The city of Bergen was founded in 1070 AD by Olav Kyrre, king of Norway. He was the son of King Harald Hardrada who died in the famous battle of Stamford Bridge, Great Britain, in 1066. Olav Kyrre was 10th in line of Norwegian kings, and his reign was at a very peaceful time. His nickname Kyrre indeed means peaceful. Population growth, a flourishing trade and increasing papal interest in Norway contributed to the founding of the city.
Bergen, originally called Bjorgvin, started as a small settlement at the east and south shores of Vaagen, a small inlet from the Byfjord (City fjord). Later it spread to the west shore and to areas further south. Bergen is the geographical centre of western Norway. It has an excellent ice-free harbour sheltered from the North Sea by a chain of islands. It is surrounded by mountains and is called ‘The city between the seven mountains’.
The thirteenth century was an important period in the history of Bergen. King Haakon Haakonsson made Bergen the capital of Norway and its dependencies Iceland, Greenland and many of the Scottish islands, in 1217. It replaced Trondheim, the first capital, and was itself replaced by Oslo in 1299. King Haakons son, Magnus the lawmaker, modernized the laws of the country. Civil wars ravaged the city, but it was fortified and castles, monasteries and churches were built. Towards the end of that century Bergen became the city of the northernmost bureau of the Hanseatic League. Bergen was from the beginning an important trade centre and central harbour for western Norway. The Black Death plague in 1349 came to Norway from a foreign ship in the harbour of Bergen. It wiped out one third of Norway’s population and was a severe setback also to Bergen.
Norway came under Danish rule towards the end of the fourteenth century. Then Bergen was the centre of trade for all of Norway. The most important trade was that involving dried cod from northern Norway. It was exported to the catholic countries of Europe in connection with the fast. The most important import was grain, clothing and spices. The Hanseatic merchants lived in their own separate quarter of the city, on the east shore of Vaagen, where they built their living quarters and large wharfs, enjoying exclusive trade privileges with the fishermen from the North of Norway. Today, Bergen's old quayside Bryggen where the Hanseatic traders lived, is on UNESCO's list as a World Heritage Site.
The city has been ravaged by many great fires through its history, mainly because of its wooden buildings and narrow streets. The oldest buildings standing today are churches and some of the buildings at the Bergenhus Fortress which are made of stone, among these are the Haakon's Hall from 1261 and the twelfth century St. Mary's church with its twin towers. This church is the oldest building in Bergen.
In 1536, the influence of the Hanseatic League was much reduced and the Saxon merchants were faced with two alternatives; either leave or become Norwegian citizens. Many choose to stay. However, Bergen retained its monopoly of trade with northern Norway until 1789.For the Middle Ages and up to the 16th century, Bergen was one of the largest cities in the Nordic countries, and the largest city in Norway until the 1830'ies. After the Hanseatic League was dissolved in 1630, Bergen flourished and continued to be an important shipping and trading centre.
The last half of the 19th century was a period of rapid expansion of the city. In 1814 Norway entered a union with Sweden, dominated by the latter. When Norway left the union in 1905 to become an independent kingdom, the Prime Minister Christian Michelsen from Bergen, played a crucial role.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries disastrous fires, the last in 1916, led to reconstruction of the central parts of the city. Wider streets and open spaces were built to prevent fires from spreading. Shipping and a growing shipbuilding industry and textile mills contributed to the growth, however manufacturing industry never become of major importance. In 1909, the Bergen railway connecting Bergen with Oslo and the rest of the country was finished. This contributed greatly to the growth of Bergen as a trading and administrative centre.
While Norway kept out of World War I, the German occupation and allied bombings ravaged parts of the city during World War II. The late 1940ies and the 1950ies were a time of reconstruction. The merchant fleet was also rebuilt and greatly expanded during these years. When oil was found in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea in the 1970'es, it was the start of a new era for western Norway. It resulted in a great expansion of many aspects of oil industry in and around Bergen, notably developments of drilling techniques for finding oil at great depths. Important research related to oil is going on in Bergen today, partly in collaboration with the university.
Today, Bergen is a fast growing modern city with one of Europe’s largest harbours, known for its oil export facilities. It is the port with largest merchant fleet in Scandinavia. It also houses the main base of the Norwegian Navy. Tourism is also important. Flesland Airport, Bergen is the second busiest airport in Norway and Bergen is known as the ‘Gateway to the Fjords’. It is the home harbour for the famous Hurtigruten, whose passenger ships leave Bergen daily for an eleven day round trip along the coast to Kirkenes near the Russian border and back. Bergen is also Norway´s most important cruise ship destination. Bergen is the seat of the county of Hordaland and of the bishop of Bjorgvin, and has its own opera and theatre. It is also the city of the University of Bergen founded in 1946. It was originally based on the Bergen Museum where research had been going on since 1825. There are now some 14.000 students at the University. In addition there are several colleges with ca. 10.000 students, including the Norwegian College of Business Administration.
Today new suburbs are growing on the other side of the seven mountains surrounding Bergen. They are connected to the city centre by several road and train tunnels. Also some of the islands west of Bergen are connected to the mainland by large bridges and a fjord north of the city is crossed by a mile long floating bridge. Bergen is considered Norway´s most international city. Surnames of German, Dutch and Scottish origin are plentiful, many originating from the Hanseatic era. The population of Bergen is now 265.000 and growing rapidly. In the metropolitan area the population is ca. 390.000.