The Vikings: Storm from the North

On 8 June AD 793, Viking Longships appeared off the coast of north-east England, their destination the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

It seems unlikely that they had stumbled across one of the richest and most vulnerable sites in Europe by accident for it had been a centre of Christian worship since AD 634. The likelihood is they had traded with them in the past and seeing the riches they possessed had simply come to take it for themselves – the monks who inhabited the Island in quiet isolation could not have imagined what was about to befall them.

In just a few hours of unimaginable violence a massacre occurred as the Vikings pillaged and destroyed the monastery and laid waste to the Island with those monks who tried to resist either cut to pieces or drowned in the sea. Others who did not flee in time were dragged from their hiding places and raped before being taken off into slavery.

The Viking haul at Lindisfarne was huge as they carried away jewels, gold crosses, silver plate and even the holy relics that as non-believers were valueless and meant nothing to them. The only disappointment was they did not have enough room in their Longships for the livestock which they instead slaughtered before setting fire to everything.

The raid and the extreme ferocity with which it was carried out sent shock waves across Europe.

The scholar Alcuin resident in the Court of Charlemagne and so no witness to events nonetheless expressed the sense of horror:

“Never before has such terror appeared in the land of Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. The heathens pour out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the body of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the street.”

Holy places were supposed to be sacrosanct and rarely fortified as to attack them was a crime against God, but then the Vikings weren’t Christian they were Pagan.

The attack on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne was the first significant Viking raid on the British Isles but it was certainly not to be their last and over the next three centuries the Vikings would return again and again to rob, murder, and destroy but also to colonise and to settle. Indeed, the Viking presence on the Island of Britain would culminate with the reign of Cnut, or Canute, the first Norse King of England.

The ferocious reputation of the Vikings is well-deserved and despite attempts in recent years at rehabilitation focusing on their expertise as craftsmen and artisans along with their extraordinary seamanship and navigational skills the truth is their legacy of plunder, rape, and murder goes before them.

So were the Vikings the violent barbarians of legend or were they merely adapting to the circumstances in which they lived?

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The Vikings or Norsemen emerged from the area around the North Baltic Shore most notably in Denmark and Norway.

It is difficult to know why they took to raiding but food was always scarce in the often harsh Scandinavian environment and as a seafaring people they had long been great traders reaching as far West as Russia and as far East as the land of the Turks. But they also came from an aggressive and violent culture.

The scarcity of food meant that the Vikings were notoriously frugal and nothing went to waste. Fish formed the major part of their diet and any that wasn’t eaten was preserved in salt water for future consumption. Likewise, the remains of any meat would be made into a stew that was expected to last for days.

They also ate an early form of the sandwich, thick slices of bread topped with slabs of meat and sweetened with honey and their meals they washed down with buttermilk for the women or a strong honey based mead for the men.

They were also prodigious drinkers and it was considered almost indecent for a Viking man to be sober for long periods of the day but then they were a very sociable people who enjoyed each other’s company and the Viking calendar was dominated by three major celebrations:

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The Sigrblot took place in late spring and marked the coming of the warm season; the Vetrarblot celebrated the successful gathering of the harvest; and the Jolablot was a mid-winter festival that seems to have taken place because it would otherwise have been too long a period of time without one.

Each festival would consist of a daily feast where the entire village would gather and were times of great celebration that could last up to two weeks which despite often ending in violence were much cherished.

The Vikings were also a Pagan people at a time when Christianity was sweeping across Europe worshiping the God’s of Norse mythology.

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The Chief God was Odin whom it was said roamed the earth in human form seducing and raping women and many Viking men were eager to trace their ancestry back to Odin, and as a fierce and unforgiving God was it not right and proper that his children should seek to emulate him?

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Thor was a blacksmith and the God of War who when angry made lighting and caused the earth to tremble: Loki was the dreamer of dreams and the wizard of deceit: Frey was the fertility God, Freya the Goddess of Sex, and Idun that of Eternal Youth: Hel was the monstrous Goddess, whilst Sif, who was the wife of Thor, spent all of her time combing her golden blonde hair.

Unlike in many such societies Viking pagan belief was the cornerstone of their existence. The Gods were not to be worshiped from afar they were central to how they lived their lives and how they perceived themselves.

The Gods dwelt in Asgard, a place far away from the world of mere mortals but one connected to it by a rainbow called the Bifrost. It was believed that the God’s would one day fight a great battle, the Ragnarok, against the evil spirits in the guise of giants, and it is perhaps an indication of Norse fatalism that it was one they were prophesied to lose but then to die bravely and nobly in battle was the greatest honour with the fortunate warrior being carried by angels known as the Valkyrie to Valhalla to fight alongside Odin in the forthcoming apocalypse.

For a Viking it seems that dying once simply wasn’t enough.

Great warriors and leaders could expect a traditional Viking funeral aboard a Longship towed out to sea to be set alight with your most prized possessions, your sword, your armour, your jewels, and sometimes even your slaves.

More often than not however the funerary rites would be enacted on land within a mound of stones in the shape of a Longship.

Less esteemed Viking warriors would simply be interred in the ground amid great trepidation, for though they may not have feared dying in battle, they feared death for it had to be achieved heroically whether that be at the hands of an enemy, in an orgy of drinking and eating, or at the moment of coitus. To merely die was what women and slaves did.

Prior to their conversion to Christianity the Vikings maintained no written records and their history was an oral one passed down from generation to generation by Skalds, or Bards and the great Norse sagas were recited repeatedly as education, as entertainment, and as a warning and though they were later collected and written down many have been lost to history.

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This was despite the Vikings having a written language as is evidenced by the many rune-stones still in existence.

Viking society was masculine and patriarchal and one in which women had no formal role and were expected to be subservient but they remained formidable all the same and with most of the men away from the village for long periods of time it was the women who tended the crops, ran the dairy, kept the many slaves in line, and raised the children.

The young boys of the village who would become the future Viking warriors with so many absent fathers were subject to considerable female influence and it can rightly be said that it was the women of the village who imbued these young boys with their sense of adventure, their ruthless character, and their warrior spirit.

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Viking women were also strikingly tall for the time and physically strong, and though to have blonde hair and blue eyes was the most cherished look many in fact had dark hair and brown eyes but they were all marked out by their very pale and almost flawless skin.

They also dressed very much as the men did with dresses and shawls being kept for special occasions or merely being thrown over their male attire to please their husband’s.

The women of the slave class wore old clothes that had been discarded by the men and were forced to eat a broth with thick bran-laden bread which was no doubt filling if not exactly appetising.

Women of the Yeoman class, or the majority, wore trousers or a long heavy dress over trousers and a cap. She would tie a kerchief around her neck and often adorn her shoulders with brooches. Her staple diet would be one of fish and stew, and perhaps meat when she could get it.

Those of noble birth wore a blouse of smooth linen and a skirt that spread outwards with a light bodice. She would also wear a great deal of jewellery, particularly bracelets, and sometimes a bejewelled headdress that denoted her status. She ate only the best poultry and meat.

Though they are often portrayed in Viking iconography weaving the women of any Viking village would spend most of their time cooking and preparing food.

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A typical Viking home would be a one room wooden hut with a hole in its roof to rid it of the effects of the hot food and drink that were always being prepared. Even so, it was a permanently smoky environment.

As well as being farmers, traders, colonisers, and ferocious warriors the Vikings were also renowned for their extraordinary navigational skills. Indeed, the first European to set foot upon the shores of North America is believed to have been Leif Ericsson some 500 years before the exploits of Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus.

His means of transport would have been the Longship, a narrow wooden light bottomed craft designed for speed and flexibility with a shallow draft and though it had a central sail its main means of propulsion were the crew themselves and with oars the entire length of the ship it could reach up to speeds of 15 knots. It was also pared down for the sake of efficiency and there was no cover aboard so the crew would have been exposed to the elements at all times. Its shallow draft also allowed it to be beached in a hurry so that they could be upon a village within minutes of being sighted offshore.

With their Longships adorned with blood red sails and a fearsome dragon’s head frontispiece the Viking Raid was not merely designed to rob but also to strike terror into its victims thereby making them more compliant in the future.

The warriors would be dressed in loose fitting clothing for easy movement and contrary to popular belief they did not wear horned helmets but rather leather caps reinforced with steel strips, an entirely steel helmet was an indication of status.

They would be armed with swords, round wooden shields, and small hatchets designed for throwing. The elite of any Viking force were the axe wielding Beserkers, the tallest, the strongest, and the bravest of them all.

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Viking tactics were simple – to attack with great ferocity, make the bloodletting unrelenting, and have done with it. They killed in great numbers but they also ensured that they left behind victims either mutilated or blinded as a warning to others.

Both men and women were routinely raped but again this was as much for reasons of intimidation rather than sexual gratification. What could not be carried away was destroyed and what could be burned was set alight.

The ferocity of the Vikings was reflected in the names given them, often by their enemies.

For example, Thorfinn Skullsplitter who pedalled his particular brand of terror in the Orkney Islands, or Eric Bloodaxe who established the independent Kingdom of Northumbria.

Despite his fearsome reputation Eric Bloodaxe was known to have been a hen-pecked husband who lived in abject terror of his even more formidable wife Gunnhild, called by those who knew her the Evil Witch, though never to her face.

Eric Bloodaxe was one of Harald Finehair, King of Norway’s twenty sons and he only succeeded to the throne himself by killing most of them but his rule was so brutal and unpopular that when his one remaining brother Hakon returned to Norway to lay claim to the throne Eric was quick to flee ending up in England where he connived with the Saxon King Athelstan to secure Northumbria for himself.

He had learned nothing from his time as King of Norway and behaved just as brutally as he had before and was similarly forced to flee on numerous occasions always to return like the proverbial bad penny he was. In 954, he was killed in battle to much rejoicing.

England had by this time, along with Ireland, become the Vikings favourite hunting ground.

When Olav Haraldsson, the future Christian King of Norway along with Thorkell the Tall sailed up the River Thames the whole south-east of England was thrown into panic but thwarted in his attempt to take London he went onto ravage Oxford and pillage Canterbury destroying much of the surrounding countryside as he went.

In the end King Ethelred paid him 4,800 pounds of silver just to go away.

The more the English paid this blood money, or Danegeld, the more often the Norsemen returned and gradually over time the Vikings occupied much of the country.

The Saxons, divided and regularly defeated in battle had no answer and in January 1017 the Saxon Ruling Council, the Thegn, elected the Viking Cnut, King.

The Viking conquest of England was complete but it was to be short-lived.

On 12 November 1035, Canute died to be succeeded by his squabbling sons Harthacnut and Harald Harefoot with the younger Harefoot appointed to govern England while the rightful heir Harthacnut pursued his claims elsewhere in Scandinavia. But in his brother’s absence Harefoot effectively usurped the throne.

When he died on 17 March 1040, during a heavy drinking bout, a fitting Viking exit perhaps, Harthacnut returned and had his brother’s body disinterred, beheaded, and thrown into the River Thames.

He was not to reign for long however, and following his death in 1042 the Thegn elected the Saxon heir to the throne Edward the Confessor, then in exile in Normandy, King. The Viking dominance of England had come to an end but their interference in its affairs had not.

Edward the Confessor remained childless and as such there was no obvious successor to the throne.

The most powerful family in England were the Godwinesons whom Edward hated and certainly did not want to elevate to Kingship. He particularly loathed the brutal father, the Earl Godwiner, who he had held responsible for the blinding and murder of his brother many years before but since the old Earl’s death he had become reliant upon his sons for the administration of his Kingdom, and in particular the eldest, Harold.

In 1065, Harold was forced to intervene in a dispute over tax between the Earls of Northumbria and his younger brother Tostig. Harold, aware that the hot-headed Tostig’s behaviour was threatening rebellion chastised him before making the decision to side with the Earls and remove him from his position of power.

Tostig who was furious that Harold had opposed him, his own brother, something he considered the greatest of betrayals fled England vowing to return and regain what was rightfully his.

When he did it would be with Viking support.

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Harald Hadrada was a legend in his own lifetime, a 6’5″ axe wielding giant of such ferocity that the mere mention of his name struck terror into the hearts of those who heard it.

He had fled his home country of Norway following a failed attempt by his half-brother Olaf to seize the throne and
taking his 500 warriors with him he travelled around Europe offering himself as a mercenary for hire and he was to serve both in the army of the Russian Tsar and as part of the Byzantine Emperors elite Scandinavian Vagarian Guard.

In 1047, he at last succeeded to the throne of Norway and spent the next fifteen years unsuccessfully trying to conquer Denmark. The extra money he demanded in taxation to fight his wars made him hugely unpopular but he dealt harshly with any opposition, preferring to maim as an example to others rather than kill.

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Tostig had been trying to recruit Hadrada to his cause and in the late summer of 1066, he succeeded.

In September, they landed together on the northern coast of England with an army of 15,000 men and a few days later they defeated the combined armies of Earl Morcar of Northumbria and Earl Edwin of Mercia at the Battle of Fulford.

But it was not the decisive victory they had at first thought however, for the following day, Harold arrived with his army after a forced march from London and Tostig and Hadrada were taken totally by surprise.

They had left much of their army at York and the men they had with them were unprepared for battle.

Tostig, who knew his brother well enough to fear his courage and military prowess wanted to withdraw but Hadrada, mocking him for his cowardice, refused to do so.

Just prior to the battle a man rode up to Tostig and offered him his Earldom back if he would desert Hadrada. When Tostig asked what Hadrada could be expected to receive he was told:

“Seven feet of good earth he is taller than other men.”

Hadrada was impressed with the courage of this man and asked Tostig who he was? Tostig replied:

“That man is my brother, Harold.”

He then begged Hadrada to send for reinforcements from York which he did but they were to arrive too late to influence the outcome of the battle which was to be a massacre that barely any of the Viking army survived.

Hadrada, wielding his great battleaxe and surrounded by his Berserkers, fought to the bitter end before finally being cut down by an arrow to the throat.

Tostig also died in the fighting.

It could be said that with the aptly heroic death of Hadrada and the destruction of his warrior army at Stamford Bridge the age of the Viking had come to an end.

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