From around A.D. 800 to the 11th century, a vast number of Scandinavians left their homelands to seek their fortunes elsewhere. These seafaring warriors--known collectively as Vikings or Norsemen ("Northmen")--began by raiding coastal sites, especially undefended monasteries, in the British Isles. Over the next three centuries, they would leave their mark as pirates, raiders, traders and settlers on much of Britain and the European continent, as well as parts of modern-day Russia, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.
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Did You Know?
The name Viking came from the Scandinavians themselves, from the Old Norse word "vik" (bay or creek) which formed the root of "vikingr" (pirate).
Vikings - Premieres 3/3/13
The word “Viking” has long been synonymous with brutality, terror and mystery, but these legendary warriors were much more complex than their mythical reputation suggests. The new HISTORY series, Vikings, which premieres March 3, 2013, at 10/9c reveals the extraordinary world of these Dark Age raiders, traders and explorers—not through the lens of outsiders, but through the eyes of the Vikings themselves. Get a sneak peek here.
Who Were the Vikings?
Contrary to some popular conceptions of the Vikings, they were not a "race" linked by ties of common ancestry or patriotism, and could not be defined by any particular sense of "Viking-ness." Most of the Vikings whose activities are best known come from the areas now know as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, though there are mentions in historical records of Finnish, Estonian and Saami Vikings as well. Their common ground--and what made them different from the European peoples they confronted--was that they came from a foreign land, they were not "civilized" in the local understanding of the word and--most importantly--they were not Christian.
The exact reasons for Vikings venturing out from their homeland are uncertain; some have suggested it was due to overpopulation of their homeland, but the earliest Vikings were looking for riches, not land. In the eighth century A.D., Europe was growing richer, fueling the growth of trading centers such as Dorestad and Quentovic on the Continent and Hamwic (now Southampton), London, Ipswich and York in England. Scandinavian furs were highly prized in the new trading markets; from their trade with the Europeans, Scandinavians learned about new sailing technology as well as about the growing wealth and accompanying inner conflicts between European kingdoms. The Viking predecessors--pirates who preyed on merchant ships in the Baltic Sea--would use this knowledge to expand their fortune-seeking activities into the North Sea and beyond.
Early Viking Raids
In A.D. 793, an attack on the Lindisfarne monastery off the coast of Northumberland in northeastern England marked the beginning of the Viking Age. The culprits--probably Norwegians who sailed directly across the North Sea--did not destroy the monastery completely, but the attack shook the European religious world to its core. Unlike other groups, these strange new invaders had no respect for religious institutions such as the monasteries, which were often left unguarded and vulnerable near the shore. Two years later, Viking raids struck the undefended island monasteries of Skye and Iona (in the Hebrides) as well as Rathlin (off the northeast coast of Ireland). The first recorded raid in continental Europe came in 799, at the island monastery of St Philibert's on Noirmoutier, near the estuary of the Loire River.
For several decades, the Vikings confined themselves to hit-and-run raids against coastal targets in the British Isles (particularly Ireland) and Europe (the trading center of Dorestad, 80 kilometers from the North Sea, became a frequent target after 830). They then took advantage of internal conflicts in Europe to extend their activity further inland: after the death of Louis the Pious, emperor of Frankia (modern-day France and Germany), in 840, his son Lothar actually invited the support of a Viking fleet in a power struggle with brothers. Before long other Vikings realized that Frankish rulers were willing to pay them rich sums to prevent them from attacking their subjects, making Frankia an irresistible target for further Viking activity.
Conquests in the British Isles
By the mid-ninth century, Ireland, Scotland and England had become major targets for Viking settlement as well as raids. Vikings gained control of the Northern Isles of Scotland (Shetland and the Orkneys), the Hebrides and much of mainland Scotland. They founded Ireland's first trading towns: Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow and Limerick, and used their base on the Irish coast to launch attacks within Ireland and across the Irish Sea to England. When King Charles the Bald began defending West Frankia more energetically in 862, fortifying towns, abbeys, rivers and coastal areas, Viking forces began to concentrate more on England than Frankia.
In the wave of Viking attacks in England after 851, only one kingdom--Wessex--was able to successfully resist. Viking armies (mostly Danish) conquered East Anglia and Northumberland and dismantled Mercia, while in 871 King Alfred the Great of Wessex became the only king to decisively defeat a Danish army in England. Leaving Wessex, the Danes settled to the north, in an area known as "Danelaw." Many of them became farmers and traders and established York as a leading mercantile city. In the first half of the 10th century, English armies led by the descendants of Alfred of Wessex began reconquering Scandinavian areas of England; the last Scandinavian king, Erik Bloodaxe, was expelled and killed around 952, permanently uniting English into one kingdom.
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