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A History of Odense

OdenseA history of Odense

Odense is mentioned for the first time in official documents in a letter from the German Kaiser Otto the 3rd from 988. By that time, the town was already the diocese of a bishop, but had probably also been the centre of the Odin Cult. Archaeological finds indicate that the original settlement was centred around the current site of the Town Hall. Around 980 and just south of the town was one of the circular forts from Viking times, called Nonnebakken.


St. Knud

On 10 July 1086, King Knud the 4th was slain in St. Albani Church and was canonised a few years later to become Saint Knud. His earthly remains can still be seen in the cathedral crypt. Specially-imported Benedictine monks from England founded St. Knud’s Monastery shortly afterwards, where the English monk, Aelnoth, wrote Denmark’s first literary work in 1100. St. Knud’s and several other later monasteries quickly cemented the town’s position as a religious and political centre, and in 1482 a German printer called Johan Snell printed the first two books in Denmark at the invitation of Odense’s clergy.


Powerful merchants

During the first 100 years after the Reformation, the town continued to build on its position as a trading centre for the surrounding districts. Merchants such as Oluf Bager exported live cattle from local farms and made huge fortunes that gave rise to some of the magnificent timber-framed quadrangle buildings – some of which were also built by local nobility who had their winter quarters in the town. The Swedish Wars in the mid-1600s and the resultant tax burden hit Odense hard, and despite state initiatives such as the ‘Tugt- og manufakturhuset’ (a manufacturing facility for the unemployed and social fringe groups) from 1752 and significant production and export of such items as gloves, the town never really recovered from economic stagnation until around 1800 when the population topped 6,000.


Development and industry

Odense became a port with the opening of its canal in 1803; the roads around the town were improved and from the 1840s the town really began to expand out of its old boundaries. For many years, Odense was second only to Copenhagen in Denmark. The town gates disappeared in 1851 and a few years later, the town spread south of the river. It was the first Danish town to get a modern water and gas works in 1853 and with the arrival of the railways in 1865, all the conditions were in place for rapid industrialisation. Iron and metals, textiles, food and beverages soon became central elements of the town’s commercial life and separate industrial and residential areas started to appear.


Town hall built

As was the case with many other Danish market towns, towards the end of the 1800s (1880-83) Odense built a new Town Hall, designed by architects J.D. Herholdt and C. Lendorf and partially inspired by the Town Hall of Siena in northern Italy. This was later extended to the east to the designs of architect B. Helweg Møller, an extension opened on the 150th birthday of the town’s favourite son, Hans Christian Andersen – the 2 April 1955.


The Town Hall was renovated between 2003-2005, ready for the celebrations of the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen to start – of course - on the same day, 2 April, 2005.


The council was dominated right up until 1937 by the Conservative party – not least because a large blue collar area that had grown up around the A.P. Møller shipyard was handily kept out of the city boundaries up until 1932. Ever since 1937, the mayor has been a Social Democrat, and during the German occupation of the Second World War, the general strike in Odense held in August 1943 was a major contributor to the collapse of the policy of collaboration with the Germans, on 29 August 1943.


At the inception of the 1900s, Odense had just under 40,000 residents and grew so fast that by 1950, there were 100.000. Over the next couple of decades, the population began to drift away from the centre. Large areas of suburban housing were inducted into Odense Kommune by the reorganisation of local and regional boundaries in 1970, and the service industry began to rise at the expense of heavy industry.



Odense has been a cultural centre since Medieval times and in 1772, its local newspaper (still published today), Fyens Stiftstidende, was published for the first time. Only a few years later, Odense became the first provincial town in Denmark to have its own theatre. Social and cultural life in what became known as "etatsrådernes by" (the State Councillors’ city) was subject to deep divisions, but the 20th century saw significant changes as class barriers came down. In 1966, Odense became a university city and home in 1988 to one of the major national TV network channels, TV2.