During the Romantic Age of Seafaring in the early 18 Century Peter Tordenskjold became the embodiment of naval heroism and derring-do. He was a daredevil combination of dashing warrior and gentleman adventurer whose exploits whilst serving in the Royal Dano-Norwegian Navy turned him into the Scandinavian equivalent of Admiral Nelson.
The future Tordenskjold was born Peter Jansen Wessel in 1690 to a wealthy merchant family in Trondheim, Norway. He was the 14th of 18 children and as a youth he was reputedly uncontrollable and was involved in many fights. Eventually he ran away to sea with hopes of becoming an officer in the Danish navy. Denmark and Norway had been united since 1524 with Denmark being the dominant country.
At that time it was common for Norwegian men to take up service in the Danish armed forces as it was seen as a lucrative career opportunity. However Wessel was initially rejected as a naval cadet and spent three years serving on merchant ships sailing to Guinea and the Caribbean. In 1710 he was finally accepted as a cadet and although he was only 20 years old he was a highly experienced seaman and over the next ten years he would experience extremely rapid promotions thanks to his reckless courage and military skill.
In spring 1711 he served as second-in-command of the frigate Postillon and in July of the same year he became a Second Lieutenant. Less than a year later in 1712 he was in command of his own 20-gun frigate.
At this time Denmark-Norway was involved in the Great Northern War. This conflict was an attempt by Russia and Saxony-Poland as well as Denmark-Norway to challenge the supremacy of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. Wessel, now a Captain-Lieutenant became known for randomly attacking Swedish ships regardless of the odds and for always evading capture.
Eventually the Swedes put a price on his head, which only served to enhance his reputation. Wessel was an impulsive man who never considered the consequences of his actions and whose arrogance often earned the wrath of his superiors.
For example on 12 August 1713 he wrote a letter the Governor of Gothenburg and mocked the Swedes, accusing them of letting their privateers attack merchant ships instead of fighting real warships. He then cheekily urged the governor to send a ship for him as there was a reward on his head and he wanted to be collected in style. The governor did not share Wessel’s sense of humour and complained to a senior general in Norway. Consequently he received a reprimand from King Frederick IV of Denmark but the confident seadog was not to be deterred.
During 26-27 July 1714 Wessel’s ship Lovendals Gallej fought a Swedish frigate called De Olbing Galley. The Olbing was disguised by an English flag and commanded by an Englishman called Bactmann. Wessel himself was flying under a Dutch flag and when the two ships realised their true colours they opened fire and fought for over 14 hours.
Eventually, after taking much damage, Wessel ran out of ammunition and messaged his situation to Bactmann. He thanked him for a fine duel and boldly requested the Englishman for more ammunition so that the fight could continue. Bactmann declined but the two ships came together and both crews cheered and drank to each other’s health. The captains then agreed to sail away in opposite directions. Wessel was consequently court-martialled for this gentlemanly fight but he was acquitted and then promoted to Captain.
Throughout 1715 Wessel remained the scourge of the Swedes. He beat a small Swedish fleet in the Kattegat and captured a frigate called The White Eagle, which he took as his own flagship. On 8 August he distinguished himself again at Rygen where he fought another Swedish force. Despite having a greatly inferior number of guns, Wessel managed to chase the enemy ships away by sheer courage, ingenuity and skill.
For his services throughout 1715 Wessel was knighted by Frederick IV on 24 February 1716 and was permitted to adopt the name of “Tordenskjold” which literally translates as “Thunder Shield”. He was 25 years of age.
On 8 July 1716 Tordenskjold won his greatest victory at the Battle of Dynekilen. In the days preceding the battle a Swedish fleet had been sailing to the narrow fjord at Dynekilen between Stromstad and Iddefjord in order to supply the besieged Danish fortress at Fredriksten. They had arranged their ships defensively but Tordenskjold went through the fjord and surprised the Swedes capturing or destroying over 25 enemy ships.
The largest Swedish ship Stenbock surrendered and was taken as a prize. Tordenskjold achieved this victory with only six ships under his command, one of which was a barge. He was promoted to Commander and his subordinates were each awarded a gold medal.
After Dynekilen Tordenskjold’s career continued to dramatically flourish. On 19 December 1718 he heard rumours that Charles XII of Sweden had been killed at the Siege of Fredriksten. When the rumour was confirmed he immediately travelled to Copenhagen where he conveyed the news to Frederick IV. The king was so pleased that he promoted Tordenskjold to Rear Admiral on the spot.
In 1719 Admiral Tordenskjold directed a devastating attack the Swedish Gothenburg fleet that lay at Marstrand. Tordenskjold tricked to the Swedes into surrendering by claiming there was a huge force in the town of Marstrand. However this was an elaborate bluff where the Admiral passed the same troops in and out of the town square to make it look as though there were more soldiers than there actually were. Some have claimed this incident is a myth, however shortly afterwards Tordenskjold was again promoted to Vice-Admiral so perhaps this was a reward for his daring tenacity.
Peace was concluded with Sweden in July 1720 but Tordenskjold’s fighting spirit struggled to adapt in the absence of war. He travelled to Germany and became embroiled in a gambling scandal. While he was staying in Hanover, he heard that several men at a party had cheated one of his friends at cards. While he was listening, one of the accused men, a certain Colonel Axel Jacob Stael von Holstein, introduced himself and denied any wrongdoing and demanded an apology.
The hot-headed Tordenskjold defended his friend and a brawl broke out which ended with Holstein challenging the Admiral to a duel. On 12 November 1720 at Gleidingen, Tordenskjold and Holstein faced each other. It was an uneven match; Holstein was armed with a military rapier while Tordenskjold only had his ceremonial dress sword. Despite this the veteran fighter refused to back out and was eventually stabbed through the chest by Holstein. Tordenskjold then died in the arms of his servant aged only 30. He was buried without ceremony in Copenhagen, as duelling was illegal under Danish law.
However, in the centuries since his death Tordenskjold has become a national hero both in Norway and Denmark. After Charles XII of Sweden, he is regarded as the most heroic figure of the Great Northern War. Like Horatio Nelson in Britain there are street names and statues named after him. Both countries have named ships after him and he is mentioned by name in the Norwegian national anthem and the Danish royal anthem. He has also been the subject of two films and a musical. Tordenskjold has even given his name to the most popular brand of matches in Denmark. For a man who embodied a peculiarly Nordic brand of swashbuckling heroism, this adulation seems well founded.