Global Vikings: how the impact of the raiders and traders went far beyond Britain

When we think of the Vikings, we generally think of the early medieval Scandinavians who embarked on raids against their neighbours from the ninth to the 11th century. But the Viking age was about far more than invading and pillaging, says historian Levi Roach. Here, he chooses eight key dates that explain the expansion of the Vikings in Europe and beyond…

The legendary Varangian (Viking mercenary) Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Inspired by History Extra’s 8 key Viking dates you need to know’ article, which focuses almost exclusively on Viking activity in England, I’ve come up with a different list – which seeks to place the Viking phenomenon more firmly in its European and global context. The term ‘Viking’ (sometimes now used with a lower-case V) originally referred to those early medieval Scandinavians who embarked on raids against their neighbours. However, as these eight dates reveal, the Viking Age was about far more than invading and pillaging…

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782: First contact with wider Europe

For all the attention garnered by the sack of Lindisfarne in 793, this is not, in fact, the first mention of the Vikings. It is not even the first recorded attack. Already in 789, we hear of a Viking group killing a royal officer in southern England. And seven years earlier (782), we are informed that “the Northmen, messengers of King Sigfred [of Denmark]”, came to the court of the great continental ruler Charlemagne in order to establish diplomatic contact.

This embassy sheds important light on the origins and causes of the Viking Age. Trading links between England, the continental mainland and Scandinavia had been growing for some time – as finds of jewellery, ceramics and other imported matters at the southern Danish port of Ribe reveal. According to a study led by archaeologists at the University of York, Vikings were traveling from Norway to a marketplace at Ribe as early as 725 – well before their ‘infamous pillaging’ years.

The sudden appearance of Viking raiders in the later years of the eighth century can be explained by Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony, just south of Denmark. This was first attempted in 772 and consolidated over the next 30 years. It brought the Frankish empire – the power in mainland Europe – face to face with the Danes, opening new points of contact and new possibilities for raiding. Suddenly, the Danes became aware of the wealth, power and influence of their new neighbours. It was to Denmark that the Saxon leader Widukind fled when he was defeated by Charlemagne’s troops in 777. And just half a decade later, Sigfred made contact with Charlemagne.

Viking sailors make the long voyage across the Atlantic between Europe and America, in order to bring back timber, circa 1350. The Vikings are thought to have discovered America in around 1000 AD, but never attempted full colonization of the new land, due to the hostile natives. Painting by NC Wyeth. (Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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862: Vikings settled in Russia – as traders, not conquerors

In 862 the legendary Varangian (Viking mercenary) Rurik settled in Staraya Ladoga on the Volkhov in the west of modern Russia. Archaeological investigation reveals that the settlement dates back much further, but 862 remains symbolic of the remarkable set of Scandinavian settlements that cropped up along the riverways of modern Russia and Ukraine.

Ladoga was reportedly the first ‘capital’ of the Rus’ people – who give their name to the states of Russia and Belarus (and later Novgorod and then Kiev). It is hard to know the truth behind these claims, but it is clear that Scandinavian cultural and linguistic influence passed along these channels, with a powerful kingdom eventually developing around Kiev. Controlling the lucrative trade routes between Scandinavia and the Middle East, its rulers were more than a match for their neighbours, and even threatened the rich Byzantine capital at Constantinople on a number of occasions.


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885–6: The Viking ‘Great Army’ faced by Alfred the Great lay siege to Paris

If the English activities of the Viking ‘Great Army’, faced by Alfred the Great, are quite well-known, the siege of Paris (the later French capital) is rather less so. This was undertaken shortly after the army was ejected from England. The Seine river metropole was a natural target: already an important and wealthy urban centre, it was accessible by water, and it controlled movement upriver along the Seine, into the heartlands of the Frankish realm.

But, as in Alfred’s England, the Great Army bit off more than it could chew. Though the Frankish emperor Charles the Fat – the great-grandson of Charlemagne – was otherwise occupied during the initial stages of the siege, a determined defence was led by the local count Odo. By the time Charles arrived in early autumn 886, the Vikings had seen enough. Still, these events were not without later resonances. They set Odo’s career on a trajectory that would see him – and somewhat later, his heirs (the Capetian and latterly Bourbon dynasties) – rise to royal dignity; in one form or another, they would rule France till 1789.

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The Oseberg ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. (Photo by: Carl Simon/United Archives/UIG via Getty Images)

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911: The settlement of Normandy

Almost from the moment the Vikings appeared off the coasts of mainland Europe and the British Isles, local rulers started doing deals with them. As the threat became more pronounced, a common response was to set a thief to catch a thief, employing Viking bands as mercenaries in order to ward off other would-be freebooters.

The most famous (and important) of the resulting agreements saw the settlement of the Viking Rollo and his men in and around Rouen, c911. Previous settlements had proven temporary, but Rollo and his men soon put down roots (thanks, in part, to contemporary political turmoil). Their settlement gave rise to what we now know as Normandy (Nor(d)mmania, the ‘land of the Northmen’). In later years, their descendants went on to conquer England and much of southern Italy – and they also played a key part in the First Crusade.

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c965: The conversion of Harald Bluetooth

Starting in the early ninth century, repeated efforts were made by Frankish rulers and missionaries to convert the rulers of Denmark and its neighbours. But while individual converts were quick to gain, kings proved harder nuts to crack.

The conversion of Harald ‘Bluetooth’ Gormsson – who now bequeaths his name to a form of wireless technology – at the hands of the German missionary Poppo in the mid-960s therefore marks an important milestone. Poppo reportedly achieved this by carrying a weight of heated iron without being burned – a miraculous demonstration of his faith, not to mention the power of the Christian deity. The ensuing conversion brought Harald and the Danish realm into the rapidly growing cultural world of western Christendom.

Christianisation and political centralisation went hand-in-hand here, as Harald was also the first ruler of what was a truly unified Danish realm. Both achievements are celebrated in the Jelling Stone, a large rune stone erected by Harald in memory of his father and mother. This proudly proclaims that he had “won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian”.

Runic inscriptions on the Jelling Stone, which was erected by King Harald in c983 and marks the Danes' turn to Christianity. (Photo By DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
Runic inscriptions on the Jelling Stone, which was erected by King Harald in c983 and marks the Danes’ turn to Christianity. (Photo By DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
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1000: The conversion of Iceland

Iceland was settled in the later ninth and early 10th centuries, probably from existing colonies on the Faroes and Shetlands. According to later traditions, the earliest settlers wished to escape the iron fist of Harald Fairhair, one of the first rulers of Norway. While the reliability of these tales is far from clear, they certainly reflect proud local traditions of independence.

Uniquely within western Europe, Iceland was ruled collectively (if not truly democratically) by the Althing (alþingi, ‘the general gathering/assembly’). This was a national assembly of sorts, which all free people might attend and at which the leaders of local communities (the goðar; sing. goði) decided matters of law and justice. Thanks to this distinctive political structure, Iceland became the first region of western Europe to convert to Christianity by committee (as it were), when the Althing decided that it would follow Denmark and Norway in adopting the religion in or around the year 1000.

Viking Berserker figures. The one on the left is wearing a helmet with horns. His companion wears the mask of a wolf or bear. Sweden, 6th century. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

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1014: The battle of Clontarf

Viking raids on Ireland began at much the same time as Britain and mainland Europe. After initial forays in the 790s and early 800s, larger groups soon began to build fortified encampments (known as longports) in which to spend the winter. Some of these went on to become permanent settlements, such as Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and Wexford.

As their presence became more permanent, the Vikings were drawn in to the complex internecine politics of the island. The most famous (and important) of the resulting conflicts was the battle of Clontarf (1014), fought by the legendary Irish king Brian Boru (Bóruma). This is often presented as a straightforward clash between Irish and Vikings, but the reality is much more complicated (if no less compelling).

Brian, who hailed from Munster in the south, achieved his position as high king in part by subduing the people of Leinster to his east. In 1014 Máel Mórda mac Murchada, the ruler of this region, joined forces with Sigtryggr, the Scandinavian ruler of Dublin. They recruited a number of other Viking groups to their cause and set their sights on Brian. The resulting battle was a bloody one, in which Brian and Máel Mórda lost their lives. In the end, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the former, whose forces prevailed, but whose sons struggled to maintain his legacy.

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1103: The death of Magnus Barelegs

Most surveys of the Viking Age end with Harald Hardrada’s failed invasion of England in 1066 – if they even get this far! But the Vikings did not hang up their spears overnight. One of William the Conqueror’s greatest (and recurring) concerns was Danish invasion of the newly conquered English realm. And on the Scottish Isles and in the Irish Sea, they remained a potent force well into the 12th century.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of these late freebooters is Magnus Barelegs (berfœttr, AKA Barefoot). A Norwegian prince by birth, he succeeded his father to the realm there in 1093. Not content with his lot, Magnus set sail for Orkney in 1098. From there he conquered Mann, then raided into northern Wales, before turning back. Three years later, he was up to his old tricks again. This time, he successfully took Dublin, the traditional hub of Viking activity in Ireland, only to die while on a raid with his local ally Muircheartach of Munster (the great-grandson of Brian Boru!).

Dr Levi Roach is senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Exeter. His most recent book Æthelred the Unready has been awarded the Longman-History Today Prize and the Labarge Prize.

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This article was first published on History Extra in February 2019