The Vikings were Scandinavians who roamed freely across Europe from their first raids in the 790s until 1066. The Normans were descended from Danish Vikings led by Hrolfr Rollo Ragnvaldsson who was granted the Duchy of Normandy in 911 by Charles III of France. Likewise, King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England who was killed during the Norman invasion in 1066, was descended from Danish Vikings. Many of the mediaeval kings of Norway and Denmark were married to English and Scottish royalty and Viking forces were often a factor in dynastic disputes prior to 1066.


As early as 700, Denmark was ruled by a stronger royal power than had existed before; a king named Angantyr Heidreksson (Ongendus) can probably be linked to Ribe where a regulated seasonal trading centre was established just after 700. In c700, the Merovingian domination crumbled and the outlying provinces of the Frankish empire gained their independence. This paved the way for a Danish display of power in the southern parts of the North Sea area with Saxony and Friesland, and Ribe became Denmark’s first international trading centre. When Charlemagne and the Carolingians attempted to re-establish the power of the Franks around 800, it resulted in clashes with the Danes under Godefrid; he would neither relinquish his power in Friesland and amongst the Abodrites, nor renounce the tributary income which he had obtained during the weakness of the Merovingians.[2]

In c900, a dynasty returned from Sweden and seized power in Denmark. Harald Bluetooth (Harald I) claims on his runic stone in Jelling to have conquered all of Denmark. Denmark probably only covered the Danish territory east of the Great Belt, and Harald must therefore have added to the Jutland kingdom he inherited from his father, Gorm the Old. There was a great deal of building activity throughout the Viking Age around Denmark, pointing to a central power capable of organising the resources of the country for a common purpose. Many examples are from Harald II Bluetooth's time. New additions were made to the Dannevirke ramparts, the fortresses of the Trelleborg type, the Ravning Enge bridge and the Jelling complex, and it is possible that Hedeby, Ribe and Århus were all fortified during Harald's reign.

In order to complete these projects, the population must have been put under an obligation to work, but there is very little evidence concerning the organisation of society. There is not likely to have been any strict military organisation of the type which emerged during the subsequent wars. The most important basis for the royal power was probably its control over the chieftains who held the real power on a local level. The royal housecarls would have been the de-facto instrument of power.

Knud (Canute) the Holy (Knud IV) attempted to extend the royal powers considerably by instituting new royal rights, and by suggesting that public administration of justice should replace the private one. His demands for fixed contributions towards the military seem to have cost him his life.

The area acquired by Denmark during the Viking Age lasted more or less during the Middle Ages. Of all the Scandinavian countries, Denmark had the largest population living in the smallest area. Southern Norway was considered part of the Danish kingdom, and the Danish influence in Norway was so strong that Norwegian chieftains only managed to gain control of larger parts of Norway during Danish periods of weakness.

The Viking expeditions which, from c800, made the Scandinavians known and feared in large parts of Europe, varied from war between states to interference in each other’s affairs and coastal raids. The expeditions were previously thought to have been connected with mass emigration from Scandinavia, but it is now believed that the armies numbered in the hundreds rather than in the thousands and that they were primarily interested in pillage, even though a number of them ended up settling in Sicily, England, and Normandy.

From c830, internal strife in the Frankish empire allowed Danish chieftains, who were often exiled members of the Danish royal family, to demand tributes from the Franks; others chose to fight alongside the Franks against other Vikings, or to take part in their internal battles. The Viking raids culminated in the 880s with a prolonged siege of Paris. A number of chieftains were granted fiefs near the mouths of rivers in exchange for preventing other Vikings from gaining access to the waterways. Only a single fief, Normandy, was to last.

England and Ireland were regularly visited by Vikings from around 800. To begin with, they simply pillaged the area and disappeared again, but in time they stayed through the winter and took part in local conflicts as political parties, not least in Ireland. In England, a Viking army managed to conquer three of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms 865-880, and the Danes settled here for good. Place names point to a strong Danish influence in North and East England, even though the Danes in large parts of the area came under English kings before 920.  Renewed Viking raids on England towards the end of the 10th century finally allowed the Danish kings to conquer the country. Sveyn Forkbeard (Sveyn I) began to demand tributes shortly after he became king of Denmark. He was quickly joined by other Viking chieftains from both Denmark, Norway and Sweden. He died in 1014 shortly after having conquered England, but Knútr Sveynsen the Great reconquered the country in 1016. He became king of England, Denmark and Norway and even managed to gain some control in Sweden, but never managed to establish a lasting empire.


The period from 800–1066 is referred to in Norwegian history as the Viking age. During this period, Norwegians, as well as Swedes and Danes, traveled abroad on longships, as raiders, explorers, settlers and traders. Viking raids affected large parts of Europe. The Norwegian Vikings mainly traveled west, to the Britain and Ireland. Emigrants from Norway colonized Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. From Iceland, Greenland was also colonized, and voyages were even made to North America, where remains of Viking dwellings have been found in Newfoundland.

Several historic works, known as the kings' sagas were written in Norway and Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries, the best known of which is the Icelandic Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (c1220). These provide a partly legendary source for the early history of Norway. The period of the Viking age coincides with the first consolidation of a single Norwegian kingdom. By the 700s, Norway was divided into several petty kingdoms. It is also assumed that Danish rulers often held sway in the Oslofjord-area.

King Harald Fairhair unified Norway into one kingdom. According to the sagas, he ruled Norway from approximately 872 to 930. Modern historians assume that his rule was limited to the coastal areas of southern Norway. Kings of Norway until King Olav IV, who died in 1387, claimed descent from Harald Fairhair. After Harald's death Norway was ruled under the suzerainty of Denmark. During this period, Christianity was introduced to Norway, probably mainly from Britain. The first Norwegian king to have adopted Christianity was, according to the sagas, Harald Fairhair's son, King Håkon I, called the Good (c934–961. Håkon did not force his subjects to accept the new religion. His successors, Óláfr I Tryggvesson (c995–1000), and Óláfr II Haraldsson St (St Óláv (1015–1028) resorted to forceful means to convert the Norwegian people. Óláfr II Haraldsson was probably the first King of Norway to have ruled more or less the whole of the present-day country. After Óláv's death, Norway was ruled from Denmark, as part of the "North Sea Empire" of King Knútr Sveynsen the Great. However, Knútr was the last Danish king to rule Norway for more than three centuries, and in 1035, Óláv's son, Magnus I Óláfrsson took the throne. His successor, King Harald III Hardråde attempted the invasion of England in 1066, but was beaten and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which is considered the end of the Viking Age.

By the middle of the 11th century, the Norwegian kingdom was firmly established, although there was still only a very rudimentary administrative framework. The establishment of cities gathered pace, and by the end of the 11th century, the three largest cities of modern-day Norway, Oslo, Trondheim (Nidaros) and Bergen (Bjorgvin) were flourishing, as well as Tønsberg, the most important city in Eastern Norway until c1300. King Olaf Kyrre (1067–1093) was the first Norwegian king to be literate. The Church gradually developed its organization, and the archdiocese of Nidaros was established in 1152 or 1153. By that time, there were five dioceses in mainland Norway, with bishops in Nidaros, Bjorgvin, Stavanger, Oslo and Hamar. The islands of the North Sea, which had been colonized from Norway, were also part of the archdiocese of Nidaros. Orkney, Shetland and the Faeroe Islands were subject to the Norwegian king. The Hebrides and the Isle of Man were made subject to Norway by King Magnus Barefoot c1100. The rulers of these islands held the title of "king" themselves, but recognised the suzerainty of the Norwegian king. The extent to which the Norwegian king was able to exercise his rule over all of these islands was highly variable, and dependent on the individual kings.

According to the succession practices of the time, all sons of the king had the same right to inherit their father, and this also included illegitimate sons. This led to periods when there were several kings at the same time, several times three, on one occasion even four. The division of the kingdom does not appear to have been geographical, when there were more than one king, all were kings of the whole country, but they divided the royal income. The unclear succession laws, and the frequent divisions of the kingdom, combined with social and economic conflicts, were some of the main causes of the civil war era, the name given to the period between 1130 and 1240. The civil wars started with the disputed succession after King Sigurd the Crusader, who died in 1130, and flared up at shorter or longer intervals for over a century. In the 1160s, the Church got involved, and made King Magnus Erlingsson the first Norwegian king to be crowned, in 1163/1164. The first written succession law was written at this time, stipulating one king, who had to be of legitimate birth. However, this law never came into force, as King Magnus was defeated and killed by Sverre Sigurdsson, who became King Sverre. Sverre was excommunicated by the Church, and the country was placed under an interdict. Although constantly challenged by various pretenders, Sverre fended off his rivals, and when he died in 1202, he was the first King of Norway to have died of natural causes since 1130. By this time, the warring factions had coalesced into two groups: The birchlegs, King Sverre's party, and the bagler, who were supported by the Church, and tried to place descendants of King Magnus Erlingsson on the throne. From 1208 to 1217, the country was divided between these two factions by a peace treaty. In 1217, the kings of both factions died, and both accepted the young King Haakon Haakonsson as king. Haakon defeated the last royal pretender in 1240, thus ending the civil war era.

The extent to which the civil wars adversely affected the general population at the time has been debated by recent historians. What is clear is that the country came out of the civil wars in 1240 as a much more unified and consolidated kingdom than it had been in 1130. The rule of King Haakon and his successors until 1319 has sometimes been called the golden age of the Norwegian medieval kingdom, by later historians. Under King Haakon Haakonsson, a centralised administration was for the first time built up, with a chancellery in Bergen, which became the first capital city of the country. Clear succession laws were put into place, stipulating one single ruler, who had to be of legitimate birth. The Old Norse language, which had first been written with the Latin alphabet in the 12th century, was used in administration, as well as for the composition of original literature, and the translation of foreign literature. Haakon also brought Iceland and Greenland under Norwegian rule, in the early 1260s, at which point the kingdom of Norway reached its largest territorial extent. Haakon died in 1266 while on campaign against Scotland, defending his claim to the overlordship of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. His successor, King Magnus the Lawmender gave up that claim in the treaty of Perth, but secured Scotland's recognition of Norwegian rule over Orkney. King Magnus promulgated the first national law-code for all of Norway in 1274, a rare thing in Europe at that time. During the late 13th century, the Norwegian kings attempted to play the part of a great power in international politics, forging wedding alliances with Castile in 1258, and Scotland in 1281. King Eirik II was one of the many claimants for the throne of Scotland in the "Great Cause", claiming succession from his daughter, Margaret. In 1295, he forged an alliance with France and Scotland against England, whereby Norway undertook to supply the King of France with 300 ships and 50 000 troops. It is clear that Norway could not have the manpower to fulfil the terms of this treaty, however, it was never put to the test.

In 1299, King Haakon V took the throne, and moved the capital of the country to Oslo. Haakon led an active foreign policy, aimed at increasing Norway's influence in Scandinavia. These policies, which included complex dynastic ties between the Nordic royal houses, were to lead Norway into several centuries of unions with her neighbours. At his death, Haakon left no male issue, and the throne went to his daughter's son, the King of Sweden, Magnus Eriksson. The union with Sweden was only a personal union, and it was agreed that Magnus' two sons would inherit one kingdom each. King Magnus abdicated, and his son, Haakon, became King of Norway. However, Haakon, who married Margrethe, the daughter of the Danish king, also vied for the throne of Sweden. Haakon and Margrethe's son, Olaf, became King of Denmark in 1376. On his father's death in 1380, Olaf also succeeded to the Norwegian throne, as King Olav IV.


During the Early Iron Age (500 BC–400 AD), the period of the great migrations (400–550) and the Vendel period (550–800) – so named because of the magnificent boat graves foundat Vendel in the province of Uppland –the population of Sweden became a settle done and agriculture came to form the basis for the economy and for society.[4]

The Viking Age, 800–1050, was characterized by a marked expansion, which in the case of Sweden was mainly directed eastward. Many Viking expeditions set off from Sweden with the mixed purpose of plunder and trade along the coasts of the Baltic Sea and the rivers which stretched deep into present-day Russia, where Swedish Vikings established trading stations and short-lived principalities, like that of Rurik at Novgorod. The Vikings active in the east traveled as far as the Black and Caspian Seas, where they developed trading links with the Byzantine Empire and the Arab dominions. At the same time, Christianity first reached Sweden with the mission of Ansgar, who visited the country from the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century. However, it was not until the eleventh century that Sweden was Christianized. Even then the old pagan Nordic religion survived until far into the twelfth century, and Sweden did not obtain an archbishop of its own until 1164. Sweden’s expansion in the east continued during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries through the incorporation of Finland into the Swedish kingdom after several crusades.

The various provinces of Sweden, which had previously been independent entities, were absorbed around 1000 into a single unit whose center of gravity lay partly in Västergötland and Östergötland and partly in the provinces around Lake Mälaren, especially Uppland. From the middle of the twelfth century onward there was an intensive struggle for temporal power in this kingdom between the Sverker and Erik families, which held the crown alternately between 1160 and 1250. However, during this period the main administrative units were still the provinces, each of which had its own assembly (ting), lawmen and laws. It was first during the latter part of the thirteenth century that the crown gained a greater measure of influence and was able, with the introduction of royal castles and provincial administration, to assert the authority of the central government and to impose laws and ordinances valid for the whole kingdom. In 1280 King Magnus Ladulås (1275–90) issued a statute which involved the establishment of a temporal nobility and the organization of society on the feudal model. A council containing representatives of the aristocracy and the church was set up to advise the king. In 1350, during the reign of Magnus Eriksson (1319–64), the various provincial law codes were superseded by a law code that was valid for the whole country.

A foundation date of the nation Sweden cannot be determined with any degree of certainty, since it evolved from a warfare center of power, Svea Rike, centered in old Uppsala, which might have had many increases and decreases in power and influence. The existence of such a power is stated already by Tacitus (see Suiones), around AD 100. The neighboring areas of West and East Geats probably also played a very important historical role in defining the nation. About 1000, the first certain king over Svea and Göta Riken is documented to be Olof Skötkonung, but the further history is obscure with kings whose periods of regency and actual power is unclear. In the 12th century, Sweden was still consolidating with the dynastic struggles between the Erik and Sverker clans, which finally ended when a third clan married into the Erik clan and founded the Folkunga dynasty on the throne. This dynasty gradually consolidated a pre-Kalmar-Union Sweden to an actual nation, which essentially fell apart after the Black Death.

The conversion from pre-Christian beliefs to Christianity was a complex, gradual, and at times possibly violent (see Temple at Uppsala) process. The main early source of religious influence was England due to interactions between Scandinavians and Saxons in the Danelaw, and Irish missionary monks. The German influence was less obvious in the beginning (despite an early missionary attempt by Ansgar), but gradually emerged as the dominant religious force in the area (especially after the Norman conquest of England). Despite the close relations between Swedish and Russian aristocracy (see also Rus'), there is no direct evidence of Orthodox influence, possibly because of language barriers.

This consolidated state of Sweden already included Finland presumably from an early crusade into the area of Tavastland in central current day Finland.

After the Black Death and internal power struggles in Sweden, Queen Margaret I of Denmark united the Nordic countries in the Kalmar Union in 1397, with the approval of the Swedish nobility. Continual tension of economic nature within the countries and within the union gradually led to open conflict between the Swedes and the Danes in the 15th century, however. The union's final disintegration in the early 16th century brought on a long-lived rivalry between Denmark on one side and Sweden on the other.


Viking Expansion


Generally speaking, the Norwegians expanded to the north and west to places such as Ireland, Iceland and Greenland; the Danes to England and France, settling in the Danelaw (northern England) and Normandy; and the Swedes to the east. These nations, although distinct, were similar in culture and language. The names of Scandinavian kings are known only for the later part of the Viking Age, and only after the end of the Viking Age did the separate kingdoms acquire a distinct identity as nations, which went hand in hand with their Christianization. Thus the end of the Viking Age for the Scandinavians also marks the start of their relatively brief Middle Ages.[3]

From 839, Varangian mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine Empire, notably Harald Hardrada, campaigned in North Africa, Jerusalem, and other places in the Middle East. Important trading ports during the period include Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, Jorvik, Staraya Ladoga, Novgorod and Kiev.

There is archaeological evidence that Vikings reached the city of Baghdad, the center of the Islamic Empire.[6] The Norse regularly plied the Volga with their trade goods: furs, tusks, seal fat for boat sealant and slaves. However, they were far less successful in establishing settlements in the Middle East, due to the more centralized Islamic power.

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.

Viking Ships



The Vikings were daring masters of the sea. Their wooden, clinker-built (of overlapping planks) longships were fast and were equipped with both sails and oars. Their shallow draught enabled the Viking raids on European coastal monasteries and settlements. The remains of Viking ships have been found at Oseberg and Gokstad in Norway, and Skuldelev in Denmark. Measurements show they were c17.5m and 36m in length. They were steered by an oar on the starboard side. The ships are estimated to have been able to maintain 10-11 knots and more in short bursts. Crews of 25 to 60 men were seated on benches on open decks, and the largest ships could carry 100 men. Packhorses and supplies could also be carried and some ships had wider beams.

Fearsome figureheads were displayed at either end, presumably to give notice of warlike intent. Since the men were often pirate raiders their shields were mounted along the sides for defence and display. Raids in single ships were quite frequent and, before around 850, fleets rarely comprised more than 100 ships. Larger fleets of 200 and upwards were recorded later.

Actual sea-battles were rare, and even then were fought close to shore. Ships were roped together in lines to face an enemy fleet and showers of arrows and missiles would have been exchanged. Each side then resorted to hand-to-hand fighting as they attempted to board their opponents' ships. The warriors in the prow were specially selected for this task. The aim was not to destroy enemy ships, but to capture them if possible, as ships represented a considerable investment.

Battles Tactics

The Vikings had no professional standing army, and tactics and discipline seem to have been fairly rudimentary. They did not fight in regular formations, although the bonds of loyalty between men and their lords would have given their armies some cohesion. Weapons training began in youth in hunting, sports and raiding. Aspiring warriors sought armed service in the retinues of the famous, for which they hoped to be rewarded with weapons and fame of their own. A leader therefore needed to wage war frequently in order to keep his following and maintain power against rivals.

'The famous "berserks" ...would work themselves into a battle frenzy so intense it is said ...they could even ignore the pain of wounds.'

In preparation for battle the younger warriors would draw up in line, with their shields overlapping in a 'shield-wall' for better protection; their chiefs were well defended by a close bodyguard. The older veterans formed up in support behind them. Battle then began by throwing a spear over the enemy line to dedicate them to Odin, it is said, and this was followed by a shower of spears, arrows and other missiles.

If this was not enough to decide the outcome, each side then attempted to break through and rout the opposition, capturing or killing their leaders if possible. The experienced commander knew that the best way to achieve this was by forming a wedge of 20 to 30 warriors, with its point towards the enemy line in what was known as the svinfylking, or 'boar formation', and then charge, hoping to break through by sheer weight of numbers.

The famous 'berserks', whose name suggests they wore bearskins, may have fought in groups, and believed that Odin, the god of war, gave them both protection and superhuman powers so they had no need of armour. They would work themselves into a battle frenzy so intense it is said they bit on the edges of their shields, and could even ignore the pain of wounds.


1          Adapted from Viking at,, and BBC articles by Barry Ager, "Viking Weapons and Warfare" at ,; and "Viking Weapons and Warfare" at,

2          Adapted from Denmark,History at,

3          Adapted from History of Norway at,

4          Adapted from The history of Sweden at,; and History of Sweden at,

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