City Museum Møntergaarden

A Brief History of Odense

Odense is more than 1000 years old, and the city oozes both ancient and modern history.

The city’s name originates from the Old Norse ‘Odins vi’ (Wotan’s shrine) which has morphed into ‘Odense’. Already back then it had a central and strategic location between the mainland and main island Zealand, and also housed a Viking fortress built in the 980s, ‘Nonnebakken’.

The murder of King Canute IV – later King Canute the Holy - in St. Alban’s Church in 1086 marked the end of the Viking Age. His canonization in 1100 helped to make the city a clerical centre and generated general growth thanks to the many convents.

The early Middle Ages was a troubled period in the entire country, and it was no different in Odense, much of the city and the old Cathedral was destroyed during a civil war.

Triptych by Claus Berg
Detail from the triptych in St. Canute Cathedral. Photo: Colourbox

Towards the end of the 15th century Odense regained power as both a cultural and financial centre, and in 1482 the first two printed books in Denmark were made in Odense. The growth was further strengthened when Queen Christine moved to Næsbyhoved Castle around 1500, which attracted many merchants and artists, of which the best known is Claus Berg. On request from Queen Christine, he created the cathedral altarpiece that you can still see today.The best known merchant of this period was Oluf Bager, to whom the King had substantial debts, and some of his properties still stand today, for example ‘Oluf Bagers Gård’ in Nørregade.

Unfortunately, the city saw a decline in the 17th and 18th century due to the many wars with Sweden, as did much of the rest of the country, and it wasn’t until the opening of Odense Canal and harbour in 1804 that the city began to flourish again.

The year after, in 1805, the world-famous writer Hans Christian Andersen was born in the poor part of the city and spent his childhood here. His upbringing in Odense coloured his imagination and influenced his entire authorship, always longing for recognition.

The city kept expanding throughout the century, not least because of the many enterprising industrialists such as C.F. Tietgen and Thomas B. Thrige, and from the middle of the century Odense was Denmark’s second largest city. The general expansion and growth kept on through a great part of the 20th century as well, but from the 1970s the city started struggling due to the general deindustrialization in the western countries.

Odense Harbour at dusk
Odense Harbour at dusk. Photo: VisitOdense

Odense has however managed to land on its feet and has once again become a vibrant and busy city with knowledge- and creativity-based businesses instead of industry.

Odense is also undergoing a more physical transformation – the city centre is reclaiming the space taken up by a large road since the early 70s, making it a liveable space once again.

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