The Benedictine monastery at Essenbæk was originally founded at Randers in north central Jutland. The monks were most likely imported from England where Hardecanute, a Dane, ruled. It may have been originally a Cistercian priory founded as early as 1135 in Randers on a property adjacent to St Peter's Church donated by Stig Hvide, a powerful nobleman of the day, with income properties to pay for its upkeep. Hvide was married to Margaret, the daughter of Canute Lavard, later St Canute Lavard. It was dedicated to Our Lady (Danish: Vor Frue). It was most likely a double abbey until the 1180s. The double abbey was built in a rectangular shape of brick around the older granite church of St Peter. The nuns remained at Our Lady Abbey until 1430 when the church and abbey were torn down leaving only the tower standing. The tower was torn down in 1795.
In 1179 the monks, by that time Benedictines, moved moved about 8 kilometers south to Assentoft on the farm property named Essenbæk which gave its name to the abbey. Splitting of an abbey often was the result of misbehavior by the monks and nuns becoming public knowledge. The bishop often sent the men off to a more isolated location owned by the diocese to restore the 'rule'. The new abbey was constructed in fields on the south side of Randers Fjord. The abbey was destroyed by fire no less than three times in the 1200s.
The only contemporary source for the abbey is the Essenbæk Chronicle (Danish: årbogen). The chronicle, which actually does not name itself, contains brief listings of events as early as 1020 which impacted the abbey such as change of bishops which are named from 1215 until 1262. The writers mention significant events in the conflict between the church and the crown in which the Benedictines took the side of the king and certainly profitted thereby. The chronicle lists more worldy events such a peasant uprisings with unusual sympathy and follows the kings and political events until 1323.
At its height the abbey complex consisted of a quadrangular set of Brick Gothic buildings with Saint Lawrence's church forming the south range. The abbey received income from several churches and fishing areas as well as the usual income for abbey church burials, prayers for the departed, and most likely a school, though no direct evidence exists.
The abbey fell upon hard times before the Reformation and in 1516 received help from Christian II in exchange for future services to be rendered. But it must not have been enough. The last abbott, Jens Thomsen, apparently cast his lot in with the Lutherans and resigned in 1529. The remaining monks elected Hans Emiksen, a local noble, to be their advocate in 1529 thereby secularizing the abbey. Frederik I later made over Essenbæk to Emiksen. Denmark became officially Lutheran in October 1536, and all religious houses and their properties reverted to the crown under Christian III. In 1785 the property became part of Hevringholm Manor, but not maintained. At some point after that the buildings were torn down.
The only remnant of the abbey are some of the pillars which were moved to Randers. The abbey archives were removed to Silkeborg Castle where about 100 letters were registered, but most have since disappeared. Essenbæk's St Bernard's Church, built in the 1100s on the hill above the abbey, had been owned by the abbey, survived as a parish church until 1865. Materials from the abbey were used to add a tower and 'weaponshouse' (Danish: våbenshus)to the old parish church on the hill. Essenbæk Church had a remarkable altarpiece which perhaps at one time sat upon the one of the side altars in the abbey. It is now in the Randers Museum.
- Lorensen, Vilhelm, nd: Danmarks Klostres Bygningshistorie (Danish)
- De Gamle Kirker og Klostre i Randers. Randrusium (see also http://randrusium.dk (Danish))
- Salmonsens Konversationslexikon, nd: Essenbæk Kloster (p.485) (Danish)