Elsinore – Castle of Heroes

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The impressive fortress of Kronberg once struck fear into the hearts of foreign sailors. But its fame rests on its connection with two great figures of legend, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, and Holger the Dane. North of Copenhagen, on a promontory overlooking the sea, stands the great castle of Kronborg, its elegant copper-clad pinnacles contrasting dramatically with its massive fortifications. The castle’s history is also full of contrasts – over the centuries, it has served as a royal residence, a garrison and, latterly, a museum. However, its fame chiefly rests on its connection with two great figures of legend. 

The first of these is Hamlet, prince of Denmark, the eponymous hero of the play by William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Kronborg was the setting for this drama, but the playwright called it Elsinore, the anglicized form of Helsingor, the name of the town at the foot of the castle walls. The other legendary hero Is Holger the Dane, one of the 12 knights-companion, or paladins, of Charlemagne (742-814), Emperor of the West. Like the British King Arthur, Holger is supposed to be sleeping until the hour of his country’s greatest need, when he will rise to defend it.

Holger the Dane, sculpted by Hans Peder Pedersen-Dan in 1906, sits in the dungeons beneath Kronborg Castle. Regarded as the Danish national hero, he was known as one of Charlemagne’s paladins and was said to have lived with the enchantress Morgan le Fay in Avalon for 200 years before returning to court. This probably gave rise to the legend – enshrined in one of Hans Andersen’s fairy tales – of his sleeping under the castle until needed by his country.

Eric of Pomerania, king of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, built the citadel of Krogen on Elsinore’s outermost spit of land, in about 1420. The fortress defended the waters of the Sound (both sides of which were Danish territory until 1660) and enforced the payment of the Sound Dues, a toll paid by ships passing through on their way to the Baltic.

King Frederik II decided to rebuild the fortress in 1574 when his country declared war against Sweden. Frederik chose the most fashionable style of the period – Dutch Renaissance – and by 1585 the new castle, renamed Kronborg, was complete. Four years later, it became the setting for the politically expedient marriage by proxy between James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) and Frederik’s daughter, Anne of Denmark. The couple later married in person in Oslo. Since the English generally regarded the castle as Denmark’s best-known landmark, it is hardly surprising that Shakespeare chose it as the dramatic backdrop for his setting of Hamlet, which he wrote between 1600 and 1602.

As was his usual practice, Shakespeare based his tragedy on an existing story. In the late 12th century, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus had written a Latin history of Denmark. In it he described the tumultuous career of Amleth, prince of Denmark, whose father was murdered by Amleth’s uncle. The uncle then married the widowed Gerutha and usurped the throne. Grammaticus set the story in Jutland, but Shakespeare moved it to Kronborg Castle; he may even have learnt details of the castle from actors who had performed there for the Danish court.

Certainly King Frederik had created a landmark to inspire, a place to be both feared and revered by foreign visitors, but this fortress did not stand undisturbed after his extensive renovations. In 1629, during the reign of King Christian IV, it was badly damaged by fire, but was meticulously rebuilt in the same style. (The chapel, which escaped the fire, still has its original gilded oak furnishings.) Between 1658 and 1660, Kronborg was occupied by the Swedes, who carried off many of the paintings and figures from the fountain in the castle courtyard when they eventually departed.

In the late 18th century, part of the castle became the prison of the young English princess Caroline Matilda, who had been forced to marry the mad Danish King Christian VII. After confessing to infidelity, Queen Caroline Matilda was imprisoned at Kronborg and later deported to Germany, where she died in 1775 at the age of 23. In 1785, the castle was requisitioned for use as a barracks and it served this purpose until 1922.

Kronborg Castle has attracted many tourists over the last 200 years. A whimsical garden was created towards the end of the 18th century, where visitors could wander to the Kingdom of Heaven, passing on the way a Hermit’s Hut and make-believe grave, marked by a broken column. This garden became known as Hamlet’s Garden and the grave as Hamlet’s Grave. In 1857, an enterprising local man obtained permission ‘to arrange Hamlet’s Grave in a manner corresponding to legend’. He moved the pillar elsewhere and charged 32 schillings to see it. Although this is no longer on view to visitors, most tourist guides continue to offer a ‘Hamlet tour’.

Visitors still flock to the castle, which now houses the Danish Maritime Museum, to walk on the ramparts and to stroll in the pleasant seaport of Elsinore with its cobbled streets and old houses. It is a fitting tribute to Shakespeare and Kronborg that the 190-year-old tradition of performing Hamlet in the castle courtyard continues today.

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