History of Turku Cathedral

The history of Turku Cathedral is very much connected to the written history of Finland. For centuries the Cathedral has stood in the middle of events, decisions and life of Finnish people. Still, we don't know all about it. There are questions about the construction history of the Cathedral, which still go unanswered. In this page, there is a short summary of the history as well as some links to research published in English about the medieval relics found in the church.

Traces of Past Centuries in the Cathedral

A small parish church was built on the hill of Unikankare in Turku, and consecrated as the church of St. Mary around the middle of the 13th century. The church, originally made of wood, and later rebuilt with stone, was consecrated as the Cathedral in 1300.  At the same time,  the Cathedral was dedicated to the patronage of St. Henry, the first bishop in Finland. 

The monuments and details of the Cathedral record the history of the Finnish people over seven centuries. Bishops, military commanders, and a queen, among others, have found their last resting places in the Cathedral.

Construction Stages

As the town of Turku began to emerge in the course of the 13th century as the most important trading centre in Finland, the Bishop’s see of the Diocese of Finland was transferred from its previous location at Koroinen, some distance further up on the bank of the Aura River,  to the middle of the town. By the end of the 13th century, a new stone church had been completed on the site of the former wooden-built parish church on Unikankare Mound, and it was consecrated as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Henry (the first Bishop of Finland) in 1300. 

The first Cathedral was smaller than the present building. Its east front was where the pulpit now stands, and its roof was considerably lower than now. Extensions were made to the Cathedral throughout the Middle Ages. During the 14th century, a new choir was added, from which the octagonal Gothic pillars in the present chancel originate. Throughout the Middle Ages, the High Altar was located opposite the easternmost pillars of the nave, until it was transferred to its present location in the apse, in what had previously been the Chapel of All Saints, in the mid-17th century. During the 15th century, side-chapels were added along the north and south sides of the nave, containing altars dedicated to various saints; by the end of the Middle Ages these numbered 42 in all. The roof-vaults were also raised during the latter 15th century to their present height of 24 metres.

Thus, by the beginning of the modern period, the church had approximately taken on its present shape. The major later addition to the Cathedral is the tower, which has been rebuilt many times, as a result of repeated fires. The worst damage was caused by the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, when most of the town was destroyed, along with both the tower and the interior of the Cathedral. The present tower, constructed after the Great Fire, reaches a height of 101 metres above sea level, and is visible over a considerable distance as the symbol of both the Cathedral and the city. Most of the present interior also dates from the restoration carried out in the 1830s, following the Great Fire. The altarpiece, depicting the Transfiguration of Christ, was painted in 1836 by the Swedish artist Fredrik Westin. The reredos behind the High Altar, and the pulpit in the crossing, also both date from the 1830s, and were designed by the distinguished architect C. L. Engel. The walls and roof  in the chancel are decorated with frescos in the Romantic style by the court painter R. W. Ekman, the father of painting in Finland, which depict events from the life of Jesus, and two key events in the history of the Finnish Church: the baptism of the first Finnish Christians by Bishop Henry by the springs at Kupittaa, and the presentation to King Gustav Vasa by the Reformer Michael Agricola of the first Finnish translation of the New Testament. 

The side-chapels originally containing altars dedicated to various saints have subsequently been converted into funeral vaults; and up to the end of the 16th century, graves were also set into the floor of the Cathedral. Consequently, the Cathedral now houses the graves and memorials of many of the great names of Finnish history. Among the major medieval figures buried in the Cathedral are several bishops  - Hemming, Magnus II Tavast, Olaus Magni, Konrad Bitz, and Magnus III Särkilahti -  and the famous Constable of the Castle at Viipuri (Vyborg), Knut Posse. Post-Reformation bishops buried here include Isak Rothovius and the three bishops Gezelius. In the funeral vaults alongside the nave are buried several 17th-century military commanders, including Torsten Stålhandske (the commander of the famous Finnish “Hakkapeliitta” cavalry) and Field Marshals Åke Tott and Evert Horn. Undoubtedly the most famous tomb in the Cathedral, however, is the sarcophagus of Queen Karin Mansdotter, the wife of King Erik XIV, who spent her later years in Finland, and was buried in the Cathedral in 1613. The stained-glass windows in the chapels along the north side of the nave date from the 1870s, and are the work of Wladimir Schwertschkoff. 

In the course of the centuries, the Cathedral has  suffered many adversities: its once rich collections have been plundered in time of war, and damaged by fire. A collection of some of the surviving items, however, has now been placed on display in the Museum in the South Gallery. 

A major renovation of the Cathedral was completed in 1979, including the installation of modern equipment. The Cathedral has now for the most part been restored to its medieval form, with the exception of the redecorations carried out after the Great Fire of Turku, which have been retained.

The Catholic Era 1300 - 1500

When a stone church was being built on the mound of Unikankare, the town of Turku was only a very small community around it. The stone church was consecrated as the Cathedral Church in 1300, and the Episcopal See was moved from Koroinen to Turku at the same time. The Cathedral was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and also to the patronage of the first bishop of Finland, St. Henry.

In the Middle Ages, several side chapels containing altars dedicated to various saints were added to the Cathedral. They were later converted into funeral vaults. By the beginning of the 16th century, the Cathedral had taken on approximately its present shape.

Magnus II Tavast

Magnus II Tavast was the bishop of Turku for nearly 40 years from 1412 to 1450. He continued the construction and furnishing of the Cathedral and lay the foundation for, among other things, the Chapel of Corpus Christi (currently the Tavast Chapel). During the time of Bishop Magnus II Tavast, the cult of venerating Christ's crucified body developed, and Bishop Magnus personally conducted the daily Morning, Evening, and Nocturnal Prayers.

Evidence of the Chapel's grandeur is the longest medieval wrought iron railing in all the Nordic countries, donated by Bishop Magnus. The railing may well be the most precious artefact in the entire Cathedral.

Bishop Hemming

The last Roman Catholic celebration in the Cathedral was the beatification of Bishop Hemming in 1514. The relics of Bishop Hemming were moved to a reliquary engraved by local masters. The Blessed Hemming was the 12th bishop of Turku in the middle of the 14th century. "The Blessed" or "the Beatified" was traditionally a local saint, and the beatification preceded the canonization. However, Hemming was never canonized (i.e., he never became St. Hemming) as the Reformation interrupted the process.

The Time of the Reformation 1527-1599

The Reformation did not reach Finland instantly. It took about 70 years to implant the Lutheran faith in the Finnish people.

Luther’s thoughts on Reformation reached Finland through the School of Turku. King Gustav Vasa understood that Luther’s teaching on temporal power enabled the Crown to rise against papal authority and take over the possessions and tax revenues of the Church. The priests who preached Reformation wanted a swift change, but because of the people, King Gustav Vasa proceeded slowly. However, by 1523, the ties between the state of Sweden-Finland and the See of Rome were severed. 

Catholic traditions were discarded little by little. Choral singing was altered. The first Swedish language mass was celebrated in 1536. The use of the 42 side altars dedicated to various saints was discontinued, and the images and statues of saints were stored in the sacristy. Instead of celebrating mass at several altars, the worship services concentrated on one altar and on the pulpit. The Cathedral was fitted with wooden pews for the congregation to sit on. The side chapels were converted into funeral chapels. 

The property of the church was taken over by the state. One of the big bells of the Cathedral was transported to Stockholm as bell tax. The Dominican monastery in Turku burned down in 1537 and was never restored. The accounts of the Cathedral were taken over by the Crown. 

Father of Written Finnish

Michael Agricola became the Reformer of the Church of Finland. As a young priest he went to the University of Wittenberg to study, and on his return in 1539 he started as the principal of the Cathedral School in Turku. He became the bishop of Turku and within ten years translated a number of books into Finnish. These included the translations of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament, an ABC-Book and Catechism, the Prayer Book, the Manual of Baptism and Holy Communion, and others. Agricola’s Finnish translations enabled all parish clergy to officiate mass in the Finnish language. The translations also earned Agricola the title “father of written Finnish”. 

The realm of Sweden eventually adopted the Lutheran faith in 1593, and the Catholic era in Finland ended in the battles of the Peasant Revolt in 1599.

Sweden as a Major Power in the 17th Century

Eric, the second son of King Gustav Vasa, became King Eric XIV, regent of Sweden and Finland in 1560. He fell in love with Karin, the daughter of a corporal in his troops, named Måns, and crowned her the Queen of Sweden-Finland in 1568. Later the same year, he was dethroned. Eric and Karin were imprisoned for years, and only after Eric was poisoned to death by his brother in 1570 was Karin set free, at the age of 26. Her brother-in-law, King Johan III, gave Karin the manor of Liuksiala where she lived for 35 years.

Queen Karin Månsdotter was gentle, beautiful, and well loved by the people. Even Jaakko Ilkka's notorious soldiers left her manor unplundered in the Peasant Revolt of 1596-97. Karin Månsdotter died in 1612 and was buried in a family grave in the Tott Chapel of the Cathedral. Her remains were moved to a marble sarcophagus in the Kankainen Chapel (just opposite the Tott Chapel) in 1867.

The 17th century was a time of wars for Sweden-Finland. The Thirty Years' War, a religious war, was waged in Germany, with Sweden's involvement. At the same time there were battles on the eastern front. Several war heroes were given their last resting places in the Turku Cathedral. For instance, Evert Horn and Samuel Cockburn, both of whom lie buried in the Tavast Chapel, fought on the eastern front.

A number of Finnish soldiers were among the light cavalry fighting for Sweden-Finland and the Protestant faith in Germany. Two military commanders, Åke Tott who was called the Snow Plough of the North, and Torsten Stålhandske, the most famous commander of Finnish cavalrymen, lie buried in the Cathedral. Stålhandske had made a spectacular ascent from armour bearer to cavalry general, and had participated in each decisive battle of the Thirty Years' War. The Finnish cavalrymen were much dreaded mercenary soldiers. They were called "Hakkapeliitta", a special Finnish term derived from their straightforward tactics and their battle cry.

The Cathedral after the Great Fire of Turku in 1827

If you take a close look at the middle section of the Cathedral steeple from the Cathedral Square, you may see charred bricks that date back to the Great Fire of Turku on the 4th and 5th of September, 1827. The fire started on the Aninkainen hill on the western bank of the river. In twenty hours it destroyed 780 of the 1126 houses in town. In all, 2500 homes were burned.

The Cathedral caught fire after midnight. The steeple was reported to have burned like a huge torch until it collapsed with a thunderous sound. The interior of the church was gutted; the altar, the pulpit, pews, paintings, sculptures, and coats of arms were all destroyed. Traces of the fire can still be seen in the charred altar recesses. Only the articles stored and locked up in the old sacristy survived, including the reliquary of Bishop Hemming, medieval sculptures of saints, and a poem written for the funeral of Queen Karin Månsdotter in 1613. A previous disastrous fire had damaged the Cathedral in 1681. At the time of the Great Fire of Turku, Finland was already under Russian rule.

The spire of the Cathedral collapsed in the Great Fire of Turku. The new spire for the steeple was designed by C.L. Engel. During the Finno-Russian War and the Continuation War (World War II), members of the women's voluntary defense organization - called "Grey Jackdaws" according to their grey outfits - also supported aerial surveillance. Every night they climbed to a dark little room high up in the steeple, at a height of almost 100 metres where they received radio signals from Finnish war ships and transmitted them by telephone to the anti-aircraft defense and navy bases in Turku.

(Historical information written by Lise-Lotte Hellberg, Riikka Kaisti, Aiju von Schöneman and Minna Vesanto)

Research about the medieval relics in Turku Cathedral

Aki Arponen, Heli Maijanen, Visa Immonen: From Bones to Sacred Artefact: The Late Medieval Skull Relic of Turku Cathedral, Finland. Linkki avautuu uudessa välilehdessäTemenos, Vol. 54 No 2 (2018).

Jussi-Pekka Taavitsainen, Markku J. Oinonen & Göran Possnert: The Turku Cathedral Relics Revisited and Anonymous Relics dated to the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.Linkki avautuu uudessa välilehdessä Mirator 16:2/2015. 

Aki Arponen: The Medieval Skull Relic of Turku Cathedral.Linkki avautuu uudessa välilehdessä Mirator 16:1/2015.