Roskilde Cathedral, Monastery and Viking Museum

Roskilde Cathedral, Monastery and Viking Museum

Roskilde – Danmark’s Original Capital

Roskilde is worth a visit! It takes a mere 25 minutes by train from Copenhagen to get to this charming, unspoilt little provincial town. But this is not just any provincial town! Besides being well-known as a dormitory town for Copenhagen, it’s also home to a large cathedral. Actually, in the past Roskilde was practically Denmark’s capital. This was the place where Earl Ulf, King Canute the Great’s steward, resided with Estrid around the time of the first millennium A.D.. Their royal residence is speculated to have stood where the cathedral’s towers now stand.

According to the chroniclers of old, Earl Ulf and King Canute were caught up in a brawl over a game of chess on the evening of 30. december 1026. One abusive word after another made Ulf realise he had gone too far. Early the next morning, on new year’s day, he went over to the church to pray. Whilst he knelt before the altar, a sharp sword was thrust into his back, exiting through his stomach.

Even though a lot has happened during the one thousand years between Ulf’s infamous murder over a church altar, the gruesome event has left its eternal mark on the place. Try kneeling where Ulf was murdered: Maybe you’ll get a chill sent down your spine when you hear Ulf’s ghost whispering his alleged last words; ”Pray for my soul. Pray for my soul.” This mood will follow you in this unique piece of Unesco World Hritage as a guide leads you along the tombs of forty kings and queens of Denmark from the last thousand years. You might want to choose a guided tour.

The Viking Ship Museum

The Viking Ship Museum situated in Roskilde harbour is also definitely worth a visit. Among other things, this museum exhibits an accurate replica of an 80-strong Viking war ship. In this type of ship, sixty men in total would row, thirty on each side. The vessel is seaworthy and in the 1980’s it was sailed to Ireland and back. The hull of the vessel is only submerged a meter below sea-level because Vikings did not include keels on their ships, allowing them to navigate in and manoeuvre on great river-systems as well as in the open sea.

Roskile Monastery – A Time Warp in the Central part of the Town

A few hundred meters to the east of the cathedral, still tucked away in the city’s medieval heart, there’s a building not even the locals grant a lot of thought. It’s surrounded by a two meter high wall. Tall beech and chestnut trees can be seen shooting out from behind it, partly covering our view of impressive old buildings decorated with traditional stepped gables. This is Roskilde’s medieval monastery, a time warp right in the middle of the city. The older parts of the monastery were constructed around 1567 using stones repurposed from the Franciscan monastery that had stood there since the 1230’s. You can still see the bricks’ irregular shapes in the building’s structure. In 1699 the property was converted into a monastery for unmarried noble women. The monastery for women was only closed in 1974, after which even lay people were able to rent accomodation in the complex.

Roskilde Kloster SlaungerRoskilde Kloster 2015-03-30-4767CC BY-SA 4.0

This place has preserved its secluded nature. There is no public access and the gates are still locked every night. Guideservice Danmark offers a guided tour for a minimum of 10 persons (or fewer persons at a price corresponding to 10) around this pristine medieval monastery. Amongst many other things, the monastery also boasts of an art collection featuring works of Lucas Cranach, Abraham Wuchters, Peder Als, Johan Hoerner, C.A. Jensen and Christian Vantore. The Monastery’s little church, also a sight on our tour, is still in service today. Try a guided our of the Roskilde Kloster.

Tycho Brahe

One of the paintings displayed in the monastery of Roskilde is a portrait of the world-renowned Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). In 1575, Brahe was in the German city of Augsburg for a second time. Here he met the portraitist Thobias Gemperle (or Gemperlin). Two years later he lured Gemperle to Denmark and ensured an tax-exempt status for him from king Frederik II. That same year, Gemperle produced a magnificent painting of the astronomer, featuring the artist’s rendering of his characteristic nose. Afterwards, Gemperle produced a long series of portraits. One of them is of the historian Anders Sørensen Vedel (1542-1616) who had served as the noble-born astronomer’s butler. Gemperle died in Copenhagen in 1587.

Tyge Ottesen Brahe (his name in Danish) was born in 1546 in the manor house Knudstrup (Knutstorp) in Scania. Tyge’s studies were specifically organised to suit a member of the royal court and nobility.

At twelve, Tyge began his studies of law at Copenhagen University, however, the following year he witnessed a partial solar eclipse that had been predicted. From this moment on he dedicated himself to astronomy. He studied law and political sciences in Leipzig and Wittenberg but he maintained always side-study of astronomy. In Rostock he studied alchemy and medicine, both of which were considered dependent upon the movement of celestial bodies at the time. All of this was certainly not without merit. In 1563, at 17 years of age, he concluded that the time of conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter (when they pass each other as seen from Earth) was actually marked a month off in the charts used in Tyge’s time. He is also considered to have been talented in languages. He wrote poetry and other works in Latin with great ease.

During his time as a student in Rostock 1566, he lost part of his nose in a duel with another Danish nobleman, Manderup Parsberg (1546-1625). Their friendship, however, did not suffer much from this episode.

A New Star

In 1572, while exploring the constellation of Cassiopeia, Tyge discovered a bright new star. He described the phenomenon in his book (written in Latin), ‘De Nova Stella’. This work immediately launched the 27 year old dane to fame. It’s probable that it was around this time he became commonly known as Tycho Brahe, the latinised form of his name.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), maleri på Roskilde Kloster. Det er muligvis Elefantordenens emblem, som hænger i ’de gyldne kæder’.

In 1576, Frederik II (1534-1588) granted Brahe the island of Hven with a considerable estate. As long as he continued to deliver results and to elevate the royal court’s status, king Frederik II was satisfied. The king enjoyed having the opportunity to offer his guests a unique experience at Uranienborg observatory on Hven in the company of Tycho Brahe’s charismatic personality.


In 1588 king Frederik II died, leaving the throne to the eleven year old Christian IV (1577-1648). At this point in time, Tycho Brahe was receiving a whopping 1% of the entire kingdom’s revenues, which the burgeoning new king could easily have allocated elsewhere. When Christian IV became of age, he denied Brahe the majority of his income, though allowing him to keep his estate on Hven. In 1597 this led to a heated exchange of opinions between the two men which resulted in Brahe’s banishment from the country. Now Tycho was forced to flee to Prague, where he was welcomed with pomp by the Holy Roman emperor and king of Bohemia Rudolph II (1552-1612). It was there Tyge Brahe died at the age of 54 on the 24th of October 1601. He was burried with due honour at Tyn church in Prague’s old city.

A number of conspiracy theories have arisen surrounding his death: Was he poisoned? Did he die due to incorrect medication? Or did his bladder burst, causing a painful death? None of these seem plausible. The latest theory is that he died of kidney failure.

Frederik III bought up Brahe’s wealth of observations and notes which he and Kepler had used for their Rudolphine Tables (star catalogues and planetary tables). These observations are stored at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Frederik III also ordered the demolition of Uranienborg in 1650.

The Painting in the Monastery

The Brahe family line was ended in 1786, however, it has left a rich and tangible heritage. A large series of portraits of the famous astronomer, for example, are still in existence. One of the most celebrated is Gemperle’s work from 1577. In 1835 the portrait was temporarily moved to a collection at Frederiksborg, in order to preserve this masterwork depicting one of Denmarks greatest sons. The monastery received a copy of the work painted by one of the country’s most renowned visual artists, professor C.A. Jensen (1792-1870). During the fire at Frederiksborg on the 16th to the 17th of December 1859, the original was consumed by flames, however, C.A. Jensen’s masterly copy remains on display in Roskilde.

Comments are closed.