The Vikings and Magyars

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The Vikings and Magyars


Disintegration. The empire created by Charlemagne did not survive long after his death in 814. Only one of his three sons, Louis the Pious, outlived him, and after his death in 840 Louis was succeeded in 843 by his three feuding sons, Charles the Bald, Lothar I, and Louis the German. Their division of the kingdom would form the geographical basis of modern France, the Low Countries, Italy, and Germany, but it also ushered in the eventual end of the Carolingian dynasty. Even if they had not practiced partible inheritance, however, Charlemagne’s grandsons and their descendants would have probably found it extremely difficult to put up an effective defense against all the raiders on all of the sides of the kingdom. Spanish Muslim armies continued to harass the borders of the empire across the Pyrenees mountains, while other Muslim forces had begun to attack Sicily and southern Italy; they were joined by new and more-determined threats from the Vikings in the north and west and the Magyars in the east.

Greatest Threat. Of these, the greatest threat was the Vikings. As of yet, no historian has been able to offer a satisfactory reason for the sudden outburst of Viking raiders from Scandinavia in the late eighth century, although the destruction of the Frisian fleet by Charlemagne at about the same time certainly left no effective deterrents to their sea travel and may have been a factor in the launching of their invasions. Still, this fact alone cannot be sufficient cause to explain the large number of voyages that were launched from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark between 789 and 1066 and extended along the coasts of continental Europe, England, Ireland, the Baltic region, east to Russia, south to Byzantium, Italy, and North Africa, and west to the Faroe and Shetland Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and North America.

Initial Contact. The first recorded attack of the Vikings was made in 789 on the southeastern coast of England. Four years later they again appeared off the coast of England, and this time their violent purposes became clear. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the incident:

793. Here, terrible portents were come over the Northumbrian land, which miserably frightened the people; there were huge flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. Much hunger soon followed these signs, and a little after that in the same year, on January 8, the raiding of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne Island by looting and the killing of men.

Plunder. For a while after the attack on Lindisfarne Abbey these Scandinavian raiders, carried onto the English, Irish, and northern European shores in their dragon-prowed ships, were content to feast on the easy monastic and small urban pickings that were spread throughout the countryside. These were fairly rich locations

waiting, it seems, for someone to attack them. The fact that they were filled with unarmed ecclesiastics and farmers meant nothing to the raiders, whose plunder and booty would be returned to their homelands, giving purpose to their journeys away from families and fields, while at the same time inspiring new Viking raiding voyages. Eventually, the Scandinavians even wintered in England and France, establishing base camps from which they could raid longer and farther inland than ever before.

Rich Targets. Early on, Ireland, Scotland, and northern England provided the richest targets; attacking lands filled with monasteries but without many fortifications or militias, there was little opposition to the violent raids of the Vikings. But by around 834 the ancient Irish civilization had been virtually destroyed and the countrysides of Scotland and northern England also had been almost completely despoiled of their ecclesiastic targets. The Vikings were forced to turn elsewhere for their booty, toward the continent. Without the military strength of a Charlemagne there was little to stop these attacks. Their targets, too, had become larger. By 840 the Vikings had raided the Low Country towns of Noirmoutier, Rhé, Duurstede (sacked no fewer than four times), Utrecht, and Antwerp. In 843 they wintered for the first time in Gaul, capturing Nantes, ravaging the valleys of the Loire and Garonne Rivers, and even, on their way home to Scandinavia, threatening the Muslim cities of Lisbon and Cadiz. Moreover, in 845 a Viking force of more than 120 ships sailed up the Seine River and sacked Paris.

River Routes. The many rivers on the continent provided them with conduits to a large number of inland sites, and in the following thirty years, the Vikings raided up the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, Somme, Seine, Marne, Loire, Charente, Dordogne, Lot, and Garonne Rivers. No town, village, or monastery even remotely close to a waterway was immune from attack. Nor were any coastal European sites seemingly too far from Scandinavia to warrant concern, for as the century progressed the Vikings became bolder. One expedition from 859 to 862 even sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and raided Nekur in Morocco, the Murcian coast of Spain, the Balearic Islands, and Roussillon. After wintering on the Rhone delta, it raided upstream to Valence and sacked Pisa and then Luna (which the Vikings apparently thought was Rome) before sailing back past Gibraltar and north to their base in Brittany.

Alfred the Great. In 866 a main force of the Vikings, the Danish “Great Army,” attacked southern England, quickly overrunning East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, but met bitter resistance a few years into their conquest from the West Saxons under their king, Alfred the Great. Alfred defeated the Vikings in battles fought at Englefield and Ashdown. Following these engagements, in 878 he won a major victory against the Danes at Edington. Alfred also devised a system of fortifications, earth-and-wood ramparts known as burhs, that surrounded many of the larger and previously unfortified towns in his kingdom. All of this resistance led to peace treaties being signed, a diminishing of Viking activity, and Alfred’s assumption of the kingship over the entirety of England.

Continental Raids. Once again the Scandinavians turned to the Continent and the weaker Carolingian rulers there. They attacked Ghent (879), Courtrai, and several sites in Saxony (880), Elsloo and Aachen (881), where they even sacked Charlemagne’s palace, Conde (882), Amiens (883), and Louvain (884). In 885-886 a large Viking army again attacked Paris with a force said to have numbered seven hundred ships and forty thousand men (undoubtedly an exaggeration); they did not sack the city, however, but were bought off by King Louis the Fat who paid them £700 of silver and gave them permission to spend the summer raiding Burgundy, a land that he did not own. In 891 the Vikings were back in the Low Countries, where they were defeated by Arnulf, the king of the East Franks, at the battle of the Dyle. Yet, they were still powerful enough to establish a district in the lower Seine river basin, which in 911 was officially ceded to them as the duchy of the Northmen (Normandy).

Colonization. After 911, Viking activity seems to have slowed. Colonization in the conquered territories had been taking place for some time during the raids, and by the beginning of the tenth century Scandinavians had founded communities in Ireland, Scotland, England, Russia, Normandy, the Faroe Islands, the Shetland Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and, shortly thereafter, North America. Trading with these communities and others had become more of a practice than raiding, especially with the discovery of cheap Islamic silver that could be obtained and taken back to Scandinavia for enormous profits. At the end of the tenth century, perhaps because of the drying up of the Islamic silver market, Viking raids again started to take place, especially against England. From 991 on, a succession of Scandinavian leaders attacked England, and in 1014 one of them, Sweyn I Forkbeard, conquered it and ruled for a short time as king, being succeeded by his son, Canute I (the Great). An English king, Edward the Confessor, regained the throne in 1042, but it was not until later invasions in 1066 and 1085 were turned back that the Viking threat to Europe had finally ended.

Raiders from the East. Far less famous than the Viking invasions, but equally devastating to post-Carolingian Europe, were the Magyar raids. Originating in the late ninth century and lasting until the middle of the tenth century, raiding Magyar horsemen made their presence felt especially in the areas of central Europe near their Hungarian homelands. Oddly enough, these warriors may first have glimpsed what they would later view as easy targets, the riches of the West, when they became employed in 892 by Arnulf, the king of the East Franks, in an attack against the Slavs in Moravia. Seven years later they returned to the West on an expedition of their own. They first advanced south to Pavia, which they sacked, and then wintered in Lombardy. The next year, 900, they raided Bavaria, and the year after that Carinthia. After a five-year period of peace the Magyars returned in 906 when they rode into Saxony; in 907 they rode again into Bavaria, in 908 into Saxony and Thurin-gia, and in 909 into Swabia. Civil wars in their homelands prohibited further raids for eight years, but when those raids again resumed, the Magyars returned to the West with great violence. From 917 until 926 these renewed raids were much more destructive than previous raids, and they stretched farther, to Basle, Alsace, Burgundy, Lombardy, and Provence. However, after 926, and for reasons not completely explained by historical sources, Magyar power began to decline, although the raiders remained a threat to those German lands within close proximity. Finally, in 955 the Magyars were defeated and driven back to Hungary by King Otto the Great at the battle of Lechfeld.

Rationale. While the reasons behind the Muslim raids in the Mediterranean regions during this period

appear to have been religious in nature, those for the Viking and Magyar attacks cannot be fully understood. They do not seem to have been conquests, like those invasions that the Germanic tribes had made into the Roman Empire half a millennium before. Even in the Vikings’ case, actual colonization did not take place until late in their raiding chronology. At the conclusion of their individual raids, most Vikings and Magyars returned to their homelands. They returned laden with booty, and it must be concluded that the success of the early raids promoted their continuation.

Disunity. There is also little doubt that the disunity and military weaknesses of the post-Carolingian kingdoms of continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England encouraged the success of these raids. Since the death of Charlemagne few militias had been recruited and few fortifications had been built. Thus, there was not much to stand in the way of the raiders. (In fact, Charles the Bald was so concerned about the possibility of rebellions against his rule that just as the Vikings were beginning to spread their invasions to his lands he was disarming the people and tearing down their fortifications.) Nor were new defensive endeavors undertaken during the time of these invasions. Even when a leader could raise an army of sufficient strength to oppose the raiders, neither the Vikings nor the Magyars generally allowed themselves to be forced to fight in a pitched battle. This approach seemed logical to both the Vikings and Magyars since they usually lost such engagements.

Attrition. By the time the raids had ended, the Vikings had been invading Europe for almost three centuries and the Magyars had been invading for more than fifty years. So, why did they finally end? There may be several plausible answers. First, there was undoubtedly an attrition factor. The Vikings and Magyars simply could not continue to participate in raids on Europe for much longer than they did, as the number of viable targets seems to have dwindled considerably by the later raids. This reason may explain why the Magyars spread their final raids out farther from their homeland and why the Vikings began to attack larger and more-fortified places.

Guardians of Settlements. Second, at least for the Vikings, colonization certainly played a role in diminishing and finally ending the invasions. As Vikings began to settle in lands that had previously been targets of their raids, these lands became no longer suitable for further raids. In other words, the Scandinavian presence in the lands necessarily forbade future raids. Indeed, the Vikings who participated in these raids were never a unified political entity, and they seem to have shown little concern whether they were attacking lands that were controlled by Scandinavian colonists or by other Europeans. However, the Vikings who had settled on these lands seem to have been much more formidable opponents to those raiders than the land’s former inhabitants. That is why Charles the Simple had settled Vikings in Normandy: they provided a buffer against further invasions. (When Vikings were not available to provide a defense against further raids, sometimes other strong military leaders could be found to do so, as in the case of naming Baldwin the Iron Arm as count of Flanders and Reiner with the Long Neck as duke of Brabant in the ninth century; after their ascension neither area was further threatened by Viking raids.)

Other Occupations. A third reason for the ending of these raids was that several former raiders found it safer and more profitable to become traders or merchants or to find other occupations. Sailors of skill were always needed, as were warriors, and Scandinavians soon became desired throughout Europe and the Middle East for their expertise on the sea and in war. The Byzantine emperors, for example, employed a large number of Vikings in their special bodyguard unit, the Varangian Guard.

Conversion to Christianity. Fourth, by the end of the ninth and beginning of the tenth centuries most Scandinavians began to convert to Christianity. While not affecting the end of the Magyar raids—their conversion to Christianity would come later—the desire of Vikings to raid monasteries and other Christian sites obviously was diminished by these conversions.

National Leaders. Finally, by the eleventh century the loose confederations of Vikings and Magyars that had long participated in invasions were becoming unified into states in their homelands. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Hungary all had kings by this time, and these “national” leaders frequently needed whatever soldiers they could find, including all who in previous generations would have gone on raids. In fact, all of the so-called eleventh-century invasions undertaken by Vikings against England were in actuality attempted conquests by Danish and Norwegian kings: those of Sweyn I Forkbeard and Canute I were successful; those of Harald Hardrada and Olaf III were not.


R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (London & New York: Longmans, Green, 1957).

Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson, The Viking Achievement: The Society and Culture of Early Medieval Scandinavia (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1970).

Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

F. Donald Logan, The Vikings in History, second edition (London 8c New York: HarperCollins Academic, 1991).

C. A. Macartney, The Magyars in the Ninth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962).

Sawyer, Kings and Vikings: Scandinavia and Europe, A.D. 700–1100 (London 8c New York: Methuen, 1982).