Valdres is a common location in the old Norse sagas. After all, it is the valley you pass through on the ancient royal road from Oslo to Bergen. Naturally, there’s a little history here. And you can read it right on the walls of Høre Stave Church!
Many stave churches have runic inscriptions, it’s true. Some are graffiti; medieval pranksters engraving their name into history. Yet, some have a story behind them and create more history for these stave churches. Høre Stave Church is one of the stave churches with an insight into the fascinating past of Norway. Especially around and shortly after the time of the Civil War in the 12th and early 13th century.
In September 2020 I got to visit Høre Stave Church. While I was unable to go inside (the church was in service!) I got to see a lot and learn about this unique stave church. Here’s my guide to Høre Stave Church.
Become Christian, or else!
We know that the Christianisation of Valdres wasn’t easy. St. Olav, then King Olav, came from the west through the valley. He held farmers hostage and burnt down farms until they agreed to convert. According to the Sagas, Olav had churches built and clergymen appointed. None of these churches remains, but many of the stave churches are on the same spot, including Høre Stave Church.
In medieval times, Valdres had many churches. There were at least 21 of them; 18 of which were stave churches. To compare, the neighbouring valley Hallingdal had 8 stave churches. Sadly very few remain today.
Runes with a Story
Inside the church is a runic inscription that dates Høre Stave Church back to around 1179. These aren’t graffiti runes, which are commonly found in churches, but rather have a story attached to them.
The runes say:
“That summer when the brothers Elling and Audun had trees felled for this church, Erling Jarl fell in Nidaros.”
Erling Skakke is who they are referring to, and he is a famous name from the Norwegian Civil War. The inscription refers to the Battle of Kalvskinnet in 1179. According to the legend, King Sverre passed through Valdres in 1177. He was on the run from Magnus Erlingsson. At the time, there were two sides – the birkebeirne (a group of rebels from Western Norway) and the Baglers (Christians with ties to Danish royalty and located around Oslo). A man named Elling joined Sverre in his fight against Magnus and his father Earl Erling Skakke. When Erling fell in the battle, Elling and his brother decided to build a stave church. It’s assumed this was Høre Stave Church.
Ties to Norwegian Unity
The farm next to Høre Stave Church is called Kvie, and this is an important farm in Valdres. The farm is in the old sagas. A woman called Gyda was from Kvie, and she was the daughter of the petty king Eirik of Hordaland. She is known for prompting Harald Hårfagre to unite Norway into one Kingdom. She made Harald promise not to cut or shave his hair until he had united the country. When he did finish uniting the country, he got a nice haircut and they got married.
Early Use of Høre Stave Church
Judging from both the rune inscriptions and dating the timber, Høre Stave Church is from around 1179. It was originally a pillar church, with four corner staves. Under the church are graves, some of them children. It wasn’t allowed but common to bury children under stave churches. As they had not been baptised yet, the parents worried the children would not be accepted into heaven. Some foetuses were also found under the church. There is evidence of ceremonial burials under the church, likely from pre-Christian times.
Hundreds of coins were found during the renovation work. They date back to the time of King Magnus (1035-1047), King Valdemar (1154-1182), and King Sverre (1177-1202). It was common to bury coins under the church as a wish for good fortune, but also coins just fell out of people’s pockets!
Rebuilding Høre Stave Church
Looking at the photos, you can see Høre Stave Church doesn’t look much like a stave church today. Like almost every stave church remaining in Norway, it was rebuilt ‘recently’. After all, most of the stave churches were torn down in the 19th century to make way for more modern churches, so we should be grateful this church survived thanks to this massive restoration effort.
The renovations include a new choir and nave, plus replacing most of the timber. The builders were inspired by nearby Hegge and Lomen Stave Churches, which are similar in appearance. In the late 19th century, the church received a new roof and tower.
The original stave church somewhat exists today; all that remains is its skeleton. The skeleton is hidden by the cladding. The ship is still the original size, giving a sign of the original size of the church room.
In 1979, renovations were complete. Today Høre Stave Church has a basilica shape, meaning the nave is higher than the aisle.
Details Inside the Church
The newer walls in the church are unpainted, the same as the ceiling and the benches. Beautiful original carvings are left exposed in the church.
Rich decorations and carvings are on the chancel and pulpit. While they are from 1828, elements from the Middle Ages have been retained. The altarpiece is from 1800.
There are two medieval portals still on displayed. However, it’s thought they were moved from their original spot in the church. Yet, they still have beautiful old elements. The carvings feature animal heads with vines growing out of their heads, and foliage and branches.
Besides a thurible, there is no original medieval furniture in the church.
Around the Church
There is a rich wooden shed from the Middle Ages with dragon and lion carvings. On the portal is a wrought iron fitting with a brass base plate from the Middle Ages. The iron fitting is similar to ones found on stave churches in Valdres and Sogn.
As is common with stave churches, there is a separate building for the bell tower. The bell had to be in a separate building as stave churches couldn’t support the weight.
Høre Stave Church Today
Høre Stave Church still serves the community as a regular parish church, and there are services here every Sunday. In the summer months, the church is open to the public.
Høre Stave Church is located on the hillside above Ryfoss, a small town on the European Highway 16 between Bergen and Oslo. It’s a short detour off the highway. There’s a large-ish parking lot opposite the church with information boards about Kongevegen (the old road between Bergen and Oslo) and the stave church. Info is in Norwegian and English.
Høre Stave Church is very close to Lomen and Hegge stave churches, so consider adding them to your trip!