Viking Raids and Norman Conquests (8th to 11th Centuries)

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Viking Raids and Norman Conquests (8th to 11th Centuries)

Major Figures


Among the most famous and successful of the Frankish kings, Charlemagne (742–814) took what the previous line in power had accomplished and expanded it to cover the entirety of western Europe. In addition to this expanded kingdom, he established a historic alliance between king and pope that became the pattern for European leadership for centuries to come. He also oversaw what became the Carolingian Renaissance, a flowering of literacy, art, and scholarship in the name of Christian education and the fostering of learning through his empire.

Background and Early Life

Charlemagne was a scion of one of the leading families of a nation called the Franks. (Franks were one of many tribes that invaded what were former Roman territories and eventually conquered what today lies roughly in the boundaries of France.) He was born in 742 under the rule of the Merovingians, a line established by Clovis three hundred years earlier. The Merovingians had allowed dilution of their power, placing it in the hands of palace officials called majordomos, and Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel (known as “The Hammer”), was one of these “mayors of the palace.”

Martel’s son, Pepin III, obtained the pope’s blessing to remove a Merovingian king from power. The pope was interested in the more material assistance Pepin could offer in the form of a defense of Italy against the Lombards. He gave Pepin the go-ahead, and Pepin III promptly took the throne and shifted the dynastic ruling house from the Merovingian line to the Carolingian line in 751. Charlemagne was his son.

As a boy, Charlemagne—who would become renowned for overseeing an intellectual enlightenment under his rule—was illiterate, and he may never have become completely literate, even as an adult. As a ruler in training, he did, however, learn to hunt and ride and fight in battle, all relevant attainments for a future Frankish king. He was nine when Pepin III took the throne, and Charlemagne and his brother Carloman were raised together as joint successors of the Frankish kingdom. Dividing the kingdom in this way followed Merovingian precedent.

Charlemagne Becomes Sole King

Charlemagne was a giant among the men of his time at 6 feet 4 inches. He was known for his piercing blue eyes and his devout Christian piety. This prince stepped into his father’s shoes at the age of 26 when Pepin died. At first, he shared those shoes with Carloman, but the younger brother died after three years, and Charlemagne was left as the sole ruler of the Franks.

Building an Empire

Charlemagne’s extensive training in war came in handy during the early part of his reign, which he spent fighting the Germanic tribe of the Saxons in the northern part of the kingdom and the Lombards in northern Italy. Although Charlemagne was known as a loving father—he had his son Pepin crowned king of Italy in 781—and a man interested in the welfare of his people, he also possessed the requisite brutality of a medieval ruler. In his continued campaign against the pagan Saxons, he quashed a rebellion in 781 and made an example of the rebel Germans by having five thousand of them beheaded. Having made his point with the Saxons, he went on to gain control over all of Italy by 786.

After conquering these lands and converting any pagans among the people to Christianity (“some under duress”), he turned to Muslim Spain. However, Charlemagne found defeat there in 778 in a campaign that eventually became immortalized in the “Song of Roland” in the twelfth century. The losses in Spain notwithstanding, Charlemagne usually won his battles, and he continued his military exploits through thirty years of his reign. At one point his empire stretched over much of Western Europe.

A skillful general, Charlemagne proved himself to be an elegant and masterful organizer of recruits and supplies as well. The people he conquered were converted to Christianity as a means to assimilation into Frankish culture, and it was quite effective. He reinforced his defenses at the edges of his vast kingdom by creating military zones, known as marches, where armies garrisoned to defend the borders.

Establishing a Functional Bureaucracy

Charlemagne’s techniques of organizing the governance of his diverse and far-flung kingdom also proved quite successful. He had four hundred counties and two hundred dioceses to oversee, and to achieve appropriate supervision, he relied on institutions the Merovingians had put in place, just as his father had relied on their custom of heritable co-rulership. Using the existing framework of counts and bishops at the local level, Charlemagne governed as head of a central body of decision makers called the palatium. This entourage executed a variety of duties from their central position, including oversight of armies, managing royal resources, diplomacy, policy decision making, and, in an example of the joining of church and state under Charlemagne, ecclesiastical and religious responsibilities. The king kept everyone in line and communicating by using competent people chosen from the same small group of families, all aristocrats who wanted to hang on and maintain their powers under this powerful leader. Charlemagne also relied heavily on vassalage, in which local leaders swore fealty to their overlord, promising faithfulness and loyalty in exchange for material benefits.

A Semi-Illiterate King with a Fascination for Scholarship

This martial king also had a strong interest in the expansion of scholarship and the religious well being of his people. The Carolingian Renaissance took root in the 780s, just as the Frankish king was brutally slaughtering Saxons and taking over Italy, and it continued to flourish to its peak even after his death. Charlemagne made his court a kind of salon, bringing to it scholars from all over Europe. One of these was Alcuin, the commentator on the Viking invasion of Lindisfarne and a scholar convinced that the Vikings were the physical manifestation of God’s wrath at the immorality of the times. In addition to his reactionary thinking, however, Alcuin also led the drive for a renewal of Latin studies and a revival of the kind of education applied at the peak of Greek and Roman civilization.

Counselors and scholars like Alcuin deliberately worked with the king to produce sweeping reforms in religious practices and institutions in his realm. They sought papal guidance in their quest to refine and define what was orthodox and what was not, and to establish a hierarchy of governance and better training for the clergy on the ground in villages and towns. These pursuits in their turn led to an explosion of Christian scholarship, all focused at Charlemagne’s court and emphasizing his personal and deliberate conviction that a ruler should be both a king and a priest to his people, a king “by the grace of God.” The use of the papal brain trust to achieve his reforms ensured a strong and continued foothold for Roman Catholicism in western Europe.

Charlemagne’s palace became a school for the young men who would work in the king’s government. It also became the site of a scriptorium, a place where monks copied (by hand) textbooks and other tomes of interest. This form of production was necessary in an age before the invention of the printing press, and thanks to these efforts, ninety percent of ancient Roman texts remain preserved in the form of copies from these Carolingian monks. In addition to this valuable contribution, the monks also used a form of text—Carolingian Miniscule, known today as Times New Roman—that was easily readable and included the novelties of italics and lowercase lettering.

Partnering with the Pope

His interest in scholarship was admirable, but Charlemagne’s place in history is as the prototype Holy Roman Emperor. He achieved his status by reaching out the hand of rulership to Pope Leo III. This pope had taken refuge in Charlemagne’s court, where he hid from Roman mobs trying to kill him for being rather un-pope-like in his behavior. Charlemagne saw this as a good opportunity to unite the church and state, and after restoring Leo to power, he saw the favor returned when Leo III crowned him “Emperor of the Romans” on Christmas Day in 800, by the grace of God.

A Great Ruler Dies, an Empire Left Divided

Charlemagne ruled for fourteen years following his coronation, living to see even the skeptical and threatened Byzantine emperors recognize his imperial crown in 813. Although he intended to divide his empire among his three sons, by the time of his death only one son, Louis the Pious, survived him and received the imperial crown. In January 814, Charlemagne took an ill-advised bath in a mineral spring. A fever overcame him, and he died a week later. His empire soon split among the sons of Louis the Pious, with his descendents ruling France only until 887.

Charles the Bald

Charles the Bald (823–877), also known as Charles II of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, was a grandson of Charlemagne and King of West Frankia. During his 54 years, he saw much of his grandfather’s work destroyed, finding that the empire he ruled was too large and too diverse to manage. Even his efforts to unite the Franks against the Vikings failed, and at his death, part of the empire had fallen under the Moorish threat. His family embroilments reflected the culture clash within the empire, forming a confusing and shifting network of loyalties and betrayals.

The Treaty of Verdun

Charles the Bald’s best-known act is probably the signing of the Treaty of Verdun in 843. This treaty between Charles and his relatives established the rough boundaries of what would eventually become modern France and Germany. The treaty also had the unintended consequence of setting the stage for a territorial dispute that persisted for centuries. In actuality, the Treaty of Verdun was less a resolution of issues on a national scale than a way for relatives to settle a family dispute. The settlement was temporary, with the terms of the treaty being kept for only 26 years.

Family Complications Before Birth

How Charles the Bald made it to the Treaty of Verdun is a story that begins with his father, Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. Louis the Pious succeeded his father as king of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, and when he ascended to the Frankish throne in 814, he had three sons, Lothair, Pepin (also known as Pippin), and Louis (later to be Louis the German). In what could have been a prototype of the King Lear story, Louis the Pious attempted to satisfy his sons by conferring Bavaria on Lothair and Aquitaine on Pepin. Louis the German received nothing in this initial partitioning of the empire’s lands.

Then, in 817, a change of heart or agenda led Louis the Pious to make Lothair a co-emperor. Louis the German earned his sobriquet by becoming King of Bavaria in Lothair’s place, and Pepin added Gascony, Toulouse, and some of Burgundy to his already resource-rich lands of Aquitaine. Louis the Pious attempted to arrange the relationships so that Lothair would inherit the empire and his brothers would be as vassals, leading their own kingdoms but consulting with their brother about all major decisions, such as waging war or getting married.

A Nephew Punished

One would expect the two brothers to rebel against such a construct, but oddly, the rebellion came from another quarter. Their cousin and the nephew of Louis the Pious, Bernard, King of Italy, found this distribution of land threatening; he tried to revolt against his uncle in 833, crossing the Alps in his failed effort. Louis the Pious punished his errant nephew by having him blinded, but Bernard died days later, leaving Louis so repentant that he felt compelled to undergo public penance and confession, an ill-advised display of weakness. This public humiliation put the emperor in the power of church officials who supported Bernard. These ecclesiastics had their eyes open for any opportunity and shifted the sands of their loyalty to whichever of Louis the Pious’s sons appeared to have the upper hand.

Charles the Bald is Born to Judith

As though these arrangements were not complex enough, Louis the Pious took a second wife after his first wife died and sired another son, Charles the Bald. This wife, Judith, gave birth to Charles in 823. By 829, Louis the Pious had designated part of Lothair’s inheritance to this new son and had dispatched the unhappy Lothair to Italy. From this time, the charters ceased to refer to Lothair as co-emperor, and the stage was set for a struggle among the factions supporting the oldest three sons and those who supported Judith and Charles. A civil war ensued that lasted until Louis the Pious breathed his last in 840.

The Strasbourg Oaths

Finally, in 843, sick of war, the feuding family achieved some peace with the Treaty of Verdun. In a clear reminder of the deep cultural differences of the empire that extended even into the family, Louis the German and Charles the Bald each swore their oaths, known as the Strasbourg Oaths, in the language of the other, a sampling of emergent German and French, respectively.

Vikings Invade

His internecine feuds with his family settled for the time being, Charles the Bald had no time to relax. By 850, Vikings were making their way up the Meuse, Seine, and Loire rivers, and no one was safe from their raids. They focused particularly on towns and villages along the Seine from 856 to 862, seizing Paris and pillaging Bayeux. Charles the Bald attempted to halt this onslaught by gathering his forces to build fortified bridges along the river, but to accomplish even this, he had to hire hundreds of laborers from elsewhere in the kingdom and the project was not even completed until 873. This effort at national unity and defense was a failure, and any successful defense against the Vikings in Frankish territories happened more at the grassroots level.

The Vikings focused particularly on religious houses, which they knew were essentially undefended repositories of treasure. Monks fled with sacred relics, and communities, in an effort to stop the onslaught, ransomed themselves in payments known as danegeld. Yet even these heavy fees were only a temporary respite; the Vikings would simply move on to a neighboring village and eventually return to the ransomed community, presumably concluding that the time they had bought had run out.

Charles the Bald paid ransoms in this way, forking over four thousand pounds of silver and some wine to Viking raiders in 866 to end a siege at Melun. As was usual, this payment sent the Vikings away from the Seine temporarily, but they eventually returned to besiege Paris itself in 886 until yet another payment of danegeld shifted their focus to Burgundy.

Vikings on One Hand, a Recalcitrant Nephew on the Other

Charles the Bald also had to deal with his misbehaving nephew Pepin II in Aquitaine, who did not sufficiently attend to his fealty duties to his uncle. Charles tried to take Aquitaine from Pepin II, attempting to imprison his nephew in 855. This gambit failed utterly and left an opening for Louis the German to send his sons into Aquitaine and take it for themselves. Charles the Bald captured Pepin II a second time, the nephew meeting some unknown end, but the Frankish king never had the satisfaction of controlling Aquitaine as he wished.

Disloyal Nobles, a Scholarly Court

His family and Norse raiders were not his only plagues. Charles also had to attend to the multitude of nobles whose loyalty shifted variously from him to one of the many factions that rose around his fractured family relations. His problems handling the Viking raids did nothing to boost his popularity, but nevertheless, Charles the Bald also presided over a court that was a center of scholarship and culture, attracting some of the Western world’s most distinguished scholars.

Finally, Holy Roman Emperor

Charles the Bald did not officially receive the imperial crown until 75 years to the day after the coronation of his grandfather Charlemagne. Charles was crowned on Christmas Day in 875 in Italy, but lived only just over a year as Holy Roman Emperor. As if the Viking raids, family feuds, civil war, and disloyal nobles were not crosses enough for Charles the Bald to bear, during his time in Italy he also had to contend with the threat of attack from Muslims. Not surprisingly, he opted to leave Italy in 877, traveling dispiritedly to his own kingdom, which was at the time under attack by Germans. On his way, he died, to be succeeded by his son, the unpromisingly named Louis the Stammerer.


When it comes to figures of legend, scholars have a difficult time sorting fact from fiction, especially when chroniclers with agendas are doing the writing. Ragnar, or Ragnar Lodbrok, has been described as a Scandinavian king, variously of Sweden or Denmark, who battled Charlemagne. He may have been a pirate who dropped dead at the feet of the king of Denmark after mocking French courage, or he may have been a man who died in a pit of vipers, paralyzed by their venom. Bits and pieces of the lives of men who may have been named Ragnar surface at various times from the seventh to the ninth centuries, and these pieces, conflated with the several famous literary sagas built around a Ragnar figure, make describing the real man—or even identifying his real name—a mystery remaining to be solved.

The Ragnar Literary Tradition

Ragnar is the focus of several sagas, including the twelfth-century Gesta Danorum, penned by Saxo Grammaticus. The author describes Ragnar’s capture by the Anglo-Saxons, who allegedly tossed the Viking warrior into a snake pit to die. The legend continues that Ragnar had three sons who invaded with their Vikings in East Anglia in 865 in revenge for Ragnar’s murder.

The exploits of Ragnar are widely celebrated in many other Scandinavian verse and prose stories. A kind of Viking or Scandinavian King Arthur, Ragnar was probably a real man whose life grew into legend enhanced with the standard trappings of the epic hero. Some of the embroidery includes tales that a second wife, Aslaug, was the offspring of a dragonslayer and Brunhilde, one of the Valkyries. One of his sons, Ivar the Boneless, is a prominent figure of terror in Irish and English storytelling, not least because Ivar (also Inwaer) led terror raids in Britain, allegedly in revenge for his father’s death at Anglo-Saxon hands.

Ragnar at Paris

There also is a genuine historic figure named Ragnar who was a Viking captain. This Ragnar sailed at the head of a fleet of 120 longships that traveled up the Seine River to Paris. Encountering Charles the Bald’s troops mustered on both sides of the river, the brutal Ragnar apparently was unimpressed and expressed his feeling by hanging more than 100 Frankish soldiers on one bank while their comrades watched from across the water, horrified. The result was an en masse desertion from the Frankish army, and Charles the Bald had to pay several thousand pounds in danegeld (ransom money) to rid himself of Ragnar’s flotilla. Before Ragnar and his men departed, however, they sacked the Abbey of Saint-Germain.

This piratical Ragnar took his tale of success back to Denmark in 845 to report to King Horik that he had discovered the Franks to be rich and cowardly. Legend has it that just as Ragnar derided the Franks for lacking bravery, he dropped to the ground, swelled up, burst, and died. Some others of the Ragnar contingent also fell ill, and Horik was so disturbed by this evidence of the wrath of the Christian God that he actually returned the looted treasures to St-Germain and had the troops who had accompanied Ragnar killed.

Ragnar and the Anglo Saxons

That tale of Ragnar the Viking’s explosive death conflicts with stories of a Ragnar of the same period who terrorized the Anglo Saxons until he was put to death by his archenemy, Aelle, ruler of York. As paralysis from the snake venom gradually overcame him, this Ragnar is supposed to have said, “How the little pigs will grunt when they hear how the old boar has died.” This final utterance refers to his sons (the little pigs), who later are credited with attacking the British in revenge for their father’s death. The revenge was horrific. Ivar and his brothers captured Aelle and killed him by their rite of the blood eagle. This torturous death involved creating an image of an eagle by slicing open the victim’s backbone, breaking open the ribcage, and throwing the victim’s lungs over his shoulders. The resulting macabre, bloody image was supposed to resemble an eagle in flight and recall the sacred bird of Odin, chief of the Viking gods.

Historical Disagreement

Most historical sources consider much of the story of Ragnar to be legend. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes him as father of Halfdan, Ivar the Boneless, and Hubba (Ubbe). The Gesta Danorum makes him a Danish king who battled the Holy Roman Emperor. Some historians and literary critics assert that the hero Ragnar is a melding of two actual historical figures: Reginheri, the Viking leader who sacked Paris in 845, and Lodrok, who first appears in eleventh century chronicles and about whom little is known. At least one scholar has suggested that the two names did not even occur together until twelfth century sources. Yet other scholars believe that Lodbrok is simply a nickname for Ragnar, meaning “Shaggy Breeches.” Some believe that the men considered to be sons of Ragnar may have been born to a mother named Lodbroka. Other scholars are skeptical of these associations, and no one has been able to establish for a fact that the Viking known as Reginheri did indeed sire the men thought to have been Ragnar’s sons.

The Hero and the Dragon

The Gesta Danorum contains entertaining, if suspect, information about Ragnar the legend, including a tale of a worm belonging to one Thora, daughter of Count Herothus. Thora raises the worm from an egg that she places in a box on top of some gold. The worm grows bigger than its box, and the amount of gold increases, too. Eventually, the worm becomes a dragon, eating an ox a day. Herothus promises his daughter and the gold to anyone who can kill the beast; Ragnar takes on the task, succeeds, and wins Thora and the wealth. Thus, Ragnar not only fought Charlemagne, burst to death in Denmark, and died in a snake pit, he also killed a dragon, as any good European figure of myth should.

Chroniclers with Agendas

There has even been some conflation of English and Scandinavian elements of Ragnar’s story. For example, things that King Aelle of Northumbria did have been attributed to Ragnar, the man whom Aelle murdered by snake pit. A story of the rape of a neighboring nobleman’s wife, once attributed to King Aelle, was added to Ragnar’s biography in English versions. With these conflicting agendas of chroniclers and poets playing fast and loose with the facts about who did what and who was who, it’s no wonder that pinning down who Ragnar actually was is difficult. Even tales that Ragnar’s sons attacked England out of vengeance for their father’s death may have been manufactured after the fact by Anglo-Scandinavian chroniclers anxious to lessen the impression of Viking bloodthirstiness.

Alfred the Great

An Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred (848/849–899) became the only English monarch to receive the appellation “the Great.” His greatness was not that of size or impressive intellect, but of foresight and charisma that brought together his people into the first unified kingdom of Great Britain.

Alfred’s Early Life

Alfred was born in Berkshire, Wessex (in the west of England) to Ethelwulf, the king of Wessex. He was one of five brothers, and as an Anglo-Saxon prince he made his pilgrimage to Rome in 853 for his baptism by Pope Leo IV in 853. While he was in Rome, on this visit and another in 855, he left impressed with the culture and learnedness of its courts. Even though Alfred did not learn to read until he was a teenager and did not read Latin until later life, he emphasized learning and knowledge for his people, efforts that helped position Great Britain as an important player on the European stage.

This great king suffered illness throughout his life, but his afflictions did not stop him from becoming the wily challenger to the marauding Danes that invaded his kingdom after conquering all of the other English monarchies. Britain, in Alfred’s minority, was what some historians have called a heptarchy, a loosely organized grouping of the kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, and Kent. The Angles, Jutes, and Saxons had crossed the sea to Britain after the Romans departed the isles in the fifth century. They conquered the native peoples, dividing up the kingdoms with the Saxons ruling Wessex, Essex, and Sussex in the south, the Jutes settling in Kent and the Isle of Wight, and the Angles taking the rest. Anglo-Saxon came to be the catchall word to describe all of these tribes of England.

Vikings Harass the Kingdom

Three of Ethelwulf’s sons—Ethelbald, Ethelbert, and Ethelred (not the Unready of fame)—all died trying to protect their kingdom from Viking raids. The Vikings—or Danes, as the Anglo-Saxons called them—had already captured almost all of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and Wessex was the only surviving holdout. Ivar the Boneless, the Viking terror of the British Isles, and his brother Halfdan crushed every attempt of the Saxon armies to challenge them. East Anglia saw Danes wintering in their countryside in 865, and by 867, Northumbria, weakened by civil war, fell. Mercia was their next target, and the Mercians turned to Wessex for help. Brothers Alfred and Ethelred (who was now King) attempted to help but could not penetrate the walls of the Mercian city of Nottingham, where the Danes had taken up position. Unable to help, the West Saxons returned home, and the Mercian king gave up Nottingham to the Vikings. Ivar murdered East Anglian’s king, Edmund, in 870 in the terrible blood eagle ritual, and that same year, Halfdan made his move on Wessex.

The Battle of Ashdown

Following a valiant but failed effort to defeat the Vikings at Reading, Ethelred and Alfred found themselves with a weakened army battling the Danes at Ashdown on January 8, 871. Attempting to match the Danish army’s split into two divisions, Ethelred also split his forces into two units. But when January 8 dawned and the Vikings mustered for battle and bellowed for blood, Ethelred was sitting in his tent, unaware and praying. Alfred, seeing that the Danes were not in the mood to wait for the somewhat-unready Ethelred, got his men together and charged the powerful and larger Viking army. In spite of the imbalance between the forces and the fact that Ethelred only belatedly hurried from his tent and called for his sword, the Saxon forces finally pushed the Danes into retreat.

Bribes for a Temporary Peace

After distinguishing himself at Ashdown, however, Alfred suffered a series of losses, both in battle and in his personal life. His brother King Ethelred died in 871, leaving his throne to the twenty-one-year-old Alfred, who was understandably conflicted about taking over a kingdom whose Christianity was threatened, whose monastic centers of learning had been destroyed, and whose lands were under constant bloody threat from a relentless and merciless invading force. The Wessex army lost a series of battles to the Danes, who had received reinforcements from Europe, and Alfred finally offered the Danes a large payoff to turn their eyes away from his lands. The Danes obliged, promptly setting sword to Mercia, but as Alfred knew and experience had shown, the Vikings would be back.

Alfred quietly began gathering forces and rebuilding his towns, but before he could finish, some Danes began stealing into Wessex, followed by fresh reinforcements. Alfred was forced again to pay them off, this time in exchange for their oaths that they would never return. The Vikings kept their promise for about a year and then, under the command of a new Danish leader, Guthrum, they were back in Alfred’s lands by 878. Guthrum chased Alfred and his forces around Wessex, basing his Danish army at Chippenham and forcing Alfred eventually to hide himself and his few remaining men in the marshes of Somerset.

Alfred at Edington

Hunkered down in the marshes and for the moment out of sight and out of mind of the Danes, Alfred again quietly began contacting and uniting his supporters throughout the region, occasionally leading quick raids on the Danish forces. Finally, gathering his fighters together, Alfred and his army converged in 878 at Edington. There, Alfred and his men fought a fierce battle and turned the Danes fleeing to Chippenham, where Alfred besieged them for two weeks. Finally, Guthrum gave up, converted to Christianity, and struck a treaty with Alfred leaving the Danes in charge of the Danelaw, a large part of north and east England that would remain essentially Scandinavian for the next two centuries.

A King with Foresight and a Belief in the Importance of Knowledge

Although Alfred the Great had to contend with more Viking troubles (including resistance from an Anglo-Saxon puppet king who did not want to give up London to him), he managed to turn his thoughts to other issues of importance to his country. One of the things that made Alfred great was his recognition that infrastructure needed boosting. He began a systematic fortification of towns and bridges, simultaneously expanding his rule until his kingdom roughly matched the modern-day borders of Great Britain. His fortified towns made it safe for traders to travel again, which encouraged commerce, and his work in London of creating new streets, markets, and wharves brought renewed life to the beleaguered city. Alfred also addressed his concerns that Christianity was fading among his people, a disturbing trend for this pious king who was baptized by the pope himself.

The Vikings, through their destruction of the monasteries, had also destroyed much of what Christians relied on to educate themselves and support their religion. As priests died and relics disappeared, Christianity faded with them. Alfred sought to remedy this loss through more rebuilding projects and through supporting monasteries again as centers of learning. He is even rumored, or mythologized, as having established Britain’s first university at Oxford.

A Great Medieval Ruler

Part of the truth of Alfred’s life is that he, like any other successful monarch in the Middle Ages, could be a brutal and unpredictable man. No medieval king could have survived and ruled as successfully as Alfred did without these traits. However, his wiliness in defeating the Danes, his statesmanship in holding out the hand of peace and allowing the establishment of the Danelaw, and his lasting contributions to Britain’s rebuilding, unification, and laws, are the qualities that made him truly great. Alfred the Great died in 899, having ruled his united people for almost thirty years.

Count Odo

Odo (860–898), also called Eudes, was born to Robert the Strong, a count of Anjou. Odo’s miltary victories against the Vikings eventually earned him a kingship, but he was never able to fully unite the fractured domain he had inherited.

Odo, Count of Paris, vs. the Vikings

He was one of the highest-ranking noblemen in West Francia when the Vikings attacked Paris with a flotilla of boats and thousands of men in 885. The Viking fleet Odo faced was the largest ever to make its way up the Seine, with up to forty thousand warriors bent on death and destruction. They found Odo garrisoned on the Ile de la Cite, the island that lies in the heart of the Seine, the river that runs through what is now the metropolis of Paris. In Odo’s time, the Ile was Paris, and he and his men guarded the two bridges that linked the island to the mainland on each bank of the river.

An Offer Refused

When they arrived, the Vikings demanded payment in exchange for leaving the Franks alone, but Odo declined. Incensed, the Vikings hauled out literally every weapon they had; they even invented some new tactics, including piling up the corpses of animals and people in the river to try to fill in the moat that kept them from Odo’s men. The siege dragged on for a year, with sporadic Viking attempts to breach the Frankish defenses. Nothing worked until a flood raised the water high enough to wash out the wooden bridge on one of the river’s banks. The Vikings, relieved at being able to leave the site of the siege and travel upriver to continue their depredations, headed off, leaving some of their number behind to maintain the siege.

Joscelin, Bishop of Paris and Comrade in Arms

Odo spent the time with several of the Frankish nobility and well born at his side. Among them was Joscelin (also given as Goslin or Gauzlinus), abbot of Saint-Germain and ultimately Bishop of Paris. It was common in this age for men of the cloth also to be men of war and take up arms in defense against the Nordic invaders. Joscelin was no exception, and for many of Odo’s men, he was a source of morale-boosting faith and drive. He led an expansion of a bridge tower in the dead of night that left the Viking force surprised at dawn at the dramatic increase in the Frankish defense. Joscelin himself had already survived one Viking kidnapping, being released only after a ransom was paid for him and his brother Louis. He also had the high-profile position of chancellor to Charles the Bald, the king of the Franks who preceded his considerably less-successful heir, Charles the Fat.

As the count and bishop of Paris, respectively, Odo and Joscelin fought and defended their city and kingdom side by side. Thus, it must have been a moment of despair for Odo when Joscelin, the moral support of his army, succumbed to a disease that swept the ranks during the siege. Odo was left alone to continue his attempts to get the attention of their king, Charles the Fat.

A King Arrives and Offers a Bribe

Even after he succeeded in smuggling a message of desperation to Charles the Fat, Odo did not benefit from the response of the king of the Franks. Charles the Fat had his own agenda, which involved using the Vikings as a hit squad on Burgundians who were rebelling against him. Thus, rather than crush the Viking forces when he arrived with his own substantial army, Charles the Fat elected to offer them seven hundred pounds of silver to handle the rebels. The Vikings agreed to do so and promptly went elsewhere, ravaging the northern countryside and failing to do anything with the Burgundians. Charles the Fat paid them anyway.

Odo is Made King

Frankish contemporaries with a dark sense of humor were undoubtedly bemused by Charles the Fat’s short-sightedness in dealing with the Northmen, who were known for returning for more bribe money once they had exhausted pillaging opportunities elsewhere. Frankish nobles, weary of Charles the Fat’s mismanagement of their kingdom, deposed him in 887, selecting Count Odo as their new king.

Odo, having survived the siege of Paris although losing Joscelin, his comrade in arms, now had another struggle on his hands. West Francia was a house divided, with two kingdoms in conflict. Odo found himself sovereign of Neustria, which included his ancestral lands and lay between the Seine and the Loire rivers. Ruling over Aquitaine was Charles the Simple, grandson of Charles the Bald and future participant in a land deal with the Viking Rollo that would mark the beginning of established Viking settlement in Francia.

Struggles with His Rival, Charles the Simple

In addition to his struggle against Charles the Simple (whose epithet indicates directness, rather than simplemindedness), Odo still had Viking incursions to repel, blocking one attack on Paris in 889. He experienced some successes, but always in the midst of his wins were his troubles with Charles the Simple (Charles III).

Odo turned to the king of East Francia, Arnulf, for help and even paid homage to him, but Arnulf rebuffed his hand of peace and threw his support behind Charles. Ultimately, Odo was forced to turn over part of his lands north of the Seine to Charles.

Nature Aids in the Struggle Against the Vikings

In his continuing quest to keep the Vikings at bay, Odo finally got help from the one factor that had been missing in the formula for success against the Vikings: famine. The Vikings were not fond of starvation, and rather than ride out the famine, they elected instead to turn their minds and boats back to England. Some historians believe that the Franks provided the Vikings with the ships necessary to hasten their departure.

Successes and Odo’s Death

While battling Vikings and rivals to his throne, Odo managed to add to the fortifications of his lands, enhancing the Frankish defense against the invaders. After a life of one warlike engagement after another, this king of the Franks died without an heir, and his kingdom went to his rival from Aquitaine, Charles the Simple, on Odo’s death in 898. It would be Charles the Simple who would strike a deal with Rollo to bring in an age of more peaceful Viking settlement and mark the decline of the Viking ravages of Western Europe.


Possibly more than any other personage, Rollo, Duke of Normandy and sometime “pirate chief” embodied the Viking influence in Western Europe during the Viking Age and the influence of Western Europe on the Vikings. He lived from 860 to 932.

Melding the Viking and the West

Rollo emerged from his homeland, either Denmark or Norway, to terrorize unsuspecting villagers up and down the Seine River, also possibly turning his sights on Ireland, before striking an “our affair” style bargain with a Frankish king to convert to Christianity and protect the king’s homeland in exchange for what would become the duchy of Normandy. A Norman duke and descendent of Rollo, William the Conqueror, brought this Norman culture and language to a permanent place in British history in what became known as the Norman Conquest.

Normandy’s position on the shores of the English channel and as home to the mouth of the Seine River made it both a perfect offensive launching pad and a vulnerable target for seafaring marauders. Through the Middle Ages, this province had a high profile in the shifting sands of power and culture in Western Europe. Rollo, in exile from his home and estranged from his family, took full advantage of this vulnerability, coming to France and planning to stay.

The Seine: An Invitation to Invasion

The mouth of the Seine was an irresistible invitation to the Vikings from 820 onward to move up the river in their stealthy longships, attacking and pillaging as they went. They spent their first Frankish winter in the lower Seine, in what would become Normandy, in 851. Rouen and Paris were favorite targets, and the Vikings attacked Paris so often that its weary leaders would sometimes pay the marauders the Viking bribe known as danegeld for a few years of respite from the harassment. The Frankish leaders were simply unable to muster an organized defense, although Charles the Bald had tried in the mid-ninth century. Rollo, known as a huge man whose horse could not even carry him because of his girth, was probably a member of these raiding parties in the early tenth century. In Icelandic sagas, his name is Hrolf the Walker, possibly because he could not find a horse that could support him and had to walk instead.

Even though Rollo was a raider, the tenth century saw the beginning of a period when Vikings coming into Frankish territory were sometimes more interested in settling down than in taking and destroying. Their attempts to establish Viking settlements in the Loire valley, however, were understandably unwelcome, and even though the Franks recognized their reign in the 920s, a less-amenable Breton named Alan Crooked-Beard drove the Vikings out in 937. Their efforts to settle in Normandy were more successful, primarily because of Rollo.

A Viking Becomes a Frankish Count

In 911, Charles III (Charles the Simple, meaning “straightforward” or “blunt”), King of the Franks, made a not-so-simple decision to give Rollo rule over Normandy in exchange for Rollo’s conversion to Christianity and protection of the Frankish seat in Paris. Charles’ tactic, one used previously for protection along the Rhine, cleared away the threat of Viking raids and opened for France a new period of reasonably peaceful Viking-Frankish relations.

In spite of his sobriquet, Charles was rather cunning in the timing of his offer, as well as in its nature: He offered Rollo this hand of peace just as Rollo had lost a battle with Charles near Chartres. Although there appears to have been an official treaty, no written document confirming the terms has survived. There is a tale that at the time of Rollo’s investiture, he was to kneel and kiss Charles the Simple’s foot. Rollo, possibly too fat and definitely too proud to engage in such an activity, had one of his men stand in for him. This hapless fellow grasped and raised the monarch’s foot so abruptly that Charles fell over backwards, much to the amusement of the onlookers.

Viking and Frankish Lineages Merge

Rollo’s new land lay to the southwest of Paris, closer to the mouth of the Seine than the future French capital, and thus strategically a good place to have a giant Viking leader stationed to protect cities from other Vikings. This détente, sealed by the reinstatement of the Bishop of Rouen, led to Rollo’s being recognized as a Christian ruler by 913. It is likely that no one believed that Rollo’s conversion was anything more than a means to achieving his agenda, but he sired a long line of Norman dukes who were undoubtedly Christian. His son married a Frankish princess, as did his grandson. Rollo himself, in a gesture of goodwill from both men, married Charles’s daughter, Giselle. Thus, the blood of Charlemagne the Carolingian and Rollo the Viking flowed in the veins of their descendent, William the Conqueror, who took England for his own.

The Viking Culture Fades

In many ways, this melding of the Viking and the Frankish culminated in the complete effacement of Viking culture in the region, additionally catalyzed by the Celtic influences many of the Viking settlers had brought with them from Ireland. By the time Rollo’s grandson, Richard I (942–996), was of age, he had to travel from Rouen to a Viking settlement in Bayeux to learn Viking ways that he could no longer acquire in his birthplace.

Just as he and his men had converted to the Christian faith, Rollo and his descendants were required to tolerate the practice of Christianity among their people. However, Rollo’s line did retain one aspect of Viking military authority—they had the power to banish the disobedient from their realm, a power that lasted beyond the time of William the Conqueror. This power may be one reason Rollo’s lineage maintained a stability that was extraordinary for a European ruling family.

A Stable Lineage

Rollo, who initially was a Carolingian count (the Count of Rouen) rather than a duke, sired an unusually long and stable line of Norman dukes. While western European history is littered with the bodies of aspirants to kingship, dukedoms, and earldoms, Rollo’s immediate descendants, Richard I and Richard II, enjoyed long reigns and were apparently competent rulers. This stability and competence lasted to the time of William the Conqueror and beyond. There were some missteps and aggressions along the way, including the assassination of Rollo’s son and heir to his throne, William Longsword, who stepped up as Duke of Normandy when Rollo abdicated in 927.

A Successful Frankish Strategy

Charles the Simple’s strategy of welcoming a Viking raider as a brother and protector in arms paid off significantly for the Frankish kings. Rollo was the leader of the last major Viking raid against France but also became a major ruling presence in an essentially Frankish duchy. As for Rollo and his Viking culture, while Norman aristocrats were often of Viking descent, the peasantry were consistently Frankish, leading to a Scandinavian aristocracy governing a French people. In spite of this imbalance, the people of Normandy all became known as Normans, while much of their original culture, including Frankish law, persisted for generations.

Harold Godwinson, Harold II of England

Born in 1022, Harold II became King of England in 1066. Also in that year, he decisively defeated a Viking force at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, but then lost the Battle of Hastings—and his life—to the Norman ruler known as William the Conqueror. Harold’s defeat led to the Norman conquest of Great Britain.

Connected to a King

Harold I of England was the son of Canute (Cnut), the Danish king who married Emma (widow of Ethelred the Unready) and who ruled all of Britain. When Harold succeeded to Canute’s throne, the two sons of Ethelred, Alfred and Edward, returned from exile in Normandy to lay their own claim to the throne. Alfred was killed, however, and Edward fled back to Normandy. The reigns of two Danish kings, Harold I and Hardicanute, would have to end before Edward would return once again to receive his crown. At his death, Edward named Harold Godwinson, son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, his successor to the throne.

A Leader Forged in the Welsh Borderlands

During the eleventh century border wars with the Welsh in the west of England, Harold Godwinson proved himself repeatedly as a warrior and a leader. Harold had inherited his earldom in 1053, and the new earl served Edward the Confessor as an ever-present advisor, wielding great influence. In 1053, Harold’s first military nemesis, the Welsh leader Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, began attacking the Saxons, defeating the English army on several occasions in a bitter battle over the Welsh Marches. That same year, an earl whom Edward had exiled for treason brought Viking mercenaries to join forces with ap Llewellyn to fight the English. Harold and his men went to meet the attack, but they moved so slowly that the offending forces had vanished by the time they arrived at the Welsh border. This experience may provide one explanation for Harold’s almost reflexive emphasis on speed in the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

When Harold did finally catch up with the Welsh leader and the treacherous earl, he tried diplomacy, with an agenda of breaking up the alliance between the two. His gambit ultimately failed, and for the next several years, Harold found himself chasing the elusive Welsh leader over the countryside, unable either to capture or defeat him. The earl died in 1062, leaving ap Llewellyn on his own. Harold had apparently had enough of the slippery Welsh prince, and in spring 1063, he put into action a careful plan. His brother, Earl Tostig, crossed the Welsh border with a mounted army while Harold sailed up the coast with his men and his group of housecarls, the British medieval equivalent of special forces, feared and fearless warriors who could kill a horse and its rider with one well-placed swing of a two-handed Viking ax. They dressed like Normans in mail and pointed helmets, but Harold’s plan was to increase their mobility by having them wear leather. In addition, he changed their weapon of choice to match that of the Welsh army: the javelin.

Relying on these men, who moved fast and light through Welsh territory, Harold made his way into North Wales, wreaking havoc up the coast and taking hostages as he went. With his brother’s army, he and his men took their destruction into the heart of the Welsh king’s lands, razing villages and transforming ap Llewellyn from a slippery eel into a hunted animal.

Harold did not end up killing the Welsh king, however, as the weary Godwinson was apparently not the only person tired of constantly moving to track his quarry. In 1063, ap Llewellyn’s own men turned on him and murdered him in the mountains of Snowdonia, apparently for persisting in fighting the English forces. Harold, no doubt relieved to be rid of this thorn in his side, sent the man’s head and the prow of his ship to Edward as proof that the Welsh war was finally over. In a sort of posthumously inflicted coup de grâce, Harold then took for his wife the Welsh king’s widow, Ealdgth, whose other claim to fame was her grandmother, Lady Godiva.

An Involuntary and Fatal Oath

Harold’s constant activity on behalf of Edward strengthened his position as an advisor to the king, for whom he also served as ambassador. It may have been in this latter role that Harold actually met his future nemesis, William the Bastard, duke of Normandy. Harold made a trip to the Norman duchy in 1064, which he began by first blowing off course while crossing the English Channel, washing up on the shores of William’s enemy, the Count of Ponthieu. The count held Harold and his retinue until convinced under William’s threats to let them go. Harold now, however, owed William a huge debt. No one knows exactly why Harold was on the seas in the first place, but the prevailing theory is that his mission was diplomatic.

The two future rivals were very different, as their response to a certain incident illustrates. Harold accompanied William on a march during which the army crossed an area of quicksand. One of William’s soldiers fell and became stuck. The Duke of Normandy kept going, ignoring the man’s mortal predicament. Harold, however, immediately leapt from his horse and pulled the man from the sucking sands, putting his own life at risk. Harold’s spontaneity early on would eventually be tempered by experience, but William exhibited a calculating character from the beginning. The most famous example of his manipulation involving Harold was his ambush of the diplomat at a state dinner. William suddenly called Harold before all the company to lay his hands on sacred relics and swear loyalty to William. Harold, torn between insulting his diplomatically powerful host before all of the guests or swearing an oath he could not keep, pledged his loyalty. Unable to support an oath given under duress and potentially under threat to his life, Harold then made haste to England.

A Bad Year for a King

Harold stepped into the kingship at a bad time, immediately becoming embroiled in a deadly dispute with a duke, a king, and his own brother over the throne. When Edward died, he had no heirs, leaving open the question of his succession. The witan, or royal council, was responsible for making that decision, although their track record of selection was perhaps not exemplary, given the split decision of Canute versus Edmund Ironside in a previous century. This council of 1066 had a lot to worry about, as there were claims from three sides: Harald III (Hardraade or Hardrada) of Norway, Duke William of Normandy (a claimant despite his illegitimacy), and Harold Godwinson, right-hand man to Edward himself. Harold was no royal, but he was Earl of Wessex, the most powerful earldom in England and producer of a previous great Saxon king, Alfred.

Thus, Harold received the crown, although there is some dispute over whether or not he took it for himself or was given it. The witan, at any rate, had no interest in having William the Bastard become their king. They still held the view that Normans, as descendents of the marauding and pillaging Vikings, were thieves and pirates. William himself attempted to bolster his claim by asserting that Harold had promised to support Norman succession to the English throne, probably a reference to Harold’s controversial pledge of loyalty in 1064. In fact, William used this claim to gain papal support for his claim to kingship. Regardless, the crown was placed on Harold’s head in Westminster Abbey in January 1066. Within a month, William, Duke of Normandy and bastard son of Robert the Magnificent, was readying for battle.

A Brother’s Treachery

Harold knew the attack from the south was coming and began readying his own troops. What he ignored, however, was the growing threat from the North as Hardraade and Tostig, Harold’s own brother, decided to take England for their own. To them, as well as to William of Normandy, Edward’s death looked like an excellent excuse to invade the country. Hardraade laid his tenuous claim based on the assertion that one of his wives was related to Canute, a previous, Danish-born king of England. His claim was enough to attract warriors from all over the continent to his side, including Tostig.

Tostig’s treachery to his brother fit with his past behavior. As earl of Northumbria, he had been so cruel that his vassals revolted against him in 1065, and his king, Edward the Confessor, exiled him. Edward seemed incapable of simple, summary execution of traitors, instead relying, however unsuccessfully, on exile as punishment. As happened with the repeated banishments of the treacherous earl who allied with the Welsh, this punishment simply incited the perpetrator to revenge, especially when Tostig saw one of the revolutionaries made earl in his place. Tostig was not successful in his effort to take the country, however, and ended up fleeing ignominiously to shelter in the Scottish court of King Malcolm III.

Firedrake and the Death of Kings

A portent known to contemporary astronomers as “Firedrake” and to people now as Halley’s Comet flashed across the sky in 1066, foretelling, it was said, the death of kings. Harold thought it signaled the time for him to head south with his forces, including his housecarls. While he marched in the wrong direction, a huge fleet of Viking warriors made their way to his kingdom in the north, arriving in September 1066 and meeting up with the defeated Tostig. They immediately set to raiding their way south, navigating their longships along the rivers and plundering as they went. They finally arrived at their intended seat of York, where their banner sporting Odin’s Raven flew alongside the Golden Lion of Tostig’s flag.

Convinced that the Norman invasion was nigh, the earls Morcar and Edwin decided to attack the daunting Norseman force, in spite of the fact that their forces numbered only one-sixth of the Viking army. Not surprisingly, they suffered a heavy defeat, losing half their force along with one hundred local monks. York surrendered and promised to deliver one hundred hostages to Hardraade at a nearby location called Stamford Bridge.

Victory in the North

Harold, meanwhile, still awaited the Norman invasion, even though the north-blowing winds might have tipped off a savvy warrior to a threat from the north. By the time the beacon fires informed him of the northern peril, the crops lay rotting in fields and Harold had sent many of his men home, optimistic that the Normans would not invade after all. He gathered his troops together again, knowing that marching them north to engage the Vikings would weaken them significantly just as they would have to march south again to take on the Normans. Even so, he had no choice. Given the task, Harold executed it with vigor, perhaps driven by memories of losing the Welsh king too many times because of delay. He marched his six-thousand-man force 185 miles over four days, adding recruits as he went. By the time he arrived within attacking distance of York, he had a fighting force of nine thousand men.

This large army took the ten-thousand-man combined forces of Hardraade and Tostig completely by surprise on a hot September 25, 1066. Some of the Vikings, feeling secure in their victory and sure that Harold would be unable to arrive so quickly, had wandered off for supplies or returned to guard their ships. Hardraade was caught with only part of his army at his side. He quickly deployed a small phalanx to the west bank of the Derwent River, where they were encamped, and took the remainder with him to the east bank. Harold’s men promptly crushed the small group on the west bank and then paused only long enough to dispatch a berserker—the Viking answer to a special forces fighter—who was guarding the bridge and may have single-handedly killed a dozen English soldiers before one pierced him from beneath the bridge and the housecarls cut him to pieces.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

The two armies engaged with axes swinging. Tostig recommended retreat, but Hardraade ignored his advice. His decision was fatal. The English forces organized into a formation of seven separate phalanxes, probably with the housecarls in the vanguard. The onslaught was relentless, and chroniclers relate that Hardraade himself fell early on, slain by an arrow. Despite the loss of their leader and Tostig, who also died during the battle, the Vikings refused to give, and the wearying march across their country began to tell on the British soldiers. Harold, seeing this, pulled them back in a fake retreat. His maneuver tricked the Vikings into breaking up their densely layered lines of defense as they rushed to follow the “retreating” army. As the broken ranks closed in on the English, Harold’s housecarls suddenly turned and attacked, their energy renewed. The Viking leaders, however, stood by their standards, falling one by one, choosing death over dishonor. The victorious English spent the remainder of that blistering, bloody day hunting down every Viking man they could find and killing him. Harold followed up on his victory by then taking the Viking fleet. He did have his brother’s bloodied corpse borne to the cathedral of York Minster for a proper interment.

Death at the Battle of Hastings

Harold’s victory, however, was short-lived, and it played right into William’s hands by eliminating two rival claimants to the English throne. By September 27, the wind shifted to the south, allowing William the Bastard to point his ships across the English channel, landing the very next morning to start building forts and pillaging villages. Strangely enough, the tactic of false retreat that served Harold so well in the destruction of the Viking age in Britain would, in a matter of weeks, contribute to his devastating defeat at Hastings.

England had left behind Viking rule only to end up in the hands of the French, who were actually led by a man descended from Vikings. Harold Godwinson, Harold II of England, died on October 14, 1066, in the battle that left his kingdom under the rule of William the Bastard of Normandy, also known to history as William the Conqueror.

William the Conqueror

Leaving his stronghold in Normandy, William (1027–1087) crossed the English Channel and defeated the English king Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, establishing Norman rule in that kingdom and changing the course of British history irrevocably.

Bastard Son of a Magnificent Devil

The father of William the Conqueror, Robert, became duke when he was only twenty. As with many prominent men of his time, Robert earned sobriquets that concisely conveyed his personality. In his case, he had two. He was occasionally known as “Robert the Devil,” earning this moniker because of his devilish sadism. Robert once defeated a man who had insulted his son; following the victory, he had the man (a great lord) swear fealty to him barefoot and with a saddle on his back. After humiliating the landowner, Robert then generously gave the man his lands back. His other sobriquet was “Robert the Magnificent,” possibly because of his generosity to religious orders in the region. It was his dedication to his religion that led to his death.

William was born the bastard son of Robert and Herleve (also Arlette, Herleva, or Harlette), the daughter of a tanner known as Fulbert. The story goes that she was washing clothes near a stream or dancing in the road when Robert encountered her and sired one of Europe’s most influential and famous rulers, a man who would himself warrant more than one nickname. William, although illegitimate, was born in his father’s castle keep, and he was known to contemporaries as William the Bastard. His illegitimacy, however, did not stand in his way. Robert ultimately recognized William as his son just before departing on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Holy Land, and he convinced his nobles to recognize the child’s legitimacy, as well.

William was only seven when his father left on this final journey: Robert the Magnificent made it to the Holy Land but perished on the return trip, and the fatherless young boy was left to fend off barons desperate to seize power. Robert had tried to leave the child well guarded in his absence, with the king of the Franks, Henry I, protecting him. In addition, Robert left his cousin, Alan, Count of Brittany, as regent, and a friend, Gilbert of Brionne, as guardian.

Young William Defends his Duchy

Unfortunately, the people guarding William began dying one by one—his guardian, steward, and even his tutor were murdered—until the boy was forced to take shelter in the forests, protected by a maternal uncle and hiding in peasant cottages. (Henry, king of the Franks, was a dilatory protector at best.) By the time William reached the age of thirteen, however, he was personally fighting the treacherous usurpers, winning his first battle. By age fifteen, he was knighted, and he defeated his enemies once and for all at age twenty after successfully quelling a rebellion at age nineteen. Thus, even before reaching adulthood, William had successfully defended his own duchy against rivals to his place.

Personal Life

In 1053, William married his twenty-two-year-old cousin, Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders. The marriage was, according to accounts, a happy one. The pope did not give approval for the union, but William made the match anyway and had at least nine children (four sons and five or six daughters). By 1065, he was Duke of Normandy in name and reality. The duke was a bit taller than average for a man of his time, with striking grey eyes, red hair, thin lips, and a strong jaw. Chroniclers remarked on his voice, describing it as harsh and guttural. Certainly, in addition to this voice, he had a harsh pragmatism that drove him to successes so notable that the world would cease to call him “Bastard” and come instead to know him as “Conqueror.”

This future conqueror, when he first settled into his dukedom, still had to fend off outside challenges to his position, including a southern confrontation with Count Geoffrey, the Hammer of Anjou and ancestor of the redoubtable Henry II of England. William spent a great deal of time fending off Geoffrey’s incursions into Norman territory, which had the sporadic support of Henry I, the erstwhile protector of the young duke William. Obviously, Henry had decided that the duke no longer required his services, and in fact, he was deeply concerned about the brutal power of the young Norman. To deal with the constant threats to his leadership, William instituted a policy of forming new counties and placing known loyal family members and associates in positions of power under his sole rule. These family members included his half brothers Odo and Robert.

A Controversial Oath

A turning point in William’s career came when Harold Godwinson, the future Harold II of England, washed up on the shores of France and eventually ended up in William’s court. What happened at that court is a matter of some dispute. The gist of the story is that at a state dinner one evening, William suddenly turned to Harold and demanded that his visitor swear fealty to him. According to persistent legend, Harold did so. However, what remains in dispute is whether or not there was an implicit, or even explicit, threat to Harold’s life at that moment and whether or not Harold made the promise under duress. Regardless, William latched onto the incident as his strongest argument for moving against England after Edward the Confessor, king of England, died in January 1066, leaving Harold the throne. William’s argument was convincing enough at least for the pope, who gave his blessing to William.

Although the oath from Harold provided an excuse to take revenge, no one knows exactly why William decided in the first place that he was the true heir to the English throne. Some historians argue that Edward, perhaps during his time in exile in Normandy, decided to make a Norman his successor. Edward’s mother, Emma, was the daughter of a Norman duke and wife of Ethelred the Unready; she also was William’s great aunt. It may be that the Normans viewed her status as queen consort of England as an entre´e into the line of succession after Edward the Confessor died.

William’s Victory at the Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings, the upshot of William’s effort, has been called the most significant event in British history. Certainly, it and the events surrounding it had a number of unusual features and strange coincidences. Halley’s Comet blazed across the skies that year, as depicted in the Norman-woven Bayeaux Tapestry. To many, it was an ill omen, meaning no good to Harold. However, William saw it as permission from an authority higher than the pope to move ahead with his attack. Accordingly, he assembled a huge fleet of about 1,400 craft, ready to cross the English Channel. His intention was a lightning-fast assault that would end in defeat of Harold’s forces in a single crushing battle, leaving William king of England. There on the shores of Normandy, William and his men waited for the winds to change and favor their departure.

And they waited. After several weeks, the south wind finally gave the signal to sail, and in a matter of a day, William had landed his fleet in England, at Pevensey. Harold, who had in his turn waited impatiently for William, was forced north to battle a Viking onslaught, only to turn his army immediately on a 250-mile march south to meet William’s troops. With his seven-thousand-man, exhausted force, Harold hoped to surprise the Norman invaders, but a scout espied his encampment and reported it to William. Even after the lost element of surprise, the battle between the weary British troops and the invigorated Norman army was a fairly even match through much of the day. William’s forces eventually prevailed; Harold died by nightfall that October 14, 1066; the Normans took the victory; and William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day that same year. He was only thirty-nine.

Norman Rule in Saxon England

Not surprisingly, quite a few English nobles were not pleased with William’s victory, and the new king spent several years working to take and maintain control of the whole kingdom. Many of the English nobles were so desperate not to have a Norman king that they threw their support behind the Danish king, Sven Estridsson, who arrived in 1070 but retreated before William’s powerful defense. The Danes tried again five years later when Sven’s son, Cnut (Canute, Knut), tried to launch a fleet to attack the Conqueror. The ill-fated attempt faltered when the fleet was destroyed before it even landed. Again in 1085, the hapless Cnut pulled together a fleet, this time with the full intention of conquering England for himself. However, this fleet never even sailed, although William had intelligence of it and took the threat seriously. With these failures, the Viking age was over, and William was the Conqueror.

William did not just take England for his own and turn it from a Viking/Saxon nation into something decidedly more French in language and architecture. He also remade England into a Norman nation, bringing with him a powerful central bureaucracy born of his need to control. The Domesday Book, a census and a database of English wealth and landholders started in 1085, is a standing monument to this detailed and widespread bureaucratic interest and interference. Naturally, his interference, which was far more than clerical and often cruel and unyielding, bred the kind of response chronicled in the tales of Robin Hood. The Robin Hood of legend is a Saxon noble who takes arms against the oppressive Norman leaders, embodied in villains like the Sheriff of Nottingham and the ultimate Norman incarnation of evil, Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

Ignominy in Death

Ultimately, as the subsequent melding of the Saxon and the Norman attest, William prevailed. He continued his warlike pursuits, even as his body, “great” but “not ungainly” in youth, bloated into gross obesity. It was during one of these warlike endeavors that William severely injured himself on the pommel of his saddle, an injury probably exacerbated by his large size. His greatness of body had bloated into grossness of body, and after he died on September 9, 1087, the final scene of his life bookended the ignominy of his beginnings. As his pallbearers struggled to force William’s oversized coffin into his tomb, the huge, bloated corpse inside burst from the jostling. The fluid issuing from the sarcophagus emitted a stench so overwhelming that it drove the people from the church.

At his death, his servants rushed to steal his treasures or to secure their own estates, not pausing to mourn his passing. His ruthless material pragmatism stands in sharp contrast to the obvious intellectual and scholarly interests of the great kings who preceded him, Charlemagne and Alfred the Great. The immediate legacy of rapacity at the moment of his death may reflect this emphasis on material acquisition under his leadership.

The Long-Term Legacy of William the Conqueror

William, the Conqueror and the Bastard, had a reputation as a relentless and relentlessly practical man. His accession to power was the harbinger of a new age and marked the end of Viking dominance and terror in Europe. His role at the close of the Viking age is ironic yet fitting because he himself was descended from Vikings, but he was also a Frankish duke. Even though his direct descendents did not rule England after 1135, all English rulers who followed him can trace their ancestry to this man whose ambition triggered the most important event in British history.

Major Battles

Sacking of Lindisfarne, 793

The Holiest Place in Britain

Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island, was the site of the Vikings’ first major assault on the English coastline. The scholar-monks who lived in the monastery at Lindisfarne enjoyed a life of intellectual pursuits, producing one of Europe’s most famous illuminated manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was, without doubt, the holiest place in Britain for ecclesiastics and pilgrims alike.

The Idyll Comes To an End

The monk’s contemplative idyll on the sometime-island—Lindisfarne becomes a peninsula at low tide—came to an abrupt end on June 8, 793 (the date is sometimes given as January 8, 793). Looking up from their work at the windows of the monastery or even perhaps from a stroll along the coastline, the monks would have seen something new to their eyes: Viking longships. As they watched the ships approach, each carrying one hundred men, the monks could not have known that they were watching their doom come near, although even the appearance of a Viking longship and its warlike crew probably augured nothing but ill to these servants of God.

Before the day was done, the Vikings had slaughtered some monks as they tried to flee, capturing and selling others into slavery. The marauders from the North took jewels from the monk’s jewelry workshop and any relics that seemed valuable, wantonly destroying what remained. Even though some monks escaped and returned to try to reestablish Lindisfarne, that fateful day marked the end of their quiet, scholarly time on the Holy Island.

The doom was not Lindisfarne’s alone. This invasion of the Vikings was only the beginning of a three-hundred-year reign of pillage, terror, and slaughter. Even though the Viking Age finally ended through defeat and assimilation, their initial assault on Lindisfarne reverberates through the centuries to today.

Lindisfarne Before the Vikings

Established in 635, Lindisfarne was the work of Saint Aidan, a monk of Scottish-Celtic origins. The Holy Island, lying off the coast of northern England on the North Sea, became a peninsula at low tide, providing a link to the larger island mass of Britain. The monks of Lindisfarne used their outpost as the incubator for missionaries, who crossed over the low-tide flats to spread their message of Christianity to the interior. As a result of their missionary activities and the fine illuminated manuscripts they produced, Lindisfarne became an important ecclesiastical center during the Dark Ages.

This center of Christian missionary and intellectual zeal attracted Saint Cuthbert, the “Fire of the North” and the man responsible for establishing Roman Catholicism in England, to Lindisfarne’s shores in 685. This healer and miracle worker was laid to rest at the monastery, where his tomb became a site of pilgrimage, the devout biding their time to low tide before picking their way across the soggy tidal flats to the monastery.

The subsequent decades were a time of peace, prosperity, and broad influence for the inhabitants of the monastery, with the comings and goings of pilgrims, missionaries, and ecclesiastical intellectuals. Thus, the Vikings arrived when Lindisfarne was at its peak. No one knows how many of the people who watched the Viking boats push inexorably closer to shore were monks or pilgrims. What is known is that once the bottoms of those boats scraped sand and the Vikings left their first footprints on Lindisfarne’s shores, the age of Lindisfarne’s prosperity ended. The island ceased to be an intellectual and religious center and instead became a starting point for many subsequent Viking raids to nearby English territories.

Portents and the Vikings as God’s Wrath

In those boats sat oarsmen and warriors, each warrior wearing a metal helmet and wielding an axe or a sword. As they leapt from their crafts, their intentions were clear. The helpless monks and pilgrims could only watch or try to hide as these huge, remorseless men slaughtered them recklessly and plundered the monastery for its treasure. The Vikings had quickly learned that European religious houses were not only repositories of the faithful and their books, but that they also housed a large portion of the people’s treasure in gold and fine works. Add to that the fact that the monasteries were completely defenseless when the Vikings began their raids, and there may be some understanding of why the gold-hungry Northmen found such targets irresistible.

Some chroniclers reported that the monks knew from “heavenly portents,”—which included lightning storms, famine, a rain of blood, and “fiery dragons,”—of the terror coming to them across the sea. After the slaughter, Charlemagne heard from Alcuin, his English adviser, that “never before has there been such a terror appeared in Britain and never was such a landing from the sea thought possible.” Alcuin averred that the Vikings were agents of God’s wrath, visited on the Northumbrians for their moral turpitude.

In more worldly terms, the Vikings saw an opportunity and took it. The monks thought they needed no defenses because the sea was their defense. They had not counted on the Viking longboats, which made it possible for the Northmen to gain passage across seas and navigate inland rivers alike.

After the initial raid and slaughter, the Vikings returned for repeated attacks on Lindisfarne. Weary of what must have become a life of continual anticipation of terror, the monks relocated their monastery (including St. Cuthbert’s miraculously preserved remains) to the mainland, where it eventually returned to its importance as an ecclesiastic focal point for England.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

When St. Cuthbert died, the monks at Lindisfarne produced their most famous work, the Lindisfarne Gospels, to commemorate his passing. Such a work, an illuminated text of the four New Testament gospels, was suited to the mystical feel of Lindisfarne, with its eerie castle teetering on a rocky promontory. The work would still be at Lindisfarne were it not for the Vikings; in an effort to preserve it, the fleeing monks took it with them to Durham, where they had relocated. In a conflict between the Church and Henry VIII centuries later, the king’s lackeys demonstrated Henry’s disdain for the Mother Church by seizing the Gospels and taking them to London. There they reside, in the British Library, the subject of a movement to have them returned to their original birthplace.

Constantinople, June 860

The Great City

In the eighth century, as their brethren plundered Western Europe, some Vikings made their way south across Slavic territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea, aiming for Constantinople (today, Istanbul), which they called Miklagard (the “great city”). This capital of Byzantium was the Paris or New York of its age, a Mecca for the ambitious and the learned alike—or, in the case of Vikings, for the acquisitive.

As the Vikings established their trade routes, they built towns along the route to Constantinople. One of the major settlements in the eighth century was the Finnish trading post of Staraja Lagoda, lying on the River Volkhov, a major artery for traders making their way between the Baltic and Slavic territories. This trading post eventually grew into more than a place for traders to take a rest—the inhabitants began to produce goods of their own to sell to the constant stream of travelers. In addition to offering luxury items for sale, they specialized in refitting ships and loading boats.

Arab Silver, Viking Greed

Swedish Vikings hanging out at Staraja Lagoda were the first Northmen to lay greedy eyes on Arab silver and hear of the bright Miklagard, the crown jewel of the Greek Empire. At that time, in the early ninth century, the population of Constantinople was a bustling one million people, not counting the endless movement of travelers and traders. Drawn by the glint of precious metal, the Vikings pointed their longships southward on the Dniester, Dvina, Lovat, Dnieper, and Volga rivers, traveling across the Slavic regions to the Great City in Byzantium.

By 830, Swedish Rus had landed on the southern shores of the Black Sea, where the Byzantine emperor had an escort conduct a party of the Vikings over the Mediterranean Sea to Francia. Oddly, these particular Vikings had apparently undergone such a harrowing experience crossing through Slavic territory that they feared returning by the same route and took a chance on the benevolence of the Byzantine emperor. In fact, the impression of terror was so great that for the next few decades, no more Rus Vikings are recorded as having ventured through Slavic lands to visit Constantinople.

That next visit in 860, however, did not involve asking the emperor for mercy or even requesting a safe escort to Francia. Instead, it left the people of Constantinople stunned, unsure of how to handle the scourge that had just descended on them from the north.

The Attack on Constantinople

The Rus Vikings made Novgorod, one hundred miles south of Staraja Lagoda, their home base. Strategically, this location suited the boatsmen, who could travel three miles to Lake Ilmen, cross it to the River Lovat, and travel to the River Dnieper, which flowed to the Black Sea. With a few portages at rough spots, the Vikings could essentially traverse the entirety of the Slavic territories by water, which is exactly what they did in 860, snaking their way along watery routes to the Black Sea.

Along the river, five hundred miles south of Novgorod, the Viking captains Askold and Dir had set their base in the town of Kiev. In 860, they gathered a fleet of two hundred longships and pointed their bows southward, coming to the walls of Constantinople on June 18, 860.

When they arrived, the emperor was out, attending to wars against the Arabs. The Vikings found the wall effective at barring their entry into the Great City and turned instead to what Vikings all over Europe had become best at doing: plundering surrounding monasteries and killing every man, woman, and child in their path.

When Photius, patriarch of Byzantium, finally managed to get word to the Emperor Michael of the Vikings’ depredations, the ruler dropped his Moorish concerns and quickly hurried back to his capital. Yet, even though he managed to get into his city, he could not get rid of the Vikings, who waved their swords in derision as they slipped past Constantinople’s walls in their longships, bent on further destruction of holy sites beyond the Great City.

Byzantium in Disbelief

No one knows exactly why Askold and Dir even decided to leave their attempted attack on Constantinople. Maybe their boats were full of looted treasures, although their pillaging further south suggests they had some space left. At any rate, they left behind a city of one million shocked, horrified inhabitants still trying to process what had just happened. Photius’s comments on the occasion reflect their struggle to understand. In obvious disbelief, he sermonized about the “obscure nation … of no account …” that was once unknown but now had become famous, people from a place far away from the cultured elegance of Byzantium, come to them “armed with arrogance,” and “in the twinkling of an eye, like a wave of the sea poured over our frontiers.”

It is difficult to tell whether Photius was more horrified by the destruction and death or by the fact that the people who had done it were not quite the right sort. It was as though the aristocrats were trying to grapple with the fact that the peasants had mustered the temerity to come within striking distance.

Oleg, “Elder Statesman”

Askold and Dir became famous for the wealth they had accumulated during their bloody sojourn, their names making the rounds from Kiev to Novgorod. As with any tale of wealth in the context of Viking greed, the reports of their newfound treasures sparked factionalism and discord, with various Rus groups attempting to control the rivers and thus the spoils of raiding and trading. Oleg, successor to Rurik in Novgorod, lured Askold and Dir to a meeting, ostensibly to determine who would control what. When the two captains arrived, however, Oleg summarily killed them and took over, and Kiev became the center of Rus power. Although Oleg achieved his place through treachery, he still managed to persuade the Byzantine emperor to accept his people as a trading partner, and ended his days in 914 viewed as a kind of elder statesman, “at peace with all nations.”

Edington, May 878

A Turning Point for England’s Future

The Battle of Edington was decisive for England, determining the future culture and language of what would become Great Britain. The victor, Alfred the Great (king of Saxon Wessex), did not lead his army to a rout, but the battle and a subsequent siege were decisive enough to bring the Vikings to the negotiation table in an agreement that echoed Charles the Bald’s treaty with Rollo the Viking in Normandy.

King Alfred the Great

Alfred stepped up to the Wessex throne after the death of his brother, Ethelred, who went to the halls of his fathers just as a second, fresh Danish army was arriving to finish off the kingdom of Wessex. The new king was only twenty-one years old and inherited a land enduring a wave of Viking attacks that had already brought the surrounding kingdoms to their knees. He and his brother had managed to ward off the Vikings, and Alfred continued successfully keeping Wessex out of Viking hands, through either armed resistance or large payoffs of danegeld, the bribes universally doled out to Vikings to keep them away for at least a few years.

Alfred Takes Refuge

His bribes, like those of other European leaders, were only temporarily effective, and in 876, the Vikings were back in force and crossing the borders of Wessex, having decided to take over Alfred’s kingdom once and for all. In the interim, Alfred had attempted to refortify his kingdom, rebuilding towns and forts and attempting to recruit a united army. Alfred and his army put up a spirited defense against this new Danish incursion, but years of battle with little time for rebuilding had undermined men and resources. A surprise Viking attack in January 878 sent Alfred and his few remaining loyalists into hiding in the marshes of Somerset; many people of Wessex fled to Europe.

From the marshes, Alfred led raiding forays on the Viking forces, quick attack-and-retreat ventures that always ended in withdrawal back to Athelney, the island location of Alfred’s marsh hideout. At one point in spring of 878, the waters rose so high that Alfred was forced to stay on his island for refuge, and the Danes decided that they had officially conquered all of Anglo-Saxon Britain. They did not realize that Alfred was still king, and that the swamps were really a perfect place to keep him inaccessible while he made further plans.

Alfred Unites His People

Local farmers knew exactly where to find him, however, and they brought him food and information, while Alfred’s men hunted in the nearby forests and conducted lightning raids on the Danish troops. While conducting these raids and staying generally beneath the Viking radar, Alfred was also quietly recruiting leaders from the surrounding countryside for a united effort against the Vikings when the time was right. He concluded that time had come in spring of 878. The Danes had settled their army nearby at a place called Edington, a village watched over by a white horse carved into the chalky stone by an ancient hand, and Alfred believed that the Anglo-Saxon moment had arrived. The horse may have provided inspiration—it was the counterpart of a similar figure carved into the hillside of Ashdown, where Alfred and his brother Ethelred had enjoyed a decisive victory over the Viking horde. Under the watchful profile of the white horse, Alfred gathered his newly united forces from Somerset, Wiltshire, and Hampshire and attacked the Danish army, which was led by King Guthrum.

The Battle is Engaged

Bishop Asser, who chronicled Alfred’s military success against the Vikings, wrote that the West Saxon king “closed his ranks, shield locked with shield, and fought fiercely against the entire heathen host in long and stubborn stand.” Alfred eventually had the satisfaction of watching the Danish army flee and followed up his victory by having any remaining wounded or straggling Danes killed. The Anglo-Saxon army rounded up everything they could that belonged to the Danes (including their horses, cattle, and supplies) and then chased them fifteen miles to their stronghold at Chippenham.

Siege at Chippenham, Then Relative Peace

Alfred stood at the gates of the fortress, calling for Guthrum to surrender, which Guthrum not surprisingly refused to do. In response, Alfred held siege against the Danes for two weeks. Finally, weary of the ensuing starvation and forced inactivity—a probable torture to these Viking men of action—Guthrum took the hand of peace from Alfred and negotiated the Peace of Chippenham. Their treaty included a promise from Guthrum to leave Wessex and stay out and to convert to Christianity.

Guthrum kept both promises and was baptized three days later. Alfred, for his part, gave Guthrum and the Danes self-rule of the Danelaw, the central eastern part of England that was largely settled by Scandinavians. As of 886, Alfred had expanded his kingdom to include Mercia and other Anglo-Saxon territories that had fallen into Viking hands. When his rule ended, the boundaries of the Britain he had united reflected in large part those of the Britain that exists today.

Although the Battle of Edington was not a rout, it was a decisive victory for the Anglo-Saxons and ensured that this last bastion of Saxon rule did not fall irrevocably into the hands of the raiding Danes. Had the battle victory gone to the Vikings, England today might well have been a Scandinavian country with Scandinavian culture and languages, and the English in which this story is written would never have come into existence.

The Siege of Paris, Late Ninth Century

A Tale of Two Bridges

In 885, Count Odo of Paris, his comrade Bishop Joscelin, and two hundred of their men were garrisoned on the Ile de la Cite, the site of the Paris of the time. This small force was in charge of protecting lands further up the river from marauders making their way via the Seine. At the Ile de la Cite, the Seine was forced to split into a fork that encircled the island on each side and merged again at its eastern point to continue its flow. A stone bridge connected one riverbank to the island, while a wooden bridge linked it to the opposite bank. The passage under these bridges was so low that no craft, not even the low and long Viking longships, could move beneath them. They made an effective blockade against progress, at least forcing invading forces to portage around.

The Viking force that arrived at the Ile de la Cite in 885 would have been hard pressed to complete an efficient portage. Estimates vary, with many asserting that there were forty thousand Viking warriors, which would require at least four hundred ships. (Some counts go as high as seven hundred ships.) This daunting flotilla arrived at the bridges connecting the Ile to the mainland, and their leader, the Danish Sigfrid, issued an ultimatum. Sigfrid had received 2,400 pounds of precious metal from Charles the Fat, king of the Franks, to decamp from the River Meuse, and the Danish leader informed Odo that he and his fleet would depart Paris as well, for an appropriate sum.

Odo Defies the Viking Force

Odo defiantly declined this offer, incensing the Viking leader. Sigfrid responded by pulling out every offensive weapon he had. His Danes attacked the quartered Frankish troops with all manner of missiles, using catapults and arrows and stones. When these proved ineffective, the Vikings turned to fire, sending flaming boats toward the impassable bridges in an attempt to set them on fire. The fire did not take, although it did significant damage to one of the bridges.

Frustrated and thwarted, the Vikings prepared to make siege. As though to mock their ineffective offense, the Frankish men managed to add an entire tower to one of the bridges in a single night, fired by the passion of Joscelin, Bishop of Paris, who fought side-by-side with Count Odo, reportedly engaging the Vikings with bow and axe.

New Tactics in Medieval Warfare

In a macabre and inventive effort to cross the watery barrier surrounding the Ile de la Cite, a few weeks into the siege the Vikings began filling in the shallow water with the corpses of people and animals, as well as anything else they could find. However, this gambit also failed to break the siege and place the Ile in Viking hands. Finally, nature interfered on the Northmen’s behalf, sending cold, heavy rains in February 886 that overflowed the Seine, which carried away the weakened, burned bridge in its current. Finally able to pass on, many of the Viking force headed further upriver to maraud and destroy villages at the confluence of the Loire and Seine. The force that remained behind maintained the siege against the Franks.

A King Lets His People Down

During this time, the king of the Franks—Charles the Fat, a man focused on his personal agenda—was in Italy. Odo finally managed to smuggle a message to the king, desperate for him to bring reinforcements to break the siege. Charles the Fat did arrive with a substantial force, but rather than crush the remnant of the Viking army that remained, he instead offered Sigfrid a paltry sixty pounds of silver to move on. Sigfrid, surprisingly, agreed to the sum, even though he had obtained forty times that amount to leave the River Meuse. His men were certainly surprised and not happy, and they refused to budge.

Ultimately, Charles the Fat promised the Vikings seven hundred pounds of silver if they would leave, but he wanted them to complete a mission before receiving payment. The Vikings were charged with dealing with some rebellious Burgundians who had been plaguing the king, and when they succeeded, he would pay them their money. They did leave, but ignored their hit-squad orders and instead went north to pillage and destroy the countryside. In spite of the fact that they dropped their part of the bargain, Charles the Fat gave them their money anyway.

The End of the Siege and a New King

Meanwhile, disease had overtaken the besieged Frankish force, decimating their ranks and killing Joscelin, their passionate bishop and co-leader. Nevertheless, they had enough manpower to force the Vikings to portage their remaining fleet overland rather than making their way via the river.

The Frankish sense of betrayal at Charles the Fat’s failure to break the siege by crushing the Viking forces in battle eventually led to the deposition of the king. Charles the Fat died soon after he was deposed, under mysterious circumstances. The nobles installed Count Odo in Charles’ place as king of Neustria, part of West Francia, where he led a successful defense against a Viking attack in 889.

Odo was, however, forced to contend with challenges to his throne, including from the rule of the other part of West Francia, Charles the Simple, ruler of Aquitaine. Charles the Fat’s failure to retain his throne and keep the Carolingian empire intact left these kingdoms divided, and the empire that Charlemagne built was never again united. Odo died in 989, at which time Charles the Simple became ruler of both Neustria and Aquitaine.

Maldon, 991

Poetry and War

Maldon, in the historical sense, is both a poem and a battle. The poem is a partial manuscript, an epic told from the Anglo-Saxon point of view, and historians believe it was written not long after the battle. It provides almost literally a blow-by-blow account of the British defense against the Danish Viking raiders at Maldon, where the English army was annihilated but their bravery recorded for history as poetry.

Ethelred the Unready

Ethelred the Unready, descendent of Alfred the Great, became king on May 4, 978. He stepped to the throne of a rich, well-organized kingdom thanks to efforts initiated by Alfred, and when his turn to rule came, there were no bitter rivals waiting in the wings to try to assassinate him. For the age, it was a smooth transition to what could have been an easy rule, except for a few disadvantages, such as the fact that no one was quite sure what constituted Ethelred’s kingdom. Wessex was a certainty, and most of southern England, but as for the Danelaw in the east and the north of England, whether or not that belonged to the Saxon kingdom was settled on a ruler-by-ruler basis.

Another disadvantage was that Ethelred was barely a teenager when he inherited his throne. The throne itself had become vacant only because of the murder of Ethelred’s half brother, Edward, in 978 or 979. Ethelred himself was not responsible, but rumor blamed his mother and loyal members of his retinue. Whether or not the rumors had a kernel of truth is unknown, and Edward himself was apparently not a congenial ruler. In spite of his unpopularity, however, his murder ensured his status as a saint.

Thus, when Ethelred the Unready stepped up to the throne and did nothing about his brother’s murder, the cloud of fratricide hung over his rule from the beginning. One chronicler reported that Ethelred shed tears over his brother’s death, only to have his mother beat him with candles in her wrath.

Counsel Out of Balance

The “unready” part of Ethelred’s name does not arise from his unpreparedness for leadership, but rather is an Anglo-Saxon pun. His given name, Ethelred, means “wise counsel.” Un-raed in Anglo-Saxon translates as “bad counsel” or “no counsel.” Thus, the joke was that the man of wise counsel had poor counsel. Yet, in the beginning of his reign, he appeared to suffer from an overdose of counsel, from his mother to bishops to aldermen. There was not enough counsel in the kingdom, however, to tell him what to do when the next wave of Viking attacks hit Britain from over the sea. England had weathered the first wave in the ninth century, with Alfred the Great achieving a separated peace with the invaders, establishing himself as King of England, and leaving the Danelaw to the Danes.

The Vikings Return: The Second Wave

In the 980s, the Danes returned. They had drained the silver mines of the Arabs and lost Ireland in the Battle of Tara in 980. Francia was off limits thanks to agreements between the Franks and Vikings that started with Charles the Bald and Rollo, a Viking and progenitor of the dukes of Normandy. The Vikings, casting about for some new way to acquire wealth rapidly and in large quantity, turned their eyes back to the shores of Britain.

In the first wave of Viking attacks in the ninth century, Ethelred’s ancestor Alfred the Great had gained the upper hand through a combination of wile, charisma, bravery, and luck. At the least, Ethelred lacked the wile and the luck. When the Vikings began raiding along the coastline of southern England in their second wave of attacks, predators looking for a breach in the defense, they realized that England had regrouped and restocked; the treasures of the nation were once again available for the taking, given a large enough force.

Their first big hit, in 991, began on Northey Island, which lay off the southeast coast just a hundred yards from the town of Maldon in Essex. To the shock and terror of the inhabitants of Maldon, a fleet of ninety-three longships, which might have held one hundred men each, landed on Northey Island to await low tide, which would open up the causeway between them and the mainland.

Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex

The ealdorman of Essex, Byrhtnoth (also given as Birthnot), gathered his forces to defend the causeway. The poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” although incomplete, gives the reader the details of what happened next. The Anglo-Saxon men take up battle positions along the banks of the river that fed into the sea at Maldon. The Vikings hail the Anglo-Saxon leader, Byrhtnoth, who is riding his horse among his troops to rally them, and offer their usual retreat in exchange for a large payout. Byrhtnoth haughtily rejects this proposal, and the Vikings respond that they cannot engage in battle with the armies on opposite sides of the river. Oddly, and for reasons not chronicled, Byrhtnoth has his men stand down so that the Vikings can cross the causeway and engage in the battle.

The Wolves of War Prevail

Perhaps Byrhtnoth had not had much experience with these “wolves of war.” In response to his gentlemanly gesture, the Vikings elected to completely obliterate the Maldon forces. The poem relates that some of the Anglo-Saxon soldiers fled from the onslaught, including one Godric, who escaped on Byrhtnoth’s horse, leaving the impression that Byrhtnoth himself had decamped. The closing lines of the poem are lost to history, leaving a blank at the close of the battle, but what is known is that the Vikings won in a rout.

The Viking Leaders and Danegeld

The Viking captain in this epic battle was Olaf Tryggvason, who had the greater ambition of becoming king of Norway. Also possibly present at the Battle of Maldon was the King of Denmark, Svein Forkbeard. King Ethelred, now confronted with the fact that Vikings had overrun part of his kingdom, turned to bribery to get rid of them. This time-honored and completely temporary solution to the Viking problem was just one example of Ethelred’s lack of wise counsel. His huge payment of the so-called danegeld to the Danes had the predictable effect of bringing more Vikings to threaten his lands in the hope of a big payout. In all, Ethelred paid six large tributes to the invaders, one of them sixteen thousand pounds of silver to Olaf.

Anglo-Saxons Lose the Throne, Again

Ethelred also blundered by calling for the deaths of all Danes in his kingdom, which resulted in the death of Svein Forkbeard’s sister. The Vikings now had double the reason to attack, and Svein Forkbeard went for the kingdom in an all-out war that lasted twelve years. Ethelred ended up making a total of 110,000 pounds of payouts in silver, to no avail. After the hapless and unready king fled the country, the Vikings took and held the English throne for several decades. Soon after it fell back into Anglo-Saxon hands, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, showed up to take it from them again.

Ashingdon, October 18, 1016

An Unsteady Peace Ends

The separate peace achieved between Alfred the Great and the Danes, which gave Vikings the Danelaw and left Alfred as ruler of a united Britain lasted for about a century. They lived side-by-side, the Danes in their northeastern stronghold and the English everywhere else. There was even some intermarrying between the cultures, but the peace itself was unsteady, and greedy eyes on both sides watched warily for an opening to acquire more land.

After this period of relative calm, problems churned again. Alfred’s descendent Ethelred the Unready had ignominiously decamped to the European continent in 1013, unable to bribe newly aggressive Vikings out of his lands or defeat them in battle. He took shelter in Normandy with his brother-in-law, using it as a base for his plans to try to take back his country. Ethelred had lost much of England to Sweyn Haraldson, king of Denmark, and Haraldson’s son Canute, who went with his father to raid England when he was only about nineteen years old.

Danish Army Proclaims Canute King

While Ethelred sheltered in the pleasant countryside of Normandy, Sweyn died, leaving the Danish throne to his oldest son, Harold. The Danish army in England, however, loudly proclaimed Canute their leader in Britain. Unsurprisingly, Ethelred still considered himself king of England, and to emphasize his position he returned to his native land in 1014 with a large army that managed to force the Danes into retreat. Canute drew back all the way to Denmark, and the Danes even lost control of the Danelaw for the first time in a century.

Edmund Ironside

Canute, now only twenty years old, did not languish in Denmark for long. By fall of 1015, he had returned to England, intent on taking the country back. With dispatch, his forces took control of Wessex and Northumbria, and turned their eyes to London. As they made their plans to attack the town, Ethelred died unexpectedly on April 23, 1016. A worthier man, his son Edmund, stepped up to the throne and took over the fight for England. Edmund, known as Ironside, had more than the Danes to battle, however. He also had to deal with the treachery of the ealdorman of Mercia, Edric, who time and again falsely treated Edmund and the English army, the last time to devastating and lasting effect.

The Treacherous Ealdorman

While Ethelred was still alive, Edric had joined forces with Canute to compromise Mercia and place it in Danish hands. Edmund, struggling to put together a decent army, spent this time attempting to breach the defenses of Northumbria, but found his efforts rebuffed when Canute showed up and sent Edmund and his army packing back to London. When Ethelred died, the witan, or council of nobles, were supposed to choose the king’s successor. The members of the witan in London, and the London citizens themselves, selected Edmund; however, the remainder of the witan met in Southampton and chose Canute as their leader.

Edmund’s struggle to maintain a strong and united force against his rival faltered in the face of this split decision. Every battle seemed to scatter his men and leave his defenses in tatters. Canute besieged London, but its citizens held off the Danish forces as Edmund took Wessex back for the English side. Canute then led Edmund all over the countryside, pulling him from battle to battle at Pen in Somersetshire, Sherston in Wiltshire, through another attack on London, and in a handful of subsequent battles. Edmund, in spite of his straggling army, managed to maintain the upper hand in these engagements, and it appeared that the English were making progress, having been able to maintain their hold on London in the face of siege and to take back Wessex.

Treachery at Ashingdon

The treacherous Edric re-entered the picture as Edmund made the fateful decision on October 18, 1016, to attack the Danes at their base in Essex at a place called Ashingdon (also Ashdon or Assandun). The fighting was fierce, and Edric once again proved himself a traitor by falsely leading a flank of Edmund’s forces into retreat in a successful gambit apparently designed to reduce English numbers. The slaughter was horrific, and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle reported mournfully that “All the nobility of England was there destroyed.”

The Throne in Danish Hands

A beaten and badly injured Edmund retreated to Gloucestershire where Canute trailed him. Edmund still wanted to fight, but the weary witan counseled him otherwise, led by the traitorous Edric. Canute and Edmund reached an agreement at Olney, called the “Compact of Olney,” that gave Edmund the southern part of the kingdom, which included Wessex, leaving the rest to Canute. Edmund did not live long to enjoy even this minor return for his efforts; he died, possibly from his injuries, on November 30, 1016, leaving Canute in control of all of Britain. The battle of Ashingdon decisively left the kingdom in the hands of the Danes. Canute made a good-faith effort not to crush English culture and even married the widow of the late Ethelred in a gesture of solidarity with his subjects. Danish rule of Britain, however, was transient and ended in 1042 when Edward the Confessor, Ethelred’s son, laid claim to the English throne.

Death of a Traitor

Unlike some well-known false friends in history—such as Richard Rich, the perjurer and liar whose testimony led Sir Thomas More to his doom and who died peacefully of old age in his bed—Edric met with a less pleasant fate. Canute at first rewarded him for his assistance in defeating the English by restoring to him his earldom. The king, however, must have had second thoughts about this obviously untrustworthy and mercenary fellow, because he eventually had Edric killed for his falseness. In addition to his infamy as a traitor to his king and country, Edric also has been faulted by some historians as being Edmund’s murderer, although the accusation remains unproven.

Civitate, June 18, 1053

The Hautevilles, a Warlike Clan

The buildup to the Battle of Civitate, a town in southern Italy, begins with the story of five brothers. These brothers were Normans, descendents of Vikings who settled in the duchy of Normandy. The sons of Tancred of Hauteville, acting together the brothers William, Drogo, Humphrey, Robert, and Roger created a principality for themselves and soundly defeated a pope while defending their territory.

Norman Interest in Southern Italy

The Normans made first footfall in Italy as mercenaries fighting the Arab incursion into southern parts of the region. Once arrived in the Mediterranean paradise, however, the paid fighting men were quite pleased with the abundant riches of the land around them. In the Norman way, these mercenaries decided to take parts of Italy for their own, and in 1042, a settlement of former Vikings in the southern Italian area of Apulia—which forms the northern peninsula of Italy’s familiar “boot,”—selected one of the Hauteville brothers, William “Iron Arm,” to be the Count of Apulia. William’s home base was located at Melfi, which lies on the southern slopes of the Apennines, the mountain range that trails along the center of the Italian peninsula.

Robert Guiscard, the Terror of the World

Soon after, William’s brothers Drogo and Humphrey took his place, and by 1047, Robert, the most fearsome of the Hauteville clan, had made himself known. Robert had a terrible reputation as a crafty and resourceful man; his nickname, Guiscard, means “crafty” and his tombstone immortalized him as “the terror of the world.” Before stepping into the forefront in Apulia, he had spent his time pillaging his way through Calabria, the province that makes up the southern peninsula of the Italian “boot.” He also engaged in a kind of proto-Mafia racketeering, using threats to obtain money in exchange for offering protection.

Pope Leo IX Loses at Civitate

Given Robert’s reputation, it comes as no surprise that some people on the European chessboard were not pleased with his growing dominance. Among these was Pope Leo IX, whose primary concerns centered on church reform, but who also was a close ally of Emperor Henry III of France, a ruler unhappy with the unstable conditions in the Italian peninsula.

It was not unusual for churchmen of the day also to be warlike, and in 1053, Leo IX led a coalition army of Swabians (a Germanic tribe), other Italians, and Lombards against the Normans, only to lose in a complete rout at the town of Civitate (also known as Civitella, or the battle of Civitella del Fortore) on June 18. He suffered defeat at the hands of three thousand mounted Norman soldiers, significantly fewer in number than his own forces. Their leaders included Count Humphrey, one of the Hauteville brothers, and Robert, who commanded a fighting wing.

The Pope a Prisoner

The pope ended up prisoner of the brothers; whether by his own surrender or turned over by the people of the town is unknown. He was kept captive for nine months in relatively high style and by all accounts with great respect until Humphrey escorted him north to Capua and released him. The pope, however, did not long survive the ignominy of defeat and capture, and he died within a month of his release.

Although those involved did not realize it at the time, the battle of Civitate proved to be the moment the Normans founded their southern empire. It also was the trigger for the formation of what would become known as the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Given Robert’s propensity for racketeering, it is perhaps only to be expected that the kingdoms birthed by his success in battle would eventually in turn produce the mythologized and romanticized Cosa Nostra of later times.

A New Pope, a New Tactic

Humphrey died in 1057, and Robert took his place, stepping over Humphrey’s own sons and the traditions of patrimony in his haste to take the helm. Pope Nicholas II, the third pope following Leo IX, decided on a different approach to the Hauteville menace. In analyzing the situation, Pope Nicholas had a choice between what he perceived to be two evils. On the one hand, there were the underhanded and strong-arm tactics of Robert the terror. On the other hand, Sicily was in the hands of the Arabs (infidels to the Pope), and Nicholas desperately wanted Sicily out of the hands of Islam. The Arabs had spent many years attacking southern Italy with relative impunity, unimpeded by the Byzantine rulers who were supposed to be allies of the papal regime and who had oversight of the area. The pope had a strong enemy close by and a weak ally far away. A pragmatic man, he turned to the strong enemy and called him friend.

Sicily in European Hands

His decision turned out well for his religion and his more materialistic goals. In spite of their less-desirable qualities and their contrary behavior, the Hautevilles were staunch and zealous Christians, and the pope selected them as the lesser of two evils and as a way to achieve his goal for the island of Sicily. He promoted Robert the Crafty to Duke of Apulia and Calabria and also appointed him future lord of Sicily. This latter carrot had the desired effect, and although it took them thirty years, Robert and his brother Roger did eventually manage to wrest Sicily out of Arab hands. While he was at it, Robert also conquered the rest of Southern Italy, taking the last stronghold of the Byzantine empire, Bari, in 1071. In his hubris and acquisitiveness, he even turned to the empire itself, hoping to see himself as Robert the Emperor, but he died in 1085 on the island of Cephalonia, and this dream went unfulfilled.

Hastings, October 14, 1066

A Decisive Victory

The Battle of Hastings was a bold, one-shot win for William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, and a perfect storm of flawed judgments for Harold II, also known as Harold Godwinson, King of England.

Harold knew that William was coming. Indeed, the English king had expected William since the death of Edward the Confessor on January 4, 1066, and Harold’s own accession to the throne. The English king had spent the summer of that year watching the waters off of his southern coast, languishing with his army of thousands, anxiously awaiting the arrival of William and his forces. It would be an unusual attack in the annals of European history, a huge assault from across the sea, mounted with the intent to take a kingdom.

The Attack That Came Too Late

Yet as Harold and his men waited and waited, the attack never came. The winds were to blame, persistently from the north and not the warm southerlies the Norman duke needed to launch his invasion. Then, in September 1066, Harold received word of an attack on his country’s north flank, launched by his treacherous and cruel brother Tostig in collusion with the king of Norway, Harald III, also known as Hardraade. These two had taken advantage of the northerly winds to sail their fleet to Harold’s lands and launch an attack that was stoutly defended by the earls of Mercia and Northumbria. The earls were hard pressed, however, and eventually lost to the Viking onslaught. The signal fires telling the tale of the attack made it to Harold Godwinson in the south only days later, where he had just decided to send his troops home because food and supplies were dwindling and crops were rotting in the fields.

A Northern Distraction

When Harold received word of the assault to the north, he hastily gathered his men together and made tracks for the Viking encampment, covering an astonishing number of miles (almost two hundred) in a handful of days. His progress with his thousands of men—whose numbers grew as he traveled—was so rapid that he caught the Norwegian king and his own brother completely by surprise. The Northmen had even dispersed, on missions for food and to guard the harbored fleet.

In spite of their scattered defense, however, Hardraade managed to pull them together enough to produce an impenetrable wall of shielded fighters against the English king and his much feared housecarls. The tide turned only when Harold’s men faked a retreat, leading the Viking phalanx to break ranks in the chase. The weakened wall fell quickly before the renewed attacks from the British troops, and Tostig and Hardraade both died at this melee, known as the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

William Lands in England

Breathless and with his men exhausted and wounded, Harold then received word that William of Normandy had taken advantage of suddenly favorable winds to sail the channel and land at Pevensey in the south. Weary and probably dazed from the seemingly endless series of travails, Harold nevertheless gathered his forces around him and hastened again with almost superhuman rapidity across 250 miles to reach William.

What Harold did not stop to think about and realize at the time was that waiting might have been the better strategy. Tactics of the time often involved more siege than slaughter, often because it was difficult for armies to maintain supplies for troops on the move. William had taken a tremendous chance in bringing his large army to a new land without a plan to besiege. He intended, instead, to risk all on a single battle, hoping not to have to spend too much time burning through his limited supplies before engaging with Harold. Had Harold simply stopped at Stamford Bridge and outwaited the Normans, William’s men probably would have suffered significantly from the resulting diminution of their resources.

Harold’s First Tactical Error

Harold did not, however, wait. Three weeks after the Norwegians had landed in the North, he found himself heading south to face his most bitter rival. The two men had a murky history: William claimed that Harold had sworn fealty to him during a visit to his duchy a couple of years earlier. Certainly, the pope believed William enough to sanction the attack. Harold, whose general behavior suggested him to be a man of honor, apparently did not agree with William’s interpretation of events. Some historians suggest that Harold may have made such a promise, but under duress, possibly even under tacit threat to his life. To Norman apologists, however, Harold was a man who had broken an oath and who therefore deserved to lose his kingdom.

Regardless of the defensibility of his stance, William was in England. Harold, possibly hoping to use speed as a surprise tactic after it had worked so well against the Norwegians, made it to battle, near Hastings, in record time with his exhausted troops. His army, all foot soldiers bearing battle axes and other hand weapons, consisted of his commando-like housecarls and armed peasantry. The Norman forces, on the other hand, had mounted cavalry and archers on their side.

Harold lost all hope of surprise when a scout espied his bedraggled retinue encamped at Hastings and reported their presence to William. William, seeing an excellent chance and realizing that Harold had also just done him the favor of removing his other two rivals to the English throne (Hardraade and Tostig), decided immediately to attack.

According to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, the Normans spent the evening before the attack praying, culminating in a campwide participation in communion. The British troops, on the other hand, wrote the chronicler, spent their night in the usual fashion of Anglo-Saxons before a battle: drinking and singing and staying awake until dawn.

The English Withstand the Norman Onslaught

Just as their pre-battle rituals were strikingly different, so were their methods in battle. The Battle of Hastings, which took place on October 14, 1066, was surprisingly evenly balanced through much of the day. The English troops formed a line of shields several football fields long and a dozen men deep. Their swinging battle axes felled any mounted cavalryman who came near, while their shields successfully deflected enough of the archers’ arrows to maintain the shield wall. Much as the Franks had stymied every Viking effort to destroy their stronghold during the Siege of Paris, the English proved an impenetrable line of Anglo-Saxon strength, every man in the wall of shields defending his little spot of land, not giving an inch. William tried every weapon in his arsenal, from sword to arrow to javelin, to no avail. In spite of their exhaustion, the English held the line.

The Second Tactical Error of the English Army

William then turned to a different tactic, possibly inspired by an event that occurred early in the day. At some point during the fighting, a rumor that William himself had fallen spread through the Norman ranks. Immediately demoralized, the Norman troops began a scattered retreat, which had the effect of breaking up the English ranks as Harold’s soldiers began to follow. It was an exact repeat of the very strategy Harold himself had tried with great success against the Viking forces three weeks earlier.

A few hours later, the Norman troops appeared to be again in retreat. Historians disagree about whether this was truly a clever tactic of William’s or a cover-up for an actual, ignominious retreat. Regardless, the effect was to break up the English forces again as they straggled away from the shield wall in pursuit of the Norman enemy. With the wall broken, William’s men could turn back to the British and the archers could launch arrows that met their now-solitary targets. Still, the English fought valiantly until, with a breach to the rear guard, an archer’s arrow felled Harold Godwinson, and William the Bastard became William the Conqueror of England.

William, Conqueror

Having met his goal of taking the kingdom in a single decisive battle, William was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066. He spent the next seven years trying to quell resistance to his rule among the 1,500,000 inhabitants of his new land, but he also built England into a unified kingdom long before France could make that claim. There would not be another cross-Channel invasion for almost one thousand years, in 1944, when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Viking Longships

Multipurpose Craft

Possibly the only thing that conjures the image of a Viking faster than a helmet with two horns is the characteristic two-prowed longship that made their transcontinental and transoceanic exploits possible. Just about every success the Vikings experienced in battle and exploration during their golden age from the eighth to the eleventh century was attributable to their innovations in boat design. These versatile ships served them well for all of their purposes: war, exploration, and the toting of treasures back home.

River Travel and the Element of Surprise

The Vikings took their boats over sea and up rivers. They had the advantage of not having to use overland routes, which made the previously inaccessible shores of places like England available for plundering. In addition, their ability to move swiftly and quietly along rivers gave them the advantage of surprise in their attacks on unsuspecting villages and towns. Some villages endured Viking raids in the double digits during the three hundred years the Northmen dominated Europe.

Some of the rivers they navigated include the Seine, the Rhine, and the Loire. These legendary waterways turned into highways of slaughter as the Vikings trammeled over the Eurasian continent, from the British Isles to the Near East. The Vikings did not, however, rely on river navigation to make their way deep into the British mainland; instead, they relied on ancient Roman roads, horses, and Anglo-Saxon trackways to penetrate beyond the island nation’s shores.

Building a Viking Ship

The first modern peek into the Viking way of ship building came through discoveries of Viking graves and digs uncovering reused ship parts in excavated Viking villages. These sites have helped provide the pieces of the story of how the Vikings made the crafts that enabled them to cast a wide net of invasion and exploration that extended from Constantinople to the coastline of Canada. An understanding of how they designed and built their boats contributes to an understanding of how they managed to influence trade and interactions among cultures during their centuries of dominance.

Viking ships were built using an approach called the “clinker technique.” This technique is a way of placing the planks that form the base of the vessel. In the clinker technique, the planks overlap, rather than being placed flush side by side, as they are in the carvel technique. The boats had a central keel (the large beam around which the ship is built). The ends of the keel of a Viking ship were identical, providing the anchoring point for the identical prows.

With the clinker technique, the planking overlaps, and each layer of planking upwards from the keel is shaped in order to create the outward curve of the ship’s sides. On top of these shaped planks, the shipwrights added floor planks, attached either with rope, or in later models, with treenails. Timbers provided the side supports.

A Viking shipmaker focused especially on the hull of the boat, which had to be strong, but light and resilient for its manifold duties. On the starboard side was the steering rudder; a single sail, squared and pendant, hung from the central mast of sailing ships. The ship materials were oak or pine for the hulls, while the sails were made from sheep’s wool. Vikings rode in open boats, with no cabins or weather decks to escape threatening weather or the vicissitudes of travel on the open ocean. If water got into the boat (which had to be a frequent occurrence during severe storms), the only way to get it out was by bailing.

Ships for War, Ships for Exploration

Viking longships served many purposes, and some were specifically modified either for war or for carrying cargo. Others were multifunctional, prepared to carry troops for battle or bear a heavy load of plundered treasures back to the homeland. One of the standout modifications the Vikings made to their ships was the combination of oar power with sail power. A longship could be propelled equally swiftly by oar or by wind, as necessary. An 1893 test of a well-known archaeological treasure, the longship Gokstad, demonstrated that the boat could maintain an average speed of 9.3 knots, equivalent to the power of the cargo steamers of the late nineteenth century. Strong winds could push along a Viking ship with a sail as fast as seventeen miles an hour.

Unlike a hulking cargo steamer, however, a Viking longship was a thing of elegantly designed craftsmanship. The prows curved fore and aft; some were highly decorated with the archetypal dragon, while others remained unadorned except for gilding. The characteristic long, slender bodies of the crafts reflected the Vikings’ expansion of their boats to hold more oarsmen and their decision to make the boats narrower, adding swiftness. On the heels of these modifications came the addition of the sail in the late eighth century, which gave them a combination of oar and wind power that opened up the coastlines and rivers to them.

The long, narrow ships did not draw a lot of water. The Gokstad, built of oak in the mid-ninth century, weighed eighteen tons but drew only three feet. This feature gave the Vikings the ability to navigate shallow waters and take their fleets directly to the shores, as they did in their first major attack on British lands at Lindisfarne in 793. The Gokstad was 76.5 feet long and 17.5 feet wide amidships, but some ships may have been as long as 110 feet.

Ships of these lengths could easily hold at least thirty oarsmen. A warship had holes in the sides into which the oars were fitted, with a place along the rail to hang shields. The boats that landed at Lindisfarne, for example, held one hundred Vikings, both oarsmen and the warriors in battle gear. The low and long personnel carriers were swift when rowed and perfect for transporting troops and were generally used for military ventures, while deeper and shorter boats served commercial purposes, such as hauling cargo, using their square rigging for the sail to get them home. A ship with higher sides might also have been intended for exploration across the open ocean, the oars mounted on the rails. A large-capacity Viking cargo ship could hold as much as sixty tons.

The Vikings and Navigation

Riding in a Viking longship was no ferryboat trip. There is little evidence to suggest that the Vikings used any kind of material cover on their boats, even as they took them long distances for raiding, trading, or exploration. And in spite of their well-earned reputation for excellent seamanship, their claim to fame truly lies in their ship engineering. Like other mariners of their time, they navigated using landmarks, such as what they observed along the coastline. Their abilities in this regard were excellent: Leif Erickson, following only descriptions of coastal landmarks left by Bjarni Herjolfsson in 985, was able to retrace Bjarni’s path a few years later and identify the three places along the North American coastline that Bjarni had described.

Burial Ships

In addition to their multipurpose use in life, longships also served the Vikings in death. Many Viking burial ships have been found, including one associated with a high-ranking woman. This boat may have been her personal vessel, and it accompanied her in death along with an abundance of elaborately decorated belongings.

Battle Axes

Weapons Advantage: None

One might think that the Vikings had a major weapons advantage over the people they attacked and whose towns they destroyed. After all, a relatively small Viking contingent could arrive at a major city like Paris and terrorize the inhabitants to the point that the king was compelled to pay off the invaders to make them go away. However, the truth is that Viking weapons were not particularly special, and they were by no means superior to the swords and siege weapons in common use in western Europe. The real edge for the Vikings was their stealthy use of the longship and possibly their utter fearlessness and aggression in battle.

An Era of Close-Quarter Combat

Any battle during the Viking Age involved close-quarter combat, and the weapons used on both sides were the standard sword and spear. Most men carried shields. A Viking shield was about three feet across, formed from wood with a trim of metal or iron. In the center of the shield was a cone of raised metal, or “boss,” used to deflect blows and protect the hand gripping the shield on the other side. Although the archetypal Viking image includes a metal helmet with two horns, the average infantryman may have worn a simple leather cap.


Swords were at a premium, and swords fashioned from steel were even more precious and rare. A Viking lucky enough to have a sword to wield probably had one made of iron, which blunted easily. Swordplay during the Viking Age was not the en garde, swishy fencing of a swashbuckling Errol Flynn movie, but instead brute-force swinging of the heavy blade, aiming for the vulnerable legs. Legs were a good target because a warrior usually wore only a leather, apron-like protective garment that reached just to the knees. Even though swords were scarce, some examples of Viking swords with intricately traced, silver-inlaid hilts have been discovered in grave fields.

With only the leather apron for protection, Vikings lacked body armor, and the Europeans, used to seeing mail-clad warriors, often described the raiders from the North as “naked.” Seeing shiploads of “naked,” gigantic warriors disembarking with a war cry from a fleet of stealthy longships on a fine day must have struck many of the Northmen’s victims cold with terror. And each raider would have wielded, in addition to his shield and possibly a sword, his battle axe.

Fighting Men and Their Axes

The battle axe is associated closely with the Vikings. An axe could be made of iron, lightweight enough to wield with one hand, or crafted with a heavier, broad blade for two-handed swinging. Since swords were not plentiful, the battle axe was the weapon of the Viking infantryman, and they could be highly prized and personal, some of them beautifully decorated. Others were obviously simply basic fighting tools, such as some examples unearthed in a Viking hoard found along the Thames, made of metal blades mounted on sturdy sticks without ornamentation.

Wielding a battle axe effectively required tremendous brute strength and an accurate aim. A weak blow was worthless and left the axeman vulnerable, while a missed blow could throw the offender off balance, leaving him open to a death blow from an opponent.

The Battle Axe in Literature

The Icelandic Saga of Burnt Njal, written in the thirteenth century, describes the kind of use a Viking could make of an axe in battle. In the story, Skarp-Hedin takes his vengeance on his enemy, Thrain. As Thrain and his retinue pause on a clump of ice in a river, Skarp-Hedin makes for them, skidding across the frozen surface. Skarp-Hedin reaches his enemy just as Thrain is reaching to put on his helmet. Wielding his battle axe as he skates by, Skarp-Hedin cleaves Thrain’s head in two and continues sliding past the astonished men accompanying their now-dead leader.

This is not the only Viking story, fact or fiction, to feature axes. King Guthrum, the Viking defeated by the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred at Edington, is described in one tale as a “brute beast in man’s shape … who with sword and axe” felled the men around him. Then there was Brodir, chief of the Manx Vikings in Ireland in the tenth century. A vicious fighter with black hair so long that he tucked it into his belt, this Viking chief brutally slew the elderly Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, by “burying his axe deep into Brian’s skull,” then calling out, “Now, let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian!”

Axes in the “New World”

The Vikings took their axes with them on exploring adventures as well as for marauding. When they landed in what would become Canada in the eleventh century and attempted to install a settlement there, they left the Native Americans—Skraelings to the Vikings—rather unimpressed with their weaponry. One story related that the Skraelings came across a dead Viking with his axe lying beside him. They shattered the axe with a rock and then threw the pieces away, concluding that the axe was worthless because it could not resist stone. Indeed, the axes were not that helpful to the Vikings in what came to be known to them as “Vinland.” When they battled the Skraelings, their axes were no better than the handheld weapons and missiles that the Native Americans used, although the “Skraelings” were somewhat impressed with the fact that the Vikings had weapons made of metal.

Regardless of the effectiveness of the Viking battle axe compared to other weapons of the time, the Vikings themselves were effective enough to trigger a few changes in European warfare and defense. Their tactic of sudden, surprise attacks led the European nobility to build the first castles to withstand the onslaught while they gathered their people for battle.

Impact on World History

The Viking Age ended in the mid-eleventh century. These men from the North had been the prevailing force of change for almost three centuries, warrior-seamen who descended on the weakened or divided kingdoms of the Franks, the British Isles, and the Low Countries (Frisia). They set up communities in Iceland and Greenland and raided all of Europe from Britain down to Constantinople, yet Iceland is their only surviving settlement. In spite of their widespread travels for pillaging and exploration, they and their culture disappeared from many of the places they invaded and even settled. They thieved and they killed for their own gain, but they drove the unification of England and rearranged the Frankish landscape, themselves eventually becoming Scots or French or British, armed with plows instead of battle axes.

During their age, however, the Vikings were the dominant sea power in Europe. They explored the coastlines of the continent, the British Isles, and North Africa, touching shore from Canada to Constantinople. Their influence and their bloody ways came with them to Russia; they affected the Byzantine Empire and left their mark in North America. Viking raiding parties profoundly affected medieval Europe, and trade routes that they established as their presence became more permanent allowed the flow of coins, silver, and goods from the Middle East to Northern Europe.

Their presence in Europe tested European rulers, forging from this crucible some of the best leaders in medieval history, men forced to lead or fail and required to raise the armies they needed to succeed. In some places, such as Normandy and Britain, Vikings took over ruling, but in others, especially early in the age, they plundered and moved on. Their actions, in addition to forcing strong leadership, also were the impetus for fortification and infrastructure projects throughout Europe, from Alfred the Great’s efforts in England to those of Count Odo in Paris. Although much of their culture vanished or was assimilated, their laws (Norse law) is found in the earliest legal codes of some modern European nations.

No one really knows why the Vikings decided to head south from their native strongholds of modern-day Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Many reasons have been suggested, from overpopulation to curiosity to essential acquisitiveness. The Danish Vikings focused their efforts on England, France, and Frisia (today, the Netherlands). The Swedes of that time went to the Baltic and through Russia, establishing what would become known as the “Rus Vikings” and fostering trade relations with the Near East. Norwegians took on the northern British Isles.

Although their reasons for emerging from their homelands to terrorize Europe and explore widely remain mysterious, their reasons for ending their raiding are less cryptic. Things at home began to improve because of stabilized domestic politics. Around this time, the boundaries of the countries we know collectively as “Scandinavia” began to emerge, united but having separate monarchies. Populations ceased to be known as “Viking” and either assimilated into cultures or became their own cultures (e.g., Danish). By 1000, most Vikings had made the conversion to Christianity, giving them a bridge to understanding and better relations with Western European countries and possibly a theological counterbalance to their bloody pursuits guided by their paganism.

In addition to establishing trade routes that lasted through much of the Middle Ages, the Norseman also revolutionized warfare through their use of longships. These boats, with their curved prows and long slender bodies, made their raiding and exploration possible and helped to rewrite the cultural and geographic connections of the medieval world.

After the almost complete assimilation of the Northmen into the cultures they joined, however, historians must search to create a short list of the more tangible legacies these invaders and explorers left behind. Their efforts at colonization of the “New World” failed, leaving behind only artifacts. They assimilated so completely into British and French culture that only a few linguistic reminders exist of their historic dominance—words that end in -tot in France, for example, and some of the linguistic peculiarities of Cornwall and Yorkshire. They did, however, spread gold and silver money throughout Europe and left behind, codified into laws, some of their ideas about property ownership and testifying under oath.

Any written record of Viking origin is rare, primarily confined to carved writings (runes) on stones that do not even date from the time of their peak dominance. They or the people who fought them are celebrated in numerous epic poems and tales, and certainly their exploits permeate even some of our modern literature, such as the writings of Beowulf scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Their arrival and presence in Western Europe changed the course of history, of warfare, of kingship, and of infrastructure and defense. Alcuin, the famed scholar in Charlemagne’s court, believed the Vikings were a scourge sent from God to punish the people for falling away from divine guidance. However, hindsight shows a more complex influence of these raiders from the north. Without them, there would have been no Battle of Hastings, no William the Conqueror, no trading with the Near East, and no castles, which the nobility began to build to defend themselves from these lightning-strike marauders. In other words, without the influence of these persistent and bloodthirsty invaders, there would be no Europe as it is known today.

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Viking Raids and Norman Conquests (8th to 11th Centuries)

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