What is a Danish Manor?

The Manorial Landscape


By Mikkel Venborg Pedersen, DPhil, The National Museum of Denmark


The manor house landscape was all encompassing and today is rich in traces of the past, of both a concrete and a more transient nature. For several hundred years  manorial estates were key economic and administrative units, and these features made their mark on the landscape. Today the countless traces of manor houses are easily recognisable when travelling through the Danish countryside.





Most people, when hearing the word ‘manor house’, probably think of a large house. But manor houses are not just large houses. They are also key points in total, large-scale environments, which can probably be classified on the basis of four categories: the main building, the farm buildings, the gardens or park, and the production landscape. More specifically, the manor house landscape is characterised by: the open plains of the fields, the large forests, hunting districts and hunting trails, streams, lakes, avenues, moats and bridges, gatehouses, barn yards, granaries, mills, dairies, pensioners’ farms and smithies, tenant houses and farmworkers’ houses, pavilions, burial places, memorial stones and much more besides. A manor house leaves countless traces in the landscape.



The Elements of the Manor House Landscape


The manor house landscape brings together all four categories and their individual elements. One probably automatically thinks of the main building, the adjacent farm buildings and maybe the grounds, but the forest, hunting districts, fishing areas and farmland also bear manorial marks. Denmark is densely populated and, following the renewal around 1800, the farms were usually located in open country with their land around them. Before the renewal and relocation, which began with the agrarian reforms of the late 18th century, the farms were located in characteristic estate-owned parts of the country in the old villages, tied up in production communities. Pastureland was located between the villages on commons and meadow areas, and in bogs and fen, where peat cutting also took place.

On the other hand, a manor house stands out with an almost desolate exclusivity. Its landscape consists of the large areas, which differ from the fields of peasant farmers, and which are fenced in with solid stone walls or tall hedgerows, which follow the course of the country road through the landscape, while important buildings related to the operations of the manor house surface here and there. The hedges merge with the edges of the forest or open up into clearings interspersed with stalking hides, behind which a hunter can lie in wait with his loaded rifle. There is room for the small water holes of the giant, rare amphibians of the past, and in the middle of the field there are one or more mighty oak trees. In the distance you can make out the avenue that leads to the main building, interrupted by a driveway gate, a gatehouse or an entire little street of estate officials’ houses. Along the way you may find a little smallholders’ settlement, which, following the partitioning of the 19th century and then again after the abolition of entailed estates in the 1920s, formed new, manorial-related elements in the landscape.



The Estate Owner and the Peasant


The estate owner and the peasant from the village each had a different relationship to the landscape. The peasant had to provide compulsory labour on the manor’s fields: ploughing, planting and harvesting, peat cutting, fencing and much more.  Occasionally the duties also included keeping extra horses and carts for driving duties, which took place on roads, which the peasants had to maintain as part of the estate’s obligations to society.  A number of road signs by the roadside could indicate what stretch of the road a particular peasant was responsible for, while other stones in the landscape could indicate the transition from one estate to another or other maintenance duties, hunting districts or ferry sites.

The peasant also had to look after his own land. Given that it was leased from the estate, the peasant’s land was also part of the manor house landscape. When freehold came in during the 19th century, the farm and the land became the peasant’s property, and the peasant’s land stood out from the land of the manor house. The latter was involved in large-scale farming, which could exploit the benefits of large-scale operation, and which sometimes showed signs of an almost astonishing desire for modernisation, and new modes of operation and crops. This meant for one thing that hedges were moved, roads were rerouted and land was enclosed and ploughed. The character of the large fields with their handful of houses has endured to the present day, where you can see extremely large tractors with eight-, twelve- or sixteen-furrow ploughs at work in spring and autumn, and the fringe of a forest delineated by solid stone walls. Part of an estate’s self-image is the fact that there are still stretches of untouched countryside. This is a glory they would not be willing to part with.



The Countryside as an Important Resource and a Glorious Privilege


For the same reason, the forest was, and is an important element in the manor house landscape. The forest had trees, and this was also the habitat of game. In addition, there was also excellent fishing to be had. Since ancient times the forest has been legally regulated, because it was, and still is such an important resource. The peasant was allowed access to undergrowth and to feed his animals on acorns. In other words, he had to gather fallen trees and let his pigs and cattle feed off the fruits of the forest. But the proper forest belonged to the estate owner: in other words, timber and hunting rights. The wood produced revenue and firewood for the main building and the many officials’ houses. Hunting was not only a way of getting meat on the table for the residents of the manor house; it was also one of the most demonstrative ways of expressing gentility. It was not until 1840 that hunting legislation was changed and became related to property rights. The same applied to fishing rights, which over the years were just as regulated as hunting and a significant element of estate finances.

Hunting and fishing gave the gentry many opportunities to shape their landscape. Hedges needed to be planted, roads and paths constructed in the forest, and the gamekeepers lived out in the hunting district. Peasants served as beaters for the gentlefolk’s hunts, though after the advent of freehold in the 19th century, it became a job for smallholders. But the introduction of proper forestry operations in the country’s forests, following the Danish Forest Act of 1805, led to a conflict in the forest and somewhat later on the estate’s fields. In order to achieve good forestry, hunting had to pay heed to new plantations, and there could not be as much game on the areas, because the animals would harm new saplings. The estate owner was now compelled to strike a balance between advice from both the forester and the hunter. One did not always agree with the other.

The 19th century’s increasing degree of mechanised farming, supported by draining, marling and new crops led to renewed conflict between the old gentry and the modern age. Meanwhile, new elements such as railway lines, harbours and light industry established by the manor houses to support the new production methods and to promote the sale of the estate’s products both in Denmark and abroad, also became elements of the manor house landscape. Even today they reveal something about the controversial modernisation of production in large-scale Danish farming.



The Impact of Absolute Monarchy


With the advent of absolute monarchy in 1660, the estates became an important administrative part of Denmark, and this too made its mark on the landscape. The estate office was much frequented by the people of the estate. The manor’s bailiff’s office, a quasi combination of municipal office, police station and court, became another important place. The forest was where all the forestry officials lived, as did the gamekeepers, and quite a number of estate villages had a school and a hospital, or rather a workhouse. The smithies and mills often belonged to the estate’s buildings as well, until the introduction of freedom of trade legislation between 1855 and 1865.

Churches had always been in the same location, long before the age of absolutism. In the late 1640s, however, in order to pay for the war against Sweden in the 1600s, the Crown started selling churches to the owners of manor houses. In other words, they bought the right to collect church taxes (tithes) to maintain the church. The owner also acquired patronage rights: the right to choose the parish priest. Consequently, in many places churches became part of the manorial landscape. At least one of them, either inside the church or outside in the cemetery, could provide a setting for the funerals of the manor house owners, and the distinguished chapels are often still visible today. On the other hand, with the advent of Romanticism in the 19th century, it became fashionable for the gentry to be laid to rest in graves on their own land, in idyllic settings in the countryside. That meant another new element was added to the manorial landscape.



The Manorial Landscape Today


Today, when you travel through those areas of Denmark that are rich in manor houses (i.e. East Jutland, Funen and Langeland and Zealand, but with the exception of North Zealand and Lolland-Falster), the above-mentioned features are still recognisable. The landscape is covered in long lanes and many areas of forest. Particularly on Zealand and Lolland-Falster the large avenues are still kilometres-long, and throughout the countryside you come across solid stone walls, while the estate buildings reveal traces of both their function and of the gentry who owned them. Indeed, many places have coats of arms painted on them or an idiosyncratic architectural detail that says: “This is estate property”. These buildings are often of a much better standard than the peasant buildings dating from the same period. The numerous remnants of untouched nature or ancient elements in the landscape are also hallmarks of the manor house landscape, and the absolute lion’s share of Denmark’s listed land is estate land.