Varnhem, Västergötland – Exploring Sweden

Stories about Vikings, kings, crusades and Knights Templars, all in a small Swedish locality? Welcome to Varnhem. In a small area you will find the oldest stone church in Sweden outside of Scania, Viking graves, and the ruins of the Varnhem Abbey that was established by the Cistercian Order.

This is also the place where the fictional character Arn Magnusson grew up. He is the main character of the Crusades trilogy by Swedish author Jan Guillou. Arn, born in the year 1150, spends 12 years at the monastery. This is also the location of his burial. Arn is probably its most famous inhabitant, even though he is not counted into the official count of around 700.

A Short History of Varnhem

Varnhem has a long history. It is the location of the oldest known stone church in Sweden, outside of the province of Skåne. However, the church does not exist anymore. It is known to have existed already in the 1040’s. The current abbey church was constructed in the 1150’s. The Cistercian Order established the abbey in 1148 and it was in use until 1527 when it was confiscated. This was the time of the reformation in Sweden and several monasteries went out of business during these years. However, Danish troops sealed the abbey’s fate in 1566 when they burnt it down. During its heyday it was the burial place for three Swedish kings from the House of Eric. These were Knut Eriksson, Erik Knutsson and Erik Eriksson. Another famous Swedish statesman, Birger Jarl, also found his last resting place at Varnhem.

However, the church and abbey were not the first sign of life in Varnhem. A 9th century grave field has been excavated, showing signs of the first known Christian Vikings in Sweden.

Things to Do and See

Several of the main sights in Varnhem are centred around its main attraction, the Varnhem Abbey Church. It is here that the Vikings meet the fictional Knights Templars. This is also one of the main stops for anyone following in the footsteps of Arn, a popular tourist activity for anyone visiting the region. It is possible to make stops at many of the locations from the books.

Varnhem Abbey Church

Varnhem Abbey Church was inaugurated in the 1150’s, but has since then had its fair share of misfortunes. It was for a long time a part of the Varnhem Abbey, which was run by the Cistercian Order. Two fires have since destroyed much of the church and abbey. The first one occurred in 1234 and the second one in 1566. The church has been renovated multiple times since the last fire and it was especially count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie that played a big part in the reconstructions in the 17th century.

Varnhem Abbey Ruins

Not much is left of Varnhem Abbey. Right next to the abbey church, there is little left to tell of its rich history. A history that in many ways came to an end with the reformation and the burning by Danish forces in 1566. While the church has been reconstructed since, the abbey remains in ruins. They are, however, one of the more interesting sights and walking along the old paths can still with the help of some imagination move you back to the Middle Ages.

Kata Farm

The Kata Farm, or Kata gård in Swedish, is an old Viking-age farm estate. Today there are only ruins left, but these ruins might very well contain the oldest Christian church in Sweden. It has challenged the previous presumptions about which time Sweden begun its Christianisation.

Parts of the ruins have been covered by a protective building that are open to the public. Well, with some limited opening hours.

Excursions

Both the towns of Skara and Skövde are close by for anyone looking for a more urban experience. Otherwise there is a lot to explore closer to Varnhem. At Amundtorp there is a stone ship and several stone circles to visit. They all come with an idyllic view of the surrounding countryside. For any bird lover, there is also the lake Hornborgasjön nearby, which can only be described as a mecca for bird viewing.

How to Get to Varnhem

Flights: The closest large airport is Göteborg Landvetter Airport (GOT) 134 kilometres away, with both domestic and international flights. Another option is Jönköping Airport (JKG), 90 kilometres away, with mostly chartered flights.
Car: Varnhem is on road 49 between Skara and Skövde.
Train: The closest train station from Varnhem is in nearby Skövde.
Bus: Regional and local buses connect Varnhem with the surrounding region.

The driving distance from 5 major Swedish cities, according to Google Maps:

Stockholm – 350 kilometers (4h 2min)
Gothenburg – 142 kilometers (1h 46min)
Malmö – 381 kilometers (4h 23min)
Linköping – 190 kilometers (2h 30min)  
Kiruna – 1447 kilometers (17h 31min)

Find out more about other destinations in Sweden by visiting our page Exploring Sweden

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