The Vikings

The Vikings were a Germanic tribe, members of the Norse peoples who were famous as warriors, explorers, and merchants. They raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the late 8th to the early 11th century. These Norsemen used their famed longships to travel as far east as Constantinople and the Volga River in Russia, and as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. This period of Viking expansion is known as the Viking Age.

Viking Expansion

On June 8, 793 the monks on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, were viciously attacked by Norsemen raiders from the sea. Their misfortune is the first clearly dated event in the saga of the Vikings. The resident monks were killed, thrown into the sea to drown or carried away as slaves along with some of the church treasures. After repeated Viking raids, the monks fled Lindisfarne in AD 875, carrying the relics of Saint Cuthbert with them.

In 840 and 841, Norwegians raided during the winter months instead of summer, as was their usual tactic. They waited on an island off Ireland. In 865 a large army of Danish Vikings, supposedly led by Ivar, Halfdan and Guthrum, arrived in East Anglia. They proceeded to cross England into Northumbria and captured York, where some settled as farmers. Most of the English kingdoms, being in turmoil, could not stand against the Vikings, but Alfred of Wessex managed to keep the Vikings out of his county. Alfred and his successors were able to drive back the Viking frontier and retake York.

A new wave of Vikings appeared in England in 947 when Erik Bloodaxe captured York. The Viking presence continued through the reign of Canute the Great (1016-1035), after which a series of inheritance arguments weakened the family reign. It is important to bear in mind that not all the Norse arriving in the British Isles came as raiders. Many arrived with families and livestock, often in the wake of the capture of territory by their forces. DNA analysis has shown that a major part of the ancestry of English people in northern East Anglia, eastern Yorkshire and in the Lake District is Scandinavian in origin, presumably from colonists around this time. The populations then merged over time by intermarriage into the Anglo-Saxon population of these areas. Many words in the English language are from old Scandinavian languages, showing the importance of this contact.

Scandinavian presence in Scotland increased in the 830s. In 836, a large Viking force believed to be Norwegian invaded the Earn valley and Tay valley which were central to the Pictish kingdom. They killed Eoganan, king of the Picts, and his brother, the vassal king of the Scots. They also killed many members of the Pictish aristocracy. The sophisticated kingdom that had been built fell apart, as did the Pictish leadership. The foundation of Scotland under Kenneth MacAlpin is traditionally attributed to the aftermath of this event. The isles to the north and west of Scotland were heavily colonized by Norwegian Vikings. Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, Caithness and Sutherland were under Norse control, sometimes as fiefs under the King of Norway.

The Vikings carried out extensive raids on Ireland, too, founding many towns such as Dublin, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford and Leixlip. The Vikings pillaged monasteries on Ireland’s west coast in 795, and then spread out to cover the rest of the coastline. The north and east of the island were most affected. During the first 40 years, the raids were conducted by small, mobile Viking groups. From 830 on, the groups consisted of large fleets of Viking ships. From 840, the Vikings began establishing permanent bases at the coasts. Dublin was the most significant settlement in the long term. The Irish became accustomed to the Viking presence and culture. In some cases they became allies and also intermarried throughout all of Ireland.

France suffered severely the Viking raids of the ninth century, too. The reign of Charles the Bald coincided with some of the worst of these raids, though he did take action by the Edict of Pistres of 864 to secure a standing army of cavalry under royal control to be called upon at all times when necessary to fend off the invaders. He also ordered the building of fortified bridges to prevent inland raids. In the 9th and 10th centuries the Vikings raided the largely defenceless Frisian and Frankish towns laying on the coast and along the rivers of the Low Countries. Although Vikings never settled in large numbers in these areas, they did set up long-term bases and were even acknowledged as lords in a few cases.

By the mid 9th century the Viking attacked on the coastal Kingdom of Asturias in northwest of Spain. During the reign of Alfonso III Vikings were stifling the already weak threads of sea communications that tied Galicia to the rest of Europe. Raiding continued for the next two centuries. In 968 Bishop Sisnando of Compostela was killed, the monastery of Curtis was sacked, and measures were ordered for the defence of the inland town of Lugo. In the Islamic south, the first navy of the Emirate was built after the humiliating Viking ascent of the Guadalquivir in 844 when they sacked Seville. Nevertheless, in 859, Danish pirates sailed through Gibraltar and raided the little Moroccan state of Nakur and Sicily.

In 1060 the Norman leader Robert Guiscard with his brother Roger d’Hauteville opened their invasion of Sicily. The Normans first stormed and captured Messina, that traditional stepping stone from the Italian mainland into Sicily. In subsequent years, aided by dissension among the Saracens and supported by elements of the indigenous Greek population, the Norman invaders fought their way across northern Sicily. They captured the Saracen capital of Palermo ten years later, in 1071. The tide of war in eastern Sicily seesawed back and forth, with major cities taken and then retaken by the contending forces. Finally, in 1090 the last Saracen stronghold fell, and the Normans were left in complete control of the entire island.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge: In England the last battle with a Viking army took place at Stamford Bridge on 25th September, 1066, when Tostig, the enbittered brother of the Saxon king, Harold II, bent on revenge, allied himself with Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and invaded England with a formidable Norwegian fleet which landed at Riccall, near York. On hearing of the news, King Harold gathered an army and marched to meet them at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. Battle commenced when the Saxons attacked the Norwegian shield wall, which despite repeated attempts, they failed to penetrate. The Saxons fell back and the Norwegians, believing them to be in retreat, broke ranks and pursued them, at which the Saxons wheeled round and attacked. Harold Hardrada was killed by an arrow in his neck, his fallen banner, Land-Ravager was seized by Tostig, who assumed command of the Norwegian army. He fell in the frantic conflict shortly after, the Norwegians fought with determination and courage until dusk but victory went to the Saxons. The following day, Olav, the son of Hardrada gave himself up to the English, along with the Earl of Orkney. In a merciful gesture, Harold allowed him to return home, with all the survivors, on a promise they would never invade England again.

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