Research: First Danish kings were pirates

Wealth gained from Viking raids helped establish Danish kingdom

Some of Denmark’s most important principles are founded on structures developed by pirates in the Middle Ages.

A new research project at the University of Southern Denmark is looking into which pirates sailed the Danish seas from 800-1400, where they were from and how they influenced the creation of the kingdom of Denmark.

“They went on marauding raids in order to become the richest and therefore obtain the most power,” Thomas Heebøll-Holm, an assistant professor at USD, told

“In short, one could argue that the Viking raids from 800-1000 acquired the material wealth that enabled the establishment of the kingdom of Denmark, while the threat of foreign pirates in the 1300s played a considerable role in the creation of the Kalmar Union in 1397. It was then that Denmark, Norway and Sweden were joined under one crown, initially that of Queen Margrethe I.”

Heebøll-Holm’s interest in the subject peaked during his PhD regarding French and British pirates in the 1300s, and he then turned a keen eye towards the Vikings and their exploits, which he considers piracy in nature.

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Critical period of time
Among the sources cited are chronicles by monks and other religious people, as well as notes and treaties agreed between kings.

“Many of the Viking activities involved gaining power over ships and land using violence,” Heebøll-Holm said.

“One of the methods of securing the resources to gain power at home in Denmark was to set out to trade and plunder. The attacks could be vicious. The monks at the time were certainly shocked by the behaviour of the Vikings.”

According to Heebøll-Holm, the winners and loser of this early power struggle played a huge role in the early establishment of the Danish kingdom.

Both early Danish kings Harald Blåtand and Svend Tveskæg utilised pirate raids to places such as England to increase and consolidate their power.

“I won’t hesitate in calling the Middle Ages the most important period of time in terms of the intellectual baggage behind the founding structures of the west,” Heebøll-Holm said.

“They’ve laid the foundation for our interpretation of which resources private individuals can use to expand and defend their business and interests.”

“Sea and trade courts, laws of war and scores of other things, judicially too, which we take for granted, were initially formulated back then during the Middle Ages.”