A History of the Vikings

By Tim Lambert

The ancestors of the Vikings traded with the Romans. They exported furs, skins, walrus ivory, and amber. After the fall of Rome, the Scandinavian peoples slowly grew more united. The first towns were formed. Meanwhile, they started using sails. Before the mid-7th century, Scandinavian ships were rowed but once they began using sails they could make the long voyage across the North Sea – with devastating results for the people who lived further south.

At the end of the 8th century, Scandinavians began raiding other parts of Europe. Then, in the 9th and 10th centuries, they turned to conquest. These new raiders and invaders were known as Northmen, Norsemen, or Vikings. The Vikings plundered monasteries of gold and jewels. They also took livestock and kidnapped children to be slaves. However, although they terrorized Europe the Vikings were also great traders and craftsmen.

The Vikings In Scotland

In 795 the Vikings raided the monastery at Iona – the first of many such raids on Scotland. During the 9th century, they settled the Shetlands, the Orkneys, and the Hebrides. Vikings also settled in Caithness and Sutherland. They called the latter region Suder land (Southern land) and so they gave that part of Scotland its name.

However Scandinavian power in Scotland waned in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1202 the Vikings lost all their land in Caithness and Sutherland. Then in 1263, the Scots crushed the Norwegians at the Battle of Largs. Subsequently, by the Treaty of Perth (1266) the Norwegians surrendered all their territory in Scotland apart from the Orkneys and the Shetlands in return for a large sum of money.

The Vikings in Ireland

The Vikings first attacked Ireland in 795. They looted monasteries. They also took women and children as slaves. However, the Vikings were not only raiders. They were also traders and craftsmen. In the 9th century they founded Ireland’s first towns, Dublin, Wexford, Cork, and Limerick.

They also gave Ireland its name, a combination of the Gaelic word Eire and the Viking word land. In time the Vikings settled down. They intermarried with the Irish and accepted Christianity.

Around 940 the great High King Brian Boru was born. At that time the Danes had conquered much of the kingdom of Munster. Brian defeated them in several battles. In 968 he recaptured Cashel, the capital of Munster. After 976 Brian was king of Munster and in 1002 he became the High King of Ireland. However, in 1014 Leinster, the people of Dublin, and the Danes joined forces against him. Brian fought and defeated them at the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, although he was killed himself. This victory ended the Viking threat to Ireland.

The Vikings In England

In 787 three Danish ships landed at Dorset. A royal official called a reeve went to meet them. He assumed the strangers had come to trade. Instead, they killed him and sailed away. Then in 793 when Norsemen raided a monastery at Lindisfarne. There followed a respite until 835 when the Danes descended on the Isle of Sheppey.

However, although the Viking raiders were fearsome they were not invincible. In 836 the Danes joined forces with the Celts of Cornwall. However, they were defeated by Egbert, king of Wessex, at Hingston Down.

Nevertheless, the Danes continued raiding England. In 840 a force of Saxons from Hampshire crushed a Danish force at Southampton. However the same year Saxons from Dorset were defeated by the Danes at Portland. In 841 the Danes ravaged Kent, East Anglia, and what is now Lincolnshire. In 842 they sacked Southampton. Further Viking raids occurred in 843 and 845. In the latter year, the Saxons defeated the Danes in a battle at the mouth of the River Parrett in Somerset.

Then in 850-51, the Vikings spent the winter on the Isle of Thanet. In the spring they attacked the Mercians and defeated them in battle. However, they were later defeated by an army from Wessex. In 854 another Danish force wintered on the Isle of Sheppey before raiding England. There then followed a relatively peaceful period in which the Vikings raided England only once.

However, the Danes eventually stopped raiding and turned to conquest. In the autumn of 865, an army of Danes landed in East Anglia. In the following year, 866, they captured York. The Northumbrians attacked the Vikings occupying York in 867 but they were defeated. The Danes then installed a man named Egbert as the puppet ruler of Northumbria.

The Danes then marched south and they spent the winter of 867 in Nottingham. In 869 they marched to Thetford in East Anglia. In the spring of 870, they crushed an army of East Anglians. The Danes were now in control of Northumbria, part of Mercia and East Anglia. They then turned their attention to Wessex. At the end of 870, they captured Reading. The men of Wessex won a victory at Ashdown. However, the Danes then won two battles, at Basing and an unidentified location.

Then in the spring of 871, Alfred became king of Wessex. He became known as Alfred the Great. The Saxons and the Danes fought several battles during 871 but the Danes were unable to break Saxon resistance so they made a peace treaty and the Danes turned their attention to the other parts of England. In 873 they attacked the unoccupied part of Mercia. The Mercian king fled and was replaced by a puppet ruler. Afterward, Wessex remained the only independent Saxon kingdom.

In 875 a Danish army invaded Wessex again. However, they were unable to conquer Wessex so in 877 they withdrew to Gloucester. In 878 they launched a surprise attack on Chippenham. King Alfred was forced to flee and hide in the marshes of Athelney. Alfred fought a guerrilla war for some months then took on the Danes in battle.

The Danes were routed at the battle of Edington. Afterward, Guthrum, the Danish leader, and his men were baptized and made a treaty with Alfred. They split southern and central England between them. Guthrum took London, East Anglia, and all the territory east of the old Roman road, Watling Street. Later this Danish kingdom became known as the Danelaw.

Alfred took the land west of Watling street and southern England. However, in 886 Alfred’s men captured London. But the wars with the Danes were not over. In 892 some Danes who had been attacking France turned their attention to Kent. In 893 the Saxons defeated them and they withdrew into Essex (part of the Danelaw).

Meanwhile, in 893 another group of Danes sailed to Devon and laid siege to Exeter. They withdrew in 894. They sailed to Sussex and landed near Chichester. This time the local Saxons marched out and utterly defeated them in battle. War with the Danes continued in 895-896. Danes from the Danelaw marched into what is now Shropshire but they were forced to withdraw. There then followed a few years of peace.

Then in 980, the Danes returned. They attacked The Isle of Thanet, Southampton, and Cheshire. In 981 they raided Devon and Cornwall and in 983 they attacked Dorset. The Danes continued to raid England. They returned in 991, 992, 993, and 994. In 997 a Danish army came and systematically raided southern England over 3 years. The Danes sailed to Normandy in 1001 but they returned to England in 1002. In 1003 they raided the southwest and in 1004 they plundered East Anglia. In 1006 they raided southeast England. In 1009-1012 they ravaged eastern England.

The Saxons paid the Danes to stop raiding and return home. However, the amount the Danes demanded increased each time. In 991 they were paid 10,000 pounds to go home. In 1002 they were paid 24,000 pounds in 1007 they were paid 36,000 pounds. England was drained of its resources by paying these huge sums of money called Danegeld (Dane gold). England finally gained peace in 1016 when a Dane called n became king.

The Vikings in Central Europe

The Vikings also raided what is now the Netherlands, Germany, and France. In 845 Vikings attacked Hamburg. The same year Vikings besieged Paris and the French king paid them 7,000 pounds of silver to leave. In 885 the Vikings besieged Paris again. This time the French king arrived with a relief army and drove them away.

Finally, in 911, the French king made a treaty with a Viking leader called Hrolf (or Rollo). He gave Hrolf what is now Normandy as a Dukedom. In return, Hrolf became a Christian and protected France from further Viking attacks. In 1066 his descendants conquered England.

The Vikings In Eastern and Southern Europe

In the 9th century, Swedish Vikings sailed from the Baltic Sea along rivers into Russia and Ukraine and settled there. The Slaves called the Vikings Rus and they gave their name to Russia. From Russia, the Vikings sailed into the Black Sea and attacked the Byzantine Empire.

In 844 the Vikings attacked Spain and Portugal. (At that time the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by Muslims). They sacked Lisbon, Cadiz, and Medina Sidonia then captured Seville. However, the Muslims counterattacked and defeated them. The survivors fled. The Vikings carried out further raids on Spain and Portugal but the Muslims fought back effectively.

The Vikings in Iceland

The first people to settle in Iceland were probably Irish monks who came in the 8th century. However, in the 9th century, they were driven out by Vikings.

According to tradition the first Viking to discover Iceland was a man named Naddodd who got lost while on his way to the Faroes. Following him, a Swede named Gardar Svavarsson circumnavigated Iceland in about 860.

However, the first Viking attempt to settle was by a Norwegian named Floki Vilgerdarson. He landed in the northwest but a severe winter killed his domestic animals and he sailed back to Norway. However, he gave the land its name. He called it Iceland. Then in the late 9th century, many settlers came to Iceland from Norway and the Viking colonies in the British Isles. A Norwegian named Ingolfur Arnarson led them. He sailed with his family, slaves, and animals.

When he sighted Iceland Ingolfur dedicated his wooden posts to his gods and then threw them overboard. He vowed to settle at the place where the sea washed them up. He then explored Iceland. When the posts were found in the southwest Ingolfur and his household settled there. He called the place Reykjavik, meaning Smokey bay. Many other Vikings followed him to Iceland.

The land was free to whoever wanted it. A man could claim as much land as he could light fires around in one day while a woman could claim as much land as she could lead a heifer round in one day. There were very good fishing grounds around Iceland and the land was well suited to sheep. Many Vikings brought flocks with them and soon sheep became a major Icelandic industry. The population of Iceland soared. By about 930 about 60,000 people were living in Iceland.

In 985 Erik the Red led a group of colonists to Greenland. Then in 986, a Viking called Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course by a storm and he spotted a new land. However, he sailed away without landing. In 1001 a man named Leif Eriksson landed in the new land, which he named Vinland (it was part of North America). However, Eriksson did not stay permanently. Later the Vikings did establish a colony in North America but they abandoned it because of conflict with the natives. 

Last revised 2024