Corfitz Ulfeldt and his children in Basel

The final days of a doomed man

Translated in abridged format and with commentaries, by Rudy Langmann, from Finn Friiis (Corfitz Ulfeldt og hans børn i Basel / Historisk Tidsskrift,1963-66) and from other sources.


Ulfeldt Genealogy

(Life) ... 'is a tale told by a madman...' (William Shakespeare)

It is early fall in the year of Our Lord 1663. We are in the ancient city of Bruegge in the Netherlands and the wife of Count Corfitz Ulfeldt is ready to leave on a boat bound for England; her mission, to collect a personal debt from King Charles the Second in London. Leonora Christina exunt. 

Her husband and three daughters are still standing on the dock waving goodbye as the brig silently glides out into the open waters, then they return to their apartment where the 57-year-old Danish nobleman right away sits himself down by his desk and resumes the task of writing and re-writing an Apologia addressed to the king of Denmark, His Royal Highness King Frederik III, by the Grace of God, etcetera, etcetera. He has to find just the right words, crumbles up a sheet of paper and throws it on the floor, pulls out a fresh sheet and starts over.

. . . (Little do the Ulfeldts know that they have seen their wife and mother for the last time).

Things are going to be alright, though. After all, before embarking at Copenhagen for Amsterdam he did obtain the necessary permission from the Danish royal court--signed by Frederik Rex himself--allowing him to leave the country for the healing baths at Aix-la-Chapelle. His leg is troubling him again, but once he gets to the health-giving springs it will get better. And when his wife comes back to Bruegge with the money from Charles (a sizable amount, at that!) and he has made peace with his royal Danish brother-in-law, everything will be fine. The Ulfeldts will be able to take up a nice apartment at Aachen, suitably staffed by chamber maids, stewards, cooks, drivers and lackeys. Right now the money is a little tight, but that will all change.

Corfitz leans back in his chair and reflects on the past. Finally! Peace! The past ten years or so have been trying times. First of all--after the death of the old king--his disagreements with Frederik, then the war and the friendship followed by trouble with Queen Christina and Carl Gustav in Stockholm and the subsequent house arrest in Malmo, the escape back to Copenhagen followed by his and Leonora's imprisonment in the deep dungeons on the island of Bornholm for almost two long years. Once again, escape and recapture. Those were tough times for them both, and for the children as well, of course. That arrogant and dastardly jailer at Hammershus, Commandant Adolph Fuchs! But he really got what he deserved when 'our dear boy' shot him dead here in town last year. Briefly his thoughts travel back further, to the time before all the misfortune began, to the magnificent marriage feast at the royal palace in Copenhagen in '36 and to their travels together in splendor with regular visits to all of the royal courts in Europe, the high esteem, the wealth. But now life will be good once more, the old days will return. The seasoned Danish ambassador leans back in his chair and smiles. Anna Cathrine, his beloved daughter, comes in with a tray of food and drink.

Every day finds Ulfeldt hard at work at his desk. That brief has to be just right and he thinks he has finally got it, all ready to be sent by courier ambassadorial pouch to Copenhagen. The king will surely accept the humility he has poured into the letter.


The arrival of his host, Jan Marcus Cassetta, is announced. Cassetta is engaged to Anna Cathrina and he brings disturbing news. It appears that Leonora did make it to London but there everything went wrong, Charles did not come up with the money and instead she, incredible as it sounds, was arrested by the English and turned over to a Danish military delegation, put on a ship bound for Esbjerg, taken to Copenhagen, and is now being held in the Blue Tower, that infamous prison next to the royal palace. What terrible misfortune, again!

It is a few days later when news arrives over the grapevine telling the story of the trial and the 'execution' of the Corfitz image doll in Copenhagen. Anna Cathrine comments in a letter to Otto Sperling in Hamburg, "I am well satisfied that the Danes burn a picture so long as the original remains intact and in good health." In the judgment of the Danish high court (presided over by the king) is also contained a clause stipulating that the Ulfeldt children are never again to set foot on Danish soil. 

True, it may only be rumors, but it does not take long for Corfitz and his oldest daughter to realize that they had better get out of the Spanish Netherlands, and the sooner the better. But where to? Certainly not to Denmark, but perhaps Sweden? Northern Germany is too dangerous, and so is France. But perhaps Austria or Italy? They decide on the independent republic of Switzerland, where three of the older boys already live, and together father and daughter quickly leave town. Letters from Copenhagen addressed to the Spanish governor and to the burgomaster of Bruegge arrive within two days. 


Weeks pass, and one day in early 1664 an elderly man calling himself Johannes Anglesius (aka 'the Englishman') signs himself in at the famous and respected university in the old quarters of Basel. With him are three younger men, Franciscus Francy, Jacques Marais and Franq Dioraminushar, already registered as students at the facility. The newcomer is further accompanied by his wife, a much younger woman to whom he refers as Anna Cathrina. On the matriculation documents he gives his address as being a lodger of Emanuel Russinger, one of the leading citizens in Basel. He pays the registration fee and together with his wife walks back to his apartment in the Altstadt. As a student at the university he has been granted protection and, most importantly, tax freedom.

Although strangers are no uncommon sight on the streets of Basel, it is after all still a small town, and new faces are closely watched and scrutinized by the populace. It is soon noticed that there is a constant traffic by a certain young woman between the Anglesius apartment on Greiffengasse near the Klaraplatz and those of three young university students living in separate apartments nearby, and when this is commented upon at the campus by a couple of gentlemen visiting from Zurich and she is referred to by them as a "loose woman" the accusers are challenged to a duel by Christian and Ludwig Ulfeldt. The duel (presumably without a deadly outcome) takes place but it does not escape the ears of the university dean and 'Francy' and 'Marais' are called to his office and fined 20 Reich dollars or 40 Basler pounds for unlawful behavior. They pay the fine, and renew their registrations even though they are not known to attend regular classes. Nothing strange in this, however, since it is a well known fact that many registrants do not bother to do so, while many of those attending classes on the other hand not even are properly registered.


[Students at the University of Basel have in years past included Ulfeldt's father Jacob (1587), uncle Christopher (1599) and cousins Christian and Corfitz (1617-18)].


Ulfeldt still spends most of his waking hours at his writing desk in the Russinger apartment working on an extended Apologia, copies of which chapter by chapter is being sent by courier post to old friends, La Peyrere in France, Otto Sperling in Hamburg and Christopher Sleun in Stockholm. He believes that he can regain the goodwill of the Swedish royal court and hopes for a future sanctuary for at least some of the children in the Swedish capital.

After having lived in downtown Basel for about a week Ulfeldt moves to the small village of Riehen near the Rhine where he takes up residence in a hut also owned by Russinger. Here he uses a different alias but is still known as an English political refugee. 


One day in mid-February 1664 the news reach Basel that the king of Denmark has proclaimed a prize of 20,000 Reichdollars (about one million Swiss Francs by year 2011 standards) to anyone who can deliver a certain Corfitz, formerly count of Ulfeldt, into his hands. Anyone who would be able to bring proof that he has killed Ulfeldt would be paid 10,000 Reichdollars. Letters have been sent under the king's royal seal to every known European court and civil magistrate asking for assistance in "apprehending the traitor", and from Paris King Louis XIV immediately sends back a letter signed "Your good brother, cousin, allied and compatriot, Louis" in which he in flowering language promises to do everything within his power to assist. Seven French bailiffs are informed and they send the order on to 45 lieutenants who again forward it to 183 vicomtes. From there their sergeants instruct the 4,800 parishes in the country to keep their eyes open. But nothing is seen or heard of the wanted man in France. Louis does not think, however, that the culprit will "dare" enter France.

From other European countries and small states similar promises of assistance are received in Copenhagen. Letters arrive from the Austrian authorities in Regensburg and Vienna, as well as from Anhalt, Darmstadt, Heidelberg, Thueringen and Braunschweig.

The Swiss are sympathetic, but there are spies everywhere you turn, so Corfitz now tells his three sons to leave, for the sake of their own protection. Although they don't like the idea of leaving him behind they don't argue the order with their father and Christian, Ludwig and Corfitz Jr., this time using their real names, travel to Lausanne. The noose is tightening and Russinger, on the request of Ulfeldt, hires a small boat near the German border. Late in the evening Corfitz is silently brought down to the river and he climbs on board. He is limping and shivering in the cold night air. The doctor has earlier in the day diagnosed pneumonic fever and ordered him to stay in bed.

The boat takes off, carried down river by the current, and Ulfeldt confides in a fellow passenger named Hans Lucas Eckenstein, also from Basel, telling him that he is not an Englishman at all but indeed Corfitz Ulfeldt, Danish chancellor of state. The boat makes it to the vicinity of the small town of Neuenburg some 25 kilometers downstream when he draws his last breath, killed by the pneumonia and the damp and cold night air.

Crew members row a boat ashore carrying the dead man. He is taken to a nearby monastery where the Franciscan brothers conduct a short service, and as a "French merchant, about 70 years of age" he is quickly buried in their church yard. 

Eckenstein returns to Basel informing of the death, and eventually--it is not known exactly when--the news of their father's death reach Lausanne. The three brothers immediately return to Basel and Christian, the oldest, travels on to the city of Neuenburg to collect his father's body and the few possessions he had been carrying. Initially the city fathers refuse to turn over these items and according to Anna Cathrina it takes the brothers several trips back and forth to Neuenburg between the 15th and 20th of February (1964) before the items are finally released: "All three of my brothers have today, for the fifth or the sixth time, gone to Neuburg to see if they can get hold of the dead body of their blessed Herr father in order to bury him with their own hands, so we can set free his bones from that tyrant." They have to obtain documentation from the university that they are who they say they are, as well as obtain permission from the Austrian authorities in Freiburg and the bishop in Konstanz, and after "rich gifts" have been bestowed upon these authorities approval is finally granted and they are able to collect the body of their father.

Christian hurriedly takes possession of the body and brings it to a secret location "where it never will be found" and there he buries it underneath a tree, deep in the forest of Schwarzwald.

It has been a race against time, because the news have also reached Copenhagen and king Frederik has sent a letter by special courier to Basel with copy to the Austrians in Freiburg demanding that the corpse be turned over to a Danish delegation for its return to Denmark.

And the king is supported by his royal highness, the margrave of Baden-Thurlach who writes the city councilors in Basel demanding that 'einen arrest auf den todten corper'  immediately be made. 

Letters are now sent by the Ulfeldt brothers to Otto Sperling in Hamburg, the long time family doctor and friend, asking for financial help. They have spent all their money in order to get their father's body released from Neuenburg and now badly need more money to regain "all the important papers, in order that they don't fall into the hands of the tyrant." They ask that Sperling sell some of the costly silverware their father had left with him in Hamburg, in order to raise the funds. 

Then the news arrive on May 28 that Sperling has been kidnapped by the Danish lieutenant-colonel Christoffer Hagedorn and two of his men after the doctor had been tricked into an ambush by being called to the sick bed of an non-existant older man, and that he has been smuggled out of the city and taken to Copenhagen. Sperling is there, as was the case with Leonora, without trial transported right away to the Blue Tower where he eventually is to end his days.

An attempt has also been made by the Danes to have Leo Ulfeldt, the 12-year-old temporary ward of Sperling, handed over, but the city magistrate had balked at this request, refusing the royal demand. 

Of this, Corfitz the Younger writes to a friend in Paris: "Although we are under the protection of the (Swiss) government and the university here, we are threatened by the Danish agents who every day make a thousand attempts to kill us or to kidnap us together with our friends and servants."

On the same day Christian sends off a letter to the senior burgomaster in Hamburg, thanking him and his councilors for saving Leo's life. In this letter he further mentions that they in Basel have heard that a court action has been brought in Hamburg against Hagedorn and that "this traitor" supposedly should have said that he would treat Christian Ulfeldt the same way he had treated Sperling. It was also reported that Hagedorn already was on his way to Basel. "If you will send a short message to Herr Wettstein(*), the mayor of Basel, and to me, I will take care of him (Hagedorn) and see to it that justice is meted out."

 *(Johann Rudolph Wettstein [1594-1666] was one of Basel's favorite sons. He had represented Switzerland at the peace talks in Osnabrueck and Muenster in 1648), 

It is known that by June of 1664, Ludwig and Leo are in Sweden. Leo is back in Basel the following year, where he registers as a student on September 17. The two youngest sisters also live in Basel between 1664 and '65. And Anna Cathrine marries Cassetta in Bruegge. Years later, Christian is in Rome where he takes the vows and is ordained into the priesthood, and Leo(**) is in Vienna where he is entrusted into high imperial office and marries a Countess von Sinzendorff.

All in all, it must be said that the authorities in Basel (as well as in Hamburg), were friendly inclined toward the Ulfeldts and especially the Swiss offered the family much assistance. Christian Ulfeldt wrote: "The court of law here did for us what I never would have expected. They had great pity with us in our misery."

Already in the 17th century the Swiss displayed their humanitarian side, the side that has so often shown itself in dealing with the pain and troubles of refugees. 


This is a true tale of Hate and Love, Greed and Jealousy,

Avarice and Generosity, Brutality and Humanitarianism;

in short all the noble as well as ignoble traits of man,

carried to that extreme territory where even the Grave is unable to call a Halt!




But wait a minute! Did it really happen this way, the way it has more or less been described in the Danish school history books for the past 350 years? Not likely!


Corfitz Ulfeldt was an intelligent man, a very intelligent man, as well as a very rich man. Would he, seriously ill, enter a small boat taking him down river on the Rhine towards northern Germany and closer still to Denmark where disaster was awaiting him? No, he wouldn't. His arch enemy, King Frederik was just itching to get his hands on the alleged traitor (as the enormous posted rewards so clearly show) and finish off his most hated brother-in-law properly. A little torture concluding with a real beheading and some further 'art work' on the body would have pleased the king immensely.


After all, it was the year 1664 and in many ways Europe was barely out of the Middle Ages at the time. And the writers of the history books under the dictatorial rule of Frederik and his successors did not dare to suggest that the king had been outfoxed.


It has been indicated, inexplicitly mind you, by a few 19th century Danish historians that this was just not the way the final act played out. Personally, I believe Ulfeldt left Basel quietly in the company of his three eldest sons, perhaps initially for Lausanne or maybe some altogether different location. Then Italy perchance, Spain or Spanish America. Of course under an assumed name, a totally new identity. The story about the trip down the Rhine, the tragic death and the secret burial was an elaborate fabrication.


Evidence as to this is also concealed in the fact that the name of 'the stranger' he met on the boat was Hans Lucas Eckenstein, who just happened to be a brother-in-law to Ulfeldt's friend, host and protector, the man named Emanuel Russinger. Corfitz must either have had some true and trusted friends, or he has been able to pay handsomely for their cooperation.


Interestingly enough, it seems that the royal court in Copenhagen as well as Ulfeldt's other Danish enemies had the same misgivings about the whole affair. They did not really believe the villain was dead, but what could they do?


It must really have irked Corfitz that although he thus was able to thumb his nose at Frederik he could do no such thing in public. But he was alive and in one piece. In her prison cell I think Leonora knew.



Ulfeldt Genealogy (This family tree is including the connection of the Ulfeldts to the Danish royal house and also the immediate families of the illegitimate children of the kings Christian the Fourth and his son Frederik the Third.)

**(Leo Ulfeldt was born in 1651 and is claimed by at least one source as having been the son of Christian and Sophie Elisabeth von Pentz, adopted by his aunt Leonora Ulfeldt after his birth father had died early that same year in Flensburg and his mother had been placed under house arrest at Boller near Horsens, Denmark - Author).