History of Europe

Absalon Rig, "founder" of Copenhagen and promoter of Christianity in Denmark

Last updated:2022-07-25

One ​​of the images most associated with early Viking attacks is that of the assault on Christian places of worship. The Nordics saw the monasteries as easy prey and greedy and were unaware of the implications that the attack on sacred places and the theft of relics meant for English or French Christians.

Over time, Christian missionaries traveled to Scandinavia to spread their religion and even many Vikings allowed themselves to be marked with the cross symbol when in England, but more as a sign of respect to the god who ruled there that by true conviction; when they returned to their homeland, they erased this symbol and returned to being devoted to Odin, Thor, and Freya.

The first Danish king to convert to Christianity was Harald Bluetooth (935-985), who unified the different kingdoms of Denmark under his rule and who was also proclaimed king of Norway. Harald was in favor of his subjects remaining in his land and of a peace policy that strongly clashed with the warrior and conquering tradition of the Vikings, in addition to the fact that his conversion to Christianity was an affront to traditional paganism of its people.

The leader of the faction opposed to Harald's peace policy and religion was his own son Sweyn Forkbeard. Following a clash between the father and son fleets, the former died of an arrow wound at Jomsborg. The Vikings in the city took Sweyn prisoner and demanded a heavy ransom to free him. Once paid the same, Sweyn became king of Denmark and, after defeating the Norwegian king Olav Tryggveson, also of Norway. He set out to conquer England and became the de facto king of that country. The conversion of Denmark to Christianity was not consummated, although there were individual cases.

Sweyn's death was succeeded by his son Knud the Great, who consolidated Danish rule in England, in addition to retaining the Danish and Norwegian crowns. The Danes settled on the British Isle converted en masse to Christianity and ended up disassociating themselves from Denmark after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, while in Scandinavia, loyalty to the old pagan gods dominated the majority.

However, Christianity grew in the country as churches and monasteries were built. There were discussions about which episcopal see the Danish Church should be incorporated into; some (such as Knud the Great) wanted it to be placed under the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it was eventually chosen that the Archbishop of Bremen take charge of the Danish diocese.

In 1080 Knud II, known as the Saint, came to the throne. Although as a young man he had dedicated himself like any other Viking to sailing and looting, when he ascended the throne he radically changed his attitude. He introduced a tribute, called tithe which consisted of giving the Church 10% of the cereal crops, he asked England to give him part of the relics of St. Alban and erected in Odense (the city named in honor of Odin) a convent for those relics directed by English monks. He was assassinated in Odense Cathedral and soon rumors of miracles at his tomb in Odense began to spread, while Denmark suffered a famine that Christians blamed on the wrath of God for the murder of the holy king. Q>

Knud II's brother, Eric, succeeded to the throne and obtained from Pope Urban that the Danish church no longer depend on the Archbishop of Bremen (with the creation of the Archbishop's see of Lund as head of the church in Denmark) and that his brother be proclaimed a saint. Later, after murdering three members of his entourage in a fit of rage, Eric decided to make a penance pilgrimage to Jerusalem and died on the way. During the following years, Christianity and paganism coexisted, although the churches multiplied throughout the country and the Danish bishops became important advisers to the kings of the country.

In the year 1157 began the reign of Valdemar the Great, which I discussed in the entry dedicated to "Roskilde's bloody feast". Raised in the Zeeland possessions of the noble Asser Rig, when he ascended the throne he was accompanied by the two sons of the aforementioned tycoon, Esbern (who was part of his bodyguard) and Absalon (a clergyman who had traveled to Paris as a young man). Valdemar made Absalon Bishop of Roskilde.

The first task that the king and Absalon Rig took on was to recover the country from the delicate situation in which years of succession conflict had left it and end the external threat of the Wends, who had been raiding the Danish countryside and cities for years. To do this, they gathered a fleet worthy of the best Viking times and raided the island of Rügen, whose capital (Arkona) was the main base of the Wends. They destroyed the capital and its pagan temple to the god Svantevit and in the following years they continued to attack the rest of the Wendish towns and build a line of defense against them in the south of the country, called Danevirke , similar to Hadrian's Wall in Britain, which is still visible in the Danish landscape.

Part of the line of castles ordered to be built by Valdemar was carried out by his main subjects. Absalon decided to locate the fortress in a small merchant settlement (Køben ) in a place simply called Dock (Havn ) on the banks of the Øresund canal. This site, which he would call København (Copenhagen) was given by the king to Absalon, who was concerned with developing the construction of religious buildings and promoting trade in the buoyant city. That is why, although the settlement existed before, he is considered the founder of Copenhagen and the promoter of the city becoming the capital of the country.

We have already mentioned that the seat of the Danish archbishopric was at that time in Lund, and Absalon was chosen by Valdemar to occupy the position of becoming head of the Danish church, after the resignation of the previous archbishop, while maintaining the position of bishop of Roskilde.

In 1182 Valdemar the Great passed away and Absalon became tutor to his son and successor, Knud IV. As such, Absalon ruled de facto Denmark. He objected to the new king swearing allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor for his crown of Denmark and stated that he would only swear allegiance for his lands in the Empire in exchange for more possessions. Following a naval victory by the Danish fleet led by Absalon against the forces sent by the emperor, the latter decided not to press further on the issue of the Danish king's submission. This prevented Denmark from becoming one of the vassal states of the Germanic Roman Empire over the years.

Another of the important tasks carried out by Absalon Rig was to entrust his secretary, named Saxo Grammaticus, with the writing of a Chronicle ( Gesta Danorum ) of the events of the kingdom of Denmark from its beginnings, in the style of those that during his stay in Paris he saw that were taking place in other countries. Unlike the Norwegian and Icelandic sagas, this chronicle is written in Latin, which facilitated the knowledge of him in other countries and the faster integration of Denmark in Europe. In the writing of the Chronicle the hand of Absalon is seen, who appears as "Father" of the country and as leader of the Danish army and fleet (almost as if from an ancient jarl Viking it was), above even Valdemar the Great.

In the last years of his life, Absalon resigned from the bishopric of Roskilde (whose cathedral he built) and retired to the town of Sorø, where he had an abbey built, his tomb is located there, after his death on March 21 from 1201.

Absalon is not only remembered for being the founder of Copenhagen but also for his extensive work in spreading Christianity in a country where the ancient deities still had many followers. Beyond the destruction of the pagan temple of the Wends in Arkona, Absalon encouraged the construction of churches, monasteries, abbeys and nunneries throughout Denmark to achieve the conversion to the Christian religion of the largest possible number of inhabitants of Denmark. the farms and towns scattered throughout the kingdom. He was also the promoter of the consolidation of the Church as one of the living forces of the State, together with the monarch, the royal officials and the nobility.

Image| Author archive.

Fonts| Palle Lauring. A History of Denmark.

Henning Dhen-Nielsen. Kings and Queens of Denmark .