretation to the idea of contraband, which, if rigorously applied, would have almost entirely destroyed Denmark’s trade. In fact, while up to this time it had been understood that by contraband of war were meant small arms, powder, cannon, and ammunition, England now tried to include in this category meat, flour, and corn, challenging Denmark’s right to bring these commodities into France and other belligerent countries.

France, in turn, took similar steps with regard to neutral ships carrying on trade with England and her colonies. Over this many difficulties arose, which the skilful negotiations of [Danish foreign minister] Andreas Peter von Bernstorff [1735–97]] seemed to settle amicably.

After the minister’s death, however, began the practice of convoying merchant fleets with war vessels — a thing which Bernstorff had particularly abstained from, in order to avoid collisions with England. The consequence was that the latter country refused to recognise the right of war ships to protect commerce, and began hostilities by attacking and capturing the Danish frigate Freia, which sought to prevent English cruisers from visiting a merchant fleet to which it was acting as convoy (July 25th, 1800).

To avoid other hostilities for the moment, Denmark came to an agreement (August 29th, 1800) by which the Freia was restored to her, but she was obliged to refrain from sending out escorts to merchant ships until the question at issue should be settled by negotiation.

A short time after this, Russia, Sweden, and Prussia concluded a treaty of armed neutrality, similar to one already arranged in 1780; and Denmark was invited to join the alliance. Before the agreement with England, such overtures would have been heartily welcomed by the Danish government, which had on several former occasions proposed to Russia and Sweden a league for the protection of the neutral flag.

But just at this moment these proposals were somewhat embarrassing; and it was only after long hesitation that the Danish government yielded to the threatening schemes of the capricious czar Paul. It subscribed to the treaty, with certain reservations, however, in order not to violate the agreement with England.

But these did not keep the latter from hostilities; two days before Denmark entered into the neutral alliance (January 16th, 1801), England put an embargo on all Danish ships within English ports, and issued orders for the occupation of the Danish West Indies (January 14th, 1801).

An English squadron of fifty-one ships, among which were twenty ships of the line, entered the Sound, under command of Admirals Parker and Nelson, in the month of March; and, although exposed to a raking fire from the fortress of Kronborg, [1] it succeeded in passing the batteries uninjured, because it hugged the Swedish shore, where no preparations had been made to repulse the enemy.

The reason of this neglect was the mutual distrust of the Danish and Swedish governments. The crown prince Frederick would have taken it in bad part if fortifications had been built on the Swedish shore of the Sound; and people would have said that [Swedish king] Gustavus IV [1778–1837] had his eye on a part of the customs of that waterway.

When the British fleet came in sight of Copenhagen, it separated into two divisions, of which one, under Nelson, pushed farther south, to attack the southern line of Danish fortifications; the other, under Parker, cruised between the island of Hven and the battery of the Three Crowns (Tre Kroner). [2] Nelson’s fleet was composed of twelve ships of the line, seven frigates, and nineteen smaller vessels, with twelve hundred cannon and a crew of about nine thousand men. The southern line of Danish defence — the only one they had to fight with — consisted of seven large low-decked ships, some smaller ones, a few prams, and two small frigates; the whole fitted with 620 guns, and a crew of scarcely five thousand men.

The superiority of force was decidedly in favour of the enemy; and it consisted not only in the greater number of ships and guns, but also in that the British vessels were all under sail, while the Danish flotilla, with the exception of four small ships, was stationary.

On Holy Thursday, the 2nd of April, 1801, at ten in the morning, a fierce battle began, which lasted with extreme fury for five or six hours. The Danish sailors fought with their hereditary bravery and, under the command of Olfert Fischer, upheld their former naval glory against Nelson, the favoured of victory, and his overwhelming force. The admiral’s ship was badly damaged; and in the end could use but few of her guns.

On the other side, Olfert Fischer, who was on board the Dannebrog, left that vessel when she caught fire in the midst of the battle, and transferred his flag to the Holstein; and afterwards, when the latter ship was riddled with shell and made useless, the Danish commander, although wounded, betook himself to the Tre Kroner battery, where he continued to direct the fight.

The crew of the Dannebrog, commanded by Braun and afterwards by Lemming, continued to fight although the vessel was in flames; and it was not until a third of the men had been either killed or wounded, and all her guns, with the exception of three, put out of action, that the blazing ship was abandoned to the enemy. Among the low-deck ships, the Proevestenen especially distinguished herself.

The brave Lassen defended her against two ships of the line, a frigate, and a brig, until she was reduced to a mere skeleton and had only two guns that could be served. Risbrich, on the deck of the Wagrie, fought none the less bravely against almost equally disproportionate forces.

The young Villemoes, who commanded a floating battery in which he placed himself very close to the English admiral’s ship, and fired several shots which hit her on the water-line, won Nelson’s admiration, and immortalised himself in the memory of his countrymen. [3]

When the battle had lasted for three hours, Admiral Parker gave Nelson the signal to retreat; but the latter took no notice of the order, and continued to fight for some hours. Meantime the southern line of defence was for the most part destroyed, while that on the north had scarcely suffered, and the majority of the English fleet was in a deplorable condition.

Most of the vessels had lost their sails and yards, and the masts were so riddled with projectiles that they threatened at any moment to fall into the sea; besides, in the narrow strait with which the enemy were not familiar several of their ships had gone aground. Three of their most powerful ships of the line had drifted in front of the Tre Kroner, and one even stranded just opposite the battery, whose guns opened a deadly fire upon her.

In these circumstances, Nelson sent a letter ashore saying that, if the Danes continued to fire, he would be compelled to burn the Danish ships which he had in his power, without even saving the crews. Whilst his messenger was executing his mission, the English admiral held a council of war to decide whether this was an opportune moment to attack with his least damaged ships the northern line of defence, which had not yet taken part in the action.

But his officers were unanimously of the opinion that this would be impossible, and that the best thing to do was to retire; they must take advantage of the favourable wind then blowing to get out of the dangerous passage, where they were every moment in danger of going aground. After receiving Nelson’s letter, the crown prince, who had not been well informed as to the details of the battle, sent an envoy under flag of truce, with full powers to conclude a preliminary armistice and pave the way for future negotiations.

Thus closed this sanguinary affair, so glorious for Denmark. Nelson rendered justice to the bravery of the Danes; and when he came on shore to conduct negotiations in person, he declared that, among the one hundred and five sanguinary battles in which he had taken part, that of Copenhagen was the bloodiest and fiercest. The Danes lost 1035 killed and wounded; the English, according to their own statement 1200; but there is no doubt that this figure should be much higher, since they admitted having lost 220 men on a single ship.

The negotiations ended in a truce of fourteen weeks, during which Denmark agreed to take no active part in the armed neutrality. The czar Paul having been assassinated on March 25th, 1801, affairs took a new turn; for his son and successor, Alexander, abandoned the neutral league, and concluded a peace with England, to which Denmark also acceded.


[*] Scandinavia; Switzerland to 1715, The Historians’ History of the World, vol. 16, ed. Henry Smith Williams (London 1904, 1907), 420–22. Map of the sound (the Sund) from Map of the Empire of Germany including all the states comprehended under that name with the Kingdom of Prussia, &c. (London 1782). — Concerning the further background with respect to Hannover and northern Germany, see supplementary appendix 304.1. Back.

[1] Danish castle situated at the narrowest point (4 km) of the sound (Oersund) between Denmark and Sweden, where it has traditionally served as a fortification guarding an important outlet from the Baltic Sea. Located ca. 45 km from Copenhagen, Kronborg is the castle of Elsinor in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is so designated on the map above. Illustration here from Georg Braun, Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1617):


Illustration from All Round the World: An Illustrated Record of Voyages, Travels, and Adventures in all parts of the Globe, ed. W. F. Ainsworth, vol. 3 (London 1866), 361:



[2] Hven is spelled Huen on the map above. Tre Kroner is a small fortification just to the east guarding Copenhagen’s harbor (Copenhagen (Kiöbenhaven) published under the superintendence of the Society for the diffusion of useful Knowledge, ed. E. Sanford [London 1850]; to the right in the illustration):



[3] Here an oil painting of the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 by Nicholas Pocock (National Maritime Museum, London):



Translation © 2015 Doug Stott