History of Schleswig Holstein

by Hans Peter Voss

FOREWORD: To understand the causes of the various wars and conflicts in Schleswig-Holstein, it is necessary to understand its political developments. The relationships between the various governing families and dynasties and their disputes and conflicts must also be explored.

However, I am not a historian. I gleaned these historical data from a variety of sources. Therefore, the reader should not expect a detailed exploration of Schleswig-Holstein’s history; rather, I am outlining it in broad strokes only.

Towards the end of the Great Migrations of the Germanic peoples which began around A.D. 250, the Saxons who had come from the area around the northern Elbe River had settled in central and western Holstein. The Slav tribes had populated eastern Holstein. Danes and Jutes had moved to southeastern Schleswig, and the Frisians had populated western Schleswig and the islands in the North Sea.

The area settled by the Saxons was bounded by the Eider river in the north, the North Sea towards the west, and the Elbe river in the south. The eastern boundary was formed by a line running from the Kiel Fjord via the Schwentine river and the middle Trave river to Boizenburg. Around 800, three distinct areas had formed: Dithmarschen, Holstein and Stormarn.

Around 800, in the course of expanding Christianity northward, the Frankish tribes of Charlemagne occupy this area. In 810 Charlemagne builds a castle on the River Stör near Itzehoe. The western boundary of Frankish influence lies at the line Kiel Fjord - Boizenburg, the northern boundary is the Eider river. In 974 a conflict arises between the Franks and the Danes; the latter are defeated at the Danevirke, a series of ramparts begun in 737 between the Hollingstedt on the Treene river in the west and the head of the Sliefjord near Haithabu and the present-day Schleswig in the east. Christianity expands throughout northern Europe. Denmark develops into a world power and conquers England. The King of Denmark assumes the titles and powers of King of England, King of Scotland and King of Norway.

The King of Denmark and Emperor Konrad II develop friendly relations. The Emperor relinquishes his control over the area between the Eider river and the Sliefjord; this area remains uninhabited. The Eider river is recognized as the southern boundary of the Danish empire.

After further wars with the Slavs who are defeated around 1090, Duke Lothar of Saxony invests Count Adolf of Schauenburg with Holstein and Stormarn.

In 1187 the Danes occupy the island of Rügen as well as Pomerania and Mecklenburg. During the war of 1200-1203, the Danish King Knud and his brother, Duke Waldemar of Schleswig, conquer Holstein, Stormarn, Hamburg, Lübeck and Ratzeburg.

In the Battle of Bornhöved on July 22, 1227, the Danish King Waldemar II is defeated. Denmark loses the conquered provinces and cities and the Eider river is re-established as the southern boundary of the Danish kingdom.

Count Adolf IV of Schauenburg reclaims the County of Holstein-Stormarn.

In 1237, Duke Abel of Schleswig marries the daughter of Count Adolf IV of Holstein-Stormarn and thus establishes a relationship between the two houses. In 1275 the title of “Duke of Schleswig” becomes a hereditary one, thereby ensuring the succession within the family. Extraordinary taxes are no longer remitted to the King of Denmark but instead are paid to the Duke of Schleswig. In 1260, Mechtild, the widow of Duke Abel of Schleswig, mortgages her possessions between the Eider river and the Sliefjord in favour of her brothers the counts Gerhard I and Johann I.

Other areas, such as the City of Eckernförde and the Danish Wold, are mortgaged in favour of the Holsteiners. The borders are now open, and many members of the Holstein nobility penetrate into the border areas and settle there.

In Denmark, disputes arise between the nobles and the Danish King Christopher II. The nobles request the Duke of Schleswig for assistance. Count Gerhard III of Rendsburg is acting on behalf of his minor nephew, Duke Valdemar V of Schleswig (the son of Duke Abel of Schleswig).

In 1326, King Christopher II is defeated in the battle of Hesterberg near Schleswig, and is banished. Count Gerhard III forces the Danish nobility to elect his nephew, Duke Valdemar V of Schleswig, King of Denmark. Count Gerhard III is appointed guardian and regent, and governs the kingdom. The charter of 1326 documenting these events and decisions stipulates that the Duchy of Schleswig shall never be possessed by the King of Denmark. In light of Valdemar V’s accession to the throne, Count Gerhard III is invested with the Duchy of Schleswig as a hereditary possession. For the first time, Schleswig and Holstein are united under a member of the Schauenburg dynasty.

Accordingly, since 1290 there are five ruling branches of the House of Schauenburg, named after the locations of their respective strongholds: Segeberg, Kiel, Plön, Pinneberg and Rendsburg.

Additionally, Gerhard III is ceded the island of Fun, Johann III of Plön receives the island of Lolland in addition to Fehmarn. When King Christopher II returns to the throne in 1330, the Duchy of Schleswig reverts to a Duke of the Abel lineage, however, Count Gerhard III retains control of Schleswig, receives Northern Jutland as security and the island of Fun as hereditary fiefdom.

On the death of King Christopher II in 1332, almost all of Denmark has been mortgaged in favour of Count Gerhard III and Johann III who are jointly governing the country. In 1340 Count Gerhard III is murdered during an attempt to put down an uprising in Jutland. This sets off a struggle for control of Schleswig that is to last for 100 years.

King Valdemar IV Atterdag who reigns from 1340 to 1375 succeeds in redeeming the mortgages and to re-unite most of the country. However, his attack on the town of Visby and his conquest of the Island of Gotland results in a state of war with the Hanseatic League and with Sweden and Norway. The Dukes of Holstein fight on the side of the Hanseatic League. A peace treaty is signed in Stralsund on May 24, 1370 and a further settlement in Flensburg in 1373. The Counts withdraw from the occupied North Jutland, however, they retain the greater part of Schleswig as security. In 1375 the last remaining Duke of Schleswig (of Abel’s descendants) dies, and shortly afterwards so does Valdemar IV Atterdag, the last of the Danish royal dynasty of Sven Estridsen.

Margaret, the youngest daughter of Valdemar IV and the widow of the Norwegian King Haakon, now assumes the responsibilities of government in Denmark on behalf of her minor son Olav. When Olav dies in 1387 Margaret is crowned Queen of Denmark. On August 15, 1386 she invests Count Gerhard VI of Rendsburg with Schleswig as a hereditary Dukedom. This unites Schleswig and Holstein, and the ducal crests of Schleswig and Holstein form the combined crest of Schleswig-Holstein. Count Gerhard is killed in battle in Dithmarschen in 1404; inheritance disputes arise. In 1410 the war over the possession of Schleswig begins when the Holsteiners attack Flensburg.

The newly crowned Danish King Christopher III is forced on April 30, 1440 to transfer the entire Duchy of Schleswig to Duke Adolf VIII as hereditary fiefdom. This unites Schleswig and Holstein as one state under one ruler. Except for the Pinneberg line, all other counties are now under the control of descendants of the Rendsburg line.

When Duke Adolf VIII dies in 1459 without an heir, no other Count can advance a claim on both duchies. The Nobles meet to elect a new Duke but after several rounds of voting no successor emerges. King Christian I of Denmark (who is a descendant of the counts of the House of Oldenburg and who was elected King of Denmark in 1448) intervenes by calling the nobility to Ripen [Ribe] where he is elected as Duke Adolf’s successor on March 2, 1460. On March 5, 1460, the assembled nobles agree to the terms of a Freiheitsbrief, a “Charter of Liberty” containing numerous laws and regulations. It also contains the statement regarding Schleswig and Holstein "dat se bliven ewich tosamende ungedelt", namely, that the two provinces are to remain forever undivided, that they are never to be separated. King Christian’s objective of this arrangement is to ensure the retention of Holstein, but the effect is that the Danish province of Schleswig becomes dissolubly linked to the German province of Holstein. This is something Christian does not and can not foresee, yet this will prove to be a pivotal event and is to become the basis for significant disputes in the future.

Attempts to elect in 1482 a single successor to the sovereign do not succeed, with the result that two brothers are so elected, Johannes, or Hans, as King of Denmark, and his brother Frederik who still is a minor. When Frederik comes of age the provincial estates are partitioned as follows:

King Hans receives the following castles and/or districts: [today’s place names in parentheses]

Apenrade [Åbenrå]
Alsen [Als]
Arö [Ærø]

while Duke Frederik of Gottorf receives the following:

Hadersleben [Haderslev]
Tondern [Tønder]

They govern on the principle of “united to govern, divided to march”, i.e. they jointly govern Schleswig and Holstein but each has his own army and pursues his own goals. Thus they jointly attempt to subdue the Dithmarschers but suffer a devastating defeat on February 17, 1500.

At the same time King Hans commences hostilities against Sweden. Duke Frederik remains neutral, even when his nephew Christian II is crowned King of Denmark in 1513. The Treaty of Bordesholm of 1522 stipulates that Schleswig and Holstein will remain neutral in the war against Sweden. However, when the Danish nobility rebel against King Christian II they seek the assistance of the Duke of Gottorf, and in 1523 Frederik’s army marches northward under the command of Field Marshall Johann Rantzau. King Christian II flees and on April 14, 1523 Frederik becomes sole ruler of Denmark. In August, 1524, he is crowned in Copenhagen King Frederik I of Denmark. He is followed in 1533 by his son as Christian III who abolishes the Catholic church in Holstein, Schleswig, Denmark and Norway, and establishes the Reformation by law.

In 1544 there occurs another partition between King Christian III and his step-brothers Johann (The Elder) and Adolf.

Adolf receives the Gottorf part: Apenrade [Åbenrå] , South Schleswig, Kiel Neumünster, Cismar, Oldenburg, Neustadt, Trittau and Reinbek.

Johann will control the Hadersleben part: Hadersleben [Haderslev], Tondern [Tønder], Lügumkloster [Løgumkloster], Nordstrand, the Osterharde on Föhr, Sylt, Fehmarn, Rendsburg, Bordesholm as well as smaller parts of Holstein.

The king retains the Sonderburg [Sønderborg] part: Alsen [Als]. Arö [Ærø], Northern Anglia, the districts Flensburg and Bredstedt, Segeberg, Oldesloe, Plön, Steinburg, Reinfeld and Ahrensböck. All three unite in a war against the Dithmarschers in 1599 who are defeated and whose land is divided into three equal parts.

In 1564 King Frederik III of Denmark (the son of Christian III) cedes one-third of his possessions to his brother Johann TheYounger who receives Sonderburg [Sønderborg], Norburg [Nordborg], Arö [Ærø], Plön and Ahrensbök.

A further partitioning occurs in 1581 when the Hadersleben [Haderslev] part is divided between King Frederik II and Duke Adolf II of Gottorf: Duke Adolf received the districts of Tondern [Tønder], Lügumkloster [Løgumkloster] and Bordesholm in addition to Nordstrand, the Osterharde on Föhr, Sylt, Fehmarn as well as the northern part of Dithmarschen. King Frederik receives Hadersleben [Haderslev] and Rendsburg. Schleswig and Holstein yet again have two rulers.

Duke Hans the Younger receives Reinfeld, Sundewitt, and the possessions of the Rude Monastery where he builds his Glücksburg Castle. On his death in 1622 his possessions are divided amongst his five sons: the duchies Sonderburg, Norburg, Arö, Glücksburg und Plön are built. Arö will be divided to the other four in 1624.

King Frederik III dies in 1670 and is succeeded by his son as King Christian V who reigns from 1670 to 1699.

In 1673 the last Count of the Oldenburg and Delmenhorst line dies. His estates are inherited by the Duke of Plön who, by way of a secret agreement, has renounced his entitlement in favour of the King of Denmark, and so it falls into the hands of King Christian V. On May 30, 1684, King Chrstian V assumes the ducal part of Schleswig but returns it to Duke Christian Albrecht on July 20, 1689 under the terms of the Settlement of Altona.

Duke Christian Albrecht died in 1694 and is succeeded by his son Frederik IV. Frederik is married to the sister of the Swedish King Karl XII and is appointed Supreme Commander of the Swedish armies in Germany. There follows a five year long quarrel with King Christian V who has formed an alliance with Saxony, Poland and Russia. Sweden and Gottorf are allied with Lüneburg. In March, 1700, the Nordic War breaks out.

On March 13, 1713 King Frederik IV takes possession of the Schleswig lands of the Duke; only the Holstein lands remain with the Gottorf dynasty. From this day on until 1864 the King of Denmark and the Duke of Schleswig are one and the same person. Since the end of the Nordic War in 1721 Duke Karl Friedrich of Gottorf is Duke of Holstein only. In 1725 he marries Anna Petrovna, a daughter of Czar Peter the Great of Russia; they live in Kiel Castle from 1727 to 1739. His son Karl Peter Ulrich is first in line of succession to Russia’s throne and is crowned Czar Peter III of Russia in 1762. The new czar prepares for war with Denmark but is murdered before hostilities can begin. His wife, the Czarina Katharina II, concludes a Treaty of Friendship with Denmark in 1765. The successor to the Russian throne, Paul, relinquishes his Holstein possessions in favour of Denmark which incorporates Holstein into the Danish Kingdom. In return, the Danish king relinquishes the Counties of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst (the latter becomes a Duchy in 1777) in favour of the House Gottorf. Once more, both Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein are re-united under the Danish royal house.

Earlier the Danish king had enlarged his possessions as follows:

Duchy of Norburg [Nordborg] on Alsen [Als]
Duchy of Rantzau (formerly Barmstedt District)
Duchy of Plön
the possessions of the the Duke of Glücksburg on Sundewitt and in North Anglia

The reform of farm and agrarian policies in royal estates in 1768 leads to new forms of land ownerships and agrarian arrangements including the abolishment of bondage and serfdom, and the transfer of title to farmers who obtain land as their own property. In ducal and county estates, bondage and serfdom is abolished as of January 1, 1805.

These reforms enable farmers to obtain free title to land or enter into crop-sharing or leasing arrangements, both on a short-term and a hereditary basis.

On November 8, 1771, King Christian VII abolishes the patronymic naming system:

Edict Regarding the Introduction of Family Names in the Duchy of Schleswig.

Christian The Seventh. It had come to Our attention that in the country of Our Duchy of Schleswig there is almost no usage of permanent family names, but rather that the son is given as family name the given name of his father, and that this change occurs at each generation. Since this is the cause of uncertainties and extensive disputes in matters of inheritance, and leads to irregularities in the maintenance of debt and other contractual instruments, We consider it to be useful and good to see to the introduction of permanent family names. And since such intent is reached easiest and with least problems at future baptisms, when the child should be given by the pastor a permanent family name, the initial choice being that of the parents, but thereafter it is not to be changed any more, We hereby issue this Our decree, to be observed forthwith by Our people.

Issued in the Supreme Court and Supreme Consistory at Gottorf on November 8, 1771. Extended to the District of Tönning May 15, 1790.

England attacks Copenhagen in 1807, causing the Danes to enter into alliance with Napoleon’s France.

Under the terms of the Peace Treaty of Kiel of January 14, 1814, Denmark loses the Kingdom of Norway, cedes the island of Heligoland to England, but obtains control of the Duchy of Lauenburg. The Duchies of Lauenburg and Holstein become members of the German Federation with the curious effect that the Danish king, in his capacity as the Duke of Holstein and Lauenburg, becomes a German prince. Thus, Holstein becomes entitled to its own constitution and a commission is formed in August, 1816 to draft one. However, it is not until May 28, 1831 that four Diets are constituted; Jutland, Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg. The government (subordinated to Copenhagen) is established at Gottorf Castle near Schleswig and a Court of Law for all three Duchies at Kiel. Some 2-3% of the population obtain the voting franchise.

By decree of May 14, 1840, the Danish language is introduced in Northern Schleswig as the official school and church language. Two nationalistic factions form: the Eider Danes who support Danish dominance in all lands north of the Eider river, and those who are in support of German influence and culture throughout Schleswig.

When it becomes evident that the Danish King will remain without male heir, hereditary disputes arise even prior to his death. A decree of 1665 stipulates that those entitled to hereditary succession will also succeed to his Holstein possessions. At stake is the principle of the Salic Law which does not recognize the female line of succession as contemplated by Denmark. In contrast, the German population – supported by Prussia and Austria – argue that the duchies should be ruled by the Duke of Augustenburg. On July 8, 1846 the King issues an “open letter” declaring that the Danish succession laws are valid for Schleswig as well. This increases nationalistic tensions between the “Danish” and the “German” inhabitants of Schleswig Holstein.

King Christian VIII dies and is succeeded by Frederik VII. On January 28, 1848 he publishes a draft of a liberal constitution for the entire state. However, driven by revolutionary movements in Paris, Berlin and Vienna, events accelerate. The Eider-Danish party in Copenhagen seek the realization of their policies while in Rendsburg the representatives of the Duchies demand that Schleswig be admitted to the German Federation. Under pressure of popular demand the King dissolves the Copenhagen government and establishes a new one based on the policies of the Eider Danes. Meantime, the Schleswig-Holstein Landespartei (Schleswig-Holstein State Party) forms a “Provisional Government” in Kiel which is recognized in Berlin (by Prussia) and Frankfurt (by the German Federation). Almost the entire Schleswig-Holstein army backs the Kiel government.

Denmark has almost no objection to Holstein’s wish to establish closer connections to Germany, but the Freiheitsbrief signed in 1481 decreed that Schleswig and Holstein should ‘be forever undivided’. and this has been sitting all these centuries like a time bomb. Now it blows up. In 1481 Christian II had intended to bind Holstein closer to the old Danish territory of Schleswig, but in 1848 the Holsteiners point at the old document and say “We want to leave Denmark and we will be taking Schleswig with us because the two provinces are to remain forever undivided.” War ensues.

An armistice is agreed upon on August 26, 1848. The “Provisional Government” is replaced by a “Joint Government” comprised of conservative Schleswig-Holsteiners.

Denmark revokes the armistice on April 3, 1849 and the war continues.

On July 10, 1849 another armistice is agreed upon. Schleswig is occupied by Swedish, Norwegian and Prussian forces. Political negotiations lead to an attempted peace treaty on July 2, 1850, however, Prussia refuses to sign it and the Schleswig Holstein government is unwilling to support some of the treaty’s terms and conditions; war resumes.

The Treaty of London dated May 8, 1852 attempts to put the Schleswig Holstein affairs in order. It recognizes the Danish Royal Succession; Holstein and Lauenburg remain in the German Federation with equal recognition of German and Danish nationality. The Duchies Schleswig and Holstein are separated.

On November 15, 1863 King Frederik VII dies and - under the terms of the Treaty of London - is succeeded by Christian IX who signs the “Eider-Danish Constitution” on November 18, 1863 to be effective January 1, 1864.

In December, 1863, troops from Hanover and Saxony occupy the southern duchies without resistance. On January 16, 1864 Prussia and Austria demand the withdrawal of the “Eider-Danish Constitution” within 48 hours. Denmark rejects this ultimatum. Consequently, Prussian and Austrian forces cross the Eider river February 1, 1864.

Denmark with an army of 38,000 men armed with muzzle loaders faces Prussian and Austrian armies of 50,000 men armed with modern breech loaders. The Danish army is pushed northward and retreats to Dybbøl, north of Flensburg near Sønderborg, where a series of redoubts is under construction. After heavy shelling by the Prussians, the area is taken on April 18, 1864.

Peace is concluded in Vienna on October 30, 1864. Denmark cedes not only the German Duchy of Holstein but also the whole Duchy of Schleswig. The new border between Denmark is set at the Kongeå (Königsau in German), a small river some 50 km north of Flensburg.

On October 13, 1866, Prussia institutes universal compulsory draft in all its provinces, including the duchies which become Prussian provinces January 12, 1867. On April 28, 1867 a new system of taxation comes into effect; in June of that year a new legal system is instituted; the privileges of the nobility are rescinded; in September, a new system of bureaucracies is established through the formation of Kreis and Distrikt administrations, and ‘Freedom of Trades’ is introduced. On October 1, 1867, the Prussian Constitution is extended to Schleswig-Holstein.

The new Prussian/Danish border places many Danes outside their home country. On the other hand, the "historic claim" of Denmark for a border at the Eider rives is equally objectionable for the many German-speaking people who would be forced to live in Denmark. A new border between Germany and Denmark has become essential.

A plebescite in 1920 determines a new border between Denmark and Germany. It runs down the Flensburg Fjord to a point just north of the city, and then towards the west to the North Sea north of the island of Sylt. Northern Schleswig is incorporated into Denmark and Southern Schleswig remaines in Germany.

Sizable minorities remain north and south of the border. After the Second World War the Danish and German governments make a joint declaration in support of safeguarding the rights of the respective minorities. The German and Danish minorities function in examplary fashion today. The “Schleswig-Holstein Question” has found an answer; the “Schleswig-Holstein Problem” has found a solution.

History texts refer to the “Schleswig-Holstein Problem” or the “Schleswig-Holstein Question”. Somebody once tried to explain the ‘problem’ by showing who was subject to whom in the scheme of things. The explanation ran somewhat like this:

The King of Denmark is:
in his capacity of king, the supreme ruler of Schleswig;
in his capacity as the Duke of Schleswig and Holstein, joint ruler of Schleswig and Holstein together with the Duke of Gottorf;
subject to the rule of the German Emperor as to Holstein only;
co-ruler of the joint ducal portion of both duchies; and
sole ruler of the royal portion of both duchies.

The Duke of Gottorf is:
in his capacity as Duke of Schleswig, a subject of the King of Denmark;

Duke of Schleswig and Holstein;
subject to the rule of the German Emperor as to Holstein only;
co-ruler of the joint ducal portion of both duchies.

It is little wonder that Palmerston, the English Prime Minister, is reported to have said: “There are only three men who have ever understood the Schleswig-Holstein Problem: one was Prince Albert, who is dead; the second one was a German professor, who became insane. I am the third – and I have forgotten all about it.”


I have attempted to outline herein the more important historical events pertaining to Schleswig-Holstein. I have remained silent on many events in the interest of brevity. If you believe that the foregoing contains errors, or if you find it advantageous to expand on certain areas, please communicate with me via e-mail or use the guest book on this web site to express your concerns.

I used the following sources:

Alexander Scharff, Schleswig-Holsteinische Geschichte, New edition by Manfred Jessen-Klingenberg; published 1984 Verlag Ploetz Freiburg/Würzburg

Various Internet sites about Danish and Schleswig-Holstein history.

Written Autumn and Winter, 2000 by

Hans Peter Voss
Genealogical Research in Schleswig-Holstein
An de Marsch 6
D-25557 Steenfeld