From around A.D. 800 to the 11th century, a vast number of Scandinavians left their homelands to seek their fortunes elsewhere. These seafaring warriors–known collectively as Vikings or Norsemen (“Northmen”)–began by raiding coastal sites, especially undefended monasteries, in the British Isles. Over the next three centuries, they would leave their mark as pirates, raiders, traders and settlers on much of Britain and the European continent, as well as parts of modern-day Russia, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.
Who Were the Vikings?
Contrary to some popular conceptions of the Vikings, they were not a “race” linked by ties of common ancestry or patriotism, and could not be defined by any particular sense of “Viking-ness.” Most of the Vikings whose activities are best known come from the areas now known as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, though there are mentions in historical records of Finnish, Estonian and Saami Vikings as well. Their common ground–and what made them different from the European peoples they confronted–was that they came from a foreign land, they were not “civilized” in the local understanding of the word and–most importantly–they were not Christian.
The exact reasons for Vikings venturing out from their homeland are uncertain; some have suggested it was due to overpopulation of their homeland, but the earliest Vikings were looking for riches, not land. In the eighth century A.D., Europe was growing richer, fueling the growth of trading centers such as Dorestad and Quentovic on the Continent and Hamwic (now Southampton), London, Ipswich and York in England. Scandinavian furs were highly prized in the new trading markets; from their trade with the Europeans, Scandinavians learned about new sailing technology as well as about the growing wealth and accompanying inner conflicts between European kingdoms. The Viking predecessors–pirates who preyed on merchant ships in the Baltic Sea–would use this knowledge to expand their fortune-seeking activities into the North Sea and beyond.
Early Viking Raids
In A.D. 793, an attack on the Lindisfarne monastery off the coast of Northumberland in northeastern England marked the beginning of the Viking Age. The culprits–probably Norwegians who sailed directly across the North Sea–did not destroy the monastery completely, but the attack shook the European religious world to its core. Unlike other groups, these strange new invaders had no respect for religious institutions such as the monasteries, which were often left unguarded and vulnerable near the shore. Two years later, Viking raids struck the undefended island monasteries of Skye and Iona (in the Hebrides) as well as Rathlin (off the northeast coast of Ireland). The first recorded raid in continental Europe came in 799, at the island monastery of St Philibert’s on Noirmoutier, near the estuary of the Loire River.
For several decades, the Vikings confined themselves to hit-and-run raids against coastal targets in the British Isles (particularly Ireland) and Europe (the trading center of Dorestad, 80 kilometers from the North Sea, became a frequent target after 830). They then took advantage of internal conflicts in Europe to extend their activity further inland: after the death of Louis the Pious, emperor of Frankia (modern-day France and Germany), in 840, his son Lothar actually invited the support of a Viking fleet in a power struggle with brothers. Before long other Vikings realized that Frankish rulers were willing to pay them rich sums to prevent them from attacking their subjects, making Frankia an irresistible target for further Viking activity.
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Conquests in the British Isles
By the mid-ninth century, Ireland, Scotland and England had become major targets for Viking settlement as well as raids. Vikings gained control of the Northern Isles of Scotland (Shetland and the Orkneys), the Hebrides and much of mainland Scotland. They founded Ireland’s first trading towns: Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow and Limerick, and used their base on the Irish coast to launch attacks within Ireland and across the Irish Sea to England. When King Charles the Bald began defending West Frankia more energetically in 862, fortifying towns, abbeys, rivers and coastal areas, Viking forces began to concentrate more on England than Frankia.
In the wave of Viking attacks in England after 851, only one kingdom–Wessex–was able to successfully resist. Viking armies (mostly Danish) conquered East Anglia and Northumberland and dismantled Mercia, while in 871 King Alfred the Great of Wessex became the only king to decisively defeat a Danish army in England. Leaving Wessex, the Danes settled to the north, in an area known as “Danelaw.” Many of them became farmers and traders and established York as a leading mercantile city. In the first half of the 10th century, English armies led by the descendants of Alfred of Wessex began reconquering Scandinavian areas of England; the last Scandinavian king, Erik Bloodaxe, was expelled and killed around 952, permanently uniting English into one kingdom.
Viking Settlements: Europe and Beyond
Meanwhile, Viking armies remained active on the European continent throughout the ninth century, brutally sacking Nantes (on the French coast) in 842 and attacking towns as far inland as Paris, Limoges, Orleans, Tours and Nimes. In 844, Vikings stormed Seville (then controlled by the Arabs); in 859, they plundered Pisa, though an Arab fleet battered them on the way back north. In 911, the West Frankish king granted Rouen and the surrounding territory by treaty to a Viking chief called Rollo in exchange for the latter’s denying passage to the Seine to other raiders. This region of northern France is now known as Normandy, or “land of the Northmen.”
In the ninth century, Scandinavians (mainly Norwegians) began to colonize Iceland, an island in the North Atlantic where no one had yet settled in large numbers. By the late 10th century, some Vikings (including the famous Erik the Red) moved even further westward, to Greenland. According to later Icelandic histories, some of the early Viking settlers in Greenland (supposedly led by the Viking hero Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red) may have become the first Europeans to discover and explore North America. Calling their landing place Vinland (Wine-land), they built a temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in modern-day Newfoundland. Beyond that, there is little evidence of Viking presence in the New World, and they didn’t form permanent settlements.
The mid-10th-century reign of Harald Bluetooth as king of a newly unified, powerful and Christianized Denmark marked the beginning of a second Viking age. Large-scale raids, often organized by royal leaders, hit the coasts of Europe and especially England, where the line of kings descended from Alfred the Great was faltering. Harald’s rebellious son, Sven Forkbeard, led Viking raids on England beginning in 991 and conquered the entire kingdom in 1013, sending King Ethelred into exile. Sven died the following year, leaving his son Knut (or Canute) to rule a Scandinavian empire (comprising England, Denmark, and Norway) on the North Sea.
After Knut’s death, his two sons succeeded him, but both were dead by 1042 and Edward the Confessor, son of the previous (non-Danish) king, returned from exile and regained the English throne from the Danes. Upon his death (without heirs) in 1066, Harold Godwinesson, the son of Edward’s most powerful noble, laid claim to the throne. Harold’s army was able to defeat an invasion led by the last great Viking king–Harald Hardrada of Norway–at Stamford Bridge, near York, but fell to the forces of William, Duke of Normandy (himself a descendant of Scandinavian settlers in northern France) just weeks later. Crowned king of England on Christmas Day in 1066, William managed to retain the crown against further Danish challenges.
End of the Viking Age
The events of 1066 in England effectively marked the end of the Viking Age. By that time, all of the Scandinavian kingdoms were Christian, and what remained of Viking “culture” was being absorbed into the culture of Christian Europe. Today, signs of the Viking legacy can be found mostly in the Scandinavian origins of some vocabulary and place-names in the areas in which they settled, including northern England, Scotland and Russia. In Iceland, the Vikings left an extensive body of literature, the Icelandic sagas, in which they celebrated the greatest victories of their glorious past.