Helsingor and the Empire of the North

Probably the last thing Grahame wanted at the end of his arduous sailing trip across the North Sea and through the fjords of Northern Jutland was to extend his a voyage with a tour of the Royal Palaces of Denmark. However, both of us having missed out on a visit to the renowned “Hamlet Castle” when we passed this way some forty years ago, he wasn’t going to get much of a choice. So, while he was disembarking and finishing up whatever boaty people do at the end of these excursions, I drove all the way from Torquay to London to catch an evening flight to Copenhagen and an even later train to Helsingor.

Grahame came down to the capital to meet me, although whether that was out of the goodness of his heart or because he feared that a railway replacement bus service would defeat my navigational skills is unclear. Our rather eccentric Air B&B host didn’t seem to mind us turning up back at his flat at 2am provided we were unfazed by the hunting trophies that adorned his walls. Thus, after breakfast we found ourselves is well set for the legendary Kronborg Castle; its magnificent silhouette last glimpsed from a train window all those years ago.

Built on the furthermost tip of the island of Zeeland in the fifteenth century, the castle controls access to the Baltic at the point where the waterway separating Denmark from Sweden is only four kilometres wide. The remains of a corresponding fortification in Helsingborg can just be made out across the sound and the vast revenues from ships passing through here kept the palaces of Danish royal family in luxurious furnishings for generations. Any seafarers who thought to escape the attentions of the duty men had only to look across at the row of gibbets with its regularly replenished supply of dangling pirates to get the correct idea.

In keeping with some unseasonably chilly weather on the day of our visit, the Kronborg is now much more sparsely furnished, a lot of its treasures having been destroyed by fire or removed during the changing fortunes of the seventeenth century. Christian IV moved the Royal Court to Rosenborg and took with it the Danish Royal family’s predilection for buying up great quantities of art treasures from the rest of Europe and ostentatiously adorning just about everything with great gilded crowns. The castle became a prison for a while and then a military academy so nowadays there are plenty of echoing stone corridors for the perambulations of its many ghosts.

Current presentation falls just a little short of being a full-on Hamlet-themed experience despite the fact that, in order to reach the entrance gate, you do have to run the gamut of various costumed youngsters enthusiastically declaiming passages from the play. Wall-mounted displays record the various theatrical productions which have taken place here over the last hundred years and read rather like a Who’s Who of British thespian achievement. On a more Scandinavian note, however, a huge statue of Holger the Dane, whose legendary guardianship of the realm was retold to such effect by Hans Christian Andersen, still sits in splendour in the dungeons.

I was also quite taken with the tapestries although only a representative sample are displayed at Kronborg these days. In competition with a Swedish rival, Frederick II commissioned larger-than-life portraits of his ancestors for the great ballroom and, when the wall space exceeded the subjects, he simply had the Flemish weavers invent some additional monarchs to fill up the space. A rather more practical gesture by this powerful ruler involved the construction of a complete additional wing to the castle so that his beloved wife Sophia should not have to go out in the cold when she made her daily visits to the chapel.

In exchange for this trip I had promised Grahame a visit to the Roskilda Viking Ship Museum and so we set off early the next day to negotiate the still-interrupted rail route back through Copenhagen, the current capital, to a much more ancient seat of Danish rule on the other side of the island. {The wait for a replacement service did, however, give me the opportunity to chat to Fatima, who sported a neat hijab above with her fluorescent yellow bus inspector’s jacket. She seems to have been delighted to find herself in the small town of Helsingor, where a small number of Muslim refugees had settled without apparent difficulty. She had heard about problems in other parts of the country but not encountered them herself and had no personal fears about the rise of an anti-immigrant right wing in Denmark.}  

Although this was the capital from 1020, the great cathedral of Roskilda was begun in the fifteenth century and substantially added to over the following centuries. It is no good me writing knowledgeably about its illustrious history since I really only became aware of its existence on the way from the station to the waterfront. In short: it is the Westminster Abbey of Denmark, stuffed to bursting with great baroque monuments to the Kings and Queens of Denmark. Just a brief visit told me that there was a fearful amount I didn’t know about these illustrious characters who were once a European force to be reckoned with and whose domains extended, at times, from Greenland to the Russian frontier.

Fortunately I had another appointment to drag me away and was able to learn a little about marine archaeology while Grahame talked ancient shipbuilding techniques with the staff at our intended destination. The Ship Museum is built around the 1960’s discovery of a whole collection of Viking ships, deliberately scuttled in the 10th century to restrict the access of invaders to the fjord. Now this is more like the Danes that I do know something about because, while they were successfully repelling invaders here, my countrymen over in England were not making such a good job of it. For more than two hundred years a substantial portion of Britain lived under the “Danelaw” and paid tribute accordingly.

We returned to Copenhagen and Grahame went off to explore the waterfront park of Havneparken while I queued to visit the bijou Rosenborg Palace. It was adopted as a royal residence Christian IV but quickly demoted to the status of treasury/storehouse when it proved too small for the family’s ever increasing hoard of acquisitions and they decamped to the current royal palace of Amalianborg. Though I have visited Copenhagen several times before, this is the first time I have joined the crowds to shuffle past these tightly packed paintings and ornaments. Heavily decorated porcelain, bronze and marble compete for space while a glimpse out of the windows to the rose garden from which the palace takes its name provides the only rest for the eyes.

A solid gold chess set and a WC tiled with priceless Delft give a hint at what I’m trying to describe but most hideous of all has to be the Ivory Room. Apparently, turning out coiled slivers of elephant tusk and piling them up into ever more fanciful shapes was a preferred hobby of several royal ladies of the time. This display made the similarly named saloon in the Dresden Green Vault look positively tasteful although it was hard to make such judgements when I at last came face to face with the Danish crown jewels in the heavily guarded basement. A fabulous collection of the Renaissance and Baroque treasures was clearly capable of holding its own against the jewels of the Hapsbergs but, set in the crown of Christian IV and blinding me to all else, I spied two of the finest sapphires I have ever seen in my life. Their great size and purity together with the smooth cabochon cut suggest that they may already have been of great antiquity by the time they fetched up in this particular regalia and, while their true origin is probably lost in the mists of time, that unique, heavenly blue can point only to Sri Lanka.   

This was really all too much to fit into a three day visit, especially since I am still digesting my travels through Eastern Europe but there is plenty of reference material available on line and no travel opportunity, however brief, is to be overlooked.

Categories: Europe

Leave a Reply