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Scandinavia is a harsh and forbidding land of extreme cold and broken land, characterised mostly by deep valleys called fjords and icy mountains and glaciers. As such, the Norse, denied of proper harvests and trapped in a cold, inhospitable and hostile environment, were soon forced into activities related to the sea — fishing, trading as well as piracy and trading.
Throughout the so-called "Viking Era" beginning in the 8th century, new communities were founded in England, France, Greenland and Iceland. Although as a rule the Norse (and later, their own Gallicised children, the Normands (or Normans, as they are known to the Britush) were never truly united, there was one kingdom which dominated the Mediaeval Norse, and that was the kingdom of Denmark. With its fertile soil and relatively mild climate, Denmark (or the "Danes' march", as it was known) boasted the largest population. Through diplomacy and conquest, the Danish crown managed to briefly unite all of Scandinavia as the Kalmar Union by the 14th century, before ineffectual government and political violence resulted in its dissolution.
The Viking Era
First used by foreign authors in the 11th century, the term "Viking" was derived from the Norse word for bay, "vik". This shows the close connection between the people and the sea, of which they were totally dependent for their livelihood. Viking society consisted mainly of several clans presided over by local chieftains.
While Danish vikings would travel into Western Europe, Swedish Vikings mainly traveled east into Russia and down into Asia. The large Russian mainland and its many navigable rivers offered good prospects for merchandise and, at times, plundering. Extensive Scandinavian settlement began on the eastern Baltic coast throughout the 9th century, which would then be assimilated by the local Slavic population to form the first Russian principalities.
The Christian Era
Around 980, Harold Bluetooth unified the many petty kingdoms in what is now Denmark, and created a single state. Embracing Christianity, he forged bonds with western and central Europe, particularly the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. The first was necessary as it was a neighbouring state; the second was to further strengthen his position at home, with the help of the clergy. When England broke away from Danish control after the death of Canute the Great (1035), Denmark faced internal disorder and raids by Norwegian vikings, but Canute’s nephew Sweyn Estridson (1020-1074) strengthened royal authority. Yet, peace would still remain elusive.
The Disorder Continues
Subsequent centuries after Sweyn would prove to be a turbulent period. Civil wars, disunity and interference by the Hanseatic League would continue to ail Danish politics, but there were two bright spots during these centuries. Valdemar I "the Great" (1131-82) would stabilise the kingdom and institute legal reforms, and build a castle in the village of Havn, leading eventually to the foundation of Copenhagen, the modern capital of Denmark. Denmark was transformed in this time into a major power, competing with the Hanseatic League, the Counts of Holstein, and the Teutonic Knights for trade, territory, and influence throughout the Baltic. The Danes launched various ‘crusades’ to claim territories, notably modern Estonia, but things would take for a turn for the worse in 1227: following the loss of Danish territories in Germany, royal prestige would be tarnished and the nobility forced the king to grant a charter, considered Denmark's first constitution, which preserved the rights of Danish magnates at the expense of the crown. Meanwhile, the kingdom continued to fall apart; the Black Death made an appearance in Denmark, weakening the crown's ability to project power; and the territory of Scania passed for a while to the King of Sweden. Again, another strong figure would appear to restore order: Valdemar IV Atterdag, or "New Day." Ascending to the throne in 1340, Valdemar IV briefly reunited the old kingdom of Denmark by turning the counts against each other.
The Hanseatic League
Valdemar IV's continued efforts at expansion brought him at odds with the Hanseatic League. He conquered Gotaland, much to the displeasure of the League, since Visby, an important trading town, was located there. In revenge, the League allied with Sweden to attack Denmark. Initially a disaster when Danish forces captured a large Hanseatic fleet, and ransomed them back for an enormous sum, the League's fortunes changed when the nobles of Jutland rebelled against heavy taxation. Valdemar IV was subsequently exiled in 1370, and the Hanseatic League gained control of fortresses between Scania and Zeeland.
Margaret I was the daughter of Valdemar IV Atterdag. She was married to Håkon VI of Norway in an attempt to join the two kingdoms, along with Sweden, since Håkon was related to the Swedish royal family. Originally her son, Olaf III was intended to rule the three kingdoms, but due to his early death she took on the role. Her capable rule would unite Sweden, Denmark, Norway and their subject territories in the Faroe islands together in what was called the Kalmar Union, made official in 1397.
Dissolution of the Union
Margaret's successor, however, Eric of Pomerania, lacked his predecessor's skill and was directly responsible for the breakup of the Kalmar Union. However, there was still some enthusiasm for the idea, so when Christopher of Bavaria, a distant relative came to the throne, he managed to be elected in all three kingdoms, briefly reuniting Scandinavia.
Over time, the Swedish nobility grew increasingly unhappy with Danish rule and the Union soon became merely a legal concept with little practical application, due to Danish adventures in Germany interfering in the trade in Swedish iron ore, and Swedish fears of Danish domination. Thus, the history of the Kalmar Union revolved around civil wars breaking out in Sweden, with Kalmar forces having to be sent back to restore order. By the time the Swedes elected Gustav Vasa as their king in 1523, the union was as good as dissolved. For the next three centuries after the Vasa, Sweden and Denmark would be continuously at war with one another until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.