Project Diary: Bornhöved 1227 A.D. - A Little History Lesson

by David

Hey all,

welcome to this first article of my project diary. If you're wondering what this is, please check the prologue, in which I explain the idea and goals of the diary. At the bottom of that post, you will find a link to all parts of this series (constantly updated as soon as new parts are published).

In this post, I will kick off the actual project diary, trying to accomplish two goals:

  1. I'll present a concise historical primer on the battle and its context.
  2. I will outline on how I envision the miniature project to unfold.

1. Historical Primer

The Battle of Bornhöved in 1227 was a highly consequential battle that took place near the town of Bornhöved, situated in what is now Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany. In this historical primer, I will briefly outline the events leading up the battle, summarize what we know about how the battle itself, and sketch out the implications of that encounter. There are not too many primary sources available, and since I am not a trained historian (and have a dayjob...), I will rely exclusively on secondary accounts and summaries that I could find.

Map of the Danish Kingdom under King Valdemar II
Source: Wikimedia

1.1 Prelude

In the mid-12th century, the Jutland peninsula was partitioned along the Eider river between the Kingdom of Denmark to the North and the Duchy of Saxony - as part as the German Holy Roman Empire (HRE) - to the South. When Heinrich (Henry) "the Lion", Duke of Saxony, was deposed by the German Emperor Friedrich I "Barbarossa" in 1180, Adolf III, Count of Schauenburg, took control over the Holstein region. However, Adolf's position was weak and, in 1201/2, the Danish Duke, and later King, Valdemar II conquered the whole area between the Eider and Elbe rivers, and gave it as a fiefdom to his nephew, Count Albrecht II of Orlamünde, who continued to rule Holstein for the next two decades.

In May 1223, Count Heinrich (Henry) "The Black" I of Schwerin, kidnapped King Valdemar and his eldest son, Prince Valdemar, during a hunting trip. For their release, Heinrich demanded Denmark to give up the conquered lands and pledge loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor. Count Albrecht of Orlamünde, who acted as regent in the Danish king's absence, rejected these terms and declared war on Heinrich. The war concluded in a defeat for the Danish forces in the Battle of Mölln in 1225. Consequently, to secure his release, King Valdemar had to acknowledge the loss of his German territories, pay an astronomical ransom, and promise not to seek retribution against Count Heinrich. Shortly after Valdemar's release, however, Pope Honorius III exempted the king from his coerced pledge, and Valdemar wasted no time in preparing to reclaim what he believed were rightfully his lands and to enact revenge against Count Heinrich. Supported by the troops of Valdemar's nephew, Otto I, Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, called "the Child", in 1226 a Danish army marched south.

Valdemar II

After conquering the "free peasants" of Dithmarschen and pressing them into military service, Valdemar turned his attention to Holstein and Schwerin. To counter that threat, Count Adolf IV, who had inherited Holstein from his father in 1225, and Heinrich built an alliance with powerful Northern German nobles, including Duke Albert of Saxony, who pledged his support in exchange for recognition as their liege lord. Additional reinforcements came from the princes of Mecklenburg, Archbishop Gerhard II of Bremen, the cities of Hamburg and Lübeck as well as the smaller hosts of a number of Low German nobles. According to some sources, HR Emperor Friedrich II might also have sent a small contingent to assist in the confrontation with the Danes - even though this is rather unlikely. In any case, the various German factions assembled in and around Lübeck, preparing to face the Danish army.

At first, both sides were cautious, hesitant to engage in a decisive battle. For several months, the conflict primarily saw skirmishes and minor battles between different segments of the armies - until, in the summer of 1227, they finlly met for a large battle on the plains of Bornhöved.

Count Adolf IV at the Battle of Bornhöved
Source: Wikimedia

1.2 The Battle

The battle took place on July 22, 1227, a day marked by the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. We know relatively little for certain on how the battle was fought, how large the armies were, and what exactly happened on that day. Pretty much the only knowledge that is certain is that the battle took place on that day - and that the Danish lost, with Duke Otto being captured. A 15th-century, Lübeck-based chronicler, Hermann Korner († 1438), provides the most elaborate, colorful - and in many parts probably ficticious - account of the battle. However, as it delivers so much nice detail - which of course, is particularly relevant for my miniature rendition of the battle - I will include his descriptions in the following summary.

The Battlefield of Bornhöved 1227, painted by Julius Fürst (1895)
Source: Wikimedia

The exact location where the armies clashed is not known. The area around Bornhöved was probably - as it is today - dominated by large open fields broken up by small groves of trees and small rivers. As such, it was very much suitable for a battlefield, especially for cavalry armies. According to some local traditions the battle was fought close to a Stone Age burial mound called Königsbarg, which is said to have served as a commander's hill for King Valdemar.

Korner, writing for his Lübeck audience, claims that the German coalition was led by the city's mayor, Alexander von Soltwedel. However, this is most certainly legend, not least since Alexander was probably only born in the 1230s and became member of the Lübeck City Council only around 1256. Consequently, it is most likely that the coalition forces were led by Count Adolf IV, and that his troops stood at the center of the German army. Facing them were, most likely, King Valdemar's II core Danish forces. Both leaders' respective allies stood to the left and right of the commanders' main troops, with the Slavic princes of Mecklenburg securing the rear of the German host, and the Dithmarscher levy being positioned behind the Danish lines. We do not know how many and which kinds of troops were present that day, but likely an assortment of some heavy knights - mainly the princes and a number of local knights and lesser nobles -, some lighter cavalry, and numerous contingents of infantry, including spearman, archers and crossbowmen.

The Battle of Bornhöved, 13th century painting
Source: Wikimedia

The battle is reported to have been bloody and exhaustingly long with neither armies making much success, and the men must have suffered greatly on that hot, summer day. The tide only turned when the Dithmarscher levy defected from King Valdemar and attacked the Danish rear. Now attacked from two sides, the Danes suffered a heavy defeat, losing thousands of men as casualties and prisoners. Among those taken hostage were Bishop Tuve of Ribe and Duke Otto of Lüneburg. Valdemar himself only barely managed to escape the carnage, having had his eye gouged out in combat.

Illustration of the Battle of Bornhöved from Heinrich Rehbein's Lübecker Chronik (1619).
Source: Wikimedia

1.3 Aftermath

Following the German coalition's victory, Count Adolf IV successfully reclaimed the County of Holstein, while Duke Albert I reaffirmed his position as the liege-lord of the Counts of Schwerin and Holstein. Dithmarschen remained an independent peasant republic formally under the Prince-Archbishopric of Bremen. Lübeck was recognized with all rights as a Free Imperial City, while Hamburg returned under the rule of the Counts of Holstein. Duke Otto remained in captivity until January 1229, when he was released for a hefty ransom. In Denmark, King Valdemar II focused on domestic politics and made peace with his former enemies, marrying his third son Abel to Adolf IV's daughter Mechthild.

Beyond these personal and immediate effects on the warring parties, the Battle of Bornhöved had a lasting impact on the political and territorial landscape of the Baltic Sea region. It solidified the loss of Denmark's northern German territories and meant the end of Danish hegemony in the north. The border between Denmark and the HRE was firmly established at the Eider River, aligning with the southern border of the Danish Duchy of Schleswig. This border configuration remained in place until 1806, when the HRE was dissolved. On the other hand, the victory enabled the North German princes and cities to expand their sphere of influence, trade, and power: it created the conditions for the rise of Lübeck as the leading Hanseatic city, the formation of the German Order State, and later the unification of Schleswig and Holstein under state law (1460).

The borders after the Battle of Bornhöved 1227
Source: Pinterest

2. The Miniature Project

Over the coming months, my goal is to learn more about the history of Northern Germany in the 13th century, and especially the people who participated in the political and military events around the Battle of Bornhöved - and to visualize that history through vignettes and small dioramas. These scenes will include miniature versions of the main commanders and political and military leaders such as Count Adolf, Archbishop Gerhard of Bremen, King Valdemar II of Denmark, and Duke Otto of Braunschweig - but also attempts at portraying less prominent participants such as local nobles and rural levies. In that, I will try my best to be true to the historical sources as much as possible, but will need to make educated guesses from time to time. When in doubt, I will invoke the principle of artistic license :-)

2.1 Upcoming posts

I do not know yet how many individual miniatures or vignettes this project will entail, nor how long it will go, or how often I will post on it. My current guess is: as long as I remain interested in the topic, feel motivated to do a bit of research on the characters, and feel challenged by painting chainmail NMM and more or less elaborate coats of arms, I will continue on. There might be weeks or months in which I do not do anything related to the Bornhöved project, and there definitely will be other projects in between that will keep me distracted... But for now, I am super-excited to embark on that multi-media deep-dive into a fascinating period of Northern European medieval history.

Thanks for being a part of this. Talk to you soon!

Best, D.


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