There may have been a small settlement or trading post here by the year 800 on a gentle hill side sloping down to the shore. Remains of an early wharf have been uncovered along Gammel Strand and remains of a Viking farm have been discovered beneath Kongens Nytorv.
There was heathland and low hills to the north providing agricultural land for growing food and for grazing and woods for timber and for hunting for the settlement as it grew into a town. More important were a number of streams running down to the sea providing fresh water and the slope meant that there was natural drainage.
The settlement was slightly sheltered from the worst of the rain and winds from the west and, tucked slightly round from the open water of the sound, it was protected from the worst of the weather driving down from the north and east in the winter.
With the density of buildings, it is now difficult to appreciate this natural topography in the modern city but from the entrance to the National Gallery, looking back over the historic core of the city, you appreciate that you are looking down across the buildings even if you were not actually aware of climbing up a hill or slope to get here. This is one of the highest points of the historic centre, some 9 metres above sea level.
There are shallow valleys to the west and north and a slight saddle to the east along the line of what is now Gothersgade which were used for the construction of ditches and a palisade and then later a wall with towers around the settlement.
The natural topography beneath the city streets and the way in which these streets and squares and parks and lakes developed over time forms a grid by which to locate, interpret and understand the buildings of Copenhagen.
This map dates from the 19th century but it shows quite well the wider topography, before the city grew to the north and west.
Copenhagen is on the east side of Sjællands (Zealand) and on the sound between modern Sweden and Denmark and, primarily, it was the location that was the reasons for its growth and its prosperity through the middle ages and into the 16th and 17th centuries.
The large island of Amager, then about 1500 metres from the shore, and a number of small islands including Strandholm and Bremerholm between, created a sheltered natural harbour here.
The channel between Copenhagen and the island of Saltholm out in the sound to the east is the main deep channel … the route between the Baltic and the North Sea … so Denmark, with the conquest of southern Sweden and by building fortresses on both sides of the sound … with castles here in Copenhagen and to the north at Helsingør and on the Swedish side at Malmö, Landskrona and Helsingborg … could control and tax trade.
The earliest name used in documents for the settlement appears to be Hafn or harbour but from the 13th century the longer name Køpmannæhafn … the merchant’s harbour … is used.
København was not the largest town in Denmark until the 14th century when about 5,000 people lived here but it did not become the capital or main centre of government and administration in Denmark until the 15th century. From the 11th century through to 1443 Roskilde was the capital of the Kingdom of Denmark. It is probably significant that the university in Copenhagen was founded in 1479 - the indication of the growing administrative and cultural importance of the city.