The Order of the Dannebrog – the chivalrous brotherhood dedicated to the royal Danish flag, the “cloth of the Danes” was founded by Christian V, King of Denmark and Norway, in the year 1671, to celebrate the birth of his heir Frederick. In 1693, the fraternity officially received statutes mandating that it was to include the monarch, his sons, and fifty high-born and worthy Danish knights. This aristocratic nature of the order was reformed in 1808, when it was given an internal structure of classes based on the system of the Legion of Honour of France, and strict requirements of noble birth were removed.

The Order of the Dannebrog exists to this days as a high-ranking award of Denmark, second only to the prestigious Order of the Elephant. Its badge – a cross pattée with an extended lower arm – bears three dates that commemorate its history. 1671 is the year the order was founded, and 1808 when it was reformed; the third date – 1219 – is the year when King Valdemar II launched a crusade against pagan Estonians and the Battle of Lindanise took place in the location of today’s city of Tallinn.

Badge of the Order of the Dannebrog

According to legend, the Danes received their national flag in the midst of this battle, as it well from the heavens as a sign of divine favour. The Dannebrog – bearing a white Latin cross on field of red – was indeed adopted as a symbol of Danish monarchy and the realm in the Middle Ages, but it is recorded as a royal standard only in the 1380s. The legend of the flag falling from the sky first came to the fore as late as in the 1520s, when two Danish historians, Christiern Pedersen and Petrus Olai, both recorded it in their works. Although there was no mention of Tallinn in these early versions of the legend, over the course of the following century it came to be associated with the 1219 crusade of Valdemar II and the Battle of Lindanise, clearly taking such a canonical form by the time of Christian V.

Contemporary sources make no mention of Dannebrog during the Battle of Lindanise, but they do contain an interesting tale of Catholic princes vying for dominance in the eastern Baltic lands, and valiant attempts of native Estonians to resist the foreign Christian invaders. As we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Battle of Lindanise, let us delve into these holy wars and political intrigue behind the legend of the Dannebrog.

King Takes Bishop?

In the beginning of the 13th century, the lands that today form the countries of Estonia and Latvia were home to different Finnic and Baltic peoples who had retained paganism as the basis of their culture and beliefs during the era when Europe to the west had grown thoroughly Catholic, and Russia to the east had accepted the Orthodox faith. Perceived by their Christian neighbours as dangerous pagans, often pirates and raiders, these people eventually became a target for missionary work, and soon thereafter – crusades.

Coat of arms of the Bishopric of Riga in the Siebmachers Wappenbuch completed in 1605

The Christianisation of the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea – the territories that became known as medieval Livonia, after the Finnic tribe of Livs – was mostly carried out by German clerics. Most influential of them was Albert Buxhoeveden, the third Bishop of Livonia. Building upon the groundwork laid by his two episcopal predecessors, in 1201, he founded the city of Riga, nowadays the capital of Latvia, to serve as the seat of the church province. Albert spent roughly half of his time in office travelling in Germany, garnering support among the magnates of the Holy Roman Empire, and convincing knights to take the crusader vow and defend the young Bishopric of Livonia from local pagans.

The leaders of this German missionary faction based in Riga were of fairly modest birth themselves, stemming from the unfree ministeriales of the Holy Roman Empire – retainers of the higher nobility. Nevertheless, against the odds, they still succeeded in converting and bringing under their rule the native inhabitants of Livonia. Their main military forces were made up of crusaders who periodically came to wage war against pagans as a form of penance. The religious military order of the Sword Brethren, founded in Riga in 1202, usually led their campaigns. Over the course of about fifteen years, the Rigans subjugated northern Latvian lands, and conquered the southern provinces of Estonia. 

The Germans of Riga were rivalled by a powerful Catholic contender, however: Valdemar II, the King of Denmark, who also had his eye fixed on these pagan lands. Scandinavian rulers had often plundered the people living across the Baltic Sea – and the latter had answered with their own raids in Sweden and Denmark – but Valdemar now sought a lasting conquest.

Annoyed by the expansion of the German faction led by Bishop Albert – a minor ecclesiastical lord in the eyes of the king – Valdemar though it appropriate to reduce the prelate to the status of a royal dependee. The two men met in the Schleswig, in southern Denmark, in the summer of 1218. The king then declared that he would launch a crusade against the Estonians the next year. At that point, the Rigans probably recognised the monarch as an overlord of all conquered and converted Estonian lands, perhaps even as suzerain all of Livonia, effectively submitting to his power – at least the Danes claimed so later.

The royal seal of King Valdemar II of Denmark

We do not excactly know what happened in Schleswig, since our main source for the Livonian crusades is the chronicle of a German priest called Henry – a loyal servant and close associate of Bishop Albert. His description of the events is detailed and fascinating, but at certain spots remarkably biased, since its goal was to refute the Danish claims to Estonia, and present the papal curia in Rome with a convincing narrative that would explain how the conversion of Livonia was entirely the work of Rigan missionaries, and certainly not an effort of the Danes.

Hence, Henry does not elaborate what Bishop Albert promised to King Valdemar in Schleswig, but it may have very well amounted to complete obedience. This does not mean, however, that the Rigans  intented to respect that agreement. After meeting the king, Bishop Albert immediately travelled to Germany to seek the support the Duke of Saxony.


Albert I of Saxony belonged to the noble House of Ascania, renowned for earlier crusades against pagan West Slavic peoples of the southern Baltic – known as the Wends. He was born in mid-1170s or in the beginning of the following decade, certainly during a successful time for his family. This was because, in 1180, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I seized the extensive holdings of his disloyal vassal, the ambitious Henry the Lion, who was at that time himself the Duke of Saxony. The emperor thereafter gave these confiscated lands in fief to other north German lords, among whom was Albert’s father, Bernhard, Count of Anhalt, who then became the new ruler of Saxony.

In 1212, Albert inherited his father’s titles and lands, but his reign began amid political tumult on several fronts. Most furious and well-known was the battle over the imperial throne, in which the Ascanians of Saxony sided with Otto IV of House Welf, who was opposed by Frederick II of House Staufen. After dramatic military struggles and court intrigue, the latter eventually reigned victorious, but despite having supported the defeated Welf dynasty, all ended well for Albert. He retained his rights and holdings under the rule of the victorious Staufen emperor.

Woodcut depicting Albert I, Duke of Saxony, from ca 1550.

Another war raging even closer to Albert’s holdings in Saxony, had at the same time born out of the aspirations of the King of Denmark, the same Valdmar II who we have already met. He had subjugated north German lands up to the River Elbe, and his dominance in regional politics locked many local princes, including Albert, into a vicious struggle against him.

Lands under the rule of the Danish king in early 13th century

These two conflicts were closely connected: in fact, the Welf dynasty had been a historical rival to the House of Ascania for decades, and Albert’s unlikely support for Otto IV derived from the fact that the Staufen side aligned with the King of Denmark and authorised his expansion. After the death of Otto IV, in the spring of 1218, Albert made peace with Valdemar, but the monarch emerged as the clear winner from the conflict, and the duke’s frustration at this outcome made him a likely proponent of the cause of the Rigan crusaders against their royal competitor. In the summer of 1218, therefore, Albert of Riga arrived in a largely pacified Germany where he could muster a powerful ally.

If Bishop Albert was to retain a dominant role in Livonia, he needed heavy hitters to back him up in his competition with the King of Denmark. It is likely that the prelate asked Duke Albert to become the patron of the Livonian church. On the one hand, this prospect presented the duke with an opportunity to hinder the plans of his Danish rival, who ruled over northern German lands to which Albert held a claim. On the other hand, it could have helped bolster his standing in the Holy Roman Empire, since as a former supporter of the defeated House of Welf, the duke’s  position was somewhat fragile.

Bishop Albert could also make use of a recent development regarding holy wars. Just in 1217, Pope Honorius III had promised a plenary indulgence to all crusaders who would go to Livonia, raising these expeditions to the same status as military pilgrimages to the Holy Land. In addition to receiving the remission of all punishment for his sins – which must have been a compelling incentive in itself – Duke Albert would benefit from temporal privileges. The property of crusaders was placed under papal protection, and Albert could therefore leave with an easier heart, having an ecclesiastical guarantee that his holdings were safe from political rivals.

The Dannebrog Falls

Bishop Albert and his ducal namesake, marked with the cross of a penitent crusader, set off from the port of Lübeck at the head of a great North German host in July of 1219. If we are to believe the legends surrounding the Dannebrog, the Danes must have already had won their famous victory over the Estonians by that time – the epic battle at Lindanise is of course told to have taken place on June 15th.

This date, however, is far too convenient, so to say, to be trusted as a credible historical fact. It is the feast day of Saint Vitus, associated with another great Danish crusading trimph – the conquest and destruction of the West Slavic pagan fortress and temple of Arkona on the island Rügen (in today’s northeast Germany), in 1168. Achieving two great victories over the pagans on exactly the same date barely fifty years apart is certainly too fantastic of a coincidence – even when it comes to divine providence – to simply be accepted as an objective description of events.

King Valdemar I (father of Valdemar II) and the Archbishop Absalon topple the pagan statue in the temple of Arkona in 1168. Painting by Laurits Tuxen.

From contemporary sources we find neither the date, 15th of June, nor any mention of Dannebrog itself, but chronicles do provide us with a rather captivating description of Valdemar’s campaign. His fleet – allegedy 1500 ships (although historians consider roughly 100 much more plausible) – made landfall at the well-known prehistoric North Estonian harbour site and important trade emporium Lindanise, where today lies the city of Tallinn. There was no fighting initially, native nobles came to meet the king, and accepted both the royal gifts and the baptism of Danish clerics.

The crusaders then started constructing a stone fortress on the nearby Toompea hill, which came to be known simply as castrum Danorum – “castle of the Danes”, or for Estonians “Taani linn”, which was conveniently shortened to “Tallinn”, the name that the capital city bears to this day. This fortress could not be completed in peace, however, since three days after the king had landed, a mighty force of Estonians suddenly attacked the Danish camp from five directions, and massive bloodshed ensued.

The crusaders nearly collapsed under the fierce assault of the Estonian host, but still managed to rally and hold their line. According to legend, Anders Sunesen, the Archbishop of Lund, was praying to God for support, and thus the Lord bestowed crusaders with courage. When the archbishop’s arms tired and he lowered them, however, the pagans again gained the upper hand in battle – so servants supported the prelate’s arms when Anders himself could not hold them up towards the sky any longer. Eventually, as the archbishop was losing his last strength and the Estonians had almost forced the Danes into the sea, the miracle transpired – the Dannebrog fell from the heavens, inspiring the crusaders, who then won the day.

The narrative in contemporary 13th century chronicles has a lot less miraculous events and romantic feats of willpower mustering divine aid, but what the historical sources do lay out, is an epic struggle nevertheless.

Archbishop Anders Sunesen in the Battle of Lindanise.

Reportedly, the Estonians did attack from all directions, dealing devastating blows to the invaders. The Danish army was forced towards their ships in a bloody retreat. There is not mention of Archbishop Sunesen praying, but the Estonians did slaughter Theoderic, the man who had been appointed Bishop of Estonia, mistaking his tent for the king’s.

Artist’s depiction of a historical reconstruction of Danish warriors in the Battle of Lindanise, Osprey Publishing

According to Henry’s chronicle, the tide of battle was turned not by a flag falling from the sky, but the arrival of crusader reinforcements. Vitislav, the Prince of Rügen, a Slavic nobleman who was a vassal of the Danish king, had camped further away with his troops. As they suddenly rode to battle, their charge shattered Estonian ranks, and the Danish host routed the broken enemy. In an interesting twist of fate, it was the Prince of Rügen, whose homeland had been conquered in a Danish crusade fifty years earlier, who brought victory to the Christians.

Paper Beats Rock

Meanwhile, Duke Albert of Saxony reached the city of Riga. Somewhat unexpectedly, he was not in a hurry to take control of Estonians lands to the north, where the Danes had not yet reached. Instead, Bishop Albert turned the ducal forces south, to the also still pagan lands of Semigallia, where an unexpected opportunity to expand the borders of the German church province suddenly presented itself. It was probably a safer bet for Bishop Albert to conquer lucrative territories further south than to quarrel with the powerul King of Denmark over Estonia.

In the spring of the next year, 1220, however, the Rigans did march northward with the Duke of Saxony at their head. Another valuable 13th century source, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, tells us that as crusaders were preparing to move, with the war bells of Riga ringing in the background, the flag of the Virgin Mary, patroness of the Livonian church, was trusted to the care of the duke himself, who, in turn, honoured one of his knights with the privilege of carrying this important standard.

Coins minted in Saxony, depicting Duke Albert as a crusader – with a shield in one hand and a pilgrim’s staff in the other

There is another meaningful detail in that description: Duke Albert himself wielded the staff of the Marshal of the Holy Roman Empire – in display of the prominent office he held, as the high commander of all imperial forces in times of war. This symbol would have stood out during the following expedition, since the Holy Roman Emperor was the highest secular authority in the Catholic world, and could well decide who has rights to which lands and what titles – including the newly conquered and converted east Baltic territories. With the Marshal of the Empire present, and his knights carrying the banner of the Virgin, the Rigans could easily appeal to imperial legitimisation of their conquests.

Hence, the Rigans they marched out confidently, easily crusing a host of Estonians in a chance encounter while on the road, and eventually setting up camp only a day’s journey or so away from the Danish fortress in Tallinn. They proceeded to raid the surrounding countryside, with the aim of forcing Estonian leaders to surrender – which they soon did, accepting Rigan rule and baptism, and relinquishing their sons as hostages.

It was at that time when Danish envoys arrived from Tallinn, dispatched by Archbishop Anders Sunesen, the viceroy of King Valdemar in Estonia. In the version of events recorded in Henry’s chronicle they claimed that “all of Estonia belongs to the King of Denmark, since it had been given to him by the bishops of Livonia.” They also demanded that hostages relinquised by the Estonians should be given to them. The claim seems bold, considering the Germans actually had the upper hand.

The Rigans are told to have replyed that they are “quite unaware of the gift of Estonia to the King of Denmark, and recounted in the presence of the Saxon duke and everybody who was gathered there with them, how all of Estonia had been subjected to the Christian faith by the Rigans under the banner of the Blessed Virgin.” Nevertheless – for reasons left unexplained by Henry’s chronicle – they still agreed to cede the Estonian hostages and retreat, in effect abandoning the lands they had just conquered. Why would they respond so strangely to Danish demands?

We will never know for sure, but it seems very likely that the Danes presented the Rigans with some impressive charters. Around the time when Bishop Albert met King Valdemar in Schleswig, several Danish ambassadors had been very active in the curia of the pope in Rome.

The Danish conquerors laid the first foundations for the castle of Tallinn, seen here in a vastly extended form on a 17th-century chalcograph by Adam Olearius

Denmark was the main ally of the Papacy in northern Europe and could easly achieve the support of the papal curia. The Danish monarchy and church had made use of their good relationship with Rome, and acquired papal charters – that exist to this day – confirming the king’s right to rule over all pagan lands he manages to conquer and baptise around the Baltic Sea. It seems probable that the Danes presented these very charters to the Rigans during the meeting in Estonia.

The oldest charter preserved in Estonia, a letter of the papal legate.

Henry provides a charmingly declamatory report of the confrontation in his chronicle, but avoids mentioning such charters, since that would have undermined his anti-Danish rhetoric. It seems likely, however, that the Rigans were forced to back off by persuasive arguments and evidence about the legal primacy of the King of Denmark. Even with the Marshal of the Empire present, imperial legitimation could not compete with papal decisions in such matters. Any bellicose solution to the situation would have been far too rash at this point (although the conflict did later take a violent turn) so the Germans simply backed off. Despite the efforts of Duke Albert, the King of Denmark was to become the overlord in northern Estonia.

Hence, despite the glorious legends singing praise to the miraculous appearance of the Dannebrog that won they day for the Danes, the competition of mighty crusader princes came to be solved by a fastidiously written charter. Yet, one would find it hard to dedicate a noble order of chivalry to a piece of paper, so perhaps we are better off rather remembering the legend.