In the history of warfare a special place must be reserved for the Vikings. Better known to their contemporaries as “Northmen” or “pagans,” their name became synonymous with “warrior.” These raiders from Scandinavia revolutionized combat in northern Europe using an improved ship design and developed the amphibious assault, made more lethal by the excellence of their arms and armour. They raided and established colonies from the north Atlantic to the Mediterranean; their settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Canada is now acknowledged as the earliest European colony in North America.
The ferocity of these northern warriors was celebrated before the classical Viking Age (800–1050). The Old English poem Beowulf is the legend of a warrior from what is now southern Sweden fighting for a noble in Denmark during the so-called Migration Period (400–600). The poem mentions several features that would be later associated with the Vikings, such as the boats that were a mainstay of transportation.
Viking ships evolved from the large rowing vessels of the North Sea. The Nydam ship (ca. 350) and the Sutton Hoo vessel (600) were powered by oars. Reliance on rowing continued for centuries, as seen in the warship Skuldelev 2 (1000), which needed a crew of at least fifty, increasing to one hundred for continuous operation. It is uncertain when sails began to be used, but the surviving vessels suggest that they were initially an auxiliary to oars. Sails appear possibly in the Ladby ship (ca. 800), but certainly in the Gokstad ship (850). The Gokstad ship and the later Oseburg ship (900) had an improved design of keel that gave them stability while also allowing for a shallow draught. The hull is “lapstrake” or clinker form where overlapping planks make the body, which is reinforced with crossbeams and frames. While their speed would have varied considerably according to weather conditions, the Viking warships were impressively fast in the context of their day. Some modern time trials of replicas have suggested that constant speeds of 12 knots were possible. At that rate a ship could sail from the western Norwegian coast to the Shetland Islands in about a day and a night. Also, they were imitated: Alfred the Great designed his own fleet based on a combination of Frisian and Viking vessels. Warships might have been preceded by trading vessels on some routes. In the event usually considered to be the beginning of the Viking Age, the Vikings who killed the English reeve in 789 had been mistaken for traders.
Scholars continue to debate why the Vikings emerged from Scandinavia at the end of the eighth century, but poverty, wanderlust, and desire for adventure probably were all motives. For the early plundering expeditions, the Vikings raided late in the spring and returned home in the autumn. Particularly reprehensible in the eyes of their victims were attacks on churches, of which the most infamous were at Lindisfarne (793) and Iona (795). The savagery of the assaults led to accusations that the Vikings were not humans but demons. An Old Irish triad claims that one of the three types of men who will not listen to reason is a Viking in his halberd.
Since the Vikings could sail far upriver or land on almost any type of coast, forays usually worked to a standard pattern. The ships moved in quickly from the water and the crews disembarked rapidly. Where the tide was a factor, the ships were dragged above the high tide mark. They might or might not leave part of the crew to guard the vessels. At the Battle of Clontarf (fought at Dublin, Ireland, in 1014) the ships were left unattended and disaster struck when an exceptionally high tide carried the vessels into mid-channel, which stranded their crews on the shore. A Viking band that raided Devon in 897 was trapped when the English captured its unattended ships.
Viking success also relied on weapons, which corresponded to a warrior's wealth and status. Chieftains or wealthy freemen had substantial body amour in the form of shields, helmets, or coats of mail in addition to swords, axes, and spears. A poor farmer went into battle with only a shield and axe. Swords, axes, lances, and barbed spears were used during the Migration Period, but the barbed spear had been discarded by the classical Viking Age. Ubiquitous throughout the centuries was the bow, now remembered largely through the remains of arrowheads.
Swords were prestigious weapons carried only by warriors of high status. They were a development from two traditions. The first was the single-edged weapon prevalent in the Migration Period of which there were two types: saxes that had blades between 10 and 24 inches long without terminal hilts and single-edged swords (with hilts) that had longer blades. Replacing them in about 800 was the two-edged sword, which had first appeared during the Migration Period. The design was based on Continental Celtic models and its blade was longer than the single-edged weapon.
More utilitarian was the axe, which seems to have been introduced as a weapon in the sixth century. The earliest ones were plain woodcutting instruments, but more specialized battle-axes followed the same design as the Frankish battle-axe (fransisc). Axes with wide, thin blades are found by the late Viking Age, when they were known as “Danish Axes.” Later the axe was combined with the spear and set upon a long handle in a weapon called the “pole-axe” or “halberd.”
Evidence for spears now depends mainly on the survival of the spearhead, since the wooden shaft quickly deteriorated. The barbed-spear had gone out of fashion during the Migration Period and subsequent lances had wide, heavy blades. This underwent a change so that by the tenth century there appeared a long, slender blade.
Remains of the bow and arrow appear in the Stone Age. Many arrowheads have been found in bogs, which indicates their importance in warfare. Like the spearhead, usually only the arrowhead survives even though there is evidence of the bow's construction. The bow was made of a single piece of wood, of which yew, elm, and ash were favoured.
Wearing some type of body protection was usual among the Germanic peoples. Descriptions of the Vikings' body armour begin to appear by the eleventh century when two contemporary writers—Dudo of St. Quentin and the anonymous author of the Irish War of the Irish against the Vikings (Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh)—mention that the Vikings wore metal strands worked into triple layers. This might mean that the metal was worked into rings that were subsequently worn in three layers. Chain mail is seen on the famous Bayeux Tapestry (1086), worn by both the Normans (descendants of the Viking colony in northern France) and the English.
By the middle of the ninth century the Vikings began to concentrate on using the rivers to launch attacks in the interior. At that time there is evidence of their cooperation with local nobles. An example comes from 842 when a Frankish count named Lambert hired a Viking fleet of 67 ships from Vestfeld (in what is now Norway) that had appeared at the mouth of the Loire. They were to attack his rivals and the count supplied pilots to guide them past the sandbanks. Lambert had a change of heart, however, when the fleet attacked his own town of Nantes. About this time, Viking tactics changed from seasonal raids to settlements that allowed raiding throughout the year. One camp was set up on the banks of the Liffey River in 841 and became Dublin, while another was made a decade later on the Isle of Thanet, in the Thames estuary.
Viking incursions began to increase in size and objective. The “Great Army” that attacked England in 865 was transported by 300 vessels according to some accounts and took control of the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia and parts of Mercia in what later became the “Danelaw.” Efforts to stop the Vikings varied. In England, Alfred the Great ordered the building of fortified burhs that were maintained by contributions from the surrounding countryside. Across the English Channel, efforts to counter the Vikings in Francia led to the building of fortified bridges that blocked the navigable waterways.
By at least the tenth century, Viking forces were using tactical maneuvers on the battlefield. In a battle fought between the Vikings and the Scots in Lothian in 918, the former divided their forces into four groups and kept one group in reserve. As the tide of the battle turned against them, the Vikings sent in their reserve group and were able to avoid a defeat. In order to maintain contact on the battlefield, the Vikings used banners as visible signals, often with an animal embroidered on them. The most famous of these banners was the “Raven Banner” employed by Jarl Sigurđr “the Stout” of the Orkney Islands. Legend claims that when his Irish mother Eithne, who was reputed to be a witch, wove it she cast a spell so that the troops following the pennant would be victorious, but the standard bearer would be killed. The Danish King Knútr the Great also had a raven banner that supposedly held miraculous powers. The bird would appear to droop if defeat were imminent, but it would seem to be in flight if victory lay ahead.
The classical Viking Age ended in the eleventh century as national monarchies appeared. Many of these princes had had careers as Vikings, such as the Norwegian King óláfr Tryggvason or his Danish contemporary Sveinn “Forkbeard” Haraldsson. Freelance warriors were superseded by professional soldiers usually employed by princes, and several became important rulers. The Norwegian national saint óláfr the Holy was part of the military establishment of King Æthelræd of England, while his successor Haraldr (harđráđi) had served in the Varangian Guard at the Byzantine court. These troops were known collectively as the hirđ, but were divided into specific groups such as the personal guard or “housecarls” (húskarlar). When Knútr the Great conquered England, he brought his personal military establishment who were maintained through a tax levied on the population called the heregeld or “army tax.”
The creation of the nascent kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark led to an institutional version of the war band. Since the ship was the main means of transportation, the “levy” (leiđangr) was created which was based on the division of the country into “ship districts” (Old Norse, skipreiđa), and these supplied the crew. The steersman (Old Norse, strýrimađr) was the captain of the vessel and a treaty between some Vikings and the English from the end of the tenth century states that he was responsible for his crew's actions.
The classical Viking Age was becoming just a memory by the end of the eleventh century. When the Norwegian King Magnús III óláfsson (“Magnus Barefoot”) was contemplating his expedition to the British Isles in 1098, one story claims that one motivation was the wish to recreate the stirring days of his freebooting ancestors. The rise of national monarchies, nevertheless, led to the end of the Vikings, for no prince would tolerate an independent warrior élite within his realm. The Vikings were gone but not forgotten. Even before the era ended, the verse and stories of their deeds were being collected and preserved by antiquarians. They furnished the materials used by historians such as the Icelander Snorri Sturluson for Heimskringla (“World Encircler,” a history of the kings of Norway) or the anonymous authors of epics such as Brennu-Njáls Saga.
SEE ALSO: Clontarf, Battle of (1014); Epic literature; Hastings, Battle of (1066); Raids and raiders; War poetry.
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