A Mystery Solved: The Golden Horn of Gallehus

We recently came across this image of an ancient Scandinavian horn in one of Worcester Cathedral Library’s books. Aside from the arresting beauty of the object depicted, it grabbed our attention for another reason. The Latin inscription translates as something like ‘the golden horn of the most serene highness Christian V’. Christian V was King of Denmark and Norway from 1670 until his death in 1699. Yet the engraving of our horn was published in 1643 – three years before Christian V was even born. To add to the mystery, the pommel depicted to the upper-right of the horn bears the monogram ‘C5’ (surely referring to Christian V) and the date 1639. Why does this horn appear to be the property of somebody who wouldn’t yet exist?

Golden horn of Gallehus in Worcester Cathedral Library

The engraving of the horn, published in 1643. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

For a long time I suspected my eyes, but colleagues confirmed that I was indeed seeing what I was seeing. Then I suspected the printer – had he made a mistake? The printer, like my eyes, had been perfectly accurate. The confusion lies in the fact that the Christian V referred to isn’t the same man who ruled Denmark and Norway from 1670 – 1699. So just who is our Christian V?

The answer (which took me a long while to reach) would be found by looking at the horn itself. Ancient golden hunting horns covered in arcane symbols are rather rare, so it didn’t take long to work out that this was one of two known as the golden horns of Gallehus, after the village in Southern Jutland where they were discovered in 1639 and 1734 respectively.

Our horn is the elder of the two. It was found by a peasant girl, who duly informed the relevant authorities. In the days before local government sponsored archaeology and public museums, that meant it ended up in the hands of the Danish King, Christian IV. He then gave it to his hedonistic and frankly irresponsible first-born son, also called Christian. Born in 1603, and styled the Prince-Elect of Denmark, evidently the younger Christian wasn’t happy enough with this title, so he went around calling himself Christian V, in anticipation of being King after his father. Like a precocious child, he even stamped his monogram ‘C5’ all over his most treasured possessions, like his favourite ancient golden hunting horn. If you think that sounds like tempting fate, you’d be right.

Christian, Prince-Elect

Christian, Prince-Elect of Denmark. Image in Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.

The Prince-Elect never made it to the throne. After years of heavy drinking and hard partying, he died following a seizure in 1647, pre-deceasing his father by a year. The next Danish King, enthroned in 1648, would be Frederick III, the second son of Christian IV. It would be Frederick’ son Christian who would in 1670 become – officially – Christian V.

Christian V Worcester Cathedral Library

The real Christian V, King of Denmark and Norway. Image in Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.

The engraving of the horn is interesting for another reason. Much abused since its discovery (the Prince-Elect used to drink wine from it – possibly its original function – but certainly at odds with the conservation practices employed by modern heritage professionals), it was stolen in 1802 and melted down. The engraving therefore remains one of the best sources for investigating the lost artefact – and indeed was used by a metalsmith in the 1980s to make copies of both Gallehus horns.

These copies were stolen from a museum in 1993. Perhaps the thief soon found out that they were made out of gilded brass rather than the solid gold of the originals, for shortly afterwards they were found ditched in some woods and were duly recovered.

Golden horn of Gallehus

Detail of a modern copy of the horn. Image courtesy of Bloodofox via Wikimedia Commons.

There is much that is strange, mysterious and confusing in Worcester Cathedral Library. A little bit of self-belief and historical research can open the door to some truly fascinating stories.

Tom Hopkins


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