Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Church for the Princess


God speed.
Illustration from a painting by Edmund Blair  Leighton
Norsk versjon 

Once upon a time a Norwegian princess asked to have a church built in the old kingdom of Castile to honour St. Olav. Her wish has finally been granted.

Norway’s Princess Kristin Haakonsdatter, from Tunsberg, married Prince Felipe of Castile in the spring of 1258. She was 24; he was 27. They were wed in the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor in Valladolid “with as much honour and grace as was possible in that country – with God’s mercy and blessings from the King of Castile, and according to her own wishes,” the ancient saga of Haakon Haakonsson tells us.

The Princess’ first request to her Prince was to have a church built in honour of St. Olav, Norway’s patron saint.  The newlywed husband promised to grant her wish. But it would take centuries before Kristina’s wish would come true.


A new chapel dedicated to St. Olav was opened in the autumn of 2011 in the old town of Covarrubias where Princess Kristina lies buried. Covarrubias is near the city of Burgos in northern Spain. The builder of the chapel was the Princess Kristina Foundation, whose aim is to initiate co-operation and cultural exchange between Spain and Norway. A group of sponsors and public institutions funded the building of the new chapel which has become a venue for various cultural and religious activities.

View photos

“St. Olav’s Chapel is a place for religious ceremonies as well as cultural activities. We encourage activities which promote cultural exchange and co-operation between Norway and Spain, but everyone is welcome to visit the chapel,” says Øyvind Fossan, deputy chairman of the Princess Kristina Foundation.

“We intend to have the pilgrim path from Burgos to Covarrubias (approximately 60 km) signposted as the Camino of St. Olav in Spain. The walk from Burgos to Covarrubias will be a fascinating alternate route for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela,” Fossan adds.

King Haakon gives his daughter away in marriage
On Christmas Eve in 1257, Princess Kristina arrived in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas in Burgos, the old capital of the Kingdom of Castile. The princess – 23 years of age at the time – had travelled all the way from Norway to be married to a Castilian prince, one of the brothers of Alphons X, King of León and Castile. King Alphons’s envoys had approached Norway’s King Haakon Haakonson to support his candidacy to become emperor of the Roman-German Empire. The union between King Haakon’s daughter and the Castilian prince was meant to strengthen the bonds between the kingdoms of Norway and Castile.

King Alphons’s representatives had been in Norway the previous year to ask for King Haakon’s consent to let his daughter marry one of the king’s brothers. The Norwegian king consulted his closest advisers before deciding –on his daughter’s behalf– to accept the proposal from the King of Castile.

“The King promised to send his daughter, the Maiden Kristin, to Spain as the King of Spain had requested. She was allowed to make the journey on the condition that she could choose from among the king’s brothers the one she and the king’s best men liked the best,” writes Sturla Tordarson, the Icelandic saga-writer.

The Journey from Norway

Everything was prepared for the princess' journey. “There were more than a 100 men and many distinguished women in her entourage.  King Haakon gave his daughter a dowry with much gold and silver, white and silver fur and other valuables a  hitherto unheard of amount; no princess from Norway had ever received a more generous dowry," the saga tells us.

Early in the summer of 1257 AD Princess Kristina and her entourage sailed off from Tunsberg in southern Norway headed for Yarmouth on the east coast of England. The voyage continued to Normandy where the princess was received with a royal welcome from King Louis IX of France. He advised them not to pursue the dangerous sea route but to continue on foot and horseback through France. The French King provided them with credentials and recommendations so they would be treated with hospitality as royal guests on their journey through his country. And thanks to French hospitality, they safely reached the city of Narbonne in southern France.

After many a day’s walk on horseback and foot, they arrived in the Kingdom of Aragón in Northern Spain. Kristina was hailed and treated as a true princess wherever they went.

“The Princess enjoyed the journey, the more so the further south they got. When they reached the town of Gerona, and when the Count who ruled there heard of the Maiden’s arrival, he rode 50 miles to meet her, bringing with him the Bishop and 300 men. When they reached the outskirts of town, the Count took the Princess’s horse by the bridle and escorted her into the town, and he and the Bishop walked beside her all the way to her quarters. That’s how much honour they showed her wherever she went,” the saga of Haakon Haakonsson tells us.

When Princess Kristina arrived in Burgos on Christmas Eve 1257, she was welcomed by King Alphons’s sister Berenguela who was the abbess of the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. Kristina gave the monastery a golden chalice from her own bridal gifts as a memento of her visit.

“Such gestures spread word of her journey; and no one had heard of any maiden from abroad who had been so honourably received,” says the saga.

Kristina chooses her Prince

On the fourth day of Christmas 1257 Kristina left the Abbey of Las Huelgas and made her way to Palencia where she was received by King Alphons. He welcomed her warmly, and told her about his four brothers as he wanted to keep his promise that she could freely choose which of the brothers she would like to marry. The king told her that his younger brother Felipe was meant to be the Bishop of Seville, but he preferred hunting with dogs and falcons rather than becoming a man of the cloth. He was considered to be a good knight, and it was evident that Felipe was the king’s favourite of his brothers. The princess consulted her friends and reached her decision, she chose Felipe.

Kristina and Felipe were married on 31 March 1258 AD. The couple settled in Seville. We know little about the marriage, but it is said that she was homesick and longed for Norway. After four years in Castile, Kristina died an untimely death, just 28 years of age. She and her husband did not have any children. Her wish to have a church built in honour of St. Olav was not granted. Felipe decided to bury her in Covarrubias where he had been living for a long time.

The Sarcophagus in Covarrubias

Nearly 700 hundred years later, in 1952, a sarcophagus was opened by workmen who were restoring the Cloister Church of Covarrubias. The workers thought that the coffin was empty, but it turned out that it contained a partly mummified body. The opening of the coffin had not been authorized, and it was hastily closed again.

The parish priest in Covarrubias suspected that the sarcophagus might contain the earthly remains of the Norwegian Princess. He found a document from 1756 in the church archives which verified that Felipe buried his wife, the Princess Kristina, in Covarrubias.

The sarcophagus was opened again in 1958, this time by appointed experts with legal authorization. Their report from the examination states that the sarcophagus could be dated back to the 13th century. The contents of the coffin were described in detail:

“The finds consist of silken taffeta with golden ears of grain, the same type as was found in the coffin of Enrique I in the Las Huelgas Monastery and in the cape of Don Manuel of the same monastery. There are pieces of smooth garnet-coloured silken taffeta, similar to that of the lining in the cape of Don Fernando de la Cerda, and other pieces of smooth canvas, probably woven, are parts of the undergarments. Everything indicates that the textiles were made in the late 13th century.” [---]

“There is a partly mummified corpse with a length of 1.72 m. The cranium is small and the teeth are well preserved and without [traces of] caries.  There are mummified hands with fine short fingers, some with long and manicured nails. The toes are long and bony as are the lower legs and the shins and ankles. Everything indicates a skeleton of a woman of tall stature, young and strong, probably aged between 26 and 28 years of age.” (From the forensic report 1958)

When the results of the forensic examination were compared with the available data and archives on Princess Kristina, the conclusion was reached: The sarcophagus contained the earthly remains of the daughter of King Haakon Haakonsson of Norway.

In Memory of Kristina

In the spring of 1958 – 700 years after Kristina’s marriage to Felipe – an epitaph is unveiled on the wall by the sarcophagus. It has inscriptions in Norwegian and Spanish which read:

“Princess Kristina, daughter of Norway’s King Haakon Haakonsson. Born 1234. Married 31 March 1258 to Prince Felipe of Castile, Abbot of Seville. Died in Seville 1262.”

Centuries after her death she is remembered as “la flor del norte” – the flower of the North – a symbol of the friendship between Norway and Spain. Her wish for a church in honour of St. Olav on Spanish soil came true in 2011 when the Chapel of St. Olav, la Capilla de San Olav, was opened in Covarrubias. But that’s another story.
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Sources: Sturla Tordsson: The Saga of Haakon Haakonsson, Aschehoug 1964
E. Jenssen: Princess Kristina. Myths and realities, web version: Høyskolen i Vestfold, Tønsberg 2001
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