A visit to Roskilde Cathedral is a journey through centuries of Danish history. The first church on the site, made of wood, was built in the 900s by King Harald Bluetooth and was replaced in the following century by a stone church. The current brick church was begun in the 1170s and took more than 100 years to finish. The main body of the cathedral was completed in 1280 and is one of Scandinavia’s earliest examples of Gothic brick architecture.
The gilded altarpiece was made in Antwerp around 1560 and depicts various scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, including the events of Easter Week, Christ’s death, and his childhood. On the reverse side are scenes of Christ’s good works.
Roskilde Cathedral is worth visiting for its architectural value and the beauty of its interior, as well as for its historical significance. The cathedral has been the burial church for Danish royalty since the 15th century, with numerous side chapels and porches added on over the years.
Among those who have found their final resting place at Roskilde is Queen Margrete I (known as Margareta in Sweden), the founder of the Kalmar Union, which united all three Scandinavian countries under one ruler for more than a century from 1397 to 1523. Margrete died in 1412 and is entombed in a sarcophagus behind the altarpiece.
One of the most interesting side chapels is the Chapel of the Magi, also known as Christian I’s Chapel, adjacent to the cathedral entrance. Built in the second half of the 15th century, the chapel holds the magnificent Renaissance tombs of Christian III (died 1559) and Frederik II (died 1588). The chapel’s founder, Christian I, died in 1481 and is buried in a small chamber under the floor alongside his queen, Dorothea.
A pillar in the center of the chapel carries markings indicating the heights of royal visitors, including the current queen, Margrethe II, as a princess (182 cm), Chulalongkorn of Thailand (165.4 cm), and Peter the Great of Russia (208.4 cm). Even after more than 500 years, no one has come close to equaling the height of Christian I himself, who apparently towered 219.5 cm (over 7 feet 2 inches) in height.
A dozen royal family members – including kings Frederik V, Christian VI, Frederik VII, Christian VII, and Christian VIII, are buried in Frederik V’s Chapel, designed in 1789.
On the north side of the cathedral is Christian IV’s Chapel, dating from approximately 1620, although the interior work was not completed until as late as 1866. Look for the signature of the king’s master smith at the bottom of the iron entrance doors: “Caspar Finke bin ich bennant. Dieser Arbeit bin ich bekannt” (“Caspar Finke is my name. To this work I owe my fame”). Paintings in the chapel include Vilhelm Marstrand’s enormous depiction of a famous scene of the king on the ship Trefoldighet (Trinity) after being wounded in a sea battle off the island of Sehmern.
Christian IV died in 1648 after being on the throne for just six weeks shy of 60 years, the longest reign of any Danish monarch. His chapel contains his coffin as well as those of his first wife, Anne Catherine of Brandenburg (died 1612); his eldest son, the heir apparent Christian (died 1647); his second son, who became King Frederik III (died 1670); and Frederik’s consort, Sophie Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneberg (died 1685).
Roskilde Cathedral also contains numerous other chapels, including Trolle’s Chapel, notable for the distinctive troll figure in its wrought-iron grating – a play on the name of Niels Trolle, a prominent vassal of of Christian IV, who in 1644 was granted use of the 15th-century chapel as a burial vault for his family.
Most recently, in 1985, a special tomb was constructed outside the cathedral, to the northeast of the building, for King Frederik IX, who had died in 1972. His wife Queen Ingrid was buried with him upon her death in 2000.
In April 2018, an unusual sarcophagus of glass and silver was completed for Denmark’s current queen, Margrethe II, in St. Birgitta’s Chapel. Although photographs were released to the public, the tomb has been covered up and will not be unveiled again until after Margrethe’s death.
Roskilde Cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
Originally published on 21 February 2013. Latest update: 17 January 2019.
Related article: Unity and Conflict: Queen Margrete I and the Kalmar Union