St. Clement’s Church
Where Olav Haraldsson became St. Olav
OBS: To help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the exhibition is closed until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience.
- Monday-Friday: 08.00 to 20.00
- Saturday: 11.00 to 18.00
- Sunday: Closed
The exhibition is permanent.
NOTE: The exhibition may be closed to other visitors during scheduled events and guided tours.
There is a charge for special events or tours of the exhibition. See Guided tour below.
The building is wheelchair accessible. There is a wheelchair lift down to the exhibition.
Worldwide archaeological news
In 2016, a new commercial building was planned to be built in the courtyard behind Søndre gate 9-11 in Trondheim. Because this was a central area in Kaupangen, the name for Trondheim city during the Middle Ages, the archaeological excavation attracted a great deal of attention.
Gradually, a number of stone fragments were uncovered which were interpreted as the remains of a church, or several phases of a church. Archaeologists also uncovered a number of other items, including the remains of a large stone altar, fragments from a baptismal font, a crucifix, parts of a well and several skeletons in an adjacent cemetery.
Carbon dating tells us that the church must have been erected around the year 1015, and that it is almost certainly Olav Haraldsson's St. Clement’s Church. This is the church where Olav Haraldsson became "Olav the Holy" when the saint's shrine was solemnly placed on the high altar on 5 August 1031. Now the location had finally been found!
St. Olav plays a special role in Norway’s history. He became "the eternal king of Norway" - rex perpetuus Norwegiaea in Latin.
There were national and international newspaper articles about the excavations of St. Clement’s Church, including a series in Adresseavisen. The Directorate for Cultural Heritage described the find as an archaeological sensation, and the most important discovery in Norway since the Second World War. The find was also ranked sixth overall on the International Heritage Daily’s "top-ten list” of archaeological discoveries in 2016.
The Viking-era buildings that were excavated under St. Clement’s Church give us new knowledge about Trondheim's origins. They indicate that the city is older than 997, which has traditionally been considered the year when Olav Tryggvason founded Trondheim.
About St. Clement’s Church
Towards the end of the Viking Age, a battle raged over who was to rule Norway. On one side were the descendants of King Harald Fairhair, including kings Olav Tryggvason and Olav Haraldsson. On the other side were the Danish king and his allies on Norwegian soil, including the Earls of Lade.
The power struggle culminated when Olav Haraldsson died at Stiklestad on 29 July 1030. Tradition tells us that Olav was first buried in the little market town on the banks of the Nidelva River, where Christ Church —today's Nidaros Cathedral — was later built.
But after a while, the coffin miraculously rose out of the earth. It was then moved and buried anew at St. Clement’s Church. Wonderous things continued to happen, and twelve months and five nights after the battle, on 3 August 1031, the coffin was opened. According to legend, it looked as if Olav was simply sleeping. His hair and nails had grown, and his body smelled sweet.
The men around the coffin, Bishop Grimkjell, Einar Tambarskjelve and several others, declared that Olav was now a holy man. Here at St. Clement’s Church, Olav Haraldsson became St. Olav. The coffin was then covered with costly fabric and placed over the high altar in the church. This is the very same altar that you can see today in the St. Clement’s Church exhibit.
St. Clement and the Christianization of Norway
There are good reasons why the church in the little market town on the Nidelva River was named after St. Clement, who was the pope in Rome around the year 90 AD. Clement was an avid missionary, but he came into conflict with the emperor in Rome. According to legend, he was banished to hard labour in the marble mines on the Crimean Peninsula, where he suffered a martyr’s death in 97 AD.
Clement was tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea, which is why he is the patron saint of mariners and marble workers.
In the 9th century, the Crimean Peninsula was controlled by the Kiev Empire and Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, who took St. Clement as his role model and fought to convert his people to Christianity.
Olav Tryggvason spent parts of his childhood in Kiev, and Olav Haraldsson stayed in Kiev after his flight from Norway in 1028. Thus, they were inspired by both Vladimir and Clement, which is probably why the first church in Trondheim was dedicated to St. Clement. The link to Rome, to St. Peter as the first pope and to Christ himself must have been obvious to both Olav Tryggvason and Olav Haraldsson.
The greatest watershed in Norway’s history
The proclamation in St. Clement’s Church that sanctified Olav came to be the biggest watershed in Norwegian history. From this time onward, people would embrace a belief in Jesus Christ, but the event also marked a major political shift: The nation of Norway now began to emerge. The year 1031 is thus central to Norway's history, along with the National Assembly at Eidsvoll and the adoption of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814.
These shifts in faith and politics are closely interwoven. Those who were behind the sanctification of Olav also had clear political motives: The Danish king's demands for supremacy in Norway were to be denied, and St. Olav became a crucial player in the struggle for power.
From 1031, the supporters of Harald Fairhair’s descendants and the emerging power of the church shared a common cause. They fought the Danish king Knut and his son Svein, who was king in Norway. Olav Haraldsson's son Magnus was brought home from exile in Kiev, and in 1035 was hailed as king, just 11 years old. From then on, the Kingdom of Norway was a reality. Olav Haraldsson lost at Stiklestad, but he won and was exalted as Norway's eternal king — Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae — when he was proclaimed a saint in 1031.
As a religious celebration, the day when St. Olav was laid on the altar in St. Clement’s Church is called the Translation Day (Translasjonsdagen), or Translatio Olavi in Latin. The common people called this day Vesle-Olsok (St Olav’s Day).
St. Clement’s Church over 350 years
The remains of dozens of churches and cemeteries from the Middle Ages have been found in Trondheim. So how can we be sure that this is St. Clement’s Church?
The answer lies first and foremost in the dating: The posts from the first version of St. Clement’s Church show that it was built after 1009. This coincides with the Icelandic Sagas’ stories that describe how Olav Haraldsson rebuilt Kaupangen, an earlier name for Trondheim, at the Nidelva River and built a king’s estate and church at this time, more specifically in 1016. Snorre says that the church was dedicated to St. Clement.
The archaeological material also shows that the church was reconstructed several times over many centuries, partly as a result of fire. Each time the church was rebuilt, it changed slightly in size, construction mode, and the like. A fire around the middle of the 14th century marked the end: The church was not rebuilt, but the altar remained and was sheltered by a protective shed, or perhaps a small chapel, over it.
The archaeological finds show that the church was destroyed several times over 350 years, but rebuilt time and time again. Each time, the people who rebuilt the church used elements from the preceding structure to maintain a connection to the first St. Clement’s Church that Olav Haraldsson had built. Archaeologists have distinguished five different construction phases:
Phase 1 - The 11th century church:
The oldest church was built of timber that was felled in the winter of 1008-09. The post that is exhibited with the baptismal font is the strongest proof for this, because tree ring analyses show that it was cut during that winter. Thus, the dating can be linked to Olav Haraldsson's extensive building activity at Nidarnes in 1016. The posts in this church were buried directly in the ground, which is why it is called a pole church.
Phase 2 - The 12th century church:
This is a stave church with the same shape as the first church. The exhibit shows its foundation walls. This church was only shifted one-and-a-half metres to the south of its predecessor. The altar is the same: St. Olav’s first resting place was taken down and rebuilt when this church was built, probably in the early 12th century. The staves were now placed on the foundation walls, which meant they were not as exposed to rot as the poles in the first church must have been. This church was probably destroyed in a fire that hit the city in 1219.
Phase 3 - The 13th century church:
The dating of the timber in this stave church shows that the trees were felled in 1220-21. St. Clement’s Church was thus rebuilt immediately after the fire in 1219. This time, the sill beams were placed on a system of posts that had been dug into the ground. Major additions have now been made to the altar.
Phase 4 - The 14th century church:
The date for the construction of this stave church is uncertain, but it was likely built in the late 13th century or early 14th century. Little is preserved from this phase, but we see that the church was exceptionally large. The altar has not been changed this time, but the chancel was considerably extended in length. The church was destroyed in a fire, presumably the one that ravaged the city in 1344. Soon after, the Black Death decimated the entire community, which may be one reason why the Church of St. Clement was not rebuilt.
The stone altar remained, even though St. Clement’s Church was destroyed by fire. This was not just any altar — it was St. Olav’s first resting place and had to be treated with reverence. This is probably the reason why a small shed or chapel — or as we would call it today, a protective structure— was built over the altar. The sill beams were placed over a system of posts buried in the earth. It is uncertain how long this structure remained, but we know that the area was used as a cemetery for a long time after the church itself had disappeared.
Finds from the Viking Age
Archaeologists found traces of buildings from the Viking Age underneath St. Clement’s Church. This confirms that the area must have been developed from the middle of the 10th century. The houses lay with the short sides out towards Skipakrok, which is the old name of the bay that bowed in from the river where Kongens gate is today.
The plots were marked with ditches and border posts, and there were courtyards between the houses. Archaeologists uncovered a carved log house with finely worked wood floors and wall-mounted benches. They found a total of three different construction phases spanning 50-60 years. All three phases showed traces of activities related to permanent settlements, metal crafts and trade. There were also barns here, and discoveries of insects and plant remains show that there were pigs and chickens in the barn.
Sometime between 1009 and 1016, the buildings were demolished to accommodate the church that would be built. The area was systematically cleared before St. Clement’s Church was built, possibly by order of someone in authority. Border posts and ditches may indicate that there was also some kind of governing body when the settlement was established in the mid-900s.
Objects from the houses testify to the life that was lived
The shape and construction of the houses aren’t the only clues to interpreting what the settlement under St. Clement’s Church represents. The objects found in and around the houses tell us a lot about the people who lived and worked here.
Archaeologists have found loom weights, spindle whorls, and traces of both feed and animals. It doesn’t take much to envision a permanent settlement here of men, women and livestock.
Other finds tell of specialized craftsmen who produced small objects, perhaps jewellery or other luxury items. Crucibles for smelting, metal bars, alloys and a possible set of crucible tongs also support this idea. Scale weights, scales and cut silver coins indicate trade and sales.
One find deserves special mention. On a small piece of flat metal, someone attempted to make a copy of a coin by scratching a pattern onto both sides of the piece. It appears to be an attempt to copy an Æthelred penny, which was minted in England from 978 to 1016.
Finds from the church and cemetery
The archaeologists found many objects that must have had significance for the people who were associated with St. Clement’s Church. But it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what the significance was.
One unique discovery is a small flattened lead strip that had been carved with runes. It is only possible to decipher parts of the inscription, which contains two names: Michael and Esaias. How should we interpret this find? The lead strip had been hidden under the church floor, along with a collection of animal bones. Was it an offering after a folk tradition? Were the runes a spell, perhaps, a blend of superstition and Christian faith?
Dice found in the church indicate that the church services were long and that someone needed help passing the time. Some findings are curious: In the altar of the 12th century church, the archaeologists found the skeletons of 25 small mice. What could this mean?
Small beads in some of the graves show that the custom of giving gifts to the dead had not been completely abandoned, even though it was seen as pagan. Needles found in some of the graves tell us that people who were not buried in coffins were at least wrapped in fabric.