topography, historic buildings

the castle


The castle by the 17th century


Absalon, Bishop of Roskilde, came from a wealthy and powerful family and owned land in this area. In 1167 he built a fortress here on an island just off the shore of which parts survive below the present palace of Christiansborg.

That first castle was circular in overall plan with a high outer wall built in stone with limestone from Stevns Klint, cliffs south of Køge across the bay from Copenhagen, used to face the inner and outer skins of the wall but the core of the wall was filled with mortar and rubble including large smooth boulders taken from the sea. These first outer walls were about 5 metres high.

Several shaped and carved stones, which appear to have come from a stone-vaulted chapel, have been uncovered in archaeological excavations. These are of a high quality … the stone being sandstone that was brought over from Scania. Other buildings within the wall were probably first in timber and then later in brick.

Brick was more common after the end of the 12th century. The Bagerttårnet - or Baker’s Tower - was a large square tower that was added on the west side of the castle and projected out beyond the curtain or outer wall. The base of the tower can be seen below the inner courtyard of the present building and has the remains of a toilet shute on its north side suggesting that the tower may have had lodgings on the upper floors.

Also excavated and shown in the museum are water wells and oak and iron water pipes. It was crucial that the castle could be self sufficient if and when it was under attack.

On the death of Absalon in 1201 his property passed to the Abbey at Roskilde and remained with them for more than 200 years until, in 1417, the castle was taken by the King.

In 1368 the castle had been attacked by soldiers from the Hanseatic towns of North Germany and captured and in the following year 47 Hanseatic masons were sent to dismantle the castle which they left in ruins.

Work on a new castle on the same site started almost immediately and was completed by 1387. This in turn was enlarged for in 1445 the great Hall on the north side of the castle was extended.

From 1552 extensive work enlarged the royal wing out over the moat and in 1596 Christian IV heightened the Blue Tower on the east side of the castle which, with its ornate roof, was one of the most prominent features shown on drawings of the castle in the 17th and early 18th century.

Models on display in the museum, in the undercroft of the present palace, shows how complex the castle was in its later years with lodgings, galleries and towers tightly grouped around the courtyard. The small island of the original castle had been enlarged, building out across the water for an outer court on the east side, tilt yards, stables and for buildings military and naval stores although the original circular shape of the inner castle survived with what was by then a circular inner moat with a bridge on its east side and an outer gate house for the main entrance from the city. 

The castle must have appeared to be cramped, damp and old fashioned by the late 17th century and in the 1730s the medieval and later buildings of the castle were demolished to build a large new Rococo palace around four sides of a large square courtyard with an outer court and stables to the west. That palace was destroyed by a fire in 1794 and a new palace was completed in 1828 but again, in 1890, there was another disastrous fire and a foundation stone for the present building was laid in 1907.

historic maps, topography

Medieval Copenhagen


Reconstruction of Copenhagen about 1500 with the castle just off the shore and the lakes in an arc to the west and north. The dashed outline of the present harbour shows how much of the channel between the settlement and the island of Amager has been filled in and built across. Originally the north point of Amager was about 1500 metres from the wharves of the settlement on the line of what is now Gammel Strand.


Main streets and squares and the market place of the settlement would have been established relatively quickly as would the position of churches and the gate ways that were the only way to get in and out of the city on the land side. 

A monastery was founded in Copenhagen in 1296 but the earliest fabric identified dates from the second half of the 15th century. This survives as part of the Hospital of the House of the Holy Ghost. Streets, squares and in many cases historic plot boundaries do survive but the buildings themselves were enlarged, remodelled or demolished and rebuilt at regular intervals because no new plots were available for new buildings in the settlement that was completely constrained by the city wall. Wealthier citizens could combine plots to build more substantial houses but this must have caused even more overcrowding in some of the poorer blocks. 

Several major fires that destroyed large areas of the city also took their toll on historic buildings. Most of the houses were timber framed and because they were so closely packed together, with courts and gardens often built over, fires spread quickly and could be catastrophic … in the great fire of 1728 well over two thirds of the city was destroyed.

The settlement was roughly D shaped with the stem of the D formed by the sea shore. Initially boats would have been pulled up onto the beach but presumably wooden wharves and jetties were constructed to make unloading and loading larger ships easier. Sheds and warehouses were built for storing goods, becoming semi-permanent structures, so silt and rubbish would have built up around the timber piles and the natural development would have been, over the years, to push these wharves and jetties further out.



This map dates from the middle of the 17th century but it records the main features and the street layout of the medieval city just as major changes were being made. 

What is now Gammel Strand (1) marks the line of the foreshore and the line of the wharves of the earliest medieval settlement. Absalon’s Castle (2) was built in the 12th century and was still obvious at the centre of what became Copenhagen Castle with its circular plan but by this stage it was no longer on a small island just off the shore but extensive infill had created a large area around the inner moat for parade yards, stables and army stores so, in modern terms, this is the power base for the king for the defence, control and expansion of the Danish State. The small area of streets immediately east of the castle above the new church - the cruciform building on the map on the other side of the canal to the castle - was the only new blocks of domestic buildings in this expansion of the city.

For the citizens of Copenhagen, in the 17th century, they were confined and still lived within the city defences whose medieval walls, ditches and towers had defined the extent of the early settlement - it was a tightly packed area less than a kilometre from the west gate to the east gate and only about 800 metres from the wharf at Gammel Strand to the north gate. Those medieval walls and towers had been rebuilt, heightened and improved but at this point, in the middle of the 17th century, more dramatic engineering works were in hand ... large new bastions and ditches had just been built out to the east to enclose a large new area of plots and gardens running out to the new Kastellet although the older ditches and bastions, hard against the east side of the old city, were still in place but were about to be removed. Immediately outside the old east gate can be seen the first form of Kongens Nytorv - the large public square that survives as a major feature of the modern city.

The core of the medieval city, in terms of daily life and certainly in terms of trade, was the market place, Amagertorv, a long triangular space (3) just in from the wharves and still at the centre of the shopping area of Copenhagen. From here roads ran out to the old East gate (4), the west gate and the road to Roskilde (5) and from the east end of the market place a street, now called Købmagergade, curved up to the north gate (6) - the site of Nørreport station now.

Copenhagen, with its narrow streets tightly packed with houses, depended on its water supply and this map shows clearly the line of fresh-water lakes running in a shallow arc around the west and north sides of the city. These maintained the level of the water in the moats and ditches, provided important defence, as armies would have to cross them to attack the city. They were a reservoir for water for drinking, for cooking and for crafts industries in the city. The lakes survive but now with straight, regular embankments. In the late medieval period, in the middle of the 16th century, water from a river about 5 kilometres to the west, that drained naturally into the bay, was dammed and diverted through to the lakes along an otherwise dry valley (7).  This river or cut survives in a culvert below Åboulevard.

The importance of water for other aspects of life in the city can also be seen with the separate channel running down from the lake to what was then the new house and extensive gardens for the king at Rosenborg that had been laid out just outside the medieval walls at the beginning of the 17th century. (8)

This map shows clearly the tightly packed streets of the medieval city with large prominent churches but otherwise few open spaces although the area immediately inside the walls was kept clear so that soldiers could be deployed rapidly if there was an attack. 

The other major secular building shown here was the city hall (9) with by then an open square on each side. This space survives as Gammeltorv and Nytorv. The late medieval hall was demolished after the fire of 1795, creating the present open space, with a new city hall built on the west side of the square that was completed in the early 19th century. The present city hall, even further west on the line of the outer ditch, was built between 1892 and 1905.