This article appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The Story of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons’ bookazine
One of the defining moments of British history provides a vivid image: a small flotilla of boats appears over the horizon, heading towards the Northumbrian shore and the monastery of Lindisfarne. The date is 8 June AD 793, and no one has told the locals that the visitors have changed the rules. Instead of offering furs from the far north or golden amber from the shores of the Baltic Sea to trade, the Norwegian sailors take a more direct route to getting what they want: plunder, slaughter and enslavement.
The Age of the Vikings has begun – and in just a couple of centuries it changed Britain and its people.
After decades of sporadic raids, in 865 an entire Danish army entered the Humber and sailed up the river Trent, taking the strategic town of Repton in the heart of England. From here, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms began to fall – Northumbria, East Anglia, the fearsomely powerful Mercia. Only Alfred the Great’s Wessex halted the Viking tide. A divided England was established, with Danes ruling the north and east under the truce of the Danelaw from Jorvik, capital of the ‘Kingdom of York’.
This is the story we are told of the Vikings – and all of it is true. The Vikings were brutal, pagan raiders who shaped the entire future of Britain in just a couple of centuries before the Norman invasion of 1066.
University of Cambridge linguist Dr Richard Dance can reel off dozens of examples of our unseen Viking heritage. Northern words such as ‘tyke’ and ‘muck’ come from Old Norse; place names of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire are full of clues. The ending ‘-by’ (Whitby, Derby) and ‘-thorpe’ (Scunthorpe, Cleethorpes) are Viking. ‘Eggs’, ‘skirt’, ‘sky’, ‘skin’… all Viking. And next time you see a builder’s skip, reflect that it is the Viking word for ship. The Vikings are in our history, in our language and, as scientists have revealed, in our DNA. But just who were they?
Working on the BBC Two series Vikings (presented by Neil Oliver in 2012), I wanted to get beyond the legend of axe-wielding men to get to grips with some really big questions. Aware that so much of what we know of the Vikings comes from our own British experience, I wanted to explore Scandinavia and discover who the Vikings really were – the Vikings at home. How did these incredible people emerge? Why did the Viking Age erupt so suddenly? And how did the Vikings see themselves?
What I found was certainly not a new, cuter Viking. The deeper we went, the more dark, bloodthirsty rites seemed to come out of the woodwork. The Viking Age will always be brutal, but it was also far more complex and fascinating than the standard image of sea-faring warriors fighting for booty and glory. These were people shaped by thousands of years of Scandinavian land and sea. This was a very different prehistoric world to our own, with a culture that developed along its own unique trajectory outside the bounds of the Roman empire.
The archaeological sites and conserved Viking treasures from across Scandinavia are simply jaw-dropping. They offer remarkable insights into the lives of the Vikings, the extent of their influence and trade, their strange beliefs, the burials of their kings and, of course, their peerless maritime technology – the original meaning of the word ‘Viking’ was something you did rather than what you were. “To go viking” was to explore, to adventure.
To understand how the Vikings came to be, I explored the vast and varied lands of Scandinavia. Norway’s habitable land is squeezed between its ragged Atlantic coast to the west and its frozen mountains to the east. Today, as a result of climate change, ancient artefacts are melting out of retreating glacial ice, giving archaeologists the opportunity to examine the remains of hunters and reindeer pastoralists from thousands of years ago.
To the south, Denmark is very different. Jutland forms the gateway to the Baltic; it’s rich in agricultural land, but also has low-lying peat bogs in which many Iron Age sacrifices have been discovered. To the east is Sweden, facing the main body of the Baltic and the eastern lands of Russia and Asia beyond. These lands all had one thing in common, though – the sea.
Where in Britain we have hundreds of stone circles, on the Baltic island of Gotland there are ancient stone ships. Gotland University researcher Joakim Wehlin has studied more than 400 of them on this one island; the largest, the Stone Ship of Ansarve, is 45 metres long, created using granite boulders 3,000 years ago. There are also intricate rock carvings depicting ships with curved bows, populated by men with weapons and ceremonial bronze horns called lurs – today you can see their curved form adorning every pack of Lurpak butter. To look at some of these carvings is to look upon the ancient ancestors of the Vikings.
As well as carvings, the remains of actual boats from Iron Age conflicts have also been discovered, complete with helmets, armour and weapons. One such vessel, the Hjortspring Boat (pictured above), is among the treasures of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, and testifies to a long tradition of maritime fighting. It seems that the warrior tribes of the Baltic had been raiding one another for many hundreds of years before they took to the open seas to launch the raids for which they became infamous.
The exact reasons why are not known, but a number of factors are clear. First, the Roman empire never extended into Scandinavia, so the Iron Age chiefdoms remained intact without Roman law, towns or Christianity. In the south there was trade with Rome, bringing a taste for luxury goods, increasing centralisation of power, and an emerging north–south divide.
It is no surprise that, several hundred years later, the first recorded raids on England reportedly came from the Atlantic coast of Norway near today’s regional capital of Bergen. There was no land here to accommodate population expansion; centralising mini-kingdoms were competing for wealth and glory; and the region also boasted uninterrupted pagan culture. These were people who hailed the power of the great Norse gods of Odin and Thor, and showed no fear of a single Christian god. To them, the eighth-century wealth of riskily undefended Anglo-Saxon monasteries, perched conveniently right on the highway of the sea, must have seemed like an open invitation.
The first raids might have come from Norway, but it was mainly the Danes who took to occupying large parts of England. From the 870s the city of York became the important Viking trading centre of Jorvik, with families as well as warriors forging new urban lives and mixing in with Anglo-Saxon society.
In contrast with our image of fierce warriors, York reveals the lives of the Vikings at home. Jorvik expert Dr Søren Sindbæk of the University of York points to the importance of women, weaving at home as part of a boom in the textile industry, as well as metalworkers and other craftsmen.
Incredibly, Jorvik was far larger than any settlement in Denmark itself. The riches that Denmark drew from England and the slaves it took from Ireland as well as its strategic position made the Danes the powerbrokers of the emerging Viking kingdoms. But the early Danish settlements in England and Ireland were not the first. That honour went to Sweden’s outposts in the east.
With our domestic focus on the Vikings in Britain, the experience of the east-facing Vikings of Sweden is easy to overlook. As early as 753 they had established a settlement called Staraya Ladoga, east of today’s St Petersburg – the very first town in Russia and a gateway to the east.
Having sailed across the glassy Baltic, the Swedish Vikings used lighter inland boats to navigate a whole new continent, carrying them between lakes and river routes. The purpose was largely trade rather than war, and it brought the Swedish Vikings (known as the Rus, from which the name of Russia is derived) into contact with new and spectacular sights, people and treasures.
By 839 the Swedish Vikings had reached Constantinople, a global metropolis of some half a million people. This was perhaps the richest, most civilised and among the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet.
The aristocrats of Sweden had access to goods of unprecedented luxury. Fragments of silk, likely to have been spun in China and woven in the Middle East, have been found in Swedish Viking excavations.
In a single site on the tiny Swedish island of Helgo, archaeologists have recovered an Irish bishop’s crozier, an Ethiopian Coptic ladle, and a statuette of a Buddha that somehow travelled west all the way from India. Some of the most telling finds of all are vast quantities of coins. These are Arab silver, exchanged along with precious silks and spices for Scandinavian furs, amber and slaves.
Observations from the east
Much of what we know of Viking appearance and belief comes from Muslim writers. A 10th‑century Kurdish chronicler called Ahmad ibn Fadlan kept a journal in which he detailed his encounters with the tall, blond Rus. It is through Ibn Fadlan that we have a first-hand account of the burial of a Viking chieftain and the grim realities of Viking belief. The chieftain, it seems, was not only sent to the afterlife alongside sacrificed dogs and horses, but also with a sacrificed slave girl who, according to the writer, had been raped by the chieftain’s close followers, supposedly to honour their dead leader. Behind the silks and other luxury goods that came from the east, the Swedish Vikings, it seems, never lost their dark, inner-Viking brutality.
The other great source of knowledge about Viking beliefs comes from the Sagas, written later, towards the very end of the Viking Age, and largely the creation of an isolated island in the north Atlantic – Iceland. While the Viking Swedes were trading with the great civilisations of the east and the Viking Danes were securing territories in England and Ireland, the Norwegian Vikings, always pressed for land, were launching some of the greatest voyages ever undertaken to the north and west.
Mainly written in the 13th century, the Sagas are tales of a bygone age (‘saga’ means literally ‘what is said’), of the histories and semi-mythical voyages of Viking heroes from around 930 to 1030. It is from these that we learn of the belief that Valhalla, the home of the Norse gods, was open only to mortals who had displayed deeds of valour. To go viking – to explore and prove yourself as a man – was everything. In an age of oral history, the most important thing for a Viking was to be remembered.
Iceland was settled in the late ninth century and became a base from which Norse sailors reached Greenland and North America. The challenging conditions of Greenland and the far north eventually proved too much even for them, but Iceland thrived.
From infighting between Baltic tribes, in just a couple of hundred years the Vikings had travelled to Newfoundland in the west and Baghdad in the east. But the adventure that had given rise to an age was about to end – not with defeat but with assimilation.
Denmark was becoming a single kingdom under a new dynasty, and one of its first kings, Harald Bluetooth, had become a Christian. With the acceptance of this new religion, after a few bloody teething troubles the Vikings were transformed from pagan outsiders to European statesmen.
We know Harald’s grandson as an English king: Cnut. Our own history remembers him teaching his sycophantic courtiers a lesson by showing that he did not, as they had suggested, have the power to halt the tide. It was a very maritime thing, a Viking thing to do. Cnut, however, was something new. He was a Eurocrat, king of England but also of Denmark and large pieces of Norway and Sweden. He was present at a papal coronation in 1027 and attempted to align coinage and silver standards across his empire.
Cnut was a Viking in blood, but it can hardly be imagined that the young men who had raided Lindisfarne less than 250 years before would have quite thought of him as ‘one of them’. Britain itself stood on the brink of 1066 and a new Norman age – but remember: the Normans were themselves once Norse-men.
The Viking effect
During the Viking Age, intrepid Scandinavian explorers travelled far and wide and their influence was felt in towns from York to Staraya Ladoga…
York: A Viking metropolis
York was a unique creation – a Viking city. Founded by Rome, York had already been revitalised as an urban centre by the time the Vikings attacked and took control. But with a population of perhaps 10,000 the new Jorvik was quite an alien place for Vikings to settle naturally. According to University of York archaeologist Dr Søren Sindbæk, the Vikings who came to York were a special breed. “If you end up in towns, something’s almost always gone wrong,” he says. “The common path was to farm the land.”
So here were immigrant families, living cheek by jowl, trying to adapt to a completely new way of urban life in a foreign country. On the one hand they would have had access to exotic wonders including rare spices and perfumes. On the other hand, they lived in packed timber houses, surrounded by fetid waste.
Jelling and Ribe: The site of a new religion
Today Jelling is a tiny Danish village, but it is a place central to the history of Denmark, Britain and the end of the Viking Age. This is the site of the Jelling Stones that combine Viking runes and imagery showing the Christianisation of Denmark. It was here that Harald I of Denmark, son of the founder of the Jelling dynasty, King Gorm, converted to Christianity and built a church in 965. However, excavations in Ribe, Denmark’s earliest existing town, uncovered skeletons of what could turn out to be an entire Christian community that pre-dates Harald’s conversion.
Harald’s grandson was King Cnut, who we think of as an English king. In fact, Cnut presided over an empire that included England and Denmark as well as pieces of Sweden and Norway. He was a European emperor.
Dublin: The centre of the slave trade
Dublin was founded by the Vikings as a maritime staging post in which to harbour and repair ships. They invented something called a ship fortress, a defence half on land, half on the water. Dublin and the river Liffey allowed the Vikings to foray into the Irish interior in search of monastic gold and silver, but also an even more important booty – slaves.
Iron manacles reveal that Viking Dublin was a key slave market and holding centre. Irish monks writing at the time record that in 871, some 200 ships arrived packed with Angles, Britons and Picts. Apparently the going rate for a male slave was 12oz of silver, while a female fetched 8oz. Archaeologist Linzi Simpson has studied skeletons of some of the earliest of Viking settlers. The bones reveal the toll of both rowing and agricultural work. These people went ‘viking’ before deciding to make Ireland home.
Kaupang: A new way of life
Kaupang, a hundred miles or so south of present day Oslo, is considered to be the first significant urban settlement in Norway. Founded around AD 800, it grew to house a population of perhaps 1,000 people. Like most Viking towns it was a coastal centre, trading in iron, soapstone and fish. Excavations since 2000 have unearthed an incredible 100,000 finds including Arab silver coins, glass beads, gold and bronze jewellery as well as countless weapons and tools.
The deep divisions of the Norwegian fjords favoured smaller petty kingdoms for much longer than its southern rival Denmark, which experienced centralised power much earlier.
Birka: A melting pot of ideas
Established by the middle of the eighth century, Birka was one of the earliest urban settlements in Scandinavia. Li Kolker, of Sweden’s National Historical Museum in Stockholm, describes it as the Viking version of New York or London, bringing in “a melting pot of ideas from abroad”.
Birka was connected in a direct line of trading posts all the way to Constantinople. Everything from eastern silks to silver Arabian dirhams have been found here. In the design of colourful jewellery and the remains of clothing, Middle Eastern influences can be seen. Birka expert Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson says that small fragments of kaftans have even been found made of a combination of wool with silk and fur trimmings.
Hedeby: The ‘debauched’ town
The Vikings did not write their histories, so descriptions of contemporary life are rare, but one 10th‑century Spanish merchant recorded his rather scathing impressions of the important Danish Viking town of Hedeby.
Abraham ben Jacob wrote that both men and women wore eye make-up, that their singing was a rumbling emanating from their throats like that of a dog, but even more bestial, and that women had the right to divorce. He was not impressed by the place.
Archaeological evidence from Hedeby suggests that the small, tightly clustered houses built around Hedeby’s harbour did not have many older occupants. In Hedeby tuberculosis was rife and people rarely lived beyond the age of 40.
Staraya Ladoga: The oldest trading centre
The Viking settlement of Staraya Ladoga (today 75 miles east of St Petersburg) was a gateway into Russia and the east. It has been estimated that between 90 and 95 per cent of all Arabic silver coins found in Sweden, a quarter of a million silver dirhams, came through this single trading town, and Vikings would have also met with Finnish fur traders here.
Wooden houses were in place by 753, well before the earliest recorded raids on Britain, and it might be that Staraya Ladoga is even older than this. The discovery of Scandinavian objects, mainly from the Baltic island of Gotland, suggests that an international market was already established by the early seventh century, making it one of the oldest of all Baltic trading centres.
Cameron Balbirnie is a film maker and journalist who worked on the major BBC series A History of Ancient Britain (2011) and Vikings (2012)