Once home to Cistercian monks, Esrum Abbey in North Zealand, Denmark is today a museum, cultural and nature centre and home to a popular Medieval Fair.
Today all that remains of Esrum Kloster, or Abbey, is a single red brick building located in the peaceful surroundings of Esrum Lake near Helsingør in North Zealand. This austere building was once part of a thriving and powerful spiritual centre, one of the largest of its kind in Scandinavia and home to the Cistercian order of monks.
The History of Esrum Abbey
The Abbey at Esrum was founded in 1153 by Archbishop Eskil. The Archbishop is an important figure in Danish history who was renowned for his fierceness in battle even in his old age. In his capacity as the head of the church in Denmark, he often visited Europe, where he became very impressed with the Cistercian order of monks at Clairvaux. In 1153, he requested Bernard of Clairvaux to send monks to Esrum to start an order there. The Archibishop himself often stayed at the monastery, a place which was believed to have special significance for him.
The life of a monk at Esrum Abbey was one of harsh and unending routine, beginning at 2 o’clock in the morning with devotional prayers, which often lasted for several hours. This was followed by more praying and the confessing of sins, for which punishments of flogging and forced fasting were not uncommon. The Abbey was self sufficient so the monks were also busy labouring in the vegetable gardens and fields in order to provide their daily rations.
Over the years, the Abbey expanded and became wealthy, owning more than 300 farms and a large number of churches and mills at the time of the Reformation in 1536. The Abbey itself consisted of of large four-winged buildings and a massive 70 metre long church. The reformation in Denmark, unlike in many other European countries, was a bloodless affair and the king allowed the remaining monks to continue living at the Abbey until 1559 when it was closed down. Most of the buildings and the church were then demolished and the building materials used for Kronborg Castle and St Olai’s Church in Helsingør. The property was converted into a royal stud farm until 1716 and later the remaining building was transformed into a tax office.
For many years, the Abbey was used as storage for the National Museum. In 1992 the old water mill at the Abbey was restored allowing for cultural activities to begin taking place at this historic landmark.
Esrum Abbey Today
Today Esrum Abbey is a museum, cultural and nature centre that hosts many activities and events throughout the year. The meadows and lakes that surround the Abbey allow for lovely scenic walks and picnics. Horses, sheep and goats graze in the fields and there are courses available to learn about the local plants and wildlife. There are educational placards and play areas for children on the grounds.
Medicinal plants and herbs from the Middle Ages are still grown at the Abbey garden. The Abbey Shop sells food grown in the garden and made at the Abbey, such as honey, bread, oil and its own brand of beer.
Tours of the Abbey itself are available and the Abbey hosts different exhibitions throughout the year, as well as displays of artifacts and the story of life at the monastery. Food is available at Café Daniels and Brother Rus’s Basement, which specialises in Medieval-inspired cuisine.
One of the most popular activities at Esrum Abbey is the Riddermarked, or Knight’s Market, which takes place every year in June. During the festival, the grounds of the Abbey are transformed into a Medieval encampment, with displays of jousting, falconry, weaponry and Medieval music. Children are invited to take up the challenge of becoming a knight or lady. An Adventure Camp takes place during the summer where children can learn about nature and how to live and fight like their Medieval forebears.
In the autumn there is a harvest festival and in December the Abbey hosts a Christmas market. Other special events at the Abbey include author talks, lectures and theatre.
From its decline as a monastery and after its many years of neglect, Esrum Abbey has become an important cultural centre in North Zealand, offering entertainment, education and natural beauty to its visitors.
Information on Visiting Esrum Abbey
The Abbey is open during the summer season every day except Monday and in the winter from Thursday to Sunday from 11 am to 4 pm. Admission to the Abbey Musuem is 40 kroner for adults, 20 kroner for children and 100 kroner for a family ticket. The Abbey is located in the town of Esrum on Frederiksværksvej.
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