No one knows why they had to build a cathedral just here.
We don’t know if the cathedral was built in a real town, or if the town emerged as the cathedral was being built. We know that there were large, rich farms in the area. And Stavanger has always been a place where people arrive over land and continue by ship or the other way round. It still is. So we know that there were people coming and going, and also living there, but we don’t know how many and if they lived in what might be called a town. I believe they did.
It has been assumed that the church was built in 1125. The city has been celebrating anniversaries based on that. But the year is under discussion. Some parts of the church walls seems to be from the 11th century as does the decorations on one or two of the pillars inside. But then building a church like this would easily take 30 years or more, so the work may have been started before 1100 and only “finished” as late as 1125.
Sigurd Jorsalfare – his name means Sigurd the Crusader – was king of Norway when Stavanger Cathedral was built. He donated land for the support of the bishopric. The bishopric was established on his orders. Stavanger’s first bishop came from Winchester, at a time when the Archbishopric for Scandinavia was at Lund, in Sweden. One can imagine that the Church itself would have appointed someone from headquarters, so to speak.
Sigurd had been denied divorce by the bishop in Bergen. The story is that he bought himself out by installing a more flexible bishop in a new bishopric further south. I doubt very much that king Sigurd would have let the bishop of Bergen stand between him and what he wanted. He was clearly a man of action, and I think he founded the bishopric in Stavanger because it was the right thing to do. He wanted St Swithun in Norway. There was big money in the cult of St Swithun and the other Norwegian cathedrals already had their own patron saints. Besides, it is very possible that the bishop of Bergen was even more opposed to having his bishopric reduced (which is what happened) than to grant the king his divorce.
Winchester was the natural choice for a Norwegian king. Several Norwegian kings and kings to be, including Olav Tryggvason and Olav Haraldson (aka St Olaf) had spent time there at the royal household, learning the ways of Christian European royalty. That way Winchester played an important part in the christening of Norway.
Sigurd himself had stopped in Winchester in 1109 on his way to Jerusalem. He was an eager church-builder and here he had seen how a really great relic attracts pilgrimage and money. He may have gotten the idea of obtaining the Swithun saintly patronage for Stavanger as early as that.
A cathedral was built in the middle of nowhere, as there is no evidence yet of anything much going on here before that time. A reasonable person will – like I do – believe that there must have been a developed town here already, before the building of a cathedral was even decided. Nothing else makes much sense.