An iconic Bergen landmark boasts a rich history

Photo: Bergen Reiselivslag / Robin Strand / visitBergen.com
Håkonshallen and Rosenkrantztårnet stand majestically with their luminous reflections in the fjord.

Asker, Norway

Håkonshallen is a Gothic style medieval stone hall built as a royal residence and feast hall under the reign of King Håkon IV Håkonson (1204-1263) of Norway from 1217 to 1263. The life and rule of Håkon IV Håkonson are described in the Icelandic saga Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar. Håkonshallen is mentioned as the place where the monarch held court as part of the celebrations when his son Magnus Håkonsson Lagabøte (Magnus the Lawmender, 1238-1280) married Danish Princess Ingeborg in 1261.

Photo: Petr Šmerkl / Wikipedia
Håkonshallen as it appears today. It is a popular tourist attraction as well as a location for conference meetings and concerts.

There are no records of the building of the hall, but it is known to have been built as part of the Bergenhus Fortress, which dates from the 1240s. It is similar in many ways to 13th-century English buildings, suggesting that an English architect may have designed it, perhaps one attached to the court of King Henry III of England, with whom King Håkon IV Håkonson was on friendly terms. That friendship was attested in 1236 by a seal that King Henry III gave to King Håkon IV. Upon the death of King Eirik Magnusson in 1299, Bergen lost its royal castle status, but the other functions of Håkonshallen continued.

The first published description of Håkonshallen was a copperplate engraving made in 1581 by Hieronymus Scholeus, an enigmatic prospectus artist of unknown nationality. It appeared in the first of six volumes of Civitates orbis terrarum (Cities of the world), an opulent atlas published between 1572 and 1617 in Cologne, Germany. Thereafter, Håkonshallen deteriorated to being just a large building conveniently close to a quay for cargo transport by ship. Starting in 1683, it was used as a granary.

In 1768, prolific German-Norwegian architect Johan Joachim Reichborn (1715-1783) drew a detailed prospectus of the Bergenhus Fortress. In 1839, Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857) rediscovered the degraded Håkonshallen, and in 1841, initiated an incentive that led to the Norwegian government financing restoration that began in 1873 and finished in 1880-1895. In 1919-1931, Norwegian art historian Einar Lexow (1887-1948) served as a curator on the staff of Håkonshallen and left a legacy of compelling black-and-white photos, many of the interiors of its halls and rooms.

A catastrophic event in 1944 almost obliterated Håkonshallen. In Norway during World War II, the German occupation forces used the confiscated Dutch steam trawler, the Voorbode (translated as Harbinger) for military transport. On April 20, the Voorbode was sailing from Oslo to Kirkenes when it suffered mechanical problems that needed repairs in Bergen. The cargo of 150 tons of explosives normally would have banned it from docking at the city. But this was a wartime emergency, so the Voorbode was allowed to sail in and dock on April 20 at the quay below Håkonshallen.

At 8:39 a.m., the Voorbode exploded. The force of the explosion threw several ships on land, severely damaged Håkonshallen and other large buildings, flattened entire neighborhoods, killed 200 people, and wounded 5,000, mostly civilians. The Voorbode’s anchor was later found 1.86 miles away, up on a mountainside. The explosion occurred on Adolf Hitler’s 55th birthday, so it was initially suspected of being an act of sabotage. But analyses proved that it was because of the spontaneous combustion of its explosive cargo.

Photo: Helge Haug / Forsvarsbygg (“Norwegian Defense Estates Agency”)
A rendering of the layout of the complex of buildings surrounding Håkonshallen.

Along with Rosenkrantz Tower, a neighboring stone building in the Bergenhus Fortress named for Erik Rosenkrantz (1519-1575), the governor of the fortress from 1560 to 1568, Håkonshallen has been modified through the years. Today it has a base of 121.36 feet by 53.79 feet and has three floors. Its walls are made of local quarry stone, while its portal and window casings are made of soapstone. The builder is unknown, but at one place there is a stonemason’s mark that is also found in the stone of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. This suggests that the same master builder may have been involved at both sites.

Today, Håkonshallen is managed by Bymuseet i Bergen (Bergen City Museum), a foundation that operates seven museums in Bergen. Visit their website at www.bymuseet.no/en.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.