Before I begin presenting new observations which together reveal the existence of an early medieval trans-oceanic navigational grid, created by a team of ancient Norse astronomer-priests and used by Viking navigators, I urge you to believe absolutely nothing I say. Please have Google Earth open to check the data for yourself so that you can savor the unfolding layers of this quite remarkable story without your skeptical side distorting your enjoyment.


As History Channel’s hit-TV seriesVikings  recounts the adventures of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok the writers unashamedly blend historical fact with fiction. One historical fact this show clearly distorts is the portrayal of the first Viking raids on England and France as having been launched from coastal settlements in Norway. In reality, groups of Norwegian explorers had settled on Orkney, an island group of the north east coast of Scotland, as early as the 8th century they raided the north east coast of England and the coast of continental Europe. REF1.

FIG #01. The first Viking raids on England and France were launched from Orkney. Blaeu's 1654 map of Orkney and Shetland.

The early 12th century King Magnus III of Norway made Earl Haakon Paulsson (Old Norse: Hákon Pálsson) (1103-c. 1123) regent in Ornkey to control the navigable channels between the islands. Haakon descended from the Norse lineage of Røgnvald (the Wise) and jointly ruled the Earldom of Orkney with his cousin Magnus Erlendsson from 1105 until 1114, until Haakon killed Magnus. As punishment, the church authorities instructed Haakon to undertake a pilgrimage to 'the burial place of Christ’, an adventure that was detailed in the Orkneyinga Saga, a historical narrative of the history of Orkney from the 9th to 12th century). 


“Haakon faired south to Rome, and to Jerusalem…upon his return he became a good ruler, and kept his realm well at peace and he built Orphir Church to replicate the Templar built rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which he had visited while he was in Jerusalem.” REF 2


One can be forgiven for assuming Earl Haakon was a member of the illustrious order of warrior monks - the Knights Templar. He was a wealthy noble and a fierce warrior who had pilgrimaged to the Holy Land at the same time as the founding Knights Templar, and upon his return he even built a round church in the style of "the Templar rotunda he saw in Jerusalem." What is more, Historic Scotland who manage Haakon’s round church display an interpretation panel at Orphir Round Church informing that it was the “northernmost Knights Templar round church in the UK”.

FIG#02: Orphir Round Church in Orkney was built in the early twelfth century and is the only remaining circular church in Scotland. The gravel details the outline of the circular nave. CC BY-SA 3.0

Even though Historic Scotland inform the public that Haakon built a Templar church, not a single shred of tangible evidence exists to substantiate this notion. Templars did indeed vow to defend the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and notwithstanding they subsequently built many round churches reflecting its underlying design, circular church design was not diagnostically a Templar building style and several monastic institutions built in this circular style. Nevertheless, so often it is written that all of Europe’s circular churches were built by the Knights Templar, but it’s much closer to the truth to say that “The Knights Templar built some, possibly most, of Europe’s medieval round churches, but definitely not them all.”

Furthermore, if Haakon had become a Knight Templar in Jerusalem then he would have upon joining the order have signed over "all of his material wealth and possessions.” This transaction would certainly have included his valuable agricultural and strategic lands at Orphir in Orkney and as such it would be listed somewhere in the inventories of Templar properties in Scotland, but there is no mention of Orphir anywhere. No matter what Historic Scotland claim, the northernmost recorded Templar property in Scotland was a Preceptory House (farm, temple, bank) located in Dingwall on the Black Isle, near Inverness. It must be added, however, that many 12th century knights and noblemen remained out with the ranks of the Knights Templar for socio-political reasons, yet maintained strong mercantile and military relationships with the Order. This might, or might not, have been the case with Earl Haakon. REF3


The finest round church ever built in Europe was the Convent of Christ in Tomar, Portugal. This former Roman Catholic convent was built upon a 12th-century Templar stronghold where "Templar sea captains ran a school of astronomy and navigation employing Jewish and Arab astronomers to compile lunar tables" assisting navigation into uncharted seas to the west. REF 4. In England, four medieval round churches are still in use; Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge; Temple Church, London; St. John the Baptist Church, Little Maplestead, Essex and The Holy Sepulchre, Northampton. REF 5. Orphir Round Church is Scotland’s only surviving round kirk, but it is known that another was located at Roxburgh near the English Border that no longer exists. 

Temple Church London. Knights Templar Architecture and Iconography by Ashley Cowie. Music by Francesco Lettera, The Deadly Poppy Field.

Orphir Round Church is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga as "standing beside the Earl’s Bu" (drinking hall.) REF 6. The church originally consisted of "a circular nave just over six meters in diameter" and an apse which remains today, along with a small section of the nave's eastern section. 

FIG#03: The outside of the apse at Orphir Church, viewed from the south east. CC BY-SA 3.0

Every medieval culture that partook in maritime trade had advanced schools of astronomy and cartography to make sea travel safer and more profitable. In 2015 the University of Chicago Press published a paper by authors Erling Haagensen and Niels Lind entitled Medieval Round Churches and the Shape of the Earth . REF 7. The author’s presented evidence that as well as being used for worship round churches were "strongholds while under attack, libraries and observatories, all in one building.” These authors presented data on a group of 12th century round churches located on the Baltic island of Bornholm which alluded to them being “astronomical observatories” that had been "carefully situated to help answer the big questions of the time, such as how big is the earth?” 

FIG #04: Østerlars Church on Bornholm is one of four round churches believed to have doubled as astronomical observatories.

FIG #04: Østerlars Church on Bornholm is one of four round churches believed to have doubled as astronomical observatories.

Haagensen and Lind reasoned that the round church builders on Bornholm “first surveyed the island to determine the location for each church,” which were subsequently situated “adhering to the rules set forth by an underlying landscape geometry” that connects the churches “through alignments”. The authors concluded that “the round churches may be the earliest astronomical observatories in Christian Europe” and “their locations provide for a good method to estimate the Earth’s extent in the east-west direction, seemingly the earliest such measurements”.

Considering this, and returning to Orphir Round Church in Orkney, might Earl Haakon have built his round church to double up as an astronomical observatory, to aid navigation? He was employed by the King of Norway to protect the important trade routes between the islands in Orkney so he certainly observed celestial cycles. To help answer this question, I plotted all the Scottish and Norwegian medieval round churches on a map with the intention of comparing the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates to unearth any correspondences.


Located at the heart of Haakon’s ancestral Norwegian territories are the countries only two round churches. The first was Niðaróss (Nidaros) Cathedral in Trondheim, the design of which was noted by historians as "there may be some connection between the shape (circle) and the cult of Saint Olav, which was centered on his shrine in the octagonal chapel at the east end of Nidaros Cathedral.” The second was St. Olav’s round church and monastery in Tønsberg which was built in the late 12th century. An interpretation panel at this church  informs “the church was extremely unusual in that it was round, the only round church in the province and one of the largest in the whole of Scandinavia.”

FIG#05    Ruins of the church of St. Olav's Abbey, Tønsberg   , where the foundations of Norway’s largest circular church can still be seen on streets 17 and 19.

FIG#05 Ruins of the church of St. Olav's Abbey, Tønsberg, where the foundations of Norway’s largest circular church can still be seen on streets 17 and 19.

Although Norway’s capital city later became Oslo, the shrine of St. Olav at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim was created around 1070 ad over the saints burial site and he became the patron saint of the nation. The cathedral was completed around 1300 and was Europe's northernmost pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages, remaining  the spiritual centre of Norway until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

FIG#06: Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway from northeast. Photography from 1857.

The "unusual connection” between the shapes of the two "cult of Saint Olav churches" at Tønsberg and Nidaros becomes clearer when both locations are plotted on a map of Norway. Although Nidaros Cathedral (St. Olav's tomb) is situated 288 miles (463 kms) north of St. Olav's church in Tønsberg, both are situated upon a shared north to south meridian, to an accuracy of less than 1 minute of a degree of longitude. Therefore, longitudinal astronomical observations taken at each location would be effectively the same to the naked eye. The longitude coordinates of Norway’s "only" two round churches which are both dedicated to St. Olav are:

Nidaros Cathedral:   10° 23′ 48.84″ E

St. Olav's Tønsberg: 10° 24′ 36.00″ E

FIG #07: Nidaros round church in Trondheim and St.Olavs Round Church in Tønsberg share a north to south meridian.

If the sample set had been larger than the "only two 12th century round churches" and had included features that were definitely located randomly, say, holy wells or lochs, one would expect to find many north to south alignments being generated by chance. But in this instance, where a countries "only two" round churches are found to share a north to south meridian, it strongly suggests a cartographic pattern or an astronomical schemata was deliberately installed.


All prescientific navigational and cartographic efforts began with the establishment of a fixed north to south ‘zero’ line of longitude. Known as prime meridians, all over the ancient world they were used to help record passing time and to calculate distances between far-flung places. Predicting seasonal change helped farming and fishing efforts and when societies began expanding there was an increased requirement to create calendars, to establish standard weights and measures, to measure building plots and to define county and parish boundaries for taxation and military purposes. All these functions required a prime meridian and ancient people in tribal settlements, villages, towns and cities most often drew meridians from central market crosses, sacred stones, trees, statues and holy buildings, but national prime meridians were most often drawn from more static landscape features such as the predominant sea promontories, hills and mountain tops in and near capital cities and seaports. REF 8.

FIG #08: The world zero line of longitude was determined in 1884.

Let's assume for a moment that Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and St. Olav's church in Tønsberg were deliberately located upon a shared, national, prime meridian. What might the astronomer-priests and navigators have been trying to measure with their zero longitude reference line?

Around 200 BCE, the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria was Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the Greek mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist. He was the first to calculate the circumference of the Earth by "comparing altitudes of the mid-day sun at two places on a known North-South meridian, some distance apart." Having found good reason for "why" two churches might have been built on a shared ancient meridian in Norway, I was tempted to conclude that I had rediscovered a lost cartographic artifact, a tool from the developmental days of trans-oceanic Norse navigation, but there was even more enticing data hidden in the maps. 

For any prime meridian to have had a practical application in longitudinal computation, a second, distant line of longitude would have been required from which astronomical observations could be compared to those taken on the prime meridian. Simply put, one meridian is useless while two meridians become a dynamic geodetic system enabling global measurements of distance and time.

If you draw a line from St. Olav’s Round Church in Tønsberg, Norway westwards over the North Sea, after 483 miles (777 kms) the line meets Orkney, only half of one minute of a degree of latitude south of Ophir Round Church. Therefore, all latitudinal calculations made from either St. Olav's round church in Tønsberg or Orphir Round Church in Orkney would be the same to the naked eye. The latitudinal coordinates of these two round churches are:

Orphir Round Church, Orkney: 58° 55′ 19″ N.

St. Olav’s, Tønsberg, Norway: 59° 15′ 59″ N.

Figure #09: Tonsberg Round Church in Norway and Orphir Round Church in Orkney share the same line of latitude, and Tonsberg Round Church shares the same longitude as Nidaros in Trondheim.

St. Olav’s tomb at Nidaros Catherdral is located on the same meridian and St. Olav’s Round Church in Tønsberg, which is located upon the same line of latitude as Orphir Round Church on Orkney. Thus, the "only three" round churches in Norway and Scotland form a longitudinal and latitudinal grid. What is more, these two lines define the north to south and east to west extremes of the Norwegian kingdom, enabling astronomer-priests and navigators to make comparative measurements of longitude between mainland Norway and its territories to the west, Orkney.


Evidence suggests early medieval church builders erected two round churches in Norway and one in Scotland, to calculate latitudinal, and possibly longitudinal distances. Measuring the angle of the sun at St. Olavs shrine in Nidaros at high noon, on any given day, and taking a comparable measure at St. Olavs in Tønsberg would have revealed the angle required to have calculated a circumferential measurement of the Earth to less than one-half of a degree of accuracy.

Haakon was involved in the creation of this navigators grid for reasons which extend far beyond the perimeters of this paper. For those readers with a 'thing' for mapping, a doorway to a new world of further research can be accessed by extending the meridian of Orphir Round Church southwards. Start asking questions when you draw this meridian over Scotland's infamous Norse Cathedral, Rosslyn Chapel.

This discovery is featured in Ashley’s book Secret Viking Sea Chart, which is FREE to download in any format when you subscribe.


REF1: Barret (2008) suggest a "late, mid-ninth-century" date for Viking settlement and raids "launched from bases in Atlantic Scotland" but notes a variety of other options suggested by scholars

REF 2:

REF 3: Scottish Review of July, 1898.

REF 4: K. Lehmann, The Dome of Heaven, in Kleinbauer, W. Eugène, Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Writings on the Visual Arts (Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 227–270.

REF 5: I. Fisher, Orphir church in its south Scandinavian context - The Viking age in caithness, Orkney and the North Atlantic (Edinburgh, c.1993), 95-97.

REF 6: D. Omand (ed.), The Orkney Book (Edinburgh. Birlinn, 2003), 34-36.

REF 7: E. Haagensen and N.C Lind, Medieval Round Churches and the Shape of the Earth (US: The University of Chicago Press Books, 2015).

REF 8: E. G. Forbes, A. J. Meadows, D. Howse, Greenwich Observatory...the story of Britain's oldest scientific institution (London: The Royal Observatory at Greenwich and Herstmonceux, 1675-1975), 10. 

Further Reading

  • Secret Viking Sea Chart, Ashley Cowie, 2016.

  • H. Pálsson; P. Edwards, Magnus' Saga: The Life of St. Magnus, Earl of Orkney 1075-1116. (Orkney: Kirk Session of St Magnus' Cathedral, Kirkwall, 1996), 23.

  • REF 7 P. G. Johnson and C. E. Batey, Survey at the Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney 1989-91: geophysical work on a late Norse estate complex, (Edinburgh: Scot Archaeological, 1999).