Conquest of Dithmarschen, 1559

A.) Prehistory

Dithmarschen, a region of farmland defended from episodic inundation by dykes, located in western Holstein, since the middle ages had a particular political constitution. The area was a Landesgemeinde, a medieval-style peasant republic; it had escaped feudalization and was ruled by peasant farmers. For long, it had been regarded as belonging to the territories of the Archbishop of Bremen, residing at Stade, and on Imperial diets it was represented by these. However, the Archbishops exerted little authority in Dithmarschen; in all practicality, Dithmarschen administered her own affairs.
The status of Dithmarschen as a territory pf the Archbishops of Bremen was questioned by Emperor Frederick III. who granted it to King Christian I. of Denmark; the latter, however, failed to enforce his claim (but his successors would try again).
The Lutheran Reformation had questioned the (theoretical) protection by the church Dithmarschen enjoyed, and princes nearby regarded the country a potential prize. One such attempt to conquer Dithmarschen was made jointly by King Hans I. of Denmark and Duke Frederick of Holstein in 1500; the invading force of 12,000 men was defeated by the Dithmarschers in the Battle of Hemmingstedt, and the prized liberty of the Dithmarschers had been defended, for the time being.
The Imperial diet was willing to recognize Dithmarschen, under the condition that she sent representatives to the diet and contributed her share in taxation. This opportunity was considered, but in the end passed on by the Dithmarschers, who wanted to avoid the financial burden. Their political constitution thus lacked recognition within the Empire.

B.) The War

In 1559, King Frederick II. of Denmark and Dukes Adolf and John of Holstein concluded a treaty in which they agreed on the conquest and partition of Dithmarschen. An army of 25,000 invaded the country (May 22nd); in the Battle of Heide (June 13th), it faced merely 6,000-7,000 Dithmarschers. The latter surrendered June 15th.

C.) The Legacy

Dithmarschen lost her ancient autonomy and was annexed into Holstein. When agreeing to surrender, the Dithmarschers secured the recognition of a number of privileges, including exemption of customs dues, of military service and the indigenate (i.e. administrative officials had to be Dithmarschers).

The Dithmarschen Wars, by Hans Peter Voss
Chronologie der Eroberung Dithmarschens 1559 (Chronology of the Conquest of D., 1559), posted by Volker Arnold, in German
Article Dithmarschen, from EB 1911

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 9th 2003, last revised November 17th 2004

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