The Viking Cathedrals
Do you think of Vikings as builders of Cathedrals? You can be excused if you say no.
When you think about Vikings, if you do so at all, your image is likely to be of raiders, great wild men with long red hair. Raid they did, mostly taking easy pickings. They also traded, as much businessmen and merchants as brigands. They were also great colonizers who established footholds in Russia (known there as the Rus), in France (known there as Normans who in turn conquered much of Southern Italy and you know what happened to England), across the North Atlantic in Iceland, Greenland, and Canada (some of which lasted longer than others). What is closer to the heart of my article, they also settled in Ireland and ruled much of Scotland, including the Northern Isles, the Outer Hebrides, Caithness and much of both coasts, from Norway for five hundred years.
Given their penchant for burning monasteries, you would be pardoned for considering them pagan. In the early part of the Viking Age (which is generally considered to run been the eight and eleventh centuries) they were. Oden. Freya. Thor. Thor’s hammer. There were not however, particularly anti-Christian. The monasteries, often located near the sea and usually unfortified were simply among those easy pickings I mentioned. No hard feelings, where is the silver?
By the later centuries of the Viking Age, most of people Scandinavia and their colonial outposts were fully Christian. Which leads me to cathedrals.
The northernmost extant medieval cathedral in Europe is in Trondheim, Norway. Work on it began in 1070 as a shrine to King Olaf Haraldsson, honored as a saint locally, something only confirmed by the pope in 1164. It serves as the cathedral of the Lutheran bishops of the diocese of Nidaros. However, the original church appears to have been wooden and has entirely disappeared. The stone church also burned several times. The oldest parts remaining date from the mid-twelfth century.
Sigtrygg II Silkbeard Olafsson, of both Viking and Irish ancestry, built Christ Cathedral in the Viking settlement of what is now Dublin, Ireland, in 1028. At least he ordered it built, in between feuding and wars that forced him into exile in 1036. His father had ruled both York and Dublin at various times. Families could be complicated in those days. In any case, by the latter part of the eleventh century, the cathedral had been absorbed into the Irish church, and its bishop was the very Irish Lawrence O’Toole. Alas, after fires, conquest, and reformation, no traces of the Viking church remain.
About a hundred years later, in 1124, the church appointed a bishop for Greenland. A cathedral and bishop’s place were built in an area called Gardar. Viking hold on Greenland faded away by the end of the fourteenth century. All that remains at Gardar are piles of stones believed to be the ruins of the cathedral. (Photo of the ruins at Gardar)
By far the most impressive Viking cathedral still standing, and primarily original, is Saint Magnus in Kirwall, Orkney, Scotland. Work on it began in 1137, ten years after the death of the saint and two years after his canonization. It’s founding covers another messy story that has as much to do with a family feud as piety, not unlike Sigtrygg. Magnus Erlendsson, very much a Viking, was one of the two earls of Orkney, a much-loved figure. (A side note: “earl” or jarl is a title Britain inherited from the Norsemen.) His cousin, the other earl, the unpopular one, had him executed dishonorably after an extensive conflict—or as people quickly declared, martyred. His nephew Rognvald claimed the family’s share of the earldom and when he made it stick, sailed from Norway to Orkney. He ordered the cathedral in his uncle’s honor, an accomplishment that cemented the family claims. Talk about sticking your family history in your rivals face!
Rognvald’s cathedral still stands.
Selected Viking Fiction
For more information:
“A Brief History of the Cathedral,” Kirkwall St Magnus Cathedral, c. 2020. https://www.stmagnus.org/visiting-the-cathedral/history/ (Accessed 5/5/2020)
Gardar Cathedral; Visit Greenland; https://visitgreenland.com/about-greenland/norse-settlers-gardar-cathedral/ (Accessed 5/5/2020)
The History of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin; Christchurch Cathedral; https://christchurchcathedral.ie/about/history/ (Accessed 5/5/2020)
Music, Architecture, and History; Nidaros Domkirkes; https://www.nidarosdomen.no/en/attractions/nidarosdomen (Accessed 5/5/2020)
Saint Olav; on Nidaros Domkirk; https://www.nidarosdomen.no/en/music-architecture-and-history/olavsarven (Accessed 5/5/2020)
Towry, Sigurd; St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall; on Orkneyjar: the Heritage of the Orkney Islands, c. 1996-2020. http://orkneyjar.com/history/stmagnus/magcath.htm (Accessed 5/5/2020)
Williams, Garth; Viking Religion; on BBC: History; Last updated 2011-02-17. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/religion_01.shtml (Accessed 5/5/2020)
Caroline Warfield works in an office near her adopted city of Philadelphia surrounded by windows where she writes family centered novels set in the Regency and Victorian eras and nudges characters to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. Music on the Waters, a novella she wrote after a visit to Orkney, sprung to print quite unexpectedly this spring. Saint Magnus Cathedral features prominently in the story; the heroine is the cathedral organist.