The elderly woman is slowly moving up the slope from the bay towards the Old Town and the Roskilde Cathedral. It’s Sunday, and she has only a few minutes left to reach the church service in Denmark’s oldest brick church in time. In fact, the Roskilde Cathedral is the prototype of a Gothic brick cathedral, which set the tone for any number of churches around the Baltic Sea.
Brick on brick
The building of the Roskilde Cathedral started as early as 1170 and took around 100 years. At this time master architects in France were just experimenting with new vertical building styles and the architect of the Roskilde church had seen these new Gothic churches and was keen to try something similar in his home country. Contrary to France, where they used sandstone as a building material, the traditional material in Denmark was brick, since there are not enough mountains and rocks. The builders had to adjusted some details to accommodate for the different material, but overall it turned out that building such a huge and tall cathedral with bricks was indeed possible and sturdy.
A burial place for the Danish kings
For the Danish people the cathedral is tremendously important because because it is the burial place for dozens of Danish kings. When the space inside the church was all taken up by tombs, they added new chapels on all sides, and even built some new burial chapels outside next to the church. Some of them are huge, and lavishly decorated, such as the Chapel of the Three Magi or the Chapel of Frederick V.
Visiting and reading about all the chapels and tombs takes a while, but the huge main nave alone with the enormous brick pillars and the decorated king’s balcony is at least equally impressive. How daring it must have been in the 12th century to build almost 76 m high in brick, when even the Gothic architects using stone were still uncertain about the static of such colossal constructions. Therefore it is not for the fancy royal chapels but for this daring avant-garde spirit that the Roskilde Cathedral was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995. Other churches e.g. in Rostock, Neubrandenburg, and Magdeburg are modelled on the Roskilde experiment.
As we were on a day trip from Copenhagen, we also had enough time to visit Roskilde’s second tourist attraction: The Viking Ship Museum (Vikingeskibsmuseet).
In the bay below Roskilde, five Viking ship wrecks were discovered in the 1950s. The inhabitants of Roskilde sunk them on purpose around 1050 to block one of the few channels leading through shallow waters to Roskilde, which was then an important city with its population of 5000. Apparently the rulers feared an invasion and wanted to force all vessels to approach slowly through a more winding water channel, so as to have time to prepare their defence if necessary. Archaeologists rejoiced about the sunken ships. They are the best-preserved Viking ships ever found, and could be re-assembled, preserved, studied and even re-built with new materials and the old techniques.
Vikings around the world
Visitors can marvel at the five original ships in a purpose-built hall at the shore. Next to it modern boat-builders have for years been building Viking-style ships that are very close to the originals. Using theses ships experimental archaeologists try to imitate the Viking voyages. After all they went to Greenland and even Newfoundland, they could navigate around Europe to the Mediterranean and up streams into the Baltic states and Russia. The Nordic Seafarers must have been far more organised and disciplined than their wild image implies, it turned out. To navigate the fast, shallow boats, they needed a huge crew, and depending on the wind they all had to move constantly around the boat as a counterweight. Sleeping arrangements during the voyage, rowing shifts and food storage must also have been tricky.
We joined one of the guided tours in English in the museum (included in the ticket price) and had a look in the shipbuilders’ yard next to the Viking Ship Hall, where visitors can inspect the traditional tools and watch the builders at work. There are some ships that are accessible to tourists and it is also possible to join a Viking Ship boat trip from the harbour – rowing and rigging included.
Is Roskilde Cathedral worth a visit?
Unless you have visited some of the big cathedrals in France – and perhaps other brick cathedrals in Northern Germany – and have a little bit of background knowledge about architectural styles you may probably have difficulties to realise the architectural value of the church. But nevertheless the Roskilde Cathedral is quite impressive by size and splendour. In combination with a trip to the Viking Ship Museum you are definitely in for a great day out of the city of Copenhagen.
How to get to Roskilde by public transport
The train from Copenhagen takes around one hour. Both the cathedral and the Viking Ship Museum are in walking distance from the station.
NB: We were not sponsored for our trip and everything was paid by ourselves. We got free press tickets for the Viking ship museum.