Ibn Fadlan, a famed dark age Arabic traveler, said of a group of Rus Vikings he encountered, “I have never seen more perfect specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy. Everyman is tattooed from finger nail to neck with dark green, or green blue-black trees and figures.”
So who were 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 peak of the Viking presence within Europe was between the 8th and 11th century, during this period they colonized 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. The Vikings first raided the English coast in the 8th century, but it was the attack on Lindisfarne that brought them to national attention. This one act has done more damage and promoted the image of raping, pillaging demons from across the sea than any other act.
By the 9th Century Norse Vikings started to colonize 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 also 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, but farmers and craftsmen. 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.
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. 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.
The professional soldiers of the Viking warlords were known as Huscarls or household troops. These warriors served their lord in both battle and peace time, and were exceptionally experienced and skilled warriors. They would be placed at the head of the army in the front ranks. They had the ability to raise morale of those around them, giving courage by their mere presence. They would also operate independently as a unit attacking weak elements of an enemy’s army or defensive position, they were also expected to defend the leader and standard of the army as well.
A Viking commander would be expected to lead his army from the front, leading the charge into the enemy. The more ferocious and brave he was would boost the morale of his troops. The problem with this tactic was, that if he fell in battle it was likely that the army would withdraw or rout from the field of battle. So it was not uncommon for a leader to seek out his opposite number and engage in single combat in attempt to finish the battle as quickly as possible.
There were some members within a war band, that would go into a psychotic state when they went into battle. This was normally achieved through becoming intoxicated with either alcohol or a potent hallucinogenic mushroom, though many suffered from a taste for psychotic violence and would quite dangerous to friend and foe whilst in this state. They would charge in to battle frothing at the mouth, screaming. Shouting and showing complete disregard for their own safety, full of battle fury. It was this behaviour that help to make them a potent weapon on the field of battle, because it would unsettle the enemy.
It was not uncommon for many Vikings to drink copious amounts of ale prior to battle, in order to help summon up the courage needed for the viscous close quarter fighting. This would also mean that a large proportion of those fighting would be doing so drunk.
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, 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 long ships shallow draught allowed to travel inland along rivers, which meant they could mount lightening raids deep in enemy territory before the alarm could be raised. The Viking long ships were ideal for coastal raiding, due to its 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.
If a Viking war band had to stand and fight an open battle, they would form up into a Skjaldborg, or commonly known today as a shield wall. They would overlap their shields, and make a hedge of bristling spears towards the enemy. The two side would come together, pushing and shoving each others shield wall, whilst at the same time trying strike one another with weapons. This was done to try and break the wall, once broken it disintegrated, and the warriors slaughtered.
Another tactic used by Vikings was know as the Boar Snout or also called the Swine Array (svinfylka), this was given to them by Odin the God of War. The warriors would form up into an arrowhead shaped shield wall, and charge their opponents shield wall, hoping to smash through and break the wall. The momentum of the charge and the shape of the formation had the ability to drive a wedge through the opposing shield wall. Many believe that this tactic may have been based on a similar Roman formation, though Saxon armies it seems may not have used it, as there is no documented evidence to indicate that they did. It must also be noted that only the professional elements of a Viking warband would have employed this tactic.
Weapons & Armour
Generally only the most wealthy of Vikings would or could afford a suit of mail, most would wear either leather amour or platelet sown onto a leather or cloth hauberk, the poorest would neither. Some berserkers went into battle fully or semi naked, which would be rather scary seeing a naked bloke frothing at the mouth charging straight at you.
The axe is the weapon we associate with the Vikings of this period, the large broad battleaxe, as the weapon of choice for the blood thirsty Viking. An excellent example of it use in battle was on 25th September 1066 at the battle of Stamford Bridge. Norwegian King Harald Hardrada led a Viking horde 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 with its long haft gave the wielder a 7 ft clearance. Several Saxons were killed and injured attempting to cross the bridge, until one enterprising housecarl floated down river until he was under the bridge and 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.
Viking swords were constructed using a pattern weld technique, this was done by twisting several iron rods together. These would then be beaten together, which would form a strong core. This created a pattern of the twisted rods in the blade giving its name. Once this was completed a harder, though more brittle edge was welded to the core. Due to the process used swords were considered an expensive item, so only the more wealthier of Vikings would possess one.
They utilized the shield for defense and offensive action. Shields were generally round and of lime wood construction, with a large iron boss in the center. The shield could be used to push and barge the opponent off balance, as well as block thrusts and cuts from all weapons.