Vikings to Kings: History of Roskilde

April 21, 2016

Copenhagen is the undisputed capital of Danish history, society and culture. It is one of the most historically relevant and best-preserved cities in Europe. Today it is the most important city in Denmark, but this was not always the case. Most visitors to Denmark do not know the country had a different capital until the 15thcentury. Now a small town known for its annual music festival, Roskilde was the most important place in Denmark for much of its history. Located a mere 20 miles from Copenhagen, Roskilde is a must visit for anyone interested in Danish history, (both Christian and pre-Christian). Roskilde is the place where two distinct facets of Danish history collide. In Roskilde, you can walk with both Vikings and kings.

Getting to Roskilde is a breeze. With a car it is a very simple drive, on well-marked and maintained highways. Without, the journey takes 30-minutes on the train from Copenhagen central. Getting fromCopenhagen to Roskilde and back will not take more than an hour or cost more than $15. It is an absolute travesty that more tourists do not venture out of the city limits to see what ancient Denmark was like. That’s exactly what Roskilde’s two main attractions offer, authenticity. Both the Viking Ship Museum and Roskilde Cathedral do not try to take visitors back in time but instead bring history into the present.

At the Viking Ship Museum, a guest will first be greeted with a spectacular view of the surrounding bay. It is this feature that drew some of the first Vikings to Roskilde. The bay was deep enough for their ships and had a very narrow inlet that was easily defended. The Viking Ship Museum puts visitors literally out on that same bay. Inside it is filled with Viking artifacts, stories, and most importantly, their ships. Discovered and raised in 1962, scholars believe the Vikings purposefully scuttled these ships to block the inlet from an invading horde. Through tireless preservation efforts the boats have been reconditioned and given a new home.

The accompanying museum was completed in 1969, and the ships were moved to their current resting places. What is so amazing about the Viking Ship Museum is that it is not simply a dull place where memories are housed. It is a living organ constantly restoring and recovering artifacts, while simultaneously creating new experiences that connect the visitor to an era long since passed. Outside the main building, there is a small dock where enthusiasts have moored their recreations. Here you can see the ships in action, still sailing in good order unlike their indoor predecessors. Contemporary Vikings still make yearly open-sea voyages on these vessels, but do not partake in the infamous extra curricular activities of their Viking ancestors.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, the Viking Ship Museum offers a lot of hands on activities for kids, including rope making classes, a smith’s workshop, and short Viking voyages. They have a recreation of a Viking camp sure to entertain and encourage a young imagination. The Viking Ship Museum is not an old stuffy collection of rotted wood; it is an inspiration to dream big. Despite their obvious shortcomings (they were a people of precipitous violence), the Vikings navigated great expanses of open sea and discovered vast new lands, at the time, never before visited by Europeans. While many of the Conquistadors are viewed as heroes of the Enlightenment, Vikings are often seen as the worst of the Medieval. I think this reputation is unfair, but a visit to the Viking Ship Museum is enough for you to make up your own mind.

At Roskilde Cathedral, admittedly you will not find the same hands-on spirit. However, there are spirits of a different kind. Roskilde Cathedral is the resting place of the Danish Royal family. Built in the 12th Century,Roskilde Cathedral is the first Gothic Cathedral built from brick. The cathedral is located atop the highest hill in Roskilde and provides the striking contrast between the sea-foam green rusted copper roof and the deep sienna of the fired red clay. The front portal to the cathedral is a haunting abstract copper molding by Peter Brandes. Completed in 2010, the portal shows how Danes are not slaves to the past and are always looking to not only preserve but also improve.

Upon entrance, the truly remarkable scale greets the visitor. Buildings this big aren’t supposed to be made of brick. As the tour continues, the guest is met with original artwork, and murals. Each chapel was created to house the deceased members of Europe’s oldest continuous royal line. They each have their own style depending on the personality of those interred. The sarcophagi give the guest an eerie look at the lifestyle of some of Denmark’s most powerful people. Whether it’s the larger than life Christian IV, or the extremely humble resting place of Christian X , Roskilde Cathedral can give you a unique glimpse of Danish history.  Don’t know the first thing about Danish royalty, this is the best place to start. A guided tour here will give you all the background needed for visits to all of Denmark’s famous castles. Consider it the Danish version of Westminster Abbey, and enjoy the truly epic breadth of Denmark’s monarchy.

 So from Vikings to Kings, Roskilde has the entire history of Denmark completely covered. The noise and activity of the Viking Ship Museum and the quiet respect of Roskilde Cathedral illustrates the transformation of Danish society.  Slowly the wild nomadic Vikings gave way to the religious agrarianism of the Middle Ages. Today’s Danes seek to strike a balance between the two extremes. Providing for the less fortunate while still keeping the spirit of radical freedom alive. Both the Viking Ship Museum and Roskilde Cathedral show that Danish history is ever evolving and far from complete.

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