From around AD 800 – 1200, large groups of Scandinavian seafarers sailed out from their homelands to conduct raids over England, Ireland, and Europe, leaving an indelible mark on the histories of those regions. These men became known as the Vikings – a name thought to have originated from an ancient Norse word meaning “bay” or “creek”, but then broadened to mean “pirate”.
Beginning as explorers and raiders, they progressed through to active traders and conquerors and then, accompanied by their womenfolk, became settlers in many of these regions. The Vikings built up a tremendous reputation as seafarers, learning how to handle and navigate their famous longships with great skill. The weaponry they used was fairly typical of the era – swords, spears, shields and battle-axes, and the fact that they were so successful in conflict indicates well developed fighting skills, particularly during their early “hit and run” raids of the 9th and 10th centuries.
During the 11th Century the Vikings succeeded in conquering the Kingdom of England establishing the Danish King Canute as the ruler of a vast Scandinavian empire that stretched across England, Denmark and Norway.
They pushed further and further outwards establishing a colony in Greenland and then another in modern day Newfoundland, possibly becoming the first Europeans to reach North America – some 400 years before the voyage of Columbus.
The early Vikings were pagans who worshipped many gods, and this led to the perception that they were barbarous tribes but as they increasingly accepted Christianity this perception faded. Viking culture, largely driven by the Danes during the 10th and 11th centuries, gradually became absorbed into the Christian world of mediaeval England and Europe during this time.
Climate change may have been a significant factor in the decline of the Viking settlement in Greenland. The onset of The Little Ice Age around 1300, saw temperatures plummet across northern Europe, likely producing an end to farming across the area.
Today the increasing use of DNA technology has revealed that one in three modern Britons has Scandinavian ancestry, with the Vikings a likely vector.
Image: A Viking invasion of England – an illuminated illustration from the 12th Century Miscellany on the Life of St. Edmund, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.