The battle was the result of multiple failures of diplomacy in the latter half of the 18th century. At the beginning of 1801, during the French Revolutionary Wars, Britain's principal advantage over France was its naval superiority. The Royal Navy searched neutral ships trading with French ports, seizing their cargoes if they were deemed to be trading with France. The eccentric Russian Tsar Paul, after having been a British ally, arranged a League of Armed Neutrality comprising Denmark-Norway, Sweden, Prussia, and Russia, to enforce free trade with France. The British viewed the League to be very much in the French interest and a serious threat. The League was hostile to the British blockade, and its existence threatened the supply of timber and naval stores from Scandinavia.
In early 1801, the British government assembled a fleet at Great Yarmouth, with the goal of breaking up the League. The British needed to act before the Baltic Sea thawed and released the Russian fleet from its bases at Kronstadt and Reval (now Tallinn). If the Russian fleet joined with the Swedish and Dano-Norwegian fleets, the combined fleets would form a formidable force of up to 123 ships-of-the-line. The British fleet was under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson (then in poor favour owing to his activities with the Hamiltons) as second-in-command. Parker, aged 61, had just married an eighteen year old and was reluctant to leave port in Great Yarmouth. Prompted by a letter from Nelson to Captain Thomas Troubridge, a friend and a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, a private note from St Vincent, the First Lord of the Admiralty, caused the fleet to sail from Yarmouth on 12 March. Orders were sent to Parker to go to Copenhagen and detach Denmark from the League by 'amicable arrangement or by actual hostilities', to be followed by 'an immediate and vigorous attack' on the Russians at Reval and then Kronstadt. The British fleet reached the Skaw (Danish: Skagen) on 19 March, where they met a British diplomat, Nicholas Vansittart, who told them that the Danes had rejected an ultimatum.
Although the Admiralty had instructed Parker to frustrate the League, by force if necessary, he was a cautious person and moved slowly. He wanted to blockade the Baltic despite the danger of the combination of fleets; Nelson wanted to ignore Denmark and Sweden, who were both reluctant partners in the alliance, and instead sail to the Baltic to fight the Russians. In the end Nelson was able to persuade Sir Hyde to attack the Danish fleet currently concentrated off Copenhagen. Promised naval support for the Danes from Karlskrona, in Sweden, did not arrive perhaps because of adverse winds. The Prussians had only minimal naval forces and also could not assist. On 30 March, the British force passed through the narrows between Denmark and Sweden, sailing close to the Swedish coast to put themselves as far from the Danish guns as possible; fortunately for the British, the Swedish batteries remained silent.
Attacking the Danish fleet would have been difficult as Parker's delay in sailing had allowed the Danes to prepare their positions well. Most of the Danish ships were not fitted for sea but were moored along the shore with old ships (hulks), no longer fit for service at sea, but still powerfully armed, as a line of floating batteries off the eastern coast of the island of Amager, in front of the city in the King's Channel. The northern end of the line terminated at the Tre Kroner (Three Crowns — Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, referring to the Kalmar Union) forts armed with 68 guns (equal to the armament of a ship-of-the-line). North of the fort, in the entrance to Copenhagen harbour, were two ships-of-the-line, a large frigate, and two brigs, all rigged for sea, and two more hulks. Batteries covered the water between the Danish line and the shore, and further out to sea a large shoal, the Middle Ground, constricted the channel. The British had no reliable charts or pilots, so Captain Thomas Hardy spent most of the night of 31 March taking soundings in the channel up to the Danish line. Even so, the British ships were not able to locate the deepest part of the channel properly and so kept too far to seaward.
Read more about this topic: Battle Of Copenhagen
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