Danish oral tradition as early as 1200 A.D. has the story of a prince who murders his brother the king, marries the king’s widow only to be challenged by the king’s son. The first printed record of the story was in 1514, and an English drama was written around 1590. Shakespeare adopted the story around 1600 and set the story in Elsinore, the name he gave to a famous Danish castle, Kronborg. In modern times, Richard Burton, Lawrence Oliver, Christopher Plummer, Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law and others have played Hamlet at Kronborg.
The castle is at Helsinger, about a fifty-minute train ride north of Copenhagen. At this point there is a narrow “hook” in the peninsula separating the North Sea from the Baltic Sea. Helsinger, Denmark is only about four kilometers from Helisingborg, Sweden, an excellent point for a fort to control trade.
Around 1425, Eric of Pomerania recognized the strategic value of this point and built a walled fort “Krogen” which means hook. Buildings were added inside the wall in 1450, towers in 1500 and finally the present structure was built by Frederick II between 1574 and 1585. He called it Kronborg.
But construction continued when Fred II added rooms along one wall for his wife Sophie so that she didn’t have to walk three sides of the square to get to the ballroom.
A great fire destroyed the place in 1629; it was rebuilt by Fred’s son, the great King Christian IV. It was then captured in 1658 by the Swedes who took many of its possessions. They, however, left a painting showing the subjugation of Sweden by an early Danish queen.
After the castle was retaken from the Swedes, an exterior fort called the “crownwork” was built around the castle complete with moat. This expansion continued right up until the 1800s, but King Frederick V gave it up as a residence, and it was used as a military barracks from 1785 to 1924. The outermost cannon date from 1820. After fire, bombardment and reconstruction, only the foundations and chapel remain from the earliest structures.
Helsinger, the town, gradually grew up during these 17th, 18th, and 19th century periods of construction.
For the most part, all this construction was financed by taxes on ships passing through the strait. Although it became international waters when Sweden and Denmark separated, the Danes kept on collecting taxes until 1857 when an
American ship refused to pay. Other nations’ ships soon agreed.
Restored and opened to the public in 1938, signs encourage one to see many key points including “the heavy dude in the basement.” Cannons at the “Flag Bastion” facing Sweden date from the 1760s and are still fired on special occasions. Twelve batteries of cannon were added in the 1800s to control the sea passage.
When it was built, the Ballroom was the largest in Northern Europe and perhaps was one of the points of fame that recommended the place to Shakespeare.
The Chapel has elaborately carved fixtures and pews from its consecration in 1582, Fortunately, they survived the 1629 fire.
After touring the chapel and royal apartments with a guide and on our own, we descended into the dark gloomy casements under the castle which were used to house and provision soldiers during times of siege. Fortunately, another tourist pulled out the light on his cell phone to make our passage a little easier.
The “heavy dude in the basement” is a statue of the legendary Danish
hero, Holger the Dane. He now sits at rest ready to rise into action if the Kingdom of Denmark is threatened by an enemy. It was the real King of Denmark, however, who provided courageous and public support to his people during the Nazi occupation.
We visited on a Sunday and walked the quiet pedestrian-friendly streets of Helsinger before catching one of the frequent trains back to Copenhagen.