How old is Stavanger?

Historians assume Stavanger was founded around 1125. This was when the bishopric was founded and when Reinald came from Winchester to become Stavanger’s first bishop. Although people have been living here much earlier, no one has found evidence of what might be called a town. (Town here being understood as a built-up area with a name, defined boundaries, and local government, that is larger than a village and generally smaller than a city – Concise Oxford Dictionary.) So, based on a conservative scientific approach (“if it can’t be proven, it doesn’t exist”) Stavanger was founded at the same time the cathedral was built.

To a layman like myself that is of course just plain silly. Nobody builds a cathedral in anything less than a town. It is not possible. And the build-up would have taken at least a hundred years. Let us take the Oxford criteria and see how they may apply to Stavanger before it was.

Built-up area with a name

No one has documented the name Stavanger being used before ca. 1125. And in its early years the city was referred to as St Swithun’s city more often than not. The name Stavanger though, is an Old Norse name. It is not a name educated “modern” people, fluent in Latin would have chosen. The word is made up of ‘stav’, which is stave or staff and ‘anger’ which is fjord. The usual interpretation is that it means a steep mountain by a fjord. This is consistent with Stavanger’s topography. Clearly this name is a lot older than the cathedral, possibly several hundred years. Whether or not this can be proven does not change the likeliness of it.

North of Stavanger there is an archipelago of fertile islands, and in the South there is Jæren - the best farmland in Norway
North of Stavanger there is an archipelago of fertile islands, and in the South there is Jæren – the best farmland in Norway

North of Stavanger there is an archipelago of fertile islands, and in the South there is Jæren – the best farmland in Norway.

How built-up was Stavanger before 1125? We know that there were many great, rich farms both on the mainland to the south and west and on the islands to the north. On one of these islands, at Utstein, king Harald Fairhair had an estate even before the battle of Hafrsfjord – in the 880s. This remained the king’s estate until it became an Augustinian monastery between 1263 and 1280. There would have been royal business coming and going, tax collectors, tradesmen etc., and not just for the king’s estate but for the many farms in the area. Most of the traffic would have to pass through Stavanger. Not only that, it would arrive over land and continue at sea – or vice versa. Which means – reasonably – that there would have to be inns, stables, blacksmiths, boatbuilders, suppliers of food, clothes, weapons etc. Does this not sound like a fairly built-up area to you?

Defined boudaries

Being a coastal area, some of Stavanger’s boundaries are naturally defined. On land, there were farms. Assuming the farms had their boundaries well defined, Stavanger would at the very least have had negative boundary definitions, i.e. whatever did not belong to the farms, was the town. This would satisfy the Oxford definition of a town having boundaries.

Local government

Stavanger Cathedral is built on the site of an earlier (burnt) wooden building – most likely a church, and a rather large one at that. This may explain why the cathedral has no transepts, something a cathedral normally would have. Some structures and decorative elements seem to be older than the cathedral itself. The coal layer that was found beneath the choir has been dated to about 860. Other than that there is no record of a church here. But if there was a church there would have been administration as well. Clergy would have had a hand in running the town – if there were no civil authority present. And with the king’s estate in the vicinity there is even more reason to believe that some kind of town administration would have been in place.

Larger than a village

The manpower and resources needed to build a cathedral – even a modest cathedral – are formidable. Not only do you need builders, masons, roofers and toolmakers – but they must eat, too. They need shoes and clothes. Houses to sleep in. Women to fall in love with. They need rope, iron, and they need stone, horses, carriages, boats. Stone for Stavanger Cathedral came from islands north of the city. The quarrying and transport alone would demand a great number of people and most certainly town-like facilities.

They decided to build the cathedral in Stavanger – not nearer the quarry and the king’s estate, not nearer the great rich farms at Jæren, but at the crossroads, where the paths meet. Here was a natural, shielded, deep and ice-free harbour, giving easy access to England and the entire west coast of Norway. The path across the mountains from the eastern parts of the country came down here. And the overland routes from Agder and the south of Rogaland ended here. When the Viking chieftains in the 880s tried to stop Harald Fairhair from expanding his domain and eventually transform Norway into one kingdom under one king, Stavanger was where they went to find him and fight with him.

The chieftains lost the battle of Hafrsfjord – a fjord inside the present boundaries of Stavanger – and the area became a power-base for the king. This would have been a turning point for the town of Stavanger. The comings and goings of the estate of a newly established king of Norway plus the regular traffic of the richest farmland in the country, plus closeness to the North Sea will have made Stavanger a real hotspot of a town.

No records

So why is there no record of it, no proof of its existence? For one thing, it was a crossroads. You stopped in Stavanger on your way to somewhere else. The farms were dominating with their traditional non-monetary economy which may explain why Stavanger did not become a centre for business like Bergen did. Bergen is surrounded by mountains and it may have been neccessary for the farmers and citizens to rely on middlemen to buy goods off the farms and sell it in town.

Sometime between 880 and 1100 a church was built in Stavanger. Stavanger may have been chosen because it already had the makings of a town, or perhaps it was just the most accessible spot for all the farmers and fishermen in the area – people who obviously would have been called upon to pay for the church and its upkeep.

We may never know for sure if it was this or that or a bit of both. These were practical men, not dreamers. Whatever Stavanger was before ca. 1100 made it both realistic and neccessary to build St Swithun’s wonderful cathedral right here. And they did, because Stavanger was a town fit for it.