William of Æbelholt
The monastery was first established on Eskilsø Island in Roskilde Fjord in 1104. While no remains of the wooden abbey have survived, the stone abbey church there still remains, though in ruins. It was 24 meters long and had a nave, choir, and apse in the Romanesque style. The monks became "unruly" and Bishop Absalon of Roskilde, determined to obtain a new Augustinian superior, sent for his friend, William, abbot of the abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. When William arrived in 1165 with three French canons there were only six religious left at Eskilsø, two of whom were dismissed when they refused to submit to the new rule.
In 1167 the abbey moved to Æbelholt in Tjæreby, supported by a donation of land from Absalon in Tjæreby Parish and endowed with several income-producing farms, tithes from many north Zealand churches, and several mills. The monastery on Eskilsø was closed. The first church and abbey at Æbelholt were made of timber. Construction began almost immediately on a new abbey church of limestone which was completed in 1210.
Abbot William experienced considerable initial difficulties. The three French canons returned to Paris, finding conditions in Denmark too bleak. A few of the Danish canons plotted to murder him when he ordered that they eat "herbs and leaves" instead of their usual meals. The "Life of St. William" notes some of the ways in which they considered killing him, either by setting fire to a pile of straw near his bed in the dormitory, putting him in a sack and drowning him, or taking an axe to him. Eventually William's piety, fairness, wisdom, and intelligence won them and the local populace over. He was considered a saint in his own lifetime. He was highly regarded by several kings of Denmark and served as an intermediary between the pope and the Danish monarchy.
Abbot William died on 5 April 1203 at the age of 75. Miracles at his grave and in connection with his relics brought pilgrims in great numbers, and the abbey developed into the greatest Augustinian house in the north. By 1210 the list of miracles and signs recorded was so great that the Archbishop of Lund, Anders Sunesen, petitioned Pope Honorius III for his canonization. In 1219 the pope authorized several bishops to investigate the claims with an eye to making William a saint. The result was a book The Life of Abbot William which was submitted for the pope's consideration.
William was canonised in 1224. On 16 June 1238 with great ceremony William's body was translated to lie inside the high altar in the new abbey church. A small separate chapel was constructed over the his previous grave, so pilgrims could visit without disturbing the monks. In time relics of Saint William were given to Roskilde Cathedral, Lund Cathedral, the Church of Our Lady (Vor Frue Kirke) and Greyfriars Church in Copenhagen, and Greyfriars Church in Roskilde.
By 1230, the monastery housed 25 canons regular, but fed about 100 persons daily. This wide hospitality was funded, as were the abbey's other expenditures, by the revenues of its estates, situated locally and also in Copenhagen and in Halland, and from the dues from the nearby market. Augustinians were interested in farming and improving crops. They hired lay brothers to do the farm work and oversee the temporal affairs of the abbey.
The abbey complex consisted of a quadrangular set of buildings with the church as the north range, round a central cloister and cloister garth. The buildings were constructed of brick, the most common building material at the time. One of the most unusual parts of the abbey was the lavatory which had running water from a ditch, on which it is possible a mill also stood.
The church was expanded before 1324 with a longer nave, a crossing, and choir with an apse. Several side chapels were added dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint George. The high altar was dedicated to Saint Thomas.
Reformation in Denmark
After the Reformation in 1535 all religious houses and their income properties reverted to the crown. The abbey church was converted to the large parish church for Tjæreby and Alsønderup Parishes, while the conventual and service buildings were granted as a fief to Christoffer Trundsen in 1544, with the provision that he should maintain the last remaining canons under Abbot Anders Ibsen. The abbey was formally dissolved in 1560; Abbot Ibsen was sent to the Carmelite priory in Helsingør where he died a year later.
In 1555 the parishioners complained that the abbey church was too big to maintain, and the royal order to demolish the entire abbey complex was given in 1561. The parish churches at Tjæreby and Alsønderup were spared. Much of the stone and brick was reused to construct the nearby Frederiksborg Castle and in local farms.
Recent history and present day
The site was excavated in the 1930s and 1950s, and the finds are now displayed in the Æbelholt Abbey Museum (Æbelholt Klostermuseum). The outlines of the abbey church and complex have been exposed, as have the pillars from the refectory. Some of the many skeletons discovered during the excavations are on display and provide much information on historical illnesses and medical treatments.
A monastic garden was made here in 1957 as a reconstruction of the famous garden at the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland. The garden contains over a hundred medicinal plants known to have grown in such gardens in Denmark in the Middle Ages.
The Folk Museum in Hillerød has published a little volume entitled Æbelholt Klosterhave af Kirsten Baunegaard describing the herbs and medicinal plants in the garden.
Æbelholt Abbey Market
Almost from the time the abbey was established here a market has been held alongside, initially beginning on 16 June, the feast day of the abbey's founder, Saint William. Formerly the market lasted for 14 days.
The market is now under the auspices of the Folk Museum in Hillerød, who have arranged it every year from 1998; it now lasts for a weekend.
- Garner, H.N., 1968: Atlas over danske klostre (Danish)
- Kirkeleksikon for Norden, Jydsk Forlags-forretning og Hagerups Forlag, 1900-1929 (Danish)
- Æbelholt Klostermuseum (Danish)
- Forest and Nature round Æbelholt Abbey (Danish)
- www.oresundstid.dk: Æbelholt Kloster (Danish)