Viking expansion

Viking expansion

The Vikings sailed most of the North Atlantic, reaching south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople and the middle east, as looters, traders, colonists, and mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Eriksson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America, and set up a short lived settlement in present-day L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.


The motives driving the Viking expansion form a topic of much debate in Nordic history. One common theory posits that the Viking population had outgrown agricultural potential of their Scandinavian homeland.Fact|date=November 2007 For a coastal population with superior naval technologies, it made sense to expand overseas in the face of a youth bulge effect. However, this theory does little to explain why the expansion went overseas rather than into the vast, uncultivated forest areas on the interior of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Moreover, no such rise in population or decline in agricultural production has been definitively proven. These shortcomings are addressed by the hypothesis that the expansion was caused by a shortage of women, with the intention to acquire wives. [James H. Barrett, "What caused the Viking Age?" "Antiquity" Volume 82 Number 317 (September 2008), 671-685; [ Viking Age Triggered by Shortage of Wives?] ]

The decline in the profitability of old trade routes could also have played a role. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia suffered a severe blow when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century.Fact|date=November 2007 The expansion of Islam in the 7th century had also affected trade with western Europe.Fact|date=November 2007 Trade on the Mediterranean Sea was historically at its lowest level when the Vikings initiated their expansion.Fact|date=November 2007 By opening new trade routes in Arabic and Frankish lands, the Vikings profited from international trade by expanding beyond their traditional boundaries.Fact|date=November 2007 Finally, the destruction of the Frisian fleet by the Franks afforded the Vikings an opportunity to take over their trade markets.Fact|date=November 2007

Viking settlements in Ireland and Great Britain are thought to have been primarily male enterprises. A cemetery on the Isle of Man for example includes mainly male Norse burials, with females from the local indigenous population. Irish and British women are mentioned in old texts on the founding of Iceland, indicating that the Viking explorers had acquired wives and concubines from the British Isles. Genetic studies of the Shetland population indicates that Viking family units were the norm among the migrants to these areas. Genetic studies of the population in Iceland and the Western Isles/Isle of Skye show that Viking settlements were established mainly by unattached male Vikings who subsequently acquired women from among the local populations. This may be explained in terms of physical distance to new settlements from the Scandinavian homeland; closer settlements were more suitable for family migration while frontier settlements further north and west were left for groups of lone male colonizers. [ [ Heredity - Human migration: Reappraising the Viking Image ] ]

British Isles


Traditionally, the earliest date given for a Viking raid is 789 when, according to the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," three ships from Norway sailed to Portland Bay, in Dorset.Fact|date=November 2007 There, they were mistaken for merchants by a royal official, and they murdered him when he tried to get them to accompany him to the king's manor to pay a trading tax on their goods. The next recorded attack, dated 6 January, 793 [ [ A.D. 793 per the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle] ] , was on the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the east coast of England. The resident monks were killed, thrown into the sea to drown or carried away as slaves along with some of the church treasures.Fact|date=November 2007 After repeated Viking raids, the monks fled Lindisfarne in AD 875, carrying the relics of Saint Cuthbert with them.

In 840 and 841, Norwegians raided during the winter months instead of summer, as was their usual tactic.Fact|date=November 2007 They waited on an island off Ireland. In 865 a large army of Danish Vikings, supposedly led by Ivar, Halfdan and Guthrum, arrived in East Anglia. They proceeded to cross England into Northumbria and captured York (Jorvik), where some settled as farmers. Most of the English kingdoms, being in turmoil, could not stand against the Vikings, but Alfred of Wessex managed to keep the Vikings out of his county. Alfred and his successors were able to drive back the Viking frontier and retake York. In 886, the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum was formalised the boundaries of their kingdoms and the Viking Danelaw territory, with provisions for peaceful relations between the English and the Vikings. A new wave of Vikings appeared in England in 947 when Erik Bloodaxe captured York.Fact|date=November 2007 The Viking presence continued through the reign of Canute the Great (1016-1035), after which a series of inheritance arguments weakened the family reign.

The Vikings did not get everything their way. In one instance in England, a small Viking fleet attacked a rich monastery at Jarrow. The Vikings were met with stronger resistance than they expected: their leaders were killed, the raiders escaped, only to have their ships beached at Tynemouth and the crews killed by locals.Fact|date=November 2007 This was one of the last raids on England for about 40 years. The Vikings instead focused on Ireland and Scotland. The Viking presence in the British Isles dwindled until 1066, when the Norwegians lost their final battle with the English.Fact|date=November 2007

It is important to bear in mind that not all the Norse arriving in Ireland and Great Britain came as raiders. Many arrived with families and livestock, often in the wake of the capture of territory by their forces. DNA analysis shows that a major part of the ancestry of English people in northern East Anglia, eastern Yorkshire and in the Lake District is Scandinavian in origin, presumably from colonists around this time. The populations then merged over time by intermarriage into the Anglo-Saxon population of these areas. Many words in the English language are from old Scandinavian languages, showing the importance of this contact.


While there are few records from the earliest period, it is believed that Scandinavian presence in Scotland increased in the 830s.Fact|date=November 2007 In 836, a large Viking force believed to be Norwegian invaded the Earn valley and Tay valley which were central to the Pictish kingdom. They killed Eóganan, king of the Picts, and his brother, the vassal king of the Scots. They also killed many members of the Pictish aristocracy. The sophisticated kingdom that had been built fell apart, as did the Pictish leadership. The foundation of Scotland under Kenneth MacAlpin is traditionally attributed to the aftermath of this event.

The isles to the north and west of Scotland were heavily colonized by Norwegian Vikings. Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, Caithness and Sutherland were under Norse control, sometimes as fiefs under the King of Norway and other times as separate entities.Fact|date=November 2007 Shetland and Orkney were the last of these to be incorporated into Scotland in as late as 1468. As well as Orkney and Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland, the Norse settled in the Hebrides. Some parts of the west coast were also settled, and Galloway, which got its name from the Gall-Gael or Foreigner Gael (as the mixed Norse Scots were known).


In 722, the Cornish allied with Danish Vikings in order to hold Wessex from expanding into Cornwall. [Professor Philip Payton "Cornwall" (1996). Annales Cambriae Fowey: Alexander Associates] A Wessex Saxon army led by King Ine was beaten by an alliance of Cornish and Vikings near the Camel estuary at "Hehil", possibly somewhere near modern day Padstow. This battle, recorded in the "Annales Cambriae", as well as the Vikings' continual attacks on Wessex, enabled Cornwall to stay autonomous from Wessex for the next 100 years. [Philip Payton. (1996). "Cornwall". Fowey: Alexander Associates] (Up until 838 the eastern Cornish border was still on the River Exe-River Taw line). The Danes provided tactical support to their Cornish allies by raiding Wessex which weakened the authority of the Saxons. In 831 AD, the Danes raided Charmouth in Dorset, in 997 AD they destroyed the Dartmoor town of Lydford, and from 1001 AD to 1003 AD they occupied the old Roman city of Exeter. In 1013 Wessex was conquered by the Danes under the leadership of Sweyn Forkbeard. [ [


Wales was not colonized by the Vikings significantly as in eastern England or Scotland. The Vikings did, however, settle in small numbers in the south around St. David's, Haverfordwest, and the Gower. Place names such as Skokholm, Skomer, and Swansea remain as evidence of the Norse settlement. [ [ Welsh place names.] ] The Vikings, however, were not able to set up a Viking state or control Wales, owing to the powerful forces of Welsh kings, and, unlike in Scotland, the aristocracy was relatively unharmed.

Nevertheless, following the successful Viking alliances with Cornwall in 722 and Britanny in 865, the Britons made their peace with the Danes, and a Viking/Welsh alliance in 878 defeated an Anglo-Saxon army from Mercia, although there were still some occasional skirmishes between the Britons of Wales and the Danes.Fact|date=November 2007

The city of Swansea was founded by the imperialist Viking King of Denmark Sweyn Forkbeard who by 1013 was King of the Danes, Anglo-Saxons and Norwegians. Swansea is a corruption of the Norse "Sweyn's Ey", which means "Sweyn's island". The island refers to the area around the estuary of the river Tawe. The neighboring Gower peninsula has some place names of Norse origin (such as Worm's Head; worm is the Norse word for dragon, as the Vikings believed that the serpent-shaped island was a sleeping dragon). Twenty miles (32 km) west of Cardiff on the Vale of Glamorgan coast is the semi-flooded island of Tusker Rock, which takes its name from Tuska, the Viking who established a settlement in the area.


The Vikings conducted extensive raids in Ireland and founded many towns, including Dublin, Limerick, MullingarFact|date=April 2008, Wexford, Waterford and Leixlip. Literature, crafts, and decorative styles in Ireland and Britain reflected Scandinavian culture. Vikings traded at Irish markets in Dublin. Excavations found imported fabrics from England, Byzantium, Persia, and central Asia. Dublin became so crowded by the 11th century that houses were constructed outside the town walls.

The Vikings pillaged monasteries on Ireland’s west coast in 795, and then spread out to cover the rest of the coastline. The north and east of the island were most affected. During the first 40 years, the raids were conducted by small, mobile Viking groups. From 830 on, the groups consisted of large fleets of Viking ships. From 840, the Vikings began establishing permanent bases at the coasts. Dublin was the most significant settlement in the long term. The Irish became accustomed to the Viking presence and culture. In some cases they became allies and also intermarried throughout all ofIreland.

In 832, a Viking fleet of about 120 ships under Turgesius invaded kingdoms on Ireland’s northern and eastern coasts. Some believe that the increased number of invaders coincided with Scandinavian leaders’ desires to control the profitable raids on the western shores of Ireland. During the mid-830s, raids began to push deeper into Ireland. Navigable waterways made this deeper penetration possible. After 840, the Vikings had several bases in strategic locations throughout Ireland.

In 838, a small Viking fleet entered the River Liffey in eastern Ireland, probably led by the chieftain Saxolb (Soxulfr) who was killed later that year. [ [ A History of Viking Dublin] , Viking Network Ireland. Retrieved 14 November 2007.] The Vikings set up a base, which the Irish called longphorts. This longphort would eventually become Dublin. After this interaction, the Irish experienced Viking forces for about 40 years. The Vikings also established longphorts in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford. The Vikings were driven out of Ireland for a short period around 900, but returned to Waterford in 914 to found what would become Ireland's first city. The other longphorts were soon re-occupied and developed into cities and towns.

The last major battle involving Vikings was the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which a large force from the pan-Viking world and their Irish allies opposed Brian Boru, then the High King of Ireland and his forces, a small contingent of which were Viking defectors. The battle was fought in what is the now Dublin suburb of Clontarf on Good Friday of that year. Boru, the Irish High King had gracefully allowed the Viking King of Dublin; Sigtrygg Silkbeard, one year to prepare for his coming assault. Silkbeard responded by offering the bed of his mother to several Viking lords from Scandinavia, Ireland and Britain. The savage melee between the heavily mailed Norse and the unarmoured, yet undaunted Gaels ended in a rout of the Vikings and their Irish allies. Careful accounts were taken by both sides during the battle, and thus many famous warriors sought each other out for personal combat and glory. High King Brian, who was nearly eighty, did not personally engage in the battle but retired to his tent where he spent the day in quiet prayer. The Viking Earl Brodir of Man chanced upon Brian's tent as he fled the field. He and a few followers seized the opportunity, and surprised the High King, killing the aged Brian before being captured. Brian's foster son Wolf the Quarrelsome later tracked down and dispatched Brodir by disembowelment; Wolf watching as Brodir marched and wound his own innards around the trunk of a large tree. The battle was fairly matched for most of the day and each side had great respect for the prowess of the other; however, in the end, the Irish forced the Norse to return to the sea. Many of the fleeing Vikings were drowned in the surf due to their heavy mail coats as they struggled for the safety of their longships; others were pursued and slain further inland. After the battle, Viking power was broken in Ireland forever, though many settled Norse remained in the cities and prospered greatly with the Irish through trade. With Brian dead, Ireland returned to the fractured kingdom it had once been, but was now cleared of further Viking predation.

European continent

West Francia

West Francia suffered more severely than East Francia during the Viking raids of the ninth century. The reign of Charles the Bald coincided with some of the worst of these raids, though he did take action by the Edict of Pistres of 864 to secure a standing army of cavalry under royal control to be called upon at all times when necessary to fend off the invaders. He also ordered the building of fortified bridges to prevent inland raids.

Nonetheless, the Bretons allied with the Vikings and Robert, the margrave of Neustria, (a march created for defence against the Vikings sailing up the Loire), and Ranulf of Aquitaine died in the Battle of Brissarthe in 865. The Vikings also took advantage of the civil wars which ravaged the Duchy of Aquitaine in the early years of Charles' reign. In the 840s, Pepin II called in the Vikings to aid him against Charles and they settled at the mouth of the Garonne as they did by the Loire. Two dukes of Gascony, Seguin II and William I, died defending Bordeaux from Viking assaults. A later duke, Sancho Mitarra, even settled some at the mouth of the Adour near Bayonne in an act presaging that of Charles the Simple and the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte by which the Vikings were settled in Rouen, creating Normandy as a bulwark against other Vikings.

In the 9th and 10th centuries the Vikings raided the largely defenceless Frisian and Frankish towns laying on the coast and along the rivers of the Low Countries. Although Vikings never settled in large numbers in these areas, they did set up long-term bases and were even acknowledged as lords in a few cases.

Antwerp was raided in 836. Later there were raids of Ghent, Kortrijk, Tournai, Leuven and the areas around the Meuse river, the Rhine, the Rupel river and the tributaries of these rivers. Raids were conducted from bases established in Asselt, Walcheren, Wieringen and Elterberg. In Dutch and Frisian historical tradition the trading centre of Dorestad declined after Viking raids from 834 to 863; however, since no convincing Viking archaeological evidence has been found at the site (as of 2007), doubts about this have grown in recent years.

One of the most important Viking families in the Low Countries was that of Rorik of Dorestad (based in Wieringen) and his brother Harald (based in Walcheren). Around 850 Lothair I acknowledged Rorik as ruler of most of Friesland. And again in 870 Rorik was received by Charles the Bald in Nijmegen, to whom he became a vassal. Viking raids continued during this period. Harald’s son Rodulf and his men were killed by the people of Oostergo in 873. Rorik died sometime before 882.

Buried Viking treasures consisting mainly of silver have been found in the Low Countries. Two such treasures have been found in Wieringen. A large treasure found in Wieringen in 1996 dates from around 850 and is thought perhaps to have been connected to Rorik. The burial of such a valuable treasure is seen as an indication that there was a permanent settlement in Wieringen. [ [ Vikingschat van Wieringen] Retrieved 26 June 2008.(Dutch only)]

Around 879 Godfrid arrived in Frisian lands as the head of a large force that terrorised the Low Countries. Using Ghent as his base, they ravaged Ghent, Maastricht, Liège, Stavelot, Prüm, Cologne, and Koblenz. Controlling most of Frisia between 882 and his death in 885, Godfrid became known to history as Godfrid, Duke of Frisia. His lordship over Frisia was acknowledged by Charles the Fat, to whom he became a vassal. Godfried was assassinated in 885, after which Gerolf of Holland assumed lordship and Viking rule of Frisia came to an end.

Viking raids of the Low Countries continued for over a century. Remains of Viking attacks dating from 880 to 890 have been found in Zutphen and Deventer. The last attacks took place in Tiel in 1006 and Utrecht in 1007.


By the mid 9th century, though apparently not before [Fletcher 1984, ch. 1, note 51] there were Viking attacks on the coastal Kingdom of Asturias in the far northwest of the peninsula, though historical sources are too meagre to assess how frequent or how early raiding occurred. By the reign of Alfonso III Vikings were stifling the already weak threads of sea communications that tied Galicia to the rest of Europe. Richard Fletcher attests raids on the Galician coast in 844 and 858: "Alfonso III was sufficiently worried by the threat of Viking attack to establish fortified strong points near his coastline, as other rulers were doing elsewhere." In 861, a group of Vikings ransomed the king of Pamplona, whom they had captured the previous year, for 60,000 gold pieces.

Raiding continued for the next two centuries. In 968 Bishop Sisnando of Compostela was killed, the monastery of Curtis was sacked, and measures were ordered for the defence of the inland town of Lugo. After Tui was sacked early in the 11th century, its bishopric remained vacant for the next half-century. Ransom was a motive for abductions: Fletcher instances Amarelo Mestáliz, who was forced to raise money on the security of his land in order to ransom his daughters who had been captured by the Vikings in 1015. Bishop Cresconio of Compostela (ca. 1036 – 66) repulsed a Viking foray and built the fortress at "Torres do Oeste" (Council of Catoira) to protect Compostela from the Atlantic approaches. The city of Póvoa de Varzim in Northern Portugal, then a town, was settled by Vikings around the 9th century and its influence kept strong until very recently, mostly due to the practice of endogamy in the community.

In the Islamic south, the first navy of the Emirate was built after the humiliating Viking ascent of the Guadalquivir in 844 when they sacked Seville. Nevertheless, in 859, Danish pirates sailed through Gibraltar and raided the little Moroccan state of Nakur. The king's harem had to be ransomed back by the emir of Cordoba. These and other raids prompted a shipbuilding program at the dockyards of Seville. The Andalusian navy was thenceforth employed to patrol the Iberian coastline under the caliphs Abd al-Rahman III (912 – 61) and Al-Hakam II (961 – 76). By the next century, piracy from North Africans superseded Viking raids.

Eastern Europe

The Vikings settled coastal areas along the Baltic Sea, and along inland rivers in Russian territories such as Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and along major waterways to the Byzantine empire.

The Varangians or Varyags (Russian, Ukrainian: Варяги, Varyagi) sometimes referred to as Variagians were Scandinavians who migrated eastwards and southwards through what is now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries. Engaging in trade, colonization, piracy and mercenary activities, they roamed the river systems and portages of Gardariki, reaching and settling at the Caspian Sea and in Constantinople.

Exploration of the North Atlantic


to "Landnámabók", Iceland was discovered by Naddoddr, one of the first settlers on the Faroe Islands, who was sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands, but got lost and drifted to the east coast of Iceland. Naddoddr named the country "Snæland" (Snowland). Swedish sailor Garðar Svavarsson also accidentally drifted to the coast of Iceland. He discovered that the country was an island and named it "Garðarshólmi" (literally "Garðar's Islet") and stayed for the winter at Húsavík. The first Scandinavian who deliberately sailed to "Garðarshólmi" was Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki). Flóki settled for one winter at Barðaströnd. It was a cold winter, and when he spotted some drift ice in the fjords he gave the island its current name, "Ísland" (Iceland).

The first permanent settler in Iceland is usually considered to have been a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson. According to the story, he threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found in the southwestern peninsula, now known as Reykjanesskagi. There he settled with his family around 874, in a place he named Reykjavík (Bay of Smokes) due to the geothermal steam rising from the earth. It is recognized, however, that Ingólfur Arnarson may not have been the first one to settle permanently in Iceland — that may have been Náttfari, a slave of Garðar Svavarsson who stayed behind when his master returned to Scandinavia.


Two areas along Greenland's southwest coast were colonized by Norse settlers around 986. The land was at best. The settlers arrived during a warm phase, when short-season crops such as rye and barley could be grown. Sheep and hardy cattle were also raised for food, wool, and hides. Their main export was walrus ivory, which was traded for iron and other goods which could not be produced locally. Greenland became a dependency of the king of Norway in 1261. During the 13th century, the population may have reached as high as 5,000, divided between the two main settlements of "Eystribygð" (Eastern Settlement) and "Vestribygð" (Western Settlement). Greenland had several churches and a cathedral at Gardar. The Catholic diocese of Greenland was subject to the archdiocese of Nidaros. However, many bishops chose to exercise this office from afar. As the years wore on, the climate shifted (see little ice age). In 1379 the northernmost settlement was attacked by the Skrælings (Norse word for Inuit). [ [ History of Medieval Greenland] ] Crops failed and trade declined. The Greenland colony gradually faded away. By 1450 it had lost contact with Norway and Iceland and disappeared from all but a few Scandinavian legends. [ [ Why societies collapse] ]

North America

A Norwegian ship's captain named Bjarni Herjólfsson first came across a part of the North American continent ca. 985 when he was blown off course sailing to Greenland from Iceland. Subsequent expeditions from Greenland (some led by Leif Erikson) explored the areas to the west, seeking large timbers for building in particular (Greenland had only small trees and brush). Regular activity from Greenland extended to Ellesmere Island, Skraeling Island and Ruin Island for hunting and trading with Inuit groups. A short-lived seasonal settlement was established at L'Anse aux Meadows, located in the northern part of Newfoundland, Canada.

The Greenlanders called the new found territory "Vinland". It is unclear whether "Vinland" referred to in the traditionally thinking as Vínland ("wine-land") or more recently as Vinland (meadow- or pasture-land). In any case, without any "official" backing, attempts at colonization by the Norse proved failures. There were simply too many natives for the Greenlanders to conquer or withstand and they withdrew to Greenland.


Vikings may have discovered Svalbard as early as the 12th century. Traditional Norse accounts exist of a land known as "Svalbarð" - literally "cold shores". (But this land might also have been Jan Mayen, or a part of eastern Greenland.) The Dutchman Willem Barents made the first indisputable discovery of Svalbard in 1596.


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