The history of the Vikings gives us an epic journey to the past with a multitude of ingredients: clash of cultures, epic battles, land discovery ... It is set in an era of religious hysteria and ongoing confrontations in what was once the Roman Empire. Almost without warning, pagans from the unknown north of Europe burst into serious trouble for both Christians and Muslims.
In the little more than three centuries that the Viking Age lasts (793-1100), the Scandinavians left an indelible mark on the history of Europe . And yet, the history of the Vikings is still largely unknown. To banish topics and provide some light we have prepared this chronological review of its history.
The Vikings are part of the Germanic peoples . Therefore, they shared various cultural similarities such as the animist religion and a common idiomatic root. Northern Europe had always been a region not only distant and isolated from the rest of Europe, but economically poor. The cold and mountainous land prevented a development of agriculture.
There are very few references to Scandinavians by Roman historians and chroniclers . In his work Germania , for example, Tacitus speaks of a town called suyones who were fierce warriors whose ships had a bow at each end. These descriptions were probably based on the rumors of the legionaries and merchants who ventured beyond the Rhine.
It should be noted that various Germanic tribes invaded the Western Roman Empire , settling across its domains since the third century. We are referring to towns such as the Goths, the Franks, the Anglo, the Saxons, the Suevos, the Vandals or the Hérulos. The Scandinavian tribes, for their part, would not begin their expansion until a few centuries later.
We can distinguish three main families of Vikings: the Danes, the Norwegians and the Swedes. They all spoke the same language, the old Norse , with small variations that would eventually lead to the current Danish, Norwegian and Swedish languages.
They were the most numerous Viking group . They were seated in a place of great strategic importance that allowed them to control trade routes between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Its solid military organization was key to undertake not only daring pillages but also true conquests in the West.
The Norwegians were, above all, excellent navigators . With their drakkars they patrolled the North Sea and expanded with colonies across the Atlantic Ocean. Iceland, Greenland and even Vinlandia, in North America. At first they dedicated themselves exclusively to commerce, but later organized raids to conquer lands.
Unlike their 'cousins', the Swedes focused more on Eastern Europe . They used the rivers to enter the continent. Among other feats, they founded the Rus of Kiev and even reached Constantinople.
The reasons for its expansion
As we have commented, Scandinavia was a poor and mountainous territory. And then, how could the Vikings arm themselves with courage and launch themselves to attack other kingdoms in Europe? There were a combination of circumstances so that, from the eighth century, these Nordics put half Europe in check:
- The development of agricultural techniques caused an overpopulation . Demographic pressure in a barren and very rugged territory encouraged the search for new lands.
- Knowledge of very advanced navigation systems . The Viking ships moved quickly, while their pilots used resources such as the Viking solar stone to orient themselves in the sea.
- With the fall of the Roman Empire (year 476), trade routes were badly damaged . We must not forget that the Vikings were, above all, farmers and experienced merchants. The struggles between the new European kingdoms greatly affected trade.
- The division of Europe into several kingdoms. In addition, the once powerful Carolingian Empire was also fragmented, while England was mired in internal wars.
- The maritime hegemony , since the Franks ravaged the fleets of the Frisians and there was a similar naval power.
- The progressive unification of the Scandinavian clans . This caused, on the one hand, more ambitious expeditions; on the other hand, less powerful tribes sought land abroad to settle.
Viking era: the terror of Europe
First looting (793-800)
In the year 793 the most important period in the history of the Vikings begins: the one known as the Viking Era. All of the factors that we have just explained led these Nordics to seek a future outside their homelands .
The Viking Age officially begins with the attack on the Lindisfarne monastery of 793 . A Scandinavian expedition sacked the monastery as the nearby villages on the coast of northern England (by then, in the kingdom of Northumbria).
A few years earlier, the Vikings had already starred in an altercation in Portland , south of England. However, contacts with the North Sea islands were quite earlier . At the beginning of the seventh century, for example, the Nordics attacked the Shetland Islands, the Orkney and the Hebrides.
At first, the Vikings attacked monasteries on the British coast that were poorly defended and used to gather wealth. These were fleeting and low-risk looting , carried out by small fleets and without important personalities in command.
Thus, Lindisfarne was soon succeeded by those of the English abbey of Monkwearmouth Jarrow (794), the abbey of Iona (795, 802, 806 and 825) on a Scottish island and that of Inishboffin (795) in Ireland.
Fighting the coast of Europe (800-850)
While the first objective was the British Isles, the Vikings soon set their sights on the coast of the continent . Thus, in 799 they attacked Brittany, in 834 the Netherlands and in 844 the Mediterranean coast. In fact, the first stay of the Vikings in Spain took place in 844.
Fractured England remained a primary objective for the Danes, while the Norwegians began to control the coastline of Ireland in this period.
The harvest of success increased the ambition of the Nordic pirates, to the point that they underwent siege and looting of great cities of the time . For example, Ragnar Lodbrok traced the Seine River in 845 to launch the first of three Viking attacks on Paris . Other important cities sacked during the Viking era were Cordoba, Seville, Lisbon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Hamburg or London.
They kept half of Europe on alert for their looting in present-day England, France, Italy, Germany and Spain . They traced rivers thanks to the little draft of their drakkars and left after brief pillages. In this second stage we see nobles and kings leading the expeditions, which already had more troops and better organization.
The conquest of lands (850-900)
Despite the fruitfulness of most of their summer expeditions, the Vikings began to focus on the conquest in the mid-ninth century . After all, this Scandinavian town consisted mostly of farmers looking for fertile land to settle.
In the year 850, the Danes not only attacked England during the summer but also spent the winter in camps. In the year 866 they conquered the capital of Northumbria, Eoferwic (present-day York) , and by then they already dominated an important part of England with their settlements and conquests.
The decisive Danish defeat of 878 at the hands of Alfredo I of Wessex marks a before and after. After the battle of Edington, England was divided in two: the southwestern half for the Saxons and the northeast for the Norse. The Viking leader Guthrum the Elder was forced to be baptized, and from that moment the Danes were losing power and land before the Saxon rush.
For their part, the Norwegians controlled Ireland since 853 thanks to alliances with local kings and founded Dublin. In addition, they effectively colonized archipelagos such as Orkney and Shetland and began to populate Iceland from 874.
By then, the Swedes were expanding eastward . In 861 they conquered Novgorod and in 863 Kiev. They founded the state known as Rus of Kiev around 880, dominating the Slavic tribes and controlling the trade routes of the East.
On several occasions, the Swedish varegos or Vikings even dared to attack Constantinople . This although many times they were hired by the Byzantine Empire as mercenaries. In fact, they ended up forming the emperor's personal guard, known as the Varega Guard.
Consolidation and initiation of Christianization (900-980)
During this stage there are numerous important events. First, the constant Viking attacks in France had a curious script twist: the Viking leader Rollo, who had attacked Paris in 855, converts to Christianity and stands as Duke of Normandy in the service of the French king.
This region of northern France is ceded to the Rollo jarl, which will be responsible for curbing the incursions of its countrymen. As a consequence, the Vikings are stripped of their bases in the Loire in 931 . Since then, the successive attacks on the French territory had neither the strength nor the success of yesteryear.
Another important event is the discovery of Greenland , around the year 900, by the Norwegian explorer Gunnbjörn Ulfsson.
In Eastern Europe the Vikings continued to reap triumphs. The Swedes infused many successful attacks in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea . They besieged Constantinople until they signed a friendship treaty with the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium Emperor Basil II himself hired a personal guard made up of Vikings, the famous Varega guard.
Finally, one of the most important events of this period is the strong expansion of Christianity in Scandinavia. Denmark was the first Nordic kingdom to officially convert to Christianity in 960, during the reign of Harald Bluetooth.
Sundown of the Viking Age (980-1100)
Over more than a century, decisive defeats, unsuccessful expeditions in the east and little fruitful colonies in the Atlantic will occur. And, in the middle of it, a brief total control of England.
Norwegian explorations continue to move west. Erik the Red explores and colonizes Greenland since 982 . His son Leifr Eriksson arrives in America around the year 1000, and founded the colony of Vinlandia.
Christianization continues to make its way. Prince Vladimir I of Kiev is baptized in 988 . The Icelandic Assembly, meanwhile, agrees to the official conversion in the year 1000. Eight years later, the Swedish monarch Olof decrees the same resolution for his kingdom.
Towards the end of the 10th century, both Danes and Norwegians received strong tributes from English and French to avoid invasions. The Viking rule of England will be even clearer when the Danish king Canuto the Great is also proclaimed king of England in 1016, after invading the island.
This new splendor will last a few decades, until a Saxon king is crowned in England: Edward the Confessor. When this monarch dies without offspring, Harald III of Norway claims the throne rivaling the Saxon Harold II. The Norse fell defeated in the battle of Stamford Bridge (1066), although the Saxon joy would last two weeks: Norman William the Conqueror, ally of the Norwegians and descendant of Rollo, defeated Harold II in Hastings and was crowned king of England.
The end of the Viking looting was near. For example, the last attacks dated to the Netherlands took place in Tiel (1006) and Utrecht (1007). In the Iberian Peninsula, the Scandinavians were last repelled in 1015.
While the Normans and the Varegos continued to conquer lands and star in the history of Europe in later centuries, the Vikings as we know them ceased to exist around the year 1100 . By then, Scandinavia had adopted Christian culture and Viking settlements abroad had mixed with the local population. The conversion to Christianity led to the abandonment of practices such as the slave trade. When the attacks ceased, relations with neighboring countries improved.
In this way, Denmark, Sweden and Norway became more Christian kingdoms , and both the pagan religion and the runic alphabet and other elements of the Viking culture disappeared over time.
Viking colonies and 'discovery' of America
One of the most striking aspects in the history of the Vikings in their expansion in the west until they reach America. They conquered islands of the North Sea until they reached the New World 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Among his possessions we must count the following:
North Sea Islands
For the Vikings, it was essential to have bases from which to launch attacks on the coast of England and the continent. Therefore, they expanded westward conquering and colonizing North Sea archipelagos located between Scotland and Norway. We highlight the following island colonies:
- The Faroe Islands. The Norse arrived in the islands around 800. It is a solid Viking base in which their own language, Faroese, descended from ancient Norse was developed. They are currently part of the kingdom of Denmark.
- The Shetland Islands. The Norwegians began to colonize this archipelago at the end of the 8th century. The Shetland Islands became ruled by Scotland in 1471.
- Orkneys. Like the Shetland, the first Norwegian immigrants arrived in Orkney between the end of the 8th century and the beginning of the 9th. The Vikings used these islands as a base for their pirate attacks and pillages on the Scottish coasts. They were annexed by Scotland in 1472.
- The Hebrides . Located west of Scotland, they fell under Norwegian control at the end of the 8th century. They were no longer Scottish domain until 1266.
It was discovered by one of the first settlers of the Faroe Islands. The Swedes, Danes and especially Norwegians colonized it from 874. Iceland, originally called Snæland or «Land of Snow», has been key in the reconstructions of the Vikings history because of its sagas and findings. The Free State of Iceland was founded in 930, governed by the Alþing or assembly.
This great American island was discovered by Erik the Red in 982 . It was called Greenland or "Green Earth" to attract settlers, although this territory is far from green. It was added to the Norwegian crown, but the Scandinavian colonies were abandoned between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries because of the poor economic exploitation it offered. Inuit Eskimos continued to populate it until in the seventeenth century Danish settlers reappeared. It currently belongs to Denmark.
Read more: Vikings in Greenland
The icy climate of Greenland, the shortage of wood to build or burn and the lack of iron forced the settlers of Greenland to seek resources around the island. Around the year 1,000, Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, saw the American continent. He founded a colony with several settlements and had the occurrence of calling it Vinlandia or "land of the vineyards" to seduce more settlers.
Vinlandia was 3 weeks away by boat from Greenland and was inhabited by Native Americans hostile to the Scandinavian presence. After a series of violent clashes and without significant military support that no one provided, the last trip to Vinlandia is 1347. This discovery of a large landmass beyond the Atlantic Ocean did not transcend its contemporaries.
The Viking colony of Vinlandia is formed by:
- Markland , located on the coast of Labrador.
- Hellulland , on the coast of Baffin Island.
- Straumfjord , whose location is unclear but according to the sagas was south of Markland.