The small Church of Christ and the large Church of Christ were central in the church centre which developed on Holmen during the Middle Ages. The churches were located north of Håkon’s Hall, but there are no remains of them today. These churches were churches for kings and queens – coronations and interments were held here.
The construction of the churches started during the reign of King Olav Kyrre (1066-93). The small Church of Christ was very likely built of wood and was finished after a short building period. The large Church of Christ was a monumental stone construction, and was not finished until after the reign of King Olav Kyrre. The small church was probably intended as a temporary church for the bishop, awaiting the completion of the large church.
Most likely the small Church of Christ was a wooden church, but according to some sources it may have been reconstructed in stone some time later. It is certain that the large Church of Christ was built of stone. Usually foreign expert masons were assigned to build these monumental churches and it is confirmed that the large church, in the early building period, was built by English craftsmen. In a later period the building style may have been influenced by the Cathedral in Lund in Sweden. Craftsmen from Lund worked on several churches in Bergen from around 1130 to 1170. The large Church of Christ may have been decorated with sculptures on pillars and arches in a building style that became modern at the time.
It was the canons of the Cathedral Chapter who were in charge of the clerical services at the Church of Christ. At the time canons were inscribed on the lists of those who served particular churches for which they were ordained. The canons held great power and were very influential when new bishops were elected, and would run the church in the absence of a bishop. The canons also had great influence at the elections of abbots and abbesses at the convents. In a period when the church was equally influential as the king, the canons’ powers were significant.
King Magnus Erlingson was crowned in the large Church of Christ in 1163/64. King Sverre was crowned here in 1194, and King Håkon Håkonsson in 1247. King Magnus the Lawmender and Queen Ingeborg were crowned in 1261, King Eirik Magnusson in 1280 and his Queen Margareta Alexandersdatter was crowned after their wedding in 1281. Queen Margareta, who was Scottish, was buried in the Church of Christ in 1283, a mere two years after her wedding and coronation. Her daughter, named after the mother, died on a passage to Scotland in 1290, on her way to receive the Scottish Crown. She was taken back to Norway and was buried with her mother. Young Margareta became a myth in Bergen; read more about her under St Margareta’s Church.
It has been said that the remains of Bergen’s patron saint, St Sunniva, was kept in the large Church of Christ. According to the legend, Sunniva was an Irish king’s daughter. Her father died around 960, leaving the country to his daughter. Sunniva’s beauty and her strong faith were known wide and far. A Viking king heard rumours about Sunniva and set out to seize the country and to wed the young queen. To avoid becoming the heathen’s wife, Sunniva chose to flee the country, and she set off with three ships. The legend about Sunniva says that the ships ended up floating outside the coast of Norway without sails or oars. Sunniva and her people stranded on the desert island of Selja in the county Sogn og Fjordane. On this island they lived in caves. The locals on the mainland were very suspicious towards the shipwrecked strangers. They claimed that Sunniva and her people were eating their grazing animals on the island. When Earl Håkon was informed about the conflict he set out with many men to kill the strangers. Sunniva and her followers hid in a cave when Håkon’s ships were spotted on the fiord. They prayed for a godsent miracle to save them from the earl. Then the cave crashed down, burying Sunniva and her people alive. Earl Håkon found no one on the island.
Later passers-by discovered a curious light phenomenon over Selja. On examination it turned out that the light came from a skull which even gave a perfumed scent. The cave with the bodies was excavated, and Sunniva’s body was found unharmed. In 996 her remains were put in a shrine which was kept on Selja. Sunniva was regarded as a holy woman after this, and became the guardian saint of Western Norway.
Around 1100 a monastery was founded on the island and Selja became a diocese. The diocese was relocated to Bergen when St Sunniva’s shrine was moved to the Church of Christ in 1170. Allegedly, the shrine remained there until 1531, when the church together with a number of other buildings were demolished as part of King Fredrik’s defence strategy. He feared that the exiled King Christian would make an attempt to seize Norway. Both Bishop Olav Torkildsson and Governor of Bergen Eske Bille, were loyal to the king on this matter, and called on farmers from Bergen and the surrounding areas to come and tear down the Church of Christ.