History of the Viborg Area

Viborg is an ancient city of culture whose development has been shaped by dramatic events. Once it was the capital of Jutland where kings were acclaimed. Catholic bishops and noblemen graced the city with fine buildings and the sound of markets used to fill the squares and streets.

Later, wars and fires brought about ruin and decline. Viborg became a quiet city of officials until industry and this century’s service sector breathed new life into the place, creating a dynamic provincial city with culture, institutions and active citizens.

At the Centre of Power
Viborg became a city one thousand years ago. Traders and craftsmen settled at the centre of Jutland where roads from west, north and east met the Military Road that made its way southwards. Its situation among the hills and by the lake made it a convenient meeting place for Jutlanders from the entire region. Before the first permanent settlers came, Jutland tribes had already used the location for their ‘ting’ (things) and sacrifices. The ting, the temple and trade created the city.

When the whole of Denmark came under the rule of one monarch, the ‘landsting’ cities of Viborg, Ringsted and Lund (now a Swedish city) acquired decisive political importance. All Danish kings, if they were to have a legitimate claim to the throne, had to be acclaimed at the landsting. Viborg became the capital of Jutland and its political centre of power, growing during the Middle Ages into a large prosperous city.

The medieval street plan of the inner city has survived almost unaltered to the present day. AlI that has disappeared is the old city rampart, which was built in 1150 to control the landsting during rival claims to the throne.

The history behind the fortification of Viborg has to do with Svend, Knud and Valdemar, all of whom wished to rule Denmark. Knud was the first of them to be acclaimed as the rightful king. That brought Svend and Valdemar down on him and in 1150 he suffered his last defeat in a battle just outside the city. Svend then conquered Viborg and had the city fortified. A rampart was built in a semicircle where the streets of Volden, Reberbanen, Gravene and Dumpen run.

The following year, Knud returned and was thoroughly defeated for a second time. Then, however, the tide turned. The Queen of Hearts came up trumps! Her actual name was Sofie — she was 13 years old and Knud’s half-sister. Valdemar had fallen in love with her so now he joined forces with Knud against Svend. Both of them had themselves acclaimed as kings at Viborg Ting in 1154.

However, three years later, Svend managed to lure both of them into an ambush in Roskilde. Knud was killed while Valdemar fled to Viborg. Here he married his beloved Sofie and was successful in winning over the Jutlanders. A few months later, the two chain mail-clad armies clashed at Grate Hede (Grate Moor). Valdemar was victorious. Badly wounded, Svend fled but was captured and eventually fell to a peasant’s axe. That decided the fate of Denmark for many years to come.

The Cowled Monks
Viborg is famous for its cathedral. It occupies a prominent place in the heart of the city. However, the area which it covers is nothing compared with the areas to which the Catholic Church laid claim during the medieval period. The importance of Viborg could actually be gauged by the number of its churches and abbeys. It became an episcopal seat in 1006, with the cathedral, two abbey churches, twelve parish churches and four abbeys being erected within the five gates of the royal chartered city in the course of the next couple of centuries.

The average local citizen was not overly enthusiastic. Admittedly, the monks brought important knowledge about operating mills and brick firing with them and the population had to admit that plants and herbs from the abbey gardens were able to bring relief when they were plagued by illness. But the sheer numbers of the clerks, priests and monks were a real burden as it was the citizens and peasants who had to pay for their upkeep. For that same reason, the citizens lent a willing ear to a heretic by the name of Hans Tausen when he began to denounce the Pope and the Catholic Church in 1525.

As is known, the whole thing ended with the Reformation after the spark had been struck in Gråbrødre Kirke (Grey Friars’ Church) in Viborg. The clearing up process was thorough. The citizens pulled down all twelve parish churches. A couple of cemeteries were converted into squares, today’s Hjultorv and Nytorv. Monks and nuns were brutally thrown out and the citizens helped themselves liberally to building materials, evidence of which can be seen in the many stone houses and flights of stairs that jut out onto the pavement in Viborg today.

Parts of two abbeys still remain. Just south of the cathedral, on the top of the hill, lies the beautiful old Sortebrødre Klosterkirke (Black Friars’ Abbey Church) and a few hundred metres north of the cathedral stands a wing of the Grey Friars’ impressive abbey complex. In the tranquil courtyard, sheltered by dark-fired brick walls, a peaceful atmosphere reigns — and here it is not difficult to imagine that you can hear the wonderful sound of the Franciscans singing mass half a millennium ago.

A glance at the street names can also put you on the track of where some of the former churches once lay. The holy saints who once gave their names to the churches are still prominent in the street names of the inner city. There are, of course, exceptions. St. Leoni’s Street got its name from Lone’s spring, or Lone’s well, which lay in the garden of the diocesan residence. Every day, the women of the area would fetch their water from the well. Among them was Lone, although she was an old woman. So St Leoni treads water in the depths of history.

The Execution of Skipper Clement
The High Court of Western Denmark is located just to the northeast of the cathedral. Since the unification of the kingdom, the city has always had a higher court where judgment has been passed in both personal and political cases.

In olden times, a ting was held on Gammeltorv under the open sky. Here too stood the city ‘kag’, a tall pillory to which thieves were chained before they were branded. Here painful screeches could be heard when the hangman with the cat o’nine tails lashed the bodies of shaven-headed adulterers and whores until the blood flowed.

In 1536, the square was the arena for the trial of Skipper Clement, which in Jutland marked the end of the great civil war in Denmark, known as the Counts’ War. Faithful to the deposed king, Christian II, Clement had led the Jutland peasant army but it had been crushed by the cavalry of Count Rantzau near Aalborg. In 1536, the adventure seeking skipper was dragged into the square with a crown of lead on his head. The executioner mutilated the condemned man, beheaded him and broke him on the wheel — as a dire warning to any rebellious citizens or peasants.

The City of the Nobility
The Reformation transformed Viborg, although it retained its national political importance for a while, since the great nobles of Jutland still had much to gain from being there. The Catholic bishop’s palace now became the building where they held important meetings, consultations on matters of state, weddings and great banquets. Noble families built private houses in the city where they took up residence when the cathedral convoked the ‘snapsting’ at which business in landed property was done.

But the wars against the Swedes in the mid 17th century ushered in a host of misfortunes for the city and its surrounding area. Swedish and German mercenaries bent on ravaging and plunder came up the Military Road on a number of occasions to stay in Viborg. When they finally left, the city and its surrounding area lay in misery, torment and poverty. Large parts of the countryside around the city had been taken over by heather and at farms and estates, and the Swedes had helped themselves to whatever they could find. The city houses of the nobility were no longer the homes of wealthy landlords and creditors but refuges for impoverished noblemen, their widows, old aunts and unmarriageable daughters.

In addition, the introduction of absolute monarchy in 1660 meant that Danish kings no longer had to be elected at the Viborg ting. The acclamation of kings was discontinued and with it, the magnificence and prestige that had followed in the kings’ wake disappeared.

The City Is on Fire
Almost as if to give Viborg a proper send-off from the national stage, a major fire reduced just over half of the city to ashes in 1726. The fire raged for three days. For many years whole precincts of the city lay as sooty, gutted sires.  One such area was the once so lush garden of Latinerhave.

It took time for the city to rise from the ashes. The king relented and donated a couple of new institutions: a military regiment and Viborg Gaol and Drapery — neither of which gave very much prestige. In a dark dungeon near Søndersø, where Søndersøpark now lies, the forces of law and order herded together common riffraff from all over Jutland. Beggars, thieves and killers laboured all day long at looms and spinning machines, spending the nights in stinking dormitories infested with all sorts of vermin.

The City Tradesmen
Craftsmen and merchants were Viborg’s stable factors throughout all the upheavals. 900 years ago, they lived in small houses in the low-lying areas where Golf Hotel Viborg is now situated but when Erik Menved - desirous of keeping an eye on the wilful Jutland notables - built the royal castle Borgvold in 1353, they were obliged to move up into the hilly region.

Since the 17th century, the lot of the craftsmen had been determined by the guilds, which got involved in everything from the price for a piece of work to giving a dead member a decent burial. The good masters and journeymen of the guilds were also fond of social gatherings and these were often merry affairs since breaking the articles of the guilds nearly always resulted in a fine in the form of beer in whole or half casks.

The many small craftsmen’s dwellings and rented flats have long since disappeared. Only Navnløs can give an impression of what they were like. This small side street to Sct. Mogens Gade has been so unimportant that it is the city’s only completely unspoiled idyll. The grass grows between the cobbles, even though it once was used to be better fertilised since many of the people of Viborg had animals in sheds. Pigs and geese used to root in the gutters while placid Jutland cattle would leave a few cow pats behind as they were driven through the streets out to the city pasture land.

Through the gateway of Sct Mogens Gade 59, you can see one of the last remaining home farms in Viborg.
The merchants’ houses were on the squares or at the city’s approach roads. After the 1726 fire, many beautiful buildings were erected on the city’s three squares. Especially Nytorv was flanked by symmetrical red, grey or white brick town houses. A number of them are still there, framing one of the province’s most attractive market squares — although a couple of modern shopping facades detract from the overall impression.

‘Snapsting’ and Market Trading
The ‘Snapsting’ is the name given to the annual meeting of the landsting where deeds, mortgages and deeds of gift for all manor house land in Jutland were to be recorded and the settlement payments to be made.

Where there was money, there was of course trade. The snapsting market was the region’s most important and, hard on the heels of the traders and craftsmen came all sorts of small wares merchants, tooth-pullers, fortune tellers, performing artists and actors, etc. Each with their own audience. The people of Viborg squeezed themselves into as few rooms as possible in their apartments and rented out as many rooms as possible. That guaranteed them an extra source of income year after year. And market trading was a stable source of prosperity for the people of Viborg for centuries.

The last great ‘snapsting’ eldorado for financial speculators and manor house butchers came with the agricultural reforms of the 1790s. The price of land shot up, the money rolled in and some of it rolled into the pockets of the citizens. But by the early 19th century, it was all over. The recording of deeds for the entire region in Viborg was discontinued and with the national bankruptcy of 1813, the country’s economy also lay in ruins. The credit market was only reorganised several decades later with the creation of the country’s first credit association in Viborg in 1851. So today’s business and financial life is built on very special traditions.

Water and Steam Power
The foundation for Viborg’s present industry was laid as early as the 1820s. In Mølleådalen, southeast of the city, the Bruun family established Central Jutland’s textile industry. Bruunshåb Cloth Mill, in particular, attracted thousands of working class families who settled in small cottages in the beautiful valley where the factory lay.  Production was later switched from cloth to cardboard and the former cardboard factory is now a fascinating factory museum.

In 1847, journeyman smith Rasmus Schneevoigt fired up the first steam boilers of the city. Despite this, Viborg lagged behind in the industrial race as the city did not have a modern port. Production was concentrated around ‘light’ industries such as textiles, ironmongery and tobacco as well as on the processing of agricultural goods.

There was no lack of inventiveness, though.  In 1900, the cycle manufacturer Brems built one of Denmark’s first petrol-driven cars. This wonder, and seven other automobiles from the same workshop, rolled merrily through the narrow streets although Viborg was never to become a car city.

This business pattern did not diversify until after the Second World War. Once again, it was the clothing industry that created the most jobs. Aage Sørensen built his textile factories and made Asani underwear a household name amongst fashion conscious Danish women.

Modern Viborg
In more recent times, Viborg continued to acquire important institutions that served to consolidate its importance far beyond its municipal boundaries. A group of idealists founded ‘Hedeselskabet’ (The Moorland Society) whose work added impetus to the transformation of dark moorland into fertile arable land and woodland.  The city acquired a county hospital and a mental hospital, the regiment became permanent and, for a number of years, the Western Regional Command was also located here. With the municipal reform of 1970, the city came to house the new county administration.

Today, Viborg Municipality is one of Denmark’s growth areas especially in relation to knowledge- , innovation-, and creativity based businesses and industries. The regional central administration still has its head quarters in Viborg but the regiment was abolished at the end of the 1990s.
Sidst opdateret: 03.02.2017