A visit to St Edmund’s Abbey, Hovedøya

Hovedøya: the chapterhouse

This afternoon I visited the ruined Cistercian Abbey of St Edmund on the Norwegian island of Hovedøya, located in the Oslo fjord just opposite the Norwegian capital. Hovedøya was founded by English Cistercians from Kirkstead Abbey in Lincolnshire on 18 May 1147, and grew to become Norway’s wealthiest monastery; it is also the country’s best-preserved monastic ruin. I have wanted to visit Hovedøya for a long time, since in addition to the eponymous St Edmunds Abbey in Suffolk and Athassel Priory in Ireland, Hovedøya is the only medieval monastery dedicated to St Edmund, King and Martyr.

Hovedøya: the abbey viewed from the southeast

Cistercian abbeys were traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary – as was Hovedøya, but the dedication to St Edmund was inherited from a pre-existing church that was incorporated into the new monastery (presumably the east end of the current ruins). Norway has a few medieval churches dedicated to St Edmund, the legacy of a particular Norse connection with a saint whom Norsemen themselves had made. Hovedøya long retained its close connection with the English Cistercians, and the abbots were all Englishmen until 1249.

Hovedøya: view from the tower looking eastwards over the body of the abbey church

Hovedøya was burnt down in 1532, a few years before the dissolution of the monasteries, which may have helped to preserve it – the site was already a ruin, so had little appeal for redevelopment as a manor. The abbey has a compact monastic plan centred on a cloister, with a monastic prison, calefactory, refectory, laybrothers’ refectory, library and chapter house all centred on the cloister. Part of a tower survives in the northwest corner of the church which can be ascended by a spiral staircase. 

Hovedøya: doorway from the cloister into the south transept

The highest surviving parts of the church are at the crossing; possible fragments of altar stones survive in the presbytery, but there is virtually no decorated stonework surviving apart from one doorway linking the cloister to the south transept. A few cavities for piscinas and aumbries survive as well. Hovedøya’s level of preservation is more limited than Athassel’s, but the size of the monastic church and claustral complex is comparable even if Hovedøya has none of Athassel’s vast monastic precinct – presumably no precinct wall was required since the monastery was on a small island.

Hovedøya: spiral staircase inside the tower

Hovedøya is a fascinating reminder of Norwegian Christianity’s close links with England, and with the former Danelaw in particular – as well as its Cistercian monastic heritage (and indeed present, as Norway’s current Catholic bishop is a Cistercian monk from an English abbey).

Hovedøya: the abbey viewed from the southwest

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