History of Copenhagen

Mother Earth Travel > Denmark > Copenhagen > History

'My dreams of Copenhagen - a song from a faithful lover' - thus the poet Poul Henningsen (PH) began his declaration of love to the city of Copenhagen. A similar love affair yours truly has developed during the 33 years he has stayed in the city.

We were quite young when we first came to Copenhagen to begin our studies at the University of Copenhagen. We felt euphoric the first time we explored the big city, when we threw ourselves out into the swarming solitude, out into the confusion of people, cars, buses, bicycles and lights. My friends and I felt we were the first people to discover how one walked from Hammerensgade, where I had rented a room, to Esplanaden and Kastellet, and from there to The Fountain of Gefion and Langelinie and the harbour of Copenhagen. From the pier of Frihavnen you could see ships entering and leaving the harbour. A sight that made us all homesick. Here you could see the boat that in one night could take you back to Bornholm, to our family and all the things we knew so well.

When we were young, we didn`t pay much attention to the fact that the history of Copenhagen went far back into time, as far back as the time when Absalon lived in the 12th Century.

In 1167 Absalon founded a castle at the place where Christiansborg lies today, not far from where the statue of Absalon can be seen even today. Ever since, Copenhagen after Copenhagen have succeeded each other in the city landscape, in which we - the people of Copenhagen - live. New Copenhageners have replaced the dead ones - over and over again. At the same time the space of the city has continued to grow in time with the increase in population.

Originally Copenhagen was the property of the church. In 1416 the city finally was assigned to the king. During the 1500s Copenhagen became the most important city in Denmark. Copenhagen was built around the Church of Our Lady, the area where the University of Copenhagen was founded in 1476.

It was only after the Absolute Monarchy, which lasted from 1600 until 1661 that Copenhagen fisrt became the centre of the kingdom. The army, the navy and most of the administration moved to Copenhagen. Through the centuries, when they talked about Copenhagen, they meant the city that was located inside the ramparts. The ramparts were situated where we now have the streets Gothersgade and Østre- and Nørrevoldgade. You can see what is left of the ramparts and moats in Tivoli, in Ørstedsparken and in Østre Anlæg. Outside the ramparts you found 'the countryside'. Here the cattle grazed on large areas of grass.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the traffic of ships and boats through Øresund increased. The collection of duty for sailing through Øresund became the basis of the increased prosperity of Copenhagen. As a consequence, a lot of prestigious building activity took place in the reign of Christian IV. Wonderful buildings like Børsen, Rosenborg, Rundetårn, and housing districts like Christianshavn and Nyboder came into existence. All this we pass by even today, when we walk through the city.

From 1658 till 1660 the Swedes besieged the capital of Denmark. This was a siege that very easily could have meant the end of Copenhagen. But a humiliating peace was made with the Swedish king, which among other things meant the concession of the island of Bornholm to Sweden, and Copenhagen was saved. The defeat before Sweden had the result that Vestvolden (the western rampart) and later the fortress, Kastellet, were constructed.

Disaster after disaster have through the centuries over and over again transformed Copenhagen. 1711-1712 The Black Death ravaged and 22,000 of the city's 60,000 inhabitants died. In 1728 a fire broke out and a big part of the city was in ruins. In 1795 yet another fire ravaged Copenhagen. But new buildings replaced the old burnt-down ones. In 1749 Frederiksstaden came into existence with Amalienborg and The Marble Church. Not until after 1794 can we speak of the classic Copenhagen - the city we live in today.

Copenhagen seriously entered world history when the country, as an ally to Napoleon, fought against England. The famous battle against the English on Reden took place in 1801. Even if the Danes lost that battle, seafaring heroes like Peder Willemoes were immortalised on that occasion. The English bombarded Copenhagen in 1807. After the bombardments were over, buildings like Our Lady`s Church (as we know it today) and Thorvaldsens Museum were built.

Around 1850 the ramparts finally lost their military importance. Shortly afterwards the industrial development exploded. People were moving from the countryside into the big city in large numbers. In 1852 the city inside the ramparts had become so overpopulated that it was necessary to start building houses outside the ramparts, even outside Søerne, The Lakes. Vesterbro and Nørrebro were built. And later the more exclusive Østerbro was created. Frihavnen was opened in 1894.

The year 1900 ushered in new and different times. Cars and electric streetcars made their entry into the streets of Copenhagen. In 1928 the traffic had already become so intense that the first traffic lights were put up. The building of The Town Hall (1905) and Hovedbanegården, The Grand Central Station (1911), meant that the centre of the city moved westward.

The First World War (1914-1918), the 1920s and 1930s - with mass unemployment and social unrest - left their marks on Copenhagen. And so did most of the Second World War and the German occupation of Denmark in 1940-1945. It became a traumatic period in the history of Copenhagen.

In the 1960s and 1970s many plans were laid out for Copenhagen. Fortunately most of these plans came to nothing. One of these grand plans was the construction of Søringen - a highway running around The Lakes.

Now we have reached the new millennium and with the opening of Øresundsbroen Copenhagen and the people living there expect a boom. So many beautiful buildings and traffic installations have come into being in the last few years: Tycho Brahe Planetarium, The Black Diamond (part of The Royal Library), the renovation of Frihavnen and the harbour of Copenhagen, Arken - the art museum, the extension of Statens Museum for Kunst and Glyptoteket and the construction of The Metro.

Way back my student friends and I didn`t pay any attention to the dramatic development Copenhagen has gone through ever since the time when Absalon lived. In 1967 it was summer and late in the evening we left the pub Laurids Betjent. We were heading for Montmartre, where Stan Getz was playing his sax. And yet - maybe we sensed something after all that night - even if it was on a unconcious level - maybe we got a taste of the mood and the atmosphere that belong to Copenhagen alone. Even if we just passed the statue of Absalon, the castles and the towers of the city. We had an excuse. We were young, self-centered and maybe just a little drunk, so we didn`t have the ability to listen to the stories that Copenhagen had to tell us.

Yesterday evening I walked together with my wife, my son and my daughter through Strøget crossing Rådhuspladsen. We were on our way home from a small dinner party. The feeling I was getting back from the city that night - the sounds, the smells and lights - were the experiences from my youth. Memories about old friends who had lived in the apartment house we were just passing by. Or the unattainable who lived at Østerbro. The friends and lovers have moved out long time ago. Other people have set up their home in the rooms of my friends. Just like different kings through the centuries have moved into Amalienborg and just like different goverments have moved into Christiansborg.

Some night not that many decades away my son and daugther pass, on their bicycles, Frihdesstøtten and Hovedbanegården. They cross Rådhuspladsen and cycle along Gammel Strand, before they separate. They have noticed neither the statue of bishop Absalon, Christiansborg or the other buildings they have passed on they way. But still these places have their own stories of high drama to tell about the city of Copenhagen.

-Jens Michael Schau