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Viking is an Old Norse term, of disputed derivation, which only came into common usage in the 19th cent. to describe peoples of Scandinavian origin who, as raiders, settlers, and traders, had major and long-lasting effects on northern Europe and the Atlantic seaboards between the late 8th and 11th cents.

Archaeological evidence suggests that trading activity between Britain and Scandinavia had existed from at least the 6th cent. In the later years of the 8th cent., however, contemporary documents record the beginnings of more aggressive contact, with Viking raids on weakly defended coastal sites in both Britain and Francia; the sacking of Lindisfarne in 793 was but one of a series of such attacks. After a period in which Viking fleets concentrated on Ireland, raids along the English coast intensified from c.835, affecting trading centres like Southampton, London, and Canterbury. This pattern of attacks on England changed significantly in 850 when a Danish army overwintered on Thanet in Kent; a more permanent presence was now envisaged. In 866 the ‘great raiding army’ invaded East Anglia, after several years fighting in the Carolingian empire, and one branch of this group subsequently captured the commercial and political centre of York in 867; from this base attacks were launched on Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex. In 867, under Halfdan, the army established a permanent settlement on lands around York and this was followed by a similar take-over of territories in eastern Mercia in the following year. The final years of the century saw a military and political struggle for power in southern England between the Danes and Alfred (871–99), who ruled the only remaining Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex; during this period recognition of a distinct legal and administrative system in the Scandinavian-settled areas north of the Thames–Chester line emerged with the establishment of Danelaw c.886. Alfred's successors in the early years of the 10th cent. gradually re-established their power over the Anglo-Scandinavian midlands and north but it was only with the expulsion of the last Viking king of York, Erik Bloodaxe, in 954 that England achieved a precarious political unity under a single crown. Yet, despite its subjection to southern kings, northern England remained a distinct entity for centuries, its linguistic, legal, and cultural structures long bearing the mark of its Scandinavian settlement.

The Danelaw Scandinavians in eastern England were largely of Danish origin. During the first two decades of the 10th cent., however, groups from Norway, together with second-generation settlers familiar with western Scotland, arrived in Cumbria in a colonization which is now largely detectable only in place-name evidence. There are also traces of a secondary settlement from the Norse stronghold of Dublin in the Cheshire Wirral at about the same date.

The middle years of the 10th cent. were largely free of Scandinavian activity in England, but a second wave of widespread raids began early in the reign of King Æthelred (978–1016); these increased in intensity until 991 when the first of a series of payments of Danegeld was made. The ultimate aim was now political domination of England and this was eventually achieved by Cnut who became king of England and of Denmark in 1017. Anglo-Scandinavian relationships had a complex history after his death in 1035 but the defeat of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge immediately before the battle of Hastings represented the last important Scandinavian attempt to conquer England. Ironically the Norman victory of 1066 ensured that the English throne then passed to a descendant of Scandinavians who had settled in northern France.

Elsewhere in Britain (outside Ireland) Scandinavian raids and colonization are less well recorded. Apart from a few coastal place-names there is little trace of any impact on Wales. By contrast archaeological and onomastic evidence in Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides, together with the Isle of Man, points to heavy Norwegian settlement from the early 9th cent. Much of this western area remained as a recognizable political entity (the ‘kingdom of the Isles’) until 1266, whilst the Scandinavian settlement of Orkney and Shetland accounts for their continued allegiance to Norway which only ended in 1469.

Why Scandinavian peoples should suddenly have emerged as such an influential element over an area reaching from North America to the Black Sea is still far from clear. Early historians sought explanations in political consolidation in Scandinavia and military weaknesses in Francia and Britain; climatic and population changes were also invoked as were patterns of inheritance which partitioned land to the point where holdings were too small to sustain a subsequent generation. More recently the emphasis has moved to explanations involving technical improvements in ships and navigation and to the manner in which growing trade in northern Europe may have attracted the increasingly aggressive involvement of entrepreneurial merchants from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden who made little distinction between legitimate and piratical trade. Equally controversial in recent years among British historians has been the problem of the number of people involved in the English raids and settlement; most historians probably now recognize that, whilst the raiding armies may have been relatively small, the linguistic evidence must argue for a large-scale settlement.

Viking activity clearly opened up new international markets for cities like York and Lincoln. The Scandinavian presence also undoubtedly accelerated changes which were already taking place in England; thus both the decline of monasticism and the rise of Wessex at the expense of other kingdoms can be detected long before the Vikings arrived. There can however be no questioning the fact that the initial raids and subsequent land-taking were socially and politically disruptive. Monastic chroniclers may have exaggerated the extent of the devastating effect of raids—Lindisfarne, for example, continued as a monastic centre for some 75 years after its looting in 793—but the loss of church lands to settlers, with the consequent diminution of ecclesiastical resources, resulted in a major dislocation of England's diocesan organization and also accounts for the fact that the late 10th-cent. Benedictine reform movement failed to penetrate the Anglo-Scandinavian north.

Richard N. Bailey


Crawford, B. , Scandinavian Scotland (Leicester, 1987);
Loyn, H. R. , The Vikings in Britain (1977);
Richards, J. D. , Viking-Age England (1991);
Roesdahl, E. , The Vikings in England (1981).

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Vi·king1 / ˈvīking/ • n. any of the Scandinavian seafaring pirates and traders who raided and settled in many parts of northwestern Europe in the 8th–11th centuries. • adj. of or relating to the Vikings or the period in which they lived. Vi·king 2 either of two American space probes sent to Mars in 1975, each of which consisted of a lander that conducted experiments on the surface and an orbiter.

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Viking Two NASA spacecraft, launched in 1975, that placed vehicles in orbit and landed instruments on the surface of Mars, Viking 1 landing on 20 July and Viking 2 on 3 September. Both transmitted substantial amounts of data to Earth, as well as the first colour photographs taken from the martian surface.

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viking XIX (first in Icel. form vikingr or vars. of this, vikinger, -ir). — ON. (Icel.) víkingr, commonly held to be f. vík creek, inlet + -ingr -ING3, as if ‘frequenter of inlets of the sea’; but the existence of the word in OE. as early as VIII (in wīcingsċeaða) and in OFris. (wī(t)sing) suggests that it may have originated in that linguistic area (f. OE. wīc, OFris. wīk, in the sense ‘camp’).

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Viking any of the Scandinavian seafaring pirates and traders who raided and settled in many parts of NW Europe in the 8th–11th centuries. The name comes from Old Norse vik ‘creek’ or Old English wīc ‘camp, dwelling place’.

The name Viking was also given to either of two American space probes sent to Mars in 1975, each of which consisted of a lander that conducted experiments on the surface and an orbiter.