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The history of the Viking Age

The period in history known as the Viking Age was violently heralded in with the Lindisfarne raid of 793 AD. That bloody encounter off the northeast coast of England between Christian monks and raiding Norsemen, known as Vikings, marked the start of an age that would last until the end of the 11th century. During that time, Norse explorers would reach as far as Newfoundland in the west and Baghdad in the east, leaving a significant and long-lasting mark on the cultures they interacted with.

After Lindisfarne, Vikings raids were soon recorded in Scotland, Ireland and western France. At first, the marauding Norsemen returned home after their raids but it wasn’t long before they began conquering lands and creating settlements.

In 865, 72 years after Lindisfarne, a large Viking army returned to Anglo-Saxon England not to raid but to conquer. The collection of annals in Old English known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called this invading force the Great Heathen Army. Led by fearsome warrior brothers Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson, the Vikings picked off the English kingdoms one-by-one until only one was left - Wessex.

Alfred, the King of Wessex, managed to claim a decisive victory against the Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Edington in 878. For his victory, Alfred was bestowed the title of ‘the Great’. An agreement was made shortly afterwards between Alfred and the Vikings that not only saw the defeated Viking leader Guthrum convert to Christianity but also divided England up. Lands to the north and east were to be ruled by the Vikings, this area came to be known as Danelaw.

The Vikings and Anglo-Saxons lived side-by-side in England for some 80 years. Although peace had been made conflicts continued and eventually the Viking rule over Danelaw was forcibly ended with the defeat of Eric Bloodaxe to the Northumbrians in 954.

By the middle of the 9th century, the Vikings had established bases across Europe. Viking ship enclosures known as longphorts had been established along Ireland’s northern and eastern coasts, one of which became the foundation for the city of Dublin. The Scottish isles of Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides came under Norse control, resulting in the creation of independent settlements.

In 845, a Viking fleet of 120 ships and 5,000 men aimed to take advantage of a divided Frankish Empire, the predecessor of modern-day France and Germany. Under the command of legendary Norse chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok, the Viking fleet sailed up the Seine and conquered Paris. They plundered the city and only withdrew after receiving a large ransom from the Frankish king. It wasn’t long before the Vikings began to overwinter in northern France, the French region of Normandy would get its name from the invading Norsemen or ‘men of the North’.

The first ruler of Normandy was a Viking named Rollo. Rollo and his men had carried out a series of attacks in France, including one on Paris in 885. The ruler of West Francia, Charles the Simple, decided to make Rollo an offer in an attempt to stop any further Viking raids. Rollo agreed to the terms and in 911 he was granted lands and titles. Rollo’s men assimilated into the local population and formed a people that would eventually become known as the Normans, a dynasty that would go on to change the world. Over a century later, William the Conqueror, a direct descendant of Rollo would become the first Norman King of England.

In the Mediterranean, the Vikings landed in Italy, Spain and Portugal as well reaching North Africa. In Eastern Europe they settled on coastal areas along the Baltic Sea and their presence was felt in what is now modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The Norse settlers of these regions became known as the Rus’ people. The Rus’ would provide the first members of the Varangian Guard, an elite fighting force sworn to protect the Byzantine Emperor.

Although they are best remembered as fearsome warriors, the Vikings were also great traders. They traded as far east as Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern wing of the old Roman Empire. Some even made it further to Baghdad in Iraq, returning home with ships laden with silks, spices and silver. In return, the Vikings sold items such as amber, fur, wool and leather. They also sold slaves, known as thralls in Old Norse. These were people whom the Vikings had captured during their raids, many of them monks and clergyman since the Vikings often targeted monasteries and churches.

As for the Vikings who went west, they were rewarded with the discovery of new lands. Facilitated by advanced seafaring skills and technology, Norse explorers discovered the Faroe Islands before a Viking named Naddodd got lost on his way from Norway and stumbled across Iceland. In the early 870s, Norwegian Chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first settler of Iceland and lived with his family in an area he called Reykjavík (Smoke Cove), after the steam rising from hot springs there.

Iceland has one of the strongest claims to the oldest surviving parliament in the world. The Norse settlers established their parliament, known as the Althing, in 930. All free men could attend the gatherings that were held at the same location each summer, where they would discuss legislation and dispense justice.

Such justice was dispensed to Erik the Red in 982 when he was exiled from Iceland after being found guilty of murder. He sailed west and discovered Greenland in 985. He returned to Iceland and persuaded others to follow him there and in 986 Norse settlements began cropping up across along Greenland’s southwest coast.

The discovery of Greenland would quickly lead to the discovery of North America. Norse explorer Bjarni Herjólfsson left Iceland for Greenland in the hopes of finding his father who had recently left with Erik the Red. Blown off course by a storm, Herjólfsson found himself looking upon the shores of North America, the first European to do so. He did not land but instead continued his voyage to Greenland, where he would settle with his father.

His stories of lands to the west encouraged others to explore the region including the son of Erik the Red, Leif Erikson. Around 1000 AD, Leif retraced Herjólfsson’s journey and successfully found his way to North America, standing on America soil some five centuries before Christopher Columbus would. His exploration led to the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, the first known attempt at settlement by Europeans on the Americas.

The Vikings called this newfound land Vinland although their presence there would be short-lived. Unlike Greenland and Iceland, North America was already occupied. Conflict between the Viking settlers and the Native American’s escalated to the point that Vinland was no longer a viable place for the Vikings to live. They packed their bags and returned to Greenland.

By the 11th century, united kingdoms had been established in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. This, combined with the spread of Christianity across the Scandinavian region, brought the Viking Age to a close. Historians often attribute 1066 as the symbolic year it all ended.

After the demise of Danelaw in England, the Vikings retreated but were not done with England just yet and successfully conquered the country in the early 11th century. In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard became the first Danish King of England. His son, Cnut the Great, held the throne until his death in 1035. The Viking presence in England was finally ended in 1066 when an English army under King Harold defeated the last great Viking king, Harald Hardrada of Norway, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York.

For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.