Having been founded by Vikings in the late 9th century CE, this city has long overshot its small size to play an important role in Norwegian history throughout the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE).
What other city can boast a castle, a fortress, a Viking ship, and one of Norway's most charming city centers?
A city of the Vikings, for the Vikings (founded), and by the Vikings
Not many cities in the world can lay claim to being founded by Vikings. Even few were founded after a seminal battle that helped the first instance of the binding and forging of a nation.
However, these are the historical credentials that the city of Tønsberg can lay claim to. This charming city, about 60 miles / 100 kilometers southwest of Oslo, lies at the confluence of the Oslo Fjord and the Skagerrak.
This sheltered strategic position saw it gain importance as the Vikings expanded westward, towards the British Isles and beyond, and eastward, to the Baltic Sea and the many river systems of Eastern Europe and Russia.
By the late 8th century CE, peoples from Viking societies had left their Scandinavian "homeland" and soon began a series of raids whilst also conducting business.
This raiding and trading – of which, sadly, thanks to later medieval propaganda (*shakes first at a plethora of literate monks with a battle-axe to grind against Vikings*) the raiding aspects has been sensationalized – soon saw small coastal communities, especially in Norway, develop into larger entrepots of trade, resources, and people.
Founded before the Battle of Hafrsfjord?
Like so much of our Viking knowledge, we owe a debt of gratitude to the 13th-century CE Icelandic man of letters, Snorri Sturluson, who wrote about the foundation of Tønsberg.
According to Sturluson, the foundation of the city dates to before the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 871 CE.
However, before we doff our Viking helmets to the great man, he was, after all, writing more than four centuries after the "supposed" founding of the city.
What's more, he often worked with secondhand sources, which, even for the medieval period, were notoriously unreliable.
Nonetheless, the obvious strategic position of founding a town where Tønsberg is, with high hills looking over a safe harbor, would have made it irresistible for the Viking-era Tønsbergers.
Much like Sturluson's historical accuracy, there has been a multitude of speculation, postulation, and just downright disagreement about who the medieval scholars dubbed as Norway's "First King," Harald Fairhair.
Over the past four decades, there has been a whole series of revisionist histories which call into question whether Fairhair existed at all.
However, for argument's sake and to save old Snorri a few blushes, let's take the assumption that he did. This is the exact assumption that scholars and academics took up until the late 1970s CE, and many today still do.
The traditional foundation of Tønsberg is dated to the late 9th century CE. Pictured is the city today. Photo: A.Film / Shutterstock
Snorri states that by 871 CE, Harald Fairhair, who had been born a minor royal in Vestfold, was almost complete with a Norwegian power grab.
He had but two petty Kings (Eirik of Hordaland and - the obviously very wealthy but slightly braggadocios - Kjotve the Rich) to defeat and two petty kingdoms (Hordaland and Agder – which are still the names of two Norwegian counties – fylker– today).
A great naval battle took place, off the coast of Tønsberg, with Fairhair's force coming out on top, and finally (blow those trumpets, please), Norway was, for the first time, united under a single crown.
It should be noted that not everyone was happy with Fairhair's unification of Norway.
Some of the sore losers and malcontents, unhappy with Fairhair's grab for power and supposed high taxation policies, left Norway to seek greener pastures, sailing westward for Iceland.
So then, around the late 9th century CE, we not only have the traditional foundation of Tønsberg, but we have the traditional foundation of Iceland by a bunch of Viking tax exiles.
I wonder what they would think of the tax rate in Norway nowadays...?
A seat of royal power
Following its foundation, the strategic situation of Tøsnberg soon saw it become a seat of royal power.
The sagas make mention of two different mansions called Sæmheimr; both are said to be just a short distance from the center of Tønsberg.
Academics and archaeologists have pointed to what is today the grounds of Jarlsberg Manor as the probable site of this center of early Norwegian power. It was from here that the Haugating (a sort of proto-parliament) for the entire Vestfold was assembled.
This was not only a source of political power but became, after Avaldsnes, the second most important focal point of royal power in this stage of Norwegian history.
Viking kings were proclaimed here and rubbed shoulders or barked orders to political elites and local rulers. In fact, it was not only Viking kings who were proclaimed here.
Just after the end of the so-called "Viking Age," later in the early 12th century CE, four pretenders to the Norwegian throne had the honor of being proclaimed at the Haugating.
Another reason for Tønsberg's position of power was the famous Slottsfjell (Castle Mountain).
An almost impenetrable natural fortress perched high on the hill was the ideal location for a royal seat of power and to protect one of the most important harbors in the Viking Age.
On the hilltop, in the later 12th century, a medieval fortress was built that would stand guarding, high on the hilltop, overlooking the town for more than three centuries.
This Oseberg longship was uncovered along with the remains of two females and numerous grave goods. Photo: Museum of Cultural History / University of Oslo
The Oseberg ship
Naval battles, Viking kings, proto-parliaments, and hilltop fortresses all sound very cool, but we must now travel to the early 20th century CE for what has been billed as Norway's archaeological "find of the century": the Oseberg ship.
A Swedish and Norwegian archaeological team began digging around what was then called the "Oseberg mound" on a farm close to Tønsberg.
Whilst these archaeologists were hoping to find some trinkets or possibly a broken sword or two, they soon hit the figurative jackpot: they unearthed the best-preserved Viking ship yet discovered.
This beautiful 21.5 meter / 70.8-foot clinker-built longship was uncovered along with the remains of two females (believed to be of high status) and a cornucopia of grave goods, including sleighs, bedposts, and a cart.
One object uncovered, however, captured the public's imagination more than any other: that of the mysterious "Buddha Barrel." This was a bucket, buckled together with a brass figure that has been likened to depictions of the Buddha sitting in a "lotus" position.
Some have claimed this represents an East Asian link to the Viking world, but there is currently a serious skeptical debate about this.
The Vikings did indeed establish trade networks that touched the East Asian world (namely through the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world), but it is not conclusively proven if they had any contact with societies where Buddhism was prevalent.
Most likely, this barrel was traded via several differing societies, civilizations, and networks to end up in Tønsberg.
Tragically for the town of Tønsberg - whose seal features a longship when it was granted a coat of arms along with city status in 1838 CE, the Oseberg ship now takes pride of place at the cultural institutions of the nation's capital city, and civic rival, Oslo.
To live like a Viking for a day... or three
For those wanting a slice of medieval life in the flesh, Tønsberg should be your #1 travel destination in the summer.
Every year the fortress on the hilltop, the famous Slotsfjell, hosts the world-famous "Tønsberg Medieval Festival" in early June.
The 3-day festival features a variety of theatre, music, and tournaments as well as over 200 artists and some 150 volunteers partying like it is 1099 from the crack of dawn until the crack of dawn.
And yes, we at The Viking Herald will heartily endorse and encourage all those wanting to dress up as the medieval period's best, bravest, and most badass warriors: The Vikings!
Aside from its natural charm, gorgeous landscape, and buzzing cultural scene, Tønsberg is a city where you can experience firsthand the majesty of an illustrious Viking past awash everywhere.
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