History of Odense

Odense City Museums work on the history of the city, from prehistory to present day. The period from the 16th century to the present day is covered by museum historians and other members of staff in the department of history.

The name Odense is first mentioned in a document from the year 988 AD, which is why the city celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 1988, even though it is considerably older. The document - Odense's 'birth certificate' and the beginning of the city's historical time - was drawn up by the German Kaiser Otto III. It grants certain rights to the dioceses in various Danish cities, including Odense.

Sct. Knud's killing in Albani Church, 1086

Kunstner: C.A. von Benzon

The best-known and most prominent single event in the history of the city is the murder of King Knud (Knud the Holy) in 1086. This is the act which traditionally marks the end of the Viking Age and the beginning of the medieval period in Odense.

Odense in the Middle Ages
The location of Odense on the route between Zealand and Jutland gave it strategic importance. The large Viking fortification on Nonnebakken to the south of the city bears eloquent witness to the city's former role.

In the medieval period, Odense was characterised by its many churches and monasteries. Skt. Knuds Kirke - the cathedral church - gained its present form in the late 13th century and was linked to a Benedictine monastery.
The other old churches of the city are Vor Frue Kirke (The Church of Our Lady) and Skt. Hans Kirke, with the adjoining Order of St John of Jerusalem monastery, which later formed the beginnings of Odense Castle. The Grey Friars' Church, demolished in 1821, was linked to the Grey Friars' Monastery, founded in 1279 by the Order of St. Francis.
In the eastern district of the city there was also the Black Friars' Monastery. These religious institutions had a major influence on life in the city and also possessed considerable amounts of land in what is now the Municipality of Odense. i.e. what were then the surrounding rural areas.

Ruins of The Grey Friars' Church, 1817.

Normal everyday life was characterised by the many craftsmen, who were organised in guilds. Commercial life in Odense was diverse, with a strong aristocratic tinge. The old streets of the city provided space for the large merchant's houses behind the frontages overlooking the street, and at the end of the 16th and in the early 17th century a number of fine renaissance buildings were erected, some of which have survived to the present day. Citymuseum Møntergården is partly housed in two renaissance buildings, one built for Ejler Rønnow in 1547, the other for Falk Gøye til Hvidkilde in 1646.

The blacksmiths' cup of welcome

In many ways, Odense was a typical major medieval city, with its city gates as clear boundaries separating it from the surrounding countryside and with the most prosperous and influential citizens residing along the main streets of Vestergade, Overgade and Nørregade. In the adjoining side-streets lived those of lower social status. In many ways, the city physically retained this medieval feel right up until the early 19th century.

Around 1500, the city began to flourish when Queen Christine and her court settled in Odense, with a consequent increase in consumption and activities in the city. This later levelled out and finally gave way to an economic recession in the second half of the 17th century as a result of the Dano-Swedish Wars, with the business life of the city a mere shadow of its former self.

After having had a population of 5,000-6,000 in the early 17th century, the city shrank to 3,808 inhabitants in 1672. At the 1769 census, Odense had once more begun to grow and was now clearly the second-largest city in the country with 5,209 inhabitants. It was not until the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th that the city once more enjoyed vital physical, economic and social growth. The fact that Odense is now a port is due to the major construction work of the late 18th century, with the excavation of Odense Canal and the establishment of a harbour. This has influenced the city and its development right up to the present day.

Odense in the 19th Century
At the beginning of the 19th century, Odense had just under 6,000 inhabitants. Numbers began to increase dramatically during the succeeding decades, as industrialisation gradually made itself felt. The population had swollen considerably, with the old boundaries of the city now hard-pressed, when the city gates were demolished in 1851, providing new space for necessary urban growth.

Pigs are loaded onto the train at Skamby Railway Station, 1882.

In 1865, railway traffic opened up across Funen, passing through Odense. Until the end of the century, the old city was surrounded by industrial precincts, workers' houses and the beginnings of housing for the bourgeoisie, who began to leave the old city in favour of detached dwellings mainly to the south of the city, with the large residential neighbourhood of Hunderupkvarteret being established in the early 20th century. The high percentage of detached dwellings and restricted number of highrise buildings have given Odense less of a metropolis feel to it than Copenhagen and Århus, and it is thought of by many as being a 'flat' city. The older blocks of flats dating from the late 19th century until after the war are seldom more than 2-3 storeys high.

In 1836, the first viable iron & metal industry was established in the city in the form of M.P. Allerups Jernstøberi, with Odense becoming the country's second-largest industrial city in the latter half of the 19th century. This position was maintained into the 20th century, by which time the population had risen to approx. 40,000.

Odense in the 20th Century
In 1901, the provincial city of Odense had 39,182 inhabitants - by 1911 this number had risen to 42,237. Various incorporations - especially that of the large working-class precinct of Skibhuskvarteret north of the old city - gradually led to a large increase in numbers, and by the outbreak of the Second World War Odense had around 100,000 inhabitants. In 1970, a number of the rural district councils were incorporated into the Municipality of Odense. Today, the capital Copenhagen, and Århus with its approx. 285,000 inhabitants, are larger than Odense with its approx. 185,000 and Ålborg with just over 160,000.

Since World War II Odense has become known, among other things, for the construction of the major arterial road Thomas B. Thriges Gade in the 1960-70s and the large-scale complex of council houses in Vollsmose in the years that followed. It is also known, however, for its restoration of the Hans Christian Andersen precinct and for turning the former cloth mill complex of Brandts Klædefabrik into a cultural centre in the early 1980s.

Work on urban history

In recent years, the new industrial area southeast of Odense has been established, with new access roads. In this connection, Odense City Museums has sought to retain the business identity and history of the city by suggesting street names for Tietgenbyen, where a number of earlier prominent industrial names are once again being restored to favour.

This is just one example of how the most recent developments - the physical changes to the city as well the social changes - are areas within which Odense City Museums is seeking to play an active part in investigating.
Other examples are the preservation of the city's industrial cultural inheritance, including the large factory complex of Thomas B. Thrige, the use of such historical areas as Odense harbour and a pilot study of the history of immigration to Odense and assignments linked to the city district of Vollsmose.

Odense City Museums participates in the debate concerning the development of the city and the management of its assets. The collecting of items linked to the development of the city and the lives of its citizens is also an important part of its daily activities.

Postcard from Odense, 1852


Odense City Museums
Overgade 48
DK-5000 Odense C
Tel +45 6551 4601
CVR: 39156040
EAN: 5790002433825


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