Founded in the early Viking Age, Aarhus is one of the oldest cities in Denmark, along with Ribe and Hedeby.
In Valdemar’s Census Book (1231) the city was called Arus, and in Icelandic it was known as Aros, later written as Aars. It is a compound of the two words ār, genitive of ā (“river”, Modern Danish å), and ōss (“mouth”, in Modern Icelandic this word is still used for “river delta”). The name originates from the city’s location around the mouth of Aarhus Å (Aarhus River). The spelling “Aarhus” is first found in 1406 and gradually became the norm in the 17th century.
The history of Aarhus began as a fortified Viking settlement founded in the 8th century and with the first written records stemming from the bishopric seated here from at least 948. The city was founded on the northern shores of a fjord at a natural harbour and the primary driver of growth was for centuries seaborne trade in agricultural products. Market town privileges were granted in 1441, but growth stagnated in the 17th century as the city suffered blockades and bombardments during the Swedish Wars. In the 19th century it was occupied twice by German troops during the Schleswig Wars but avoided destruction. As the industrial revolution took hold, the city grew to become the second-largest in the country by the 20th century.
The centre of Aarhus was once a pagan burial site until Aarhus’ first church, Holy Trinity Church, a timber structure, was built upon it during the reign of Frode, King of Jutland, around 900. In the 900s an earth rampart for the defence of the early city was constructed, encircling the settlement, much like the defence structures found at Viking ring fortresses elsewhere. The rampart was later reinforced by Harald Bluetooth, and together with the town’s geographical placement, this suggests that Aros was an important trade and military centre. There are strong indications of a former royal residence from the Viking Age in Viby, a few kilometres south of the Aarhus city centre.