the earliest settlement

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.



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.  


topography, historic maps, historic buildings

the Copenhagen of Christian IV


Copenhagen in the early 17th century. The new Bourse is at the centre with the harbour to the left with the Arsenal and Provision Warehouse and to the right Holmens Church and further round the ship yards and the long building of the rope works. Beyond Christiansborg, the royal castle, the line of houses marks the line of the wharves and foreshore of the medieval city ... the street now called Gammel Strand. All the major churches in the city are identified.


A map of 1685. Here it has been turned deliberately so that it is orientated to compare directly with the view of the city. The castle of Christiansborg is relatively obvious - centre left. The new Borsen has a canal on both long sides and runs down to a bridge over the harbour. Nyhavn is towards the centre of the map with the rope works and ship yard to its left. Rosenborg with its garden is here at the top of the map within newly extended embankments and Kastellet begun in 1662 is shown on the far right of the map with the Nyboder houses as a regular grid of streets between. Christianshavn is the fortified settlement on the opposite side of the harbour to the Castle and the city. This map dates from before the new dockyards of Holmen were constructed.

Christian IV succeeded his father in 1588 and died in 1648. In the course of his long reign he consolidated the power and wealth of Copenhagen as a city and instigated the construction of key buildings that survive today. These include a new royal palace and the king’s gardens of Rosenborg begun in 1606, Holmen’s Church of 1619, the construction of the Borsen (the Exchange) 1619-25. and the Round Tower of Trinitas Church 1637-56.

However, Christian IV was primarily a strategist and ambitious for the expansion of the both lands and the influence of Denmark and so the fortifications of the city were strengthened and the harbours and docks on either side of the Castle of Christiansborg were enlarged with the reclamation of land and the construction of moles or breakwaters. There was a new harbour basin flanked by long buildings where provisions were stored including beer for the sailors and gun powder, ropes and other provisions could be loaded onto the fighting ships safely and securely. The buildings survive although the enclosed harbour has been filled in and is now the garden behind the Royal Library. To the other side of the castle were yards for building naval vessels and a crucial rope walk.

Nor were the domestic needs of the naval personnel ignored … Christian instigated the construction of the Nyboder houses, which were begun in 1631, and Christianshavn, on the opposite side of the harbour to the castle was laid out as a new planned settlement with extensive fortifications, again for the navy and for new shipbuilding facilities which over the following century was expanded out towards the Oresund … the Arsenal, Holmen and Nyholm … which was the base for the Danish Navy through to the beginning of this century.

As the city prospered this was reflected in the construction of new mansions for the wealthiest merchants, for instance the house of Mayor Mattias Hansen from 1616, and churches in the city were improved or rebuilt.


The Royal palace and gardens of Rosenborg


The Brewhouse west of the castle from the west



The south door of Helligåndskirken


Borsen - the Bourse or Exchange - building work began in 1619

historic maps, topography

Copenhagen by the beginning of the 18th century

A number of early maps show how the city developed and record features that may subsequently have been altered or demolished. This map, published in 1705, is important because it shows the city at a point of change and major expansion.

The late medieval city was relatively compact and was protected by a city wall with three gateways and with intermediate towers to protect the land side. From the west gate to the east gate was just 1,000 metres and from the north gateway into the city to the wharves of the harbour, on the line of the street now called Gammel Strand, was about 800 metres. That early core of the city is shown on the map of 1705 coloured in red.

When work started in the early 17th century on a new royal house at Rosenborg the building and gardens, shown almost at the centre of the map, were outside the walls. A new castle or Kastellet (citadel) with its star-shaped defences was constructed to guard the north side of the city and to protect the entrance to the harbour. Work started in 1658 and in the late 17th century new embankments and moats were constructed to link Kastellet to the corner of the old city defences and at the same time the defences around the west and south side of the city were strengthened.

The map shows the new area enclosed by the embankments which more than doubled the size of the city. Within that new area by 1700 were the then relatively new rows of house ... the Nyboder houses ... for navy personnel. Over the succeeding decades, through the 18th century, the royal palace, the Marble Church and the grand houses of Frederiksstaden were built over the plots and gardens shown on this map.

Wharves and the harbour of the medieval city were defended by a castle that had been constructed in the 12th century on an island just off the shore. Over the following centuries it was enlarged but parts of that first castle survive below the palace and government buildings of Christiansborg.

By 1705, beyond the castle, on the other side of the harbour, was Christianshavn, begun in 1618 for Christian IV as an independent sea port that was also defended by embankments and bastions.

historic buildings, streetscape, topography

Jarmers Tower

Through the Middle Ages Copenhagen was protected by outer defences - initially a timber palisade but later substantial walls and towers. By the early 16th century there were eleven towers around the city but only one, the round tower at the south-west corner of the city at Jarmers Plads, can be seen now and only the lower part of the tower survives. It was covered over when an embankment was constructed to improve the defences in the 17th century but was excavated in the 1880s when the embankments on this side of the city were removed.

This tower dates from the early 16th century with a stone core to the thick walls but faced inside and out with brick. The outer face is decorated with large diamond shapes in the brickwork formed by carefully arranging darker bricks in the bonding. In England these darker bricks are called fired or burnt headers and were formed where bricks were stacked in the kiln to be fired and only the outer bricks of the stack, exposed to the flames and higher temperatures, changed to this dark, grey, colour.

The round tower had a doorway into the lower part from the town side but presumably upper levels were accessed from a walkway on the top of the wall.


gardens + parks, historic maps, historic buildings, topography

17th-century embankments and moats

Historic maps can give a slightly distorted impression of the embankments and outer moats that were built in the late 17th century to defend Copenhagen - from plans and drawings it is difficult to appreciate the scale of the earthworks and to appreciate the extensive engineering work that was required for their construction.

Even walking through Østre Anlæg in the summer, the first impression is of a wooded valley with a wide lake, although this was in fact a section of the original outer moat, and the embankment here on the city side of the lake is one of the best preserved sections of the city defences.

However, if you look across the lake towards the city in the Winter, when the trees have lost their leaves, then you can see the full height of the embankment with two stages of slope rising to the top of the bastion. If you open the image file - to enlarge the photograph - you can see how small the figures of the runners are on the path on the far side of the lake. 


The Østre Anlæg lake in the summer ... this view is looking south down the moat with the city to the left.


The view in Winter from the Stockholmsgade side looking south towards the city. The figures of runners on the path on the edge of the lake give an indication of the height of the double embankment.

If the slopes were bare of undergrowth, as on the embankments of the Kastellet now, you can begin to see just how daunting it would have appeared to a soldier in an army attacking the city. In the 17th century, the grass on the embankments would not have been this well kept but even if you got across the moat somehow, then you still had to climb up that bank, loaded down with your own weapons and kit, and, presumably, against heavy defending fire.

Note the windmill on the embankment in the distance - historic maps show a large number of mills on the circuit of the bastions and embankments through the 18th and early 19th centuries.

A lower embankment but wider expanse of water, the Stadsgraven, survives around Christianshavn and Holmen. These defences were constructed in the 17th century to protect the south side of the city.