Vikings! Fury from the North, Pt.2

Vikings! Fury from the North, Pt. 2 - Raids, Invasions, Longships, Vikings in Ireland & France

by Robert M Gunn©
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and ©Skye-Net, RM Gunn

Part Two

Chapter 2 – Viking Attacks, The Longship, Raids intensify, Invasions

Where did the Vikings attack?

While the Norwegians focused mostly on Britain: parts of England, Scotland and Ireland, the Danes initially began their raids on coastal cities such as Frisia (modern Netherlands) and the river ways of Francia. The Swedes, went east (Sweden faces east) and they naturally thrust across the Baltic and into the Steppes of Russia, following the rivers and lakes down the Volga and the Dnieper towards the great trading centers of Byzantium and Baghdad. A tribe of the Swedes, called the ‘Rus’, founded Kiev, Novgorod, and Smolensk, and their Viking leaders ruled them as princes. For a while, they even called their lands ‘Greater Sweden’, but Arab and Byzantine writers of the 9th century refer to them as they ‘Rus’, giving Russia its name. We shall return to the Rus and the eastern Vikings in a later chapter. For now, we shall look at the early viking raids in Britain and France.

[Viking sword] The first Viking raids were just that - raids. One country, which these raiders found so attractive, was a fertile and comparatively wealthy group of Islands (The British Isles and Ireland). At that time, most of Britain still lay under huge blanket of forest, where wild boar, wolves and bears roamed at will. The Anglo-Saxon chronicles describe the Arden (in mid-England) and Weald forests as 'great forests' that covered most of middle to south England. The Weald covered most of present day Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, being 30 miles broad and over 120 miles long! In this unspoiled wilderness, the occupants of Dark Age England enjoyed what was, by the standards of the day, a relatively prosperous lifestyle. There were few large towns, and most of the population lived in small villages or hamlets, which were centered upon the long house of the local lord. Arts and crafts flourished to a high standard, and the inhabitants of Britain, were noted for the quality and finery of their dress. Society at the time was, of course, strictly hierarchal. In England, the king of any one of the seven petty kingdoms, of which England and southern Scotland were composed at the beginning of the Viking Age, ruled absolutely - or as absolutely as his strength allowed - - for they were never long without challenges from other would-be kings. The numerous plots and power struggles of the seven kingdoms (the Heptarchy) generally resulted in an unpleasant end for one side or other. The Heptarchy in England and southern Scotland were an informal confederation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the fifth to the ninth century, consisting of Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia.

There was also an internecine war between Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the older Celtic ones, still holding out in the north and west (The Britons of Strathclyde - part of early Scotland - and Wales). The kings of the day, of course, were expected to lead their armies into battle personally. So, the attrition rate on rulers of the various Dark Age kingdoms was very high indeed.

It is not always possible to break down the various Viking groups into their component countries. But some attempt shall be made here to differentiate between them when possible.

The Norwegian Vikings

The white lines indicate routes of invasion taken to invade, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales
[Viking invasions routes of Britain and Ireland.] Using Orkney and Shetland as bases, the Norwegian Vikings, which from this point forward we shall call the Norse, expanded from raids to the initial stages of settlement in Ireland, North Scotland and the Scottish western Isles as far south as the Isle of Man and the English and Welsh coasts. From this time, the invasions and coastal settlements increased in violence and more important in scale. The raids or ‘Strandhogg’ relied greatly of the element of surprise. A few Drakkers, ‘Dragon ships’, would appear on the horizon and rapidly approach the shore. In the early raids, a small contingent or band of Hersirs -- middle ranking warrior class, since the kings, princes and Jarls (Earls) were not yet involved in Viking raids – would pour onto the beach and attack; often a monastery. The defenders were usually easily beaten back or killed, items from village houses, religious relics, silver, gold, jewels or other treasures seized, and the buildings were sometimes set ablaze. Before a serious defense could be mustered, by the local militias, if they had any, the Norse warriors would quickly regain their long boats (some always stayed with the ship), taking the loot, domestic animals (a major prize) and sometimes even the local women, but rarely able-bodied men, as slaves. Although there is evidence that the Vikings did take slaves, there is a misconception that the Vikings kept all the slaves that they took, and that is erroneous. This is not to suggest they didn’t keep slaves; men as manservants, women as sexual trophies or on rare occasions, sacrifices, but, the Vikings already came from an overcrowded land. The keeping of large numbers of slaves would have almost certainly caused more trouble than it was worth. However, there was money to be made in the sale of slaves to other cultures, and this they did. The women, especially if they were young and comely, weren’t sold into slavery but kept as servants and even wives.

In these early raiding years, there is only one account, out of scores of raids, of a successful resistance by a monastery to a Viking onslaught. The monastery of Monk Wearmouth managed with great difficulty and loss of life, to repulse such a raid.

Partly, at least, because of their success, the Vikings have gained something of a bad reputation as wantonly cruel, destructive pirates. Were they really more violent than their Christian contemporaries? In older texts, even as late as the 20th century, the Vikings were referred to as barbaric, heathen, plunderers and cruel murderers. However, in recent years, a better view of the Vikings has gained near worldwide acceptance. After all, the Vikings were victims of their own success as much as of very bad press from understandably angry villagers, monks and priests, who recorded the raids. Often their numbers were greatly exaggerated in chronicles and their violence and destruction given a bad ‘spin’ because of their paganism. As you shall read in future chapters, the Vikings quickly become important traders, builders of cities, and highly skilled craftsmen. In particular, their habit of plundering monasteries and holy places in those early years (where much gold and silver was stored) gave the prevailing impression that they were godless monsters.

Vikings attack a monastery
[vikings attacks monks at a monastery] However, these two views of the Vikings – the expert seamen, craftsmen versus the merciless murderer – are not irreconcilable. Most Scandinavians were relatively peaceful farmers, tradesmen and craftsmen whose own lives were rarely visited by violence. It was the middle warrior class who chose warfare as a profession – sometimes just a seasonal profession – who actually took part in the plundering expeditions that so terrified Christian Europe. These expeditions to go ‘a viking’ had warriors who used extreme violence to achieve their goals. Let us not forget ‘a viking’ was by definition, a dangerous and violent occupation.

By contrast, Francia, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were often engaged in wholesale slaughter of both their neighbors and of themselves in continual Dark Age warfare. Ireland was a land torn into petty kingdoms where one warlord or petty chieftain would sometimes commit barbarous acts upon his neighboring Irish for control of land and livestock. England was subdivided in seven small kingdoms constantly at war with each other. The Franks slaughtered 6,000 Saxons just to incorporate Saxon lands into Charlemagne’s Empire. And Scotland and Wales, separately, were embroiled in intertribal warfare. What this shows is that Christian Europe of the Dark Ages was by no means a truly ‘civilized’ place. As one writer of Viking history put it, “In an age of savage brutality, the Vikings were simply better brutes.”

The fear of the Norse invader must have made them seem ten feet tall and the sudden appearance of dragon ships were thought by many at the time to be God’s vengeance on a corrupt and violent Europe. Even powerful Byzantium and the sometimes-ruthless Muslim world, trembled at the approach of a Viking ship. The Vikings themselves, knew something of their reputation and used it to their advantage. They wrote proudly about themselves:

“The destroyer of the Scots fed the wolves. He trod on the eagles evening meal [of corpses]. The battle-crones flew over the bodies of the slain: the beaks of birds of prey were not free from blood. The wolf tore wounds and thus waves of blood surged against the raven’s beaks.” (Warlords and Holy men, London 1884).

This was written by a Norse bard known as a ‘skald’, named Egil Skallogrimsson about the warrior Eric Bloodaxe. It seems intended to give a terrifying idea of the northmen. We may shall also examine more of Egil’s saga at the end of the online book, time permitting.

The Viking Long Ship

“It was not believed that such a voyage was possible”, wrote the Chronicler, Alcuin about the Viking ships. Up to this time, ships were not designed for a squad of sailors who doubled as warriors in such sleek, fast and agile vessels. The longship could withstand the rough oceans and yet be flexible enough to sail down rivers of countries without being caught by standard galleys. It was the revolution in the Scandinavian shipbuilding, which made the Viking expansion possible.

A viking ship as seen from the front, or prow.
[viking longship - frontal view] During the second half of the 8th century, the first Viking longships began to be produced. These ships were designed purely for war and raiding. In terms of the technology of the day, they represented a huge leap forward in ship design. They were perfect craft for sea borne raiders. The old 'high sides' of previous ships were dispensed with in order to produce a low-sided, long ship, which drew very little water. Crucially, these craft were flat bottomed, which meant that although they could carry a comparatively large number of men, they did not need a harbor, and could be beached or landed almost anywhere with a minimum of ceremony. In consequence, these sleek craft could move with great speed and also travel long distance up river, allowing them to be used to attack undefended towns and villages, which in previous years, naturally, considered themselves safe from sea borne raiders.

The longships also allowed for an equally quick departure, if resistance proved to be too strong. As early as Roman times, Scandinavian ships had been noted for the fact that both sterns and bows were curved into a high, graceful shape. In the eighth century however, the familiar dragonhead figure had begun to appear on the prows of longships, thus giving them an opulent name, the ‘dragon ships’. It is not difficult to imagine the terror the sight of such ships brought to the Islanders.

[Viking longship at sea.] These terrible, beautiful ships were capable of being propelled by the wind in the single, square sail, or anything up 40 pairs of oars; the very large ships were supremely maneuverable and provided the Norsemen with the perfect means to begin their conquests. There is body of evidence to support the fact that the Vikings even used these ships to travel considerably beyond the confines of Europe, to Africa, Byzantium and even to America. These long sea journeys must have been extremely hazardous in what seem to be such frail craft. But modern reconstructions of Viking longships have completed most of all the voyages and one interesting fact was discovered: instead of breaking like a twig in the strong ocean waves and currents, the boats, due to their very construction and materials, actually bent when stressed instead of breaking!

Viking Raids Spread and Intensify

Initially, the western Vikings concentrated on Ireland, Scotland and the shores of Britain and the Low Countries, (modern Holland & Belgium), rarely venturing to deep into Francia because of the strong central rule of Charlemagne and his successors. But all of that changed when in 830 AD the Frankish Empire broke into civil war. The Vikings were keen observers of the politics of other countries and they knew when to exploit a situation. One might call the raids and incursions of the period, raids of opportunism. With the new disunity in Francia, the Norwegian and Danish Vikings entered a new and more ambitious phase which lasted until 865 AD. In order to adjust to the changing European political turmoil, the Vikings began building larger ships and fleets of ships. Starting at 30 ships representing a large fleet in 800 AD, they rose to fleets of over 100 ships within 50 years. They made improvements in the ships themselves too. Now they could carry horses, more equipment and had more storage for loot and slaves. They became bold with success and began sailing far inland along major rivers like the Rhine, Seine, Loire, and Shannon to sack major centers and towns, not just isolated villages and monasteries. They also ventured into Spain, Italy and Sicily and other areas in the Mediterranean, but with less success at this point in time.

One noted disaster for the Vikings were in the Arab lands where after a fierce battle many Vikings were captured. As punishment and to set an example, the Muslim Saracens (term as used in the early medieval period) hung the Viking prisoners upside down on a on crosses and gibbets disemboweling them, but leaving them alive long enough for the vulture and wild dogs to begin feeding on their entrails while still alive. The Vikings remembered this and would later take revenge, but for now, they understood the message and attempted to avoid these lands to the next twenty years. They did not forget.

The Norwegian Vikings Strike Ireland

In 839, a Norwegian fleet commanded by a Viking called Thorgisl (Turgeis) disembarked in the north of Ireland from their base in the Scottish Hebrides. Leading a large and well-equipped army, he conquered Ulster, founded the harbor stronghold of Dyflinn (Dublin) and had himself crowned there.

Vikings battle Irish near the shore (artist A. McBride)
[Vikings battle Irish] Contrary to popular myth, Vikings did not all work together. As Scandinavian nations began to form, different Vikings from the areas of Norway, Sweden and Denmark began to compete for the same areas and fight against each other. The situation is even more complex in the Scottish Isles and Ireland where some Celts banded together with them forming Celtic-Viking breeds more dreaded than the original Vikings. Although the Norse settled Dublin and many other Irish cities in the 840s, the Danish Vikings in their turn landed there circa 851 AD and the unpredictable Irish joined forces with them to expel the Norwegians. For a short time, this Hibernio-Viking alliance made them the masters of Ireland. But not to be outdone, the Norwegian leader Olaf (Amliabh) and his brother Ivar-Imhar did not leave the Danes or Irish in peace, and re-took all of the lands of the Danes and Irish in Ireland. This back and forth went on for some time often with one faction of Irish siding with the Danes, another with the Norse, as the two Viking powers battled it out for the possession of Ireland. Adding to the mix were the greatly feared Gall-Gael; a hearty mix of Scottish Islanders with Norse – from whom Somerled eventually sprang to become Lord of the Isles. They allied with the Norwegians (a natural alliance since they were now half Norse themselves) and helped defeat the Irish rebellions once again. The Danes and their Irish allies were eventually thrown out of Ireland, unable to resist the powerful Scoto-Norse alliance. It was an alliance that included the Hebrides, Caithness, Sutherland, Isle of Man, Orkney, Shetland parts of Ireland and a new addition – the west of England. It would be another 160 years before the Irish would be able to reclaim their lands; lands that now had prominent cities built by Norse traders. By that time, (we shall go into detail shortly) the Celtic civilization of the Irish had merged with Scandinavian Vikings, especially along the coastal towns. At the end of the 10th century, a great many Vikings had abandoned their pagan origins and decided to adopt Christianity, and Ireland as their new home. Much the same would happen in the Scottish Isles and in Sutherland and Caithness as well as England and France, later on.

The Swedes, meanwhile, dubbed the ‘Rus’ by Arab writers, settled Kiev and much of Eastern Europe and Russia. (Hence RUS-sia) They would also become fearsome mercenaries for powerful Byzantium known as the Varangians, and establish a fierce reputation for themselves in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The Early Vikings in Britain and France

Yet, as the story might now seem complete, it had really only begun. The raids became small to medium invasion forces and the Norwegians thirst for conquest was unquenchable. Soon their raids extended to the coasts of the English Channel and south to Portugal. In 843 AD, the Norse began plundering the town of Nantes in western France and established a bridgehead on the old Ile de Noirmoutier. The sailed up the Loire River as far as Tours and wrecked havoc on the on the whole of central France. In order to control the trade in salt, a most valuable spice and even more valuable trading commodity, the landed on the Ile de Groix in Celtic Brittany. By 884 AD, the Norwegians were ravaging Cadiz and Seville in Spain. In the 10th century, several Norse assaults were launched on Santiago de Compostela and on Lisbon, Portugal. Finds of Arab silver coins in Norway centuries later reveal that the Vikings (Norwegians) even went as far as North Africa.

It is during one of these raids that the Norse repaid a debt of cruelty to those that had gutted their forefathers as described earlier. It is from the Norse Sagas that we first hear of the “Blood Eagle” first being performed. Some writers doubt this cruel practice ever existed, but considering the barbaric times and the extreme debt of cruelty the Vikings felt they owed to the Muslims, it seems logical to this writer that this was indeed a true practice. A war band of Vikings captured some of the Muslim men whose fathers were responsible for the earlier tortures and disembowelment of Viking raiders. In full view of a contingent of Muslim horsemen, who dared not cross the river for fear of Viking ships, the Norse tied a dozen of the Muslim leaders to a crude wooden gibbet. Using sharp knives, they cut into the backs of the Muslims, pulling off their flesh to expose the lungs – letting their lungs flutter in the breeze and giving the gruesome appearance of wings flapping in the wind – until they were dead. This was the dreaded ‘Blood Eagle’ and it seems to have been only used in extreme cases: to make a point. From that point on the Muslims made it a point to kill every Northman they found, whether he was merely a craftsman or trader. The Norse retaliated again six years later, killing a whole village of Arab Muslims. It seems the Blood Eagle example was learned, but the Arabs did accomplish one thing: the Norse never attempted to settle in that area as they eventually did everywhere else they went, although, surprisingly, trade with them did flourish.

The rest of the Norwegian Viking story (aside from the battles in Britain we shall cover soon) is the amazing journey to Iceland and beyond – to the shores of North America. However, that is again getting ahead of ourselves.

The Early Danish Vikings

The Danes started out much like the Norwegian Vikings, making small raids that grew larger over time. But, of all of the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark had the most formalized armies and a king, although in the early years he was largely ignored. This governmental organization, loose as it was in the 9th century, gave the Danes ambitions of conquests of whole countries. Like the Norwegians, the Danes made small and sporadic raids on Francia, and larger ones on Ireland, avoiding the well defended areas of France. This all changed when the Frankish Empire plunged into civil war. With the Danish Vikings, it began at the end of the 8th century, a few years after the initial Norwegian raids. The Danes made repeated attacks from the Danevarke (the line of Fortifications erected by King Godfred). Those early assaults were directed at England, the east of the Carolingian Empire (Charlemagne’s Francia), and the Frisian islands in the North Sea (now part of the Netherlands). Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious, succeeded in repulsing them. As we alluded to earlier, the Vikings were opportunists. If the defenses of Francia (or Frankia) were too strong, they looked elsewhere and this is why they turned towards Ireland and England. They met resistance in Ireland from the Norwegian Vikings (the two fought quite often), and met strong resistance in Saxon England. But the coming Carolingian dynastic disputes opened the door for the Danes and ensured that for most of the mid to late 9th century, France was a focus of Danish Viking activity. When the Franks granted the fiefdom of Walcheven to a troublesome Viking leader in 841 AD, it set off a period of intermittent Viking rule in Frisia lasted until the 880s.

Thus begins the third phase of Viking activity. This phase (for Norwegians, Danes and Swedes) is characterized by both conquest and settlement with raiding taking a back seat. This third phase is a real transition and we shall soon examine the importance of it. But before it began in earnest, at least for the Danes, Francia was the weak link due to the civil unrest.

The Early Vikings in France

Ever the opportunists, the Danes shifted their focus to France when in 834, the important financial and commercial center Dovestad was sacked and after that, it seemed as if the Vikings might rule the world. A fleet of several hundred ships of various sizes, sometimes longships large enough for 125 men, horse and equipment reached the Elbe and the Danes ransacked Hamburg, Germany. In France, Rouen, Chartres, and Tours, (also attacked by the Norse) were attacked in turn. Charles the Bald, King of France since 843, tried various means to stem to blood flow of his country from the devastation. He built strong bulwarks, negotiated for peace, paid the Vikings a heavy tribute – the infamous Danegeld (Dane gold), a practice Europe would soon regret – and bought off some of the Danish chieftains, exhorting them to turn against their countrymen. As England would soon find out, the Danegeld only fueled Viking desires for easy riches.

If we are to put the Viking Age European countries on order of wealth, Francia had more gold and silver than most of the emerging European nations. Next would be England. Therefore, logically, the Danes accelerated forays into both countries in the 870s. But their main focus was still France for now. By 878, neither military nor diplomatic maneuvers succeeded in protecting the Frankish kingdoms. The Danes completely overran the country and advanced up the Seine as far as Paris. When the payment of Danegeld wasn’t forthcoming, the Vikings began taking Frankish nobles hostage and then ransoming them back to the France! The French refused the next tribute so the Vikings, accounts say some 30,000 of them, attacked Paris, which was barely defended by 200-300 French knights. After devastating Rouen during that summer, the Danes reached Paris in November, 885. Charles the Fat, Charlemagne’s heir, was away fighting in Italy as the 200 or so French knight and their men-at-arms (about 3,000) defended the city under the orders of the bishop of Paris. But this small, brave band could not put down the Viking fleet, as the Danes fired volleys of fire-arrows into the city with their large army at the ready. The city of old Paris was reduced to ashes in one evening. A French chronicler said “The Northmen come at us in waves using their shield walls to protect themselves from our archers. We cannot harm them as they turned the sky to a fiery copper [color].” After a remarkable resistance, the Vikings were forced to lay a siege for a whole year. A wooden bridge on the south side to the city gave way as the Vikings flooded the Seine. This allowed the Danes to break through and plunder the rich lands between the Rivers’ Seine and Loire. Just when the fortifications were about to fail the French, Charles finally arrived to lift the siege in 886. But instead of defeating the Viking host, he promised them huge sum of silver and allowed them to press up on the Seine to Burgundy. One year later Charles the Fat was deposed, and in 888 AD, what was left of Charlemagne’s great Empire was divided into small kingdoms. Finally, a leader with the necessary qualities, Count Odo, was installed as the leader of the West Franks. The situation began to level out, and one suspects the Vikings, after spending all this time in one place, were just as content to take French gold and silver, than to continue the siege. Soon, the Franks began to refortify all their positions and if the Danes were to attempt to take the entire city, it would be at great cost. Since they were being paid to cease their attacks, they grew restless and their attention was drawn to a weakened England.

Norman cavalry - something these former Vikings learned from the French

But before we leave France, there is one very important story to relate. Because of the repeated harrying of the French kingdoms, the Vikings were able to establish themselves all along the lower reaches of the Seine. By now their leader was one Hrolf (or Rollo as became known in French), and he and Charles the Simple now the French King, signed the Treaty of St. Clair-sur-Epte, by which Rollo received Normandy. The Terms were that he had to defend this sensitive coastal area from other Viking attacks, pay homage to the king of France (in theory). Hrolf accepted this offer and made himself leader of Normandy (land of the North men). Remember this place and this name for it will play a pivotal role in the future of Britain and Europe when these same Norsemen adopt French war tactics and become - the Normans.

Next, in part 3 (and conclusion - for now) of "Vikings! Fury from the North":
Vikings invade England and Scotland

  • Part 3 -'Vikings invade England and Scotland',

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