1801 set stage for one of the saddest events in the two decades of war that began with the declaration of war against Revolutionary France by the First Coalition and ended at Waterloo: the Battle of Copenhagen fought between the Baltic fleet of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and the Danish fleet and forts defending Copenhagen on April 2, Maundy or Holy Thursday, 1801.
How Britain came to launch a preemptive strike on a small, neutral nation with which it had a long history of good relations is an interesting one.
By 1801 Britain was nearly on its last legs. The cost of the war that it had waged for 8 years had resulted in wild inflation, high taxation, and a treasury that was nearly bankrupted by the expenses of maintaining an army and navy and subsidizing the member’s of its wartime coalition. Harvests had been bad since 1795 and now there were bread riots in British towns.
To keep its navy at sea, Britain was dependent upon supplies of oak, pine, hemp, pitch, and tar, little of which could be produced domestically.
These problems, of course, were not unique to Britain. Much the same could be said of France. By 1801 both sides realized that the strategic dimension of the war was being waged at sea. Where Britain was able to use its maritime power to achieve its ends, France had to resort to diplomacy.
The British navy, having driven the French fleet into ports where they could be blockaded, concentrated on protecting convoys of merchantmen bound for and from Britain from the depredations of French privateers and they enforced a blockade of shipping bound for French ports. The central theater of this quickly became the Baltic where wheat and naval stores originated in Russia and the neutral Scandinavian states that were eager to sell at the best price.
Britain insisted on classifying these goods as what they were, contraband, and neutral ships taken en route to Continental ports ran the risk of being seized and sold as prizes.
The Russian Czar Paul I, an admirer of France, had been an ally of Britain during the First Coalition but had been separated from the coalition by very aggressive French diplomacy. He conceived the notion of “armed neutrality” as a way of protecting the rights of Denmark, Prussia, Sweden, and Russia, known as the League of the North, to trade with France.
In Britain this was seen for what it was: a tacit alliance with France. A fleet under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with Vice Admiral Lord Nelson as his second in command, was dispatched to the Baltic to dismantle the alliance before the fleets of the League of the North could combine to challenge the British navy. The Danish fleet was rightfully viewed as the most formidable in the Baltic and it was vital that the Danes were dealt with while the Swedish and Russian ports were icebound.
The Danes received an ultimatum on March 19 to withdraw from the League. They refused. On March 30, the British fleet passed through the straits between Denmark and Sweden anchoring outside the range of the cannon defending Copenhagen. On March 31 and April 1 reconnaissance was conducted and final plans issued, this included Captain Thomas Hardy in HMS St George (98) spending the night of March 31/April 1 marking the main channel going into Copenhagen.