THE VIKINGS (a brief history )

The Norsemen lived in Denmark and other colder lands of Norway and Sweden. Their own name for themselves was Vikings.     They took to the sea in the 700’s seeking wealth through piracy, coastal raiding and trading. Expert at ship-building, they became the most daring seamen Europe had ever known. Viking Longships penetrated the seas and waterways of Europe and pioneered the route to North America.

Viking voyages were seasonal. At home, they planted crops in the spring before beginning their expeditions, and returning in summer to harvest them.       Then they put to sea again, to return in winter before the sea became too dangerous. Ashore, they processed the salt, tar and fish, made tools and weapons.

The Vikings built their long, shallow ships, sometimes as long as 100 metres, but typically 20 metres in length by five metres in width.       These carried about 90men. Oarsmen rowed the ships until they were out at sea, when they hoisted a single square sail. Using a steering oar (the early form of a rudder) they boldly set course to destinations mostly unknown to earlier seamen.

At sea, the Vikings were unbeatable, but they avoided battles on land, landing instead in force at lonely points to steal harvest, plunder rich monasteries, and seize monks and nuns as slaves. They struck silently and speedily after hiding their boats and those who survived their raids often starved to death.

The Vikings gained an evil reputation for needlessly killing, burning and destroying, but with more experience on land they proved highly adaptable to different circumstances. If they landed where horses were to be found, they soon learned to ride them skilfully.       Becoming bolder, they attacked and captured walled towns, improved their fortifications, then used them as a base from which to found permanent settlements. Once settled they prepared to repel the next wave of Vikings.

The Danes and the Swedes

The main Danish attacks were made against England and the Franks, and their efforts led to the complete but temporary conquest of England.       In the Frankish empire they pursued more limited       aims, but their conquest of Normandy was permanent.       The Danes also attacked the Muslims in Spain and Morocco, and raided along the Mediterranean coasts.

Swedish Vikings traded and plundered along the inland waters of Germany, but their reputation was never as bad as that of the Danes.       As fierce merchant-warriors called the Varangians they settled the coastlands and lakesides of the Baltic Sea and Finland, and a group of them called the Rus daringly penetrated the rivers of the vast land, which was later to be called Russian after them.

The Slav people of Novgorod on the Volkov River are said to have invited the Rus leader, Rurik, to rule their city, hoping that his strong presence would bring peace and stability. Rurik founded a dynasty there in 862, which lasted over 500 years.       His successor, Oleg, moved the Russian capital to Kiev in about 873. Other Varangians sailed on to reach the Black sea and the Bosphorous, raiding Constantinople in the 900s, until the Byzantine emperor bought the off, employing some to serve him as his Varangian Guard.

The Norwegians

Norwegian Vikings first seized and settled in the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetlands and Faeroe islands. Their influence extended in Ireland, where they founded Dublin in 840 and held it until the Irish King Brian Boru defeated them in 1014.       But the most daring Viking exploits were the Norwegian voyages to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. Leif Ericsson led his north American landing about 1003 and his settlement probably lasted about 12 years before being abandoned by the Norwegians.       Several Icelandic sagas describe these courageous explorations into the icy north.

Before 1000, the Vikings had ceased to raid their neighbours and established stable kingdoms in Denmark, Sweden and Norway and permanent settlements in Iceland and Greenland. Elsewhere they integrated with the local peoples. Even the Normans evolved into the French and English, becoming staunch upholders of Roman Christianity.