Raiders, Traders, and Settlers: A Brief History of the Vikings

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could happen. Behold the church of St. Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.”

So wrote Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar and clergyman at the court of Charlemagne, in the only contemporary account of the 793 Viking raid on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in northeastern England, an event traditionally considered the beginning of the Viking Age.

This was not the first time Vikings had landed on the coast of England. Four years earlier, in 789, three Viking ships had beached on the coast of Wessex. Their crew had killed the king’s reeve sent to escort them to the West Saxon court, but it is uncertain whether this was an actual invasion or simply a trading expedition that went wrong. The raid on Lindisfarne was different: a deliberate, savage attack that targeted one of the most sacred sites in the kingdom of Northumbria. It was followed by many more such incursions that, together with other Viking activities, forever changed the face of Europe and extended Scandinavian influence far beyond the raiders’ homelands of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Rise of the Vikings

Viking ships by Christian Blache, Danish State Archives

One reason for the Vikings’ success was the weak and politically divided nature of Europe at the time, which made it difficult to muster an effective defense against Viking attacks. Another key factor was their mode of transportation. By the end of the 8th century, Scandinavians had become skilled at building ships that were superior to most others of the time. Equipped with both oars and sails, they were designed for both flying across open seas and maneuvering in shallow water, which enabled them to land on any shore and enter rivers that other ships could not navigate. The ships often carried horses that could be used for lightning raids inland. Without this skill in shipbuilding, the Viking Age would never have happened.

Although they are primarily known to history as raiders and plunderers, the Vikings were also traders and colonizers who left their home shores in Scandinavia for a variety of reasons, from political conflicts to famine and a shortage of farmland.

Different Origins, Different Destinations

Though often characterized as a homogeneous group, Vikings from the three modern nations of Scandinavia traveled in different directions and engaged in quite different activities.

Map source: University of Oregon.

The Danes, who had attacked Lindisfarne, continued attacks on Britain and eventually controlled large parts of the island, an area known as the Danelaw. This territory was gradually recaptured by the English, but in the early 11th century the Dane Sven Forkbeard, backed by a large fleet, managed to be crowned King of England – a crown that eventually – though not without conflict – passed to his son Cnut the Great few years later.

This runestone, from Södermanland south of Lake Mälaren in Sweden, tells of expeditions to Serkland, the land of the Saracens. It was raised by Tola in memory of her son, Harald, brother of Ingvar the Far-Traveled. The inscription reads: “They fared like men far after gold, and in the east gave the eagle food. They died southward in Serkland.”

Norwegian Vikings invaded and settled Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides in Scotland and conquered much of Ireland in 812, establishing cities such as Dublin and Waterford along the east and south coasts before being expelled from the island after two centuries.

Both Danish and Norwegian Vikings also raided and traded along the entire west coast of Europe, establishing the duchy of Normandy and even entering the Mediterranean to reach southern France and Italy.

It was the Norwegians who sailed across the Atlantic and established settlements in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. From Greenland they also made regular trips to North America, including what is now Newfoundland, which the Vikings called Vinland.

In contrast, the Swedes primarily traveled east to the Baltics, along the great rivers of Russia to the Caspian and Black Seas, and even as far south as Byzantium. Known as “Varangians” or “Rus” – a word that likely lies at the root of the name Russia – they established numerous colonies and trading centers, and even served in the imperial bodyguard corps in Constantinople. Though there was some raiding, the emphasis in the east was much more on trade, including highly sought-after goods from the wealthy Baghdad Caliphate. More than 200,000 silver coins from the Viking Age have been found in Sweden, of which about 80,000 are Arabic – evidence of significant contact between the two regions.

A fair amount of what we know about Viking expeditions comes from runic inscriptions, especially runestones raised by family members in honor of deceased loved ones. Of the three Scandinavian countries, Sweden has by far the most runestones, concentrated in the area around north and south of Lake Mälaren.

End of the Viking Age

The Viking Age came to an end in the middle of the 11th century, by which time other countries in Europe had built up their own fleets and developed coastal warning systems to limit Viking successes.

Another factor that contributed to the end of the Viking Age was the spread of Christianity. The new religion first gained ground in trading centers where there was a lot of contact between Vikings and Christian Europe, but soon spread to other areas. By the 11th century, much of the population of Scandinavia had accepted Christianity, which led to major changes in Scandinavian society and stronger ties to the rest of Europe.

Published on October 8, 2018

Related articles:

On the Viking Trail through Scandinavia

Runestones: Words from the Viking Age

The Ramsund Carving: A Legendary Tale Inscribed in Stone

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