Feared, ruthless, noble, vicious, skilled, respected - these and many other words could be used to describe the Vikings. For a period of time, these proud warrior people dominated all others in their part of the world.
But, who were the Vikings? Where were they from and ultimately, what happened to them?
These questions and many more, are going to be the focus of this article, as we delve into the rich history of the Viking society and their people.
The Anglo-Saxons labeled the Vikings as Danes, but as was later learned, this was not entirely correct. The Vikings were indeed a diverse people, hailing from all over the Scandinavian region, including Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
The Scandinavian region would later on indeed have trouble containing these people within its borders, as they flooded outward, exploring, trading with and pillaging large swathes of Europe throughout the time period that earn the title of the Viking Age.
The Age of Vikings, as history now knows it, was between 700AD to 1100AD and was a period in time in which the Vikings struck fear into the heart of all those they opposed, raiding and pillaging the seaside, as they wrecked havoc across a once peaceful land.
The Vikings were first and foremost warriors from the Scandinavian region. These nordic warriors are often depicted as villains or barbarians, and for a good reason given their common practice of raiding and pillaging defenseless coastal towns and monasteries all across Europe. This description, however, does not fully encompass the whole sum of Vikings.
It is easy to answer the question of who were the Vikings with a simple Hollywood depiction or definition of them, but this would be ignorant to the facts, as numerous examples exist that showcase a people who just wanted to live a normal everyday life.
The Vikings were a diverse people, who yes, included warriors, but also consisted of skilled tradesman, farmers, merchants, seafarers, and peaceful settlers.
The term Viking itself means pirate or raider. As one can assume, many Scandinavian people would not have called themselves a Viking during this time period. Yet, to those being raided, they were all known as Vikings, as this was the only aspect of their culture that they were sadly exposed to before they were run through and put to death.
Vikings could not solely rely on raiding distant places to provide for their people. They needed to settle locations, farm the land, and tend to livestock.
Others would travel great distances to trade their goods, including overland through Russia, reaching as far as Constantinople, in what is now known as modern-day Turkey. Still, others would make the journey to Baghdad in Iraq, proving that the reach of the Vikings was far indeed.
As the Vikings traveled the world, they were forced to communicate with vastly different populations and thus in different languages. However, in their homeland, Vikings spoke the language known today as Old Norse.
Old Norse was a North Germanic language that was spoken throughout much of the Scandinavian region, including the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. Parts of Russia, France, the British Isles and Ireland all had regions which communicated in Old Norse as well, unsurprisingly given the heavy Viking influence that those regions would have been under during the time period.
Many ancient runes and carvings have been discovered by historians that reveal the use of Old Norse. The runic script is known as Younger Futhark or Scandinavian runes. It is a runic alphabet that consisted of 16 characters and of which was used predominantly during the Viking Age, fading out of use as their power and influence began to wane.
As previously noted, the Vikings were capable of reaching far distances, over both land and sea, as they were some of the, if not the most skilled seafaring folk of the time. Which is precisely one of the reasons why they dominated so many others they encountered.
But, what did they trade throughout their travels? What did they bring with them?
Commonly, Viking traders sought luxury goods, such as silver, silk, spices, wine, jewelry, glass, and pottery. All of which were in demand where the Vikings hailed from.
To purchase these goods, Viking traders would bring domestic products to trade, such as honey, tin, wheat, wool, wood, iron, fur, leather, fish and walrus ivory.
Unfortunately, touching on a much darker side of Viking history, they were also prolific buyers and sellers of human slaves.
Although it is true that not all Vikings were ruthless raiders and pillagers, it still is a reality that they earned this reputation for a reason. They were killers that rejoiced in their successes, fondly recounting their victories to their loved ones after returning home after a solid campaign of reaving.
The first officially recorded raid on the Anglo-Saxon region was around 787 and was the beginning of a struggle that would last for hundreds of years to come.
At first, the Vikings were foolishly welcomed when they were first spotted off the coasts of Britain. The local population headed to the shore unarmed to greet them. This was a mistake that they would soon come to regret, as the Viking horde rampaged across the coastline, slaughtering the innocent and defenseless in kind.
Their fierceness and veracity confused and confounded the local population of Britain, as the Vikings were more than willing to target once sacred locations, such as Christian monasteries, which were flush with gold, silver, livestock and other various forms of wealth.
To many, this was unheard of, but to the Vikings hoping for an easy victory, it was a no-brainer. There was no moral dilemma in sacking these holy monasteries, as they were a pagan people and did not adhere to the religion that dominated these foreign lands.
As the years unfolded, hostilities between both the Viking people and the Anglo-Saxons would continue to ratchet up, increasing in both scale and brutality.
Facing mounting resistance from the lands of Ireland and Britain, and having plucked all the “easy” targets, the Viking people decided that a more coordinated effort would be needed if they wished to expand their dominance and thus crack open the true riches that the Anglo-Saxons possessed.
In 865 a massive army was formed, known as the Great Danish Army or, depending on whom you asked, the Great Heathen Army.
This was a coalition of Norse warriors from all over the Scandinavian region, with the bulk of the forces originating from Denmark.
Previously, Viking raids used simple hit-and-run tactics, quickly striking and pillaging before any real, strong defense could be mounted. These tactics satisfied the Viking people, but like so many that came before them, they would increasingly want more.
The legends state that to solve this problem, the Viking people would need a much larger, more capable force. One that would be able to penetrate deeper into the Anglo-Saxon lands, and allow their people to settle the region as their own.
This army was led by three of the legendary warrior Ragnar Lodbrok’s five sons: Hvitserk, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubba Ironside. The size of the force is unknown to historians, but it is estimated to be one of the most massive armies of the time.
This campaign against the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms lasted a gruesome 14 years, most of which were filled with terror and suffering.
The King of East Anglia, Edmund the Martyr, offered the invading forces many horses as a gift, hoping to appease them. Unsurprisingly, the Viking forces did not accept this gift and proceeded to devastate the lands of East Anglia, killing Edmund in the process.
The Vikings continued their campaign of destruction against the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms throughout the 14-year war.
Over several years of back and forth warfare, the Great Heathen Army dominated most of Northern England, taking control of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms known as Northumbria, East Anglia and a large portion of Mercia.
However, the Vikings invasion began to grind to a halt as division began to form within their ranks and their armies began to fracture into two separate forces.
This would be the beginning of the end of their campaign, as the Vikings suffered a significant defeat at the hands of Wessex, the only region to hold out against the Vikings. Led by King Alfred, the armies of Wessex defeated half of the Viking forces in the Battle of Edington in 878, forever crushing their hopes of dominating all of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.
This setback to the Viking forces gave the lands of Wessex enough time to begin to create a strong standing army and fortifications that would continue to stifle the Viking incursion.
However, the people of Britain still found themselves under much of Viking rule and the lands were essentially carved in half, with the Vikings dominating the Northern parts of the region, while the people of Wessex, led by King Alfred controlling the South.
This would remain this way for much of the remainder of the Viking Age.
When the Age of Vikings began, most of Europe was loosely organized, consisting of militia forces that found it hard to quickly mount a formidable defense against the Viking "shock and awe" style tactics.
As the years progressed and as the constant threat of raiding went on, the people of Europe began to band together to organize standing armies, and build proper fortifications.
These adequately defended fortifications, and well-trained armies would make Vikings raid tactics unviable and thus unprofitable. To the Vikings, this would be the beginning of the end for their reign of dominance. Their success would ultimately be their own undoing.
The once soft targets were soft no more, as even Church monasteries began to build easily defended tower location, into which they could quickly move their valuables and surround with a solid defense against Viking raids.
Other towns simply moved further inland, making it more difficult for Viking raiding parties to use their notorious hit-and-run tactics against them.
In the end, as is often the case throughout history, money cast the deciding vote, and if a venture is no longer profitable than business will move elsewhere. That is precisely what the Viking people did.
The Viking people were never defeated, and they were not conquered. However, they were slowed down and repelled, which Forced them to change their tactics and eventually their whole way of life. The times changed and so too did the Vikings.
Being explorers by nature, they engaged with and interacted with countless cultures. These cultures slowly began to seep into and affect their way of life as they adopted many of the practices and religions of foreign lands.
Christianity, which was spreading across most of the known world at the time, was embraced by the once pagan society and flourished within Viking culture towards the end of the Viking Age.
Most historians attribute the year 1066 as the year in which this bloody age ended. The final straw was the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in which the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada was repelled, defeated and killed in combat as he sought to reclaim a large part of England.
This would be the last major Viking incursion into the lands of Europe, and from this point on integration into the broader European community accelerated, as the Vikings slowly but surely shed the titles of raiders and pirates, and became just another part of European society.
They would no longer be referred to as Vikings, but rather as Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Icelanders, Greenlanders, and Faroese.
The Age of Vikings had come to an end, but the history and the legends they left behind would live on throughout history, art, and culture until the end of time.