A Truly Grand Spectacle – The 1794 Christiansborg Palace Fire

It’s been a while since I last posted a blog entry on this page. I apologize for this. One of the reasons why I haven’t posted any updates, is that I’ve been busy working on a couple of projects, one of these being a documentary movie and computer game about the Danish adventurer Jørgen Jürgensen. For more information please take a look at my Ongoing Projects.

In a previous blog post I told the story of a painting showing the new court and jail house build following the big fire in Copenhagen in 1795. That was not the only fire of those years though. The year before another great fire destroyed the King’s palace Christiansborg. In the morning of February 26th 1794 servants in the Art Chamber Building, where the Prince was living, noticed that it was surprisingly warm, despite the fact that no fires were burning in any of the fire places. As the day progressed the heat intensified and when smoke started to slowly fill the rooms, a servat opened a window and immediately flames spew out from the fireplace. Unnoticed, a fire from the night before had been burning inside the piping in the walls that usually channeled heat from the fire places around the building. The fire spread from room to room through the pipe system and soon most of the palace was ablaze.

Christiansborg Palace prior to the fire. Drawing by Lauritz de Thurah, 1746.

The citizens of Copenhagen hurried to the palace, some to help stop the fire, others to take in the magnificent and horrifying view. Many tried save precious furniture, paintings and books from the palace, but many books especially was lost, as the King’s librarian insisted that all books taken from the library should be correctly listed as on loan before they were removed.

One of the citizens of Copenhagen who witnessed the fire was the 14 year old Jørgen Jürgensen, who many years later recalled the incident:

“I had attained the age of fourteen when the dreadful conflagration of the king’s enormous palace of Christianbourgh took place. The flames that issued from the immense pile, awful as they were, filled my youthful mind with the most lively emotions of delight. I never contemplated for a moment the destruction of property in the striking magnificence of the scene. At night the spectacle was truly grand, and I stood looking on with unwearied pleasure as the devouring element continued its ravages. One after another of the roofs of the beautiful halls fell in, scarcely leaving time to remove any of the valuable furniture. As I stood on a little eminence, I watched in particular the destruction of the great Hall of Knights, filled with full-length portraits of ancient Danish heroes, and as the crackling canvasses swelled out and yielded to the flames, it seemed as if the figures became animated and were moving from their long imprisonment against the walls. The numerous lakes and ornamental waters, with which this fine city is surrounded, reflected the soaring and leaping flames, and contributed greatly to the majesty of the scene.

Christiansborg burning, painting by C.D. Fritzsch, 1796

The fire raged furiously for three successive days and nights, and the once mighty edifice smoked and smouldered in its own ruins for more than a month. The palace was situated upon an island to which access could only be had by means of drawbridges. A singular feature in the scene was the assistance rendered by the Dutchmen of Amager in the unavailing efforts to extinguish the fire. In that little island a small colony from Holland had been permitted to settle by Frederick II. The island is close to Copenhagen and although more than 300 years have elapsed, its inhabitants continue to wear the dress, to speak the language, and in every respect to practice the original habits of their Dutch ancestors, feeding dairy cows and supplying Copenhagen with milk and vegetables. The very sight of a Dutchman in his woolen jacket and single–leg canvas petticoats suggests the idea of wading in water, and at the fire this little Dutch colony turned out en masse with buckets to contribute their humble but futile efforts towards arresting the progress of the flames. The king himself, Christian II, an eccentric man, was hardly able to realize the terrible truth that his everlasting palace, as he had thought, was being reduced to ashes, and force had to be employed to remove him from his burning chamber.”

Another depiction of the Christiansborg palace fire, Johan Ottosen, 1904

One of Jürgensen’s school mates, the later poet Adam Oehlenschläger also witnessed the fire:

“I have never before in my life, neither before nor later, seen such a blaze. At first, the flames were confined to the great hall, the costly curtains burning behind the windows like scraps of lit paper. Finally the sea of flames burst through the copper roof, melting it, and in the most beautiful colours the red, blue and green flames rose to the sky. Still the tower stood as a giant in the middle of the flames; for a long time its enormous structure defied the treacherous fiery kisses of the salamanders, licking its armour. Finally, the giant teetered, and accompanied by three terrible booms he crashed through all floors. From this moment everything was as if hell had opened its mouth, as if the volcanoes Vesuvius or Etna had been transplanted to the palace square; and I am certain that not even these mountains spew as much fire as the walls did this pitch-dark night.”

The palace was later rebuild only to burn down again in 1884. The modern day Christiansborg which now hosts the Danish parliament was finished in 1928.

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