The History of Bergen

One of the things I love most about Bergen is its history. I was never really a history buff until I moved here; once I started reading, I couldn’t stop! Bergen is full of history and historic buildings, and everywhere you walk you can find a historical story. It’s incredible. Before you visit Bergen, it’s worth having a quick read about its history. It will make your visit even more special.

The History of Bergen

The Royal Estate

A sign at the location of Alrekstad

It’s believed there has been a settlement in Bergen since the last Ice Age, but it wasn’t a known place until the royal estate Alrekstad was built at the foot of mount Ulriken and on the Store Lungegårdsvann (Lungegård Lake). The estate has roots dating back to the 400s, as evident in the burial mounds on the site, but it wasn’t until King Harald Fairhair unified Norway as one country that the estate began to grow. King Harald Fairhair built up Alrekstad as one of his various royal estates across the country. He took up residence in the 9th century, and from this, the city began to grow. The street Årstadgeilen, which runs from the student house Alrek down to Store Lungegårdsvann (which was called Alrekstadvågen), is Bergen’s oldest street.

Moving Bergen to the Bay

King Harald Fairhair’s successors, Håkon the Good and Olav Kyrre, ruled the country from the estate. Olav Kyrre ruled the country for 26 years from Alrekstad and the estate had a very strategic position; surrounded either by water or mountains, with the Puddefjord as the only entrance to the estate. Olav Kyrre who looked out to Vågen (The bay, where Bergen city is today) and decided that he should move the estate there. Archaeological finds indicate that there was an urban settlement trading there in the 1020s, but Olav Kyrre is known as officially founding Bergen in 1070. He decided to move the royal estate to Holmen (today the Bergenhus Fortress) to better defend his new city. At Holmen, he planned the construction of the great Christ Church, the cathedral for the whole of Western Norway.

Bergen is Built

Olav Kyrre founded Bergen in 1070, making it one of Norway’s oldest cities. The original name of Bergen was Bjørgvin; the first element “bjørg” (today’s berg) means ‘mountains’, while vin means ‘new settlement where there used to be a pasture or meadow’. In short, Bjørgvin means “the green meadow among the mountains”. In the 14th century, the name was written was “Bervin”, “Bergin” and “Berven”, and by the end of the Middle Ages it was simplified to “Bergen”. The name “Bergen” likely came from the English and Germans misunderstanding the pronunciation since ‘berg’ is a German word for mountains. The Hanseatics used the word “Bergen” from the early 1300s. But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves, let’s head back to Olav Kyrre.

The City of Churches

1 Den store Kristkirken – BERGEN1517
Christ Church as depicted on a model at Håkons Hall
(which can be seen to the left of the church)

The Christ Church was built as a wooden church at Holmen (remember, today it’s the Bergenhus Fortress) and it became the main cathedral for Western Norway. The remains of St. Sunniva, the patron saint of Western Norway, was moved to the Christ Church and placed at the high altar in 1170. The church was the place where Norway’s kings were crowned, dedicated and buried. The first royal coronation in the Nordic countries was Magnus Erlingsson’s (King of Norway from 1161-84) coronation. This was the most important church then. Sadly, it was levelled by the Danes in 1531 who were converting Holmen into a military fort. The gold, altar and caskets (including that of St. Sunniva) were taken to Copenhagen and melted down into coins. Nothing remains from the Christ Church today, but you can stand on the site and see a pillar commemorating the history of the church.

A church was also built at Alrekstad, the “Church of the Holy Cross”. The church was first mentioned in 1395 but was probably built in the 1600s. This church was demolished in the 1600s but you can still see the stones from the church, as they were used to build the walls along Årstadgeilen. Alrekstad itself ceased to be a royal estate when King Magnus the Lawmender in 1277 bequeathed the property to the Nonneseter Monastery.

The property was maintained until the Reformation in the 1530s (and the beginning of the Danish Union). Vinens Lunge, a Danish governor who was instrumental in forcing Norway into the Danish union in the 1530s, forced the royal estate and monastery to go abandoned. He renamed Alrekstadvågen to Lungegardsvann, after himself. By the 1900s, the royal estate and monastery were no more. I’ll explain why the Danes did this to most of Bergen’s buildings below.

Growth as Norway’s most important city

11 Munkeliv Klosterets Kirke/Margaretakirken (Munkeliv Monastery ...
Location of Munkeliv Monastery at Nordnes

Many important buildings were built up in the 12th and 13th centuries. King Øystein Magnusson (King of Norway from 1103-23) built the ‘Apostle Church’ at Holmen (no longer in existence) and founded the Munkeliv Monastery at Nordnes in 1110, which was one of the largest monasteries in Scandinavia and Norway’s wealthiest during the Middle Ages.

Around 1140, the Nonnester Monastery was established at Marken (where the train station is today). More churches were built; St. Mary’s Church, Korskirken, and the Olav Church (now the Bergen Cathedral) were first built during the 12th century. The Bergen Cathedral School was established during the same period. In 1184, King Sverre Sigurdsson (King of Norway from 1177-1202) built Sverresborg (Sverre’s Fortress) over Holmen. In the first half of the 13th century, an additional three monasteries were built around the city. At its peak, there were over 12 churches in the inner city.

Holmen became Norway’s power centre. Before and during the civil wars of the 12th and early 13th centuries, it was one of the most powerful royal residences in the country. It fortified the city’s position as the Hereditary Kingdom of Norway’s main city, a position the city had until 1314 when Oslo took over as the capital. During this period, Norway was a large and powerful empire. This was also when Bergen became Northern Europe’s most important trading city.

The Trading Capital of Northern Europe

Bergens byvåpen i 1299
Bergen Coat of Arms 1299

Olav Kyrre was the one who granted rights to Bergen as a market town in 1070, but during King Øystein Magnusson’s Bergen expanded rapidly. Trade to foreign countries was of the most importance, and there was a growing interest from Europe in the goods from Northern Norway, primarily the stockfish (dried cod). This gave Bergen a very special position.

When Håkon Håkonsson became the King of Norway, he made Bergen the capital and focused very much on west-oriented politics, increasing trade especially with England. He also built up Holmen as a better fortress to defend the harbour and all the trading activity by building a wall around the fortress and also built Håkonshallen around 1261 as the royal residence. His son, King Magnus the Lawmender (King of Norway from 1263-1280) built a castle close by, which in the 16th century was converted to the Rosenkrantz Tower. He also built a third Apostle Church in Holmen, following the pattern of the Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, and inside placed a precious relic, a piece of Jesus’ crown of thorns encased in crystal. It was a gift from King Philipp III of France.

Håkon Håkonsson was the one who believed Bergen should be the centre of trade. The royal power decided that all imports and exports of goods abroad should take place in Bergen, so they could keep control of customs duties and taxes. Bergen’s role in foreign trade was further formalised when in 1294 the German merchants were banned from sailing north of Bergen, and in 1310 the ban was extended to all foreigners. Bergen was the stop for all foreigners wanting to trade, especially for goods from Northern Norway.

King Magnus the Lawmender’s son, Eirik II Magnusson (King of Norway 1280-1299) took over, and after his death, his brother, Håkon V Magnusson, Duke of Oslo, took over. As he had his residence in Oslo, the functions of the capital were moved to Oslo.

Bryggen in 1900
Hansaforbundet – Store norske leksikon
Hanseatic Trade Routes

The Hanseatic League Comes to Bergen

Trade of stockfish didn’t begin in the 13th century: it’s believed that stockfish had been traded from Norway since the 1100s. But stockfish was the main reason the city became one of Northern Europe’s centres for trade. The Hanseatic League became interested in trading in Bergen. The Hanseatic League began in the 13th century when the northern German cities (Lubeck, Bremen, Hamburg) merged into a joint trading enterprise with their jurisdiction that shared profits and losses. This was the Hanseatic League. They established an extensive trade network with over 300 locations across the Baltic and North Seas, as well as four head offices with a permanent Hanseatic settlement. These were Bergen, Bruges, London and Novgorod.

Hanseatic Bergen

The Hanseatic merchants lived in separate quarters, spoke Middle German, and enjoyed the fact that, after the Black Death, they were given the exclusive rights to stockfish from Northern Norway. The merchants lived at the gårder or trading houses that were built up from 1070 onwards, as they were not allowed to settle away from Bryggen. After every fire, the gårder were always rebuilt on the same place and in the same style. Each gårder had a jetty, shed, firehouse and cattle room. The office had control over its people in internal matters but was otherwise subject to Norwegian laws.

The Black Death

Their position was further enforced after the Black Death in 1349 killed at least half of Bergen’s population. The King of Norway desperately needed income in the country, as well as food and other goods from Europe, and decided that the Hanseatic League should have exclusivity to the trade of stockfish.

Each year the North Norwegian fishermen sailed to Bergen and traded their stockfish for various goods from Europe. Most products exported were stockfish, clipfish (salted dried cod, from the 17th century), herring, other types of fish, fur products, timber, hides, skins, butter and tallow. In return, the Germans imported flour, grain, malt, salt, beer, hemp, laundry, hardware, glass, honey, wine, and other luxury goods. Both Norwegian and foreign ships dominated Bergen’s harbour. The foreigners were mostly German, Englishmen, Scots and Dutchmen, and some of them eventually settled in Bergen permanently.

By the end of the 14th century, Bergen had established itself as the centre for trade in Norway.

Tensions with the Hanseatic League

Thing’s weren’t always peachy with the Hanseatic League, though. The Germans typically avoided paying taxes and subject themselves to their laws on many occasions. Tensions reached its peak in 1455 when the Hanseatic merchants stormed and destroyed the Munkeliv Monastery, killing both the chief and bishop of Bergen. Still, though, you can’t forget the importance of the Hanseatic League. After the Black Death, Bergen (and Norway) was incredibly poor and in desperate need of food and goods. Without this Hanseatic connection, people in Bergen, and more importantly Northern Norway, wouldn’t have been able to survive in such remote parts of the world. So, while the Hanseatic League may not have been popular in Bergen, they were loved by those in Northern Norway.

Learn more about the Hanseatic League by clicking here.

Find my self-guided walk to Hanseatic Bryggen by clicking here.

The earliest known image of Bergen, from 1580.

The Danish Union

After a national meeting in Copenhagen in 1536 by King Christian III, Norway became a country under Denmark. This was a political ploy by the King to increase his power while the idea of a monopoly was strong. Around the same time, the Reformation occurred. The Reformation forced Norway to adopt the Lutheran Protestant religion, and this crippled the old wealth of the Catholic religion. The Reformation opened up access to church property, and the Danes took most of the gold and items from the Norwegian churches, including Saint Sunniva’s casket from the Christ Church in Bergen and Saint Olav’s casket from Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. Norway couldn’t stop the Reformation or the union; Norway was without leadership, seriously poor, and already dependent on the Danish royal house.

Hollandergaten in Bergen is named after the Dutch settlement (Source)

After the Danish union, Danish lords began to come to the area to establish law and order, as well as diversify trade. Around this time, the Hanseatic League was lessening in importance in Europe, and many of the trading offices had closed down. The North Norwegian fishermen were still dependent on the Hanseatic League, and they continued to operate out of Bryggen for 150 years after the Hanseatic League had ended, but the Danes allowed for other countries to establish their trading warehouses. Scottish, Dutch and non-Hanseatic Germans settled in the city on the side of the harbour opposite Bryggen, and Norwegians even had their own warehouses.

Conflicts, Battles & Witches

The Hanseatic League didn’t react well to these changes, and there were often conflicts between the Danish-Norwegian authorities and the Hansa federation. The Hanseatic merchants would evacuate the city, introduce trade blockades, loot buildings, and take part in violent riots. Eventually they settled down, and many took Norwegian citizenship.

Bergen wasn’t the safest city in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 1560s alone, there were five murders a year; this means 1 murder per 1,200 residents. That is higher than the rates today in New York. The town had an executioner in the court of Nordnes, and it was here that Anne Pedersdatter, one of 350 ‘witches’, were burned at the stake during this time.

See Also

The Battle of Vågen

In 1655, the city’s harbour was the site of the Battle of Vågen, when an English naval flotilla attacked a Dutch merchant and treasure fleet supported by the city’s garrison. A Dutch merchant navy, chased by English warships, sought refuge in Bergen’s natural harbour. The garrison at Bergenhus chased the English away after a bloody sea battle.

It’s worth noting that during this time Bergen was one of the largest cities in Scandinavia. In 1300, approximately 7,000 people lived in Bergen, compared to 3,000 in Nidaros (Trondheim) and 2,000 in Oslo. At the time, medium-sized cities in Europe had a population between 5,000-10,000, and Bergen was the only Norwegian city of this magnitude. In the 1600s, Bergen was the largest city in the Nordics with 15,000 inhabitants; Copenhagen had about 13,000 and Trondheim, Norway’s second-largest city, had about 5,000 inhabitants. Bergen remained the largest city in Norway until the 1830s when it was overtaken by the capital Christiania (Oslo).

Bergen harbour in 1752

Trading Dominance Ends

Until the 17th century, Bergen had enjoyed exclusive rights to mediate trade between Northern Norway and abroad. However, the Hanseatic dominance of the city’s trade gradually declined in favour of Norwegian merchants (often of Hanseatic ancestry) and in 1753 the Hanseatic Kontor finally closed. Bergen maintained its monopoly of trade in Northern Norway until 1789 when Vardø and Hammerfest were granted town status and market rights.

About the hotel - Bergen Børs Hotel
Bergen Stock Exchange (now a hotel) (Source)

The Bergen stock exchange, Bergen Børs, was established in 1813.

Pre-War Growth

In 1901, women were granted municipal voting rights in Norway, and in Bergen, a handful of female municipal representatives were elected that year.

By the early 20th century, the export goods were mainly fish products as well as timber. Additionally, steamship companies and industry were growing along the Bergen harbour, and Bergen became the starting port for Hurtigruten. New economic life was also growing in the city, including banks and insurance companies. Urban expansion had been huge during 1877 and 1914, and Bergen’s rural district was incorporated into the city.

After World War I, Bergen was hit by economic crises with closed industrial plants, ships in storage, and so on. A lot of the merchant fleet had been damaged during the war, despite the fact Norway was neutral.

Bombing in Nordnes 20 April 1944

World War II

Bergen was occupied on the first day of the German invasion on 9 April 1940, after a brief fight between German ships and Norwegian coastal artillery. The Bergen section of the operation was fronted by the German cruisers Konigsberg and Cologne, with 1900 soldiers on board. The fort at Bergen was staffed with 33 officers and 279 corporals and privates. The fort shot at the ships as they sailed towards Bergen at 3:58am, and it immediately became obvious how outdated the fortress was; one of the few grenades that hit the ships did not go off. The ships did not fire back, but sent the message “stop shooting!”. By the time the locals woke up on 9 April, Nazi flags were flying on Bergen’s buildings.

Resistance groups were operating out of Bergen, including Saborg, Milorg, the Theta Group, Sivorg, the Stein-organisasjonen, and the Communist Party. Additionally, the Shetland Group also operated near Bergen.

Bombing Raids

The city was subject to some Allied bombing raids, aimed at German naval installations in the harbour, and some of these caused Norwegian civilian causalities numbering about 100. Nordnes was also damaged by Allied bombing raids, and the old theatre was destroyed. One of the most known events took place in 1944, when the city was hit by the bombing of Laksevåg, a suburb in Bergen. The British were targeting the German U-boat pen Bruno, located at the end of the harbour. 152 aircraft took part in the raid, which dropped 1,432 bombs over the area, most of which hit civilian targets. 191 civilians were killed, including 61 kids at the Holen School, which was accidentally bombed.

Bergen after the explosion

In 1944, the Dutch ship Voorbode exploded by the fortress quay with 120 tons of ammunition on board. The explosion was so powerful that 131 houses disappeared, 117 houses were condemned, 45 houses were severely damaged, and 3,500 buildings were damaged. 98 people were killed and 4,800 were injured. Important historical buildings such as Nykirken, Tollboden, the Rosenkrantz Tower and Håkonshallen were severely damaged by later restored.  

Post-War Developments

In 1955, the last devastating fire took place, when 1/3 of Bryggen burnt down. The area was investigated by archaeologists, and they discovered the first settlement of Bergen. The Bryggen Museum stands there today.

Bergensbrannen 1916 - Allkunne
Bergen after the 1916 fire

The Fires

Bergen has had many fires over the years:

  • The first documented fire was in 1198, when the Bagler’s set fire to the city during their battle against the Birkebeiner in Norway’s Civil War.
  •  1248, Holmen and Sverresborg caught fire and 11 churches were destroyed.
  • 1413 another fire destroyed 14 churches
  • 1428, the city was plundered by pirates
  • 1455, the Hanseatic Merchants burned down the Munkeliv Monastery
  • 1476, Bryggen burned down in a fire started by a drunk merchant
  • 1582, a fire damaged Strandsiden
  • 1675, 105 buildings burned down on Øvregaten
  • 1686, another fire hit Strandsiden, destroying 231 city blocks and 218 boathouses
  • 1702, the largest fire took place, when 90% of the city was burned to ashes
  • 1751, there was a great fire at Vågsbunnen
  • 1756, a fire at Strandsiden burned down 1,500 buildings and further fires hit Strandsiden in 1771 and 1901
  • 1916, over 300 buildings burned down in the new city centre
  • 1955, 1/3 of Bryggen burned down
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