Kronborg Castle, tucked away close to the northernmost tip of continental Europe, is the pride of Denmark, and with good reason. Dominating the extremely narrow straits between Denmark and Sweden, Kronborg may be the most strategically located fortification in Northern Europe. This was especially true after the development of gunpowder cannon, when ownership of the Kronborg gave Denmark a near-monopoly on tariffs of all seaborne trade traveling between the Baltic Region and Western Europe. Kronborg Castle is also rich in literary tradition as the setting of classic stories by two of the world’s greatest authors: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, and Holger the Dane, retold by Hans Christian Anderson. It now presides over a brisk tourist trade and is periodically used for live stagings of Shakespeare’s works.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the rise of large kingdoms in the old Viking lands of Scandinavia, as well as the growth of England, France and the Holy Roman Empire, led to a gradual shifting of power and trade to Northern Europe. This process was accelerated by the rise of the Hanseatic League, a trade union of largely German and Polish city-states along the Baltic Sea coast. As the Hanseatic League struggled with rival merchants, notably those from Denmark, Zealand began to take on great strategic importance. By the end of the 14th century, Denmark was overshadowed by the League and forced to render tribute.
During the 1420s, the Danish King Eric ordered the construction of Krogen Castle on Zealand where it approached the Swedish coast. The purpose was to simultaneously increase tariff revenues with which to pay its tribute to the Hanseatics, while at the same time reasserting Danish authority over the region. Later, when gunpowder weapons were introduced to Krogen Castle, virtually no ship could pass through the narrow strait without Danish permission. By the 1500s, the Danes had thrown off the yoke of Hanseatic power.
In 1585, Krogen Castle was completely rebuilt on a much larger and grander scale, and was renamed Kronborg Castle. A fire necessitated the castle’s restoration in the 1630s. Although redesigned for royal occupation, Kronborg continued to be used almost exclusively for military purposes until the 20th century. Extensive outworks were added in the late 1600s, making it one of the most formidable castles in Europe. For about a century, Kronborg was also used as a prison. The Kronborg was decommissioned shortly after World War I.
Two of Scandinavia’s greatest legends are set in the Kronborg. Hamlet, which was immortalized by William Shakespeare, was loosely based on the life of Prince Amleth, who may or may not have been a real figure. The legend of Prince Amleth, whose family lived in a castle in Elsinore, dates back at least to the 1100s. The legend of Holger the Dane goes back even further, and may also be rooted in a real personage that lived in the 8th century. According to the legend, Holger fought to keep Denmark free from Charlemagne and the Franks. He later made peace with Charlemagne and joined him in his crusade against the Moors. The story further holds that Holger now sleeps in some hidden place beneath the Kronborg, where he awaits the day when he is needed once more.
Kronborg Castle has a delicate and elegant appearance that belies the fact that it is one of the strongest fortifications in Scandinavia. Built on a rounded peninsula and nominally separated from the main island by a broad moat, the main fortification is similar to the type commonly used in overseas European colonial enterprises. In addition to the outer and inner walls, the castle is protected by a dizzying array of earthen ramparts and trenches interlaced with several moats. No fewer than three bridges must be crossed to reach the inner fortress. Insider the main wall is the outer courtyard, which houses the old garrison and supporting buildings. On the eastern side of the keep is the battery which absolutely commanded shipping through the narrow channel.
A second moat protects the inner keep. This is the remnant of the second castle built here in 1585. It was almost completely destroyed, but the chapel survived relatively intact. The Danes also cleverly used Kronborg as an early communications center. One of the towers was once used to house carrier pidgeons, while another was converted to use as a telegraph tower in the 19th century. Inside the castle, the royal apartments and ballroom have been restored to their appearance at the time when the castle was still used as a royal residence. Kronborg also houses the Danish Maritime Museum. Beneath the castle is a labyrinth of tunnels dating from the castle’s military and prison periods. There, in an ancient chamber, is one of the castle’s great treasures: a stone statue of Holger the Dane, resting on his sword and shield, waiting to come to life to protect Denmark in its hour of need.
Kronborg is located on a small island just outside of the city of Elsinore, approximately twenty miles north of Copenhagen. The castle is open daily (except for Mondays during non-peak season). From May to September the castle is open from 10:30am-5:00pm; April and October from 11:00am-4:00pm; and November to March from 11:00am-3:00pm. Admission is DK75 for adults, DK60 for teens and DK15 for children 14 and under (6 and under free). Web: www.kronborg.dk (official site).
Denmark got into the castle-building game fairly late, and as a result produced an unusual collection of fortifications whose designs were heavily influenced by post-Rennaisance architectural styles. Prime examples of this include Sonderborg Castle and Rosenborg Castle. For a more traditional structure, visitors might wish to visit Nyborg Castle. Other interesting castles in Denmark include Egeskov Castle and Hammershus Castle.