The History of Stavanger, Simplified

Stavanger is one of those cities I’ve never really looked into, never mind the history of Stavanger. When my husband asked me to plan my dream Norwegian road-trip, I thought it is worth spending a couple days in Stavanger. I didn’t think the history would tell much of a story…

Until I read about it.

The history of Stavanger is fascinating. It was one of the most important bases for the Vikings. It has Norway’s oldest cathedral (take that, Nidaros). Don’t shy away from Stavanger because of its oil wealth. There’s so much going on here.

Here’s the history of Stavanger summarised, keeping in all the good bits.

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The History of Stavanger

The First Peoples

The first traces of people in Stavanger comes from the islands. It’s believed that people came here from the North Sea or the land area known as Doggerland 1 Doggerland was located between Denmark and England. It flooded after the last Ice Age, so its peoples looked for new land, and they came to Stavanger.

During The Bronze Age (1800-500BC), wealthy chieftains emerged in Stavanger. They made trade connections with Europe. This gave them horses and bronze status symbols. They lived in fancy longhouses, and were buried in large burial mounds. Many archaeological finds from this time have been found, the richest ones on the island Austre Amøy 2

Jæren, the area south of Stavanger (see the scenic route) is (and has always been) an important place for agriculture. There are traces of 200 farms from the migration period. It’s possible to visit Jernaldergården 3, a rebuilt migration-period farm.

A monument for the Battle of Hafrsfjord

The Viking Age

Stavanger had Vikings. In fact, Stavanger is one of the most important bases for the Vikings, signalled by the famous Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872. This is the battle that unified Norway as one kingdom under a ruler. The victorious Viking chief Harald Fairhair proclaimed himself King of the Norwegians. The battle, and Stavanger, is mentioned in Harald Fairhair’s Saga Heimskringla 4, written by Snorri Sturlason.

Most importantly, there is evidence in North Jæren suggesting a powerful chieftain lived there around the Viking Age. The area is also likely a starting point for the Viking voyages to the British Isles. Most importantly, more Irish metalwork is found in this area than in any other comparable area in Europe.

Ullandhaug Iron Age Farm (source: Wikipedia)

Several finds from the Viking Age were uncovered in Stavanger. Perhaps the most famous is the Gausel Queen’s tomb on Gausel 5 The grave is one of Norway’s richest woman graves from the Viking Age, and it contained a number of Irish and domestic elements. The manor house on Gausel6 was likely a centre of power during the Viking Age, and rich finds from boat graves on the site show that there was military and political power here.

The objects from this grave are on display in the Bergen Museum.

Christianity Comes to Stavanger

The first Christian impulses came to Stavanger through trade with Europe and Great Britain during the Viking Age. In the mid-10th century, the traditional Norse burial customs stopped. Around the same time, the priests began their work.

Large stone crosses have been found throughout Stavanger municipality signalling early Christianity. One of the most known is the memorial cross for Erling Skjalgasson, who controlled the south west coast at the time. He fell in 1028 and the cross was put up soon after. The inscription on the cross shows a priest was responsible and the site may have been used as an early church.

Stavanger is Founded

Stavanger is one of Norway’s oldest cities. By the early 12th century, it was growing as an urban centre. The Stavanger bishopric was established in the 1120s, Stavanger was officially founded in connection with the construction of the Stavanger Cathedral.

Bishop Reinhald, who likely came from Winchester in England, is said to have started the construction of the Stavanger Cathedral. It was finished in 1125, and that’s when Stavanger considers its founding.

St. Mary’s Church shortly before it was torn down

The Fire of 1272

A large fire in 1272 destroyed much of the inner urban area and cathedral. St. Mary’s Church was built in Stavanger shortly after this fire in a Gothic style. In 1883, a runestone of quartz was found in the foundation wall of the church. The stone says “Kjetil erected this stone after his wife Jorun Utyrmsdatter” and it is from 1000-1050. The church has since been demolished, but there’s a plaque next to Stavanger Cathedral.7 Furthermore, remains under the cathedral shows that there may have been an earlier building on the site from the 800s or 1000s.

The Reformation

At the beginning of the 16th century, Stavanger was still the religious centre for southwestern Norway. The Reformation had serious effects on Stavanger as a whole.

The Reformation dealt a hard blow to the Church and Stavanger. The cathedral, bishop and canons of the monastery were large landowners at the time. Recession began with the loss of people in rural areas, and as a result the revenues of the cathedral and bishop fell dramatically due to reduced income. The King confiscated the bishop’s and monastery’s estate and property. St. Swithun’s casket 8 disappeared, likely sent to Copenhagen to be melted down and made into coins.

17th Century Growth

Stavanger didn’t see growth until the beginning of the 17th century. There was cultural growth in the city, especially with the Stavanger Renaissance, when famous artists from abroad came to create artworks in the city. Their most famous work was the rich redecorating of the Cathedral.9

The 17th century fires. Photo: Arne Kvitrud, 2018. (Source)

Sure, there were outbreaks of the plague in 1618 and 1629, and Stavanger did have many fires in the 17th and 18th centuries, but trade was growing with Europe and Great Britain. When the famous Kielland family moved in, the city saw a new generational change.

The Introduction of Industry in the 19th century

Gamle Stavanger around 1910. In the background you can see a canning factory (Source)
A model of Stavanger representing the year 1800. (Source)

Industry came to Stavanger in the 19th century, and the city found new purpose. The most important industries to emerge was shipping, shipbuilding, and the fish canning industry.

A huge upswing in the precious herring fishing (what Stavanger had lived on since the 16th century) at the turn of the century led to wealth and prosperity. However, it was the low herring catches in the 1870s and 1880s that made the city realise they had to expand beyond these industries. With that, the canning industry began.

The Canning Industry

The old Stavanger Preserving Co. Building

Stavanger Preserving, founded in 1873, is Stavanger’s oldest canning factory. The factory didn’t just bring canning to Stavanger, but also let to the growth of other industries such as packaging factories, printing houses, box factories and so on.

Chr. Bjelland & Co AS is the largest and most famous canning factory. Founded by Christian Bjelland (1858-1927), the company initially focused on fresh fish products but from 1889 onwards started processing anchovies in a tin can. In 1893, the company picked up the production of sardines packed with a hermetic seal. 10

The company is famous for its creative packaging, often depicting Norwegian heroes such as Fridtjof Nansen. You probably recognise the Kong Oscar brand (still in shops today), for which Christian Bjelland received royal permission to use the image of Oscar II of Sweden. 11

The customs house (Source)

The Early 20th Century

At the turn of the century, Stavanger’s industry was mainly related to fisheries and shipping. Canning was still the main industry; Stavanger earned the nickname “Norway’s canned capital”.

The interwar depression hit the city hard. The population, which in 1815 reached 2500, increased to 23,500 in 1875. In 1890, the population was only 24,400. By 1920, the population had reached 50,400. 12

Skagen in 1910 (Source)

World War II

In the early morning of the 9th of April 1940 Germany invaded Norway. Stavanger had been one of the first targets for the Germans; the day before they had anchored a freighter close to the city despite Norwegian protest. On the 9th, explosions and bomb blasts on Sola Airport and news bulletins on the radio announced the attack on Norway.

German soldier in Stavanger 1941 (Source)
German soldiers in Stavanger on Skagen (Source)

The bombardment on Sola Airport lasted an hour before 52 transport aircraft from Hamburg arrived. In a parachute assault, the transport planes dropped yellow containers containing weapons and equipment and then between ten and twelve paratroopers from each plane. This is the second-ever wartime parachute assault.

See Also

The Norwegians surrendered and 200 to 300 transport aircraft arrived during the day. At 12:30pm, the first German troops advanced on Stavanger without resistance and took over the most important buildings in the city. By the evening, several hundred soldiers and large quantities of material were now at Sola Airport.

During the war, the Germans had placed high priority on having a good railway linking the airbase at Sola with the rest of the country. The Southern Railway opened in 1944, three years later than planned.

When the war ended in 1945, there were 15,000 German soldiers in Rogaland County. Before repatriation, the Germans were required to clean up after five years of occupation. 180 German minefields lay along the coast with a total of 480,000 mines. The German Wehmacht were required to clear them. 62 Germans died and 94 were injured during the mine clearance. Mines from this period continue to be uncovered.

Immediate Post-war Years

Little changed for the business community in Stavanger immediately following the war. The canning industry disappeared in the 1960s; during the First World War there had been 54 canning companies with 8000 employees and accounted for 70% of the country’s canned exports.

Shipping and shipbuilding made up the bulk of industry during the 1950s and 1960s, and were very useful in the brand-new industry that was about to emerge.

The Discovery of Oil

You can’t talk about Stavanger without mentioning the oil industry. After the discovery of oil in the North Sea, Stavanger became the hub for the Norwegian oil sector in the North Sea. A period of hectic growth followed. More than just the general oil industry, consulting companies, local engineering, catering came to Stavanger, as well as growth in the public and private sector.

Stavanger Today

The Norwegian Petroleum Museum opened in 1999, and tourism has been growing in importance ever since. Stavanger is becoming a major Norwegian cruise port.

The University of Stavanger opened in 2005.

As of 2019/2020 the Ryfast tunnel opened; it is the world’s longest underwater tunnel.

The History of Stavanger

I hope you enjoyed this overview of the history of Stavanger!

You can read a more in-depth version of this history, plus walk through Stavanger yourself, with my self-guided walking tour.

Browse the Travel Guide:

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