Reykjavík church

A church is known to have stood at Reykjavík since before 1200. The oldest cartulary of Reykjavík Church (known as Vík Church) dates from 1379. It states that the church was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. Vík (Reykjavík) was a manor owned by descendants of Iceland’s first settler, Ingólfur Arnarson. His great-grandson, Þormóður, was the High Priest of the Old Norse religion at the time when Iceland adopted Christianity around 1000 ad. After the change of religion, farmers and chieftains started to build churches on their estates, as they were promised that they would be allocated as many places for souls in heaven as could be accommodated in their churches. So there may have been a church at Reykjavík as early as the 11th century. In 1724 the farmer of Vík had a turf church built, with earth walls. Half a century later the earth walls were replaced by wooden walls, and a tower was built at the front of the church. In 1785 the episcopate at Skálholt was abolished after severe earthquake damage, and the bishop moved to Reykjavík, where the old church served as a cathedral. It was not regarded as good enough for the purpose, and in 1796 it was replaced by the present Reykjavík Cathedral. The old church was demolished and the site levelled. All the churches of Vík are believed to have stood on the same site in the churchyard. In the paving in the middle of the old churchyard is a plaque indicating the probable site of the church.

Reykjavík around 1770 (Painting: Jón Helgason)

Reykjavík Churchyard

The old churchyard on Aðalstræti, Vík churchyard, is believed to have been in use for about 800 years, or from shortly after the adoption of Christianity around 1000 ad until the 19th century. People were buried both in the churchyard and inside the church. The original size of the churchyard is estimated at 1500 m2. The churchyard was formally closed in 1838 when the Hólavellir churchyard was established, but occasional burials continued. It is impossible to tell how many people were buried in Vík churchyard over the centuries, but the earthly remains of about thirty generations of Reykjavík people probably lie here. Vík churchyard is a listed heritage site, which is the highest level of protection granted in Iceland to heritage sites.

Reykjavík 1786 (Map: Aage Nielsen-Edwin)

Historical markers in Reykjavík
In recent years the City of Reykjavík has been installing historical markers around the city. Such markers at historic sites and areas within Reykjavík enrich the experience of both residents and visitors, and provide information on the city‘s culture and history.  The markers display information about history, art, literature and social life relating to the site in question, accompanied by pictures.

Text and photos: Reykjavík City Museum
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