The Sons of Raghnall: The Baltic Shore

The Empire of the North Sea, as the Scandinavian state rather grandiosely called itself in formal writing, was a seaborne empire, whose wealth was based in control of the ocean trade. This fact defined its strength – that the Scandinavian peninsula was in effect immune to attack by an enemy without a strong navy; its weakness – that an enemy who did defeat the Kongelige Leidangsflåte could strangle its lifeblood; and its ambition – to fully control the far shore of the Baltic. The adventures of a few thousand, even a few tens of thousands, of colonial riffraff in distant America, although it was eventually to be the source of enormous wealth, did not interest the court in Edinburgh or the merchant nobles of Sjælland. Lacking the benefit of hindsight, they were far more focused on the immediate gains to be had from making the Baltic a completely Scandinavian lake; for the sake of this goal they had fought France over Holstein, Bohemia over Mecklenburg, Bavaria over Stettin, and Hungary over Danzig. Only Russia, of Scandinavia’s neighbours, had not felt the weight of its black-clad, psalm-chanting armies; and even so, the mosaic map of the Baltic that filled the floor of the Grand Hall in Edinburgh Castle – the coloured tiles scrupulously taken up and filled in again to reflect the results of every treaty – had no doubt felt many covetuous glances directed at its jade-green representation of Novgorod. But ambitious though they were, the MacRaghnalls were not known for mere foolhardiness; the enmity of the nations of Central and Western Europe sufficed them.

From an economic point of view, the Baltic is a broad highway, connecting Scandinavia’s timber, iron, copper, and furs to Europe’s grain, wine, and wool; militarily, it is a grand moat, sheltering the MacRaghnalls’ heartland from invasion. Both for war and for peace, therefore, control of the great waterway was of vital importance to the Scandinavian state. The control of the mainland ports, however, was only important in peacetime, when tolls and port fees formed a welcome addendum to the state’s revenue. In time of war, the Baltic shore – and even mainland Denmark – was, as a matter of deliberate strategy, given over to enemy armies; the defense of Scandinavia began in the Lillebælt, out of range of shore-based cannon. Unless the MacRaghnalls were themselves the aggressors, in which case their armies would be concentrated in Denmark or Estland beforehand, the first year or two of a Baltic war was always spent mobilising the regular armies from their far-flung garrisons, gathering stores and provisions, and drilling any peacetime slackness out of the troops. The mainland out-ports would have to look after themselves; although valuable as a source of revenue, their occupation did not of itself force the MacRaghnalls to a treaty table. As long as the Scandinavian peninsula – and, increasingly, the colonies – was under MacRaghnall control, they could fight; out-ports could be recovered in the eventual peace.

This strategy served the Norse well in the Dacian War, and again in the Three Years’ War, which also added an effective blockade of the French coast to the MacRaghnall arsenal. The Turocs of France – in a historical irony, a cadet branch of the Hungarian dynasty had inherited the throne of their ancient enemies, while a MacRaghnall laird had gained the crown of Hungary, thus completing a Stately Quadrille in which Hungary, formerly allied with France against Scandinavia and Italy, changed sides to ally with Scandinavia against Italy and France – were, however, no fools. In the Second Baltic War, they declined to again overrun the Baltic foreshore while allowing the MacRaghnalls time to gather their imperial resources for a deliberate counterstroke. Lacking the resources of timber, shipyards, and above all a large seagoing population tolerant of forcible recruitment, they instead hit upon the expedient of hiring a Mercenary Fleet, comprising hundreds of armed merchantmen and privateers from as far afield as India and Japan. Although individually not a match for the dedicated warships of the Leidangsflåte, the mercenaries were nonetheless able to exploit their vast numbers in the three-day Battle of Læsø to force the KL to take refuge in its fortified harbours, and thus gain sufficient control of the Bælts to allow a powerful French army to disrupt the Scandinavian regiments concentrating in Sjælland.

In itself this was still no disaster; the MacRaghnalls retained a large army in the field, and forested Skåne was eminently defensible against an enemy whose supply lines would stretch over waters vulnerable to disruptive convoy raids out of the Swedish ports. But the occupation of Sjælland hit many wealthy MacRaghnall courtiers where, literally, they lived. Worse, with control of the ocean lost, there was no obvious way of retrieving the situation; so many ships had been lost at Læsø that D’Herrer Admiraler – the “Lords of the Admiralty” – spoke of building programmes of four and six years to recover even the Sound. Such a long period on the defensive brought with it obvious risks; “the enemy, that dirty dog, he has a plan too”, as the saying goes. This was the more so because the war threatened to spread and become a global conflict. The entry of Spain on the French side had been fairly well balanced by Russia’s entry under the Treaty of Ingria; but Russia had its own enemies, as far afield as Central Asia and the Caucasus, who were always looking for a moment when its armies might be distracted on the Elbe or the Rhine.

In the end, although the MacRaghnalls believed that a sufficient mobilisation of their resources could still deliver victory, the risk of continued war and the projected costs of such a mobilisation simply outweighed the loss of two cities of what were, after all, imperial out-marches. Holstein and Lubeck were valuable sources of revenue, but they were not vital interests of the Norse state; their loss was tolerable, where the risk of turning a limited conflict into a global war that might end in the actual overthrow of states was not. Faced with the choice of folding a strong hand or going all in, the MacRaghnalls unemotionally chose the former.

Which is not to say, of course, that they forgot who had taken the small pot. The shipyards of the Baltic resounded to the clatter of hammers for the next decade.

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