Roskilde, Denmark – Once a Viking Hub, An Introduction

“So the Copenhagen Card allows you to travel all the way to Roskilde, Zone 99,” said the staff at the Copenhagen Tourist Office, “based on what you guys want to see and want to travel with the card could be value for money, but take a look at the seasonal opening schedule and do the math and decide if you want the card. Chat with your friends I want you guys to get the card only if it is something that gives value and helps you save money.”

Seriously that’s the way to treat tourists, (really impressed Copenhagen Tourism, really impressed).

We bought the Copenhagen Card, and then had the recommendation, “I suggest you consider doing a day trip to Roskilde to check out the Cathedral and the Viking Ship Museum, these are really must sees to get a sense of Denmark.”

If I’m being honest, this was why we went down to Roskilde, we were sold by the staff at the agency.

But what was it about Roskilde that made it so important to the Danish story?

Situated at the centre of Zealand Region (not the Zealand that gave New Zealand its name, that belongs to the Dutch, Zeeland province) and at the centre of the old Viking world, Roskilde was a Viking trading hub before the term was ever invented. People visited Roskilde to trade and do business and hawk their wares which they brought in from other parts of the world or sought to sell to other parts of the world. The city was established in the 980s and became the capital of Denmark from the 11th century to the year 1443 but its mythology goes back further, to the 6th century AD at the least, its name (it is belived) derived from ancient Norse King Hrothgar, immortalised in the poem epic Beowulf.

It was another great Viking King who founded Roskilde, Harald Bluetooth – the same Bluetooth the technology is named after.

Roskilde was a good location for a city because it was central enough to enable influence to be evenly spread throughout the realm but also located deep in the Roskilde Fjord to be highly defendable by a strong fleet of Viking long boats.

Viking Longboats at the Viking Ship Museum

Harald Bluetooth was the man who introduced Christianity to the Vikings, and it was in Roskilde that he set up a church – it was also underneath the church that he was buried. It is not known if Bluetooth was a converted Christian who genuinely believe in Christianity, modern archeologist believe it was more to do with the politics of survival that led to his conversion.

Harald Bluetooth was held in high respect in Danish society and his Church became the site of political, religious and military legitimacy a tradition that continues till this day, with the Roskilde Cathedral built on the same site where Harald Bluetooth’s first church was built and serving as the Royal Cemetery to a line of monarchs going all the way till the current ruling Queen Margrethe II.

No one however, used the moral power of the cathedral to greater effect that the warrior-bishop Absalon. Absalon was at the centre of military engagements, he led the army from the front, and focused on bringing the Crown of Denmark closer to the Pope in Rome so as to decrease the influence and power of the Holy Roman Empire. Absalon’s presence was vital to the growth of Roskilde, more churches were built, more people lived in the area and soon defensive fortifications had to be built around the city. The city then became an important centre of trade serving as a market town (or a hub)

All this came crashing down however during the Protestant Reformation. Instead of its proud position at the centre of an empire, Roskilde represented everything that was wrong with Catholic Denmark, churches were destroyed, business and the political gravity of the country moved eastwards to Copenhagen. Roskilde was further ravaged by war with Sweden, and the black death.

The Market Square and City Hall of Roskilde

Its fate only changed for the better with the advent of industrialisation, when it became a transit stop from Copenhagen by rail. However just as industrialisation revived it, further industrialisation killed the city a second time – as the size of ships increased, the Roskilde Harbour was clearly too small and the Roskilde Fjord to shallow for navigation by large ships.

Google Roskilde today however and a completely different term is at the top of the list, the Roskilde Festival. The Roskilde Festival is a massive music festival second only to Glastonbury in the UK.

Join me over the next few days, as I explore some of the sights of the Viking parts of Roskilde.

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