This article was first published in Irregular Magazine Issue 4.
Who were the Vikings? Well, they were also known as Norsemen or Northmen – here is a description from Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Member of the Scandinavian seafaring warriors who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the 9th to the 11th century and whose disruptive influence profoundly affected European history. These pagan Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish warriors were probably prompted to undertake their raids by a combination of factors ranging from overpopulation at home to the relative helplessness of victims abroad.
So what do we know about the Vikings? Well, the image of the horned helmet is a myth, based on a bronze Celtic helmet found in the Thames. There is no current archaeological evidence to support the image of a horned Viking helmet. Yes, they did raid the coast, but they were also proficient farmers, crafts-men and -women as well a great explorers and sailors.
The Vikings heyday was between the 8th and 11th century, during this period they colonised large areas of Europe, the UK, Iceland, Greenland and were the first European settlers in what is now known as North America, or as the Vikings referred to it as Vinland
In Old Norse, the word is spelt víkingr. The word appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. In the Icelanders’ sagas, víking refers to an overseas expedition (Old Norse fara í víking ”to go on an expedition”), and víkingr, to a seaman or warrior taking part in such an expedition. (Wikipedia)
The Vikings first raided the English coast in the 8th century, but it was the attack on Lindisfarne that brought them to national attention.
It was in June 793 AD when a raiding party of Vikings attacked the monastery at Lindisfarne. This attack caused a commotion not just in England, but across Christian Europe, yet contemporary writings don’t refer to the attack as being by Scandinavian Vikings. There has been speculation by modern historians that the attack may have been the work of Frisian sea farers in revenge against Charlemagne’s brutal enforcement of Christianity.
In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably terrified the people, these were extraordinary whirlwinds and lightning’s, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these omens, and soon after that, in the same year, on the sixth of the ides of Inar, the havoc of the heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne through rapine and slaughter. Anglo Saxon Chronicles 793 AD.
The monasteries were built of wood and were partly burnt down, while documents of the day claim that the monks were carried off in chains and that some were raped. The marauders looted the monastery of its valuables, though they over looked the Lindisfarne Gospels, and a finely carved coffin that contained the relics of St. Cuthbert.
“Never before has such an atrocity been seen,” declared the Northumbrian scholar, Alcuin of York.
This one act has done more damage and promoted the image of raping, pillaging demons from across the sea than any other act. Until recently in the last hundred years most people regarded the Vikings as brutes who raided and pillaged their way across Europe. We now know that they were great craftsmen, traders, farmers and artists, though our greatest perception of them is as fierce warriors, who dominated warfare between the 7th -11th Century.
From 839, Varangian mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine Empire, notably Harald Hardrada, campaigned in North Africa, Jerusalem, and other places in the Middle East. Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev.
In the 9th Century Norse Vikings started to colonise eastern England which they called Danelaw. The Anglo Saxon kings slowly re-established control over Danelaw, yet the greatest of the Anglo Saxon kings was in fact a Norwegian Viking, Canute, who conquered much of Northern England, with York becoming a major Viking settlement.
The Vikings were considered great explorers crossing the oceans to become the first settlers in North America, and settling in Iceland and Greenland. The Norse who came to Newfoundland were not fierce raiders in search of pillage and plunder. The Norse appearance here was the last step in a relatively peaceful expansion of livestock farmers across the North Atlantic, taking in parts of the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and finally Vinland.
Weapons and Warfare
Most engagements would have been skirmishes, such as raids, though large battles were fought on occasion. The largest armies may have consisted of 4,000 to 7,000 men, and most of the armies would have disbanded once a campaign was over, returning to their villages or joining other war bands. Fleets could consist of anything from between 100 – 200 ships, with crews of anything between 25-60 warriors. The longship’s shallow draught allowed the Vikings to travel inland along rivers, which meant they could mount lightning raids deep in enemy territory before the alarm could be raised.
The Viking longships were ideal for coastal raiding, due to it’s shallow draft, they were able to land on any coastal beach or sail inland via one of the rivers. They made swift hit and run raids, targeting villages, towns and religious sites.
The axe is the weapon we associate with the Vikings of this period, with the large broad battleaxe as the weapon of choice for the blood-thirsty Norsemen.
An excellent example of its use in battle was on 25th September 1066, at the battle of Stamford Bridge. Norwegian King Harald Hardrada led an army against England for the crown. The Viking troops were on the opposite side of the river Derwent from the English Saxons under the command of Harold Godwinson.
The only way for the English troops to engage the Vikings was via a wooden bridge. One man held the Saxons at bay for a considerable length of time, armed with a huge battle axe, which had an 11 inch blade and it’s long haft gave the wielder a 7 ft clearance sweep. Several Saxons were killed and injured attempting to cross the bridge, until one enterprising housecarl floated down river until he was under the bridge. Whilst the Viking was distracted he thrust his spear up through the planks of the bridge killing the axe-wielding warrior, allowing the Saxons to pour across to attack the Viking horde.
Vikings were professional warriors who fought in close combat and were well armed. They utilised the shield for defence and offensive action. Shields were generally round and of lime wood construction, with a large iron boss in the centre. The shield could be used to push and barge the opponent off balance, as well as block thrusts and cuts from all weapons.
The Viking culture was at its height during the 8th to 11th centuries, raiding, trading and settling across Europe. During this period the sight of Viking warriors spread fear amongst the population of Europe.