Vikings to Victorians: A Brief History of Bamburgh from 793 – Present Day

Vikings to Victorians: A Brief History of Bamburgh from 793 – Present Day

G5H3EC UK, England Northumberland, Bamburgh Castle, from the Wynding Beach, late afternoon. Image shot 05/2016. Exact date unknown.

Today we immediately associate Bamburgh with its magnificent Norman castle, but the strategic importance of this location stretches much further back than the 11th century BC. From the Iron Age Britons to bloodthirsty Viking raiders, from an Anglo-Saxon Golden Age to a shocking siege during the Wars of the Roses – waves of peoples have attempted to secure Bamburgh’s invaluable possession.

Bamburgh enjoyed the zenith of its power and prestige between the mid-7th and mid-8th centuries AD, when the stronghold was the royal seat of power for the Anglo-Saxon kings of Northumbria. Yet the kingdom’s prestige soon invited unwelcome attention from overseas.

The raid

In 793 sleek Viking warships appeared off Bamburgh’s coast and landed on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. What followed was one of the most infamous moments in medieval English history. Having heard tales of the monastery’s great wealth, the Viking raiders plundered the monastery and killed the monks within sight of Bamburgh’s stone walls. It marked the beginning of the Viking age of terror in Northumbria.

Viking longships.

Intermittently over the next 273 years Vikings and Anglo-Saxon warlords vied for land, power and influence in Northumbria. Much of the kingdom fell into Viking hands, though Bamburgh managed to remain under Anglo-Saxon control. The Vikings did sack Bamburgh in 993, but it never came directly under the Viking yoke unlike York to the south.

Enter the Normans

Having resisted the Viking scourge, the Anglo-Saxon Earls of Bamburgh soon found themselves facing another threat. In the Autumn of 1066 William the Conqueror and his Norman army landed at Pevensey Bay, defeated King Harold at Hastings and subsequently seized the English Crown.

It was not long before he set about consolidating his hold on his spear-won kingdom, particularly in the north. Just as the Romans had done some 1,000 years earlier, William quickly realised Bamburgh’s strategic location and how it provided a vital buffer for his domain against the troublesome Scots to the North.

For a time William allowed the Earls of Bamburgh to maintain a relative degree of independence. But it did not last long.

Several revolts erupted in the north, forcing the Conqueror to march north and inflict great devastation on his northern lands until near the end of the 11th century.

What caused the 30 year period of internecine violence in medieval England? Dan Snow narrates this animated short documentary on the events that led to 22 May 1455 - the First Battle of Saint Albans.

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Prior to 1462 Bamburgh had been a Lancastrian stronghold, supporting the exiled King Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou.

In mid-1462 Margaret and Henry had sailed down from Scotland with an army and occupied the strategically-important castle, but it did not last. King Edward IV, the Yorkist king, marched north with his own force to drive the Lancastrians out of Northumberland.

Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick (better known as the Kingmaker) and Edward’s trusted Lieutenant, besieged Dunstaburgh and Bamburgh: after a brief siege both Lancastrian garrisons surrendered on Christmas Eve 1462. Yorkist control of Northumberland had been secured. But not for long.

Attempting to reconcile his subjects Edward restored control of Bamburgh, Alnwick and Dunstanburgh – the three main bastions in Northumberland – to Ralph Percy, a Lancastrian who had recently-defected.

Edward’s trust proved misplaced. Percy’s loyalty proved paper-thin, and he betrayed Edward soon after, returning Bamburgh and the other bastions into Lancastrian hands. To strengthen their hold a new Lancastrian force – mainly French and Scottish troops – soon arrived to garrison the castles.

Once again fighting raged in Northumberland as Percy and Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset, attempted to cement Lancastrian authority in northwest England. It proved to no avail. By 15 May 1464 superior Yorkist forces had crushed the remnants of the Lancastrian army – both Somerset and Percy perished during the campaign. The Lancastrian defeat resulted in the garrisons at Alnwick and Dunstanburgh peacefully surrendering to the Yorkists.

But Bamburgh proved a different story.

1464: The Siege of Bamburgh

Despite being heavily outnumbered the Lancastrian garrison at Bamburgh, commanded by Sir Ralph Grey, refused to surrender. And so on 25 June, Warwick laid siege to the stronghold.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. From the Rous Roll, “Warwick the Kingmaker”, Oman, 1899.

The siege did not last long. Within his army’s ranks Warwick had (at least) 3 powerful pieces of artillery, dubbed ‘Newcastle’, ‘London’ and ‘Dysyon’. They unleashed a powerful bombardment on the fortress. The strong Norman walls proved all-but powerless and soon gaping holes appeared in the stronghold’s defences and the buildings within, causing great destruction.

Soon large parts of Bamburgh’s defences were reduced to rubble, the garrison surrendered the city and Grey lost his head. The 1464 Siege of Bamburgh proved the only set-piece siege to occur during the Wars of the Roses, with its fall signalling the end of Lancastrian power in Northumberland.

Most importantly, it also signalled the first time an English castle had fallen to cannon-fire. The message was clear: the age of the castle was at an end.


For the next c.350/400 years Bamburgh Castle’s remains fell into disrepair. Fortunately in 1894 wealthy industrialist William Armstrong set about restoring the property to its former glory. To this day it remains the home of the Armstrong Family with a history few other castles can match.

Featured image credit: Bamburgh Castle. Julian Dowse / Commons.

Vikings to Victorians: A Brief History of Bamburgh from 793 – Present Day - History

First recorded Viking attack happens in Dorset

Vikings attack the island monastery of Iona, Scotland
Iona was attacked in 795 AD, in 802 AD and again in 806 AD

Wessex becomes the Supreme Kingdom
Egbert, King of the West Saxons, conquers Mercia and forces the Northumbrians to submit as well. From then on, Wessex retained its dominance in England. Egbert's grandson, Alfred, initiated the creation of the single kingdom of England.

Kingdom of Scotland formed
Some sources suggest that around 843 AD the kingdom of the Scots and the Picts was amalgamated, and that from this date historians can speak of a 'kingdom of Scotland'.

Athelstan, son of the king of Wessex, defeats a Viking fleet in battle
Egbert, king of Wessex, had made his second son Athelstan king of Kent. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Athelstan fought a sea battle against the Vikings off Sandwich, capturing nine ships and putting the rest to flight.

Edmund, King of the East Angles, is killed by the Vikings
He was beheaded and his head thrown away to prevent proper burial. Much later, his head was finally reunited with the body, and both were buried in the royal residence, which later became known as Bury St Edmunds, a town in East Anglia.

Welsh king Rhodri Mawr is defeated by the Vikings and flees to Ireland

Wessex is overrun by Vikings and King Alfred goes into hiding in the marshes of Athelney (Somerset). After Easter, he called up his troops and defeated the Viking king Guthrum, who he persuaded to be baptised. He later brought Guthrum to terms and created a settlement that divided England.

Athelstan, first king of all England, dies

Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking king in England, is forced out of Yorvik (York)
Eric Bloodaxe was invited to take over the kingdom of Yorvik (York) around 946 AD. He was welcomed by Athelstan, king of Wessex, who wanted Eric to protect his kingdom from Scots and Irish invaders.

Edgar is crowned king of England at Bath, 14 years after taking power
Edgar ruled England from 959 to 975 AD, but it was not until 973 AD - two years before his death - that he organised a solemn coronation and anointing.

Swein Forkbeard, son of the Danish king Harold Bluetooth,forces Æthelred the Unready into exile
England now under Danish control.

August: Edward the Confessor (Edward II) becomes king of England

Westminster Abbey is completed

6 January: Edward the Confessor dies and is succeed by Harold Godwinson
Harold, earl of Wessex, was crowned king of England on 6 January 1066. He was immediately faced with powerful threats from William, duke of Normandy, and Harold Hardrada, king of Norway, both of whom laid claim to the English throne.

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As attested by many instances of rock art, the Northumberland region has a rich prehistory. Archeologists have studied a Mesolithic structure at Howick, which dates to 7500 BC and was identified as Britain's oldest house until it lost this title in 2010 when the discovery of the even older Star Carr house in North Yorkshire was announced, which dates to 8770 BC. They have also found tools, ornaments, building structures and cairns dating to the bronze and iron ages, when the area was occupied by Brythonic Celtic peoples who had migrated from continental Europe, most likely the Votadini whose territory stretched from Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth to Northumberland. It is not clear where the boundary between the Votadini and the other large tribe, the Brigantes, was, although it probably frequently shifted as a result of wars and as smaller tribes and communities changed allegiances. Unlike neighbouring tribes, Votadini farms were surrounded by large walls, banks and ditches and the people made offerings of fine metal objects, but never wore massive armlets. There are also at least three very large hillforts in their territory (Yeavering Bell, Eildon Hill and Traprain Law, the latter two now in Scotland), each was located on the top of a prominent hill or mountain. The hillforts may have been used for over a thousand years by this time as places of refuge and as places for meetings for political and religious ceremonies. [4] Duddo Five Stones in North Northumberland and the Goatstones near Hadrian's Wall are stone circles dating from the Bronze Age. [5]

When Gnaeus Julius Agricola was appointed Roman governor of Britain in 78 AD, most of northern Britain was still controlled by native British tribes. During his governorship Agricola extended Roman control north of Eboracum (York) and into what is now Scotland. Roman settlements, garrisons and roads were established throughout the Northumberland region.

The northern frontier of the Roman occupation fluctuated between Pons Aelius (now Newcastle) and the Forth. Hadrian's Wall was completed by about 130 AD, to define and defend the northern boundary of Roman Britain. By 142, the Romans had completed the Antonine Wall, a more northerly defensive border lying between the Forth and Clyde. However, by 164 they abandoned the Antonine Wall to consolidate defences at Hadrian's Wall.

Two important Roman roads in the region were the Stanegate and Dere Street, the latter extending through the Cheviot Hills to locations well north of the Tweed. Located at the intersection of these two roads, Coria (Corbridge), a Roman supply-base, was the most northerly large town in the Roman Empire. The Roman forts of Vercovicium (Housesteads) on Hadrian's Wall, and Vindolanda (Chesterholm) built to guard the Stanegate, had extensive civil settlements surrounding them.

The Celtic peoples living in the region between the Tyne and the Forth were known to the Romans as the Votadini. When not under direct Roman rule, they functioned as a friendly client kingdom, a somewhat porous buffer against the more warlike Picts to the north.

The gradual Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century led to a poorly documented age of conflict and chaos as different peoples contested territories in northern Britain.

Archaeology Edit

Nearly 2000-year-old Roman boxing gloves were uncovered at Vindolanda in 2017 by the Vidolanda Trust experts led by Dr Andrew Birley. According to the Guardian, being similar in style and function to the full-hand modern boxing gloves, these two gloves found at Vindolanda look like leather bands date back to 120 AD. It is suggested that based on their difference from gladiator gloves warriors using this type of gloves had no purpose to kill each other. These gloves were probably used in a sport for promoting fighting skills. The gloves are currently displayed at Vindolanda's museum. [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

Conquests by Anglian invaders led to the establishment of the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. The first Anglian settlement was effected in 547 by Ida, who, accompanied by his six sons, pushed through the narrow strip of territory between the Cheviots and the sea, and set up a fortress at Bamburgh, which became the royal seat of the Bernician kings. About the end of the 6th century Bernicia was first united with the rival kingdom of Deira under the rule of Æthelfrith of Northumbria, and the district between the Humber and the Forth became known as the kingdom of Northumbria.

After Æthelfrith was killed in battle around 616, Edwin of Deira became king of Northumbria. Æthelfrith's son Oswald fled northwest to the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata where he was converted to Christianity by the monks of Iona. Meanwhile, Paulinus, the first bishop of York, converted King Edwin to Roman Christianity and began an extensive program of conversion and baptism. By his time the kingdom must have reached the west coast, as Edwin is said to have conquered the islands of Anglesey and Man. Under Edwin the Northumbrian kingdom became the chief power in Britain. However, when Cadwallon ap Cadfan defeated Edwin at Hatfield Chase in 633, Northumbria was divided into the former kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira and Christianity suffered a temporary decline.

In 634, Oswald defeated Cadwallon ap Cadfan at the Battle of Heavenfield, resulting in the re-unification of Northumbria. Oswald re-established Christianity in the kingdom and assigned a bishopric at Hexham, where Wilfrid erected a famous early English church. Reunification was followed by a period of Northumbrian expansion into Pictish territory and growing dominance over the Celtic kingdoms of Dál Riata and Strathclyde to the west. Northumbrian encroachments were abruptly curtailed in 685, when Ecgfrith suffered complete defeat by a Pictish force at the Battle of Nechtansmere.

Monastic culture Edit

When Saint Aidan came at the request of Oswald to preach to the Northumbrians he chose the island of Lindisfarne as the site of his church and monastery, and made it the head of the diocese which he founded in 635. For some years the see continued in peace, numbering among its bishops Saint Cuthbert, but in 793 Vikings landed on the island and burnt the settlement, killing many of the monks. The survivors, however, rebuilt the church and continued to live there until 883, when, through fear of a second invasion of the Danes, they fled inland, taking with them the body of Cuthbert and other holy relics.

Against this background, the monasteries of Northumbria developed some remarkably influential cultural products. Cædmon, a monk at Whitby Abbey, authored one of the earliest surviving examples of Old English poetry some time before 680. The Lindisfarne Gospels, an early example of insular art, is attributed to Eadfrith, the bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. Stenton (1971, p. 191) describes the book as follows.

In mere script it is no more than an admirable example of a noble style, and the figure drawing of its illustrations, though probably based on classical models, has more than a touch of naïveté. Its unique importance is due to the beauty and astonishing intricacy of its decoration. The nature of its ornament connects it very closely with a group of Irish manuscripts of which the Book of Kells is the most famous.

Bede's writing, at the Northumbrian monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, gained him a reputation as the most learned scholar of his age. His work is notable for both its breadth (encompassing history, theology, science and literature) and quality, exemplified by the rigorous use of citation. Bede's most famous work is Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is regarded as a highly influential early model of historical scholarship.

The kingdom of Northumbria ceased to exist in 927, when it was incorporated into England as an earldom by Athelstan, the first king of a united England. In 937, Athelstan's victory over a combined Norse-Celtic force in the battle of Brunanburh secured England's control of its northern territory.

The Scottish king Indulf captured Edinburgh in 954, which thenceforth remained in possession of the Scots. His successors made repeated attempts to extend their territory southwards. Malcolm II was finally successful, when, in 1018, he annihilated the Northumbrian army at Carham on the Tweed, and Eadulf the earl of Northumbria ceded all his territory to the north of that river as the price of peace. Henceforth Lothian, consisting of the former region of Northumbria between the Forth and the Tweed, remained in possession of the Scottish kings.

The term Northumberland was first recorded in its contracted modern sense in 1065 in an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relating to a rebellion against Tostig Godwinson.

The vigorous resistance of Northumbria to William the Conqueror was punished by ruthless harrying, mostly south of the River Tees. As recounted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

A.D. 1068. This year King William gave Earl Robert the earldom over Northumberland but the landsmen attacked him in the town of Durham, and slew him, and nine hundred men with him. Soon afterwards Edgar Etheling came with all the Northumbrians to York and the townsmen made a treaty with him: but King William came from the South unawares on them with a large army, and put them to flight, and slew on the spot those who could not escape which were many hundred men and plundered the town. St. Peter's minster he made a profanation, and all other places also he despoiled and trampled upon and the ethelling went back again to Scotland.

The Normans rebuilt the Anglian monasteries of Lindisfarne, Hexham and Tynemouth, and founded Norman abbeys at Newminster (1139), Alnwick (1147), Brinkburn (1180), Hulne, and Blanchland. Castles were built at Newcastle (1080), Alnwick (1096), Bamburgh (1131), Harbottle (1157), Prudhoe (1172), Warkworth (1205), Chillingham, Ford (1287), Dunstanburgh (1313), Morpeth, Langley (1350), Wark on Tweed and Norham (1121), the latter an enclave of the palatine bishops of Durham.

Northumberland county is not mentioned in the Domesday Survey, but the account of the issues of the county, as rendered by Odard the sheriff, is entered in the Great Roll of the Exchequer for 1131.

In 1237, Scotland renounced claims to Northumberland county in the Treaty of York.

During the reign of Edward I (1272–1307), the county of Northumberland was the district between the Tees and the Tweed, and had within it several scattered liberties subject to other powers: Durham, Sadberge, Bedlingtonshire, and Norhamshire belonging to the bishop of Durham Hexhamshire to the archbishop of York Tynedale to the king of Scotland Emildon to the earl of Lancaster and Redesdale to Gilbert de Umfraville, Earl of Angus. These franchises were exempt from the ordinary jurisdiction of the shire. Over time, some were incorporated within the county: Tynedale in 1495 Hexhamshire in 1572 and Norhamshire, Islandshire and Bedlingtonshire by the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844.

The county court for Northumberland was held at different times at Newcastle, Alnwick and Morpeth, until by statute of 1549 it was ordered that the court should thenceforth be held in the town and castle of Alnwick. Under the same statute the sheriffs of Northumberland, who had been in the habit of appropriating the issues of the county to their private use, were required thereafter to deliver in their accounts to the Exchequer in the same manner as the sheriffs of other counties.

From the Norman Conquest until the union of England and Scotland under James I and VI, Northumberland was the scene of perpetual inroads and devastations by the Scots. Norham, Alnwick and Wark were captured by David I of Scotland in the wars of Stephen's reign. In 1174, during his invasion of Northumbria, William I of Scotland, also known as William the Lion, was captured by a party of about four hundred mounted knights, led by Ranulf de Glanvill. This incident became known as the Battle of Alnwick. In 1295, Robert de Ros and the earls of Athol and Menteith ravaged Redesdale, Coquetdale and Tynedale. In 1314 the county was ravaged by king Robert Bruce. And so dire was the Scottish threat in 1382, that by special enactment the earl of Northumberland was ordered to remain on his estates to protect the border. In 1388, Henry Percy was taken prisoner and 1500 of his men slain at the battle of Otterburn, immortalised in the ballad of Chevy Chase.

Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh were garrisoned for the Lancastrian cause in 1462, but after the Yorkist victories of Hexham and Hedgley Moor in 1464, Alnwick and Dunstanburgh surrendered, and Bamburgh was taken by storm.

In September 1513, King James IV of Scotland was killed at the Battle of Flodden on Branxton Moor.

Roman Catholic support in Northumberland for Mary, Queen of Scots, led to the Rising of the North in 1569.

After uniting the English and Scottish thrones, James VI and I sharply curbed the lawlessness of the border reivers and brought relative peace to the region. There were Church of Scotland congregations in Northumberland in the 17th and 18th centuries. [15]

During the Civil War of the 17th century, Newcastle was garrisoned for the king by the earl of Newcastle, but in 1644 it was captured by the Scots under the earl of Leven, and in 1646 Charles I was led there a captive under the charge of David Leslie.

Many of the chief Northumberland families were ruined in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

The mineral resources of the area appear to have been exploited to some extent from remote times. It is certain that coal was used by the Romans in Northumberland, and some coal ornaments found at Angerton have been attributed to the 7th century. In a 13th-century grant to Newminster Abbey a road for the conveyance of sea coal from the shore about Blyth is mentioned, and the Blyth coal field was worked throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. The coal trade on the Tyne did not exist to any extent before the 13th century, but from that period it developed rapidly, and Newcastle acquired the monopoly of the river shipping and coal trade. Lead was exported from Newcastle in the 12th century, probably from Hexhamshire, the lead mines of which were very prosperous throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. In a charter from Richard I to Hugh de Puiset creating him earl of Northumberland, mines of silver and iron are mentioned. A salt pan is mentioned at Warkworth in the 12th century in the 13th century the salt industry flourished at the mouth of the river Blyth, and in the 15th century formed the principal occupation of the inhabitants of North and South Shields. In the reign of Elizabeth I, glass factories were set up at Newcastle by foreign refugees, and the industry spread rapidly along the Tyne. Tanning, both of leather and of nets, was largely practised in the 13th century, and the salmon fisheries in the Tyne were famous in the reign of Henry I.

August 1042

Edward the Confessor becomes king of England

Edward II was better known as 'the Confessor' because of his extreme piety. He introduced more regular cultural and political contact with the continent than England had previously experienced, and the Norman influence in the English court increased during this period.

Edward the Confessor exiles the powerful nobleman, Earl Godwin of Wessex

Edward the Confessor's reign was dominated by the ambitions of his father-in-law and most powerful nobleman, Earl Godwin of Wessex. The earl and his family played a significant role in defending the kingdom and in pacifying the Welsh borders, but in 1051 their quarrels with Edward's authority provoked him into exiling the entire family. They returned the following year, and in 1053 Godwin's son Harold acceded to the earldom of Wessex.


In England desultory raiding occurred in the late 8th century (notably the raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne [Holy Island] in 793) but began more earnestly in 865, when a force led by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok—Halfdan, Inwaer (Ivar the Boneless), and perhaps Hubba (Ubbe)—conquered the ancient kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria and reduced Mercia to a fraction of its former size. Yet it was unable to subdue the Wessex of Alfred the Great, with whom in 878 a truce was made, which became the basis of a treaty in or soon after 886. This recognized that much of England was in Danish hands. Although hard pressed by fresh armies of Vikings from 892 to 899, Alfred was finally victorious over them, and the spirit of Wessex was so little broken that his son Edward the Elder was able to commence the reconquest of Danish England. Before his death in 924 the small Danish states on old Mercian and East Anglian territory had fallen before him. The more remote Northumbria resisted longer, largely under Viking leaders from Ireland, but the Scandinavian power there was finally liquidated by Eadred in 954. Viking raids on England began again in 980, and the country ultimately became part of the empire of Canute. Nevertheless, the native house was peacefully restored in 1042, and the Viking threat ended with the ineffective passes made by Canute II in the reign of William I. The Scandinavian conquests in England left deep marks on the areas affected—in social structure, dialect, place-names, and personal names (see Danelaw).

Vikings History — From Pagans to Christians

While Charlemagne “converted” pagans to Christianity by the sword, the conversion of Vikings to Christianity occurred without violence for the most part. In the early Viking Age, Viking traders noted that they suffered losses in trade contracts and deals because the other party was Christian. Christian traders tended to give more business and better deals to other Christians, discriminating against pagans and Muslims. A Viking trader might then wear a cross when he was among Christians only to change it back to his usual Thor’s hammer upon returning home. As long as the Viking trader wasn’t baptized, he could practice both religions, a common practice in Scandinavia for the next few centuries.

At first, the Viking Norse didn’t take to Christianity. They loved their own gods and were content with them. English and Frankish Christian priests and monks had begun missionary tours to the Viking lands from the 700s to 800s. However, the conversion of the Vikings took place over centuries. Even when a Danish or Swedish king became Christian and proclaimed his people were Christian, many still practiced their pagan ways and held to the old gods. By the end of the Viking Age, however, most Vikings had become fully Christian and were baptized and buried in that faith.


While an earlier Danish Viking king, Harald Klak, had been baptized in 826, it wasn’t until King Harald Bluetooth was baptized in 965 that Christianity took a firmer hold in Denmark. Harald Bluetooth raised the Jelling Stone proclaiming that he made all Danes Christian, although the new faith lived side by side with the old for the next few hundred years. Danish Vikings accepted Christianity slowly. By 1110 the first stone cathedral was begun in Denmark’s oldest city of Ribe. It was finished in 1134. By then, most Danes had become Christian.


Although a few earlier kings had adopted Christianity, it wasn’t until 995 when Olaf Tryggvason led a successful revolt against the pagan king Hakkon Jarl that Christianity came to Norway. Olaf Tryggvason became King Olaf I and proceeded to convert Norwegians to Christianity by force. He burned pagan temples and killed Vikings who wouldn’t convert. Through these violent methods, every part of Norway became Christian, at least in name. Various kings’ sagas attribute the Christianization of Iceland and the other Western islands to Olaf’s efforts.


During the later Viking Age, Christianity began making inroads in Sweden, with Episcopal sees being established during the 11th century. Conflict and violence also attended Sweden’s gradual conversion to Christianity, but generally the old and new faith co-existed for many years. Most Swedish Vikings of this time favored a gradual transition to the new religion while continuing some of the old religion’s rituals. By the 12th century, however, Sweden was predominantly Christian.


The etymology of "viking" is uncertain. In the Middle Ages it came to mean Scandinavian pirate or raider, while other names such as "heathens", "Danes" or "Northmen" were also used. [19] [20] [21]

The form occurs as a personal name on some Swedish runestones. The stone of Tóki víking (Sm 10) was raised in memory of a local man named Tóki who got the name Tóki víking (Toki the Viking), presumably because of his activities as a Viking. [22] The Gårdstånga Stone (DR 330) uses the phrase "Þeʀ drængaʀ waʀu wiða unesiʀ i wikingu" (These valiant men were widely renowned on viking raids), [23] referring to the stone's dedicatees as Vikings. The Västra Strö 1 Runestone has an inscription in memory of a Björn, who was killed when "on a viking raid". [24] [25] In Sweden there is a locality known since the Middle Ages as Vikingstad. The Bro Stone (U 617) was raised in memory of Assur who is said to have protected the land from Vikings (Saʀ vaʀ vikinga vorðr með Gæiti). [26] [27] There is little indication of any negative connotation in the term before the end of the Viking Age.

Another less popular theory is that víking from the feminine vík, meaning "creek, inlet, small bay". [28] Various theories have been offered that the word viking may be derived from the name of the historical Norwegian district of Víkin, meaning "a person from Víkin".

However, there are a few major problems with this theory. People from the Viken area were not called "Viking" in Old Norse manuscripts, but are referred to as víkverir, ('Vík dwellers'). In addition, that explanation could explain only the masculine (víkingr) and not the feminine (víking), which is a serious problem because the masculine is easily derived from the feminine but hardly the other way around. [29] [30] [31]

Another etymology that gained support in the early twenty-first century, derives Viking from the same root as Old Norse vika, f. 'sea mile', originally 'the distance between two shifts of rowers', from the root *weik or *wîk, as in the Proto-Germanic verb *wîkan, 'to recede'. [32] [33] [34] [35] This is found in the Proto-Nordic verb *wikan, 'to turn', similar to Old Icelandic víkja (ýkva, víkva) 'to move, to turn', with well-attested nautical usages. [36] Linguistically, this theory is better attested, [36] and the term most likely predates the use of the sail by the Germanic peoples of North-Western Europe, because the Old Frisian spelling Witsing or Wīsing shows that the word was pronounced with a palatal k and thus in all probability existed in North-Western Germanic before that palatalisation happened, that is, in the 5th century or before (in the western branch). [35] [34] [37]

In that case, the idea behind it seems to be that the tired rower moves aside for the rested rower on the thwart when he relieves him. The Old Norse feminine víking (as in the phrase fara í víking) may originally have been a sea journey characterised by the shifting of rowers, i.e. a long-distance sea journey, because in the pre-sail era, the shifting of rowers would distinguish long-distance sea journeys. A víkingr (the masculine) would then originally have been a participant on a sea journey characterised by the shifting of rowers. In that case, the word Viking was not originally connected to Scandinavian seafarers but assumed this meaning when the Scandinavians begun to dominate the seas. [32]

In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the Anglo-Saxon poem, Widsith, which probably dates from the 9th century. In Old English, and in the history of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen written by Adam of Bremen in about 1070, the term generally referred to Scandinavian pirates or raiders. As in the Old Norse usages, the term is not employed as a name for any people or culture in general. The word does not occur in any preserved Middle English texts. One theory made by the Icelander Örnolfur Kristjansson is that the key to the origins of the word is "wicinga cynn" in Widsith, referring to the people or the race living in Jórvík (York, in the ninth century under control by Norsemen), Jór-Wicings (note, however, that this is not the origin of Jórvík). [38]

The word Viking was introduced into Modern English during the 18th-century Viking revival, at which point it acquired romanticised heroic overtones of "barbarian warrior" or noble savage. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer to not only seaborne raiders from Scandinavia and other places settled by them (like Iceland and the Faroe Islands), but also any member of the culture that produced said raiders during the period from the late 8th to the mid-11th centuries, or more loosely from about 700 to as late as about 1100. As an adjective, the word is used to refer to ideas, phenomena, or artefacts connected with those people and their cultural life, producing expressions like Viking age, Viking culture, Viking art, Viking religion, Viking ship and so on. [38]

The term ”Viking" that appeared in Northwestern Germanic sources in the Viking Age denoted pirates. According to some researchers, the term back then had no geographic or ethnic connotations that limited it to Scandinavia only. The term was instead used about anyone who to the Norse peoples appeared as a pirate. Therefore, the term had been used about Israelites on the Red Sea Muslims encountering Scandinavians in the Mediterranean Caucasian pirates encountering the famous Swedish Ingvar-Expedition, and Estonian pirates on the Baltic Sea. Thus the term "Viking" was supposedly never limited to a single ethnicity as such, but rather an activity. [39]

In Eastern Europe, of which parts were ruled by a Norse elite, víkingr came be perceived as a positive concept meaning "hero" in the Russian borrowed form vityaz' ( витязь ). [40]

Other names

The Vikings were known as Ascomanni ("ashmen") by the Germans for the ash wood of their boats, [41] Dubgail and Finngail ( "dark and fair foreigners") by the Irish, [42] Lochlannaich ("people from the land of lakes") by the Gaels, [43] Dene (Dane) by the Anglo-Saxons [44] and Northmonn by the Frisians. [37]

The scholarly consensus [45] is that the Rus' people originated in what is currently coastal eastern Sweden around the eighth century and that their name has the same origin as Roslagen in Sweden (with the older name being Roden). [46] [47] [48] According to the prevalent theory, the name Rus ' , like the Proto-Finnic name for Sweden (*Ruotsi), is derived from an Old Norse term for "the men who row" (rods-) as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe, and that it could be linked to the Swedish coastal area of Roslagen (Rus-law) or Roden, as it was known in earlier times. [49] [50] The name Rus ' would then have the same origin as the Finnish and Estonian names for Sweden: Ruotsi and Rootsi. [50] [51]

The Slavs and the Byzantines also called them Varangians (Russian: варяги , from Old Norse Væringjar 'sworn men', from vàr- "confidence, vow of fealty", related to Old English wær "agreement, treaty, promise", Old High German wara "faithfulness" [52] ). Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors were known as the Varangian Guard. The Rus' initially appeared in Serkland in the 9th century, traveling as merchants along the Volga trade route, selling furs, honey, and slaves, as well as luxury goods such as amber, Frankish swords, and walrus ivory.[26] These goods were mostly exchanged for Arabian silver coins, called dirhams. Hoards of 9th century Baghdad-minted silver coins have been found in Sweden, particularly in Gotland.

During and after the Viking raid on Seville in 844 CE the Muslim chroniclers of al-Andalus referred to the Vikings as Magians (Arabic: al-Majus مجوس), conflating them with fire worshipping Zoroastrians from Persia. [53] [54] When Ibn Fadlan was taken captive by Vikings in the Volga, he referred to them as Rus. [55] [56] [57]

The Franks normally called them Northmen or Danes, while for the English they were generally known as Danes or heathen and the Irish knew them as pagans or gentiles. [58]

Anglo-Scandinavian is an academic term referring to the people, and archaeological and historical periods during the 8th to 13th centuries in which there was migration to—and occupation of—the British Isles by Scandinavian peoples generally known in English as Vikings. It is used in distinction from Anglo-Saxon. Similar terms exist for other areas, such as Hiberno-Norse for Ireland and Scotland.

Viking Age

The Viking Age in Scandinavian history is taken to have been the period from the earliest recorded raids by Norsemen in 793 until the Norman conquest of England in 1066. [59] Vikings used the Norwegian Sea and Baltic Sea for sea routes to the south.

The Normans were descendants of those Vikings who had been given feudal overlordship of areas in northern France, namely the Duchy of Normandy, in the 10th century. In that respect, descendants of the Vikings continued to have an influence in northern Europe. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, had Danish ancestors. Two Vikings even ascended to the throne of England, with Sweyn Forkbeard claiming the English throne in 1013 until 1014 and his son Cnut the Great being king of England between 1016 and 1035. [60] [61] [62] [63] [64]

Geographically, the Viking Age covered Scandinavian lands (modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden), as well as territories under North Germanic dominance, mainly the Danelaw, including Scandinavian York, the administrative centre of the remains of the Kingdom of Northumbria, [65] parts of Mercia, and East Anglia. [66] Viking navigators opened the road to new lands to the north, west and east, resulting in the foundation of independent settlements in the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands Iceland Greenland [67] and L'Anse aux Meadows, a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland, circa 1000. [68] The Greenland settlement was established around 980, during the Medieval Warm Period, and its demise by the mid-15th century may have been partly due to climate change. [69] The Viking Rurik dynasty took control of territories in Slavic and Finno-Ugric-dominated areas of Eastern Europe they annexed Kiev in 882 to serve as the capital of the Kievan Rus'. [70]

As early as 839, when Swedish emissaries are first known to have visited Byzantium, Scandinavians served as mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine Empire. [71] In the late 10th century, a new unit of the imperial bodyguard formed. Traditionally containing large numbers of Scandinavians, it was known as the Varangian Guard. The word Varangian may have originated in Old Norse, but in Slavic and Greek it could refer either to Scandinavians or Franks. In these years, Swedish men left to enlist in the Byzantine Varangian Guard in such numbers that a medieval Swedish law, Västgötalagen, from Västergötland declared no one could inherit while staying in "Greece"—the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire—to stop the emigration, [72] especially as two other European courts simultaneously also recruited Scandinavians: [73] Kievan Rus' c. 980–1060 and London 1018–1066 (the Þingalið). [73]

There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic Empire. [74] The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant, and slaves. Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod, and Kiev.

Scandinavian Norsemen explored Europe by its seas and rivers for trade, raids, colonization, and conquest. In this period, voyaging from their homelands in Denmark, Norway and Sweden the Norsemen settled in the present-day Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norse Greenland, Newfoundland, the Netherlands, Germany, Normandy, Italy, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Estonia, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, as well as initiating the consolidation that resulted in the formation of the present day Scandinavian countries.

In the Viking Age, the present day nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark did not exist, but were largely homogeneous and similar in culture and language, although somewhat distinct geographically. The names of Scandinavian kings are reliably known for only the later part of the Viking Age. After the end of the Viking Age the separate kingdoms gradually acquired distinct identities as nations, which went hand-in-hand with their Christianisation. Thus the end of the Viking Age for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.

Intermixing with the Slavs

The Vikings significantly intermixed with the Slavs. Slavic and Viking tribes were "closely linked, fighting one another, intermixing and trading". [75] [76] [77] In the Middle Ages, a significant amount of ware was transferred from Slavic areas to Scandinavia, and Denmark was "a melting pot of Slavic and Scandinavian elements". [75] The presence of Slavs in Scandinavia is "more significant than previously thought" [75] although "the Slavs and their interaction with Scandinavia have not been adequately investigated". [78] A 10th-century grave of a warrior-woman in Denmark was long thought to belong to a Viking. However, new analyses suggest that the woman was a Slav from present-day Poland. [75] The first king of the Swedes, Eric, was married to Gunhild, of the Polish House of Piast. [79] Likewise, his son, Olof, fell in love with Edla, a Slavic woman, and took her as his frilla (concubine). [80] She bore him a son and a daughter: Emund the Old, King of Sweden, and Astrid, Queen of Norway. Cnut the Great, King of Denmark, England and Norway, was the son of a daughter of Mieszko I of Poland, [81] possibly the former Polish queen of Sweden, wife of Eric. Richeza of Poland, Queen of Sweden, married Magnus the Strong, and bore him several children, including Canute V, King of Denmark. [82] Catherine Jagiellon, of the House of Jagiellon, was married to John III, King of Sweden. She was the mother of Sigismund III Vasa, King of Poland, King of Sweden, and Grand Duke of Finland. [83] Ragnvald Ulfsson, son of Jarl Ulf Tostesson and the Wendic Princess Ingeborg, had a Slavic name (Rogvolod, from Slavic Рогволод). [84]


Colonization of Iceland by Norwegian Vikings began in the ninth century. The first source mentioning Iceland and Greenland is a papal letter of 1053. Twenty years later, they appear in the Gesta of Adam of Bremen. It was not until after 1130, when the islands had become Christianized, that accounts of the history of the islands were written from the point of view of the inhabitants in sagas and chronicles. [85] The Vikings explored the northern islands and coasts of the North Atlantic, ventured south to North Africa, east to Kievan Rus (now – Ukraine, Belarus), Constantinople, and the Middle East. [86]

They raided and pillaged, traded, acted as mercenaries and settled colonies over a wide area. [87] Early Vikings probably returned home after their raids. Later in their history, they began to settle in other lands. [88] Vikings under Leif Erikson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America and set up short-lived settlements in present-day L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. This expansion occurred during the Medieval Warm Period. [89]

Viking expansion into continental Europe was limited. Their realm was bordered by powerful tribes to the south. Early on, it was the Saxons who occupied Old Saxony, located in what is now Northern Germany. The Saxons were a fierce and powerful people and were often in conflict with the Vikings. To counter the Saxon aggression and solidify their own presence, the Danes constructed the huge defence fortification of Danevirke in and around Hedeby. [90]

The Vikings witnessed the violent subduing of the Saxons by Charlemagne, in the thirty-year Saxon Wars of 772–804. The Saxon defeat resulted in their forced christening and the absorption of Old Saxony into the Carolingian Empire. Fear of the Franks led the Vikings to further expand Danevirke, and the defence constructions remained in use throughout the Viking Age and even up until 1864. [91]

The south coast of the Baltic Sea was ruled by the Obotrites, a federation of Slavic tribes loyal to the Carolingians and later the Frankish empire. The Vikings—led by King Gudfred—destroyed the Obotrite city of Reric on the southern Baltic coast in 808 AD and transferred the merchants and traders to Hedeby. [92] This secured Viking supremacy in the Baltic Sea, which continued throughout the Viking Age.

Because of the expansion of the Vikings across Europe, a comparison of DNA and archeology undertaken by scientists at the University of Cambridge and University of Copenhagen suggested that the term "Viking" may have evolved to become "a job description, not a matter of heredity," at least in some Viking bands. [93]


The motives driving the Viking expansion are a topic of much debate in Nordic history.

Researchers have suggested that Vikings may have originally started sailing and raiding due to a need to seek out women from foreign lands. [94] [95] [96] [97] The concept was expressed in the 11th century by historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin in his semi imaginary History of The Normans. [98] Rich and powerful Viking men tended to have many wives and concubines these polygynous relationships may have led to a shortage of eligible women for the average Viking male. Due to this, the average Viking man could have been forced to perform riskier actions to gain wealth and power to be able to find suitable women. [99] [100] [101] Viking men would often buy or capture women and make them into their wives or concubines. [102] [103] Polygynous marriage increases male-male competition in society because it creates a pool of unmarried men who are willing to engage in risky status-elevating and sex seeking behaviors. [104] [105] The Annals of Ulster states that in 821 the Vikings plundered an Irish village and "carried off a great number of women into captivity". [106]

One common theory posits that Charlemagne "used force and terror to Christianise all pagans", leading to baptism, conversion or execution, and as a result, Vikings and other pagans resisted and wanted revenge. [107] [108] [109] [110] [111] Professor Rudolf Simek states that "it is not a coincidence if the early Viking activity occurred during the reign of Charlemagne". [107] [112] The ascendance of Christianity in Scandinavia led to serious conflict, dividing Norway for almost a century. However, this time period did not commence until the 10th century, Norway was never subject to aggression by Charlemagne and the period of strife was due to successive Norwegian kings embracing Christianity after encountering it overseas. [113]

Another explanation is that the Vikings exploited a moment of weakness in the surrounding regions. Contrary to Simek's assertion, Viking raids occurred sporadically long before the reign of Charlemagne but exploded in frequency and size after his death, when his empire fragmented into multiple much weaker entities. [114] England suffered from internal divisions and was relatively easy prey given the proximity of many towns to the sea or to navigable rivers. Lack of organised naval opposition throughout Western Europe allowed Viking ships to travel freely, raiding or trading as opportunity permitted. The decline in the profitability of old trade routes could also have played a role. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia suffered a severe blow when the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. [115] The expansion of Islam in the 7th century had also affected trade with western Europe. [116]

Raids in Europe, including raids and settlements from Scandinavia, were not unprecedented and had occurred long before the Vikings arrived. The Jutes invaded the British Isles three centuries earlier, pouring out from Jutland during the Age of Migrations, before the Danes settled there. The Saxons and the Angles did the same, embarking from mainland Europe. The Viking raids were, however, the first to be documented in writing by eyewitnesses, and they were much larger in scale and frequency than in previous times. [114]

Vikings themselves were expanding although their motives are unclear, historians believe that scarce resources or a lack of mating opportunities were a factor. [117]

The "Highway of Slaves" was a term for a route that the Vikings found to have a direct pathway from Scandinavia to Constantinople and Baghdad while traveling on the Baltic Sea. With the advancements of their ships during the ninth century, the Vikings were able to sail to Kievan Rus and some northern parts of Europe. [118]


Jomsborg was a semi-legendary Viking stronghold at the southern coast of the Baltic Sea (medieval Wendland, modern Pomerania), that existed between the 960s and 1043. Its inhabitants were known as Jomsvikings. Jomsborg's exact location, or its existence, has not yet been established, though it is often maintained that Jomsborg was somewhere on the islands of the Oder estuary. [119]

End of the Viking Age

While the Vikings were active beyond their Scandinavian homelands, Scandinavia was itself experiencing new influences and undergoing a variety of cultural changes. [120]

Emergence of nation-states and monetary economies

By the late 11th century, royal dynasties were legitimised by the Catholic Church (which had had little influence in Scandinavia 300 years earlier) which were asserting their power with increasing authority and ambition, with the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden taking shape. Towns appeared that functioned as secular and ecclesiastical administrative centres and market sites, and monetary economies began to emerge based on English and German models. [121] By this time the influx of Islamic silver from the East had been absent for more than a century, and the flow of English silver had come to an end in the mid-11th century. [122]

Assimilation into Christendom

Christianity had taken root in Denmark and Norway with the establishment of dioceses in the 11th century, and the new religion was beginning to organise and assert itself more effectively in Sweden. Foreign churchmen and native elites were energetic in furthering the interests of Christianity, which was now no longer operating only on a missionary footing, and old ideologies and lifestyles were transforming. By 1103, the first archbishopric was founded in Scandinavia, at Lund, Scania, then part of Denmark.

The assimilation of the nascent Scandinavian kingdoms into the cultural mainstream of European Christendom altered the aspirations of Scandinavian rulers and of Scandinavians able to travel overseas, and changed their relations with their neighbours.

One of the primary sources of profit for the Vikings had been slave-taking from other European peoples. The medieval Church held that Christians should not own fellow Christians as slaves, so chattel slavery diminished as a practice throughout northern Europe. This took much of the economic incentive out of raiding, though sporadic slaving activity continued into the 11th century. Scandinavian predation in Christian lands around the North and Irish Seas diminished markedly.

The kings of Norway continued to assert power in parts of northern Britain and Ireland, and raids continued into the 12th century, but the military ambitions of Scandinavian rulers were now directed toward new paths. In 1107, Sigurd I of Norway sailed for the eastern Mediterranean with Norwegian crusaders to fight for the newly established Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Danes and Swedes participated energetically in the Baltic Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. [123]

A variety of sources illuminate the culture, activities, and beliefs of the Vikings. Although they were generally a non-literate culture that produced no literary legacy, they had an alphabet and described themselves and their world on runestones. Most contemporary literary and written sources on the Vikings come from other cultures that were in contact with them. [124] Since the mid-20th century, archaeological findings have built a more complete and balanced picture of the lives of the Vikings. [125] [126] The archaeological record is particularly rich and varied, providing knowledge of their rural and urban settlement, crafts and production, ships and military equipment, trading networks, as well as their pagan and Christian religious artefacts and practices.

Literature and language

The most important primary sources on the Vikings are contemporary texts from Scandinavia and regions where the Vikings were active. [127] Writing in Latin letters was introduced to Scandinavia with Christianity, so there are few native documentary sources from Scandinavia before the late 11th and early 12th centuries. [128] The Scandinavians did write inscriptions in runes, but these are usually very short and formulaic. Most contemporary documentary sources consist of texts written in Christian and Islamic communities outside Scandinavia, often by authors who had been negatively affected by Viking activity.

Later writings on the Vikings and the Viking Age can also be important for understanding them and their culture, although they need to be treated cautiously. After the consolidation of the church and the assimilation of Scandinavia and its colonies into the mainstream of medieval Christian culture in the 11th and 12th centuries, native written sources begin to appear in Latin and Old Norse. In the Viking colony of Iceland, an extraordinary vernacular literature blossomed in the 12th through 14th centuries, and many traditions connected with the Viking Age were written down for the first time in the Icelandic sagas. A literal interpretation of these medieval prose narratives about the Vikings and the Scandinavian past is doubtful, but many specific elements remain worthy of consideration, such as the great quantity of skaldic poetry attributed to court poets of the 10th and 11th centuries, the exposed family trees, the self images, the ethical values, that are contained in these literary writings.

Indirectly, the Vikings have also left a window open onto their language, culture and activities, through many Old Norse place names and words found in their former sphere of influence. Some of these place names and words are still in direct use today, almost unchanged, and shed light on where they settled and what specific places meant to them. Examples include place names like Egilsay (from Eigils ey meaning Eigil's Island), Ormskirk (from Ormr kirkja meaning Orms Church or Church of the Worm), Meols (from merl meaning Sand Dunes), Snaefell (Snow Fell), Ravenscar (Ravens Rock), Vinland (Land of Wine or Land of Winberry), Kaupanger (Market Harbour), Tórshavn (Thor's Harbour), and the religious centre of Odense, meaning a place where Odin was worshipped. Viking influence is also evident in concepts like the present-day parliamentary body of the Tynwald on the Isle of Man.

Common words in everyday English language, such as the names of weekdays (Thursday means Thor's day, Friday means Freya's day, Wednesday means Woden, or Odin's day, Tuesday means Týr's day, Týr being the Norse god of single combat, law, and justice), axle, crook, raft, knife, plough, leather, window, berserk, bylaw, thorp, skerry, husband, heathen, Hell, Norman and ransack stem from the Old Norse of the Vikings and give us an opportunity to understand their interactions with the people and cultures of the British Isles. [129] In the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney, Old Norse completely replaced the local languages and over time evolved into the now extinct Norn language. Some modern words and names only emerge and contribute to our understanding after a more intense research of linguistic sources from medieval or later records, such as York (Horse Bay), Swansea (Sveinn's Isle) or some of the place names in Normandy like Tocqueville (Toki's farm). [130]

Linguistic and etymological studies continue to provide a vital source of information on the Viking culture, their social structure and history and how they interacted with the people and cultures they met, traded, attacked or lived with in overseas settlements. [131] [132] A lot of Old Norse connections are evident in the modern-day languages of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese and Icelandic. [133] Old Norse did not exert any great influence on the Slavic languages in the Viking settlements of Eastern Europe. It has been speculated that the reason for this was the great differences between the two languages, combined with the Rus' Vikings more peaceful businesses in these areas and the fact that they were outnumbered. The Norse named some of the rapids on the Dnieper, but this can hardly be seen from the modern names. [134] [135]


The Norse of the Viking Age could read and write and used a non-standardised alphabet, called runor, built upon sound values. While there are few remains of runic writing on paper from the Viking era, thousands of stones with runic inscriptions have been found where Vikings lived. They are usually in memory of the dead, though not necessarily placed at graves. The use of runor survived into the 15th century, used in parallel with the Latin alphabet.

The runestones are unevenly distributed in Scandinavia: Denmark has 250 runestones, Norway has 50 while Iceland has none. [136] Sweden has as many as between 1,700 [136] and 2,500 [137] depending on definition. The Swedish district of Uppland has the highest concentration with as many as 1,196 inscriptions in stone, whereas Södermanland is second with 391. [138] [139]

The majority of runic inscriptions from the Viking period are found in Sweden. Many runestones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in Viking expeditions, such as the Kjula runestone that tells of extensive warfare in Western Europe and the Turinge Runestone, which tells of a war band in Eastern Europe.

Other runestones mention men who died on Viking expeditions. Among them include the England runestones (Swedish: Englandsstenarna) which is a group of about 30 runestones in Sweden which refer to Viking Age voyages to England. They constitute one of the largest groups of runestones that mention voyages to other countries, and they are comparable in number only to the approximately 30 Greece Runestones [140] and the 26 Ingvar Runestones, the latter referring to a Viking expedition to the Middle East. [141] They were engraved in Old Norse with the Younger Futhark. [142]

The Jelling stones date from between 960 and 985. The older, smaller stone was raised by King Gorm the Old, the last pagan king of Denmark, as a memorial honouring Queen Thyre. [143] The larger stone was raised by his son, Harald Bluetooth, to celebrate the conquest of Denmark and Norway and the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. It has three sides: one with an animal image, one with an image of the crucified Jesus Christ, and a third bearing the following inscription:

King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian. [144]

Runestones attest to voyages to locations such as Bath, [145] Greece (how the Vikings referred to the Byzantium territories generally), [146] Khwaresm, [147] Jerusalem, [148] Italy (as Langobardland), [149] Serkland (i.e. the Muslim world), [150] [151] England [152] (including London [153] ), and various places in Eastern Europe. Viking Age inscriptions have also been discovered on the Manx runestones on the Isle of Man.

Runic alphabet usage in modern times

The last known people to use the Runic alphabet were an isolated group of people known as the Elfdalians, that lived in the locality of Älvdalen in the Swedish province of Dalarna. They spoke the language of Elfdalian, the language unique to Älvdalen. The Elfdalian language differentiates itself from the other Scandinavian languages as it evolved much closer to Old Norse. The people of Älvdalen stopped using runes as late as the 1920s. Usage of runes therefore survived longer in Älvdalen than anywhere else in the world. [154] The last known record of the Elfdalian Runes is from 1929 they are a variant of the Dalecarlian runes, runic inscriptions that were also found in Dalarna.

Traditionally regarded as a Swedish dialect, [155] but by several criteria closer related to West Scandinavian dialects, [156] Elfdalian is a separate language by the standard of mutual intelligibility. [157] [158] [159] Although there is no mutual intelligibility, due to schools and public administration in Älvdalen being conducted in Swedish, native speakers are bilingual and speak Swedish at a native level. Residents in the area who speak only Swedish as their sole native language, neither speaking nor understanding Elfdalian, are also common. Älvdalen can be said to have had its own alphabet during the 17th and 18th century. Today there are about 2,000-3000 native speakers of Elfdalian.

Burial sites

There are numerous burial sites associated with Vikings throughout Europe and their sphere of influence—in Scandinavia, the British Isles, Ireland, Greenland, Iceland, Faeroe Islands, Germany, The Baltic, Russia, etc. The burial practices of the Vikings were quite varied, from dug graves in the ground, to tumuli, sometimes including so-called ship burials.

According to written sources, most of the funerals took place at sea. The funerals involved either burial or cremation, depending on local customs. In the area that is now Sweden, cremations were predominant in Denmark burial was more common and in Norway both were common. [160] Viking barrows are one of the primary source of evidence for circumstances in the Viking Age. [161] The items buried with the dead give some indication as to what was considered important to possess in the afterlife. [162] It is unknown what mortuary services were given to dead children by the Vikings. [163] Some of the most important burial sites for understanding the Vikings include:

  • Norway: Oseberg Gokstad Borrehaugene.
  • Sweden: Gettlinge gravfält the cemeteries of Birka, a World Heritage Site [164]Valsgärde Gamla Uppsala Hulterstad gravfält, near Alby Hulterstad, Öland.
  • Denmark: Jelling, a World Heritage Site Lindholm Høje Ladby ship Mammen chamber tomb and hoard.
  • Estonia: Salme ships – The largest ship burial ground ever uncovered.
  • Scotland: Port an Eilean Mhòir ship burial Scar boat burial, Orkney.
  • Faroe Islands: Hov.
  • Iceland: Mosfellsbær in Capital Region [165][166] the boat burial in Vatnsdalur, Austur-Húnavatnssýsla. [160][167][168]
  • Greenland: Brattahlíð. [169]
  • Germany: Hedeby.
  • Latvia: Grobiņa.
  • Ukraine: the Black Grave.
  • Russia: Gnezdovo.


There have been several archaeological finds of Viking ships of all sizes, providing knowledge of the craftsmanship that went into building them. There were many types of Viking ships, built for various uses the best-known type is probably the longship. [170] Longships were intended for warfare and exploration, designed for speed and agility, and were equipped with oars to complement the sail, making navigation possible independently of the wind. The longship had a long, narrow hull and shallow draught to facilitate landings and troop deployments in shallow water. Longships were used extensively by the Leidang, the Scandinavian defence fleets. The longship allowed the Norse to go Viking, which might explain why this type of ship has become almost synonymous with the concept of Vikings. [171] [172]

The Vikings built many unique types of watercraft, often used for more peaceful tasks. The knarr was a dedicated merchant vessel designed to carry cargo in bulk. It had a broader hull, deeper draught, and a small number of oars (used primarily to manoeuvre in harbours and similar situations). One Viking innovation was the 'beitass', a spar mounted to the sail that allowed their ships to sail effectively against the wind. [173] It was common for seafaring Viking ships to tow or carry a smaller boat to transfer crews and cargo from the ship to shore.

Ships were an integral part of the Viking culture. They facilitated everyday transportation across seas and waterways, exploration of new lands, raids, conquests, and trade with neighbouring cultures. They also held a major religious importance. People with high status were sometimes buried in a ship along with animal sacrifices, weapons, provisions and other items, as evidenced by the buried vessels at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway [174] and the excavated ship burial at Ladby in Denmark. Ship burials were also practised by Vikings abroad, as evidenced by the excavations of the Salme ships on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. [175]

Well-preserved remains of five Viking ships were excavated from Roskilde Fjord in the late 1960s, representing both the longship and the knarr. The ships were scuttled there in the 11th century to block a navigation channel and thus protect Roskilde, then the Danish capital, from seaborne assault. The remains of these ships are on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

In 2019, archaeologists uncovered two Viking boat graves in Gamla Uppsala. They also discovered that one of the boats still holds the remains of a man, a dog, and a horse, along with other items. [176] This has shed light on death rituals of Viking communities in the region.

Everyday life

Social structure

Viking society was divided into the three socio-economic classes: Thralls, Karls and Jarls. This is described vividly in the Eddic poem of Rígsþula, which also explains that it was the god Ríg—father of mankind also known as Heimdallr—who created the three classes. Archaeology has confirmed this social structure. [177]

Thralls were the lowest ranking class and were slaves. Slaves comprised as much as a quarter of the population. [178] Slavery was of vital importance to Viking society, for everyday chores and large scale construction and also to trade and the economy. Thralls were servants and workers in the farms and larger households of the Karls and Jarls, and they were used for constructing fortifications, ramps, canals, mounds, roads and similar hard work projects. According to the Rigsthula, Thralls were despised and looked down upon. New thralls were supplied by either the sons and daughters of thralls or captured abroad. The Vikings often deliberately captured many people on their raids in Europe, to enslave them as thralls. The thralls were then brought back home to Scandinavia by boat, used on location or in newer settlements to build needed structures, or sold, often to the Arabs in exchange for silver. Other names for thrall were 'træl' and 'ty'.

Karls were free peasants. They owned farms, land and cattle and engaged in daily chores like ploughing the fields, milking the cattle, building houses and wagons, but used thralls to make ends meet. Other names for Karls were 'bonde' or simply free men.

The Jarls were the aristocracy of the Viking society. They were wealthy and owned large estates with huge longhouses, horses and many thralls. The thralls did most of the daily chores, while the Jarls did administration, politics, hunting, sports, visited other Jarls or went abroad on expeditions. When a Jarl died and was buried, his household thralls were sometimes sacrificially killed and buried next to him, as many excavations have revealed. [179]

In daily life, there were many intermediate positions in the overall social structure and it is believed that there must have been some social mobility. These details are unclear, but titles and positions like hauldr, thegn, landmand, show mobility between the Karls and the Jarls.

Other social structures included the communities of félag in both the civil and the military spheres, to which its members (called félagi) were obliged. A félag could be centred around certain trades, a common ownership of a sea vessel or a military obligation under a specific leader. Members of the latter were referred to as drenge, one of the words for warrior. There were also official communities within towns and villages, the overall defence, religion, the legal system and the Things.

Status of women

Like elsewhere in medieval Europe, most women in Viking society were subordinate to their husbands and fathers and had little political power. [180] [181] However, the written sources portray free Viking women as having independence and rights. Viking women generally appear to have had more freedom than women elsewhere, [181] as illustrated in the Icelandic Grágás and the Norwegian Frostating laws and Gulating laws. [182]

Most free Viking women were housewives, and the woman's standing in society was linked to that of her husband. [181] Marriage gave a woman a degree of economic security and social standing encapsulated in the title húsfreyja (lady of the house). Norse laws assert the housewife's authority over the 'indoor household'. She had the important roles of managing the farm's resources, conducting business, as well as child-rearing, although some of this would be shared with her husband. [183]

After the age of 20, an unmarried woman, referred to as maer and mey, reached legal majority and had the right to decide her place of residence and was regarded as her own person before the law. [182] An exception to her independence was the right to choose a husband, as marriages were normally arranged by the family. [184] The groom would pay a bride-price (mundr) to the bride's family, and the bride brought assets into the marriage, as a dowry. [183] A married woman could divorce her husband and remarry. [181] [185]

Concubinage was also part of Viking society, whereby a woman could live with a man and have children with him without marrying such a woman was called a frilla. [185] Usually she would be the mistress of a wealthy and powerful man who also had a wife. [180] The wife had authority over the mistresses if they lived in her household. [181] Through her relationship to a man of higher social standing, a concubine and her family could advance socially although her position was less secure than that of a wife. [180] There was no distinction made between children born inside or outside marriage: both had the right to inherit property from their parents, and there were no "legitimate" or "illegitimate" children. [185] However, children born in wedlock had more inheritance rights than those born out of wedlock. [183]

A woman had the right to inherit part of her husband's property upon his death, [183] and widows enjoyed the same independent status as unmarried women. [185] The paternal aunt, paternal niece and paternal granddaughter, referred to as odalkvinna, all had the right to inherit property from a deceased man. [182] A woman with no husband, sons or male relatives could inherit not only property but also the position as head of the family when her father or brother died. Such a woman was referred to as Baugrygr, and she exercised all the rights afforded to the head of a family clan, until she married, by which her rights were transferred to her new husband. [182]

Women had religious authority and were active as priestesses (gydja) and oracles (sejdkvinna). [186] They were active within art as poets (skalder) [186] and rune masters, and as merchants and medicine women. [186] There may also have been female entrepreneurs, who worked in textile production. [181] Women may also have been active within military office: the tales about shieldmaidens are unconfirmed, but some archaeological finds such as the Birka female Viking warrior may indicate that at least some women in military authority existed. [187]

These liberties of the Viking women gradually disappeared after the introduction of Christianity, [188] and from the late 13th-century, they are no longer mentioned. [182]

Examinations of Viking Age burials suggests that women lived longer, and nearly all well past the age of 35, as compared to earlier times. Female graves from before the Viking Age in Scandinavia holds a proportional large number of remains from women aged 20 to 35, presumably due to complications of childbirth. [189]


Scandinavian Vikings were similar in appearance to modern Scandinavians "their skin was fair and the hair color varied between blond, dark and reddish". Genetic studies suggest that people were mostly blond in what is now eastern Sweden, while red hair was mostly found in western Scandinavia. [190] Most Viking men had shoulder-length hair and beards, and slaves (thralls) were usually the only men with short hair. [191] The length varied according to personal preference and occupation. Men involved in warfare, for example, may have had slightly shorter hair and beards for practical reasons. Men in some regions bleached their hair a golden saffron color. [191] Females also had long hair, with girls often wearing it loose or braided and married women often wearing it in a bun. [191] The average height is estimated to have been 67 inches (5'5") for men and 62 inches (5'1") for women. [190]

The three classes were easily recognisable by their appearances. Men and women of the Jarls were well groomed with neat hairstyles and expressed their wealth and status by wearing expensive clothes (often silk) and well crafted jewellery like brooches, belt buckles, necklaces and arm rings. Almost all of the jewellery was crafted in specific designs unique to the Norse (see Viking art). Finger rings were seldom used and earrings were not used at all, as they were seen as a Slavic phenomenon. Most Karls expressed similar tastes and hygiene, but in a more relaxed and inexpensive way. [177] [192]

Archaeological finds from Scandinavia and Viking settlements in the British Isles support the idea of the well groomed and hygienic Viking. Burial with grave goods was a common practice in the Scandinavian world, through the Viking Age and well past the Christianization of the Norse peoples. [193] Within these burial sites and homesteads, combs, often made from antler, are a common find. [194] The manufacturing of such antler combs was common, as at the Viking settlement at Dublin hundreds of examples of combs from the tenth-century have survived, suggesting that grooming was a common practice. [195] The manufacturing of such combs was also widespread throughout the Viking world, as examples of similar combs have been found at Viking settlements in Ireland, [196] England, [197] and Scotland. [198] The combs share a common visual appearance as well, with the extant examples often decorated with linear, interlacing, and geometric motifs, or other forms of ornamentation depending on the comb's period and type, but stylistically similar to Viking Age art. [199] The practice of grooming was a concern for all levels of Viking age society, as grooming products, combs, have been found in common graves as well as aristocratic ones. [200]

Farming and cuisine

The sagas tell about the diet and cuisine of the Vikings, [201] but first hand evidence, like cesspits, kitchen middens and garbage dumps have proved to be of great value and importance. Undigested remains of plants from cesspits at Coppergate in York have provided much information in this respect. Overall, archaeo-botanical investigations have been undertaken increasingly in recent decades, as a collaboration between archaeologists and palaeoethno-botanists. This new approach sheds light on the agricultural and horticultural practices of the Vikings and their cuisine. [202]

The combined information from various sources suggests a diverse cuisine and ingredients. Meat products of all kinds, such as cured, smoked and whey-preserved meat, [203] sausages, and boiled or fried fresh meat cuts, were prepared and consumed. [204] There were plenty of seafood, bread, porridges, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, berries and nuts. Alcoholic drinks like beer, mead, bjórr (a strong fruit wine) and, for the rich, imported wine, were served. [205] [206]

Certain livestock were typical and unique to the Vikings, including the Icelandic horse, Icelandic cattle, a plethora of sheep breeds, [207] the Danish hen and the Danish goose. [208] [209] The Vikings in York mostly ate beef, mutton, and pork with small amounts of horse meat. Most of the beef and horse leg bones were found split lengthways, to extract the marrow. The mutton and swine were cut into leg and shoulder joints and chops. The frequent remains of pig skull and foot bones found on house floors indicate that brawn and trotters were also popular. Hens were kept for both their meat and eggs, and the bones of game birds such as black grouse, golden plover, wild ducks, and geese have also been found. [210]

Seafood was important, in some places even more so than meat. Whales and walrus were hunted for food in Norway and the north-western parts of the North Atlantic region, and seals were hunted nearly everywhere. Oysters, mussels and shrimp were eaten in large quantities and cod and salmon were popular fish. In the southern regions, herring was also important. [211] [212] [213]

Milk and buttermilk were popular, both as cooking ingredients and drinks, but were not always available, even at farms. [214] Milk came from cows, goats and sheep, with priorities varying from location to location, [215] and fermented milk products like skyr or surmjölk were produced as well as butter and cheese. [216]

Food was often salted and enhanced with spices, some of which were imported like black pepper, while others were cultivated in herb gardens or harvested in the wild. Home grown spices included caraway, mustard and horseradish as evidenced from the Oseberg ship burial [205] or dill, coriander, and wild celery, as found in cesspits at Coppergate in York. Thyme, juniper berry, sweet gale, yarrow, rue and peppercress were also used and cultivated in herb gardens. [202] [217]

Vikings collected and ate fruits, berries and nuts. Apple (wild crab apples), plums and cherries were part of the diet, [218] as were rose hips and raspberry, wild strawberry, blackberry, elderberry, rowan, hawthorn and various wild berries, specific to the locations. [217] Hazelnuts were an important part of the diet in general and large amounts of walnut shells have been found in cities like Hedeby. The shells were used for dyeing, and it is assumed that the nuts were consumed. [202] [214]

The invention and introduction of the mouldboard plough revolutionised agriculture in Scandinavia in the early Viking Age and made it possible to farm even poor soils. In Ribe, grains of rye, barley, oat and wheat dated to the 8th century have been found and examined, and are believed to have been cultivated locally. [219] Grains and flour were used for making porridges, some cooked with milk, some cooked with fruit and sweetened with honey, and also various forms of bread. Remains of bread from primarily Birka in Sweden were made of barley and wheat. It is unclear if the Norse leavened their breads, but their ovens and baking utensils suggest that they did. [220] Flax was a very important crop for the Vikings: it was used for oil extraction, food consumption and most importantly the production of linen. More than 40% of all known textile recoveries from the Viking Age can be traced as linen. This suggests a much higher actual percentage, as linen is poorly preserved compared to wool for example. [221]

The quality of food for common people was not always particularly high. The research at Coppergate shows that the Vikings in York made bread from whole meal flour—probably both wheat and rye—but with the seeds of cornfield weeds included. Corncockle (Agrostemma), would have made the bread dark-coloured, but the seeds are poisonous, and people who ate the bread might have become ill. Seeds of carrots, parsnip, and brassicas were also discovered, but they were poor specimens and tend to come from white carrots and bitter tasting cabbages. [218] The rotary querns often used in the Viking Age left tiny stone fragments (often from basalt rock) in the flour, which when eaten wore down the teeth. The effects of this can be seen on skeletal remains of that period. [220]


Sports were widely practised and encouraged by the Vikings. [222] [223] Sports that involved weapons training and developing combat skills were popular. This included spear and stone throwing, building and testing physical strength through wrestling (see glima), fist fighting, and stone lifting. In areas with mountains, mountain climbing was practised as a sport. Agility and balance were built and tested by running and jumping for sport, and there is mention of a sport that involved jumping from oar to oar on the outside of a ship's railing as it was being rowed. [224] Swimming was a popular sport and Snorri Sturluson describes three types: diving, long-distance swimming, and a contest in which two swimmers try to dunk one another. Children often participated in some of the sport disciplines and women have also been mentioned as swimmers, although it is unclear if they took part in competition. King Olaf Tryggvason was hailed as a master of both mountain climbing and oar-jumping, and was said to have excelled in the art of knife juggling as well.

Skiing and ice skating were the primary winter sports of the Vikings, although skiing was also used as everyday means of transport in winter and in the colder regions of the north.

Horse fighting was practised for sport, although the rules are unclear. It appears to have involved two stallions pitted against each other, within smell and sight of fenced-off mares. Whatever the rules were, the fights often resulted in the death of one of the stallions.

Icelandic sources refer to the sport of knattleik. A ball game akin to hockey, knattleik involved a bat and a small hard ball and was usually played on a smooth field of ice. The rules are unclear, but it was popular with both adults and children, even though it often led to injuries. Knattleik appears to have been played only in Iceland, where it attracted many spectators, as did horse fighting.

Hunting, as a sport, was limited to Denmark, where it was not regarded as an important occupation. Birds, deer, hares and foxes were hunted with bow and spear, and later with crossbows. The techniques were stalking, snare and traps and par force hunting with dog packs.

Games and entertainment

Both archaeological finds and written sources testify to the fact that the Vikings set aside time for social and festive gatherings. [222] [223] [225]

Board games and dice games were played as a popular pastime at all levels of society. Preserved gaming pieces and boards show game boards made of easily available materials like wood, with game pieces manufactured from stone, wood or bone, while other finds include elaborately carved boards and game pieces of glass, amber, antler or walrus tusk, together with materials of foreign origin, such as ivory. The Vikings played several types of tafl games hnefatafl, nitavl (nine men's morris) and the less common kvatrutafl. Chess also appeared at the end of the Viking Age. Hnefatafl is a war game, in which the object is to capture the king piece—a large hostile army threatens and the king's men have to protect the king. It was played on a board with squares using black and white pieces, with moves made according to dice rolls. The Ockelbo Runestone shows two men engaged in Hnefatafl, and the sagas suggest that money or valuables could have been involved in some dice games. [222] [225]

On festive occasions storytelling, skaldic poetry, music and alcoholic drinks, like beer and mead, contributed to the atmosphere. [225] Music was considered an art form and music proficiency as fitting for a cultivated man. The Vikings are known to have played instruments including harps, fiddles, lyres and lutes. [222]

Experimental archaeology

Experimental archaeology of the Viking Age is a flourishing branch and several places have been dedicated to this technique, such as Jorvik Viking Centre in the United Kingdom, Sagnlandet Lejre and Ribe Viking Center [da] in Denmark, Foteviken Museum in Sweden or Lofotr Viking Museum in Norway. Viking-age reenactors have undertaken experimental activities such as iron smelting and forging using Norse techniques at Norstead in Newfoundland for example. [226]

On 1 July 2007, the reconstructed Viking ship Skuldelev 2, renamed Sea Stallion, [227] began a journey from Roskilde to Dublin. The remains of that ship and four others were discovered during a 1962 excavation in the Roskilde Fjord. Tree-ring analysis has shown the ship was built of oak in the vicinity of Dublin in about 1042. Seventy multi-national crew members sailed the ship back to its home, and Sea Stallion arrived outside Dublin's Custom House on 14 August 2007. The purpose of the voyage was to test and document the seaworthiness, speed, and manoeuvrability of the ship on the rough open sea and in coastal waters with treacherous currents. The crew tested how the long, narrow, flexible hull withstood the tough ocean waves. The expedition also provided valuable new information on Viking longships and society. The ship was built using Viking tools, materials, and much the same methods as the original ship.

Other vessels, often replicas of the Gokstad ship (full- or half-scale) or Skuldelev have been built and tested as well. The Snorri (a Skuldelev I Knarr), was sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland in 1998. [228]

Cultural assimilation

Elements of a Scandinavian identity and practices were maintained in settler societies, but they could be quite distinct as the groups assimilated into the neighboring societies. Assimilation to the Frankish culture in Normandy for example was rapid. [229] Links to a Viking identity remained longer in the remote islands of Iceland and the Faroes. [229]

Knowledge about the arms and armour of the Viking age is based on archaeological finds, pictorial representation, and to some extent on the accounts in the Norse sagas and Norse laws recorded in the 13th century. According to custom, all free Norse men were required to own weapons and were permitted to carry them at all times. These arms indicated a Viking's social status: a wealthy Viking had a complete ensemble of a helmet, shield, mail shirt, and sword. However, swords were rarely used in battle, probably not sturdy enough for combat and most likely only used as symbolic or decorative items. [230] [231]

A typical bóndi (freeman) was more likely to fight with a spear and shield, and most also carried a seax as a utility knife and side-arm. Bows were used in the opening stages of land battles and at sea, but they tended to be considered less "honourable" than melee weapons. Vikings were relatively unusual for the time in their use of axes as a main battle weapon. The Húscarls, the elite guard of King Cnut (and later of King Harold II) were armed with two-handed axes that could split shields or metal helmets with ease.

The warfare and violence of the Vikings were often motivated and fuelled by their beliefs in Norse religion, focusing on Thor and Odin, the gods of war and death. [232] [233] In combat, it is believed that the Vikings sometimes engaged in a disordered style of frenetic, furious fighting known as berserkergang, leading them to be termed berserkers. Such tactics may have been deployed intentionally by shock troops, and the berserk-state may have been induced through ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties, such as the hallucinogenic mushrooms, Amanita muscaria, [234] or large amounts of alcohol. [235]

The Vikings established and engaged in extensive trading networks throughout the known world and had a profound influence on the economic development of Europe and Scandinavia. [236] [237]

Except for the major trading centres of Ribe, Hedeby and the like, the Viking world was unfamiliar with the use of coinage and was based on so called bullion economy, that is, the weight of precious metals. Silver was the most common metal in the economy, although gold was also used to some extent. Silver circulated in the form of bars, or ingots, as well as in the form of jewellery and ornaments. A large number of silver hoards from the Viking Age have been uncovered, both in Scandinavia and the lands they settled. [238] [ better source needed ] Traders carried small scales, enabling them to measure weight very accurately, so it was possible to have a very precise system of trade and exchange, even without a regular coinage. [236]


Organized trade covered everything from ordinary items in bulk to exotic luxury products. The Viking ship designs, like that of the knarr, were an important factor in their success as merchants. [239] Imported goods from other cultures included: [240]

    were obtained from Chinese and Persian traders, who met with the Viking traders in Russia. Vikings used homegrown spices and herbs like caraway, thyme, horseradish and mustard, [241] but imported cinnamon. was much prized by the Norse. The imported glass was often made into beads for decoration and these have been found in the thousands. Åhus in Scania and the old market town of Ribe were major centres of glass bead production. [242][243][244] was a very important commodity obtained from Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and China. It was valued by many European cultures of the time, and the Vikings used it to indicate status such as wealth and nobility. Many of the archaeological finds in Scandinavia include silk. [245][246][247] was imported from France and Germany as a drink of the wealthy, augmenting the regular mead and beer.

To counter these valuable imports, the Vikings exported a large variety of goods. These goods included: [240]

    —the fossilised resin of the pine tree—was frequently found on the North Sea and Baltic coastline. It was worked into beads and ornamental objects, before being traded. (See also the Amber Road).
  • Fur was also exported as it provided warmth. This included the furs of pine martens, foxes, bears, otters and beavers.
  • Cloth and wool. The Vikings were skilled spinners and weavers and exported woollen cloth of a high quality. was collected and exported. The Norwegian west coast supplied eiderdowns and sometimes feathers were bought from the Samis. Down was used for bedding and quilted clothing. Fowling on the steep slopes and cliffs was dangerous work and was often lethal. [248] , known as thralls in Old Norse. On their raids, the Vikings captured many people, among them monks and clergymen. They were sometimes sold as slaves to Arab merchants in exchange for silver.

Other exports included weapons, walrus ivory, wax, salt and cod. As one of the more exotic exports, hunting birds were sometimes provided from Norway to the European aristocracy, from the 10th century. [248]

Many of these goods were also traded within the Viking world itself, as well as goods such as soapstone and whetstone. Soapstone was traded with the Norse on Iceland and in Jutland, who used it for pottery. Whetstones were traded and used for sharpening weapons, tools and knives. [240] There are indications from Ribe and surrounding areas, that the extensive medieval trade with oxen and cattle from Jutland (see Ox Road), reach as far back as c. 720 AD. This trade satisfied the Vikings' need for leather and meat to some extent, and perhaps hides for parchment production on the European mainland. Wool was also very important as a domestic product for the Vikings, to produce warm clothing for the cold Scandinavian and Nordic climate, and for sails. Sails for Viking ships required large amounts of wool, as evidenced by experimental archaeology. There are archaeological signs of organised textile productions in Scandinavia, reaching as far back as the early Iron Ages. Artisans and craftsmen in the larger towns were supplied with antlers from organised hunting with large-scale reindeer traps in the far north. They were used as raw material for making everyday utensils like combs. [248]

Medieval perceptions

In England the Viking Age began dramatically on 8 June 793 when Norsemen destroyed the abbey on the island of Lindisfarne. The devastation of Northumbria's Holy Island shocked and alerted the royal courts of Europe to the Viking presence. "Never before has such an atrocity been seen," declared the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin of York. [249] Medieval Christians in Europe were totally unprepared for the Viking incursions and could find no explanation for their arrival and the accompanying suffering they experienced at their hands save the "Wrath of God". [250] More than any other single event, the attack on Lindisfarne demonised perception of the Vikings for the next twelve centuries. Not until the 1890s did scholars outside Scandinavia begin to seriously reassess the achievements of the Vikings, recognizing their artistry, technological skills, and seamanship. [251]

Norse Mythology, sagas, and literature tell of Scandinavian culture and religion through tales of heroic and mythological heroes. Early transmission of this information was primarily oral, and later texts relied on the writings and transcriptions of Christian scholars, including the Icelanders Snorri Sturluson and Sæmundur fróði. Many of these sagas were written in Iceland, and most of them, even if they had no Icelandic provenance, were preserved there after the Middle Ages due to the continued interest of Icelanders in Norse literature and law codes.

The 200-year Viking influence on European history is filled with tales of plunder and colonisation, and the majority of these chronicles came from western witnesses and their descendants. Less common, though equally relevant, are the Viking chronicles that originated in the east, including the Nestor chronicles, Novgorod chronicles, Ibn Fadlan chronicles, Ibn Rusta chronicles, and brief mentions by Photius, patriarch of Constantinople, regarding their first attack on the Byzantine Empire. Other chroniclers of Viking history include Adam of Bremen, who wrote, in the fourth volume of his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, "[t]here is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king." In 991, the Battle of Maldon between Viking raiders and the inhabitants of Maldon in Essex was commemorated with a poem of the same name.

Post-medieval perceptions

Early modern publications, dealing with what is now called Viking culture, appeared in the 16th century, e.g. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the northern people) of Olaus Magnus (1555), and the first edition of the 13th-century Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes), by Saxo Grammaticus, in 1514. The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the Edda (notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665).

In Scandinavia, the 17th-century Danish scholars Thomas Bartholin and Ole Worm and the Swede Olaus Rudbeck used runic inscriptions and Icelandic sagas as historical sources. An important early British contributor to the study of the Vikings was George Hickes, who published his Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus (Dictionary of the Old Northern Languages) in 1703–05. During the 18th century, British interest and enthusiasm for Iceland and early Scandinavian culture grew dramatically, expressed in English translations of Old Norse texts and in original poems that extolled the supposed Viking virtues.

The word "viking" was first popularised at the beginning of the 19th century by Erik Gustaf Geijer in his poem, The Viking. Geijer's poem did much to propagate the new romanticised ideal of the Viking, which had little basis in historical fact. The renewed interest of Romanticism in the Old North had contemporary political implications. The Geatish Society, of which Geijer was a member, popularised this myth to a great extent. Another Swedish author who had great influence on the perception of the Vikings was Esaias Tegnér, a member of the Geatish Society, who wrote a modern version of Friðþjófs saga hins frœkna, which became widely popular in the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Fascination with the Vikings reached a peak during the so-called Viking revival in the late 18th and 19th centuries as a branch of Romantic nationalism. In Britain this was called Septentrionalism, in Germany "Wagnerian" pathos, and in the Scandinavian countries Scandinavism. Pioneering 19th-century scholarly editions of the Viking Age began to reach a small readership in Britain, archaeologists began to dig up Britain's Viking past, and linguistic enthusiasts started to identify the Viking-Age origins of rural idioms and proverbs. The new dictionaries of the Old Norse language enabled the Victorians to grapple with the primary Icelandic sagas. [252]

Until recently, the history of the Viking Age was largely based on Icelandic sagas, the history of the Danes written by Saxo Grammaticus, the Russian Primary Chronicle, and Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib. Few scholars still accept these texts as reliable sources, as historians now rely more on archaeology and numismatics, disciplines that have made valuable contributions toward understanding the period. [253] [ citation needed ]

In 20th-century politics

The romanticised idea of the Vikings constructed in scholarly and popular circles in northwestern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a potent one, and the figure of the Viking became a familiar and malleable symbol in different contexts in the politics and political ideologies of 20th-century Europe. [254] In Normandy, which had been settled by Vikings, the Viking ship became an uncontroversial regional symbol. In Germany, awareness of Viking history in the 19th century had been stimulated by the border dispute with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein and the use of Scandinavian mythology by Richard Wagner. The idealised view of the Vikings appealed to Germanic supremacists who transformed the figure of the Viking in accordance with the ideology of a Germanic master race. [255] Building on the linguistic and cultural connections between Norse-speaking Scandinavians and other Germanic groups in the distant past, Scandinavian Vikings were portrayed in Nazi Germany as a pure Germanic type. The cultural phenomenon of Viking expansion was re-interpreted for use as propaganda to support the extreme militant nationalism of the Third Reich, and ideologically informed interpretations of Viking paganism and the Scandinavian use of runes were employed in the construction of Nazi mysticism. Other political organisations of the same ilk, such as the former Norwegian fascist party Nasjonal Samling, similarly appropriated elements of the modern Viking cultural myth in their symbolism and propaganda.

Soviet and earlier Slavophile historians emphasized a Slavic rooted foundation in contrast to the Normanist theory of the Vikings conquering the Slavs and founding the Kievan Rus'. [256] They accused Normanist theory proponents of distorting history by depicting the Slavs as undeveloped primitives. In contrast, Soviet historians stated that the Slavs laid the foundations of their statehood long before the Norman/Viking raids, while the Norman/Viking invasions only served to hinder the historical development of the Slavs. They argued that Rus' composition was Slavic and that Rurik and Oleg' success was rooted in their support from within the local Slavic aristocracy. [ citation needed ] . After the dissolution of the USSR, Novgorod acknowledged its Viking history by incorporating a Viking ship into its logo. [257]

In modern popular culture

Led by the operas of German composer Richard Wagner, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, Vikings and the Romanticist Viking Revival have inspired many creative works. These have included novels directly based on historical events, such as Frans Gunnar Bengtsson's The Long Ships (which was also released as a 1963 film), and historical fantasies such as the film The Vikings, Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (movie version called The 13th Warrior), and the comedy film Erik the Viking. The vampire Eric Northman, in the HBO TV series True Blood, was a Viking prince before being turned into a vampire. Vikings appear in several books by the Danish American writer Poul Anderson, while British explorer, historian, and writer Tim Severin authored a trilogy of novels in 2005 about a young Viking adventurer Thorgils Leifsson, who travels around the world.

In 1962, American comic book writer Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber, together with Jack Kirby, created the Marvel Comics superhero Thor, which they based on the Norse god of the same name. The character is featured in the 2011 Marvel Studios film Thor and its sequels Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok. The character also appears in the 2012 film The Avengers and its associated animated series.

The appearance of Vikings within popular media and television has seen a resurgence in recent decades, especially with the History Channel's series Vikings (2013), directed by Michael Hirst. The show has a loose grounding in historical facts and sources, but bases itself more so on literary sources, such as fornaldarsaga Ragnars saga loðbrókar, itself more legend than fact, and Old Norse Eddic and Skaldic poetry. [258] The events of the show frequently make references to the Völuspá, an Eddic poem describing the creation of the world, often directly referencing specific lines of the poem in the dialogue. [259] The show portrays some of the social realities of the medieval Scandinavian world, such as slavery [260] and the greater role of women within Viking society. [261] The show also addresses the topics of gender equity in Viking society with the inclusion of shield maidens through the character Lagertha, also based on a legendary figure. [262] Recent archaeological interpretations and osteological analysis of previous excavations of Viking burials has given support to the idea of the Viking woman warrior, namely the excavation and DNA study of the Birka female Viking warrior, within recent years. However, the conclusions remain contentious.

Vikings have served as an inspiration for numerous video games, such as The Lost Vikings (1993), Age of Mythology (2002), and For Honor (2017). [263] All three Vikings from The Lost Vikings series—Erik the Swift, Baleog the Fierce, and Olaf the Stout—appeared as a playable hero in the crossover title Heroes of the Storm (2015). [264] The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) is an action role-playing video game heavily inspired by Viking culture. [265] [266] Vikings are the lead focus of the 2020 video game Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which is set in 873 AD, and recounts an alternative history of the Viking invasion of Britain. [267]

Modern reconstructions of Viking mythology have shown a persistent influence in late 20th- and early 21st-century popular culture in some countries, inspiring comics, movies, television series, role-playing games, computer games, and music, including Viking metal, a subgenre of heavy metal music.

Since the 1960s, there has been rising enthusiasm for historical reenactment. While the earliest groups had little claim for historical accuracy, the seriousness and accuracy of reenactors has increased. The largest such groups include The Vikings and Regia Anglorum, though many smaller groups exist in Europe, North America, New Zealand, and Australia. Many reenactor groups participate in live-steel combat, and a few have Viking-style ships or boats.

The Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League are so-named owing to the large Scandinavian population in the US state of Minnesota.

During the banking boom of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Icelandic financiers came to be styled as útrásarvíkingar (roughly 'raiding Vikings'). [268] [269] [270]

Common misconceptions

Horned helmets

Apart from two or three representations of (ritual) helmets—with protrusions that may be either stylised ravens, snakes, or horns—no depiction of the helmets of Viking warriors, and no preserved helmet, has horns. The formal, close-quarters style of Viking combat (either in shield walls or aboard "ship islands") would have made horned helmets cumbersome and hazardous to the warrior's own side.

Historians therefore believe that Viking warriors did not wear horned helmets whether such helmets were used in Scandinavian culture for other, ritual purposes, remains unproven. The general misconception that Viking warriors wore horned helmets was partly promulgated by the 19th-century enthusiasts of Götiska Förbundet, founded in 1811 in Stockholm. [271] They promoted the use of Norse mythology as the subject of high art and other ethnological and moral aims.

The Vikings were often depicted with winged helmets and in other clothing taken from Classical antiquity, especially in depictions of Norse gods. This was done to legitimise the Vikings and their mythology by associating it with the Classical world, which had long been idealised in European culture.

The latter-day mythos created by national romantic ideas blended the Viking Age with aspects of the Nordic Bronze Age some 2,000 years earlier. Horned helmets from the Bronze Age were shown in petroglyphs and appeared in archaeological finds (see Bohuslän and Vikso helmets). They were probably used for ceremonial purposes. [272]

Cartoons like Hägar the Horrible and Vicky the Viking, and sports kits such as those of the Minnesota Vikings and Canberra Raiders have perpetuated the myth of the horned helmet. [273]

Viking helmets were conical, made from hard leather with wood and metallic reinforcement for regular troops. The iron helmet with mask and mail was for the chieftains, based on the previous Vendel-age helmets from central Sweden. The only original Viking helmet discovered is the Gjermundbu helmet, found in Norway. This helmet is made of iron and has been dated to the 10th century. [274]


The image of wild-haired, dirty savages sometimes associated with the Vikings in popular culture is a distorted picture of reality. [8] Viking tendencies were often misreported, and the work of Adam of Bremen, among others, told largely disputable tales of Viking savagery and uncleanliness. [275]

Use of skulls as drinking vessels

There is no evidence that Vikings drank out of the skulls of vanquished enemies. This was a misconception based on a passage in the skaldic poem Krákumál speaking of heroes drinking from ór bjúgviðum hausa (branches of skulls). This was a reference to drinking horns, but was mistranslated in the 17th century [276] as referring to the skulls of the slain. [277]

Margaryan et al. 2020 analyzed 442 Viking world individuals from various archaeological sites in Europe. [278] They were found to be closely related to modern Scandinavians. The Y-DNA composition of the individuals in the study was also similar to that of modern Scandinavians. The most common Y-DNA haplogroup was I1 (95 samples), followed by R1b (84 samples) and R1a, especially (but not exclusively) of the Scandinavian R1a-Z284 subclade (61 samples). The study showed what many historians have hypothesized, that it was common for Norseman settlers to marry foreign women. Some individuals from the study, such as those found in Foggia, display typical Scandinavian Y-DNA haplogroups but also Southern European autosomal ancestry, suggesting that they were the descendants of Viking settler males and local women. The 5 individual samples from Foggia were likely Normans. The same pattern of a combination of Scandinavian Y-DNA and local autosomal ancestry is seen in other samples from the study, for example Varangians buried near lake Ladoga and Vikings in England, suggesting that Viking men had married into local families in those places too. [278]

Unsurprisingly, and very much consistent with historical records, the study found evidence of a major influx of Danish Viking ancestry into England, a Swedish influx into Estonia and Finland and Norwegian influx into Ireland, Iceland and Greenland during the Viking Age. [278]

Margaryan et al. 2020 examined the skeletal remains of 42 individuals from the Salme ship burials in Estonia. The skeletal remains belonged to warriors killed in battle who were later buried together with numerous valuable weapons and armour. DNA testing and isotope analysis revealed that the men came from central Sweden. [278]

Female descent studies show evidence of Norse descent in areas closest to Scandinavia, such as the Shetland and Orkney islands. [279] Inhabitants of lands farther away show most Norse descent in the male Y-chromosome lines. [280]

A specialised genetic and surname study in Liverpool showed marked Norse heritage: up to 50% of males of families that lived there before the years of industrialisation and population expansion. [281] High percentages of Norse inheritance—tracked through the R-M420 haplotype—were also found among males in the Wirral and West Lancashire. [282] This was similar to the percentage of Norse inheritance found among males in the Orkney Islands. [283]

Recent research suggests that the Celtic warrior Somerled, who drove the Vikings out of western Scotland and was the progenitor of Clan Donald, may have been of Viking descent, a member of haplogroup R-M420. [284]

Margaryan et al. 2020 examined an elite warrior burial from Bodzia (Poland) dated to 1010-1020 AD. The cemetery in Bodzia is exceptional in terms of Scandinavian and Kievian Rus links. The Bodzia man (sample VK157, or burial E864/I) was not a simple warrior from the princely retinue, but he belonged to the princely family himself. His burial is the richest one in the whole cemetery, moreover, strontium analysis of his teeth enamel shows he was not local. It is assumed that he came to Poland with the Prince of Kiev, Sviatopolk the Accursed, and met a violent death in combat. This corresponds to the events of 1018 AD when Sviatopolk himself disappeared after having retreated from Kiev to Poland. It cannot be excluded that the Bodzia man was Sviatopolk himself, as the genealogy of the Rurikids at this period is extremely sketchy and the dates of birth of many princes of this dynasty may be quite approximative. The Bodzia man carried haplogroup I1-S2077 and had both Scandinavian ancestry and Russian admixture. [285] [286] [287]

Gods and giants

Detail from the stone cross (below) © The great enemies of the gods were the giants, and there were often conflicts between the two races. Among the gods, only Thor was a match for the giants in strength, so the gods usually had to rely on cunning to outwit the giants. Odin himself was capable of clever tricks, but whenever the gods needed a really cunning plan, they turned to the fire-god Loki. Like fire, which can bring necessary warmth or cause great destruction, Loki did many things that benefited the gods, but he also caused them great harm, and often the problems he solved had been caused by his mischief in the first place.

A stone cross from the Isle of Man showing Odin (with raven) fighting the Fenris wolf at the time of Ragnarok © Despite the tension between gods and giants, there was a fair amount of contact on an individual basis, and a number of the gods had relationships with giantesses. One of these was Loki, who had three monstrous children by his giantess wife. His daughter Hel became ruler of the underworld. One son, Jormunagund, was a serpent who grew so large that he stretched all the way around the earth. The other son was Fenris, a wolf so powerful that he terrified the gods until they tricked him into allowing himself to be tied up with a magical chain which bound him until the end of time.

It was believed that the world would end with the final battle of Ragnarok, between the gods and the giants. Loki and his children would take the side of the giants. Thor and Jormunagund, who maintained a long-running feud with each other, would kill each other, and Odin would be killed by the Fenris wolf, who would then be killed in turn. A fire would sweep across the whole world, destroying both the gods and mankind. However, just enough members of both races would survive to start a new world.


Sometime in the fifth century AD, a group of soldiers had a farewell party. We have no record of precisely where it was held or what the menu may have been. There is no evidence of any remarkable after-dinner speeches or entertainment. But we still know the party took place, because they clubbed together and bought a token of their appreciation for their leader, Aurelius Cervianus. A local British craftsman was hired to engrave a bronze dish, its lower half showing a collection of exotic beasts, including a pair of peacocks and a somewhat boss-eyed lion. 1 The upper half has a number of troops under Cervianus&rsquos command, with their legion insignia and designations &ndash XX Valeria Victrix, and II Augusta. Between them lies Cervianus&rsquos name, and a message from the boys:Utere Felix, &lsquoUse this Happily&rsquo.

Valeria Victrix and II Augusta had long histories, but both had spent much of their operational lives in Britannia. Originally a frontier legion on the banks of the Danube and Rhine, the men of Valeria Victrix had garrisoned the British island for centuries. They had gained their title, &lsquoValiant and Victorious&rsquo, after serving the empire well in the suppression of the revolt of Queen Boudicca. 2 II Augusta was even older, with a regimental history that may have even stretched back into the days when Rome was still a republic. Both legions had formed part of the original Roman invasion force, and had made Britannia their home for many generations of service. Now they were leaving.

The Romans were deserting their farthest outposts. The soldiers were required closer to a &lsquohome&rsquo which some of them had never even seen. We do not know what happened to Cervianus, but his hardwearing dish eventually turned up, intact, in what is now France.

Most books about the Vikings begin long after this time. The &lsquoViking Age&rsquo, such as it was, is taken by most authorities to span the period from the infamous raid on Lindisfarne in AD 793, to the death of Harald Hardraada in 1066. But the dates were not quite so clear-cut as that. The Vikings did not spring fully formed on to the international stage they were the inheritors of a long tradition.

There is much to be gained from ignoring such arbitrary barriers as the end of the Classical period, or the start of the &lsquoDark Ages&rsquo &ndash students of the Vikings can learn much from what happened both before and after this historical watershed.

Scandinavia was one of the last places in Europe to be settled. The Ice Age lingered longer in its mountainous, northern regions, and much of its atavistic power can still be felt in a Scandinavian winter. In times of great plenty, when the climate was warm, a few hardy souls ventured further northwards. But when the weather took a turn for the worse, many of those northern explorers were forced back to their ancestral homes. Hardened by their harsh northern existence, they were often more than a match for their southern kinsmen &ndash population overspill is a common factor in Scandinavian history. The first members of the society to head elsewhere were usually those with little investment in the place of their birth &ndash the young men, deprived of land, wives and wealth, coalescing into gangs that sought new opportunities. If they had the means of mobility, horses perhaps, or boats, then their adventures would take them substantially further than the next settlement.

In the early Middle Ages, such periodic growths of population may have led to the Viking invasions that are the main subject of this book, and are dealt with in detail in subsequent chapters. But there were also many signs of earlier, less well-recorded incursions of Scandinavian settlers before the Middle Ages.

As early as a hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Roman Republic was threatened by an onrushing tide of northern attackers. The Cimbri, originating on the Danish peninsula, and their Teuton allies from the far north of Germany, threw the republic into a state of emergency and were only defeated a generation after their migration began, in a series of battles in what is now southern France. Roman navies also had to deal with tribes that travelled by sea and preyed upon imperial shipping. In 12 BC, a Roman fleet advanced along the northern coast of Europe, and reported a series of skirmishes with the seaborne Bructeri tribe. The earliest recorded circumnavigation of the British Isles was conducted not by the Romans, but by a group of the Usipi in AD 83. Deserting from their posting as Roman mercenaries in Britain, this group stole three galleys which were eventually wrecked on the coast of Denmark. 3

Denmark was also the place of origin of the Chauci, who soon spread along the coast of northern Europe as far as the Rhine. Led by Gannascus, a tribesman of the Canninefates who had learned Roman tricks by serving in a Rhine legion before deserting, the Chauci preyed upon the coast of what is now known as Belgium in AD 41, before advancing in force up the river Rhine itself in 47. 4 The Chauci were defeated by the Roman fleet which sailed up the Rhine to meet them in battle. But even this imperial navy seems to have relied heavily on barbarian sailors and seamen. A generation after the incursions of the Chauci, barbarian oarsmen in the same Roman fleet staged a revolt, stole 24 galleys, and fought their way down the Rhine towards the sea. The oarsmen, men of the Batavii, joined with river pirates from other tribes and attacked a Roman troop convoy in the English Channel.

The Romans were able to contain such marine assaults, but only barely. While records of Roman Britain are all but silent about the dangers, the archaeological evidence speaks for itself. During the second and third centuries AD, Roman legions built forts along the eastern coast of Britannia, designed to watch and warn against a mystery threat from the sea. Tribes from the north and east, making greater use of sails over oars, had begun periodic attacks on the British coastline.

By the third and fourth centuries AD, the coast of the Black Sea was ravaged by ships of the Goths and Heruls, originating from Scandinavia. Meanwhile, the northern shore of the European mainland was attacked by a confederation of many tribes, now combined as the Franks. The Franks had been pushed out of their homeland by the fiercer Angles and Saxons, themselves pressured by the Jutes to the north in Denmark. Taking advantage of a local revolt within the Roman Empire, the Franks plundered northern Gaul, also preying for a while on Spain. When order was eventually restored, the Romans consolidated their coastal defences &ndash both sides of the Channel came under the same military command, and a series of fortifications attempted to deal with the problem of pirates and raiders approaching from the North Sea. These defences came to be known as the Saxon Shore-forts, and for a while, they kept the enemy at bay. 5

Aurelius Cervianus&rsquos farewell party and the evacuation it signified did not merely deprive the former colony of Britannia of its military occupiers. It also left the coasts wide open to invasion. Moreover, the pirate problem of the North Sea, once contained at Dover by the Roman fleet, could now spread all along the northern coast of Europe.

The tribes had an additional reason for their movements. The centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire saw a rise in temperature all over the globe, known as the &lsquoLittle Climatic Optimum&rsquo. During this period, Europe was roughly one degree centigrade warmer than it is today. The warmer climate made it possible to have vineyards as far north as the River Tyne, and ensured rich harvests that helped the population of Scandinavia increase to levels that required resettlement. More ominously, it also caused more polar ice to melt than before. Sea levels rose, only by a little, but it was enough to cause floods throughout the homelands of many north European tribes. In the area now known as the Low Countries, numerous tribes struggled against the rising waters, clustering on high ground and building their homes on artificial mounds. After a few generations, they too gave up, and went in search of less flood-prone lands to settle. 6 Saxon ships began appearing off the coast of Britannia in twos and threes when they met with no resistance from the deserted forts, they returned in much larger numbers.

Little distinguishes the upheaval caused by the Saxons from that caused by the Vikings several hundred years later &ndash the only real difference is the lack of contemporary reportage. Place names and archaeological evidence offer the only real clues to what happened at the end of the fifth centuryAD. A great wave of Saxon settlers, we assume, broke upon the eastern coast of Britannia. With the Roman defences unmanned, there was nothing to stop them. They took the land as their own and pushed the locals out.

Eventually, the locals rallied under a heroic leader, and fought the Saxons to a standstill. 7 Accounts written decades after the event refer to him as Ambrosius Aurelianus, a name of suitably Roman origin to imply that his family, education, or background had something to do with the recently departed legions. It is not impossible that some legionaries remained behind in their adopted homeland &ndash spending several centuries in the same place was likely to cause many families to develop local ties that they were reluctant to sever. Centuries later, this resistance was codified into a tale of twelve great battles against the invaders. The last was the one that really counted &ndash Ambrosius, or someone like him, supposedly dealt a crushing blow to the Saxons at the unknown location of Mons Badonicus (&lsquoBadon Hill&rsquo). The Saxon advance ground to a temporary halt, and the raiders slowly became part of the landscape. The original British, far from united among themselves, held on in Cumbria, south-west Scotland and the reaches of Wales and the West Country, telling tales about a mythical leader who held off the invaders &ndash eventually, the twelve battles would somehow transform into a series of legends about a man called Arthur. 8

With the passing of the Roman Empire, the map of Europe was redrawn once more. Gaul now bore a name derived from the tribe that had conquered it, Francia, later France. The island once called Britannia was now a patchwork of petty kingdoms &ndash the &lsquoWest Saxons&rsquo in Wessex, the &lsquoEast Saxons&rsquo of Essex and the Angles of East Anglia, the Mercians of the Midlands and the Northumbrians &lsquoNorth of the Humber&rsquo. The eastern part of Britannia, home to the Anglo-Saxon settlers, came to be known as Angle-land, or England. Some Britons fled the Saxon advance by sailing for the area in north France that now bears their name, Brittany. The word Saxon became synonymous with foreigners and enemies throughout the Celtic realms: the Scottish Sassenach, the Welsh Saesnegand the Cornish Sowsnek.

The Saxons, once described by the emperor Julian as &lsquo. . . the fiercest of the tribes who lived beyond the Rhine,&rsquo 9 largely developed into Christian farmers, traders and artisans.

Then, in the late eighth century AD, sporadic raids on the coast turned out to be the precursors of another forceful incursion from Scandinavia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles reported the arrival of these new enemies with utmost horror, loaded with tales of pillage and slaughter. To inhabitants of what had once been Britannia, their enemies were &lsquoDanes&rsquo to the French, they were &lsquoNormans&rsquo, men from the North the Irish called them Gall (&lsquoStrangers&rsquo) the Germans named them Ascomanni (&lsquoAsh-men&rsquo) after the wood of the ships that carried them. On the eastern edge of Europe, they were called Rus, Rootsi or Ruotsi, thought to derive from a Norse word for rowers. In Constantinople, they were called Vaerings or Varangians, &lsquopledgers&rsquo who swore an oath of service to the empire. In Baghdad, they were the Waranke or ar-Rus, and when they plundered Spain, the Muslim inhabitants called them Majus &ndash &lsquoheathen wizards&rsquo. 10

The term &lsquoViking&rsquo is thought to originate with the Scandinavians themselves, in the Old Norse nouns víking (a pirate raid) and víkingr (a pirate). But how those terms came to mean what they did remains a mystery &ndash scholars still disagree over whether they have their origin in the verb víkja (to move swiftly), or the noun vík (an inlet or bay). In the latter case it may refer specifically to one bay in particular, the Vik, that leads to the site of modern Oslo. Or, the word may have a different root, leading back through the Anglo-Saxon wic to the Latin vicus, a place of trade.

Whatever its origins, the term itself was unknown in English until the nineteenth century &ndash the Oxford English Dictionary does not record an appearance until 1807 &ndash and remained little used for several decades thereafter. 11 However, by the latter half of the Victorian era, we see a veritable explosion of Viking-related books resting heavily for their inspiration on translations of the sagas of Iceland, particularly Samuel Laing&rsquos landmark Heimskringla, an account of the early kings of Norway, published in 1844, and reprinted with substantially greater success in 1889.

These Viking tales were publishing gold to the Victorians &ndash lurid and violent, yet also somehow worthy and educational, they rode the waves of the emergent mass publishing industry, finding enthusiastic readers and rewriters in fields ranging from science fiction to music &ndash it is a paper found inside a copy of Heimskringla that inspires Jules Verne&rsquos Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), and Heimskringla itself that informs Edward Elgar&rsquos Scenes from the Life of King Olaf (1896).

However, Heimskringla was not as accurate as Laing first purported it to be. Tellingly, his first edition was called the Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, while the 1889 reprint preferred the title Sagas of the Norse Kings &ndash a shift in emphasis from the historically sound to overtones of the largely fictional. It was not Laing&rsquos translation that was at fault, but his source material, that often revealed more about the thoughts and beliefs of thirteenth-century Icelanders than the ancestors they claimed to be discussing.

The century since this late Victorian Viking-mania has seen a slow but steady erosion of its vision, using evidence more compelling than tall tales from an Icelandic fireside. In recent decades, Viking studies have been characterized by the growth of archaeological evidence, and the steady dismissal of numerous accounts once taken as gospel. We now recognize that sagas are not necessarily true, and not all chroniclers are even-handed &ndash that written documents need to be weighed against the evidence of archaeology, numismatics and, in more recent times, the findings from new disciplines such as dendrochronology.

What, then, was a Viking? As a schoolboy, I was led to believe that these fierce marauders had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, landing like flying saucers on the coast of England after perilous journeys across the North Sea &ndash the shock-and-awe of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, imparted to a new generation. In fact, the earliest Vikings were very similar to their Saxon precursors, clinging to the coastlines of northern Europe, so that the only time spent significantly far from land was during the relatively short crossing of the English Channel, or from Norway to the Shetlands. And they did not magically appear, but were brought there by other forces.

The most significant contributions to the arrival of the Vikings had less to do with the rich pickings of undefended English monasteries, and more to do with the strengthening of sea defences elsewhere, and with earlier contacts formed through trade. When the Vikings attacked their victims, it seems that it was rare that they stumbled across a target by accident &ndash they knew what they were looking for because they had been there before. They knew whom they were robbing, because perhaps only months earlier, they or their associates had been trading with them.

Between the eighth and the eleventh centuries, around 200,000 people left Scandinavia to settle elsewhere. 12 These voyagers were primarily men with nothing to lose. The water-ways of the Baltic and the inlets of Norway turned them into fishermen and merchants, and the first of their ventures were undoubtedly trading ones.

In some parts of the world, this is how they stayed &ndash their behaviour towards foreigners largely dictated by comparative strengths. Where a land was mainly deserted, such as Iceland or the Faeroes, the new arrivals simply settled and stayed. The dispossessed sons of Scandinavia found some land, bought some wives and slaves and, more often than not, fell back into the farming routine from which they had sprung. Such conditions prevented them, at least, from turning into bona fide &lsquoVikings&rsquo, although there was no guarantee their descendants might not go in search of plunder elsewhere &ndash even the relatively peaceful Icelanders occasionally exported their criminal element back to Europe.

Where voyagers encountered local inhabitants, their behaviour depended on what they could get away with. While Viking marauders feature in the local histories of England, Ireland and France, such tales are not so well known elsewhere. Encounters with the unquenchable menace of Greek fire, for example, put paid to most Viking attacks on the Byzantine world. In Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed generally positive relations with the men from the northern lands, and relied heavily on them as mercenaries. The Islamic community&rsquos dealings with the Norsemen were also largely peaceful after a major conflict in the late tenth century. Viking ships were treated to a lesson they would never forget when they ran into a Muslim navy on the Caspian Sea in 943, while no less than 25 rune stones in eastern Sweden commemorate an ill-fated expedition to the Caucasus by one Ingvar the Widefarer, that ended very badly for many of its participants in 1041. 13

Suitably cowed, the Vikings left the Muslim world alone, preferring instead to serve as mercenaries in its armies, or trade with it in valuable commodities such as slaves &ndash they may have been raiders at the European end of the trade route, but at the Middle Eastern end they were merchants. Indeed, many of the spoils of Viking predations in Europe, including slaves, ended up traded to the Arab world, while the treasure hoards of many a Viking leader are rich in silver from Baghdad, obtained not on raids, but on trading missions. 14 Similarly, the kidnap victims of the Vikings, peasants snatched from British or Baltic coasts, often ended their days in foreign climes they could never have imagined. When black slaves fell out of fashion in the Arab world in the late ninth century, traders increasingly turned north for alternatives, and the Vikings eagerly met the new demand for white slaves &ndash Viking consignments were less troublesome for the Muslims to obtain than captives from wars with Byzantium on the caliphate&rsquos frontier. One Eastern European girl, known only by her Muslim name of Mukhâriq, was plucked from her homeland by Viking raiders, found herself in an Abbasid harem and eventually became the mother of a caliph. 15 The Muslim diarist Ibn Battúta, while staying in the remote Chinese port of Fuzhou after the Viking Age, reported that a friend of his was doing well for himself, with a household that boasted &lsquofifty white slaves and as many slave-girls.&rsquo Such was the eventual fate of many of the Vikings&rsquo victims and their descendants. 16

The Vikings, in their explorations and conquests, undoubtedly achieved much. However it must be admitted that the leading edge of their expansion chiefly comprised thugs, brigands and outlaws. Latter-day apologists have attempted to soften the image but, by definition, the word Viking refers to pirates. A Viking is categorically not a flaxen-haired maiden making attractive jewellery by the side of a picturesque fjord, no matter what some museum curators may imply. The Vikings were the rejects of Scandinavian society &ndash forced to travel further afield to make their fortune. Some, of course, returned to claim their homeland as their own, applying their experience of foreign wars to internecine struggles.

It was a Viking who kept his retarded son chained like a beast outside his house, a Viking who attempted to skin a horse alive, a Viking who hacked off a live pig&rsquos snout to prove a point. 17 But equally, numerous claims made about Viking &lsquoatrocities&rsquo need to be regarded in context. Almosteveryone was atrocious back then &ndash it was a Christian, Saxon king who ordered the ethnic cleansing of all the Danes in England. The Angles, Saxons, Irish and Scots were just as bloodthirsty with each other, and with their Scandinavian foes.

The Vikings were often defined by what they were not. They were, to the contemporary chroniclers that hated and feared them, not civilized, not local, and most importantly not Christian. The so-called Viking Age petered out when these negative traits were annulled. Scandinavia was eventually Christianized, ironically in part through the experiences of its sons abroad, forcing the Vikings to rethink who constituted friend and foe. By the twelfth century, when Scandinavian crusaders converted Estonia to Christianity at the point of a sword, they were now not only raiding somewhere sufficiently out of the way of Western European consciousness, but doing so in the name of the Lord.

The Vikings were a group created by circumstance, not blood &ndash they were not a &lsquorace&rsquo, nor did they have any patriotism, any sense of &lsquoViking-ness&rsquo. Although they were predominantly men from the areas now known as Norway, Sweden and Denmark, there are mentions in the sagas of Finns, Sámi and Estonians among them. A Welshman supposedly sailed with the Jomsvikings Scottish scouts accompanied Leif the Lucky in his explorations, and the man who discovered the &lsquovines&rsquo of Vinland was German. When the Vikings prospered abroad, they were swift to throw off their ties to their homeland. Perhaps because of the settlers&rsquo reliance on finding local brides, they were notoriously quick to adopt the language and customs of their new lands, so that the legendary Viking vigour was not so much reduced as rebranded. 18 In only a couple of generations, the conquerors of Kiev had taken local wives, and bestowed Slavic names upon their children. Now calling themselves Russians, they would jockey for a thousand years with their Swedish cousins over who ruled the area now known as Finland. Similarly the Norsemen who occupied north France were transformed in mere decades into the &lsquoNormans&rsquo who claimed it as their natural home. Meanwhile, hundreds of square miles of the England that the Normans conquered had already been settled by Danes.

Why, then, do the Vikings continue to exert such fascination for us? During the the Viking Age, Western Europe was a backwater. The most powerful and cultured civilizations on Earth were China, Byzantium and Islam. As Christianity struggled amidst the ruins of the Roman Empire, yet another group of rough barbarians stole and murdered on the margins. Why do we still care?

For some, the tale of Viking expansion is one of incredible bravery and dynamism as, after centuries of timidly hugging the coastline, men in fragile wooden ships sail into a watery void, eventually discovering a New World. Then again, almost three millionScandinavians emigrated between 1815 and 1939. 19 Such settlers are why Minnesota&rsquos football team is called the Vikings, and why the Viking Age continues to interest a large proportion of the American populace &ndash not all white Protestants are Anglo-Saxon. But although the Vikings&rsquo landings in America are no longer disputed, the extent of their sailing skills still is. Were the Vikings pioneers of maritime navigation, or is it fairer to describe them as foolhardy blunderers, who made the majority of their &lsquodiscoveries&rsquo by getting lost and crashing into previously unknown coastlines?

For others, the Viking Age is a tale of supreme victory, not for the Vikings, but for the Christian world they sought to plunder. Within a few generations, the savage marauders were brought into the fold of Christianity, turned into respectable Europeans, vanquished in the war of the soul, even as they bragged of their physical conquests. Modern scholarship finds much to debate here, since the nature of famous conversions is still open to question. Were the Vikings savage beasts tamed by the love of God, or opportunists who paid lip-service to convenient local customs, while still keeping several concubines, owning slaves and killing their enemies?

As supposed rule-breakers, explorers and anarchists, they have injected a barbaric frisson on the cultures of the Europe their attacks helped create. Their martial prowess has become legendary, although their most humiliating defeats were at the hand of Finnish archers and Inuit fishermen. The Vikings have become symbols of all that is dangerous and exciting in the European soul &ndash an attitude that gains even more credence in modern times as DNA tests establish exactly where they went. In many cases and many countries, our enemies did not go away. They stayed, and prospered, and eventually became part of us.

A brief history of the Vikings

Invaders, predators, barbarians – the Vikings are often portrayed merely as one-dimensional warriors whose achievements include little more than plundering and raiding. But from where did the Vikings originate and were they really violent, godless pagans? Here, historian Philip Parker explains the real history of the Viking world…

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Published: April 20, 2020 at 11:30 am

In 793, terror descended on the coast of Northumbria as armed raiders attacked the defenceless monastery of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne. The terrified monks watched helplessly as the invaders made off with a haul of treasure and a clutch of captives. It was the first recorded raid by the Vikings, seaborne pirates from Scandinavia who would prey on coastal communities in north-western Europe for more than two centuries and create for themselves a reputation as fierce and pitiless warriors.

That image was magnified by those who wrote about the Viking attacks – in other words, their victims. The Anglo-Saxon cleric Alcuin of York wrote dramatically of the Lindisfarne raid that the “church was spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments… given as a prey to pagan peoples” and subsequent (mainly Christian) writers and chroniclers lost few opportunities to demonise the (mainly pagan) Vikings.

Yet, though they undeniably carried out very destructive and violent attacks, from small-scale raids against churches to major campaigns involving thousands of warriors, the Vikings formed part of a complex and often sophisticated Scandinavian culture. As well as raiders they were traders, reaching as far east as the rivers of Russia and the Caspian Sea explorers, sending ships far across the Atlantic to land on the coastline of North America five centuries before Columbus poets, composing verse and prose sagas of great power, and artists, creating works of astonishing beauty.

The reputation of the Vikings simply as raiders and plunderers has long been established. Restoring their fame as traders, storytellers, explorers, missionaries, artists and rulers is long overdue…

When and where did the Vikings come from?

The Vikings originated in what is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden (although centuries before they became unified countries). Their homeland was overwhelmingly rural, with almost no towns. The vast majority earned a meagre living through agriculture, or along the coast, by fishing. Advances in shipping technology in the 7th and 8th centuries meant that boats were powered by sails rather than solely by oars. These were then added to vessels made of overlapping planks (‘clinker-built’) to create longships, swift shallow-drafted boats that could navigate coastal and inland waters and land on beaches.

Exactly what first compelled bands of men to follow their local chieftain across the North Sea in these longships is unclear. It may have been localised overpopulation, as plots became subdivided to the point where families could barely eke out a living it may have been political instability, as chieftains fought for dominance or it may have been news brought home by merchants of the riches to be found in trading settlements further west. Probably it was a combination of all three. But in 793 that first raiding party hit Lindisfarne and within a few years further Viking bands had struck Scotland (794), Ireland (795) and France (799).

Their victims did not refer to them as Vikings. That name came later, becoming popularised by the 11th century and possibly deriving from the word vik, which in the Old Norse language the Vikings spoke means ‘bay’ or ‘inlet’. Instead they were called Dani (‘Danes’) – there was no sense at the time that this should refer only to the inhabitants of what we now call Denmark – pagani (‘pagans’) or simply Normanni (‘Northmen’).

When and where did the Viking begin to raid?

At first the raids were small-scale affairs, a matter of a few boatloads of men who would return home once they had collected sufficient plunder or if the resistance they encountered was too strong. But in the 850s they began to overwinter in southern England, in Ireland and along the Seine in France, establishing bases from which they began to dominate inland areas.

The raids reached a crescendo in the second half of the ninth century. In Ireland the Vikings established longphorts – fortified ports – including at Dublin, from which they dominated much of the eastern part of the island. In France they grew in strength as a divided Frankish kingdom fractured politically and in 885 a Viking army besieged and almost captured Paris.

In Scotland they established an earldom in the Orkneys and overran the Shetlands and the Hebrides. And in England an enormous Viking host, the micel here (‘great army’) arrived in 865. Led by a pair of warrior brothers, Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, they picked off the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England one by one. First Northumbria, with its capital at York, fell to them in 866, then East Anglia, followed by the central English kingdom of Mercia. Finally, only Wessex, ruled by King Alfred, remained. A pious bookworm, Alfred had only become king because his three more martial older brothers had sickened or died in battle in previous Viking invasions.

Thomas Williams explores the key events and legacies of the Viking era:

In early January 878 a section of the Great Army led by Guthrum crossed the frontier and caught Alfred by surprise at the royal estate at Chippenham. Alfred barely managed to escape and spent months skulking in the Somerset marshes at Athelney. It looked like the independence of Wessex – and that of England generally – might be at an end. But against the odds Alfred gathered a new army, defeated the Vikings at Edington and forced Guthrum to accept baptism as a Christian. For his achievement in saving his kingdom he became the only native English ruler to gain the nickname ‘the Great’.

Silver penny of King Alfred. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)For 80 years England was divided between the land controlled by the kings of Wessex in the south and south-west and a Viking-controlled area in the Midlands and the north. Viking kings ruled this region until the last of them, Erik Bloodaxe, was expelled and killed in 954 and the kings of Wessex became rulers of a united England. Even so, Viking (and especially Danish) customs long persisted there and traces of Scandinavian DNA can still be found in a region that for centuries was known as the Danelaw.

By the mid-11th century united kingdoms had appeared in Denmark, Norway and Sweden and the raids had finally begun to subside. There was a final burst of activity in the early 11th century when royal-sponsored expeditions succeeded in conquering England again and placing Danish kings on the throne there (including, most notably, Canute, who ruled an empire in England, Denmark and Norway, but who almost certainly did not command the tide to go out, as a folk tale alleges). Vikings remained in control of large parts of Scotland (especially Orkney), an area around Dublin and Normandy in France (where in 911 King Charles the Simple had granted land to a Norwegian chieftain, Rollo, the ancestor of William the Conqueror). They also controlled a large part of modern Ukraine and Russia, where Swedish Vikings had penetrated in the ninth century and established states based around Novgorod and Kiev.

Where did Vikings settle and live?

This was not the full extent of the Viking world, however. The same maritime aggression that had caused them to plunder (and ultimately conquer) settled lands also led them to venture in search of unknown shores on which to settle. Vikings probably arrived in the Faroes in the eighth century and they used this as a stepping-stone to sail further west across the Atlantic.

In the mid-ninth century a series of Viking voyages came across Iceland and in the year 872 colonists led by Ingólf Arnarson settled on the island. They established a unique society, fiercely independent and owing no formal allegiance to the kings of Norway. It was a republic whose supreme governing body was, from 930, the Althing, an assembly made up of Iceland’s chief men which met each summer in a plain beside a massive cleft in a ring of hills in the centre of the island. It has a strong claim to be the world’s oldest parliament.

From Iceland, too, we have other vital pieces of evidence of the inventiveness of Viking societies. These include the earliest pieces of history written by Vikings themselves in the form of a 12th-century history of Iceland, the Íslendingabók, and the Landnámabók, an account of the original settlement of the island (with the names of each of the first settlers and the land they took).

But more important – and surprising for those who view of the Vikings is as one-dimensional warriors – is the collection of sagas known as the Íslendingasögur or Icelandic Family Sagas. Their setting is the first 150 years of the Viking colony in Iceland and they tell of often-troubled relations between the main Icelandic families. Alliances, betrayals, feuds and murders play out against the backdrop of a landscape in which features can still often be identified today. At their best, in tales such as Njál’s Saga or Egil’s Saga, they are powerful pieces of literature in their own right, and among the most important writing to survive from any European country in the Middle Ages.

Levi Roach describes how the Norse people travelled, raided and settled far beyond their Scandinavian homeland:

Who was the most famous Viking?

Ivarr the Boneless – a famous warrior and one of the leaders of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ that landed in East Anglia in 865, and that went on to conquer the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia – was remembered as the founding father of the royal dynasty of the Viking kingdom of Dublin.

It is not known how Ivar came by the nickname ‘the Boneless’, although some have suggested it could have been due to an unnatural flexibility during combat or because he suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder, eventually resulting in him having to be carried everywhere. Unless his body is ever recovered – which would be difficult if he really was ‘boneless’ – we will never know.

Other famous Vikings include Aud the Deep-Minded, Eirik Bloodaxe and Einar Buttered-Bread. Click here to read about the 8 most famous Vikings

Vikings and religion: what gods did they believe in?

Iceland was the location of another drama that highlights the transition of Viking societies away from warrior chieftainships. Christianity came later to Scandinavian Viking societies than to many other parts of Europe. Whereas France’s kings had accepted Christianity by the early sixth century and the Anglo-Saxon kings of England largely in the seventh, Christian missionaries only appeared in southern Scandinavia in the ninth century and made little headway there until Harald Bluetooth of Denmark accepted baptism in around 960. Harald had become Christian after a typical piece of Viking theatre: a drunken argument around the feasting table as to which was more powerful – Odin and Thor, or the new Christian God and his son, Jesus.

Iceland remained resolutely pagan, loyal to old gods such as Odin the All Father a one-eyed god who had sacrificed the other eye in exchange for knowledge of runes and Thor, the thunder-god with his great hammer Mjölnir, who was also especially popular with warriors.

Iceland became Christian to avoid a civil war. Competing pagan and Christian factions threatened to tear the Althing apart and dissolve Iceland into separate, religiously hostile, states. At the Althing’s meeting in the year 1000 the rival factions appealed to Iceland’s most important official, the lawspeaker Thorgeir Thorkelsson. As a pagan he might have been expected to favour the old gods but, after an entire day spent agonising over the decision, he concluded that henceforth all Icelanders would be Christian. A few exceptions were made – for example the eating of horsemeat, a favoured delicacy that was also associated with pagan sacrifices, was to be permitted.

Acclaimed screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst talks about his work on Vikings and the secrets of making great history drama:

What was Valhalla and how did Vikings get there?

For a Viking, what two things would be desired the most in the afterlife of Valhalla, the hall of slain warriors? Feasting and fighting, of course.

If chosen to die by the mythical Valkyries, a Norse warrior longed to be welcomed by the god Odin into Valhalla, a magnificent hall with a roof thatched with golden shields, spears for rafters, and so large that 540 doors lined its walls, says BBC History Revealed magazine. The honoured dead, known as the Einherjar, spent all day honing their battle skills against each other in preparation for Ragnarök – the end of the world – then every night, their wounds magically healed and they partied like only Vikings could.

Their drinking horns never emptied thanks to Heidrun, a goat on the roof of Valhalla that ate from a special tree and produced the finest mead, and there was always enough meat as the boar named Sæhrímnir came back to life after each slaughter so it could be cooked over and over.

To join the Einherjar, a Viking had to die in battle – and even then, they only had a 50:50 chance. The half not chosen to go to Valhalla instead went to the field of the goddess Freya, so they could offer to the women who died as maidens their company.

As for the old or sick, they went to an underworld called Hel. It was largely not as bad as the name suggests, though there was a special place of misery reserved for murderers, adulterers and oath-breakers, where a giant dragon chewed on their corpses.

Where did the Vikings travel to?

Iceland, too, was the platform from which the Vikings launched their furthest-flung explorations. In 982 a fiery tempered chieftain, Erik the Red, who had already been exiled from Norway for his father’s part in a homicide, was then exiled from Iceland for involvement in another murder. He had heard rumours of land to the west and, with a small group of companions, sailed in search of it. What he found was beyond his wildest imaginings. Only 300 kilometres west of Iceland, Greenland is the world’s largest island, and its south and south-west tip had fjords [deep, narrow and elongated sea or lakedrain, with steep land on three sides] and lush pastures that must have reminded Erik of his Scandinavian homeland. He returned back to Iceland, gathered 25 ship-loads of settlers and established a new Viking colony in Greenland that survived into the 15th century.

Erik’s son, Leif, outdid his father. Having heard from another Viking Greenlander, Bjarni Herjolfsson, that he had sighted land even further west, Leif went to see for himself. In around 1002 he and his crew found themselves sailing somewhere along the coast of North America. They found a glacial, mountainous coast, then a wooded one, and finally a country of fertile pastures that they named Vinland. Although they resolved to start a new colony there, it was – unlike either Iceland or Greenland – already settled and hostility from native Americans and their own small numbers (Greenland at the time probably had about 3,000 Viking inhabitants) meant that it was soon abandoned. They had, though, become the first Europeans to land in (and settle in) the Americas, almost five centuries before Christopher Columbus.

For centuries Erik’s achievement lived on only in a pair of sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red’s Saga. The location of Vinland, despite attempts to work out where it lay from information contained in the sagas, remained elusive. It was even unclear if the Vikings really had reached North America. Then, in the early 1960s, a Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine, found the remains of ancient houses at L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland in Canada. Fragments of worked iron (many of them nails, probably from a ship), which the native population did not possess the technology to produce, meant that it was soon clear this was a Viking settlement. Although perhaps too small to be the main Vinland colony, it was still astonishing confirmation of what the sagas had said. Leif Erikson’s reputation as a great explorer and discoverer of new lands was confirmed without doubt.

This might well have pleased him, for a man’s reputation was everything to a Viking. Quick wit, bravery and action were among the key attributes for a Viking warrior, but to be remembered for great deeds was the most important of all. The Hávamál, a collection of Viking aphorisms, contains much apt advice such as “Never let a bad man know your own bad fortune”, but most famous of all is the saying “Cattle die, kindred die, we ourselves shall die, but I know one thing that never dies: the reputations of each one dead”.

Did Viking shield-maidens exist?

Apologies to fans of the hit series Vikings: historians just can’t agree on whether Norse warrior women like Lagertha actually existed, says BBC History Revealed magazine. While there are stories of shield-maidens, or skjaldmaer, in historical accounts, nearly all can be dismissed as unreliable, apocryphal, allegorical or more myth than reality.

Still, tantalising clues and mysterious finds – including artefacts showing women carrying swords, spears and shields – have boosted the idea that Viking women went into battle alongside men. In the 12th century, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote of women in Denmark who sought “so zealously to be skilled in warfare that they might have been thought to have unsexed themselves”. In 2017, meanwhile, archaeologists discovered that a 10th-century grave of a warrior, filled with weapons, actually belonged to a woman.

Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir explores what everyday life was like for women in Norse society, the opportunities available to them and the challenges they faced:

What was a Viking sunstone?

The Vikings were superb sailors who got as far afield as Russia and North America, but their navigational techniques haven’t always been completely understood, says BBC History Revealed magazine. A mysterious ‘sunstone’, mentioned in a medieval Icelandic saga, was considered mere legend until an opaque crystal, made from Iceland spar, was recently discovered among the navigation equipment of a sunken Tudor shipwreck.

Intriguingly, scientists have proven that Iceland spar, when held up to the sky, forms a solar compass that indicates the Sun’s location, through concentric rings of polarised light, even in thick cloud cover or after dusk. It’s now thought that this was the mysterious sunstone that helped guide Vikings such as ‘Lucky’ Leif Erikson to Newfoundland, and usage of it may have persisted until the end of the 16th century.

When did the Viking Age end?

It is traditionally said that the raiding, pillaging age of the Vikings, which began in Britain with the ransacking of Lindisfarne in AD 793, ended with the failure of Harald Hardrada’s invasion in 1066.

Yet the Viking influence spread from the Middle East to North America, and could not be undone by a single defeat in battle. At the same time that Hardrada was picking up his career-ending neck injury at Stamford Bridge, the Norman Conquest was being launched. Its leader, and future king of England, was William – the great-great-great-grandson of Rollo, a Viking.

Philip Parker is author of The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World (Vintage, 2015). For more information, visit

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016 and has since been updated to include information taken from BBC History Revealed magazine