Absalon (c. 1128 - March 21, 1201) was a Danish archbishop and statesman. He was the son of Asser Rig of Fjenneslev (Zealand), at whose castle he and his brother Esbjorn were brought up along with the young prince Valdemar, afterwards King Valdemar I.
The Rigs were as pious and enlightened as they were rich. They founded the monastery of Sorř as a civilizing centre, and after giving Absalon the rudiments of a sound education at home, which included not only book-lore but every manly and martial exercise, they sent him to the university of Paris. Absalon first appears in Saxo's Chronicle as a fellow-guest at Roskilde, at the banquet given, in 1157, by King Sweyn to his rivals Canute and Valdemar. Both Absalon and Valdemar narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of their treacherous host on this occasion, but at length escaped to Jutland, whither Sweyn followed them, but was defeated and slain at the battle of Grathe Heath.
The same year (1158) which saw Valdemar ascend the Danish throne saw Absalon elected bishop of Roskilde. Henceforth Absalon was the chief counsellor of Valdemar, and the promoter of that imperial policy which, for three generations, was to give Denmark the dominion of the Baltic. Briefly, it was Absalon's intention to clear the northern sea of the Wendish pirates, who inhabited that portion of the Baltic littoral which was later called Pomerania, and ravaged the Danish coasts so unmercifully that at the accession of Valdemar one-third of the realm of Denmark lay wasted and depopulated. The very existence of Denmark demanded the suppression and conversion of these stiff-necked pagan freebooters, and to this double task Absalon devoted the best part of his life.
The first expedition against the Wends, conducted by Absalon in person, set out in 1160, but it was not till 1168 that the chief Wendish fortress, at Arkona in Rügen, containing the sanctuary of their god Svantovit, was surrendered, the Wends agreeing to accept Danish suzerainty and the Christian religion at the same time. From Arkona Absalon proceeded by sea to Garz, in south Rügen, the political capital of the Wends, and an all but impregnable stronghold. But the unexpected fall of Arkona had terrified the garrison, which surrendered unconditionally at the first appearance of the Danish ships. Absalon, with only Sweyn, bishop of Aarhus, and twelve "house carls," thereupon disembarked, passed between a double row of Wendish warriors, 6000 strong, along the narrow path winding among the morasses, to the gates of the fortress, and, proceeding to the temple of the seven-headed god Rugievit, caused the idol to be hewn down, dragged forth and burnt. The whole population of Garz was then baptized, and Absalon laid the foundations of twelve churches in the isle of Rügen. The destruction of this chief sally-port of the Wendish pirates enabled Absalon considerably to reduce the Danish fleet. But he continued to keep a watchful eye over the Baltic, and in 1170 destroyed another pirate stronghold, farther eastward, at Dievenow on the isle of Wolin.
Absalon's last military exploit was the annihilation, off Strela (Stralsund), on Whit-Sunday 1184, of a Pomeranian fleet which had attacked Denmark's vassal, Jaromir of Rügen. He was now but fifty-seven, but his strenuous life had aged him, and he was content to resign the command of fleets and armies to younger men, like Duke Valdemar, afterwards King Valdemar II, and to confine himself to the administration of the empire which his genius had created.
In this sphere Absalon proved himself equally great. The aim of his policy was to free Denmark from the German yoke. It was contrary to his advice and warnings that Valdemar I rendered fealty to the emperor Frederick Barbarossa at Dole in 1162; and when, on the accession of Canute V in 1182, an imperial ambassador arrived at Roskilde to receive the homage of the new king, Absalon resolutely withstood him. "Return to the emperor," cried he, "and tell him that the king of Denmark will in no wise show him obedience or do him homage."
As the archpastor of Denmark Absalon also rendered his country inestimable services, building churches and monasteries, introducing the religious orders, founding schools and doing his utmost to promote civilization and enlightenment. It was he who held the first Danish Synod at Lund in 1167. In 1178 he became archbishop of Lund, but very unwillingly, only the threat of excommunication from the holy see finally inducing him to accept the pallium. Absalon died in 1201 at the family monastery of Sorř, which he himself had richly embellished and endowed.
Absalon remains one of the most striking and picturesque figures of the Middle Ages, and was equally great as churchman, statesman and warrior. That he enjoyed warfare there can be no doubt; and his splendid physique and early training had well fitted him for martial exercises. He was the best rider in the army and the best swimmer in the fleet. Yet he was not like the ordinary fighting bishops of the Middle Ages, whose sole concession to their sacred calling was to avoid the "shedding of blood" by using a mace in battle instead of a sword. Absalon never neglected his ecclesiastical duties, and even his wars were of the nature of Crusades. Moreover, all his martial energy notwithstanding, his personality must have been singularly winning; for it is said of him that he left behind not a single enemy, all his opponents having long since been converted by him into friends.
See Saxo, Gesta Danorum, ed. Holder (Strassburg, 1886), books xvi.; Steenstrup, Danmarks Riges Historie. Oldtiden og den ćldre Middelalder, pp. 570-735 (Copenhagen, 1897-1905).
Absalon's Testamentum, in Migne, Patrologia Latina 209,18.