Though they might have a reputation as barbaric heathens, the Vikings were the European Dark Ages’ most ambitious and advanced people. As masters of the sea, fearless explorers, ruthless raiders and successful traders, they tore up the map of the ancient world and drew themselves a new one – much of which remains familiar in modern atlases.
Erupting out of Scandinavia in the eighth century AD, the Vikings dominated northern Europe, but their influence stretched as far as Russia, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.
They discovered the major islands of the North Atlantic, and set up a colony in America five centuries before Columbus. Read on, as Pat Kinsella shines a new light on the Vikings…
A Viking attack on Lindisfarne Abbey is believed to be carved into this stone, on the holy island. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Vikings in northern Europe
From hit-and-run raiders to powerful kings, the Vikings flourished in northern Europe
The first appearance of the “Northmen from the land of robbers”, according to the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle, came in the form of three alien-looking longships lurking off the shores of Wessex in AD 787. When a reeve went to meet them, he was slain. These strangers did not come in peace. Six years later they reappeared, and ruthlessly ransacked Northumbria’s Lindisfarne monastery in a shock-and-awe attack that horrified Christian England. The Viking Age had begun.
In the decades that followed, longships would appear suddenly to stage violent hit-and-run raids on vulnerable monasteries and settlements around the coast of Britain. As word spread, monks gathered their holy relics and fled into hiding. Many records were lost amid the destruction. The Danes began overwintering in England by the mid-ninth century AD and, in 866, the ‘Great Heathen Army’ captured the city of York. Leading the onslaught against the four kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England – Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia and Wessex – were Ívarr the Boneless and his brother Hálfdan Ragnarsson, who became the first King of Jórvík (Scandinavian York) and claimed the crown of Dublin.
Only Wessex, under King Æthelred and his brother, Alfred the Great, avoided complete conquest. By the Battle of Edington in AD 878 – when Alfred was victorious and Viking King Guthrum converted to Christianity and withdrew from Wessex – the territory of ‘Danelaw’ extended from Yorkshire to East Anglia. Danish power declined, however, until, in AD 927, Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan reclaimed York and became the first king of all Anglo-Saxon England.
In 1013 – after the 1002 St Brice’s Day massacre, when King Æthelred the Unready ordered the mass slaying of Danish people in England – Sweyn Forkbeard invaded and became the first King of Denmark and England. He was succeeded by his son, Cnut the Great, who added Norway to his realm in 1028.
The English crown eventually reverted to the House of Wessex, passing from Cnut’s son Harthacnut to his half-brother Edward the Confessor, then Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king. In 1066, the era ended violently, when Harold quashed an attack by Norwegian Viking Harald Hardrada, but suffered defeat and death during the invasion of the Normans (themselves direct descents of Vikings).
In the ninth century AD, Norwegian Vikings overran and settled the Isle of Man and Scottish islands such as the Orkneys and Shetlands. They killed powerful Pict leaders, such as Eóganan mac Óengusa, which led to the rise of canny King Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpine). He may not have truly been the first king of the Scots, but the Vikings’ arrival did gradually force an alliance between Picts and Gaels, leading to the formation of the Kingdom of Alba by AD 900, which became Scotland.
The Welsh kings were strong and largely survived the Viking onslaught. The Norse exploited an age-old enmity by forming an alliance with the Welsh in AD 878 to defeat the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In AD 893, however, the Welsh switched sides, aligning with Anglo-Saxons from Wessex to pursue a Viking force along the River Severn and defeat them at the Battle of Buttington.
While the Vikings weren’t as dominant in Wales as they were elsewhere, and never fully controlled the region, they did found and name some cities and features, including Swansea (from the Norse Sweyns Ey, meaning ‘Sweyn’s island’, after Sweyn Forkbeard).
In AD 795, a church on Rathlin Island on the Antrim coast was raided and monasteries on Inismurray and Inishbofin were plundered. The Vikings had discovered Ireland.
After a period of opportunistic raiding, Ireland experienced two main Viking invasions – in the mid-ninth and early tenth centuries AD – which provoked both battles and alliances between the Norse newcomers and the local Celtic kings. As was the case in England, conflict caused by the Vikings’ arrival eventually (albeit temporarily) unified the country under one king, Brian Boru, for the first time. Ireland was never fully conquered by the Vikings, however.
The Scandinavians were assimilated into the population and became Hiberno-Norse. Norsemen first overwintered in what is now Dublin in AD 841–42, and ‘Dyflin’ soon became a hugely important Viking settlement, home to a large slave market. Although Norse-Irish alliances were commonplace during regional squabbles, co-ordinated resistance from the many kings of medieval Ireland was also strong, and the Vikings were defeated and vanquished from Dublin in AD 902. They were back by AD 914, however, when the second Viking invasion began.
The end of the era is marked by the epic Battle of Clontarf in 1014, between Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, and a Hiberno-Norse alliance. Boru won, but was killed in the conflict.
As the name suggests, Normandy – ‘Land of the Norsemen’ – has strong Viking connections. After Viking leader Rollo attacked Paris and besieged Chartres, King Charles III negotiated the AD 911 Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, which granted the invader lands in the Normandy area. In AD 996, this would become the Duchy of Normandy. Intermarriage and a fusion of cultures and languages between the Scandinavians, the Franks and the Gauls led to the birth of the people we know as the Normans. It was a direct descendant of Rollo, William Duke of Normandy, who conquered Anglo-Saxon King Harold’s forces at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, ushering in a new era of Viking rule in England – albeit under a different name.
Vikings in the Mediterranean
As the Scandinavian explorers pushed south, they found war – and wealth
Muslim caliphates had the mouth of the Mediterranean well defended in the early ninth century AD, so it was risky for Vikings to try and raid by sea. There are reports of tenacious Vikings trafficking slaves overland but, eventually, the potential spoils of raiding expeditions into the south proved irresistible.
The Vikings’ first attempt to push into the Mediterranean came in AD 844. A fleet of up to 100 ships left Aquitaine (France) to attack Gijon and Coruña (both north Spain). They met stiff resistance from the Christian Asturians, and continued around Iberia, staging a 13-day raid on Lisbon (in modern-day Portugal), attacking Cadiz (Spain) and pushing inland to capture Seville and menace Córdoba.
The Muslim caliphate under Abd al-Rahman II fought back hard. They ambushed the Vikings, hanging and beheadingvmany of them. The Norsemen had to buy their way out and scuttle back to Aquitaine.
A more successful Viking excursion to the area came 15 years later. It was led by Hastein and Björn Ironside, sons of the legendary Viking Ragnar (some sources suggest Hastein was adopted). In AD 859, they left France’s Loire to sail around the Iberian Peninsula with an expedition of 62 ships. Again, they struggled against the Asturians and, in Spain, were defeated by the Muslim army of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba.
Instead of fleeing back north, the Vikings slipped through the straits, past the Pillars of Hercules and into the Mediterranean, taking Algeciras (south Spain) by surprise, sacking the town and torching the mosque. More raids followed on the shores of North Africa, where they plundered Nekor (in modern Morocco), and attacked settlements at Orihuela (south-east Spain) and the Balearic Islands.
After spending winter in Camargue on the mouth of the River Rhone, Hastein and Björn renewed their offensive in the Rhone Valley. They sacked Narbonne, Nîmes and Arles, pushing as far north up the river as Valence, before turning their attentions to Italy. At least part of the Viking fleet travelled along the Tuscan coast, went up the River Arno and attacked Pisa and Fiesole.
The Italian city of Luna suffered the most infamous assault of the campaign. Thinking they’d reached Rome, Hastein allegedly pretended to be mortally injured and pleaded to be given access to the city so he could convert to Christianity and receive the sacraments before dying. The bishop consented and, once inside, Hastein feigned death. A group of mourners was then also given access, whereupon Hastein came back to life and led a murderous attack on Luna from within. It was only while withdrawing that they realised they hadn’t actually toppled Rome.
According to some reports, the Vikings carried on, even reaching and raiding Byzantine Empire settlements in the eastern Mediterranean.
When they did finally turn around to go home, stopping briefly to pick up some slaves (possibly West Africans or Tuaregs, known to the Vikings as blámenn – ‘blue men’), they once again battled a strong Muslim force at the mouth of the Mediterranean. The last action of the campaign saw Pamplona (north Spain) take a pasting, before Hastein and Björn arrived back at the Loire with 20 surviving ships in AD 862.
Vikings in Russia and beyond
It was the Vikings who headed east that had, perhaps, the biggest impact of all
To the Slavic peoples, these Nordic newcomers were known as the Varangians or the Rus’, and they dominated events in the region from the ninth to the 11th centuries, leaving a legacy seen in the very names of Russia and Belarus.
They travelled deep into the continent along the Volga and Dnieper Rivers, seizing control of ancient trade routes and establishing the major city of Kiev. They even sold their lethal skills to the Eastern Roman Empire, for whom they worked as the mercenary Byzantine Varangian Guard. Primary sources are scant, and debate rages around the origins of this period’s main protagonists, but it’s commonly accepted that the Rus’ first arrived in the region in the midninth. century AD. They began extractingmoney from the local population of Slavic tribes living around the settlement of Novgorod, which the Norse called Holmgård.
The Byzantine Emperor Theophilus’s Varangian Guard was thought to have included Vikings. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
In AD 862, these tribes drove the invaders back into the sea. But chaos and fighting ensued between rival groups and the Rus’ were allegedly invited back to restore order, which they did under the leadership of a man named Rurik. The dynasty that Rurik established lasted seven centuries, right up until the Tsardom of Russia.
It was arund the time of Rurik’s reign that the Rus’ mounted the first of several attacks on the Byzantine capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul). Rurik’s successor, Oleg, moved his capital to Kiev and created the Kievan Rus’ state. At its height, the state controlled trade along the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga Rivers, which respectively flow into the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas, thus forming a trade network that connected Medieval Central Europe and the Byzantine Empire with wealthy Arab caliphates stretching as far as Baghdad. It made the Rus’ rich and their territory swelled rapidly.
Several times the Rus’ waged war against Constantinople, primarily to secure better trading terms, in conflicts that sometimes involved up to 10,000 vessels and saw the Rus’ calling in reinforcements from Varangians “beyond the sea” – meaning Scandinavia.
By AD 980, Vladimir the Great (a descendant of Rurik and Oleg) had consolidated the region from modern Ukraine to the Baltic Sea, after enlisting the help of his relative Jarl Håkon Sigurdsson, ruler of Norway, to retake Novgorod and Kiev from his brother. Vladimir converted the empire to Christianity during his rule, which lasted until 1015.
Meanwhile, all ranks of the Rus’ had been busy intermarrying with the various Slavic peoples and, by the end of 12th century, a new ethnic group had emerged: the Russians.
Vikings in the north
The colonies of Iceland and Greenland reveal the Norsemen’s peaceful side
For a range of reasons – including violent feuds, civil unrest in Norway under King Harald I, a desire to find good land, and an inherent urge to explore – various Vikings island-hopped across the North Sea during the ninth century AD.
Norsemen were occupying the Faroe Islands by AD 800 and, by the second half of the century, they were braving colder climes closer to the Arctic Circle. The first Viking visitors to Iceland washed up on the island’s shores by mistake.
These include Naddodd, who got lost while sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands, and chanced upon Iceland’s east coast. Naddodd called the country Snæland (Snowland), but it was rebranded by Swedish Viking Garðar Svavarsson, who also arrived in error, but stayed long enough to circumnavigate the island and name it after himself: Garðarshólmi. The current name, Ísland (Iceland), originated with Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Viking to deliberately visit and spend a winter there.
Winters were dark and harsh, but at least Iceland didn’t have an indignant indigenous population. Beyond a lonely slave left behind by Garðar, and possibly a superreclusive cave-dwelling Irish monk, Iceland was uninhabited. That suited Ingólfur Arnarson, a Viking chief who arrived with his foster brother Hjörleifur in AD 874, fleeing a blood feud in Norway.
The brothers landed on Iceland’s southwestern peninsula, in a place Arnarson called Reykjavík (meaning ‘Bay of Smokes’, reflecting the geothermal activity of the area). Hjörleifur was murdered by his ill-treated slaves, but Arnarson didn’t stay lonely for long; between 874 and 930 AD, as many as 20,000 settlers arrived in Iceland. A parliament (Alþingi) was formed and laws were established.
After falling foul of these laws by killing several men during a dispute, a Viking named Erik the Red was banished from Iceland for three years in AD 982. Leaving with 25 ships, Erik discovered Greenland and spent his exile exploring the southern coast. He returned to Greenland in AD 986, taking with him a group of settlers.
They arrived in a warm period, but life proved tough. The land was hard, there were no trees and the climate worsened, eventually resulting in a mini ice age.
The Thule people, ancestors of the Inuit, whom the Norse called ‘Skrælings’, made life trickier still. They were expanding across the region and, in the latter stage of Viking occupation, one settlement suffered a Skræling attack.
At one stage populated by about 5,000 people, Greenland’s Nordic settlements lasted nearly five centuries before becoming isolated and losing contact with Iceland and Scandinavia.
The Greenlanders disappeared into the mists of mythology. All records disappear after the 15th century, and a Dano-Norwegian expedition to Greenland in 1721 found no surviving Europeans.
However, long before its decline, Nordic Greenland produced probably the Viking’s bestknown explorer: Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, who established a settlement in America 500 years before Columbus.
A statue of Leif Eriksson, Erik the Red’s son, who sailed to North America, c1000 AD. (Image by RF/Getty Images)
Vikings in America
The Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot on American soil
Leif Eriksson is credited with establishing a colony in current-day Canada, but he wasn’t the first European to eyeball the North American continent. That honour belongs to Norwegian Bjarni Herjólfsson who, so the Groenlendinga saga says, sighted a coast well west of Greenland in AD 986, after getting woefully lost while attempting to find his father, who’d emigrated with Erik the Red.
Herjólfsson eventually located Greenland, where he recounted the experience and was much derided for failing to land and explore the new shores – especially by Erik, who loved an adventure. Around AD 1000, Erik’s son Leif Eriksson purchased Herjólfsson’s knarr (boat) and retraced his route with a crew of 35, following landmarks, currents and winds during an 1,800-mile journey to an utterly unknown new world. Erik himself would have led the expedition, but he fell from his horse and suffered an injury shortly before departure. The sagas – including Eiríks saga rauða (‘Erik the Red’s saga’), Hauksbók and the Flatey Book – provide accounts of three areas discovered during Leif’s North American adventures: Helluland, meaning the ‘land of the flat stones’ (now Baffin Island); Markland ‘land of forests’, (Labrador and Newfoundland); as well as Vinland, ‘land of wine’, (Newfoundland Island). Leif camped in Leifsbúðir (near Cape Bauld, close to present-day L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland) in 1001. He spent two winters there, discovering “wine-berries” (probably naturally fermenting squashberries, gooseberries or cranberries) in the process, before returning to Greenland.
The new country had everything Greenland didn’t, including trees (required for building boats and houses), good soil, less brutal weather and plenty of prey animals. However, it also had an indigenous population of Inuits and First Nation tribes – all referred to as ‘Skrælings’ by the Norse – who weren’t thrilled with the sudden arrival of these flaxenhaired paleskins.
Leif’s brother Thorvald Eriksson visited in 1004, bringing with him 30 men and overwintering at Leifsbúðir. Thorvald seemingly instigated conflict with the Skrælings by attacking a group while they slept beneath canoes. This provoked a violent response from the tribe, which led to Thorvald’s murder.
Another Viking, Thorfinn Karlsefni, made a concerted effort to properly settle the new world in 1009, arriving with three ships, livestock and 160-250 people, including Leif’s sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir. The group tried settling at Straumfford and Straumsöy, and managed to establish trade with Skrælings.
Conflict eventually erupted between the newcomers and the First Nation people, however, who are described as using a largescale catapult in battle. One infamous incident described in Eiríks saga rauða, depicts a pregnant Freydís – standing her ground during an attack, while all the menfolk run – scaring the Skrælings away by baring her breast and striking it with a sword.
Ultimately, these attacks and the colony’s remoteness doomed it to failure. Because contact was lost with Greenland, details are scant, but it’s possible wood-gathering and trading trips to Markland continued for 350 years. The Icelandic Annals tells of an 18-man vessel, loaded with wood, that arrived in Iceland in 1347, while attempting to return to Greenland from Markland.
Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer and editor.
This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed