Converting the Heathens


Denmark’s particular difficulty in the 11th century was not fragmentation but a succession of kings so ineffectual (e.g. “Harald the Hen”) that several were simply taken out to sea and drowned.

In Sweden, the throne bobbed between two dynasties who routinely murdered the opposing incumbent. Next to these goings-on, the princes of the new power in the land, the Church, looked purposeful.

As comfortable in the saddle as the pulpit,  Bishop Absalon of Roskilde (1128-1201) personally sorted out “the heathen Wend”, a tribe of defiant Baltic pagans whose headquarters were of red-and-white banner in the heavens. It became Denmark’s national flag, the oldest national flag in the world and a source of pride among Danes. It must never touch the ground and only a pennant version may be flown at night. (Same rules apply to the Norwegian and Swedish national flags).

Absalon was a highly influential personality in medieval Denmark and a key figure in the development of the country after years of civil war. Portrayed on top as warrior on his rearing horse on Højbro Square in Copenhagen.


Absalon was born in 1128 as son of the wealthy landowner, Asser Rig, and his wife, Inge. His childhood home is a farm in Fjenneslev on Zealand Island. The farm is gone, but a memorial  for the bishop converting the heathens marks the place, where it was.

In 1192, Absalon resigns at the age of 64. He lives his last years in Scania, where he was Arch Bishop of Lund since 1177. Absalon dies during Easter in 1201 and is buried in Sorø Monastery Church.