Vreta Abbey was the first nunnery in Sweden, initially Benedictine and later Cistercian, and one of the oldest in Scandinavia. The exact year of the foundation is not known. The abbey was founded by King Inge the Elder of Sweden and Queen Helena on the orders of Pope Paschal II, which gives a date range for the foundation: Paschal became pope in 1099; the date of Inge's death is disputed, but probably occurred around 1105 or a little later. In the following decade King Inge the Younger and Queen Ulvhild made large donations to it.
Vreta Abbey was a house of Benedictine nuns until 1162, when it was turned into a Cistercian nunnery. The first Cistercian abbess was Ingegerd, sister of Charles VII. A second sister, Helena of Sweden, widow of Canute V of Denmark, entered Vreta as a nun after being widowed in 1157, and other members of the Swedish and Danish royal families were also here. In the 13th century, Princess Helena Sverkersdotter of Sweden were among its abbesses. Vreta Abbey has entered folklore as the scene during the 13th century of a number of prominent abductions of girls for marriages disapproved of by their families. It was a prestigious establishment, and the church is the burial place of kings Inge the Elder and the Younger, Philip of Sweden, Magnus II and princes Ragnvald (son of Inge the Elder) and Sune, plus according to an older source the latter's young nephews, Alf and Boleslaw Johansson. It served as a school for daughters of Sweden's ruling families and nobility.
The buildings burned down in the early 13th century, but were rebuilt, and a new church was dedicated in the presence of King Magnus Ladulås and Queen Hedwig in 1289. After 1527, as a result of the Reformation the abbey was forbidden to accept any new novices, but was otherwise treated very leniently. It continued in use as a school for daughters of the nobility and a retirement place for old noblewomen, and in 1529, the King allowed the last abbess, Sigrid Botholfsdotter (d. 1538), to buy it, and its activities continued undisturbed. In 1536 the King Gustav Vasa gave the abbey and its assets to his Roman Catholic mother-in-law Ebba Eriksdotter Vasa, the mother of the Queen consort Margareta Leijonhufvud, also a Roman Catholic; Ebba Eriksdotter spent her last years here and died in 1549. There were still nuns here in 1562, and the last two of whom, Brita Gisledotter and Kirstin Månsdotter, died in 1582.
The church continued in use as a Lutheran parish church and still stands today, distinguished by its possession of a medieval hagioscope. The remaining buildings were mostly allowed to fall into ruin. Between 1916 and 1926 the ruins were excavated, and large portions to the north of the church, which was itself restored between 1914 and 1917, remain visible. The finds, including an unusual wooden water pipe, are on display in the adjoining museum.
Apart from the church, the only monastic building completely preserved is the barn, although some walls were reconstructed in the 20th century. The stones from the former refectory were used to build the tower of Linköping Cathedral.References:
The Externsteine (Extern stones) is a distinctive sandstone rock formation located in the Teutoburg Forest, near the town of Horn-Bad Meinberg. The formation is a tor consisting of several tall, narrow columns of rock which rise abruptly from the surrounding wooded hills. Archaeological excavations have yielded some Upper Paleolithic stone tools dating to about 10,700 BC from 9,600 BC.
In a popular tradition going back to an idea proposed to Hermann Hamelmann in 1564, the Externsteine are identified as a sacred site of the pagan Saxons, and the location of the Irminsul (sacral pillar-like object in German paganism) idol reportedly destroyed by Charlemagne; there is however no archaeological evidence that would confirm the site's use during the relevant period.
The stones were used as the site of a hermitage in the Middle Ages, and by at least the high medieval period were the site of a Christian chapel. The Externsteine relief is a medieval depiction of the Descent from the Cross. It remains controversial whether the site was already used for Christian worship in the 8th to early 10th centuries.
The Externsteine gained prominence when Völkisch and nationalistic scholars took an interest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This interest peaked under the Nazi regime, when the Externsteine became a focus of nazi propaganda. Today, they remain a popular tourist destination and also continue to attract Neo-Pagans and Neo-Nazis.