Top10 Norwegian cities and the Viking Age

Nine of the ten largest cities in Norway can trace their history and often also names to the Viking Age. Read about Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Kristiansand, Drammen Fredrikstad/Sarpsborg, Porsgrunn/Skien, Tønsberg and Ålesund below:

  • Oslo – Archaeological evidence of burials before 1000. First known written mention is found in the Norse sagas claiming that King Harald Hardrade founded Oslo in 1049. The origin and meaning of the city name Oslo is unclear – with hypothesis ranging from os (ridge) and lo (meadow) hence the “meadow below the ridge” to older spelling as Aslo with as (Aser) making it “meadow of the gods”.
  • Bergen – Originally spelled “Bergvin” or “Bjorgvin”, meaning berg (mountain) and vin (meadow) hence “the meadow between the mountains”. Likely founded shortly after 1000. It was recognized as a city in 1070 by King Olaf Haraldsson (son of Harald Hardrade), who made Bergen his capital rather than Trondheim.
  • Trondheim – Originally named “Kaupangen” (trading place) and subsequently “Nidaros”, derived from Nid (name of local river) and aros (river mouth in old Norse). Archaeological evidence of human activity goes back several thousand years. There is mention of “things” (governing gatherings) taking place at Trondheim, where both Harald Fairhair and Haakon the Good were recognized as kings – they reigned consecutively from around 870 to 960. According to Norse sagas, Trondheim was founded later in 997 as a trading center and royal seat by King Olav Tryggvason (which is considered the official year of founding).
  • Kristiansand – The city name was given in connection with its formal founding in 1641. The areas was previously known as Oddernes, which traces back to a royal estate from the early Viking Age (perhaps before 800). A Christian church was built in 1040. Archaeological evidence of human activity in the area goes back many thousand years.
  • Drammen – Known as Drofn/Drafn (meaning “wave” in old Norse). Archaeological evidence of human activity around the fjord goes back many thousand years. Viking Age activity is mentioned in the sagas of Snorre Sturlason around 1200, where the fjord is supposed to have been used as safe harbor for Viking long ships.

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  • Fredrikstad/Sarpsborg – Known in old Norse as Borg (meaning “castle”), the Sarp was added later (referencing name of a local waterfall). Founded by King Olaf II (known as Saint Olaf) in 1016.
  • Skien/Porsgrunn – Derived from old Norse skida (meaning “straight plank”), and believed to have made reference to a local river running straight. Archaeological evidence of human activity in the area goes back to before the year 1000. First evidence of a trading town/settlement is from shortly after 1000.
  • Tønsberg – Known as Tunsberg in old Norse (derived from tuns meaning “garden” and berg meaning “mountain”). It is among the oldest known towns of Viking Scandinavia, and believed to have been established in the late 9th century. The official date is set to 871. The town is first mentioned in writing in 1130, and also by Snorri Sturlason around 1200. The Haugathing (in old Norse hauga meaning “mound” and “thing”/”assembly”) was the governing assembly for the Vestfold region – therefore important in the recognition of Viking kings. The area is likely also where Eirik Bloodaxe defeated his half-brothers Olaf and Sigrød around the year 930.
  • Ålesund – Known as Kaupangen Borgund in old Norse (derived from kaupang meaning “market place” of Borgund). Later it became Alasund (ala meaning “eel” and sund meaning “strait”). According to Norwegian legend, then the Viking founder of Normandy (Rollo) came from Ålesund (though this is unconfirmed and much evidence points to Rollo being Danish). Archaeological evidence of human activity in the area goes back many thousand years. The area around Ålesund is supposed to have been the scene of King Olaf II being forced to leave Norway and seeking refuge at Novgorod in 1028. Viking Age activity is mentioned in the sagas of Snorre Sturlason around 1200.

Source: Compiled and written by AllThingsViking (May, 2015)

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