The Danish church was during the middle ages organised into bishoprics, led by a bishop. Under the formal leadership of the archbishop, the Danish bishops played a very important role during the middle ages. They were at once church leaders, squires and politicians, and possessed a certain amount of independence from the Crown. This independence was due to their status as papal officials and their roles as managers of the jurisdictional system of the Catholic Church based on canon law. After the Reformation, the bishops lost most of their political influence.

The middle ages

Danish bishops are spoken of as early as 948. Just as the bishops mentioned the next 100 years, these must be considered missionary bishops; bishops, who led the mission in the Danish area, without there being clearly defined borders between the areas wherein they worked, just as the placement of Episcopal residences varied over time.  The bishoprics were not organised into set areas until around 1060 under the formal leadership of the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, while King Svend Estridsen was the de facto leader of this reform. There were originally nine bishoprics, since Scania housed two. This arrangement soon ceased to be, however, when Lund became the bishop’s seat for Scania, Halland, Blekinge and Bornholm. Zealand, Møn and from 1168 onward Rügen, were under the bishop of Roskilde. Funen, Lolland, Falster and Fehmarn were under the bishop of Odense. The bishop of Schleswig managed the church authority in most of Schleswig also called Southern Jutland, while the bishop of Ribe managed the northwestern part of Schleswig as well as Western Jutland up to the Limfjord.  The bishop of Aarhus managed Eastern Jutland, while the bishop of Viborg handled Central Jutland. North of the Limfjord, the bishop’s seat was situated at the monastery of Børglum.

The bishop’s job was to initiate and supervise priests, other clergymen and monasteries. Some monasteries, however, were exempt from his authority. Apart from that, he also inaugurated new or rebuilt churches, altars and objects that were part of the church services, as well as confirm the population in the diocese. He also was in charge of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the area based on the church’s own international system of law, called Canon Law. From the bishop’s court of law, it was possible to make an appeal to the archbishop’s and from there to the pope. In order to aid him with the extensive administration, the bishop was given a chapter of cannons, as well as assorted officials.

Segl fra Roskilde Domkapitel
Signet from the chapter of cannon of Roskilde ca.1130. From Danmarks Riges
Historie (1896-1907).


From 1170-71 onward, the bishops of Lund and Roskilde were given one third of the tithes for maintenance purposes. This arrangement was extended to the Schleswig bishopric in 1188, while the bishops of Jutland and Funen had to settle for less until shortly before the Reformation. Furthermore, the bishops also collected taxes from the priests. However, the most important source of income for the bishops was the estates that gradually came to belong to the bishoprics. The archbishopric was the richest of these, but the bishop of Roskilde owned no fewer than 2500 farms, while the bishop of Viborg had to make do with around 600. In addition to all of this, they were granted special rights by the king, such as the right to mint coins, control of certain cities, and so on.

At first, the bishops were in reality appointed by the king. After 1122, the rule was that the chapters would appoint the bishops, although the king still had a lot of influence on the process. However, in the second half of the 1200s and in the beginning of the 1300s, the kings struggled to exercise their influence on the appointments. Because of this, several conflicts broke out between archbishops and the Crown, while the less powerful Jutlandic bishops always supported the king. After the popes had moved to Avignon in 1307, they gradually seized the right to appoint bishops and other high-ranking clergymen in return for a significant fee paid by the appointee.

In the days of Valdemar IV (1340-1375), it eventually became customary for the pope to elect candidates nominated by the king. This system collapsed, however, when the church councils gradually seized power over the Catholic Church in the first third of the 1400s. Once the popes were back in power around the middle of the 1400s, they usually stuck to the king’s nominations, until in 1526 it was decided that Danish bishops would no longer be appointed by the Pope.

The bishops – with their considerable economic foundation and power over the church and the population – were a significant power in society. This was reflected by the fact that the bishops residing in the kingdom were ex officio members of the Council of the Realm from the time when the council became a significant power under Valdemar IV. When the Council, after the deposition of Erik of Pomerania in 1439, became the bearer of Danish sovereignty by electing the kings from then on, the bishops increasingly became leading politicians and administrators of the country.

After the Reformation

Following the Reformation in 1536, the bishops were removed from office and their goods confiscated by the Crown, after which the king became the formal and real head of church. This was symbolically expressed by the fact that the new Lutheran bishops were called superintendents. However, it was not long before the old appellation displaced the new one. After the Reformation, the bishops’ areas of governing were known as dioceses rather than a bishopric, which is the word commonly used for the areas governed by the far more powerful medieval bishops. The royally employed bishops continued to supervise the priests as well as the school system and poor law authorities (the latter until 1933) and inspect and install the priests, as well as lead the church’s courts of justice, just as they advised – and still advice – the government in all church affairs. The archbishop’s office was abolished, but in certain matters, the bishop of Copenhagen was considered the leading figure in the Danish church.

Also in connection with the Reformation, the Zealand bishopric was moved from Roskilde to Copenhagen, and the bishopric of Vendsyssel was moved from Børglum to Aalborg. After the definitive cession of Scania, Halland and Blekinge in 1660, Bornholm came to be under the bishop of Copenhagen, just as happened to Greenland and the Faroe Islands when these got regular church organisations. In 1803, Lolland-Falster was separated from Odense diocese and became an independent diocese with its seat located in Maribo. After the reunification with Southern Jutland/Northern Schleswig in 1920, Haderslev became the bishopric for this area, and in 1922, Roskilde once again became a bishopric when the diocese of Copenhagen was divided. In 1960, the diocese of Copenhagen was again divided as a new diocese with its seat at Elsinore was created.

Om artiklen

Anders Bøgh
1060 -
Sidst redigeret
20. juni 2011

Dansk Kulturhistorisk Opslagsværk I-II (1991)

Kulturhistorisk Leksikon for Nordisk Middelalder (1956-78)