Denmark: Ribe and Jelling

Ribe is the oldest town in Scandinavia, founded in the early eighth century as a seasonal market place surrounded by a fence and ditch. Scandinavia’s first coins were produced here in around 720, and Ribe soon grew to become a thriving marketplace for both local trade and goods from far and wide. Nowadays it’s a lovely little place, with the medieval town centre full of cobbled streets and crooked houses.

The current cathedral dates back to the twelfth century. The statue in front of the cathedral is of Ansgar (801-865), the “Apostle of the North”. We’ve come across him twice now, once at Hedeby and once here at Ribe. He founded churches in both places and did his best to convert the locals to Christianity, but apparently without any lasting success. Oh well, at least he’s getting credit for trying…..

We stayed on a fantastic free car park just a few minutes’ walk from the town centre. It was clean and tidy and even came with free water and emptying facilities for motorhomes. Just the job!

Our next destination was Jelling, one of Denmark’s main historical sites. Three main characters pop up here: Gorm the Old, Thyra, and Harald Bluetooth.

Gorm the Old (before 900 – around 759) was the “first king” of Denmark, so recognised because he united much of Jutland under one ruler for the first time. Before that you had a patchwork of smaller kingdoms.

To become a king back then you just had to have “Royal Blood”. None of the “eldest son” nonsense for the Danes. This resulted in bit of a free-for-all with a lot of murdering of brothers, uncles, nephews etc. The first thing to do if you were lucky enough to be able to claim a drop or two of the good stuff in your veins was to get yourself some followers to help you grab yourself a kingdom.

Unfortunately, you couldn’t then settle down to a peaceful rule. Followers in Viking times were free to bugger off and follow someone else if they saw fit, so you had to keep the booty coming in to keep the followers happy and hopefully attract some more to replace the ones killed in battle – a big impetus behind all that Viking plundering. So having one ruler for a biggish swath of territory was a bit of a new departure for the Danes.

King Gorm ruled from Jelling with his wife Queen Thyra (or “Bod” as we call her. Yes, as in the children’s TV character of old. Explanation below….). Gorm was succeeded by his son Harald Bluetooth, the one who built the semi-circular earth wall at Hedeby. Harald also ruled from Jelling but his son Svein Forkbeard (no I’m not making it up) moved on, so Jelling is all about three people: Gorm, Thyra and Harald.

At Jelling you have a big burial mound (8.5m tall and 65m wide) in the centre of a ship setting (the biggest in the World at over 350m long). The ship setting was basically the shape of a ship marked out in standing granite stones, symbolically necessary to take the deceased on his journey to Valhalla. Today the setting is marked out using concrete slabs, but we did get to see what it would’ve looked like in 968 through a very natty viewing device on top of the museum.

It’s thought that King Gorm was buried in this mound (when it was excavated, a burial chamber was found with timbers dating to 958/9 and grave goods including a very cute tiny gold cup, but no body). The main explanation for this is that King Harald must have had his dad moved.

Harald Bluetooth converted Denmark to Christianity (having been convinced by some pretty unlikely deeds performed by a monk called Poppo). Did he therefore have his dad moved from his pagan mound to a more suitable burial place? Bones have been found under the current church (which dates back to 1100 but is on the site of at least 3 earlier wooden churches) which could be Gorm’s.

Harald also had a timber palisade built round the entire site, and gave his name to Bluetooth networking, for no apparent reason. Our pub quiz fact of the day is that the Bluetooth symbol is made up of Harald’s initials in runes, on top of each other.

Runes aren’t particularly old or mysterious. They’re thought to have been derived from Roman letters, with the earliest known use of runes dating back to AD150. You only get 16 letters to work with in runes, so more than one modern letter can share the same rune:

Here are Harald’s initials in runes and the Bluetooth symbol:

There are two big rune stones at Jelling:

The first (smaller) stone is Gorm’s memorial to his wife Thyra, who predeceased him:

King Gorm made this monument to Thyra, his wife, Denmark’s adornment

“Denmark’s adornment” is a translation into English of “Danmarks Bod”, hence our mental image of Thyra as the TV character Bod.

The second stone is by Harald, to commemorate his parents and his own achievements (not quite self-promotion on the scale of Ramses II, but he had the basic idea):

King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway, and made the Danes Christians

The little bloke on this stone is apparently a depiction of Jesus. He’s looking a bit spaced out….

So there we are, that’s Jelling: mysterious burial mounds, a big ship, a church and some runes. All very impressive, and completely FREE. The modern museum next to the site had all kinds of interactive displays and things to play with, and we even got given a coffee for agreeing to complete an ipad-based survey on our visitor experience. We hope everywhere else we visit in Denmark will be as good 😁