[FTAWTTT] 10 December: Corfitz Ulfeldt

Corfitz UIfeldt in his glory days.
Corfitz UIfeldt in his glory days.

Name: Corfitz Ulfeldt

Tagline: Starting out as the king’s valet, Ulfeldt was a rising star, but ended up as a hated man, exiled from two countries.

Claim to Fame: Ulfeldt is widely known as the greatest traitor Denmark has ever known.

Corfitz Ulfeldt (1606-1664) started off his life the same way as many other noblemen: serving at the court of King Christian IV. He soon gained the position as the king’s personal valet. This was a very coveted position, as it put Ulfeldt in charge of organising the king’s day, and gave him time alone with the king several times a day – a great opportunity for a charming young man to gain the king’s trust. Which is exactly what Ulfeldt did.

And he also managed to translate his position with the king into tangible benefits for himself. He was engaged to the king’s daughter (with his mistress, not with the queen), Leonora Christine, and in 1636, he was appointed as a member of the Council of State. In 1637 he was made Chamberlain of the Castle of Copenhagen, and in 1643 he added Steward of the Realm to his titles. This title also included the responsibility for collecting the Sound Dues, a major source of income for Denmark (and created by King Eric of Pomerania).

But his fortunes did not last. In 1648, the king died. His eldest son and heir designate, Christian, had died, leaving the king with one son, Frederick. Frederick was not confirmed as heir, though, so it took some time to appoint him as the next king, though no other candidate could be considered. In the meantime Ulfeldt ruled as Steward of the Realm.

Ulfeldt and the Council of state saw the situation as a great opportunity to gain power for themselves. In the end, the king had to sign a very strict compact with the Council, severely limiting what he could and could not do. Rumor say, though, that he remembered how his brother-in-law had worked against him.

Then later, in 1651, a conflict arose around Ulfeldt. The king accused him of embezzling a lot of money from the sound dues. Ulfeldt was forced to flee across the sound to Sweden.

There, he started agitating to get the Swedish king to invade Denmark. And when in 1657, the Swedish king decided to attack Denmark, Ulfeldt loaned him a significant sum of money (that was probably embezzled from Denmark in the first place). He also joined the army, and fought alongside the Swedish king against his former countrymen.

The war was a success for the Swedes. They invaded all of Denmark, apart from Copenhagen, and Denmark had to sign a humiliating peace treaty. After the war, Ulfeldt was appointed as the administrator of the conquered lands.

His favour in Stockholm soon ran out, though. Accusations were raised against him. Amongst others he was accused of having warned the Danes of an imminent attack on Copenhagen, allowing them to mount a successful defence. This kept Copenhagen in Danish hands.

Facing these charges, Ulfeldt fled back across the sound to Denmark. Where the king immediately arrested him for his old and new offences. He and his wife were sent to Hammershus on the island of Bornholm. They were released by the king, though, in return for reneging all their possessions.

And so Ulfeldt retired into obscurity like a sensible bloke, right? No, of course not! In 1662, he was visiting the Elector in Brandenburg, when he offered to raise a rebellion in Denmark in order to make the Elector king in Denmark. The elector told the king what Ulfeldt had said, though, and the couple were hunted once more.

Leonora Christine was captured after going to visit her family in England, but Ulfeldt himself was never caught. Instead, the king decided to execute him in absentia and in effigy: They executed a puppet filled with pig’s entrails that had been left a while to fester.

Ulfeldt himself died a few years later on board a boat on the Rhine. His house in Copenhagen was levelled, and instead, the king put up a Pillar of Shame for people to spit upon, and remember the greatest traitor Denmark had ever known.

The Pillar of Shame still sits in the National Museum. I don’t think people spit at it any more. Photo: Nationalmuseet, CC BY SA 3.0.

How would I use him: Ulfeldt is a perfect example of an ambitious courtier. He plays the game of politics, and he wins some and he loses some. This obviously makes him perfect for any kind of intrigue story, in which different people have different agendas they want to fulfil.

He is also an example of how to spin a national story: by spitting upon the Pillar of Shame, you remind yourself and people around you that Ulfeldt is someone you should have.

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