Question: Where in the world could you protect your treasures from pirates while attending church at the same time?
Answer: The round churches of Bornholm, Denmark
In the Middle Ages, when Slavic Wends and looting pirates were pillaging the coastal towns of the Baltic Sea, the island dwellers of Bornholm, Denmark were in a particularly vulnerable position. Situated right between present-day Sweden and Poland, the island of Bornholm would be an easy place for these tribes to raid and conquer. However, thanks to the help of some unusual round-shaped churches, the islanders could defend themselves from seafaring invaders.
Cylindrical in shape and large in size, the round and whitewashed churches combined a place of worship, a fortification, and a storage house all into one. Instead of building both a castle and a church on the island, the two were combined into this style of large fortress. Constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, everything about the design was strategic.
The churches were built more than a mile inland and atop hills so that they could see out to the Baltic and keep watch for any invaders. The walls were constructed six and a half feet thick in order to withstand battering rams, and the upper floors could only be accessed through narrow passageways. In times of crisis, treasures and trading goods were hidden away here to prevent pirates from carrying off these valuables. The top story had small windows and arrow slits for which the defenders could fire upon at attackers, while the church’s round shape gave the residents 360-degree views of their surroundings.
Mystery still remains over exactly who built the churches. Some theories suggest that round churches were associated with the Knights Templar. Other theories say that the buildings could have been used as an observatory. On the inside, murals and frescoes depict scenes from the bible including the birth of Christ and Judgement day.
Four of Denmark’s total seven round churches are found on the island of Bornholm and go by the names of Osterlars, Olsker, Nyker, and Nylars. Osterlars is the largest and oldest of the churches on Bornholm and is also one of the oldest Romanesque churches in all of Denmark. It’s believed to date back to at least the year 1150 but some research suggests it may be even older.
Today, the churches still hold services and offer visitors a glimpse into what it was like to hideaway from invading enemies in times of crisis. Amidst Bornholm’s colorful and quaint harborsides, the churches are iconic visuals that every Dane knows.
8 More Facts about the Idyllic Island of Bornholm:
- Bornholm is often known as the solksinsoen (sunshine island) because of its warm, sunny weather as well as klippeoen (rock island) for its geology consisting of granite.
- The heat from the summer sun is stored in the rock formations allowing the weather to stay warm until October. This climate makes it ideal for growing a local variety of the fig known as Bornholm’s diamond.
- It has dramatic rock formations in the north which contrasts against the rest of Denmark’s rolling hills. There’s farmland in the middle of the island and beautiful beaches in the south.
- The island has been ruled by Sweden and Lubeck, Germany. The ruins of Hammershus at the northwestern tip of the island is the largest medieval fortress in northern Europe.
- Bornholm attracted many famous artists of the 20th century forming a group known as the Bornholm school of painters.
- Bornholm was captured by Germany in 1940 and served as a lookout post during World War II on the Eastern Front and prevented submarines from entering the Nazi-occupied waters.
- Many inhabitants of the island speak the Bornholmsk dialect, a dialect of Danish yet is difficult for some Danish speakers to understand. It’s actually more similar to the Scanian dialect of nearby southern Sweden.
- Bornholm is internationally known for its sailing and water spots, including a notable venue for the sailing sport known as “match racing” in which yachts are raced one-on-one in the sea.
Visit the round churches and explore the island of Bornholm during your Grand Baltic Sea Voyage.