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Old Tønsberg: The Castle Hill, publ. By Vestfold College, 2001. 
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The Hill - the Castle - Tunsbergshus 

by Gerhard Fischer

Aerial view of Slottsfjellet from the northeast

It was as if the mighty rock directly north of the town were made for a castle, especially in the dangerous days of yore when old Tunsberg was springing up. The town had a splendid position at the end of the fjord with outlets on two sides. We also see that Håkon Håkonson "had the channel at Skjelastein deepened so that cogs can now pass while before it was scarcely wide enough for ships or small ferries to pass."

It is clear from the lively descriptions in the sagas that Tunsberg was the most important naval port in the eastern part of the country. "When King Håkon dwelt in Tunsberg very fine fleets of conscripted warships came to him from the whole of Norway. He had countless men and could call the whole of Viken to arms."

And the storyteller describes the fines ships; particularly the king's own -  "Mariasuden".  It was a dragon ship with 30 spaces for oarsmen - the fairest of all the ships ever built in Norway. The dragon heads and necks were plated with gold. The sail was embroidered with beautiful pictures. But the king also had many other  ships, large and magnificently equipped. When the sun shone it looked like fire was leaping from the dragon heads; the weather wanes and the golden shields on the prows. 

It is spring in the year 1257. Relations with the Danish king are so precarious that King Håkon has a call to arms out over the whole country. The archbishop and all the suffragan bishops are also to join. They are summoned to Tunsberg along with "all the wisest men".

We shall not follow Håkon Håkonson's military  expedition to Denmark But the seriousness of the position is demonstrated by the fact that the nobleman Magnus is pronounced king on the Eker Islands, "For  even though it was most usual for the king to be chosen in Trondheim at the Eyra Thing; it seemed safer to everyone not to leave the country without a king while King Håkon was away from the realm." 

King Magnus went to the north of Viken and stayed in Tunsberg for the summer.  And King Håkon came here too after reaching  an agreement with the Danish king.

This is not the only large assemblage of forces in Tunsberg we hear about here. The saga tells' of King Håkon's journeys east year after year and it is  always to this town he summons people - Oslo is rarely mentioned. Right from the king's early days we see the role played by the "Mountain in Tunsberg" as a secure defensive  position for the din King's men, particularly at the times when the Ribbungs and Slittungs had the power in the east of the country.

It does not surprise us when the final chapter in Håkon Håkonson's saga reports that "he had stone walls built around Tunsberg  and citadels built over the gates and the Gauta citadel over Danakleiv".  We should note that although it says "Tunsberg" it is definitely the hill which is meant here. There are various places in the saga where there is some doubt as to whether the reference is to the town or the castle. We also hear about a "king's palace"  down by the ford below the hill. The  saga expressly adds that "he had men all over the mountain and in the king's palace by Lavran's  Church". We shall not ponder too much here on the relationship between the castle and the king's palace even though it may be tempting to think that the hill was certainly the king's headquarters - for extended periods at any rate. But with the large assemblies of forces and fleets year after year it was hard work going up and down the alarmingly steep rocky paths to the castle. Many little things needed constant attention and we also see that the king's palace was situated right by the ships' moorings, making administration and keeping watch more convenient.

Even before the perimeter wall was built we see how difficult it was to storm the mountain. The well-known descriptions in Sverre's saga give many amusing details of the siege of the mountain during the last winter the king was alive. Despite all the stratagems and attempts to storm the wooden citadels over the approaches, Reidar Sendemann and the Baglers held out for a full 20 weeks until hunger drove them down. At that time they were "so near death that all of them were sick and many died."

Before Sverre's time our own sagas are conspicuously silent about the hill  even though one would think that it was a useful place of refuge through the long civil war. The Danish chronicler Saxo describes in detail King Valdemar's two military expeditions to Viken in 1165 and 1169. Erling Skakke had sought the Danish king's help and promised him control over Viken but then refused to keep his promise. 

Saxo says that "a few of Erling's men fled to the fortified mountain. But when  the Danish army came back a few years later both the town and the hill had been evacuated. King Valdemar went up with his men, "looked at the hill admired its steep summit and realized that  the fortress was impregnable because nature rather than skill had played the greater part".

Erling Skakke was often in Tunsberg in the 1160s so one can well imagine that there maybe something in Saxo's account about the fortification of the hill, but  there is little point in speculating further about what might have been done. Nor  need we reflect anymore on the wooden citadels which the Baglers erected around 1200. 

Fortunately we know more about the perimeter wall and citadels from Håkon Håkonson's time. It was exciting work when in the 1920s and 30s we followed the remains of the wall around the mighty rock. It wove in and out following the crevices in the precipitous slopes. We were able to follow it virtually continuously  for almost 600 metres along the south, east and north faces of the mountain.

On the west side the huge plateau slopes bore smoothly down to the fjord so that even though the sea reached right up to the hill at that time; it was relatively  easy to climb up there. It is therefore quite reasonable to find a strong tower down here above the most dangerous spot, and even though hundreds of spring thaws seem to have washed away the last remains of the surrounding wall to the west, there can be no doubt at all that it went right down to this "west citadel' on both sides. 

Detail of the excavations to the north of Slottsfjell tower
There has always been two natural paths up the mountain - from the town roughly where the road is now, but considerably steeper - and from the brickworks north of the hill where we still have the old road right up in the crevice beneath the more northern of the two gate citadels mentioned in the saga. We found so much of the walls of this citadel that the layout is quite clear. There was a guardroom on the vest. Side of the entrance and steps and ladder went up from here to the upper room in the tower.

The southern gate citadel was one of the first things we dug up. It was strange coming down to the worn flagstones in the inner gateway. We found no  sign of the outer gateway.  On the east side the perimeter wall jutted out over the incredibly steep ascent, so that they could shoot - even from the right by forming an "open shield" - and throw stones and all kinds of unpleasant things down on an enemy trying to storm the castle. And  along the inside wall we found in just this 'spot some strong supporting pillars which show that the wall was reinforced, being particularly well built slightly higher up.

We could not help thinking of the situation in 1234. Relations with Skule Jarl are particularly strained and to quote from the saga: "When King Håkon was in Tunsberg in the spring he had the stone wall around the mountain considerably reinforced and he had the king's guard stationed there" (presumably on the mountain) That the most important section around the main gate was strengthened is only reasonable. 

We must also mention another important feature of Håkon Håkonson's castle. Just  by the surrounding wall to the east, a little to the north of St Michael's church, we found some walls which must  have been part of the oldest stone castle. The building they belonged to  was clearly pulled down during the later development in the 1300. It is natural to imagine a watchtower up on top of the rock and if we look more closely at the layout, it is easy to see that this was just where it was. Here was the best possible view on all sides and, moreover, they could see past the church down to the south gate tower and as far as the west citadel besides of course, to the north gate citadel. Otherwise the shape of the  mountain is such that one could scarcely see from one of these  three towers to the other, but  in this way they could at least set up some kind of  signalling system between them.

We know very little about the Gauta citadel over Danakleiv which the saga mentions. But the steep rocky ascent must have gone from the ships moorings directly to the south of the mountain up to the south-gate-citadel.  It is not only the name itself which suggests this - for the Danes certainly came up from their ships - but we also have a short description of one of the Ribbungs’  raids when they came to the town unexpectedly and "ransacked” it. At night they went “north beneath the mountain” and burnt the kings ship But there were moorings further north “at Danakleiv” which they did not reach because the place could be defended from the  mountain. The Gauta citadel must have been directly above so they could defend both the ascent and the ships from there. 

In this way we can try to piece together the various features of King Håkon’s castle so that the general layout will gradually become fairly clear. It is also likely that he started on the “inner wall" round the main castle itself up on the top of  the mountain, possibly also on the main tower itself. But before we look more closely at the further development of the castle in the 1200s end 1300s, it may be useful to recall a little of the history of that remarkable period.

Håkon Håkonson's death voyage west over the sea in 1263 marks a change in Norway's Atlantic policy even though the dealings with the islands out there was still to last a long time. Relations with Norway’s neighbouring countries to the south and east played an increasingly more important part. It was precisely in those uncertain times with constant feuds between the royal families in the three countries that Tunsberg and the mountain enjoyed a key position, at least equaling  their importance in King Håkon's time. If we had had sagas from that period we would certainly have had new wonderful descriptions of life in the town and in the castle: Now we have but a few sources from which it is not easy to  learn anything for certain, least of all about the building on the mountain  - or Tunsbergshus as the castle was called from around 1300. We are grateful for  any gleam of light in the darkness. 

In one of the fragments we still have of Magnus Håkonsson's saga we see that "that same summer (1276)  the Teglkastellet was completed south of Breidastova in Tunsberg”. This can only mean that  the inner castle square was now completed. It was enormous, particularly when compared to the few other  large Norwegian castles - at least 120 metres long and more than 60 metres wide. St Michael's church was situated so that there was a large courtyard to the south with the hall and tower and probably other important buildings too - and a  smaller one on the north side where we must imagine that the men lived and had stalls and bars and other outbuildings. 

The military campaigns against Denmark continued both in Eirik and Håkon Magnusson’s time. Huge fleas are mentioned and Tunsberg was still the natural assembly point, but we hear no word of the castle building. However, we can  infer a few  things. Håkon V made St Michael's church the third of his "royal chapels”. He was very generous to the clergy in this church. The recto, 4 canons 2 deacons and 1 sexton, farm workers, cooks and apprentice cooks are all expressly mentioned. They required a good many rooms in the priest’s house. Directly north of the church and out towards the eastern wall we found the remains of a wall, which may well have come from this house - there was not much room to move around in.

Even though it is not stated expressly we must assume that St Michael's church  was extended in Håkon Vs-time. The old narrow choir had to make way for another lighter extension to the east. Some other building work seems to have been connected with this choir extension: At any rate the castle must have largely reached its full size in the first half of the 1300s - before the Black Death.

For us who know what happened next it is amazing to think of Håkon Vs foresight. The king lay on his death bed in Tunsbergshus. He summoned the foremost men in the land and made them swear the solemnest of oaths on the holy cross, “and many other holy relics”. No foreign men were to have control  of the people or districts or have any power in Norway.

We know that things turned out differently during the long period of political union - first with Sweden and then with Denmark. Time after time the State Council upheld the claims of Norwegian leaders but an increasing number of foreign names became apparent. We cannot recount here the strife that ensued between the Norwegian -Swedish royal power and the Norwegian chieftains during Magnus Eriksson's long reign. Instead  we will include a brighter moment from that remarkable time of unrest. 

"King Magnus took the maid  Blanca, daughter of the Duke of  Flanders” it is stated in the dry annals of 1335. We instinctively add life to it.  The nineteen  year old waiting impatiently in Tunsbergshus  - the fleet coming up the fjord from the south on a glittering autumn day. In reality we know incredibly little  - not even with any certainty where the wedding took place. But Tunsbergshus and everything belonging  to it became Queen Blanca’s morning gift in Norway - and then her home in hard times.  It was also to here that she travelled from the royal wedding in Copenhagen is spring 1363 - her son Håkon VI's wedding to Margrete Valdemarsdatter  which became so terribly important for Norway. A  few months later Queen Blanca died at Tunsbergshus.  It is from here that we have the moving enumeration of her storeroom - the tablecloths "which had often been on the table” and the sheets which “had often been on the bed.”  These were not great riches.

Albert Edenfeldt's painting of Queen Blanca is in the Athenæum Art Gallery, Helsinki.

We know little for certain about the castle in Håkon VIs time. A few letters which show when the king stayed there. One of the last letters concerns the raising of forces against “our enemies the Germans in Sweden".  This was in 1380 - a few months before the king died. 

That was the last time a Norwegian king summoned the country’s forces from the hill in Tunsberg. We think back to the teeming life in the town and castle in these centuries - but the vividness fades as time passes. If is as if it all drifts away into the mist - a few names of leaders - some Council of State meetings  and a few visits by the Dano-Norwegian kings - and finally the complete destruction of the hill late in the spring of 1503. During the bitter feud between the
Swedish and Danish parties which led to the assassination of Knut Alvsson, the town was plundered and the castle laid waste and burnt. 

Then the craggy walls froze to pieces, gables fell down - the perimeter wall and  castle cracked and tumbled down bit by bit, The townspeople aided the decay by taking stones away, to build new buildings. Rough grass grew over the waste plots up on the hill leaving only the bare rock - and the name - "Slottsfjellet".  And finally comes the last chapter of the Slottsfjell saga. We dig out the remains of the walls and try to imagine the layout and development patterns.

More surprises were to come. All in all we know very little about Håkon Håkonson’s castle plan. But as we followed the perimeter wall along the edges on both  sides of the south citadel we found a  new feature which was totally unexpected. Out on the  projecting parts of the mountain, the wall vent out in a curve. We subsequently found quite a number of these circular of semicircular towers - "rondels" as they are usually called. They are common enough in other countries but  we did not know before that they were used in Norway in the 1300s. It was not until the end of the Middle Ages that such towers were used elsewhere in  the country. 

These round towers in Tunsbergshus clearly show the strong link with southern Scandinavia and the Baltic in Håkon Vs and particularly Magnus Eriksson’s time. Before that Norwegian castles -  like culture in general  - were most influenced by Western Europe .

After we had followed the perimeter wall as far as there were remains, we had  to dig along the inside wall and find out about the houses which must have stood there - particularly up on the main castle. St Michael's Church and Magnus Lagabøter’s brick citadel had already been excavated and the remains were visible. Breidastova had also been examined but the low walls had been covered over again.  They were  later exposed. Now it proved that this huge hall must have stood right against the inner wall to the west.  We found clear remains of  this wall flush with the west wall in the hall itself. We had already excavated the north wall and the northwest corner. The brick citadel had certainly also been built together with this inner wall but  we could not find the slightest trace of it here, so the lines drawn in on the plan are pure guesswork.  But it  is reasonable to assume that the citadel jutted out from the wall to the south so that they could  shoot along the outside of the perimeter wall and defend the inner main gate which must have stood there  possibly directly west of the tower with the natural entrance from the outer south citadel.

On the whole we must be aware of how this external  “flanking” of the walls became increasingly refined later on in the Middle Ages as siege weapons  became more dangerous and the considerable experience gained from the crusades became the common property of all countries. This was certainly the primary purpose of the round towers in the perimeter wall. The semicircular projections were very often open on the inside so that the enemy could not establish themselves there and mount an attack on the inside if some of them stormed the place. But we also see closed rondels where the men could lodge themselves and carry on the fight if part of the wall were taken.

Against the strong round tower in the northeast corner of the main castle we  found remains of a very spacious brick building, possibly the servants hall, built  after the old watchtower which had stood there since Håkon Håkonson's time had been pulled down. And out by the outer wall in the southwest - above the Danakleiv - we see the same pattern, a house along the inside wall built together with a rondel. There must have been a large force here to defend the important sections of the wall above the main entrances. Even if the enemy managed to storm the castle they could use the tower for defence and await rescue. We also found some wall remains right by the old south citadel. This was probably a guardroom for the force guarding the gate itself.

Up in the main castle there was another whole rondel in the eastern perimeter wall - a little to the north of St Michael's Church. This  had been pushed almost completely out on the outside of the wall to make room for the priest’s house we heard about. 

Now we know that both the king himself and Skule Jarl often stayed for long periods in Tunsberg during the hard battles against the Ribbungs. In the first ten years after 1220 they left men behind on the hill - once more than 200. Therefore the oldest' perimeter wall was probably erected at just this time. But the living quarters up there may have been more temporary at first. It is clear  however  that they must soon have thought of making the important castle a permanent royal residence. It seems probable that the mighty hall - "Breidastova" - was built  in the 1230s. In any case it must date from King Håkon's time. We see how it is sited at right angles to the old St Michael's church, fairly near so that one can imagine a passageway between the two buildings; but this can only be conjecture. The church must have been built some time in the 1100s - we do not know exactly when. It was the only stone building on the  mountain before the perimeter wall and citadels were built.

Further south in the perimeter wall directly opposite Breidastova, we unearthed  the remains of a house which jutted a fair way outside the wall so it may also have been used for flanking. Otherwise it was not hard to guess what this house was used for.  Some years earlier thick layers of animal bones and oystershell and the like  had been found under the hill - not only remains of food but skulls and jawbones, so it was clear that they  had prepared food directly above. It is also likely that the kitchens were  situated here close to the kings private quarter  in the Teglkastellet. When we then learn that the gigantic pile of bones stretched as far as under the citadel as well, we can almost picture the young lads hauling the heavy barrels containing  gnawed bones back over the bridge from the tower and heaving them over the  perimeter wall.

While on the subject of the kitchen, it is appropriate to mention some long walls which we found inside the north citadel and down the slope to the west. These can hardly be anything but foundation walls for large storehouses for the masses of goods which were received as taxes end fees -  the Tunsbergshus royal treasury was one of the most important in the land. It was not only bricks and other materials for the perimeter walls and the houses that were earned up this "back door" from  the north. 

We found more than  just remains of food and tools etc. Large numbers of shaped bricks - some glazed  -  made it clear that the architecture had been quite impressive. And whole sections of collapsed brick wail show that the perimeter  wall and rondels at any rate were red and unpolished -  the castle must have looked splendid with its jagged wallheads and warm deep red colour in the evening sun.

Model of Tunsberghus, made by Cato Enger.
Finally from sundown and fantasy to reality - nearly 50 years ago. Professor Oscar Albert Johnsen wrote Tønsberg's  History and wanted to know more about the castle. This was the beginning.  We followed the results of the excavations. There were often only small traces of the walls remaining. Every fast trace had to be photographed and drawn in on the plans. Luckily my distinguished colleague  Cato Enger had an unlimited amount of patience. The whole mountain was carefully surveyed by the engineer  Einar Mathisen, so  for Olav's Jubilee in Trondheim in 1930 we were able to have a model made which included all the ruins - even those which had been excavated earlier.

It is on  a replica of this model that Enger has now for the towns anniversary built walls and towers so one can get an impression of the magnificent castle as it was at its peak in the 1300s.  Of course the individual buildings can only be modelled in general contours using parallels from abroad. But the outer perimeter wall with the rondels and gate citadels must have looked like this in the main. And the compact main castle  on the top with the enormous plateau outside gives a powerful impression of the dimensions.  We must use our imaginations to see a good many more buildings that we have found remains of.
But drawing, photographs and models are one thing. If the excavated remains of the walls and traces of mortar on the hill had been left as we found them they would soon have been lost forever. There was no question of covering them over. Right from the outset it was decided to gradually mark the walls low down so that one could see on the spot the superb planning of the castle with its citadels and rondels.

The years vent by - and times grew hard. But the work was completed. This was due primarily to one man,  Anders Rørholt,  and his untiring devotion to the work on the mountain. It is with deep appreciation that I look back on many happy years of working together.

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