Roskilde, town of bishops and kings

Posted by on Apr 20, 2015 in Back in civilization
Roskilde, town of bishops and kings

Denmark, the smallest of the five Nordic Countries (minus Greenland, Svalbard…), might not be heading the list for wild outdoor adventures destinations, this flat country is more than anything perfect for bike holidays and long walks on sandy beaches. In addition to the sports activities, its rich history guarantees an easy visit to one of the famous landmarks – a castle or manor house is never far out of reach. Roskilde, one of the oldest cities in Denmark, is such a historical place. An old, friendly sounding name with a royal past.


Roskilde: history of Denmark on a few square miles

With the metropolitan buzz of the design city of Copenhagen at a distance of only a half hour drive, it is the small town of Roskilde that breathes the history of Denmark on a few square miles. It is generally held that Roskilde was founded around the year 980 by Harald ‘Bluetooth’ Gormsson, King of Denmark and Norway at the time. However, Danish medieval chronicles speak of the 6th century kings named Ro and Helghe, sons of Haldan, who shared the rule after their father’s death. Ro took the land and founded Roskilde. Helghe took the water.

Not coincidentally, the name Roskilde has an instant familiar ring, connecting it loosely with the sounds of Richard Wagner’s epic opera cycle ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’, based on old German and Scandinavian sagas. But also Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ crosses the mind, with its elements and characters derived for a great deal from the same sources, although Tolkien also used, for instance, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. It is in Beowulf as well as in an possibly older poem, Widsith, that the ruler of Denmark is mentioned: Hrothgar, being the same king as the above mentioned Ro. This corresponds with the Scandinavian sources, more specific the Norse sagas, Icelandic poems and Danish chronicles. Altogether, the legendary early 6th century king Hrothgar alias king Ro, might well have been the first to bring Roskilde into existence…


<img src="roskilde-cathedral-faced-from-the-north-jpg"alt="Roskilde Cathedral Faced From The North"/>

Roskilde cathedral, faced from the north


The Middle Ages and the Vikings: seafarers, traders, raiders

The Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith (probably 9th century) is the first to mention the wicing. The Vikings as we call these Germanic Norse seafarers, were also referred to by Adam from Bremen, qualifying them as raiders and pirates. From their homelands in the Scandinavian countries the Vikings mainly sailed to northern and central Europe, but their explorations and settlement activities extended also to the far south. The Viking Age of Scandinavian history is a relatively brief period – from 790 (the first recorded raids) to 1066 (the Norman conquest on England). Christianization plays a major role as well and at the end of the Viking Age the separate kingdoms in Scandinavia became gradually more distinct as nations. Missionaries came, towns were formed as the center of administrative and ecclesiastical power and royal dynasties now were legitimized by the Catholic Church.

Roskilde was an important harbor for the Danish Vikings, for trade as well as war enterprises. Here it was that five Viking ships were excavated from Roskilde fjord. Seeking to protect the capital of the Danish kingdom from seaborne assaults, the ships were scuttled, blocking the navigation channel.

In 1020 Roskilde became a bishopric. A church was built on the site where Harald Bluetooth previously had erected the wooden church, honouring the Holy Trinity and the nearby royal residence. The Roskilde Cathedral we see today is the result of construction work from 1170 onwards, completed in 1275. This sturdy, massive building, the first Gothic cathedral in Scandinavia where brick was used as building material, whispers the tales of Scandinavian kingdoms. And not only because it is the burial site for the Danish monarchs, with 39 royals entombed at the moment. One of the highlights is the tomb of Queen Margrete I (1353-1412), the ruler who unified the three Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden (then including Finland) under Danish rule. With the Treaty of Calmar, the Nordic union was formalized in 1397, establishing a countervailing force against the influence of the Hanseatic League. This cathedral reads like a history book, the graves and the medieval frescoes also convey the stories of the battles of power between the dynasties of the north and the shifts in culture that this region underwent.

On an ordinary day in April it is not difficult to image why the first of the Danish viking kings who converted truly to Christianity chose this place. Situated on high ground, overlooking the harbor and the sea, Harald’s church was in a beautiful and meaningful position and was testimony to his new religion and Danish king. At the present time, walking these grounds when the tourist season has not started yet, more or less being the only person around, this place granted the opportunity to discover an important part of Scandinavian history and heritage.



Roskilde cathedral in late afternoon set in red colors

Roskilde cathedral, detail


No capital, no gain

The important position of Roskilde in medieval Denmark as an religious and political center and in general in northern Europe, being the largest town at the time, came to an end from 1443. In this year the king moved out to Copenhagen, now the new capital of Denmark, later on followed by the Bishop and his administration. Gradually, Roskilde lost the influence it previously had. Once a Viking hub, subsequently the place where 5 monasteries and 12 churches testified of religious activity, the town now saw many religious institutions disappear as a result of the Reformation. In the years that followed, Roskilde suffered from wars, fires, the plague. And it wasn’t until mid 19th century, through the establishment of a railroad connection with Copenhagen that traffic and trade lifted it to a more prominent hub position again.

Harald, meanwhile, is with us again. The Bluetooth wireless connection between computers, mobile phones and more devices was named after this king: he unified Denmark and Norway, the Bluetooth protocol has the same unifying goal, worldwide. The Bluetooth logo consists of the Nordic runes for his initials.





  • Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde: the five ships that were scuttled in the 11th century are on display here.
  • Roskilde Cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site, Roskilde Palace and Roskilde Convent.
  • Kronborg Palace, northwest of Copenhagen. The setting for Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. And Frederiksborg Castle, north of Copenhagen.
  • Roskilde festival: the yearly rock festival, and the biggest in northern Europe



BACK IN CIVILIZATION is about the places that people call their home or their capital. It is about cities and settlements or maybe a post in the wilderness. They are the counterparts of the wild natural environment – full of history it are the places where economic and social life, people and their religious beliefs blended into culture.


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