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Birth of the Vikings

Who were the Vikings and where did they come from?

Although history is littered with the memories of past cultures, only a select few continue to capture the imagination of modern media. The Vikings can certainly claim to be one of those - most recently demonstrated by the success of the award-winning HISTORY show Vikings.

The Vikings have been remembered in today’s world as bloodthirsty barbarians with an insatiable appetite for war and a penchant for horned helmets. Whilst the horned helmets might not be accurate, the military prowess of the Vikings was certainly true, although there was far more to these people than just raiding and pillaging. 

The Vikings originated in Scandinavia, modern-day Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Although the origin of the word ‘Viking’ is still debated amongst scholars, the traditional view states that it is the English version of the Old Norse word, vikingr, which means, ‘one who comes from the fjords’. The word came to represent someone from these parts who went ‘raiding’ or more specifically went ‘Viking’.   

With their advanced sailing and navigational skills, the Vikings were able to explore lands as far away as North America, North Africa and the Middle East.

So we now know how the Vikings propelled themselves across the globe but why did they do so? The exact reason for this is still unknown and hotly debated. Common theories include overpopulation in their homeland, leading to a shortage of available and productive farming lands; opportunity after learning from merchants about the growing wealth of European kingdoms and their inner conflicts leaving them vulnerable; prestige as warring chieftains looked to best their rivals by showing bravery and courage by sailing to foreign lands; or plain old coincidence as the advanced longships provided the Norse pirates the opportunity to stumble across lands further afield.

In all likelihood, it was probably a mixture of all these reasons that heralded in the historical period known as the Viking Age, a time of Norse exploration that would last from the end of the 8th century and continue until the middle of the 11th century. 

Although the first recorded Viking raid in Anglo-Saxon England occurred in 787 AD, the one that many consider the starting gun of the Viking Age came on 8 June 793 AD.  

A group of Vikings crossed the North Sea and landed on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just off the northeast coast of England. The island housed the important Christian monastery of St Cuthbert. Alcuin of York, a Northumbrian scholar, wrote at the time what happened next, ‘Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.’

The Vikings ransacked the monastery, killed a number of monks or threw them into the sea to drown and made off with a bounty of treasure and a group of captive prisoners. It was the most devastating raid yet and one that struck at the very heart of the Christian religion. It also demonstrated to the Vikings and their companions back home what exactly was on offer across the seas.

The writings of Alcuin along with the collection of annals in Old English known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle helped to spread this bloodthirsty reputation of the Vikings. The Lindisfarne raid would send shockwaves throughout the Christian world, as people began to worry why God had allowed such a deed to happen. They started to believe that their own sins and depravities might have incurred the wrath of God, who subsequently set the heathens upon them.

The Vikings themselves were equally surprised to have found an unguarded island filled with riches for them to pilfer.  The Anglo-Saxons had a profound respect for the church and churchmen, something the pagan Vikings did not share. For them, churches, monasteries and abbeys were all badly defended treasure chests containing hoards of gold, jewels and other valuable things such as cattle and clothing. Quite simply, they were easy targets. Medieval Christians in Europe were totally unprepared for the Viking onslaught. 

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings or ‘Danes’ as the locals called them, returned to raid the following year. Having tasted the wealth and glory on offer the Vikings again targeted a monastery, this time the Anglo-Saxon one of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in the Kingdom of Northumbria. In the next few years, Scotland, Ireland and the western coast of France would all be subjected to intensive raiding.