Roskilde seen from the Firth wikipedia

From Lejre to Roskilde

Around AD 1000 the royal seat in Lejre had lost its political power to the Jelling Dynasty, which founded a new royal centre there. Later this grew to be the city of Roskilde.

Maglekilde in RoskildeLooking at a map and pinpointing the localities, which have been archaeologically connected with the royal seat in Lejre, it is easy to see that its sphere of influence reached to the northwest. Rowing down the stream from Lejre the king and his men would pass Gevninge, where the tantalising ‘eye’ from a 7th century helmet and several other high status objects represent stray finds witnessing to the village as an important settlement. At this point the river was obviously navigable leading out to Lejre Vig. From here there is only a short boat-trip to the other shore near Lyndby, where a road would pass on to Ll. Karleby (the spot where the latest hoard was found) and further on to Vestervang south of Kirke Hyllinge. Here archaeologists have excavated a late Iron Age settlement, also with very rich stray finds. It has been speculated that the existence of a “Karleby” on the route meant a place where the “karle” or “ceorls” belonging to the king’s personal contingent of warriors had their farms.

Around AD 980 – 1000, however, a whole new settlement grew up on the other side of the Firth of Roskilde at a rather curious place. High up on a plateau app. 50 m above sea level, it may have seemed an ideal location. However, Roskilde means the “Spring of Ro” (Ro being later believed to be a mythological king) signalling that the whole place is in fact inundated with a number of very active springs, which may have led to a number of water-mills, but also created obstacles for secure foundations for the churches and royal estate, which seems to have constituted the first buildings. Built on a moraine sheet consisting of rigid, calcareous clay and crisscrossed with 11 springs, marshy fens and smaller ponds meant a prohibiting high ground-water table. Occasionally this would be undermined by muddy holes.

However, as with Lejre Vig, the new location was easily defensible as the Firth of Roskilde is only navigable by people with precise knowledge of the shallow waters and narrow channels leading through. Later (around AD 1050) these natural defences were even amplified by the sinking of the wrecks up by Skuldelev at ‘Peberrenden’, a narrow channel with strong currents.

Sct. Jørgensbjerg church Roskilde © Medieval Histories
Sct. Jørgensbjerg church in Roskilde. Notice the stone posts mimicking those from the old wooden churches © Medieval Histories

Presumably, this led to the location of the new settlement designed to dominate a region, which had hitherto been ruled from Lejre. Here at Roskilde, a new royal seat grew up, mentioned for the first time in AD 1022 in a charter documenting an exchange of land between Cambridge and Ely. It was later reported by Adam of Bremen (AD 1073 – 1076) that Roskilde had been founded by Harold Bluetooth around AD 980 and that his remains after his death at Jumla were brought here to be buried in his own church. Although most historians believe this to be a myth, the fact remains that the town did possess a number of very early churches, probably built of wood and that the charter from 1022 mentions a “Gerbrand from Roskilde Diocese among the people of the Danes”. One of these churches was rebuilt in the 11th century as the first cathedral, later superseded by the present building. However, up above the harbour the church at St. Jørgensbjerg stills stands, built around c. 1080 in local travertine limestone. It is curious that the stone masons recreated the “wooden” corner posts in stone.

This church was originally dedicated to St. Clemens and must have been used by the seafarers and merchants, who were now busy turning Roskilde into a proper city with all-in-all fourteen churches serving the city and the surrounding countryside.

In connection with this it is perhaps pertinent to mention that Lejre never acquired a church of its own, while the new site at Roskilde very early on was known to flaunt the new national religion, Christianity. (It is around the same time Thietmar of Merseburg told his horror-stories about human sacrificing at Gl. Lejre)

Liquid Landscape

Nevertheless, it has been suggested that the location of Roskilde was not only chosen because it represented virgin land, which could be defended easily. Perhaps the many streams and springs also signified that the site  might even have functioned as a sacred landscape, an alternative to Lejre. This, however, has not so-far been documented archaeologically through for instance finds of sacrificed valuables in the streams. On the other hand, it is apparent that the site chosen for the royal estate and its new church was not located at the top of the moraine plateau. Rather, it was located where the wet and trickling landscape slopes steeply down towards the sea, thus dominating the horizon when seen from below. This mimicked the location of the halls at Lejre, at Uppsala and at Kaupang.

It still mattered to be seen from afar – in Lejre around AD 600 and in Roskilde AD 1000. Later, merchants and craftsmen began to turn the new place into a city by filling up and redirecting all the bubbling springs. But that is quite another story.


Vestervang at Kirke Hyllinge, Zealand: a late Iron Age settlement with rich stray finds.
By Ole Thirup Kastholm
In. Danish Journal of Archaeology (2012) vol 1, no 2, pp. 142 -164

Roskilde – en bygrundlæggelse I et vanskeligt terræn.
By Jens Ulriksen, Cille Krause and Niels H. Jensen
Kuml 2014, pp. 145 – 185


Medieval News 2016 May 5 Cover‘Medieval News’ from May 2016 brings you stories about Lejre in the land of the Scyldings and Beowulf, which is about to be unlocked. But it also shares a lot of notices about upcoming conferences, new books etc….

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Featured Photo

Roskilde as seen from the sea. Source: Wikipedia

Map over Lejre and Roskilde