Roskilde Cathedral is made of red brick in the Gothic style, and it is the mausoleum of the Danish Royal Family.
It dates from about 1280. Since then, each century has added its own extensions in various styles. The interior of the cathedral has changed in the course of time too. Before 1536 the cathedral was Catholic. After the Reformation, the side altars were removed and new furniture was installed for the new Protestant service.
Map of Roskilde CathedralLoad map
Denmark has a good number of lovely old, partly Romanesque country churches (especially on Møn island), and then also its good share of more imposing spire-crowned urban cathedrals, but Roskilde's is hands down the most beautiful and elegant you can visit in the country.
I reached the old capital Roskilde, the seat of the gritty bishop Absalon (traditionally considered the founder of Copenhagen) in the XIIth century, at the beginning of August 2021, as a day trip from Copenhagen. This can be done very easily by train, which goes there in less than an hour, as there are frequent connections from Copenhagen's stations, and furthermore this route is covered by the Copenhagen Card. Once there, it is a pleasant short walk through the town centre, passing by the main square and its old city hall: it won't be much before you'll see the massive, towery shape of the cathedral rise over the other buildings. It sits atop a hill, free-standing in its own square, dominating the rest of the town, with a panorama towards the fjord. Its appearance is majestic indeed; its austere and maybe overdimensioned façade is counterbalanced by the beguiling variety of its body, characterised by the volumes of the different chapels.
One of the main reasons for its inscription is the significance it has as the burial place of most, if not all, Danish sovereigns: this becomes even more remarkable considering that the Danish monarchy is the second most ancient (after Japan's, if I'm not mistaken) and uninterrupted royal lineage in the world, tracing its origins back to Gorm of Jelling in 980. I think this can be felt in the solemnity of the interior, where the visitor can take a sort of time travel from scant Medieval traces and traversing Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassicism up to contemporary architecture: the latest addition is the tomb of Frederick IX, built outside of the cathedral in 1985. The value of this complex is heightened still by the fact that everything remains harmonious. The next "extension" is already in place: the glass coffin of Margrethe II waits in the chapel of St. Brigida, currently concealed in colourful cubes. I was not sure if I should find this a little bit macabre or simply serene, but this seems to be the Danish way. Anyway, history goes on!
The tomb of another Margrethe, the first, de facto queen in XIV-XVth century, lies in the choir and is probably the centrepiece of the cathedral. Speaking of legendary Danish historical figures of the Middle Ages, keep an eye for the slab and the commemorating writing on the wall for Saxo Grammaticus, in the left nave: he was the first Danish historian in XIIth century and has passed on, among other things, the story of Amled, now better known as Hamlet. The chapel that impressed me the most is that of Christian IV: it is exuberant both on the outside (you will notice it immediately with its Dutch baroque style) and on the inside, where later decorations added a statue and two heroic paintings of the sovereign. Unfortunately, I was short of time when visiting the chapels of the Magi at last, but it's also extraordinary. Another highlight for me was the view from the gallery above. On top of this, in the apse you will find an overview of the Danish royal lineage detailing the more eminent personalities, and from the gallery you can access a small, old-fashioned exhibition about the church per themes.
As per its nomination file, the importance of Roskilde's cathedral goes much more beyond being a shrine of Danish royalty. It was one of the most important centres of political and spiritual power in Northern Europe once Christianity had firmly established itself in the region. It probably started as a humble wooden churches, but then over time became the brick colossus that we admire now. I'm somewhat confused by all the claims about it being the oldest (from XIIth century), or largest, or more important, since travelling the region I heard similar thing based on different clauses for nearly any other important brick-gothic church, e.g. St. Mary in Lübeck, not to say that the largest of all brick churches seems to be in Albi. But let's agree that Roskilde's is very old and very important, and this tangibly contributes to its charm. Later on, I was surprised to learn that even Saint Dominic, opposer of heresy, came twice here from Spain in the XIIth century, attesting that Roskilde's cathedral was not a peripheral, secondary centre as one may think with regard to its geographical position.
As mentioned before, Roskilde was for some time the capital of Denmark, displacing the even older capital Lejre, some 10km to the south-west, before being displaced itself by the rising mercantile star of Copenhagen. It seems anyway that Sjælland has always been the key to power. There's an interesting parallel with Viking ring fortresses here: the foundation of Roskilde around its church (most probably by Sweyn Forkbeard after 1000 and not Harald Bluetooth, who had already built enough in his time) seems to have followed a similar plan of creating centres through which to administer royal power around the realm, namely Lund (nowadays in Scania, Sweden), Odense on Fyn and Viborg in Midtjylland (not so distant from Fyrkat in Hobro). Remarkably, Odense (eclipsing Nonnebakken) is a common element, but all these places appear to have been chosen as they were places of worship: e.g. Odense's name comes from Odins vi 'Odins sanctuary', Roskilde from Roars kilde 'Roar's spring', and in fact there have always been sacred springs in the area, some of which can still be seen in the byparken 'town park' stretching downhill from the cathedral towards the fjord. And these settlements are all also in dominant positions: similarly as it was in Aggersborg, one can see Roskilde's spires from afar when coming from the fjord and has to climb the hill to reach it (cf. picture). I think that all such symbolic and historical context greatly enhances and contributes to the value of this site, and helps understanding its significance!
Logistics and beyond the cathedral
Everything relevant in Roskilde is included in the Copenhagen card, also covering the train ticket, so I think it is an unmissable opportunity when in Copenhagen, and one of the most cost-effective choices to take: the entry is 60DKK~8€ (it includes a very professional booklet-guide to be taken), and the train round-trip is more than 22€.
Add to this that admission to the equally umissable Viking ship museum, just few minutes away, is more than 20€ in the good season, and you get it. This is really a possible highlight of any Denmark trip, a kind of a cousin to the famous Vikingskipshuset in Oslo (which by the way will be under restoration until 2026 and reopen as the new Vikingtidsmuseet), which, even if it boasts less glamorous ships, is a fully functioning shipyard with many true reconstructions of Viking ships and the possibility of sailing one (book with ample advance!!!)! The café Knarr there is a very good and stylish place to take a lunch, too (only "Viking" ingredients). Just plan the right time for both attractions. I may be particularly slow, but at least a couple of hours for the ships and 1,5 hours for the cathedral should be taken into account. As others pointed out, the cathedral wants to be visited from all the angles from the outside, too.
Opening hours are standard or even extended in summer, but only the afternoon (i.e. from 13h) on Sundays. There are also other attractions in Roskilde, such as the museum of contemporary art in the bright yellow buildings just behind the church and the town museum, but given their typical Danish opening hours I find it simply impossible to visit everything on the same day, unless you are speeders. The town overall is nice and will be a stage of Tour de France in 2022. A walk in the byparken is nice, and some other hoary churches can be found there.
All in all, I think that Roskilde deserves its place on the list and is worthy of the trip, even of forsaking seeing something more in Copenhagen to come here. It may be a fascination for royalty, the architectural richness and extravaganza, the serene atmosphere... but it has something. PHOTO: the cathedral's north side seen coming up the hill.
Roskilde, as a former capital is well-worth the excursion from Copenhagen. The dizzying cathedral is a towering structure that should be admired by a full 360 degree exploration of the surrounding grounds. I photographed every corner of the interior, and viewed the cathedral from several different vantage points. During my visit the Summer weather was excellent, so it made the visit that much more pleasant.
The amount of royal tombs/caskets located inside the cathedral itself is surprising. Certain areas within the cathedral are quite different because of the internment of a particular monarch. More prominent personas and the century they died all create a varied interior that is quite different from the monotonous interior of many other cathedrals.
I spent half-a-day here visiting the cathedral and the Viking Ship museum, which is also worth exploring via the forested road directly across from Roskilde Cathedral. I should mention, the Copenhagen card is quite useful for a multi-day visit to Denmark. Trains outside Copenhagen are included, as well as admission to Roskilde Cathedral, and several other important sites in North Zealand.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
I visited this WHS in July 2016. I've visited Copenhagen four times without visiting this very close WHS but I finally made it. I was lucky that another 3 WHS were added in the area so time was ripe for a visit. I spent a whole day in Roskilde. Before checking-in in my hotel at night time, I stopped by a parking lot close to the Vikings Museum to be able to see the panoramic view of the lateral side of the cathedral and the remains of the two viking ships lit at night. Very early the next morning I woke up at around 06:30 and made the most of the perfect blue skies and morning light for photography. The facade is best viewed in the afternoon but the steeples and rear part of the cathedral with all the statues and buildings were magnificent when the first sun rays gave the brick cathedral an even more reddish look. The UNESCO plaque is just next to the cathedral entrance. Having visited Wismar and Lubeck in Germany last year, I could appreciate the similarities between these 3 WHS. Unfortunately, like other brick churches in Germany, Roskilde suffered a huge fire in 1968 and original remains such as tiles and decorations from the Margretspiret together with vivid photos can be seen when visiting the top floor of the cathedral interior. Other brick buildings such as the town hall are worth viewing. Later on, after breakfast and lunch, I visited the cathedral interior and was given a very informative booklet/guide which was mine to keep. The cathedral interior is worth visiting. It has much more to offer than the similar brick churches in Germany. Every hour the St George and the Dragon clock comes to life as the dragon roars while being slayed by a sword. The highlight of my visit were the tombs behind the gilded altarpiece, especially the dismembered knight's tomb, and the Chapel of the Magi with the central pillar containing markings indicating the heights of royal visitors. Although there are several cathedrals inscribed as WHS this one is quite unique and I felt it deserves its inscription even though it may not be a top WHS to visit.
We flew to Copenhagen on the first day of January 2016 to visit Roskilde and Kronborg. The temperature was a frosty -2°C, with a wind chill factor taking it down to -12°C. This was seriously cold as far as we were concerned! It was in Roskilde that I discovered the delights of a Scandinavian cinnamon roll...delicious.
Roskilde is an imposing cathedral, but thankfully its brickwork makes it very well insulated. Its draw comes largely from the royal mausoleum. I particularly liked the Baroque chapel of Christian IV and the tomb of Christian IX & Louise. The latter is decorated with statues known as ‘the Mermaid’s sisters’ because they resemble (and are by the same sculptor as) the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen Harbour.
Read more from Tom Livesey here.
Roskilde is quite a pleasant town to the west of Copenhagen, but doesn't have the same importance today as it used to have when it was the capital of Denmark and one of its religious centres. The cathedral is not only very large, but is also the necropolis of the Danish royal family, resulting in a large number of graves and tombstones from many centuries. For a Protestant church, it is rather lavishly decorated, and is unique for its brick architecture. Don't miss the other major highlight of Roskilde, though - the great Viking Ship Museum, only 10-minute walk away. It shows several original ships from the Viking era, and you can also set sail in a rebuilt Viking ship, which is really a unique experience.
Having seen a lot of cathedrals in the process of visiting World Heritage Sites, it takes something a little different to linger in my memory. Roskilde certainly does that. As Els points out it is a Protestant cathedral, and this means that it has a slightly austere brick and whitewash interior. This was actually very impressive and helped to focus attention on the other artistic details, and I guess for parishioners there it helps them focus on their worship. I really enjoyed studying the intense detail of the carved altar piece and choir stalls, which were elegantly lit and open to allow close inspection.
The main thing that impressed me though was the side chapels with the tombs of Danish royalty. This was a big surprise to me as this type of monument normally leaves me indifferent. They were very elegant, and the use of space within the chapels was very restrained. At no stage was I overwhelmed by what I was seeing, this allowed my focus to remain on the works of art. This may not be the most impressive looking cathedral interior on the list, but actually that is its main advantage.
I almost missed seeing the interior, but I am very glad that I made time for the short hop out from Copenhagen to get inside. The exterior of the cathedral is nice but not particularly remarkable, but the real highlight is the restrained yet outstanding interior.
Roskilde is a little different to the other European Cathedrals on the list and well worth a trip to see.
[Site 7: Experience 7]
Of the about 100 Christian sites (churches, cathedrals, monasteries) on the List, only a few are related to Protestantism. The Luther memorials in Germany are the most prominent example of these. Roskilde Cathedral is another one: not so obvious maybe (it started out as a Catholic church), but the Reformation had a profound influence here. The interior was profoundly changed after the transition to Protestantism. In a way, its brick walls (already devised in the 1170s) add to the purity and austerity of the Reformation too.
Usually, I don't get too excited about visiting another Gothic cathedral, but I must admit that this one has something 'extra' that a spot in the Top 1000 world monuments seems to be deserved.
This 'extra' can be contributed to it being Protestant (as explained above), but also to all add-ons that were attached over the ages.
Each chapel has its own look, both inside and outside, and is an example of the fashionable architectural style during the period of its construction. One of the most beautiful of these, the Chapel of the Magi (1463), unfortunately, was closed for restoration when I visited. However, you can peek inside and admire its delicate mural paintings.
it is a travel back in time. the magnificence of its architecture, and everything around and inside the place is a work of art and inspiration.
the column that inscribes the height of each prince and princess as they visit each time, immortalizes the history of the monarchy.
the tomb also will give you in detail the love and care, that they have for each other. it is truly a place to see.
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