On November 12, 1720 Peter Tordenskjold died in a sword duel. It will not sound familiar to most people, but he was one of the great national heroes of Denmark and Norway—countries that were once united, a daring sailor who would be the equivalent of what Nelson is to the British, Ruyter to the Dutch, Jones to the Americans or Bazán to the Spanish. Remembered in several popular songs and honored with several statues, streets, books, films and even a festival, a corvette of the Danish navy and a ship of the Norwegian navy are named after him. He is also cited in the Danish royal anthem.
“The end of Peter Wessel Tordenskiold’s naval battle in the North Sea”, 1919, by Christian Ferdinand Andreas Mølsted
Peter Jansen Wessel (Tordenskjold is a nickname given to him in 1716) was born in Trondheim in October 1690. At that time that city was part of the Dano-Norwegian kingdom, also known as Oldenburg after the titular dynasty on the throne since 1448. That union, which also included the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, as well as dependent territories (Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland) and colonies (the Danish Antilles, the African Danish Gold Coast, the Asian Nicobar Islands and the Indian cities of Serampore and Tharangambadi), had been forged in 1536 as a result of a failed attempt to merge the Scandinavian states, the Union of Kalmar of 1397.
The unification failed because the Swedish aristocracy, suspicious of the dominant position that Denmark had thanks to the fact that the crown remained in the hands of Queen Margrethe I, ended up leaving in 1521, leaving their partners alone and choosing their own monarch, Gustav Vasa. The Swedes and Danes clashed in an armed conflict between 1611 and 1613 over commercial control of the Baltic and later the Thirty Years’ War further complicated the relationship, leaving Sweden as an emerging and dominant power in Northern Europe.
The Danish-Norwegian kingdom went through difficult years, defeated again and again by their northern enemies in successive contests. This resulted in an internal weakening that gave rise to a turn toward the absolutism of Christian V, embodied in the Lex Regia of 1665, to the detriment of the balancing role that until then had been played by the Riksrad (Royal Council). In 1675, Denmark took advantage of the fact that the Swedes were immersed in the French-Dutch War to invade them, with the aim of recovering the provinces of Scania, previously lost. But things did not go well and the status quo returned.
It was in this context that Wessel was born—let’s call him that for the moment—the tenth son of a rich businessman who was also a city councillor. In spite of enjoying a comfortable position, he was a very restless boy, even rebellious, who often got into fights and continually caused problems for his parents. A good example of his mischievous ways is that in 1704, when he was only a teenager, he hid as a stowaway in a ship and arrived in Copenhagen where he tried to enter the naval academy. He did not succeed, but he did made friends with the royal chaplain, who arranged for him to join the crew of a ship sailing to the West Indies.
This is how he began his seafaring life, traveling for five years on the triangular route Guinea (now Ghana) -Caribbean-Denmark. Finally, in 1709 he was admitted to the academy and as a cadet he made other itineraries through the East Indies until in 1711 he obtained his second lieutenant’s office, being assigned to the frigate Postillon . There he became friends with Baron Valdemar Løvendal, a Norwegian admiral who saw great possibilities in the young man and gave him command of a four-gun sloop called Ormen . With her he participated in another of the continuous wars that Sweden was involved in, the one that started in 1700 and that lasted until 1721.
In 1712, his protector entrusted him with the 18-gun frigate Løvendals Galej , ignoring the opinion against the admiralty, which considered Wessel too impulsive. The latter, whose arrogance had led him to have friction with his superiors, requested and obtained a new assignment in the Baltic under the orders of Admiral Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve, illegitimate son of King Christian V who had the mission of supporting from the sea the siege of Stralsund to prevent the supply of the Swedish fleet. His new pupil did not take long to make a name for himself by attacking every enemy ship he saw, regardless of the difference in size or weaponry because he approached with false flags and had a special ability to get away quickly if things went wrong.
Peter Tordenskjold threatens the commendant Danckwardt in the Swedish city Marstrand during the siege 1719. Painted by the Danish artist Otto Bache (1875).
In this way, the Danes kept the Swedes and their allies (British and Dutch) at bay, repeatedly disrupting their supply transports. Wessel scored a handful of victories and became a lieutenant captain at the same time that the enemy offered a reward for his capture by considering him a privateer in practice, something which many Danish sailors agreed. They did not look favorably on that way of fighting, nor did they bear his bravado. In any case, it proved effective because the King of Sweden Charles XII had to give up his plan to invade Norway.
In 1714 one of the most unheard of episodes in Wessel’s military career took place, so much so that he had to undergo a court martial to determine whether his behavior in the battle against an enemy frigate had been acceptable. That summer, at the end of July, the Løvendals Gallej was sailing off Lindesnes (a municipality on the southern Norwegian coast) flying the Dutch flag when it came across a British-flagged ship. It was one of the ships that the Royal Navy had equipped and made available to Sweden; specifically, the the 28-gun frigate De Olbing Galley commanded by the English captain Bactmann.
Both approached cautiously and at the last moment, the Scandinavians raised their true flag, to which the others responded by opening fire. After exchanging cannon shots all day, night fell and De Olbing Galley tried to slip away but could not and the next morning the confrontation resumed. For fourteen hours both ships took shot at each other and suffered considerable damage in the process. The problems for Løvendals Gallej were more, because of the aggressiveness of Wessel’s attacks, the ship was running out of gunpowder. Then Wessel had a boat lowered and sent with a white flag. The Englishman thought it was to negotiate the surrender but he was stunned when he heard the true proposal of the adversary—Wessel wanted a shipment of gunpowder and cannon balls to continue the battle.
A painting by naval officer Bernhard Grodtschilling showing vessels from the Danish navy in the Great Northern War. The ship at the center is “Løvendals Galej.”
Obviously the proposal was not accepted but they did toast together and exchange compliments. Then, given the battered state of the two ships, each one went their own way. The news of that unusual action roused Frederick IV, King of Denmark, who demanded a court martial for Wessel. It was carried out in November, and he was accused of revealing information to the enemy about his precarious situation and of putting a crown ship at risk by attacking a better-armed adversary. However, the audacious sailor was acquitted in less than a month when he successfully argued a section of the Danish naval code which mandated that fleeing enemy ships had to attacked no matter the size. After this peculiar incident at sea, Wessel went to the king asking for a promotion, and was raised to the rank of Captain.
Meanwhile, the war went on and Wessel continued to fatten up his list of casualties caused to the Swedes. Most were transports but in the battle of Kolberg, fought in April 1715, he even captured the veteran Rear Admiral Hans Wachtmeister, who was also an advisor to King Charles XII. He also captured the frigate Vita Örn, which was renamed Hvide Ørn and placed under his command. It was in 1716, when the war was over, that he was given the nickname Tordenskjold, which means “shield of thunder”; his popularity was such that he was even granted the title of knight. But his career did not end there, far from it.
That same year, Sweden returned to its old ways trying to invade Norway, for which it laid siege to the fortress of Fredrikshald by surprise. The local population set fire to their own houses and took refuge behind the walls, leaving the attackers unable to feed themselves on the ground and having to wait for a supply fleet sent from Gothenburg. When it arrived and anchored in the Dynekilen fjord, a small squadron made up of two frigates and five smaller ships suddenly appeared, destroying some thirty enemy units with hardly any casualties. The person responsible for the action was precisely Tordenskjold, who thus forced to lift the siege and was promoted again, now to commander.
Portrait of Peter Tordenskjold by Jacob Coning.
He then assumed command of the Kattegat squadron, but in the Danish-Norwegian navy disdain for his way of fighting still remained, and this included his direct superior, Admiral Christian Carl Gabel, so when he received the order to stop the Swedish squad in Gothenburg did not get the collaboration it would have needed. The failure in the mission meant that in 1718 he was again brought before a court for recklessness. Again he was spared, this time thanks to the testimony on favor of his old friend, Admiral Gyldenløve. Shortly after the trial, Tordenskjold rose through the ranks again, reaching rear admiral in December.
Tordenskjold participated in new operations the following year, seizing the Swedish fortress of Carlsten and, finally, capturing much of the Gothenburg Squad via a cunning ruse—inciting them to surrender by pretending to have more forces than he actually had. Success made him vice-admiral just as the war between Sweden and the kingdom of Denmark-Norway was ending. He was still very young, having just turned thirty, but paradoxically there his career had an unexpected and tragic end. The irony of fate wanted him to die not in battle, but by fighting against a Swede. It was during a duel with Count Jacob Axel Staël von Holstein, a colonel in the Livonian army, a territory that at that time was part of Sweden.
Von Holstein was ten years older than his opponent. They met in Hanover, where Tordenskjold was passing through after having traveled to England to offer his services to King George I (with the permission of the Danish monarch), since there was now peace and he missed action. They were both at a dinner party when the Scandinavian secretly accused him of having cheated a friend during a game of cards, distracting him while he showed him a portrait of a hydra that he claimed to have. An altercation broke out and the Livonian tried to draw his sword, which Tordenskjold prevented by hitting him with the pommel of his own. Then Von Holstein challenged him to a duel.
Servant Christian Kold, prays by Tordenskiold’s side after his death in the duel. Painting by Vilhelm Rosenstand.
The duel took place on the morning of November 12, 1720, on the outskirts of a town called Gleidingen, about thirty kilometers south of Hanover. Less than a minute later, the Livonian had pierced the torso of Tordenskjold with a knife, inflicting a wound three fingers wide and four long. He died right there, in the arms of his godfather, Lieutenant Colonel Georg Otto von Münchhausen (father of the famous literary baron). The body of the sailor was discreetly transported to Copenhagen and buried in Holmen’s church; without any ceremony because duels were prohibited.
Of course, there was no shortage of conspiracy theories alluding to a Swedish revenge against the man who had defeated them, but today scholars of the subject seem to lean more towards a problem of idiomatic understanding. His brother Caspar, who was also an admiral, continued to give prestige to the surname, by earning the von aristocrat. Denmark and Norway remained united until 1814, when their navy was defeated by the British when the kingdom declared its neutrality in the war against Napoleon; curiously Nelson surrendered it using the same trick employed by Tordenskjold in Gothenburg.
This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.