Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Copenhagen

Royal Navy at the Battle of Copenhagen
Battle of Copenhagen. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Copenhagen - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Copenhagen was fought on April 2, 1801, and was part of the War of the Second Coalition (1799-1802).

Fleets & Commanders:



  • Vice Admiral Olfert Fischer
  • 7 ships of the line

Battle of Copenhagen - Background:

In late 1800 and early 1801, diplomatic negotiations produced the League of Armed Neutrality. Led by Russia, the League also included Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia all of which called for the ability to trade freely with France. Wishing to maintain their blockade of the French coast and concerned about losing access to Scandinavian timber and naval stores, Britain immediately began preparing to take action. In the spring of 1801, a fleet was formed at Great Yarmouth under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker with the purpose of breaking up the alliance before the Baltic Sea thawed and released the Russian fleet.

Included in Parker's fleet as second-in-command was Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, then out of favor due to his activities with Emma Hamilton. Recently married to a young wife, the 64-year old Parker dithered in port and was only coaxed to sea by a personal note from First Lord of the Admiralty Lord St. Vincent. Departing port on March 12, 1801, the fleet reached the Skaw a week later. Met there by diplomat Nicholas Vansittart, Parker and Nelson learned that the Danes had refused a British ultimatum demanding they leave the League.

Battle of Copenhagen - Nelson Seeks Action:

Unwilling to take decisive action, Parker proposed blockading the entrance to the Baltic despite the fact he would be outnumbered once the Russians could put to sea. Believing that Russia posed the greatest threat, Nelson fervently lobbied Parker to bypass the Danes to attack the Tsar's forces. On March 23, after a council of war, Nelson was able to secure permission to attack the Danish fleet which had concentrated at Copenhagen. Entering the Baltic, the British fleet hugged the Swedish coast to avoid fire from the Danish batteries on the opposite shore.

Battle of Copenhagen - Danish Preparations:

At Copenhagen, Vice Admiral Olfert Fischer prepared the Danish fleet for battle. Unready to put to sea, he anchored his ships along with several hulks in the King's Channel, near Copenhagen, to form a line of floating batteries. The ships were supported by additional batteries on land as well as the Tre Kroner fortress at the northern end of the line, near the entrance to Copenhagen harbor. Fischer's line was also protected by the Middle Ground Shoal which separated the King's Channel from the Outer Channel. To hinder navigation in these shallow waters, all navigation aids were removed.

Battle of Copenhagen - Nelson's Plan:

To assault Fischer's position, Parker gave Nelson the twelve ships of the line with the shallowest drafts, as well as all of the fleet's smaller vessels. Nelson's plan called for his ships to turn into the King's Channel from the south and have each ship attack a predetermined Danish vessel. As the heavy ships engaged their targets, the frigate HMS Desiree and several brigs would rake the southern end of the Danish line. To the north, Captain Edward Riou of HMS Amazon was to lead several frigates against the Tre Kroner and land troops once it had been subdued.

While his ships were fighting, Nelson planned for his small flotilla of bomb vessels to approach and fire over his line to strike the Danes. Lacking charts, Captain Thomas Hardy spent the night of March 31 covertly taking soundings near the Danish fleet. The next morning, Nelson, flying his flag from HMS Elephant (74), ordered the attack to begin. Approaching the King's Channel, HMS Agamemnon (74) ran around on the Middle Ground Shoal. While the bulk of Nelson's ships successfully entered the channel, HMS Bellona (74) and HMS Russell (74) also ran aground.

Battle of Copenhagen - Nelson Turns a Blind Eye:

Adjusting his line to account for the grounded ships, Nelson engaged the Danes in a bitter three-hour battle that raged from around 10:00 AM until 1:00 PM. Though the Danes offered heavy resistance and were able to shuttle reinforcements from the shore, superior British gunnery slowly began to turn the tide. Standing offshore with the deeper draft ships, Parker was unable to accurately see the fighting. Around 1:30, thinking that Nelson had been fought to a standstill but was unable to retreat without orders, Parker ordered the signal for "break off action" hoisted.

Believing that Nelson would ignore it if the situation warranted, Parker thought he was giving his subordinate an honorable reprieve. Aboard Elephant, Nelson was stunned to see the signal and ordered it acknowledged, but not repeated. Turning to his flag captain Thomas Foley, Nelson famously exclaimed, "You know, Foley, I only have one eye — I have the right to be blind sometimes." Then holding his telescope to his blind eye, he continued, "I really do not see the signal!"

Of Nelson's captains, only Riou, who could not see Elephant, obeyed the order. In attempting to break off fighting near the Tre Kroner, Riou was killed. Shortly thereafter, the guns towards the southern end of the Danish lines began falling silent as the British ships triumphed. By 2:00 Danish resistance had effectively ended and Nelson's bomb vessels moved into position to attack. Seeking to end the fighting, Nelson dispatched Captain Sir Frederick Thesiger ashore with a note for Crown Prince Frederik calling for a cessation of hostilities. By 4:00 PM, after further negotiations, a 24-hour ceasefire was agreed upon.

Battle of Copenhagen - Aftermath:

One of Nelson's great triumphs, the Battle of Copenhagen cost the British 264 dead and 689 wounded, as well as varying degrees of damage to their ships. For the Danes, casualties were estimated at 1,600-1,800 killed and the loss nineteen ships. In the days after the battle, Nelson was able negotiate a fourteen-week armistice during which the League would be suspended and the British given free access to Copenhagen. Coupled with the assassination of Tsar Paul, the Battle of Copenhagen effectively ended the League of Armed Neutrality.

Selected Sources

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Copenhagen." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Copenhagen. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Copenhagen." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).