Battle of Visby: Danish Invasion Force Defeats Gotlanders

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Battle of Visby: Danish Invasion Force Defeats Gotlanders

Gotlanders defending Visby from Danish invaders (foreground)
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 27, 1361

For this week's "Trip into Military History," I present a medieval battle that came to light due to archaeological excavations that allowed historians the opportunity to examine fourteenth century armor, as well as hundreds of deceased fighting men and how they died.


The island of Gotland is situated in the Baltic Sea midway between Sweden and Latvia. It has been inhabited for nearly 5000 years, its earliest people related to the nearby Finns. Because of Gotland's location at the crossroads of the Baltic, it became a trading center. The island's capital, the town of Visby, was founded in the late ninth century AD. Its trade routes went to England, France, Germany, and Russia, perhaps even as far as Constantinople (Istanbul) in the territory of the fading Byzantine (East Roman) Empire. The port's trade lanes also threaded through the Baltic, to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The inhabitants of the island were divided between the residents of Visby – well-to-do merchants who would be completely at home in any large European port – and the farmers and other rustics of the remainder of their island-homeland. The two groups did not get along, and the residents of Visby built a city wall to protect themselves, their homes, warehouses, and goods. [Numerous portions of this city wall still exist.] The Gotlanders paid an annual tax to the King of Sweden of 60 silver pieces. In addition, they were exempt from being called up for any muster for Swedish national military service.

Map of the lower Baltic Sea, in the late Middle Ages, c. 1360; Gotland is the yellow island in the center of the map, red lines indicate major trade routes; Image courtesy of
Map of the lower Baltic Sea, in the late Middle Ages, c. 1360
Gotland is the yellow island in the center of the map, red lines indicate major trade routes
Image courtesy of

The trading town of Visby attracted merchants from Germany, Russia, and Denmark. In the mid-14th century, it also attracted the attention of Valdemar IV, King of Denmark. Europe was still suffering from the ravages of the Black Death, a virulent plague that was estimated to have killed between 33 and 66 percent of Denmark's population. Despite the widespread fatalities in his realm, the Danish monarch kept the taxes high, expecting to receive the same amount of income.

Consequently, King Valdemar decided to attack the town of Visby, for its great wealth. [The Danish king had also heard that the residents of Visby sang drinking songs to mock him.] He therefore ordered the invasion of the island to incorporate it into his kingdom.

[Sometime in May of 1361, King Magnus IV of Sweden sent a letter to some of the wealthy burghers of Visby, warning them, "…some of our enemies are conspiring…to attack your area by force of arms and a strong army."]

Danish Army

King Valdemar assembled an army of about 2000-2500 men. A large percentage of this force consisted of Danish and German mercenaries; the remainder probably was made of the king's personal bodyguard troops and the personal retinues of some of his nobles. The majority of this army was foot soldiers, equipped in coats of plates, early forms of plate armor, and chainmail. Their major weapons probably included axes, poleaxes, pikes, and billhooks. Also among the weapons were bows and possibly crossbows. The soldiers also probably carried a mixture of traditional round Viking shields, heater shields, and kite shields.

Some horses were likely brought along by King Valdemar himself, some of the nobles, and perhaps some of the mercenaries. The merchant cogs (ships used mainly for trade but also for war) were not well equipped to transport horses over long distances. However, there was likely a decent representation of mounted men in the Danish force.

Model of a 13th-15th century cog, mainly trade/merchant ship; Image courtesy of
Model of a 13th-15th century cog, mainly trade/merchant ship
Image courtesy of

Gotlander Army

The force opposing the Danish invaders was likely composed of local peasant militiamen and personal retinues of minor merchant/nobles located in Visby. It was not nearly as well trained and cohesive as the invasion force they were facing. The Gotlanders were probably wearing nothing more than leather armor – some with iron or steel plates attached to their jackets – and chainmail shirts. Head protection was at a premium, with a few leather or iron helms supplemented by chainmail coifs. Weaponry included spears, hand axes, a few battle axes and swords, and probably a large amount of farming equipment – pitchforks, pruning hooks, and similar implements, with a few hunting bows included. The Gotlanders facing the Danes numbered about 2000 men.

Prelude to the Battle

On July 22, the Danish invasion force landed on the western coast of Gotland, on a beach opposite the islands of Lilla Karlsö and Stora Karlsö, near the Kronvall fishing village. The Danish soldiers began marching north towards their objective, the port city of Visby.

The invaders met resistance near the farm settlement of Mästerby on July 25 in the central part of the island. A local force of about 1800 Gotlanders blocked the Danes' route, destroying a bridge over a steep-banked stream. The local militiamen were confident they could hold off the foreign interlopers, at least for a little while.

However, Danish scouts found a crossing and the next day they outflanked the blocking force. The Gotlanders were depending upon the heavy armor and equipment of the enemy to interfere with their ability to cross the boggy portion of the stream. Unfortunately, it had been a very dry summer, and the bog the Danes were traversing was almost completely dry. The Gotlander famers were outmaneuvered, and essentially by noon between 800 and 1000 of the local militiamen were massacred. This left the way to Visby open.

Battle of Visby

One day later – July 27 – King Valdemar and his force found themselves before the city walls of Visby. As they approached the south gate of the city, the Danish monarch observed a ragtag force of Gotlander militiamen, farmers, fishermen, and other inhabitants of Visby lined up for battle about 300 yards from the city walls. [There is no description of the dispositions of either the Danish invaders or the Gotlander defenders.] Apparently, the ruling merchant princes of Visby were scrapping the very bottom of the barrel to fill out the ranks of the defending units. Archaeological evidence indicates that at least a third of the soldiers in the Gotland battle line were children, old men, and cripples.

A section of the old city wall of Visby, image taken in 2006
A section of the old city wall of Visby, image taken in 2006

King Valdemar ordered his soldiers into formation. The Danes charged the shaky Gotlander shieldwall, and were surprised at the determined resistance by the farmers, townsmen, and militiamen. But the better training, discipline, and equipment of the invaders quickly began to prevail. The citizens of Visby, fighting for their lives and livelihood, began to fall with many brutal wounds. Within two hours, the defenders of the city were in full retreat, scurrying for the safety of the city walls. One chronicle of the battle stated that the citizens of Visby barred the city gates to keep out the local peasants.

Image from the 2011 re-enactment of the battle of Visby (Old city wall of Visby visible in the background); Image courtesy of
Image from the 2011 re-enactment of the battle of Visby
(Old city wall of Visby visible in the background); Image courtesy of


The victorious Danes suffered relatively minor casualties (somewhere between 100 and 300 men killed). The Gotlanders of Visby were nearly wiped out. Three or five mass burial pits were filled with nearly 1200 victims of the Danes. With this victory, Denmark took possession of Gotland. It remained in Danish jurisdiction for nearly 300 years.

Footnote #1: Valdemar tore down part of the Visby city wall to make his entry. Once in possession of the town, he set up three huge beer brewing vats and informed the city fathers that if the vats weren't filled with silver and gold within three days, he would turn his men loose to pillage the town, then burn it to the ground. [This type of extortion was known as "fire taxation."] To Valdemar's surprise the vats were filled before nightfall of the first day. The churches were stripped of their valuables and the riches were loaded on Danish ships and carried home to Valdemar's castle in Denmark. Valdemar added "King of Gotland" to his list of titles.

"Valdemar Atterdag [King Valdemar IV] holding Visby to ransom, 1361"; Oil on canvas painting by Carl Gustaf Hellqvist (1882) [King Valdemar is sitting under the red canopy on the right]; In the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm, Sweden
"Valdemar Atterdag [King Valdemar IV] holding Visby to ransom, 1361"
Oil on canvas painting by Carl Gustaf Hellqvist (1882)
[King Valdemar is sitting under the red canopy on the right]
In the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm, Sweden

Footnote #2: Since  at least 2011, the battle of Visby is re-enacted by mediaeval enthusiasts from all over Europe – and even the United States – during the first week of August. It is the main event of a week of mediaeval fair and events (similar to a Renaissance festival).

Footnote #3: In 1905, bored Swedish army officers ordered their men to begin digging to erect an arbor outside the city walls of Visby. Very shortly, a human skull was discovered. The island's foremost archaeologist was contacted. Shortly afterwards, serious archaeological excavations commenced, and the first of five mass graves were discovered. Nearly 1200 skeletal remains of Visby's defenders were uncovered, many still wearing their armor. [It has been speculated by historian John Keegan that the weather was so hot that the corpses had already begun to putrefy before they were stripped of valuables.] Further excavations took place over the next 50 years. Many of the remains are on display at the Fornsalen Museum in Visby.

Victim of the battle of Visby, still wearing his mail coif; On display at the Fornsalen Museum, Visby, Gotland
Victim of the battle of Visby, still wearing his mail coif
On display at the Fornsalen Museum, Visby, Gotland

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Quite striking to me is the difference between the defense of Visby and the account of the defense of the Battle of Courtrai and the Flemish defense. T0he Flemish had militias and many of the defenders had their own armour. It does sound as though they had greater wealth. That helps, but the attitude of the Flemish seems much better. The account of Gotlanders make them sound as though they were almost hording their wealth. They didn't spend enough on defense but the Flemish didn't seem to spend that much more, they just were better prepared. They seemed to have a larger population.

then why were the militia locked out of the gates certainly they would have made a better stand inside the walls.

Well, after much thought, two possibilities come to mind:

1) The city folk didn't want those great, unwashed peasant militiamen inside their prosperous city walls, or 2) Once the defenders were beaten by the Danish forces, the Gotlanders would likely be closely pursued into the city by the enemy. Lock the city gates, keep *everyone* out.

That's all I got...

The Townspeople and the Gotlanders did not hava a great relationship. Visby was mostly populated german, russian and danish merchants who did not like the native gotlanders. They even had a small civil war and built the citywall primaly to keep the Gotlanders out. They wated to negotiate with Valdemar after the pesants were slaughtered but history tells us he did not really liked this idea.

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