Jørgen Bjelke (1621-1696) and the Wars of 1657-1658 and 1658-1660

Jørgen Bjelke

Prospect over the siege of Trondheim in 1658.

In 1657 he led a successful campaign that restore the counties of Jämtland and Härjedalen, lost in the Peace of Brömsebro in 1645. But when the Swedes threatened the Capital Copenhagen, he not only had to relinquish his conquest. His native Trøndelag was also lost in the Peace of Roskilde (1658). However, under his leadership, the fight was renewed and Trøndelag liberated in 1658.

Jørgen Bjelke was the youngest son of Chancellor Jens Bjelke. He studied in Paris and received officer training in the French army. When Hannibal feud broke out in 1643, he returned home to fight for Denmark. Jørgen Bjelke achieved rank of captain, and because of his experience in continental warfare, he was sent to Holland to recruit officers and acquire weapons. Holland was the world’s leader in trade and technology and a natural place to acquire weapons for war. In June 1643 Jørgen Bjelke returned to Denmark with 272 officers and non-commissioned officers, as well as a plethora of weapons.

Second Peace of Brömsebro, 1645. Green: Sweeden; Light Brown: Denmark-Norway; Yellow: Provinces of Jämtland & Härjedalen, islands of Gotland & Ösel - Ceded to Sweden; Red: Province of Halland, Ceded to Sweden for 30 years.

After the war 1643-1645 his brother Henrik went to Holland to get his naval education and Jørgen got practice the art of war as colonel during 30 Years' War, after he in 1645 entered the German emperor's army (it was apparently no problem that Denmark had been in war with the Holy Roman Empire a few years earlier). By Christian IV's death in 1648, his father was still chancellor, brother Ove commandant of Bergenhus, Henrik governor in Iceland and Jørgen Lord of Idd and Marker. The brothers were in other words central to the country's defense and he personally covered the cost building the defense ship St. Peter with 30 cannons. Bjelkeslektens biographer, Ole Jakob Johansen, gave the following description of his office:

As feudal lord was Jørgen Bjelke was held in very high regard. He had inherited his father's humanity and empathy, he had also inherited Mrs Ingerds boundless energy and assertiveness.

Lt. Gen. Jørgen Bjelke.

He later became lord of Agder and Bratsberg (Telemark), where he took the initiative to start a lumber company to rationalize timber exports from the region. He also stood behind the construction of Lindesnes lighthouse.

May 11, 1657 Jørgen Bjelke was appointed supreme commander Nordafjells (the northern half of Norway). In early July, he arrived and took over the military command. He was only 36 years old and had until then not held any higher rank than Major in Denmark-Norway. The King therefore added to his appointment the condition that he would confer with the elder Governor in Trondheim, Peder Wibe. The Danish King Frederik III had ascended the throne in 1648 and wanted to revise the Peace of Brömsebro (1645). He forged alliances with Holland and when Sweden became bogged down in a war in Poland in 1657, he seized the opportunity and declared war in February 1657. Krabbe War were named after the commander of Båhus fortress, Iver Krabbe. However, the defensive treaty with the Dutch were canceled out as Denmark was the aggressor. In Norway Niels Trolle was Viceroy and nominally CinC, but it was Jørgen Bjelke who led the military buildup in Norway. He and his brothers held many of the leading positions during the subsequent campaign.

Norwegian soldiers, ca. 1657. The Norwegian Army did not yet have standardized uniforms (ill. A. Bloch).

Jämtland and Härjedalen had been lost by the treaty of Brömsebro, and the front line in the Danish-Swedish struggle for hegemony in the Nordic countries had moved closer to Trondheim. The defense of the city, however, was neglected by both Christian 4. (1588-1648) and Frederik 3. (1609-1670), who was more interested in reclaiming lost lands than defending the remaining possessions. Peter Wibe, who took over as Governor in Trondheim in 1656, tried in vain to remedy this. But Copenhagen was not interested in the sending troops, and the town’s population would not bear the cost of fortifying it.

After the outbreak of War, Lieutenant General Jørgen Bjelke marched from Trondheim on August 25, 1657 with over 2,500 men from the 1st and 2nd Thronhjemske Regiment. The objective was Jämtland and Härjedalen. The original Thronhjemske Regiment was now divided into two, and led by the officers hired in Holland and France. These proved to be of various quality, and they and the men had difficulty understanding each other. Soldiers conduct during the preparations had also caused the urban population of Trondheim much bother.
The Swedes withdrew before them, employing scorched earth tactics. Under way, Lieutenant Colonel Otto Budde, one of Bjelke’s regimental commanders, met a local who told that Swedish captain of the cavalry Henrik Hannemann, the Commandant of Refsund fort, had bragged that one Swede could beat ten Norwegians in close combat. Budde answered the challenge and headed for Refsund. After only a few hours battle, the Swedish dragoons fled, leaving 180 horses and a lot of equipment.

Norwegian musketeer 1659 (ill. A. Hauge).

The Norwegian columns met again at Frösö fort and begun the siege, which was to last for ten weeks. Meanwhile, a 600 man detachment took control of Härjedalen. The defense of Jämtland was led by Major General Carl Sparre, commander of Helsinge Regiment. The troops were seasoned and came straight from the campaign in Poland. But Sparre himself remained in Sundsvall and handed command of Frösö to Major Jon Andersson Myra, who led an extensive repair work at the fort. The Norwegian troops surrounded the fort and began the painstaking work of digging trenches until they surrounded the Swedes. They made several counterattacks that were repulsed.

On November 18, the Swedes had run out of both food and ammunition. A counteroffensive led by Baron Lorentz Creutz did not succeed in breaking the siege, and major Myra had to give up. A number of additional successful operations were carried out by Norwegian troops. But Bjelkes victory would soon be squandered by events farther south. The fighting in the south had surged back and forth and in October 1657 Norwegian and Danish troops were successful and about to make contact in Scania. But on Jutland, the situation became critical especially after Frederiksodde fell on 24 October 1657. In January and February the Swedish troops could cross the frozen sea, and on February 11 came ashore on Sealand and threatened Copenhagen. It came to peace negotiations in Roskilde, and Norway had to cede Båhuslän, Jämtland, Härjedalen and Trondheim County with North Møre and Romsdal. Denmark lost Skåne, Blekinge, Bornholm and Halland. The Swedes went immediately started to issue new taxes and erect new tariff barriers, which put further financial strain on the region. Furthermore, 2,000 Norwegians were conscripted and sent to Livonia, not least because the Swedes wanted to empty the region of potential rebels. 28 percent of the force deserted on the march through Sweden, but it is not known that more than one of the reminding returned to Norway alive.

Peace of Roskilde 1658. Green: Sweden; Light Brown: Denmark-Norway; Yellow: Provinces of Skåne, Blekinge and Bohuslän - Ceded to Sweden; Red: Province of Halland, now permanently ceded to Sweden. Purple: Trøndelag, later retrieved in the 1658-1660 War.

Peace of Roskilde was extremely disadvantageous for Denmark-Norway, and nobody thought peace would last. But the next war came faster than expected. Instead of consolidating his conquest, Charles 10. Gustav of Sweden wanted to deal Denmark a deathblow. He probably also overestimated the popular discontent with Frederik III in Denmark-Norway. In addition, the Swedish king already had his army on war footing, and it would take time and resources to gather it again. Charles 10. Gustav's declaration of war came on August 7, 1658. Complete defeatism reigned in Copenhagen. Neither the king nor his council seems able to lead. But Jørgen Bjelke managed to convince Frederik III to continue the fight and he promised Norway would hold its own if he only got the necessary authorizations, which he did. Bjelke was then appointed commander of all Danish-Norwegian forces in Norway.

Under the pretext that he would switch sides, Bjelke had questioned a Swedish envoy on whether Charles Gustav planned some new campaign. The envoy revealed that was the case ---- before the declaration of war existed. Bjelke returned to Oslo on August 2. Together with his father, Chancellor Jens Bjelke, and Viceroy Trolle he began to prepare the country for new war. The strategy was to engage in defensive war in the south, while an offensive would be launched to win back Mid-Norway. Orders of preparation were issued and the population of the occupied territories encouraged to rebel. A Swedish force laid siege to Copenhagen, but since Charles Gustav had declared war, Holland came to Denmark’s rescue and the Swedes failed to blockade Copenhagen and several attempts to storm the city were also unsuccessful. The southern Norwegian fortress Fredriksten also repulsed several Swedish attacks.

Frederik III of Denmark-Norway (ill. Wolfgang Heimbach).

Bjelkes offensive to liberate Trøndelag was two pronged. Jørgen’s brother, Ove, organized a task force from Bergenhus Regiment with 7-8 companies transported by sea, escorted by three Man-O-Wars. On September 28 they landed outside Trondheim and begun the hard work of hauling supplies and digging trenches in preparation of the siege. Along came soldiers from the local regiments who had been evacuated after the surrender the previous year. 299 volunteers from North Norway also reported for duty. Meanwhile, the Akershusiske- and Oppland Regiments also arrived after marching up through the valleys and took up positions west of the town. Swedish attempts to reinforce the garrison in Trondheim was cut down, the most celebrated battle taking place on October 2 when a force of 500 Swedes were ambushed and slaughtered in Verdal. About 4,000 Norwegian troops with 48 cannon were now deployed, the bulk engaging the 750 Swedish troops in Trondheim.

From October 4, Trondheim was subject of a merciless bombardment. Cannon shot were heated until glowing red and would set off blazing fires when hitting the mostly wooden buildings in the town. Diseases were rampant on both sides as well as the civilian population. Some companies were reduced by up to 20 %. On October 17, the Swedes made a successful counterattack, taking 46 prisoners, but another attempt two days later failed and several Swedish soldiers were captured. In early November, negotiations for a Swedish surrender begun and on December 17, the Swedes capitulated.

Charles X Gustav of Sweden (ill. Sébastien Bourdon).

Without Bjelkes rapid mobilization and insertion of troops from Eastern and Western Norway, the Swedes would quickly have strengthened their position and made it considerably more difficult, if not impossible, to liberate Trondheim. Bjelke was also dependent on quickly releasing his troops for deployment in the south, and the conditions capitulation were lenient as the Swedes could march off with their weapons and standards. Civilians in the area had suffered during the state of war, yet had it rendered substantial assistance to the Norwegian forces. The war had shown how strategically exposed Trondheim had been after the cession of Jämtland and Härjedalen. The axis Trondheim - Östersund was the northernmost route with sufficient population density and infrastructure to be able to sustain military expeditions. And the Swedes could try to acquire a corridor to the Atlantic and simultaneously cut Norway in half. The war led to the slow realization in Copenhagen that the defenses in Trondheim had to be improved, leading to the construction of Kristiansten Fortress in 1681, after the town had burned to the ground.

In the Peace of Copenhagen in 1660, Denmark-Norway regained Trøndelag and the island of Bornholm. However, Scandia and Bohuslän, Blekinge and Halland were permanently lost. Had Bjelke made different priorities, the map of modern Norway would have looked different.

The Bjelke monument in Trondheim. A copy of another monument on the family estate at Austrått.