The earliest history of Munkholmen dates back to the 10-11th centuries, during the time of Olav Tryggvason, the founder of Trondheim. It was said that he had the cut-off heads of his opponent, Håkon Jarl, and the latter’s servant, Kark, impaled on spears and displayed on the shores of the island as a warning to hostile visitors.
Later, in the 12th century, the Benedictine monks came and established a monastery on the island. It is at this time that the island got the name Munkholmen, from munk meaning “monk” and holm meaning “island” (I’m not sure about this island bit, so feel free to correct me). The island at present also lends its name to a brand of non-alcoholic beer, after the beer the monks brewed themselves. The monks’ beer was rumoured to have been alcohol-free and thus, Munkholmen at some point in time has been claimed as the place where non-alcoholic beer was invented… However, such claims are unsubstantiated, and (as our museum guide believes) are probably not true. In fact, a Trondheim archbishop on one occasion was forced to order the monks to “keep the noise down”, in response to complaints from the townsfolk! If their party noises got that loud, then they were probably brewing normal strength beer, if not something stronger /;^)
The 16th century saw the rise of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the subsequent decline of Munkholmen as the Benedictine monks eventually left following the arrival of the Reformation movement in Norway. It was not until the middle of the 17th century that a revival of interest in Munkholmen took hold. This time it was the king of Denmark* who saw the island’s potential and commissioned a plan to build a fort there before the war in 1658. When the fort was finally finished in 1661, it was seen as a suitable place to hold convicts. The cylindrical tower, in particular, was chosen for this purpose. Here the convicts’ cells were distributed among three levels, according to the gravity of their crime and their socio-economic/political status. The lowest level, the basement, was allotted for the worst criminals; conditions here are abysmal—very cold, very damp, and very dark. The ground level was given to the more common criminals, while the topmost level (2nd floor) was reserved for the rich and elite convicts. Here, the conditions are a stark contrast to those at the bottom level—each convict had a relatively spacious cell, each with a window looking out to a picturesque view of the fjord. Perhaps the most famous inmate in the Munkholmen prison was Peder Schumacher Griffenfeld, the former Chancellor of the Realm and favourite of King Frederik III who was accused of spying for Sweden. Griffenfeld spent 18 years in the prison, and is said to be the inspiration for Victor Hugo’s “The Prisoner of Munkholmen” and possibly “Les Miserables” as well.** Anyway, the prison closed around 1739 and later, the fort itself in 1893.
When World War II broke out, Munkholmen once again found its use. Situated just off the shores of Trondheim, the Germans who occupied Norway in 1940 deemed the island suitable for defending the mainland—particularly the [submarine] shipyard Dora, located further within the harbour. The prison tower was stripped of its wooden roof and two anti-aircraft canons were mounted on the topmost floor. Between the two canons was created a concrete observation capsule; from here alerts were relayed onto at least two other canons situated on the mainland. Nothing remains of these canons today, except for the concrete foundations upon which they were mounted.
At present Munkholmen is no longer used for military purposes, but as a recreational spot. Besides being popular for bathing during the summer, the fort ruins is now home to a restaurant, an amateur theatre, as well as a site museum. Sadly though, no traces of the monks after whom the island has been named remains today.
* also of Norway, as the two kingdoms were in an unequal union for more than 400 years until 1814.
** Dag-Ivar Rognerød