A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS AND THEIR DAILY LIFE
By Tim Lambert
A HISTORY OF THE VIKINGS
The ancestors of the Vikings traded with the Romans. They exported furs, skins, walrus ivory and amber. After the fall of Rome the Scandinavian peoples slowly grew more united. The first towns were formed. Meanwhile they started using sails. Before the mid-7th century Scandinavian ships were rowed but once they began using sails they could make the long voyage across the North Sea - with devastating results for the people who lived further south.
At the end of the 8th century Scandinavians began raiding other parts of Europe. Then, in the 9th and 10th centuries they turned to conquest. These new raiders and invaders were known as Northmen, Norsemen or Vikings. The Vikings plundered monasteries of gold and jewels. They also took livestock and kidnapped children to be slaves. However although they terrorized Europe the Vikings were also great traders and craftsmen.
The Vikings In Scotland
In 795 the Vikings raided the monastery at Iona - the first of many such raids on Scotland. During the 9th century they settled the Shetlands, the Orkneys and the Hebrides. Vikings also settled in Caithness and Sutherland. They called the latter region Suder land (Southern land) and so they gave that part of Scotland its name. However Scandinavian power in Scotland waned in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1202 the Vikings lost all their land in Caithness and Sutherland. Then in 1263 the Scots crushed the Norwegians at the battle of Largs. Subsequently by the Treaty of Perth (1266) the Norwegians surrendered all their territory in Scotland apart from the Orkneys and the Shetlands in return for a large sum of money.
The Vikings in Ireland
The Vikings first attacked Ireland in 795. They looted monasteries. They also took women and children as slaves. However the Vikings were not only raiders. They were also traders and craftsmen. In the 9th century they founded Ireland's first towns, Dublin, Wexford, Cork and Limerick. They also gave Ireland its name, a combination of the Gaelic word Eire and the Viking word land. In time the Vikings settled down. They intermarried with the Irish and accepted Christianity.
Around 940 the great High King Brian Boru was born. At that time the Danes had conquered much of the kingdom of Munster. Brian defeated them in several battles. In 968 he recaptured Cashel, the capital of Munster. After 976 Brian was king of Munster and in 1002 he became the High King of Ireland. However in 1014 Leinster, the people of Dublin and the Danes joined forces against him. Brian fought and defeated them at the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, although he was killed himself. This victory ended the Viking threat to Ireland.
The Vikings In England
In 787 three Danish ships landed at Dorset. A royal official called a reeve went to meet them. He assumed the strangers had come to trade. Instead they killed him and sailed away. Then in 793 when Norsemen raided a monastery at Lindisfarne. There followed a respite until 835 when the Danes descended on the Isle of Sheppey.
However although the Viking raiders were fearsome they were not invincible. In 836 the Danes joined forces with the Celts of Cornwall. However they were defeated by Egbert, king of Wessex, at Hingston Down.
Nevertheless the Danes continued raiding England. In 840 a force of Saxons from Hampshire crushed a Danish force at Southampton. However the same year Saxons from Dorset were defeated by the Danes at Portland. In 841 the Danes ravaged Kent, East Anglia and what is now Lincolnshire. In 842 they sacked Southampton. Further Viking raids occurred in 843 and 845. In the latter year the Saxons defeated the Danes in a battle at the mouth of the River Parrett in Somerset.
Then in 850-51 the Vikings spent the winter of the Isle of Thanet. In the spring they attacked the Mercians and defeated them in battle. However they were later defeated by an army from Wessex. In 854 another Danish force wintered on the Isle of Sheppey before raiding England. There then followed a relatively peaceful period in which the Vikings raided England only once.
The Viking Invasion of England
However the Danes eventually stopped raiding and turned to conquest. In the autumn of 865 an army of Danes landed in East Anglia. In the following year, 866, they captured York. The Northumbrians attacked the Vikings occupying York in 867 but they were defeated. The Danes then installed a man named Egbert as puppet ruler of Northumbria.
The Danes then marched south and they spent the winter of 867 in Nottingham. In 869 they marched to Thetford in East Anglia. In the spring of 870 they crushed an army of East Anglians. The Danes were now in control of Northumbria, part of Mercia and East Anglia. They then turned their attention of Wessex. At the end of 870 they captured Reading. The men of Wessex won a victory at Ashdown. However the Danes then won two battles, at Basing and at an unidentified location.
Then in the spring of 871 Alfred became king of Wessex. He became known as Alfred the Great. The Saxons and the Danes fought several battles during 871 but the Danes were unable to break Saxon resistance so they made a peace treaty and the Danes turned their attention to the other parts of England. In 873 they attacked the unoccupied part of Mercia. The Mercian king fled and was replaced by a puppet ruler. Afterwards Wessex remained the only independent Saxon kingdom.
In 875 a Danish army invaded Wessex again. However they were unable to conquer Wessex so in 877 they withdrew to Gloucester. In 878 they launched a surprise attack on Chippenham. King Alfred was forced to flee and hide in the marshes of Athelney. Alfred fought a guerrilla war for some months then took on the Danes in battle. The Danes were routed at the battle of Edington. Afterwards Guthrum, the Danish leader, and his men were baptized and made a treaty with Alfred. They split southern and central England between them. Guthrum took London, East Anglia and all the territory east of the old Roman road, Watling Street. Later this Danish kingdom became known as the Danelaw. Alfred took the land west of Watling street and southern England. However in 886 Alfred's men captured London.
The Danes Return
Moreover the wars with the Danes were not over. In 892 some Danes who had been attacking France turned their attention to Kent. In 893 the Saxons defeated them and they withdrew into Essex (part of the Danelaw). Meanwhile in 893 another group of Danes sailed to Devon and laid siege to Exeter. They withdrew in 894. They sailed to Sussex and landed near Chichester. This time the local Saxons marched out and utterly defeated them in battle. War with the Danes continued in 895-896. Danes from the Danelaw marched into what is now Shropshire but they were forced to withdraw. There then followed a few years of peace.
Then in 980 the Danes returned. They attacked The Isle of Thanet, Southampton and Cheshire. In 981 they raided Devon and Cornwall and in 983 they attacked Dorset. The Danes continued to raid England. They returned in 991, 992, 993 and 994. In 997 a Danish army came and systematically raided southern England over a period of 3 years. The Danes sailed to Normandy in 1001 but they returned to England in 1002. In 1003 they raided the southwest and in 1004 they plundered East Anglia. In 1006 they raided southeast England. In 1009-1012 they ravaged eastern England.
The Saxons paid the Danes to stop raiding and return home. However the amount the Danes demanded increased each time. In 991 they were paid 10,000 pounds to go home. In 1002 they were paid 24,000 pounds in 1007 they were paid 36,000 pounds. England was drained of its resources by paying these huge sums of money called Danegeld (Dane gold). England finally gained peace in 1016 when a Dane called Canute became king.
The Vikings in Central Europe
The Vikings also raided what is now the Netherlands, Germany and France. In 845 Vikings attacked Hamburg. The same year Vikings besieged Paris and the French king paid them 7,000 pounds of silver to leave. In 885 the Vikings besieged Paris again. This time the French king arrived with a relief army and drove them away. Finally in 911 the French king made a treaty with a Viking leader called Hrolf (or Rollo). He gave Hrolf what is now Normandy as a Dukedom. In return Hrolf became a Christian and protected France from further Viking attacks. In 1066 his descendants conquered England.
The Vikings In Eastern Europe
In the 9th century Swedish Vikings sailed from the Baltic Sea along rivers into Russia and the Ukraine and settled there. The Slaves called the Vikings Rus and they gave their name to Russia. From Russia the Vikings sailed into the Black Sea and they attacked the Byzantine Empire.
The Vikings in Southern Europe
In 844 the Vikings attacked Spain and Portugal. (At that time the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by Muslims). They sacked Lisbon, Cadiz and Medina Sidonia then captured Seville. However the Muslims counterattacked and defeated them. The survivors fled. The Vikings carried out further raids on Spain and Portugal but the Muslims fought back effectively.
The Vikings in Iceland
The first people to settle in Iceland were probably Irish monks who came in the 8th century. However in the 9th century they were driven out by Vikings.
According to tradition the first Viking to discover Iceland was a man named Naddodd who got lost while on his way to the Faroes. Following him a Swede named Gardar Svavarsson circumnavigated Iceland about 860. However the first Viking attempt to settle was by a Norwegian named Floki Vilgerdarson. He landed in the northwest but a severe winter killed his domestic animals and he sailed back to Norway. However he gave the land its name. He called it Iceland. Then in the late 9th century many settlers came to Iceland from Norway and the Viking colonies in the British Isles. A Norwegian named Ingolfur Arnarson led them. He sailed with his family, slaves and animals.
When he sighted Iceland Ingolfur dedicated his wooden posts to his gods then threw them overboard. He vowed to settle at the place where the sea washed them up. He then explored Iceland. When the posts were found in the southwest Ingolfur and his household settled there. He called the place Reykjavik, meaning Smokey bay. Many other Vikings followed him to Iceland.
The land was free to whoever wanted it. A man could claim as much land as he could light fires around in one day while a woman could claim as much land as she could lead a heifer round in one day. There were very good fishing grounds around Iceland and the land was well suited to sheep. Many Vikings brought flocks with them and soon sheep became a major Icelandic industry. The population of Iceland soared. By about 930 there were about 60,000 people living in Iceland.
In 985 Erik the Red led a group of colonists to Greenland. Then in 986 a Viking called Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course by a storm and he spotted a new land. However he sailed away without landing. In 1001 a man named Leif Eriksson landed in the new land, which he named Vinland (it was part of North America). However Eriksson did not stay permanently. Later the Vikings did establish a colony in North America but they abandoned it because of conflict with the natives.
VIKINGS EVERYDAY LIFE
Upper class Vikings were called Jarls (from which we derive our word Earl). Below them were a class of farmers and craftsmen called Karls. At the bottom of the heap were a class of slaves called thralls. Slavery was common in the world at that time. It was accepted as an inevitable part of life. The Vikings captured women and children on their raids and made them slaves. They were sold in markets and they had no rights. Slaves did the hardest and most unpleasant work.
Viking Merchants and Craftsmen
Viking merchants imported glass and silk from the Byzantine Empire. They also imported spices, fine wool and wine. They exported slaves, furs, beeswax, honey and walrus ivory. Viking craftsmen included blacksmiths, bronze smiths, coopers, leather tanners, saddlers, shoemakers and other men who made leather goods like purses and belts. They also had jewelers and men who carved bowls from soapstone. Other craftsmen carved bone and antler into goods like combs.
The Vikings also had their own form of writing. The Viking alphabet was called the futhark and the 16 individual letters were called runes. They were made of straight and diagonal lines, which were carved into wood or stone. (In the late Viking era people wrote on sheep or calf skin.
Vikings wore iron helmets. Some of them also wore chainmail. They also carried round wooden shields. They fought with spears, bows, axes and swords. In battle Vikings stood in rows and formed a wall of shields called a skjaldborg.
The Vikings grew wheat, barley and rye. They made bread and porridge. Sometimes they added peas to the porridge to make it go further. They also ate cabbages, onions and leeks and they used herbs like dill and coriander. The Vikings grew apples and plums and they gathered wild berries.
Fish was an important part of the Viking diet and they ate cod and herring. They also raised pigs, cattle, sheep and goats. (Sheep and goats were used for milk). Vikings also kept geese and chickens. However the Vikings could not grow enough food to keep much livestock through the winter. So in autumn they killed many animals and salted or smoked the meat to preserve it.
The Vikings were fond of pork and beef but they also ate horse meat and goat meat and they hunted deer for venison. The Vikings also hunted whales and seals. Meat was roasted on a spit. Vikings women also boiled food in an iron cauldron. Vikings drank mead (a drink made from honey, water and yeast), beer and (if they could afford it) wine. The Vikings ate from wooden bowls and dishes. Spoons were made of horn or (for the well off) metal. The Vikings also ate with knives but there were no forks. They often drank from hollow horns called drinking horns.
A history of food
A Viking house often consisted of just one room. (Although in a well off family mum and dad might have a separate bedroom). The house was usually made with a wooden frame, which was filled in with timber planks or wattle and daub (wickerwork and plaster). However in areas where wood was scarce (like Greenland) stone was used for building and roofs might be made of turf. In a Viking house there were no panes of glass so windows had to be small. At night wooden shutters covered them. Viking houses were dark because the windows were small and the only light came from oil lamps carved from soapstone. In the center of the hut was a hearth where the cooking was done. However there was no chimney.
Viking homes had little furniture. In the hut there would be a table and stools but chairs were a luxury. Chests were used to store tools and clothes. Only wealthy Vikings could afford beds. Most people slept on benches with rugs around the side of the hut. Even if you had a bed the mattress was not very comfortable, it was stuffed with straw or down. Blankets were made of wool otherwise you used furs. Rich people might have tapestries on the walls but there were no carpets on the floors. Instead people spread rushes on them. To us Viking houses would seem very uncomfortable. They were cold and draughty, dark and smoky. Furniture was hard and uncomfortable.
Viking women spun and wove cloth at home and made the families clothes. Women wore a dress like garment called a shift made of linen or wool. Over it they wore a dress open at the sides, held with shoulder straps. In cold weather they wore cloaks or shawls. Clothing was held in place by brooches. Viking women often had their hair plaited or held under a head scarf.
Viking men wore trouser like garments and linen shirts and tunics. They usually wore beards. Both sexes wore jewelery.
A history of clothes
The Vikings enjoyed many sports including swimming, wrestling, skiing and ice-skating. They also practiced archery. Vikings also enjoyed hunting and falconry. They were also fond of horse fighting.
Indoors they played dice and a board games called Hnefatafl. They also played chess. Vikings also played a game similar to backgammon called Kvatrutafl and an early form of draughts. The Vikings were also fond of listening to stories and telling riddles. Rich Vikings held great feasts. At them poets called skalds sang poems praising their lord's brave deeds. Viking musical instruments included harps, horns and wooden pipes.
A history of games
The Vikings built long and slender ships called longboats for raiding. Longboats could be up to 23 metres long. For trade they built shorter and broader ships called knorrs. The Vikings also built a type of little rowing boat with 4 oars called a faering and a boat with 6 oars called a sexaering, which were used for fishing. Viking ships were clinker built i.e. they were made with overlapping planks. They had a single square sail and up to 50 oars.
On land in summer goods were transported by pack horse or cart but in Viking lands in winter sledges were used. People rode horses or walked in summer but in winter they used skis or skates made from bone. Viking roads were just dirt tracks but in towns they were paved with wooden planks. In alleys panels of wattle (a kind of wickerwork) were laid down to keep your feet out of the mud.
A Timeline of the Vikings
A History of Denmark
A History of Norway
A History of Iceland
A History of Greenland
A History of Saxon England
Last revised 2019