Roskilde Cathedral

Roskilde Cathedral (Danish: Roskilde Domkirke), in the city of Roskilde on the Island of Zealand (Sjælland) in eastern Denmark, is a cathedral of the Lutheran Church of Denmark. It was the first Gothic cathedral to be built of brick and its construction encouraged the spread of this Brick Gothic style throughout Northern Europe. It was built during the 12th and 13th centuries, and incorporates both Gothic and Romanesque architectural features in its design. It was the only cathedral in Zealand until the 20th century, and its twin spires dominate the skyline of the town.

Roskilde Cathedral has been the main burial site for Danish monarchs since the 15th century. As such, it has been significantly extended and altered over the centuries as individual rulers have added many burial chapels. Following the Danish Reformation in 1536, the Bishop's residence was moved to Copenhagen, and he from then on held the title Bishop of Zealand. Royal coronations normally took place in Copenhagen's Church of Our Lady or in the chapel of Frederiksborg Palace.

The cathedral is a major tourist attraction, bringing in over 125,000 visitors annually. Since 1995 it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A working church, it also hosts concerts throughout the year.


Roskilde was named as the new capital of Denmark by King Harald Bluetooth about the year 960. A small timber church was built there and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. King Harald was buried inside the little church at Roskilde, but no trace of it has ever been located.

In about 991 Roskilde was made the seat of the Bishop of Roskilde under the supervision of the Archbishop of Hamburg, who had the responsibility for converting the pagan kingdoms of Scandinavia. The bishop was responsible for the island of Zealand, Scania, and the islands to the south including Rügen off the coast of northern Germany. Bishop Svend Nordmand (1076-1088) with donations from King Canute's sister, Estrid, oversaw the building of the first stone cathedral which was completed in 1080. The church was built in Romanesque style with half-rounded interior arches to support the flat interior ceiling. The main church had a long nave and two side aisles. Two towers flanked the west front entrance. A three-sided stone monastery was constructed adjoining the cathedral on the north side for the monks and others associated with the cathedral. Bishop Svend succeeded in bringing an important relic, the skull of St. Lucius, an early pope (253-255), who became the patron saint of the cathedral. The skull is now located in the Catholic Cathedral of St. Ansgar in Copenhagen.

Perhaps the most famous of Roskilde's bishops was Absalon, the warrior bishop, who founded Copenhagen which he gave to the See of Roskilde. Absalon later became the Archbishop of Lund. He was responsible for the construction of Our Lady Church in Copenhagen which in the twentieth century superseded Roskilde as Denmark's National Cathedral.

King Valdemar deposited the relics of St. Canute Lavard in St Lucius' on 25 June 1170, the same day as King Canute VI was crowned in Roskilde Cathedral, the only Danish coronation held at Roskilde. Absalon's successor Peder Sunesen began an ambitious expansion of the cathedral in 1200 modeled on the cathedral at Tournai, Belgium where he had been an abbot under his mentor, Bishop Stephen of Tournai. Without any good stone to work with, the cathedral was built with a new material, over-sized red bricks. Along with Sorø Abbey the cathedral served as a prototype for the many monasteries, churches, cathedrals and public buildings constructed in red brick all over Scandinavia and northern Germany. It has been estimated that the cathedral construction used more than 3,000,000 bricks. The new cathedral was twice the height of the old one and built in the Gothic style with pointed arches and a vaulted ceiling which added height to the building. A transept was added giving the church a cruciform shape, and a rounded apse was added onto the choir. Two towers flanked the west front doors. The choir was divided from the nave for services associated with the monastery. The doorway between the nave and the altar was only opened on the great feast days of the liturgical calendar. On the north side four chapels were built for Saint Birgitte, St Christofer, and St. Andrew.

Bishop Jacob Erlandsen built a school at the cathedral for the education of poor children in 1249. In 1310 a Lady Chapel was added onto the cathedral in the location of the present mausoleum which houses the tombs of many of Denmark's recent royal family. Bishop Peder Jensen Lodehat forcibly removed the body of Queen Margrethe I from Sorø Abbey in 1414 and interred her with great pomp inside the cathedral.

In 1439 work began on the interior of the cathedral, proceeding as far as the choir. But on 14 May 1443 a terrible fire swept through the city and burned the cathedral. It was damaged so severely that it wasn't rededicated until 1464, built in the footprint of the earlier building. King Christian I paid for the addition of a new Chapel of the Three Kings as part of the overall reconstruction. Christian I and his wife Dorothea of Brandenburg are buried in the chapel, after Margrethe I, the oldest royal burials. The chapel also contains an unusual stone pillar called the "King's Column". Many members of the Danish royal family and important royal visitors have had their heights recorded on the stone. Beside Danish royals, Edward the VII of England, Peter the Great of Russia, and King Chulalongkorn of Thailand were measured on the column.

St Lucius' two west front towers were reconstructed with short spires much like those of the medieval church. The famous St George clock was added about 1500 and most visitors to the cathedral pause to watch St George attack the dragon on the hour. Two other characters also move and strike bells on the quarter and half hours. In 1511 St Andrew's chapel and St Birgitta's chapel were painted with scenes from the lives of the saints.

All through the cathedral's history people were buried inside the cathedral. Many were buried under the floor in brick tombs and a carved grave stone placed over the top. Wealthy individuals "lease" mausoleum space in the chapels that lines the aisles and many of them were decorated with wood or stone memorials that literally began to line all available wall space in the interior of the cathedral.

The last Catholic bishops of Roskilde worked hard to stop the spread of Luther's ideas from being spread through the diocese, but they were unsuccessful. By 1536 both the king and the majority of Danes forced the monasteries, abbeys, church schools, and cathedral to give up traditional Catholic beliefs and adhere to Lutheran doctrine and practice. Joachim Rønnow, the last Catholic bishop of Roskilde, was imprisoned in 1536 and remained in Copehagen Castle until his death in 1544. In 1538 Denmark's "Luther", Hans Tausen, came to the cathedral to put an end to the Catholic remnants in the services and operation of the cathedral. By 1540 all of the cathedral properties were confiscated by the king.

The cathedral was the last bastion of Catholicism in Sjaelland, but in 1536 the Lutheran Superintendent of Zealand moved to Copenhagen, although Roskilde was still officially the cathedral. The decline of Roskilde was precipitous, all the monasteries, church schools, chapter houses, were closed and the property snapped up by the crown or local noble families. The cathedral's gigantic crucifix and other Catholic symbols were taken down or destroyed. Because the church was a royal resting place, the cathedral was spared the savage looting of churches that accompanied the Reformation in other parts of the country. Superintendents quickly were titled bishops again and the Bishop of Zealand continued to live and work from Copenhagen until Zealand Diocese was split from Copenhagen in the 1920s.

In 1548 the widow of Mayor Van Seygens and Sidsel Lerbæk were condemned and burned as witches on the cathedral square. St Lucius' was made a parish church for central Roskilde. In 1583 the last known nun died, ending five hundred years of monastery life around the cathedral.

The wonderful 1560 three-sided altar piece was carved in Antwerp and is one of the cathedral's great treasures. The pulpit was a gift of King Christian IV in 1610. The artist who worked in sandstone, marble and alabaster was the well-known sculptor Hans Brockman. In 1614 St Christofer's and St Andrews Chapels were torn down to permit the building of Christian IV's chapel.

In 1635-6 the two west towers were raised and given the now familiar tall thin spires clad in copper. The towers house six bells. The oldest surviving bell was cast in 1508 by Hans Jensen. Johannes Fastenőwe cast two bells in 1511 paid for by Bishop Johan Ravensberg. The largest bell, "Stormklokken", hangs in the north tower. A. Burchado cast a bell in 1594 that hangs with the Jensen and smaller Fastenőwe bell in the south tower.

A magnificent Royal Door on the west front was carved by Geert Barchmann. The new portal was used only on state occasions; visitors enter by the south door. The beautiful entrance was later moved to Holmen Church in Copenhagen. In 1645 Zealand's bishop ordered the recording of all baptism, marriages, and deaths throughout Zealand and many of Denmark's earliest vital records exist as a result.

In 1672 Oluf Mortensen's "weapons porch" attached to the cathedral was torn down.

In 1968 the Margrethe Spire over the crossing was destroyed by fire, and its two bells, one from 1200 and one from 1613 were damaged beyond repair. Two new bells were cast by the Petit and Fritsen Company and hung in 1970.

Royal Burials
  • Harald I Bluetooth (d. between 979-987) (supposedly walled up in a pillar near the Choir, but no remains have been found as of yet)
  • Sweyn I Forkbeard (d. 1014)
  • Sweyn II Estridsen (d. 1076)
  • Margrethe I (d. 1412)(immediately behind the high altar)
  • Estrid Svendsdatter (d. between 1057 & 1073) (walled up in the north pier flanking the apse)
  • Christopher III of Bavaria (d. 1448)
  • Christian V (d. 1699) and Queen Charlotte Amalie of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) (d. 1714)
  • Frederick IV (d. 1730) and Queens: Louise of Mecklenburg-Güstrow (d. 1721)
Chapel of the Magi (Christian I's Chapel)
  • Christian I (d. 1481) and Queen Dorothy of Brandenburg (d. 1495)
  • Christian III (d. 1559) and Queen Dorothy of Saxony-Lauenburg (d. 1571)
  • Frederick II (d. 1588) and Queen Sophia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (d. 1631)
Frederick V's Chapel
  • Christian VI (d. 1746) and Queen Sophia Magdalena of Brandenburg-Kulmbach (d. 1770)
  • Frederick V (d. 1766) and Queens: Louise of Great Britain (d. 1751) and Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (d. 1796)
  • Christian VII (d. 1808)
  • Frederick VI (d. 1839) and Queen Marie of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) (d. 1852)
  • Christian VIII (d. 1848) and Queen Caroline Amalie of Schleswig-Holstein (d. 1881)
  • Frederick VII (d. 1863)
Christian IV's Chapel
  • Christian, Prince Elect (d. 1647)
  • Christian IV (d. 1648) and Queen Anne Catherine of Brandenburg (d. 1612)
  • Frederick III (d. 1670) and Sophie Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg (d. 1685)
Christian IX's Chapel
  • Christian IX (1906) and Queen Louise of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) (1898)
  • Frederick VIII (1912) and Queen Louise of Sweden-Norway (1926)
  • Christian X (1947) and Queen Alexandrine of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1952)
Frederick IX's Burial Site
  • Frederick IX (d. 1972) and Queen Ingrid of Sweden (d. 2000)

The coffin of the Empress of Russia Maria Feodorovna was also kept at Roskilde until 23 September 2006, when it was returned to Russia after the agreement between Denmark and Russia stating that her remains were to be buried next to her husband Alexander III in the imperial burial vaults beneath the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

Queen Margrethe II have chosen Saint Birgitte's chapel as her and the Prince Consorts future burial site, with a double sarcophagus created by artist Bjørn Nørgaard.

Boy's Choir

Since 1987, the cathedral has been the home of one of Denmark's leading boys' choirs, the Roskilde Cathedral Boys' Choir. The choir is a key resource in the parish youth work. All choristers go to normal school but meet 2-3 times a week to rehearse. Every second year the choir travels abroad; with destinations as different as New Zealand, Scandinavia, England, Greenland, France and Canada.


In 1554 a new organ built by Herman Raphaelis was donated to the cathedral for services. It was enlarged in 1600 and 1833 and restored once again in 1988 and 2000.