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Vikings Essay, Research Paper

The word Viking is derived from the Norse word for Fjord, Vik. Thus the term Viking indicates Water Traveler. In Modern history the word Viking has become synonymous with savage sea pirates and plunderers, but there is more to these seafaring Scandinavians. The Vikings included Danes Swedes and Norwegians. These people raided large areas of eastern and western Europe and changed the continent forever.

The part of history know as the “Viking Age” is considered to have started in the year 793. This was the year of the first large Viking raid. It occurred at the monastery of Lindisfarme on the northeast coast of Britain. Viking movements occurred both to the east and the west of the Scandinavian countries. The Swedish Vikings went east while the Danish and Norwegian Vikings went to the west. The cause of this expansion of Viking peoples most likely was the result of two factors. One was the consolidation of power under kings in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. This new authority may have caused many of the people of these lands, who had previously enjoyed the freedom that comes with highly decentralized authority to seek

independence and liberty elsewhere(1). The other factor may have been the necessity to colonize because of the overcrowding of the limited arable lands in Scandinavia, just as the ancient Greek city states in the millennium before the Viking age had done(2).

In the east the Swedish Vikings sailed their ships up the rivers of northern Russia, reaching Kiev by 825. Along the way they established settlements along the river routes. A major settlement was located at Novgorod. The Swedish Viking, Rurik became its first ruler. This area later became Moscow(2). At Kiev, the Varangians, as the Swedish Vikings were called, under Rurik’s successor Duke Oleg, set up the first Russian state. From this base of operations the Swedish Vikings traveled south along the Dnieper river to the capital of the eastern Roman empire, Constantinople. There they tried to capture the city in 865 but were not successful. The emperor however made a deal with the Swedish Vikings to grant them special trading privileges(1). This was the extent of Viking expansion in the east.

The travels of the Vikings in the west were more extensive. Following the attacks on the monasteries at Lindisfarne and Jarrow in Britain the Vikings developed a taste for the riches they found in such places. With their ships they could navigate both the open sea and the shallow estuaries of Britain and Europe. This gave them the ability to place large numbers of warriors without warning at any place that bordered a river or ocean. This included most of the major cities and towns of Europe. Few places could resist the Viking onslaught. Every summer raiding parties of Vikings would visit the monasteries and towns of Britain, Ireland and France. In 841 a large Viking fleet sailed up the Seine river in France and plundered the city of Rouen(1). In 843 it the city of Nantes along the Loire river that was the target.

A new phase in the Viking age in the west began in 851. Viking fleets wintered at Thanet on the Thames river in Britain and at Noiremutier on the Noire river in France. Previously the Vikings had gone home following the summers raiding. Now they were staying over the winter. This allowed them to get an early start to their raids in the spring which in turned allowed them to advance further into the heart of continental Europe(5). In the next forty years the western Vikings raided all the major towns of western France. In 844 the Vikings attacked throughout the valley of Garonne in France as well as traveling south to Spain and sacking Seville. In France over the next few years Bordeax, Tours, Blois, Orleans, Poitiers and Paris were attacked by the Vikings. In Spain the Vikings traveled through the straight of Gibralter and attacked southern France and northwestern Italy. By 880 western Europe had been thoroughly raided by Viking fleets.

A Viking fleet sailed up the Siene river to Paris in 885. The commanders of the Viking force offered not to plunder the city in exchange of free passage of their fleet past the city. The offer was refused by the local ruler of Paris so the Vikings began a two year siege of Paris. Emperor Charles the Fat, leading a strong German army raised the siege. The Viking forces withdrew. Because of their mobility and ability to concentrate large forces rapidly the Vikings were extremely difficult to defeat. Following this attack on Paris a new strategy was formulated to stop the Vikings. This was to fight Vikings with other Vikings. In 911 Charles the Simple (king of the Franks 893-923) ceded the mouth of the Siene river to a Viking leader named Rollo(1). This meant that Viking forces attempting to attack Paris would have to get past their fellow Northsmen in this new Viking kingdom. Thus the Duchy of Normandy was established. This general strategy served to limit further attacks on inshore French cities and towns.

Meanwhile in Britain the Vikings had made more substantial and permanent gains. By 877 east Anglia, Northumbria and most of Mercia had come under Viking control(2). These were more than Viking raids. The Vikings had begun a conquest of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred of Wessex led the forces against the Vikings in eastern Britain(2). By 885, against all odds he was successful enough to make the Danish Vikings willing to negotiate a peace treaty(1). The result was that the Anglo-Saxons got west Merica, Wessex and the lands south of the Thames river. The Danish Vikings kept east Mercia and east Anglia (Lincolnshire and Yorshire). The treaty of Wedmore set up this Danish Viking area which became known as the Danelaw. Additionally as part of the settlement Alfred insisted that the Danish Vikings be baptized and accept Christianity.

While there was now peace in eastern Britain the Vikings were busy attacking cities and towns in the north and in Ireland.Viking settlements in Ireland were established at Dublin, Wexford and Waterford(3). Later, Orkney, Hebrides, Sheltands and the Isle of Mann also came under Viking control. 874 saw the first Viking settlements in Iceland. Later a settlement in Greenland was established by Erik the Red who had been exiled from Iceland. Eric the Red’s father had been exiled from Norway for committing murder. This expansion in the northern Atlantic opened the way for voyages to North America. Eric the Red’s son, Leif Ericsson led such an expedition to North America. The area of the landing was called Vineland. Its exact location is in some dispute. But there is evidence of a Viking settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, at L’Anse aux Meadows.

The end of the Viking age came with the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. William, Duke of Normandy, a descendent of the Vikings who had been given land there by Charles the Simple in exchange for guarding the mouth of the Siene river from other Vikings, began a two pronged invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of King Harold. In the north Harald Hardrada of Norway and Tostiq (Anglo-Saxon king Harold’s half brother) led a force against King Harold. They both were defeated and killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 by King Harold. At almost the same time William of Normandy and his forces were landing in the south of Britain. King Harold quickly marched his forces south and the two armies met a Hastings. William was victorious and Harold was killed in battle. As a result of this battle the direct ancestors of the Vikings now controlled most of France and Britain. In the east, members of the Viking bloodlines would control Russia until the Mongol invasions of Gengis Khan. But these were no longer the seaborne raiders who had come suddenly and ferociously from Scandinavia at the start of the Age of Vikings.They had adopted the language, customs and religion of the people they had come to conquer. The adaptability and flexibility that made the Vikings so successful during this period of history also meant that they were “civilized” by the conquered peoples and became assimilated into the course of European history.

At the same time, the Vikings were developing new outposts in Iceland, Greenland,and North America. The Vikings first reached Iceland. This became a launching point for all expeditions across the ocean, into North America.

It is hard to say exactly how much the world was changed by the Vikings and their extensive raiding. Scandenavian people are found all over Europe and parts of North America. Languages have been influenced by the Vikings native toung. It is clear that the world is different because of their enculturation into middle Europe.


1. Magnus Magnusson, Vikings!, (New York: Dutton, 1980)

2. Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings, (London: Oxford University Press, 1968)

3. Graham-Campbell, James, ed. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World, New York:Facts on File, 1994.

4. Ingstad, Helge. Westward to Vinland. Erik J. Friis, Trans. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969.

5. Barlow, Frank. Edward the Confessor. Berkley: University of California Press, 1970.

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