The history of Koldinghus

​Koldinghus – Jutland’s last royal castle – has played an important role in the history of Denmark throughout the more than 750 years of its existence. It has served as a part of the border defences, as a royal residence, and as the seat of the local representatives of the Danish central government.

Following the disastrous fire of 1808, the castle ruin attracted considerable attention as a picturesque ruin, providing a popular source of inspiration for artists and poets. For more than a century, the ruin has been the object of restoration programmes and gradual conversion to a museum of cultural history and a venue for cultural activities.

Read the history of Koldinghus here.

​Medieval Castle

In the mid-thirteenth century, the border between the Kingdom of Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig was established along the boundary formed by Kolding Fjord, the Kolding å river and the Konge å river. Kolding arose as a trading town on this border, at the point at which road traffic between Denmark and Germany had to cross the river.

The town probably began as a trading centre in the twelfth century, but it is thought that Kolding had been granted a municipal charter by c. 1230. Erik Glipping (1259–86) built the first Koldinghus at this important crossing in 1268 to defend the kingdom’s southern border, primarily against the dukes of Schleswig, who had harboured hostile feelings towards the Danish monarchy for generations.

​Throughout the Middle Ages, the very location of Koldinghus meant that it became one of Denmark’s largest and most important strongholds. In 1320, when the nobility forced King Christoffer II (1320–26) to sign a coronation charter, according to which the major part of the royal castles in Jutland were to be demolished, Riberhus and Koldinghus were preserved. Both of these castles were located at strategically crucial sites on the southern border of the kingdom.

Shortly afterwards, the castle fell into the hands of the Holstein counts on several occasions until Valdemar Atterdag (1340–75) redeemed the mortgaged castle in 1348.

Meetings were often convened at Koldinghus and it was at Koldinghus that Queen Margrethe I (1376–1412) and Erik of Pomerania (1412–39) negotiated several times with the dukes of Schleswig over North Schleswig’s attitude to the Danish kingdom. It was there, in 1448, that King Christian I was received as the newly elected Danish king when he came to Denmark from Oldenburg in northern Germany. Meetings also took place there at regular intervals between King Christian I (1448–81) and the landed aristocracy of Schleswig-Holstein, after King Christian I had been elected Duke of Schleswig and Count of Holstein in 1460 (subsequently Duke of Holstein in 1474).

No visible traces of the earliest Koldinghus remain today, but recent archaeological investigations have indicated that, long ago, a stone building once stood on the site on which the present castle is built.

The two lowest floors of the north wing can be attributed with a reasonable degree of certainty to the time of the reign of King Christoffer III of Bavaria (1441–48), while the entire west wing must originate from the time of his successor, King Christian I. It is very likely that the west wing was built specifically with regard to the meetings held between the king and the landed aristocracy of Schleswig-Holstein. Despite subsequent remodelling, the west wing is one of the largest secular Danish stone buildings from the Middle Ages still standing.

Considering the conditions at that time, the building was splendidly fitted out, with pilasters projecting from the walls between the windowed sections of the façade facing the courtyard. Traces still remain of the Gothic windows that provided the illumination in King Christian I’s great hall.

The building reveals yet again its function as a stronghold. The west wall is considerably thicker than the wall facing the courtyard, and two embrasures dating back to the Middle Ages can still be seen on the top floor. A walled-up door can also be seen, one that led from the marksmen’s gallery on the roof to an open watchman’s gallery on the surrounding wall that closed off the courtyard towards the south and the east. It is from here that a drawbridge, dug into the top of the bank, right up against the wall, once spanned a moat that was both deep and wide. In conjunction with a further system of moats, which encircled the castle and the town, Koldinghus constituted a formidable stronghold located on the southern border of the kingdom.

Denmark’s first Renaissance castle

In 1536, King Christian III (1536–59) acceded to the Danish throne following the bloody civil war known as Grevens Fejde (the period of civil war in Denmark 1534–36). Having consolidated his power over both domestic and foreign enemies, King Christian III, together with his wife, Queen Dorothea, was able to carry out extensive renovations to Koldinghus.

All the medieval fixtures and fittings that had been used for defence purposes were removed, and conversions and extensions were undertaken so as to turn the former stronghold into a residential palace for the king and his family in the western part of the kingdom, and a future dower house for the queen. Koldinghus became the first purely residential palace in Denmark, a predecessor to King Frederik II’s magnificent Kronborg castle.

King Christian III passed away at Koldinghus on New Year’s Day 1559, and the castle then became Queen Dorothea’s dower house for twelve years. However, as King Frederik II (1559–88) did not marry during his mother’s lifetime, Queen Dorothea remained the kingdom’s first lady in her capacity as Queen Mother, and Koldinghus continued to be a centre of power in the Denmark of that time. Following Queen Dorothea’s death in 1571, the castle reverted to the king, who was King Frederik II at that time, and he made use of it as a starting point for the establishment of a large tract of royal land between the towns of Kolding and Skanderborg.

During the years around 1550, the medieval moat surrounding Koldinghus was filled in and the south wing of the castle was built in its place. The west wing, with its round-arched gateway, was added on the same occasion. It is certain that the former marksmen’s gallery in the roof of the west wing was raised and converted to a ceremonial hall.

The oldest picture of Koldinghus, dating back to 1587, shows that King Christian III and Queen Dorothea also added a stair turret to the castle, topped with a spire. In order to conceal the different periods during which reconstruction work was undertaken, the castle’s walls were rendered and whitewashed, while green slate was used for the roofing.

King Christian III and Queen Dorothea implemented the Reformation in Denmark and allowed the south-west corner of Koldinghus to be converted into the first Protestant royal chapel in Denmark, an area encompassing two storeys and with high ceilings. This was damaged by fire in 1581 and replaced a few years later by King Christian IV’s new castle chapel beneath the Great Tower. King Christian III’s chapel is commemorated within the present structure in its transformation into a lecture hall.

King Christian IV at Koldinghus

During his childhood and as a young man (1583–93), King Christian IV spent long periods at Koldinghus with a modest household staff. Among those resident at the castle were a schoolmaster, who was to provide the prince with his elementary education. The prince also had lessons in mastering the disciplines associated with chivalry, as was to be expected for a king-to-be.

Following his coronation in 1596, King Christian IV undertook the reconstruction of Koldinghus as his first major building assignment. The castle had to be not just a comfortable royal residence, but also suitable for use in conjunction with official representative functions. King Frederik II had chosen the entrance to the Sound for his Kronborg castle, a location where many seafarers made their first acquaintance with the lands under the rule of the Danish king. King Christian IV subsequently rebuilt Koldinghus in c. 1600 to provide the initial greeting to visitors approaching from the south.

This rebuilding was the result of a fire that broke out in the north wing kitchen in 1597. While the wing was being reconstructed, King Christian IV also initiated major alterations that were to provide the castle with the Great Tower, a feature of Koldinghus that stands to this day.

His grandfather’s somewhat humble chapel in the south-west corner did not conform to the concepts of royal surroundings harboured by King Christian IV. The king was God’s representative on earth, in both ecclesiastical and secular matters, which is why King Christian IV wanted a new, larger chapel to provide the framework for the official activities of the church.

This chapel was constructed as an addition to the layout of the castle on the north-west corner of the castle hill. The church interior was splendidly furnished, being laid out in a manner similar to the pattern that had emerged in other royal chapels built by the Protestant princes of northern Germany.

The chapel provided a glimpse of what was later to come in the castle chapel at Frederiksborg castle, which exists to this day. A broad nave was surrounded on three sides by a gallery, in which the specially enclosed royal seating was located. The fourth side featured a window facing north, and in front of this was the altar. The north window was subsequently walled up.

King Christian IV built a new, large ceremonial hall extending above the new chapel and along the entire length of the upper floor of the west wing. A total of 57 metres long, this great hall was second only to Kronborg in terms of its length. The king had created the right atmosphere for conducting the grand worldly acts of government, such as receiving princes and bestowing fiefdoms. The great hall also provided the backdrop for granting North Schleswig to the Duke of Gottorp in 1616. On the same occasion, the king also conferred twelve new knighthoods, issuing the knights with the newly established order of chivalry, Den væbnede Arm, an order that was only conferred once during the reign of King Christian IV.

The great hall was remodelled in the 1700s and divided into several smaller rooms. All that remains from the time of King Christian IV is what is left of the sandstone fireplace on the north wall.

Above the chapel and the great hall, King Christian IV had his Great Tower built, at the top of which four huge statues of ancient heroes or giants were placed. Each of these giants supported a shield bearing the coats of arms of the most important of the king’s lands: Hannibal with the coat of arms of Denmark, Scipio with that of Norway, Hercules with the Swedish and Hector with the coat of arms of Schleswig.

Of these figures, only Hercules remains in the original position with the Swedish coat of arms, the three crowns, which in Christian IV’s time was just as much a symbol of the Scandinavian union, and thus emphasised King Christian IV’s aspirations to sovereignty over the whole of Scandinavia.

King Christian IV had all the stair turrets within the castle courtyard renewed, and had the new towers decorated with sandstone gateways. He also saw to the renewal of the fountain that stood in the middle of the castle courtyard, with a figure representing Fortune being erected in a sandstone bowl in the shape of a scallop shell. This fountain disappeared after the castle fire in 1808.

The stableyard in front of Koldinghus took on its final, present appearance during the time of King Christian IV and his son King Frederik III. The present buildings are thought to stem from the period around 1670, but the royal stables were undoubtedly located there prior to that period, providing accommodation for the saddle horses and carriage horses belonging to the king and the court.

King Frederik IV’s Baroque castle

The Danish kings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were constantly on the move travelling the length and breadth of the country. With the introduction of absolute monarchy in 1660, however, the Danish kings took up permanent residence in Copenhagen and North Zealand, only travelling to Jutland on rare occasions. Following the wars against Germany and Sweden in the 1600s and the ensuing destruction, however, Koldinghus was maintained as the last royal castle in Jutland.

In 1711, King Frederik IV spent several months in residence at Koldinghus. A serious outbreak of plague in Copenhagen had driven out all those who were able to leave the Danish capital. At a masked ball held at Koldinghus, the king met Anna Sophie Reventlow, the very young daughter of the Danish chancellor, and fell in love with her. A year later, the king abducted her from Clausholm and entered into a morganatic marriage with her. When the queen died in 1721, King Frederik IV and Anna Sophie were married once more, and Anna Sophie thus became queen of Denmark.

A great deal of King Frederik IV’s reign took place during a time dominated by the Northern War (1709–20) between Denmark and Sweden, but peace was declared in 1720. In that same year, radical plans for modernising Koldinghus were initiated. The castle was the result of generations of building activity. The medieval wing and the Renaissance wing did not have the same distribution of floor levels, which was naturally reflected in the façades.

King Frederik IV did his best to bring Koldinghus into harmony with the Baroque architectural demands for creating order and regularity. The major part of the Renaissance gables and garrets were removed. The different storeys were evened out and new windows were installed in horizontal bands and at uniform intervals along the entire façade. The only aspect not to be altered was the distorted rectangular shape of the ground plan.

In conjunction with King Frederik IV’s remodelling of Koldinghus, the great hall disappeared. There was no longer any need for such a large room in the castle for representative functions. Official affairs of state were no longer conducted outside the capital. By that time, Koldinghus was the Danish royal family’s residential castle in the country.

King Frederik IV may have harboured ideas of further alterations to the castle’s west wing, the courtyard façade of which was decorated with a distinctive sandstone gateway featuring the king’s crowned dual monogram. It is possible that a new, more presentable main entrance to the castle had been contemplated, but this never became any more than a mere idea. The gateway’s only function is to create a focal point for the perception of the castle’s courtyard.

Fire and ruin​

Fire broke out on the night between 29 and 30 March 1808, leaving the castle in ruins within two days.

Denmark had attempted to keep out of the great confrontation sweeping across Europe in the form of the Napoleonic Wars. However, in 1807, the English attacked Copenhagen and captured the Danish fleet. The Danish government sought an alliance with France, whose emperor, Napoleon I, sent some 30,000 troops to Denmark, most of whom were Spanish. These soldiers came to Denmark under the command of Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who later became King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden.

The aim was partly to keep Denmark within the alliance and partly to contribute with a campaign against Sweden in order to regain for Denmark the lost territories of Scania, Halland and Blekinge. The campaign did not succeed and the Spanish soldiers got no further than Jutland, the Danish mainland, and the island of Fyn. Following a coup in August, they were sailed back to Spain in English ships to take part in an uprising directed against the French occupation of Spain.

In 1808, Koldinghus was an old castle in a state of disrepair. A number of the Spanish soldiers were therefore billeted there.

On 29 March, while Marshal Bernadotte was in residence at the castle, fire broke out in the chimney of the guardroom’s fireplace. Before anyone realised how serious the situation was, the fire had taken such good hold that it was impossible to extinguish. Efforts were confined to saving as many of the castle’s effects as possible and there was no loss of human life in the disastrous fire. On the second day of the fire, a section of the Great Tower collapsed and crushed the castle chapel beneath it. Koldinghus was left a charred ruin.

In the spring of 1808, Denmark found itself at war again. Copenhagen had been bombarded, and the country’s economy was in a dreadful state. As part of the peace process in 1814, Norway had to be relinquished to Sweden.

Thus nobody thought seriously of rebuilding Koldinghus. There was no need for the castle, as the prefect of the district had moved from Kolding some years before. Only the local population made use of the castle – and that was as a quarry.

In c. 1830, the storyteller Hans Christian Andersen was among those who advocated the preservation and protection of the castle ruin, and in 1863, the idea of rebuilding the castle came into being. This was delayed by the Austro-Prussian war in 1864, but some success was achieved in collecting a modest annual amount of money for the preservation of the ruin. Attention had been drawn to its picturesque qualities as an historic memorial.

When the museum known as Museet på Koldinghus was founded in 1890, the concept of rebuilding began to be taken seriously. The plan was that the castle should be rebuilt and furnished as a museum, and ever since that time, the museum has been a driving force behind the restoration.

A couple of rooms in the north wing made up the modest beginning, but the entire north wing had been reroofed within a few years. The west wing was restored during World War I, partly by means of recycling materials taken from the old building belonging to the National Library in Copenhagen, which had been converted to the Danish National Archives. The library at Koldinghus is the result of this period of restoration work.

At the beginning of the 1930s, it was feared that the Great Tower would be reduced to rubble, but funds were raised to start rebuilding the tower. A long period was to follow, during which time no rebuilding work took place, partly because of World War II and partly because of a general state of economic depression. It was only as late as the 1970s that the final, complete programme of restoration work on Koldinghus came into full swing.


The restoration was carried out under the leadership of the architects Inger and Johannes Exner, who preserved the ruin as an historic monument that makes a powerful impression. The ruin is encased and protected by a new architecture, which frames and emphasises its narrative value. An underlying principle was that the ruined parts of the structure were to be disturbed as little as possible.

The ruin stands out as being the museum’s largest and most distinguished exhibit.

In recognition of the ruin’s worn condition, the basements in the south and east wings had new foundations laid, on top of which a construction of laminated wooden pillars was erected, bearing the roof, mezzanine floors, and suspended walkways. The missing sections of wall towards the south and the east were filled in with a light wooden wall suspended from the roof construction and faced externally with a cladding of oak shingles.

During the restoration programme, conscious efforts were made to use materials that differ from those used by King Christian III and King Christian IV. The constructional elements are made of laminated wood and steel, and the façades are made of wood or modern-sized bricks. This makes it easy to distinguish the original sections of the building from those sections that were added to the ruin during the process of restoration.

The castle ruin at Koldinghus has been preserved as an important source of knowledge on the building history of the castle. The restoration work was awarded the EUROPA NOSTRA prize in 1993.