Sometime in the autumn of 885 `seven hundred high-prowed ships and very many smaller ones’ snaked up the Seine in a column that `extended for more than two leagues [10km or 6 miles] down river’, according to Abbo of the nearby Abbey of St-Germain-des-Pre’s, an eyewitness to the event. The young Benedictine monk also insisted that `the grim ones’ who manned those vessels numbered 40,000. And so began what was, perhaps, the most ambitious amphibious assault of the Viking onslaught: the 885-6 siege of Paris.
The Viking force which made its way up the Seine was composed of various elements of the so-called great army forced from England by Alfred’s defensive measures, plus other groups of raiders who had been operating in Flanders. The numbers conveyed by the awed Abbo in his epic Latin poem, Bella parisiacae Urbis (`Wars of the City of Paris’) were clearly literary embroidery to enhance the `divinely inspired’ deeds of the 200 or so defenders. Respected medieval military historian Carroll Gillmor has convincingly shown through quantitative methodology that the Viking fleet could have consisted of no more than 200 to 300 ships, probably the size of the Skuldelev 5 vessel (17.3m/57ft long by 2.5m/8ft wide by 0.5m/1ft 8in deep), each carrying a crew of about twenty-six – meaning the whole host was about 5,000 to 8,000 men at most. Actual totals were probably even smaller. That said, this incursion was the largest, most sustained Viking thrust into the heart of West Frankia of the era.
Ironically, the objective of this great Viking armada was not originally Paris itself but the rich upper Seine basin and Burgundy with its as yet unscathed monasteries and towns. When the Northmen rowed up the Seine in November 885 they managed to make it past the fortified bridge built by Charles the Bald at Pont-de-l’Arch, probably because it was inadequately guarded. After all, there was no major population centre in the vicinity. Paris, on the other hand, was a city of perhaps 5,000 inhabitants, located on the Île de la Cité which controlled two fortified bridges blocking the Seine: the Grand Pont extending to the right bank (north side) and the Petit Pont stretching across to the left bank (south side). This was why, according to Abbo, when the Vikings reached Paris in late November, their principal chieftain, Sigfrid, merely asked for passage. Hostilities were precipitated only when the city’s leading luminary, Bishop Gozlin, denied permission.
The Vikings concentrated their initial assault of 26 November on the Grand Pont on the right bank, probably because the tower guarding it remained un- finished. Abbo indicated that the Danes attacked the tower from their ships, but, unfinished or not, its foundation was stoutly constructed of stone and they were repulsed. During the night the defenders topped the tower with a wooden tier half as high again as the original structure. Undeterred, the besiegers battered the bastion the next day with the usual blizzard of `darts, stones, and javelins . . . hurled by ballistae and slingshots’. They even went at the base of the tower with `iron picks’, but Bishop Gozlin and Odo, count of Paris, had organized an effective resistance. The defenders showered their attackers with a scalding mixture of oil, wax and pitch `which burned the hair of the Danes; and made their skulls split open’.
Next, the Danes attempted to set the tower’s gate ablaze, but a sortie from the city led by two standard-bearers with banners `tinted golden with saffron’ like some early version of the Oriflamme (the royal battle standard of France) drove the attackers off. Odo’s brother, Robert the Strong, fell in the course of the battle, but the citizenry remained resolute. The tower was again repaired during the night. Realizing the siege would not be a swift one, the Scandinavians retired to the right bank where they constructed a fortified encampment of stone and earthworks not far from St-German-l’Auxerrois. From there they raided all around in an apparent effort to build up their supplies. Once this was done, they renewed the assault with vigour. For the next several weeks the Vikings tried every imaginable stratagem. They built several `roofed’ battering rams with `monstrous wheels’. They made `a thousand tents, held aloft by upright poles’ for deflecting arrows and scorching liquids while attacking the walls. They even fashioned grenades – `a thousand pots of molten lead’ – which they hurled over the city’s Roman walls with catapults. At one point the Danes formed three corps, one of which made a diversionary assault on the tower while the other two evidently attempted to ram the bridge in `painted ships’. None of it worked. The bridge and the tower held fast. Part of the problem was a dyke that the defenders had dug around the tower, preventing the Vikings from moving siege towers into position. Advancing as a testudo (a unit of warriors marching in close-order formation using their shields to protect them all around like `a tortoise’), the Vikings attempted to fill in the ditch with earth and whatever debris they could find, including livestock and the cadavers of dead captives.
The results were mixed and ultimately unsuccessful. According to another contemporary source, Regino of Prüm, the Vikings grew so frustrated that sometime before the end of the year they even considered abandoning the siege altogether. To bypass the fortified bridges, they attempted a complicated portage operation in which they either carried or dragged vessels on rollers (probably logs) from the area of today’s Pont d’Ie’na through the grounds of St-Germain-des-Pre’s to a point just east of the Île Saint-Louis – a distance of around 3km (2 miles). The Vikings might have been able to get some of their smaller vessels past the blockage in this manner so that their crews could forage the virginal upper Seine valley, but this solution was clearly impracticable for a fleet of 200 to 300 ships, many the size of the Skuldelev 5 or larger. Consequently, they must have realized that they had no choice but to remove the blockage.
In desperation, the Vikings culled out `three rowing vessels’, dragged them overland on the right bank and refloated them upstream of the city. Once these ships were `loaded full with forests of branches and mounds of leaves’ and set ablaze, the Danes then guided them by rope from the river bank to a position from where the westbound current would carry them into the Grand Pont. The venture failed spectacularly. The fireships hung up harmlessly on the stone bridgeheads, so that the defenders were able to douse the flames and appropriate the vessels intact. Ironically, nature did to the Petit Pont what the Vikings had repeatedly failed to accomplish on the Grand Pont. On the night of 6 February 886 the Seine, apparently swollen by rain, over? owed its banks, carrying away `the mid-section’ of the span. This, of course, isolated the wooden guard tower on the left bank so that those in the city could no longer reinforce their com- patriots in the tower, of whom there were only twelve. In the morning the Vikings were able to complete the encirclement of the wooden tower with their ships. `And then the Danes brought forward a wagon, piled high with dry hay,’ recounted Abbo. `They set it alight, and pushed it against the wretched tower.’ Forced out onto what was left of the bridge, the twelve defenders surrendered, only to be butchered.
The Vikings had evidently invested too much by this time to simply continue up river, so the siege of the city staggered miserably on. The besiegers persevered at the gates with their battering rams while the besieged fended them off with `hefty shafts of hard wood, each one pierced at the far end with a keen tooth of iron’ and mangonels which launched `massive stones’. In the spring Charles the Fat (the Carolingian Emperor and king of West Frankia) finally sent help in the form of Heinrich of Saxony, but the latter did little to lift the siege. He was killed when he rode heedlessly into a 3ft-deep stake-filled trench excavated around the Viking encampment. On 16 April plague which had broken out in the city claimed the life of Bishop Gozlin. Sigfrid had also apparently grown sick of the enterprise. It took a mere 60 pounds of silver from the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Pre’s to convince him and his contingent to depart. Others persisted in the assault, however, so Odo slipped past the Scandinavians to seek succour from the emperor.
That summer the Vikings made one last furious assault. `The mortal enemies of the city encircled its walls, so that it had to face constant attacks from all directions,’ testified Abbo, meaning the Vikings must have surrounded the city with their ships, given that it was located on an island in the middle of the Seine. In any event the effort fell short. Charles the Fat arrived, at long last, in October to relieve the city. His remedy was to ransom it from the Vikings for 700 pounds of silver and free passage to Burgundy, which the remaining Norse raiders then ravaged for the next three years – precisely what the fortified bridges of Paris had been designed to prevent. Such a resolution was widely regarded as spineless and caused Charles to be deposed the following autumn in favour of Count Odo of Paris, an ancestor to the Capetian kings of France.
Contemporaries, it is clear, stood in awe of Harold Sigurdson [note] [Harald Sigurdsson]. ‘The thunderbolt of the North’, was how Adam of Bremen, who wrote in the 1070s, remembered him; ‘the strongest living man under the sun’, said William of Poitiers (albeit reporting the words of somebody else). A half-brother of King Olaf II of Norway, born around 1015, Harold had been forced to flee from his native country while still in his teens, and ended up spending several years at the court of Yaroslav the Wise, king of Russia. From there he ventured south, like countless generations of Vikings before him, to Constantinople, capital of Byzantium, the eastern rump of the Roman Empire, and rose to great power and eminence by rendering military service to successive emperors. His reputation and his fortune won, he returned to Scandinavia in the mid-1040s and used his well-honed skills to make himself king of Norway, where he subsequently reigned with a fist of iron, fighting his neighbours and executing his rivals. Small wonder that when later Norse historians looked back on his life they dubbed him ‘the Hard Ruler’, or Hardrada.
The fact that his famous nickname was not recorded until the
thirteenth century, however, alerts us immediately to an inescapable problem.
Harold’s contemporaries may have been impressed by his epic tale, but they did
not write it down – unsurprisingly, for eleventh-century Scandinavia was still
for the most part a pagan society and hence largely illiterate. The first
sources to deal with his reign in any detail are Norse sagas dating from the
late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, almost 150 years after the events
they purport to describe. The most celebrated account of all – the so-called
King Harold’s Saga – was told by an Icelandic historian called Snorri
Sturluson, who died in 1241 and wrote in the 1220s and 1230s – that is, almost
two centuries after Harold’s own time.
How much trust can we place in such late sources? On the
positive side, we can see from similarities in his text that Snorri drew on
earlier sagas, as well as oral traditions. He also considered himself to be an
objective writer, and in several passages seeks to reassure his readers of his
conscientiousness as a historian. Halfway through King Harold’s Saga, for
example, he explains that he has omitted many of the feats ascribed to his
protagonist, ‘partly because of my lack of knowledge, and partly because I am
reluctant to place on record stories that are unsubstantiated. Although I have
been told various stories and have heard about other deeds, it seems to me
better that my account should later be expanded than that it should have to be
There is no reason to doubt Snorri’s sincerity but, alas, we
cannot set as much store by his stories as we could with a contemporary source,
especially when it comes to points of detail. Take, for instance, his account
of Harold’s adventures in the east. On the one hand, we can be absolutely
certain that the future king went to Constantinople, and that he rose to a
position of prominence there, because he appears in contemporary Byzantine
sources (as ‘Araltes’). These same sources confirm Snorri’s statements that
Harold fought for the emperor in Sicily and Bulgaria, and show that he
ultimately obtained the rank of spatharocandidate, just three levels below the
emperor himself. But, on the other hand, when it comes to the details of
Harold’s eastern adventures, the same local sources show that Snorri was often
wrong. Sometimes he gives events in the incorrect order, and at other times he
gets the names of key individuals confused. Harold, for instance, is said by
Snorri to have blinded Emperor Monomachus, whereas contemporary sources show
that the true victim was the previous emperor, Michael Calaphates. This leads
us to a general conclusion about the value of Snorri’s work. The broad thrust
of his story may well be true, but on points of detail it has to be regarded as
very suspect, and all but useless unless it can be corroborated by other, more
Harold apparently returned from his adventures in the east
in 1045, at which point he intruded himself in the struggle for power in
Scandinavia between his nephew, King Magnus of Norway, and the king of Denmark,
Swein Estrithson. If there is any truth in Snorri’s version of events, the
former spatharocandidate employed the same underhand and unscrupulous methods
that had worked so effectively in Byzantium, siding first with Swein, but then
defecting to Magnus in return for a half-share of the latter’s kingdom. When
Magnus died in 1047 he reportedly bequeathed all of Norway to Harold and
declared that Swein should be left unmolested in possession of Denmark. His
uncle, however, was not the kind of man to settle for such half-measures, and
soon the war between the two countries was resumed.
According to some modern historians, Hardrada from the start
of his reign also had similar designs on England. There is, however, precious
little evidence to support such a view, either in the contemporary record or,
for that matter, in the later sagas. It is often said that the new Norwegian
king considered himself to have a claim to the English throne on account of the
alleged deal between Magnus and Harthacnut that each should be the other’s
heir. Whether this deal, first reported by a mid-twelfth-century writer, had
any basis in fact or not, Magnus certainly behaved as if England was his by
right. As we have seen, Edward the Confessor took the threat from Norway very
seriously during the early years of his reign, setting out every summer with
his fleet to defend his coast from invasion.
In the case of Harold Hardrada, by contrast, there is scant
evidence to indicate a similarly hostile intent. Historians have made much of
an obscure Norwegian raid that took place somewhere in England in 1058, led by
Hardrada’s son, Magnus, because an Irish annalist described it as an attempt at
conquest. In reality it can have been little more than a young man’s luckless
quest for adventure and booty. It finds no mention in any of the Norse sagas,
and was barely noticed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (‘A pirate host came from
Norway’, says the D version, briefly and uniquely, as a coda to its description
of Earl Ælfgar’s rebellion that year). Beyond this there is nothing in our
English sources to suggest that an invasion from Norway was either anticipated
or feared. Edward the Confessor, far from sailing out from Sandwich each
summer, disbanded his fleet in the early 1050s and cancelled the geld which
paid for it. Later in the reign, when the Godwine brothers were effectively
running the kingdom, neither demonstrated any concern with Scandinavian attack.
Tostig concentrated on securing peace with Scotland, and Harold on carrying war
into Wales, and both felt sufficiently confident to leave England for trips to
the Continent. Of course, one could argue that, by dealing with their Celtic
neighbours, the Godwines were strengthening the kingdom generally, and hence
improving its ability to withstand any future Viking assault, but that would
seem to be a fairly roundabout way to prepare were such an assault really
regarded as imminent. The reasonable conclusion is that it was not regarded as
such. Prior to 1066, Harold Hardrada is mentioned only once in the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle – at the start of his reign, when he sent messengers to England in
order to make peace.
The truth is that, from the moment of his accession onwards,
the Norwegian king was entirely preoccupied with his struggle against Swein
Estrithson for control of Denmark; not until 1064 did he agree to a permanent
peace, and even after that he had to contend with opposition within Norway
because of his oppressive rule. Both the Scandinavian and English sources, in
short, point to the same conclusion, which is that the idea of invading England
was not seriously entertained by Harold Hardrada until the year 1066 itself.
And the reason it took root that year, most likely, was because it was planted
by Tostig Godwineson.
Tostig, as we’ve already seen, had not responded well to the
prospect of a life in permanent exile. We know that after his banishment from
England in November 1065 he had fled to Flanders, and most likely it was from
Flanders that he returned in the spring of 1066, raiding along the southern and
eastern coasts before eventually retiring to Scotland. According to the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he remained in Scotland as the guest of King Malcolm for
the rest of the summer.
Precisely how and when he established contact with Harold
Hardrada is therefore something of a mystery. One possibility is that he did so
early in the year, ahead of his spring raid. Such was the belief of Snorri
Sturluson, and it finds some support in other sources. A twelfth-century English
chronicler called Geoffrey Gaimar, for example, informs us that most of
Tostig’s own troops in the spring had been drawn from Flanders, but also says
that some ships had joined him from Orkney, a territory then under Norwegian
control. This has led some historians to see Tostig as the mastermind of an
elaborate strategy in 1066. In this view, his initial raid was not a failure at
all, but rather a clever diversionary tactic, a preliminary feint intended to
focus English attention on the south coast, away from the larger assault he was
planning to launch from the north. While this is possible, it does smack
somewhat of reading events backwards, and ascribing to Tostig’s cunning a
course of events that could easily have been determined by contingency. An
alternative reading is that the earl simply secured some sort of tacit
co-operation from Hardrada ahead of his spring attack, then, when that attack
failed, turned to him again in search of more substantial support.
Whenever it was that the two of them agreed to collaborate,
it seems very likely that in order to broker the alliance Tostig travelled to
Norway to meet Hardrada in person. Partly this is because it is hard to
conceive of such an alliance being struck without a personal meeting, but
mainly it is because Tostig’s arrival in Norway forms such a central plank of
the story as told in the Norse sagas. In Snorri’s account, and also in the
accounts of his known sources, Tostig first visits Denmark to seek the help of
King Swein, but his proposal is rejected. Disgruntled but undeterred, he pushes
on to Norway where he meets Hardrada at Oslo Fjord (appropriately, since the
city of Oslo was Hardrada’s own foundation). The Norwegian king is at first
aloof and suspicious, telling Tostig that his subjects will not be keen to
participate. Tostig, however, proceeds to talk Hardrada around, reminding the
king of his putative claim, and plying him with compliments (‘Everyone knows
that there has never been a warrior in Scandinavia to compare with you’). He also
stresses that the conquest of England will be easy on account of his own
involvement, telling the king: ‘I can ensure that the majority of the magnates
there will be your friends.’ Of course, we do not have to accept any of the
specifics here – Snorri is dramatizing, and the speeches must be made up. Yet,
for all the invented detail, one suspects that the essence of his account is
true. Hardrada had built a career on opportunism and violence; the prospect of
one last great adventure, of replicating the success of King Cnut, or simply of
recapturing the flavour of his glory days in the Mediterranean, must have been
extremely enticing. Moreover, the expectation of support from within England
itself would have made the enterprise seem feasible. The Scandinavian tradition
that Tostig’s visit to Norway set Hardrada’s invasion in motion is, in short,
very hard to dismiss. Nor is it unsupported by earlier sources: Orderic
Vitalis, writing in the early twelfth century, says much the same thing,
explaining that the earl’s proposal greatly pleased the covetous Norwegian
king. ‘At once he ordered an army to be gathered together, weapons of war
prepared, and the royal fleet fitted out.’
If Tostig went to Norway from Scotland, he was clearly back
in Scotland by the end of the summer: when Hardrada set sail towards the end of
August, his English ally was not with him. The king was accompanied, however,
by several members of his own family, including his queen, Elizabeth, two of
his daughters and one of his younger sons. His eldest son, Magnus, he left
behind in Norway to act as regent, having first taken the precaution of naming
him as his heir in the event of his non-return. As to the size of his fleet, we
have a predictable variety of estimates. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
suggests it contained 300 ships, while John of Worcester later increased the
figure to 500. Snorri, from whom we might expect even greater exaggeration,
says that Hardrada assembled a great host, reported to have contained more than
200 ships, plus smaller craft for carrying supplies: a useful reminder that
even a fleet of this size constituted an enormous deployment, and a caution
against believing the far larger numbers offered by other chroniclers for
fleets in this period. If each of the Norwegian king’s 200 ships carried a
modest average of forty passengers apiece, this would still have given him an
army of 8,000 men.
Snorri says quite credibly that Hardrada sailed first to
Shetland and then to Orkney, where he was joined by the local earls and where
he left behind his wife and daughters. From the Northern Isles he proceeded
down the east coasts of Scotland and Northumbria until he reached the River
Tyne, where (according to the most detailed English sources) he met up again
with Tostig. Whether the earl had managed to add to the meagre flotilla of
twelve ships that had limped to Scotland with him at the start of the summer is
unknown; but even if King Malcolm had increased the naval resources of his
sometime sworn brother, it would have been apparent to all that Tostig was very
much the junior partner. Hardrada had come in great force to conquer England
and make himself its new ruler. On his arrival, says the Chronicle, the earl
swore allegiance to him as his new sovereign. Together they then set out on the
last leg of the voyage, sailing and raiding along England’s north-eastern coast
(Snorri, for what it’s worth, describes significant encounters at Scarborough
and Holderness), before eventually turning up in the estuary of the Humber, and
then making their way up the River Ouse. Eventually they landed at Riccall, a
settlement on the Ouse’s north bank, some ten miles south of their principal
target: the city of York.
Although they cannot have planned it with any great
precision, the invaders had apparently timed their arrival to perfection. We
have no certain dates for their progress around the Northumbrian coast, but the
testimony of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests it occurred in the first week
of September. Any earlier and news of their coming would have reached southern
England before 8 September – the day on which, according to the Chronicle,
Harold Godwineson dismissed the great army and fleet he had held in readiness
since the start of the summer. At the same time, the Norwegian invasion can
hardly have begun any later in September, because the Chronicle also says that
Harold received the terrible news as soon as he reached London, presumably just
a few days after he had left the Isle of Wight. The inescapable conclusion –
and how utterly galling it must have been for the English king – is that he
must have disbanded his army at more or less exactly the moment that the
invaders had disembarked.
This dramatic turn of events, more than anything else, shows
how totally unexpected an attack from the north had been. Harold had spent the
whole summer preparing for an assault from Normandy; all his resources were
directed southwards. This alone suggests that the notion, advanced in many
modern history books, that a Scandinavian invasion of England had been long
anticipated is simply an assumption, without any evidence to recommend it. All
the evidence, both direct and circumstantial, actually points in the opposite
direction, and indicates that the invaders had kept their intentions well concealed.
Orderic Vitalis, for example, claims that nothing had been known in Normandy
about Hardrada’s preparations, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that the
Norwegian fleet had arrived in England ‘unwaran’ – unexpectedly.
It was obviously imperative that Harold speedily reassemble
his forces. The fleet which he had sent back to London was apparently still
intact, although according to the Chronicle many ships had been lost as they
had made their way around the south coast, presumably due to bad weather in the
Channel. The king would also still have had with him his housecarls, ready as
ever to form the nucleus of any new army. But he had no time to wait while such
an army regrouped in London. Harold can have paused in the city for only a few
days before setting out for Yorkshire and, as he did so, messengers must have
ridden in all directions, recalling the thegns who had been dismissed only days
beforehand. The English king, says the Chronicle, ‘marched northwards day and
night, as quickly as he could assemble his levies’.
What had been happening in Yorkshire during the second week
of September is altogether unclear. Hardrada and Tostig had made their camp at
Riccall, and must have sent their troops out into the surrounding countryside
to plunder it for provisions; as yet, however, there had apparently been no
assault on York. All we know for certain is that during this period the earls
of Mercia and Northumbria, Eadwine and Morcar, began raising an army of their
own with which to confront the invaders, and that by the third week of
September they obviously felt sufficiently confident in their numbers to risk
an engagement. On 20 September the two sides met just to the south of York, on
the east side of the Ouse, at a place called Fulford.
Sadly, despite modern attempts to reconstruct this battle,
the truth is that we can say next to nothing about it. Even its location was
not recorded until the twelfth century, and Snorri’s account is so demonstrably
inaccurate as to be virtually worthless. He does provide the colourful detail
that Hardrada advanced behind his famous banner, ‘Land-waster’, which earlier
in the saga is said to have had the magical property of guaranteeing victory to
its bearer. It evidently worked its magic that day at Fulford, for the only
certain fact about the battle is that Eadwine and Morcar were defeated. The C
version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled at a Mercian monastery, tried
its best to preserve the honour of its patrons, reporting that they inflicted
heavy casualties on the invaders, but could not disguise the final outcome. ‘A
great number of the English were slain or drowned or driven in flight,’ it
lamented, ‘and the Norwegians had possession of the place of slaughter.’
Eadwine and Morcar themselves must have been among the fugitives, for (despite
Snorri’s assertions to the contrary) both brothers survived the battle.
In the wake of their victory, the Norwegians entered York.
We might imagine that the city would have been put to the sack, but this was
clearly not the case. ‘After the battle,’ says the C Chronicle, ‘King Harold of
Norway and Earl Tostig went into York with as large a force as suited them, and
they were given hostages from the city as well as provisions.’ This sounds very
much as if the citizens of York had surrendered without a fight and obtained
good terms. John of Worcester, when he later rewrote this section of the
Chronicle, actually stated that there was an exchange of hostages between the
two sides, with 150 townspeople being swapped for an identical number of
Norwegians. Here indeed was the friendly collaboration that Hardrada had been
led to expect. Tostig may have been the target of Northumbrian hostility the
previous year, but he could evidently call upon the support of at least some
sections of society in Yorkshire – especially now he had a victorious Viking
army at his back. The Anglo-Danish aristocracy of York had always worn its
loyalty to the south lightly; faced with the choice between a new Scandinavian
ruler or a recently crowned earl of Wessex, they readily chose the former.
According to the Chronicle, discussions were held between the citizens and
Hardrada with a view to concluding a lasting peace, ‘provided that they all
marched south with him to conquer the country’.
Having been favourably received in York and won the support
of its citizens, the Norwegians withdrew to their ships at Riccall. Before they
set out to conquer the south, however, it had been agreed that there would be
another meeting, at which hostages from the rest of Yorkshire would be handed
over. For reasons that remain obscure, the location selected for this meeting
was neither Riccall nor York, but a small settlement eight miles to the east of
the city, a crossing of the River Derwent known as Stamford Bridge. Hardrada
and Tostig were waiting there on 25 September in expectation of a final round
of submissions before they advanced to subdue the rest of the kingdom.
What they encountered in the event was Harold Godwineson at
the head of a new royal army. The English king had advanced northwards and
reassembled his host far more quickly than his opponents had anticipated. After
leaving London around the middle of the month, he had arrived in the Yorkshire
town of Tadcaster on 24 September, having covered the intervening 200 miles in
little more than a week. According to the Chronicle, he had expected to find
Tostig and Hardrada holding York against him and had drawn up his forces
against an attack from that direction. But the following morning he discovered
that his brother and the Norwegian king had left for their appointment at
Stamford Bridge, evidently quite oblivious to his approach. It was an
opportunity not to be missed. Harold marched his men straight through York and
out towards the crossing on the Derwent, a distance of some eighteen miles. The
day must already have been well advanced by the time the English king fell upon
his unsuspecting enemies.
The accounts of the Battle of Stamford Bridge are not much
better than those for the encounter at Fulford five days before. Snorri is once
again on fine (i.e. unreliable) form, giving an account of the preliminaries
entirely at odds with that of the Chronicle, including an improbable interview
between the two King Harolds before the onset of hostilities (notably for its
oft-quoted line that Hardrada would be granted only ‘seven feet of ground’).
One element of Snorri’s account which does merit attention, however, is his
claim that the Norwegians had gone to Stamford Bridge wearing their helmets and
carrying their weapons, but without their mail shirts because the weather was
warm and sunny. Special pleading, you might think, but the story is
corroborated by a contemporary chronicler called Marianus Scotus. The C version
of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contributes a few more details, confirming that
the English king caught his enemies ‘unawares’, describing the fighting as
‘fierce’ and adding that it lasted until late in the day. It concludes with a
story, added in the twelfth century and repeated by several other writers, of
how the English were for some time prevented from crossing the bridge over the
Derwent by a single Norwegian warrior, apparently wearing a mail shirt, until
at length an inspired Englishman sneaked under the bridge and speared the Viking
in the one place where such armour offers no protection. This was supposedly
the turning point of the battle: Harold and his forces surged over the
undefended bridge and the rest of the Norwegian army were slaughtered. Both
Hardrada and Tostig were among the fallen.
It was, said the D Chronicle, ‘a very stubborn battle’. When
the remaining Norwegians tried to flee back to their ships at Riccall, the
English attacked them as they ran. Some drowned, says the Chronicle, some burnt
to death, and others died in various different ways, so that in the end there
were very few survivors. The author of the Life of King Edward, weeping for the
death of Tostig, wrote of rivers of blood: the ‘Ouse with corpses choked’, and
the Humber that had ‘dyed the ocean waves for miles around with Viking gore’.
Only those who made it back to Riccall – the D Chronicle names Hardrada’s son,
Olaf, among them – were given any quarter, their lives spared in exchange for a
sworn promise never to return. Above all, the scale of the Norwegian defeat is
indicated by the Chronicle’s comment that it took just twenty-four ships to
take the survivors home.
After the battle, the bodies of thousands of Englishmen and
Norwegians were left in the field where they had fallen; more than half a century
later, Orderic Vitalis wrote that travellers could still recognize the site on
account of the great mountain of dead men’s bones. But the body of Tostig
Godwineson was recovered from the general carnage and carried to York for an
honourable burial; William of Malmesbury, who had a fondness for such human
details, reports that it was recognized on account of a wart between the
shoulder blades (the implication being that all the earl’s other distinguishing
features had been too badly maimed). His older brother, it is as good as
certain, also returned to York in the aftermath of his victory. Apart from
anything else, he would have wanted to have a serious conversation with its
citizens about the alacrity they had shown in supporting his Norwegian namesake.
Quite possibly, therefore, Harold Godwineson was present at Tostig’s funeral,
whipped by the wind that continued to blow from the north.
Two days after the battle, however, the wind changed direction.
There was, of course, no such thing as standard spelling in
the eleventh century, so to some extent the modern historian can pick and
choose. I have, however, tried to be consistent in my choices and have not
attempted to alter them according to nationality: there seemed little sense in having
a Gunhilda in England and a Gunnhildr in Denmark. For this reason, I’ve chosen
to refer to the celebrated king of Norway as Harold Hardrada rather than the
more commonplace Harald, so his first name is the same as that of his English
opponent, Harold Godwineson. Contemporaries, after all, considered them to have
the same name: the author of the Life of King Edward, writing very soon after
1066, calls them ‘namesake kings’.
At about the same time as Harald Bluetooth was erecting his
great monument to Viking Christianity at Jelling, and the Wessex dynasty was
completing the first unification of England with the expulsion of Harald’s
brother-in-law Erik Bloodaxe from York, seafaring Vikings of the old-fashioned
sort (Erik perhaps among them) were making, after an interval of almost a
century, a second series of violent investigations of the territory and peoples
of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain and Portugal), and the northern and western shores
Muslim civilization had grown dramatically since the
founding of the religion in Mecca in about 610 and Mohammed’s emigration to
Medina in 622. The territorial and cultural expansion eastward and westward
during the period of the Umayyad caliphs in the eighth century created an
empire that extended from the borders of China to the Atlantic Ocean, from the
Sahara to the Caspian Sea, from India to al-Andalus. With the rise to power of
the Abbasid caliphs in the middle of the eighth century, the capital of the
Islamic empire moved east, from Damascus to Baghdad. A dramatic rise in
interest in Hellenistic and Persian culture followed, and the writing of local,
Arab-nationalist literature that had characterized the Umayyad period was replaced
by a universal literature. Much of it was scientific. As well as mathematics
and cosmography, it reflected a vivid interest in the history and geography of
the many peoples with whom the expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries
had brought the Arabs into contact. The postal service of the Islamic empire
assumed an important role in this trend, facilitating communication and
knowledge of the routes and roads that bound the far-flung and disparate parts
of the vast empire together; its head of staff was a leading political figure
who was also chief of the security service. Books written initially for the
purpose of describing the routes connecting the empire presently evolved into
textbooks that nurtured an abstract interest in the history and geography of
the peoples of the world, and most of what we know of the encounters between
Vikings and Arabs in the territories bordering on the east and west of the
Muslim empire is derived from books written in this spirit of enlightenment.
In the east, the Arab geographers and historians used the
term ar-Rus for the Scandinavians they met in Russia and the surrounding
regions; those in Spain and western Europe used the term al-madjus. The term
al-madjus was not coined for the Vikings but was applied to them by Arab
scholars in the belief that they were fire-worshippers, like the Persian
Zoroastrians, whom they erroneously believed to practise cremation of the dead.
‘Their religion is that of the Magi,’ wrote the late thirteenth-century
historian Al-Watwat, ‘and they burn their dead with fire.’ Ibn Said, a
thirteenth-century geographer and traveller, offered a persuasive logic when he
explained the worship of fire among northern peoples by the fact that ‘nothing
seems more important to them than fire, for the cold in their lands is severe’.
Al-madjus derives from Old Persian magush, which is also the etymological root
of the Spanish word mago meaning ‘wizard’ or ‘astrologer’, and of the English
word ‘magician’. It is familiar in Christian culture from the story of the
three wise men, or magi, who travelled to Bethlehem to hail the birth of the
infant Christ. The Vikings were also known as Lordomani and Lormanes in western
Latin and Spanish sources. From the earliest times, Arab scholars were aware of
the fact that they were dealing with the same people, whether they encountered
them east of the Baltic, on Spain’s Atlantic coast, or in the Mediterranean: a
geographical study written in 889 by al-Yaqubi refers to the Viking attack on
Seville in 844 as ‘by the Magus, who are called the Rus’.
This raid on Seville is generally regarded as announcing the
start of the Iberian Viking Age, although the Scandinavian arabist Arne
Melvinger noted that Ibn al-Atir, the thirteenth-century historian, used the
term al-madjus to identify a force that came to the aid of Alphonse II, king of
Galicia, during his campaign against the Arabs in 795. Based on this, Melvinger
went on to contemplate the possibility of a Viking presence on the peninsula a
full half-century prior to this. He accordingly found it less easy than other
commentators have done to dismiss, as poetic licence or simple factual error,
Notker the Stammerer’s description of Charlemagne’s distress as the emperor sat
at supper in an unnamed coastal town in Narbonensian Gaul and watched a small
fleet of longships carrying out a raid on the harbour, for he was able to
suggest a possible connection between Notker’s Vikings and the al-madjus who
fought for Alphonse II in 795. The Arab military actions against Bayonne in
814, and in 823 and 825 in the Mundaka–Guernica fjord area of what is now
Biscay, have all been related to the possible presence of al-madjus bases in
these areas. These al-madjus can hardly have been Persian Zoroastrians, but the
persistent use by Arab writers of the same term to denote both groups makes
certain identification impossible. An objection to the argument for a Viking
presence on the peninsula at such an early date is that they had almost
certainly not yet established themselves sufficiently in either Ireland or
western Francia, the natural staging-posts such bases would seem to require for
the undertaking to be logistically credible. There is also the view of a school
of Basque historians who posit a late conversion to Christianity in the Vascony
area, and take all references to al-madjus in the Arab histories of raids and
battles of the ninth and tenth centuries to be to Heathen Basques rather than
As a development of the large-scale penetration by river of
the northern territories of the Frankish empire, the first serious Viking
attack on the Iberian peninsula in 844 came from a fleet that had navigated its
way up the Garonne as far as Toulouse before retracing its route and heading
south into the Bay of Biscay, following the coastline west past the tiny
kingdoms of Asturia, Cantabria and Galicia that divided Christian Europe from
Muslim Spain, raiding in Gijon and La Coruña on the way before being met and
heavily defeated by Asturian forces under King Ramiro I. Many longships were
lost in the attack and the fleet retreated to Aquitaine (or, if we allow the
possibility, to a base in Bayonne).
A few months later a fleet of eighty longships, with square
brown sails that ‘covered the sea like dark birds’, appeared off Lisbon, in the
estuary of the Tagus, and over a thirteen-day period engaged in three
sea-battles with local ships before heading further south. The harbour at Cadiz
was occupied, and while one group made its way inland to Medina-Sidonia, the
main body of the fleet sailed up the Guadalquivir into the very heartland of
al-Andalus and established a base on an island not far from Seville. The city
was taken, seemingly without resistance, for most of the inhabitants had fled
to Carmona or up into the mountains north of Seville, and for some two weeks
the city was in Viking hands. With the banks of the great river a noted centre
for the breeding of horses they were able to range far and wide across the
region in their plundering. As other ships arrived to join the occupying force,
those occupants who had not managed to flee were massacred. Others – women and
children – were taken captive. It seems the sheer unexpectedness of the raid on
Seville astounded the authorities in the capital of Cordova, for it was some
time before the emir Abd al-Rahman II thought to order the army out against
them. With the help of catapult-machines the army drove the Vikings out of the
city and some 500 of them were killed. Four Viking ships were captured intact.
In the middle of November the Vikings were again defeated,
again with heavy loss of life. Thirty longships were burnt, and the corpses of
Viking captives hung from the palm trees of Seville and Talyata. In symbolic
triumph, the heads of the expedition leader and 200 of his men were sent to the
Berber emir in Tangier. What remained of the fleet made its way back north up
the coast. Abd al-Rahman II’s response to the dreadful novelty of these raids
from the sea was to build a number of warships of his own and to establish a
chain of lookout posts along the Atlantic coast. Seville was restored, its
defences strengthened and an arsenal established.
There is no record of any further Viking activity in the
region until the arrival in 859 of a second fleet of sixty Viking ships. Two
that were sailing in advance were spotted and captured off the coast of the
Algarve, complete with their cargo of booty and slaves. The rest sailed on,
passing the Guadalquivir, which was now too well guarded to force, and making
land at Algeciras, where they burnt down the mosque. Resuming their voyage,
probably with the intention of entering the Straits of Gibraltar, they were
driven by bad weather down the Atlantic coast of Morocco as far as Asilah.
Making their way back to the Straits they entered the Mediterranean and
followed the coast of North Africa as far as Nakur, a town identified as modern
Nador, near what is now the small Spanish enclave of Melilla. Over the course
of the next eight days they raided the beaches for slaves. This fleet was
probably the same one that then went on to raid in the Balearic Islands of
Formentera, Majorca and Minorca, landed at Rosellon near present-day Perpignan,
plundered and burnt the monastery on the banks of the river Ter and even
reached the north Italian city of Luna (now Lucca). Returning along the coast
of al-Andalus, they attacked Pamplona and captured García, king of Navarra,
whom they ransomed for 70,000 gold coins. A long and well-established Viking
Age tradition holds that the leaders of this expedition were Hasting (aka
Anstign, aka Hastein, aka Astignus) and Bjørn Ironside.
The attack on Luna was made, according to Dudo, because
Hasting erroneously believed it to be Rome and was unable to resist the lure of
an assault on the very heart of institutionalized Christianity. Feigning
contrition for his evil ways, Hasting contacted local Christian leaders and
allowed himself to be baptized. Returning to his men he outlined the plan: they
were to pretend he had died and request permission for his body to receive a
Christian burial within the city. Once inside the walls, it was a simple matter
for him to leap from the coffin and lead his men in a massacre of the innocents
of the city. Luna was certainly plundered; but the tactics used to gain entry
to the city are less certain, and the ruse of ‘playing dead’ was a familiar
example of Viking and Norman cunning that was also attributed to other heroes
of the age, including the legendary Danish King Frodo, Robert Guiscard, the
eleventh-century Norman duke of Apulia, and the eleventh-century king of
Norway, Harald Hardrada.
As a postscript to this first round of ninth-century Viking
raids on the Iberian peninsula and beyond, the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland
for 867 offer a dramatized account of the background to the Africa campaign
which ingeniously relates it to the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in
England, and again emphasizes the role of slave-taking and slave-trading in
At this time came the Aunites (that is, the Danes) with
innumerable armies to York, and they sacked the city, and they overcame it; and
that was the beginning of harassment and misfortunes for the Britons; for it
was not long before this that there had been every war and every trouble in
Norway, and this was the source of that war in Norway: two younger sons of
Albdan (Halfdan), king of Norway, drove out the eldest son, i.e. Ragnall son of
Albdan, for fear that he would seize the kingship of Norway after their father.
So Ragnall came with his three sons to the Orkneys. Ragnall stayed there then,
with his youngest son. The older sons, however, filled with arrogance and
rashness, proceeded with a large army, having mustered that army from all
quarters, to march against the Franks and Saxons. They thought that their father
would return to Norway immediately after their departure.
Then their arrogance and their youthfulness incited them
to voyage across the Cantabrian Ocean and they reached Spain, and they did many
evil things in Spain, both destroying and plundering. After that they proceeded
across the Gaditanean Straits, so that they reached Africa, and they waged war
against the Mauritanians, and made a great slaughter of the Mauritanians.
However, as they were going to this battle, one of the sons said to the other,
‘Brother,’ he said, ‘we are very foolish and mad to be killing ourselves going
from country to country throughout the world, and not to be defending our own
patrimony, and doing the will of our father, for he is alone now, sad and
discouraged in a land not his own, since the other son whom we left along with
him has been slain, as has been revealed to me.’ It would seem that that was
revealed to him in a dream vision; and his other son was slain in battle; and
moreover, the father himself barely escaped from that battle—which dream proved
to be true.
While he was saying that, they saw the Mauritanian forces
coming towards them, and when the son who spoke the above words saw that, he
leaped suddenly into the battle, and attacked the king of the Mauritanians, and
gave him a blow with a great sword and cut off his hand. There was hard
fighting on both sides in this battle, and neither of them won the victory from
the other in that battle. But all returned to camp, after many among them had
been slain. However, they challenged each other to come to battle the next day.
The king of the Mauritanians escaped from the camp and fled in the night after
his hand had been cut off. When the morning came, the Norwegians seized their
weapons and readied themselves firmly and bravely for the battle. The
Mauritanians, however, when they noticed that their king had departed, fled
after they had been terribly slain.
Thereupon the Norwegians swept across the country, and they
devastated and burned the whole land. Then they brought a great host of them
captive with them to Ireland. For Mauri is the same as nigri; ‘Mauritania’ is
the same as nigritudo. Now those black men remained in Ireland for a long time.
The Arabic records that tell of the third series of Viking
raids on the peninsula that began in June 966 sound a weary and frightened echo
of the responses of Anglo-Saxon and Frankish chroniclers at their reappearance,
and at the predictably violent nature of their errand. The experiences of
previous encounters over 100 years earlier had etched itself on the communal
memory. The thirteenth-century Moroccan scholar Ibn al-Idari wrote of the
response to the sighting of a fleet of twenty-eight ships off the coast of what
is now Alcacer do Sal, in the province of Alentejo, just south of Lisbon, ‘that
the people of the region were very alarmed, because in former times al-magus
had been in the habit of attacking al-Andalus’. Descriptions of the size of the
fleets, their movements and doings have the same fearful precision of the western
chroniclers, and their sentences are punctuated in the same way by outbursts of
pious despair: ‘May Allah destroy them!’ Ibn al-Idari cries out, in the middle
of a tale of how the caliph, al-Hakam, hit upon a plan of disguising some ships
in his own fleet as longships, in the hope that they would function as decoys
and lure the Vikings into the Guadalquivir harbour.
The nucleus of this Viking fleet was the large remainder of
an army of Danish Vikings which had arrived in the duchy of Normandy early in the
960s at the request of Duke Richard I to give him military assistance in a
regional conflict. Some returned home once the business was settled; some
accepted Richard’s offer of land in return for baptism; the remainder set off
raiding in Galicia and Leon in the north-west of Spain, even-handedly attacking
both Christian and Muslim targets along the way. After encountering some
resistance, they were joined in 968 by a fleet of 100 ships under a leader
known to the Muslims as Gunderedo and threatened the Galician town of Santiago
de Compostela, by this time a place of pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Joseph
(Jakob) and, as a result, a very wealthy town. They landed at the head of the
Arousa inlet and, while the bishop of Compostela tried to organize resistance,
spread terror through the region, burning down buildings, killing and thieving.
When at length the bishop arrived at the head of an armed force they withdrew
to a place called Fornelos. In a later engagement, the bishop was killed by an
arrow and the demoralized Galician troops fled the field of battle and left the
people to the mercies of the Vikings. For the next three years they remained a
dominant and terrifying presence in the area. Why this dominance in Galicia did
not translate into formal possession is not clear; but the last recorded raid
in this particular series was an overland advance in June 972 to the Algarve by
a Viking army.
A fourth and final wave of Viking attacks that lasted from
1008 to 1038 was notable for the involvement of Olav Haraldson, a future king
of Norway, whose redemptive career as a crusader among his own people we shall
consider later. The raids were concentrated in the south-west of Galicia. In
the most notorious of them, the Vikings sailed up the Miño river to the town of
Tui, which they burnt and destroyed. Bishop Don Alfonso was captured, along
with a great number of other Christian officials, presumably for ransom, though
the records do not say so. Olav’s court poets, Sigvat and Ottar the Black, both
refer to their master’s adventures in Spain. The fact that Snorri does not do
so in his Saga of St Olav may be a discretionary omission by a Christian author
who was self-consciously writing a hagiography in which such details had no
place. Twenty years later the Vikings were back in Galicia, briefly this time
but apparently again successfully, for their commander made himself a name
there and was remembered as ‘the Galician Wolf’.
Other records exist, left by Arab travellers who encountered
the Vikings under less fraught circumstances than these and who were able to
indulge their anthropological curiosity to leave us an elliptical view of
Viking culture that is largely missing from the wounded accounts of Christian
scribes in the British Isles and in mainland Europe. We have already met Ibn
Fadlan, who closely observed, among other things, the funerary rituals of the
travelling band of Rus traders he met on the Volga in 921, and the geographer
Ibn Rustah, who travelled to Novgorod with the Rus at a slightly later date than
his fellow Muslim and noted down his impressions of the people and their home.
Ibn Fadlan’s descriptions veer dramatically from admiration at the physique of
the Rus – ‘I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and
encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall
as date-palms and ruddy-complexioned’ – to disgust at their failure to wash
themselves after defecating, urinating and having sexual intercourse. The day
began with a slave-girl who passed among the members of the group carrying a
pitcher of water in which each washed his hands, face and hair and then cleared
his nose and spat. The process was repeated until all had used the same water
in the same fashion. With the Volga flowing by outside, the economy would seem
unnecessary. Perhaps some bonding ritual was involved that reinforced the group
identity and strengthened its internal loyalty. Constantine Porphyrogenitos, in
his description of Rus traders making their way down the Dneiper to trade in Constantinople,
drew particular attention to the ‘one for all and all for one mentality’ that
guided their behaviour. Ibn Rustah observed the same thing: ‘If one group of
them is challenged to war, they all join forces. They stand firm as one man
against their enemies until they have won the victory over them.’ His account
is generally more sympathetic than Ibn Fadlan’s and is free from the latter’s
occasional flourishes of disgust:
They keep their clothes clean and the men adorn
themselves with armbands of gold. They treat their servants well and dress
exquisitely because they are such keen traders. ( … ) They are generous to each
other, honour their guests and treat well those who seek refuge with them, and
all who come to visit them. They do not allow anyone to annoy or harm these.
And whenever anyone dares to treat them unfairly they help and defend them.
Walrus tusks and furs were no doubt valuable and rare
commodities to take to market in the Arab world, but Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Rustah
both noted the importance of slave-trading:
They terrorize the Slavs, whom they reach by ship. They
take prisoners there and transport them to Hazaran and Bulgar and sell them
there. They do not own fields, but live entirely off what they bring from the
land of the Slavs.
Ibn Fadlan observed that each Rus woman wore pinned to her
breast a band of silver, copper or gold, its size determined by the wealth of
her man, from which a knife hung. Around their necks the women wore gold and
silver rings, each ring representing 10,000 dirham or Arabic coins. For much of
the early Viking Age the status of the dirham was such that it was a
universally accepted currency, in much the same way as the American dollar is
today, and was widely copied or counterfeited. Some of the dirham from the
Vårby hoard found near Stockholm have small Christian crosses added above the
Islamic inscription, suggesting they may have been struck in a Christian area.
Dirham make up a regular feature of the coin hoards unearthed across the Viking
world, from Cuerdale in the north-west of England to Spilling’s Farm in the
north-east of Gotland. The sheer volume of them is testimony to the extent of
the trade relations that existed between Arabs and Vikings in the east, with
Gotland and Birka as the main channels for conveying the coins westward; but as
we noted earlier, for a Viking the value of the dirham remained its silver
content, not its monetary value. Dirham were for daily use, and the fact that
so many of them were buried underground by Vikings in their own territories
suggests that they were so plentiful as to have attained the status of a
It was inevitable that misunderstandings should arise as
these Arab travellers tried to make sense of the ritual and mores of this alien
culture. Ibn Rustah wrote that the friends of a dead warrior dig him a grave
resembling a large house and place him in it, along with his clothes, his gold
arm-bands, food, drink and coins, and that his favourite wife is buried alive
with him before the grave is closed. There are no indications from any native
Scandinavian source that the Vikings practised suttee. What is likely is that
such travelling bands, be they Vikings, Rus or al-madjus, developed, as
self-contained groups far from home do, their own set of rules and rituals that
were unique to them. The degree to which the group observed by Ibn Fadlan was a
self-sufficient unit is suggested by the presence among them of their very own
priestess, the ‘Angel of Death’, whose functions included the ritual stabbing of
the slave-girl who had ‘volunteered’ to accompany her dead master into the next
world. Ibn Rustah likewise noted the terrifying power of the Rus priests:
They have their wizards, who decide on what they own as
though they were their masters, and tell them to sacrifice to their creator
whatever they decide of women, men and cattle. And once the wizards have made
the decision, they are compelled to carry out their instructions. The wizard
then takes the person or the animal from them, puts a rope around the neck and
hangs them from a gallows until dead.
Ibn Fadlan’s group was rich enough to sacrifice an entire
ship as a crematorium for its dead chieftain and his slave, but his informant
told him that only the greatest chieftains warranted such ceremony. Rank-and-file
members of the band were buried alone in small boats, while dead slaves were
simply left to rot where they died. The cultural similarities between the Volga
and Oseberg funerals include the use of ships as coffins and the provision of
food, or perhaps companionship, for the dead in the form of freshly killed
horses and dogs. The Volga funeral involved the sacrifice of a slave, and, as
we noted earlier, one of the women in the Oseberg ship may have been sacrificed
to accompany her mistress. But in terms of the imagined afterlife the
differences are striking: the climax of the funeral on the Volga came with the
burning of the ship, in which it resembles the ceremony carried out on the Île
de Groix off the north-west coast of France, but is distinct from both the
Oseberg and the Gokstad ship-funerals, where neither ships nor bodies were
Ibn Fadlan is the more sensationally inclined of these two
great Arab observers and rounds off the Risala, or ‘little book’, as his
account of his meetings with the Rus is known, by asserting that their king
spent most of his time on an enormous throne studded with precious stones.
Forty sexual slaves sat beside him, and whenever it pleased him to, he would
take one in full view of his men. When he wished to mount his horse the animal
was led to his throne, when he dismounted he did so directly on to his throne.
Most striking of all, Ibn Fadlan claims that he did not even leave the throne
to answer the call of nature but used a salver. This has the ring of a traveller’s
tale to it, and lacks the obvious credibility of the account of the funeral and
the events leading up to it. The main purpose of the embassy of which Ibn
Fadlan was a part was to instruct the Bulgar kagan in the Islamic faith.
Bearing in mind this religious goal, there is perhaps a point of contact
between his reactions to the Rus and those of Alcuin, who was so clearly uneasy
at the lack of physical modesty on the part of Heathens he had come across
before Lindisfarne. There is an almost homoerotic quality to Ibn Fadlan’s
description of the magnificence of the Rus as physical specimens, which he
struggles to quell with disgusted descriptions of their lack of hygiene. Like
the Christian Alcuin, Ibn was effortlessly convinced that, as a Muslim, he represented
the higher culture. One exchange makes it clear that the Rus did not agree. Ibn
Fadlan noticed his interpreter in conversation with one of the Rus and asked
him what they had been talking about. The interpreter told him:
‘He said, “You Arabs are stupid!” So I said, “Why?” and
he replied, “Because you take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in
highest esteem and you bury them under the earth, where they are eaten by the
earth, by vermin and by worms. We burn them in the fire, straightaway, and they
enter paradise immediately.” Then he laughed loud and long. I asked him why and
he said, “Because of the love which my god feels for him. He has sent the wind
to take him away within an hour.” ’ Actually, it took scarcely an hour for the
ship, the firewood, the slave-girl and her master to be burnt to a fine ash.
Among the Vikings, uniformity of procedure on socially
significant occasions like births, marriages and deaths waited on the
introduction of Christianity and the spread of the written word for its
imposition. But in his cheerful arrogance, this particular Rus seems to have
known that, in one respect at least, they had the future on their side.
Ibn Rustah also tells us that the Rus were covered to their
fingertips in tattoos depicting trees, figures and other designs. This is of a
piece with what Alcuin and that other, anonymous, Anglo-Saxon commentator noted
concerning the personal vanity of the Heathens, especially their fashion for
‘blinded eyes’, which may have been a form of eye-shadow. An Arab source leaves
no doubt that eye make-up was common among the Rus: ‘once applied it never
fades, and the beauty of both men and women is increased’. Tattooing was banned
in 787 by Pope Hadrian because of its association with Heathendom and superstition,
and Christian disapproval may account for the absence of any reference to
tattoos in the descriptions of men and women in the sagas written down in the
Christian era. Only a clutch of stray references, literary and archaeological,
have survived to confirm that it was indeed practised. In the ‘Sigrdrífumál’, a
gnomic poem on the deeds of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer collected in the Codex
Regius, the hero wakes a Valkyrie named Sigrdrífa whom Odin has condemned to
perpetual sleep for her disobedience, and compels her to reveal secrets to him.
One verse ascribes a magical power to tattooing:
Ale-runes you will want if another
tries to betray your trust;
scratch them on your drinking horn,
the back of your hand
and the need-rune on your nail.
Another indicates that tattoos could have a medicinal
I’ll teach you lore for helping
women in labour,
runes to release the child;
write them on your palms and clasp
invoking the disir’s aid.
Özti, the 5,000-year-old hunter whose body emerged from the
melting permafrost in the Öztal Alps in 1991, had at least fifty-seven tattoos
on various parts of his body. Many were concentrated in areas where the joints
bore signs of being worn and painful, and researchers have speculated that they
might have combined magic with a form of acupuncture. Tattooing may also have
had a ritual significance. An unusual comb, with runic inscriptions dated to
about 550–600, was found at Bømlo, in South Hordaland, in Norway, along with a
number of bone pins, including one with an iron tip and a small, iron-dressed,
hammer-like head. It is possible that in its entirety the find might have been
equipment associated with a rite of passage initiating young girls into
womanhood that involved tattooing and ritual decoration of the hair.
These encounters between Allah and Odin on the Iberian
peninsula and along the coast of the Mediterranean left few lasting traces.
Slavers routinely took the precaution of transporting their captives overseas
to discourage escape attempts and slaves taken by al-madjus in the region were
not offered for sale locally and did not lead to the development of local trade
relations. The only known diplomatic contact to have arisen out of the raids is
a mission, said to have taken place in about 845, to the court of the al-madjus
king who had led the attack on Seville the year before, with the aim of
establishing friendly ties with him. The Arab emissary was a renowned poet and
ladies’ man known as al-Ghazal, or the Gazelle, a name given to him in his
youth in tribute to his good looks. The wealth of detail in the account by the
twelfth-century Spanish scholar Ibn Dihya includes a description of the land of
this king of the al-madjus:
They came next to the royal residence. It was a large island
in the ocean, with running water and gardens. Between it and the mainland is a
journey of three days. Innumerable of the al-Magus live on this island. Close
to it are many other islands, large and small. All the inhabitants are Magus.
And the closest mainland also belongs to them, several days’ journey away. They
were formerly Magus, but now follow the Christian religion, since they have
abandoned the worship of fire and the religion they followed previously, and
converted to Christianity, excepting the inhabitants of some of the islands
belonging to them which are further out at sea. These continue to observe the
old religion with the worship of fire, marriage with mother and sister and
This sounds like Denmark, with the king’s hegemony over ‘the
closest mainland’ a reference to Vik in south-eastern Norway and Skåne in
southern Sweden, in which case al-Ghazal’s host would have been King Horik, who
was baptized by Anskar and encouraged Christianity in Denmark, though without
making it compulsory. Most of Ibn Dihya’s account is a literary entertainment
describing the king’s wife’s infatuation for her Arabic visitor. Al-Ghazal
visited her frequently and she showered him with gifts. He became her lover,
and satisfied her curiosity about his people and their customs. He made verse
in praise of her: ‘I am enchanted by a Magus woman, who will not let the
sunlight of beauty dim, who lives in the most remote of Allah’s lands, where
the traveller finds no tracks.’ His companions warned him to stop seeing her
and accepting the gifts and al-Ghazal cut his visits down to one every second
day. When the queen, who in al-Ghazal’s verse bears the non-Scandinavian name
‘Nud’, was told the reason for the change in his routine she laughingly
reassured him that
Our ways are not like that, and there is no jealousy among
us. Our women stay with their men of their own free will; a woman stays with her
man as long as it pleases her, and leaves him when she wearies of their life
The independence of women from the Heathen north generally
was a source of great surprise to Arab travellers. One noted that ‘among them
women have the right to divorce. A woman can herself initiate divorce whenever
she pleases.’ Ibn Dihya adds that, until the coming of Christianity, no woman
was forbidden to any man, the exception being when a high-born woman chose a
man of lower standing. This was held to shame her, and her family kept the
lover away from her. Al-Ghazal, reassured by Queen Nud’s words, resumed his
daily visits until his departure. The impression of a Danish society free from
sexual jealousy is countered by Adam of Bremen, who states plainly that women
who were unfaithful to their men were immediately sold.
No authoritative Arab historian of the time mentions this
mission, nor do any of the biographers of al-Ghazal, and the great French
arabist, Évariste Lévi-Provencal, judged the whole story to be a fictional
improvisation based on a journey to Constantinople known to have been made by
al-Ghazal in the winter of 839/840. This was the year in which the Rus turned
up at the court of Louis the Pious in Ingelheim on their way back from
Constantinople. Lévi-Provencal speculates that al-Ghazal may have met these Rus
or heard talk of their land and their customs, with his report from this
encounter forming the basis of Ibn Dihya’s later improvisation.
The sole Viking Age artefact to have emerged in Spain is a
small cylindrical vessel made of deer horn, with a pattern of holes around it
and a handle at one end. It is a rarity among such artefacts in that it was not
found accidentally by the digging of archaeologists but had been in use in the
Church of San Isidoro, in León, for several centuries until it was finally
identified and installed as an exhibit in the town museum. All three of the
dominant Borre, Jelling and Mammen styles of the second half of the tenth
century have left identifiable traces on the design on the vessel, a gripping
beast motif made up of as many as eight smaller beasts. The mingling of styles
suggests a transitional phase between the Jelling and Mammen eras, and a
tentative dating to the end of the tenth or beginnning of the eleventh century.
The provenance of the vessel is obscure, but it may have been part of a large
donation made to the church in León by King Fernando I (1037–1065) and his
Queen Doña Sancha in 1063. How it came to be in their possession and what its
original function may have been are unknown. Other traces of the Viking
presence are slight. Generally speaking, it was too sporadic to leave a
significant impact on the local language and place-names. In the province of
León there is a village called Lordemanos, which may indicate a local
settlement of Vikings, and near Coimbra, in Portugal, a village named Lordemão
invites similar speculation, as do villages named Nordoman and Nortman. In
Vascony, Vikings who settled in Bayonne may have taught the Basques how to hunt
the whales that arrived in the Bay of Biscay every autumn. Predictably, the
handful of loan-words from Old Norse into Basque, Spanish and French are
connected with maritime and fishing activity. The fishermen of Bermeo, the most
important fishing-port in the Basque country, use ‘estribor’, compounded of
‘styr’ and ‘bord’, to designate ‘starboard’, and ‘babor’, from ‘bak’ and
‘bord’, to mean ‘port’. Among place-names in the region with otherwise unknown
origins, Mundaka, on the mouth of the river Oka, may derive from Old Norse
‘munnr’, meaning ‘mouth’.
The wave of raids between 966 and 971 marked the climax of
the Viking Age in Galicia. Briefly, there was a danger that the province might
turn into a Spanish Normandy. But it did not, and the raids on the Iberian
peninsula and beyond had no lasting political or cultural significance. They
were episodic and piratical, long and daring journeys undertaken in search of
riches and adventure, and as such perhaps more authentically ‘Viking’ in spirit
than the colonizations. There are no conversion stories here, no discourse with
local aristocrats, no attempts on the part of the adventurers to establish
large-scale settlements and farm the land. Yet we know enough by now to realize
that there is no such thing as a typical Viking, and an enigmatic and unusually
charming recollection of their presence is a tale told by one Arab chronicler
of a certain group of al-madjus who got lost or separated from their companions
in al-Andalus, somehow evaded execution, converted to Islam, and married local
girls. They started a farm at Isla Menor, on the Mediterranean coast between
Alicante and Cartagena, where they presently established a reputation as
producers of what was reputed to be the best cheese in the region.
Legend has it that in the late eighth century Charlemagne
once caught sight of some Viking ships from his breakfast table while he was
visiting the French coast. His hosts assumed that they were merchants, but the
emperor knew better and warned that they were “full of fierce foes”. The Franks
rushed to the shore with swords drawn, but the Vikings fled so quickly that it
seemed as if they had simply vanished. The disappointed courtiers returned to
the palace where they were greeted with an astonishing sight. The great
Charlemagne, Roman emperor and restorer of world order, was weeping. No one
dared to interrupt him, but after a time spent gazing out to sea he explained
“Do you know why I
weep so bitterly, my true servants? I have no fear of those worthless rascals
doing any harm to me; but I am sad at heart to think that even during my
lifetime they have dared to touch this shore; and I am torn by a great sorrow
because I foresee what evil things they will do to my descendants and their
Although this account is obviously apocryphal, Charlemagne
hardly needed any prophetic gifts to foresee the danger the Vikings posed to
his kingdom. He had, in fact, been preparing his defenses against them for
years, and ironically, was at least indirectly responsible for drawing the
raider’s attention in the first place.
Frankish contact with Scandinavia predated him by a century
or more. Viking furs, amber, eiderdown, and whetstones were highly prized in
Frankish markets, and Danish merchants were common in the great imperial
trading centers of Dorestad on the Rhine and Quentovic near Boulogne. With
Charlemagne, however, the dynamic changed. Before him, the Franks had
maintained a powerful and stable kingdom in what is today western Germany and
eastern France. When Charlemagne accepted the Frankish crown in 768, he
immediately began expanding his frontiers in all directions. By 800 he had
seized part of the Pyrenees, Bavaria, and most of northern Italy, hammering
together a larger state than any seen since the time of the Caesars. On
Christmas Day that year, in a carefully orchestrated move, Pope Leo III placed
a crown on Charlemagne’s head and named him the new Western Roman Emperor – an
office that had been vacant for more than three centuries.
Roman style coins were minted, imperial palaces were built,
and Charlemagne even considered marrying the Byzantine empress and making the
northern Mediterranean a Roman lake once again. A new Pax Francia seemed to be
dawning under the auspices of the all-powerful Charlemagne. Little seemed to be
beyond his reach or ambition. The scholar Alcuin, who had written of the first
Viking raid on Lindisfarne, hinted that the Frankish emperor even had the
ability to bring back the boys / monks who had been kidnapped by the
The addition of an imperial title may have burnished the
emperor’s credentials, but it also alarmed everyone on his borders. The
Frankish tendency towards expansion mixed with Charlemagne’s clear ability was
a dangerous combination. “If a Frank is your friend“, went a popular eighth
century proverb “he’s certainly not your neighbor.”
If they didn’t think so before, by 804 the Danes would have
agreed with this proverb. That year Charlemagne finally crushed the Saxons of
northwestern Germany, concluding a war that had lasted for three decades.
Franks and Danes were now neighbors, and the Scandinavians had reasons to
believe that they were next on the menu.
The immediate cause for alarm was Charlemagne’s plans to
build a fleet, something his powerful land empire had previously lacked. His
stated goal was to deny Danish pirates access to the Elbe, the river protecting
the empire’s northeastern flank. He had already tried to address this issue by
building two fortified bridges to make it easier to move troops across at will.
The other great rivers of the empire received similar treatment. A moveable
bridge of pontoons connected by anchors and ropes guarded the Danube, the great
eastern river that allowed access to the heart of imperial territory, and a
canal was started between the Rhine and Danube to allow troops to move quickly
to a threatened border.
When the emperor announced the addition of a North Sea
fleet, most inhabitants of the Danish peninsula correctly suspected that
Charlemagne’s real target was the Danish port of Hedeby, located just over the
border on the Schlei Fjord. The town had become the great entrepôt for Viking
goods, and a rival for even the largest Frankish markets. The Danes had set up
toll booths and a mint – the first in Scandinavia – and were doing a brisk
business that had begun to cut into the older, more established imperial
The man responsible for Hedeby’s growth was a Viking warlord
named Godfred. Frankish chronicles called him a ‘king’, but he was less a ruler
of Denmark than a ruler in Denmark. Many Danes may have recognized his
authority, but there were rival figures with their own halls even in the
Jutland peninsula that makes up the bulk of modern Denmark.
Godfred – in what would become true Viking fashion –
increased the population of Hedeby by importing captured merchants from
Frankish towns he raided. To defend it against Charlemagne he began
constructing the Danevirke, a massive earthen wall topped by a wooden stockade
that would eventually extend across the neck of the peninsula from the North
Sea to the Baltic.
Safe behind these ramparts, Godfred began to harass his
powerful neighbor. He sacked several Frankish towns and forced one of
Charlemagne’s allies to switch their allegiance. In response, a small Frankish
army marched north and the Danevirke was put to its first test. Godfred’s
soldiers held their ground, and Charlemagne, who was occupied with revolts
elsewhere, decided to buy peace.
The two sides agreed that the river Eider would form a
permanent border, and an apparently chastened Godfred sent hostages to the
imperial capital of Aachen as a sign of good faith. This, however, turned out
to be a ruse. When Charlemagne left with his army for the campaigning season
early the next year, Godfred led two hundred longboats on a plundering raid of
the Frisia – what is today the Netherland’s coast. His price for leaving was a
hundred pounds of silver, collected from the beleaguered merchants and peasants,
and whatever portable wealth his Vikings could stuff into their ships. As a
final note of defiance, he announced that he was claiming the northern stretch
of the Frisian coast for himself.
Despite the huge number of ships involved, the raid itself
was relatively minor, and Charlemagne was too experienced to believe that any
of his borders were permanent. The treaty would have been violated eventually;
what really stung Charlemagne was the appropriation of a part of his
It wasn’t immediately apparent how he should respond. The
few ships he had were woefully inadequate for an attack, so naval operations
were out of the question, and a land invasion carried its own risks.
Charlemagne had just finished a bruising thirty-year war with the Saxons and,
now in his late sixties, had no desire to get bogged down in another
The first order of business, in any case, was to contain Godfred. The coast had to be protected, and since the Franks lacked a true fleet, the Vikings themselves would have to provide one. Independent groups of Danes had been raiding the Frankish coast for more than a decade, and the larger ones were more than happy to take Charlemagne’s gold in exchange for the promise of protection. While they protected him from the sea, Charlemagne gathered his army to storm the Danevirke.
The expedition never left. That summer, as the final
preparations were being made, Godfred was cut down by one of his own men. In
the chaos that followed, the identity of the killer was obscured. Some later
claimed that it was his disgruntled son, angry that Godfred had recently
married another woman, and others that the assassin was the king’s housecarl,
but either way, the threat vanished. Charlemagne was apparently annoyed to be
cheated of his revenge. His biographer Einhard claimed that the emperor
remarked, “woe is me that I was not thought worthy to see my Christian hands
dabbling in the blood of those dog-headed fiends.” As it turned out,
Charlemagne never got the chance to wash his hands in northern gore. He expired
four years later and was succeeded by his son Louis.
Without a strong hand at the helm, Charlemagne’s empire
began to fall apart. At first the decay was barely noticeable. His son Louis
seemed to be a younger, more cultured version of Charlemagne. The court took to
calling him ‘Louis the Debonaire’, both for his refined court and his continued
patronage of the arts. Even on the battlefield, he appeared to live up to his
famous predecessor. During his father’s reign he had been entrusted with the
security of the southwest frontier, and had been vigorous in its defense. He
imposed Frankish authority over Pamplona and the Basques of the southern
Pyrenees, and sacked Muslim-controlled Barcelona. All threats to his authority
were ruthlessly suppressed, especially if they came from his own family. At his
coronation he forced all his unmarried sisters into convents to avoid potential
threats from brothers-in-law.
The promising new reign took an unexpected turn in 817, when
Louis suffered a near fatal accident. A wooden gallery connecting Aachen’s
cathedral to the imperial palace collapsed while he was crossing it after a
church service, leaving many courtiers maimed or dead. Badly shaken, the
injured Louis began plans for his succession, naming his eldest son Lothair as
senior emperor, and splitting the rest between two other sons and a
The emperor recovered, but news of the planned partition had
reached Italy where his nephew Bernard – currently ruling as king – discovered
that he was to be demoted to a vassal. He immediately revolted, but when Louis
suddenly appeared in Burgundy with an army, the unprepared Bernard surrendered
without a fight. He agreed to meet with his uncle to beg his pardon, and
hopefully retain Italy. Louis, however, was not in a particularly forgiving
mood. Bernard was hauled back to Aachen and put on trial for treason as an
example to any other family members who were considering revolt. He was found
guilty, stripped of his possessions and sentenced to death.
As a sign of his clemency, Louis commuted the penalty to
blinding, and two days later the procedure was carried out. The soldiers tasked
with performing the blinding weren’t overly gentle. They used their heated iron
rods so forcefully that Bernard didn’t survive the ordeal, dying after two days
Louis was never quite the same after the death of his
nephew. Deeply religious to begin with, his guilt drove him to ever more lavish
public displays. Members of the clergy became prominent advisors, and so many
churches and monasteries were endowed that he acquired the sobriquet by which
his most known – Louis the Pious. When even this failed to alleviate the guilt,
the emperor took the extraordinary step of staging a public confession of his
sins before the pope and the assembled ecclesiastics and nobles of the empire.
As admirable as this conspicuous humility may have been, however, it had the
effect of badly undercutting his own authority.
Contemporary society was dripping with blood. The vast frontiers
were surrounded by hostile peoples who could vanish into their forests or out
to sea before the imperial army appeared. A good emperor was forced to set off
on at least one large military campaign a year, and failure to do so would be
interpreted as weakness.
Where the emperor failed to show the mailed fist, violence
flared up. Rebellions had to be met with brutal force. Captured enemies were
routinely blinded, maimed, tortured, or hung. At Verdun, Charlemagne had
beheaded forty-five hundred Saxon nobles as a punishment for revolt, and
relocated entire populations to pacify them.
All of this was accepted as necessary behavior to impose
order. When Louis, therefore, humbly bowed before the Pope and recited a
laundry list of sins that included even minor offenses, it diminished the
emperor in the eyes of both his subjects and his enemies. This was not the way
an emperor was supposed to act. Charlemagne had wanted to bathe in the blood of
his enemies; his son seemed to want to join a monastery.
On the northern frontier, the Vikings were well aware of
this situation. Charlemagne’s defenses, particularly the fortified bridges and
army, were still formidable enough to blunt a large attack, but there were
ominous signs that the situation would soon change. A Frankish bishop traveling
through Frisia found help from ‘certain northmen’ who knew the routes up the
rivers that flowed toward the sea. The Vikings were clearly aware of both
harbors and sea routes, and the empire lacked a fleet with which it could defend
The Franks, however, seemed oblivious to the danger. Life
was more prosperous than it had been in many generations, and they were
enjoying the benefits of imperial rule. The archbishop of Sens in northern
France, confident in the protection of the emperor, had gone so far as to
demolish the walls of his city to rebuild his church. The towns on the coast
were equally vulnerable. A lively wine trade had developed along the Seine
between Paris and the sea, and the coast of Frisia was dotted with ports.
Thanks to the Frank’s access to high quality silver – a commodity largely
absent in Scandinavia – coins had replaced bartering and imperial markets were
increasingly stockpiled with precious metals.
The only thing preventing a major attack was the confusion
of Louis’ Viking enemies. The Danish peninsula had been in turmoil since the
death of Godfred. A warrior named Harald Klak had seized power, but after a
short reign had been expelled by the slain Godfred’s son Horik. Harald Klak
appealed to Louis for help, slyly offering to convert to Christianity in
exchange for aid. The emperor accepted, and in a sumptuous ceremony at the
royal palace of Ingelheim, near Mainz, Harald and four hundred of his followers
were dipped in the baptismal font. Louis the Pious stood in as Harald’s
It was a triumphal moment for several reasons. Louis was
clearly not the soldier his father was, but here was an opportunity to
neutralize the Danes for the foreseeable future. If Harald could be installed
on the Danish throne, and then Christianize his subjects, it would pacify the
The first part of the plan worked seamlessly. Harald was
given land in Frisia and tasked with defending it against marauding Vikings,
while an expedition to restore his throne was gathered. With a Frankish army at
his back, he was able to force his rival, Horik, to recognize him as ruler. He
then invited Louis to send a missionary to aid in the conversion of the Danes.
The emperor chose a Saxon preacher named Ansgar, who immediately built a church
in Hedeby. At this point, however, Louis’ grand policy began to collapse.
The Danes weren’t particularly interested in Christianity,
at least not as an exclusive religion. Nor it seems, were they interested in
Harald Klak. After a year, he was again driven into exile by his adversary
Horik, a stout pagan. To add insult to injury, Harald returned to his Frisian
lands and took up piracy, spending his remaining years plundering his
With the expulsion of Harald Klak, a dam seemed to break in
the north, and raiders began to spill out over the Carolingian coast. Dorestad,
the largest trading center in northern Europe and a main center of
silver-minting, was sacked every year from 834 to 837. Horik sent an embassy to
Louis claiming that he had nothing to do with the attacks on Dorestad, but did
mention that he had apprehended and punished those responsible. The latter
claim, at least, was probably true. Successful raiders were potential rivals,
and Horik had no desire to repeat Harald Klak’s fate.
Individual Vikings out for plunder needed no invitations
from the king to attack. The Frankish empire was clearly tottering. Louis’
tin-eared rule – exacerbated by an ill-thought out plan to include a son from
his second marriage into the succession – resulted in a series of civil wars
and his deposition at the hands of his remaining sons. Although he was restored
to the throne the following year, his prestige never recovered.
The damage it did to his empire was immense. Not only were
there lingering revolts – he spent the final years of his reign putting down
insurrections – but the distractions allowed the Vikings to arrive in greater
numbers. Multiple groups began to hit the coasts at the same time, burning
villages, seizing booty, and carrying away the inhabitants, leaving only the
old and sick behind.
In 836 Horik himself led a major raid on Antwerp, and when
several of his warriors died in the assault, he had the nerve to demand
weregild – compensation for his loss of soldiers. Louis responded by gathering
a large army, and the Vikings melted away, but only as far as Frisia where they
continued to raid. In 840, the emperor finally ordered the construction of his
father’s North Sea fleet to challenge them, but died a few months later without
Instead of unifying against the common threat, Louis’ sons
spent the next three years fighting for supremacy as the empire disintegrated
around them. On occasion they even tried to use the Vikings to attack each
other. The eldest sibling, Lothar, welcomed old Harald Klak into his court and
rewarded him with land for raiding his brother’s territory. This turned out to
be an exceptionally bad idea, as it gave the Vikings familiarity with and
access to Frankish territory. Harald, and streams of like-minded Vikings,
happily plundered their way across the northern coasts of the empire.
These attacks depended on speed, not overwhelming force. By
the mid ninth century the typical Viking “army” consisted of a few ships with
perhaps a hundred men. Some men would be left to guard the ships while the rest
fanned out to plunder. In these early days they weren’t interested in
prisoners, and would kill or burn anything that couldn’t be taken.
The small numbers were a vulnerability, but this was made up
for by the speed of the attacks. Most Vikings were reluctant to travel far from
the coasts of the sea or river systems, and generally avoided pitched battles.
Their equipment was more often than not inferior to their Frankish opponents;
Vikings caught in open country were usually overwhelmed. This was partially
because they lacked the armor common in Europe at the time. Frankish chronicles
referred to them as ‘naked’, and they had to scavenge helmets and weapons from
the dead since several Frankish rulers sensibly forbade the sale of weapons to
the Vikings on pain of death.
The one exception to this general inferiority were Viking
swords. The original design was probably copied from an eighth century Frankish
source, a blacksmith named Ulfberht whose name soon became a brand. The Vikings
quickly learned to manufacture the blades themselves, and weapons bearing the
inscription Ulfberht have been found all over Scandinavia. They were typically
double edged, with a rounded point, made of multiple bars of iron twisted
together. This pattern welding created a relatively strong and lightweight
blade that could be reforged if broken. They were clearly among a warrior’s
most prized possessions and were passed down as heirlooms and given names like
“Odin’s Flame” and “Leg-Biter“.
Aside from their swords, the Viking’s main advantages lay in
their sophisticated intelligence gathering and their terrifying adaptability.
They had advance warning of most Frankish military maneuvers, and could respond
quickly to take advantage of political changes. Most formidable of all, was
their malleability. ‘Brotherhoods’ of dozens or even hundreds could combine
into a larger army, and then re-dissolve into groups at will. This made it
almost impossible to inflict a serious defeat on them, or even predict where to
concentrate your defenses.
The Vikings were usually also more pragmatic than their
opponents. They had no qualms about traveling through woods, used impromptu
buildings like stone churches as forts, and dug concealed pits to disable
pursuing cavalry. They attacked at night, and were willing – unlike the
Frankish nobility – to get their hands dirty by digging quick trenches and
earthworks. Most of all they could pick their prey and had exquisite timing.
Earlier barbarians had avoided churches; the Vikings targeted them, usually
during feast days when towns were full of wealthy potential hostages.
The Christian communities didn’t stand a chance. The
monastery of Noirmoutier, on an island at the mouth of the Loire, was sacked
every year from 819 to 836. It became an annual tradition for the monks to
evacuate the island for the spring and summer, returning only after the raiding
season had ended. Finally, in 836 they had enough and carrying the relics of
their patron saint – and what was left of the treasury – they fled east in
search of a safe haven. For the next three decades they were driven from one
refuge to the next until they finally settled in Burgundy near the Swiss
border, about as far from the Vikings and the sea as one could get.
A monk of Noirmoutier summed up the desperation in a plea
for his fellow Christians to stop their infighting and defend themselves:
“The number of ships
grows larger and larger, the great host of Northmen continually increases… they
capture every city they pass through, and none can withstand them… There is
hardly a single place, hardly a monastery which is respected, all the
inhabitants take to flight and few and far between are those who dare to say:
‘Stay where you are, stay where you are, fight back, do battle for your
country, for your children, for your family!’ In their paralysis, in the midst
of their mutual rivalries, they buy back at the cost of tribute that which they
should have defended, weapons in hand, and allow the Christian kingdom to
The monk’s advice went unheeded. By the time the Frankish
civil war ended, Charlemagne’s empire had dissolved into three kingdoms, each
with their vulnerabilities brutally exposed. The western Frankish kingdom
became the basis of the kingdom of France, the eastern, Germany, and the third
– a thin strip of land between them called Lotharingia – was absorbed by its
neighbors. Viking raiding groups became larger and bolder. Instead of two or
three ships traveling together, they were now arriving in fleets of ten or
twelve. More ominously still, they began to change their tactics. In 845 they
returned to the island of Noirmoutier, but this time, instead of the usual
raid, they fortified the island and made it a winter quarters. The usual
practice was to raid in the warmer months, and return home before the first
snows fell. Now, however, they intended to stop wasting time in transit, and to
be more systematic in the collection of loot.
Launching raids from their base, they could now penetrate
further up rivers, putting more towns and even cities in range. Rouen, Nantes,
and Hamburg were sacked, and Viking fleets plundered Burgundy. The next year
they hit Utrecht and Antwerp, and went up the Rhine as far as Nijmegen. These
raids all paled, however, before one that took place in 845 at the direction of
the Danish king. He had not forgotten the Frankish support for his rival Harald
Klak. Now Horik finally had his revenge.
The entry for the year 885 in the French Annals of St Vaast begins with the chilling phrase: “The rage of the Northmen was let loose upon the land”. It was an all too accurate assessment. As soon as the winter snows had melted, a frenetic series of Viking raids hit the French coast and continued with a ferocity not seen for half a century. This particular year was especially demoralizing because the Frankish population had believed that they had gained the upper hand against the raiders. Four years earlier, the Franks had met the Norse in a rare pitched battle and slaughtered some eight thousand of them. For several years the threat of attack had receded, but then in 885 the Norse launched a full-scale invasion.
Viking attacks were usually carried out with limited numbers. They were experts in hit and run tactics, and small bands ensured maximum flexibility. That November, however, to the horror of the island city, more than thirty thousand Viking warriors descended on Paris.
From the start, their organization was fluid. According to legend, a Parisian emissary sent to negotiate terms was unable to find anyone in charge. When he asked to see a chieftain he was told by the amused Norse that, ‘we are all chieftains’. There was a technical leader – traditionally he is known as Sigfred – but not one the Franks would have recognized as ‘King’. It was less of an army than a collection of war bands loosely united by a common desire for plunder.
The Vikings launched an attack hoping to catch the French off guard, but several days of intense fighting failed to break through the Parisian defenses. The resulting siege, which lasted for a year, was ultimately unsuccessful, but it gave Europe its first glimpse of the man whose descendants would dominate both ends of the continent, and whose distant relative still sits on the English throne. Known to posterity as Rollo (the Latin version of the Norse Hrolf), he was a minor leader, probably of Norwegian extraction. According to legend he was of such enormous size that the poor Viking horses couldn’t accommodate him, and this earned him the nickname Rollo the Walker (Hrolf Granger), since he had to go everywhere on foot.
Like all the Vikings, Rollo had been drawn to the siege by the very real prospect of making a fortune. Forty years before, the legendary Norse warrior Ragnar Lodbrok had sacked Paris with fewer men, returning home with nearly six thousand pounds of silver and gold courtesy of the terrified French king. All of those present had undoubtedly been brought up on stories about Ragnar’s exploits, and there may even have been a veteran or two among the gathered warriors. This was their chance to duplicate his exploits.
If Rollo distinguished himself at Paris, it was in his determination. When it became apparent that an early victory wasn’t possible, many of the Norse began to drift away towards easier targets. By March of the next year, morale among the Vikings was so low that the nominal leader, Sigfred, reduced his demand to sixty pounds of silver – a far cry from Ragnar’s six thousand – to lift the siege. However, a rumor that the Frankish emperor, Charles the Fat, was on his way with a relief army stiffened the will of the Parisians and they refused. Sigfred held out another month, and then gave up, leaving Rollo and the other lesser leaders on their own.
The Frankish army finally arrived in October, eleven months after the siege began, and scattered what was left of the Vikings. Rollo’s men were surrounded to the north of Paris at Montmartre, but Charles the Fat decided to negotiate instead of attack. The province of Burgundy was currently in revolt, and Charles was hardly a successful military commander. In exchange for roughly six hundred pounds of silver, Rollo was sent off to plunder the emperor’s rebellious vassal.
It was an agreement that suited both of them, but for Rollo, the dream of Paris was too strong to resist. In the summer of 911 he returned and made a wild stab for it, hoping smaller numbers would prevail where the great army had failed. Not surprisingly, Paris proved too hard to take, so Rollo decided to try his luck with the more reasonable target of Chartres.
The Frankish army had been alerted to the danger and they marched out to meet the Vikings in open battle. A ferocious struggle ensued, but just when the Vikings were on the point of winning, the gates flew open and the Bishop of Chartres came roaring out, cross in one hand, relic in the other, and the entire population streaming out behind him. The sudden arrival turned the tide, and by nightfall Rollo was trapped on a hill to the north of the city. The exhausted Franks decided to finish the job the next morning and withdrew, but the crafty Viking was far from beaten. In the middle of the night he sent a few handpicked men into the middle of the Frankish camp and had them blast their war horns as if an attack were underway. The Franks woke up in a panic, some scrambling for their swords, the rest scattering in every direction. In the confusion the Vikings slipped away.
With the dawn, the Frankish courage returned, and they hurried to trap the Vikings before they could board their ships, but again Rollo was prepared. Slaughtering every cow and horse he could find, the Viking leader built a wall of their corpses. The stench of blood unnerved the horses of the arriving French, and they refused to advance. The two sides had reached an effective stalemate, and it was at this point that the French king, Charles the Simple, made Rollo an astonishing offer. In exchange for a commitment to convert to Christianity, and a promise to stop raiding Frankish territory, Charles offered to give Rollo the city of Rouen and its surrounding lands.
The proposal outraged Frankish opinion, but both sides had good reason to support it. The policy of trying to buy off the Vikings had virtually bankrupted the Frankish Empire. More than a hundred and twenty pounds of silver had disappeared into Viking pockets, an amount which was roughly one-third of the French coins in circulation. There was simply no more gold or silver to mint coins, and the population was growing resistant to handing over their valuables to royal tax collectors. Even worse for Charles, the Viking raids had seriously undermined his authority. It was impossible for the sluggish royal armies to respond to the Viking hit and run tactics, and increasingly his subjects put their trust in local lords who could offer immediate protection rather than some distant, unresponsive central government. The authority of the throne had collapsed, and now it was the feudal dukes who held real power. If Charles allowed another siege of Paris he would lose his throne as well. Here, however, was a solution that promised to make all the headaches go away. Who better to stop Viking attacks than the Vikings themselves? By gaining land they would be forced to stop other Vikings from plundering it. The nuisance of coastal defense would be Rollo’s problem, and Charles could focus on other things.
For his part, Rollo was also eager to accept the deal. Like most Vikings he had probably gone to sea around age fifteen and now, perhaps in his fifties, he was ready to settle down. Local resistance was becoming stronger, and there was little more to be gained in spoils. After decades of continuous raiding the coasts were virtually abandoned, and wandering further inland risked being cut off from the ships. This was an opportunity to reward his men with the valuable commodity of land and to become respectable in the process. Rollo jumped at the chance.
The Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, as it came to be known, created the Terra Normanorum – the land of the Northmen. This treaty of the Northman’s Duchy, or Normandy, was formally agreed to at a meeting between the two protagonists. The Viking warlord agreed to be baptized together with his entire army, and to perform the ceremonial act of homage to King Charles. Unfortunately, this last part was carried out with a certain lack of grace.
The traditional manner of recognizing a feudal lord was to kiss the royal foot, but Rollo wasn’t about to do any such thing. When Charles stuck out his foot, Rollo ordered one of his warriors to do the deed for him. The huge Norseman grabbed the king’s foot and yanked it up to his mouth, sending the hapless monarch sprawling onto his back. It was, had they only known, a fitting example of the future relationship of the Norman dukes to their French overlords.
Charles hoped that his grant of land was a temporary measure that could be reclaimed later. Such things had been done before and they never lasted beyond a generation. In Rollo, however, he had unwittingly found a brilliant adversary. Rollo instantly recognized what he had; a premier stretch of northern France with some of the finest farmland in the country. His genius – and that of his descendants – was a remarkable ability to adapt, and in the next decade he managed to pull off the extraordinary feat of transforming a footloose band of raiders into successful knights and landowners.
Rollo understood, in a way that most of those around him did not, that to survive in his new home he had to win the loyalty of his French subjects. That meant abandoning most of his Viking traditions, and blending in with the local population. He took the French name Robert, married a local woman, and encouraged his men to do the same. Within a generation the Scandinavian language had been replaced by French, and Norse names had virtually died out.
However, the Normans never quite forgot their Viking ancestry. St Olaf, the legendary Scandinavian king who became Norway’s patron saint, was baptized at Rouen, and as late as the eleventh century the Normans were still playing host to Viking war bands. But they were no longer the raiders of their past, and that change was most clearly visible in their army. Viking forces fought on foot, but the Normans rode into their battles mounted. Charges from their heavy cavalry would prove irresistible, and carry the Normans on a remarkable tide of conquest that stretched from the north of Britain to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
One final change took longer to sink in, but was no less profound. Christianity, with its glittering ceremonies and official pageantry, appealed to Rollo probably more out of a sense of opportunity than conviction. His contemporaries could have been forgiven for thinking that Odin had given way to Christ suspiciously easily. The last glimpse we get of Rollo is of a man hedging his bets for the afterlife. Before donating a hundred pounds of gold to the Church, he sacrificed a hundred prisoners to Odin.
Christianity may have sat lightly on that first generation of Normans, but it took deep root among Rollo’s descendants. There was something appealing to their Viking sensibilities about the Old Testament – even if the New Testament with its turning the other cheek wasn’t quite as attractive – and they took their faith seriously. When the call came to aid their oppressed brothers in the East, they would immediately respond; Norman soldiers provided much of the firepower of the First Crusade.
When Rollo finally died around 930, he left his son an impressive legacy. He had gone a long way towards turning his Viking followers into Normans, and turning an occupied territory into a legitimate state. For all that, however, troubling clouds loomed on the horizon. Normandy’s borders were ill-defined, and it was surrounded by predatory neighbors. Its powerful nobles had bowed to the will of Rollo while he was alive, but they saw little reason why they should extend the same loyalty to his son. Most worrisome of all was the French crown, which eyed Rouen warily and was always looking for an excuse to reclaim its lost territory.
Rollo had laid the foundation, but whether Normandy would prosper, or even survive at all, was up to his descendants.
The battle of Nesjar between Olav Haraldsson and Earl Svein. This was the biggest sea-battle in Scandinavia in Viking times.
Two famous helmets from central Europe commonly associated with the Viking period are the ‘Olmürz’ helmet. displayed in Vienna, and the ‘St Wenceslas’ helmet from the Treasury of Prague Cathedral. The dome of each is a one-piece forging. While there is no evidence that this technique was used by Norse armourers, the daring of these items and the diverse nature of the equipment used by the Vikings suggests helmets of this type may have been in use. Olaf the Saint is said to have deployed a unit of 100 picked men at the battle of Nesjar armed in coats of mail and ‘foreign’ helmets.
The battle of Nesjar in 1016, between the Viking King Olav Haraldsson and the Earl of Lade, Svein Håkonsson, would come to be seen as the biggest and most decisive sea battle in Norwegian history. During the 11 or 12 years following his victory, King Olav worked to strengthen the king’s power at the expense of the local chieftains and – most important for his subsequent reputation – establish Christianity as the only permitted religion in the country.
Olav directed the battle from his own longship, Karlhode, named for the carving of a king’s head that adorned the bow-stem. According to Snorre, Olav’s tactic was to hold his fleet in tight formation and let the enemy attack first. When the enemy had cast their spears and other missiles against the king’s men’s shields, his men would attack more or less independently wherever they saw the possibility of capturing an enemy ship.
Earl Svein had a significantly bigger army than Olav, and his personal guard possibly numbered up to 200 heavily armed warriors. Olav had 100 men in chainmail on his ship, and he had hand-picked the troops to stand in the front ranks of the leading ships. Olav’s men were battle-hardened by their experience of wars in England, and they easily captured Svein’s ships, whose crews were mostly inexperienced in warfare. Olav’s own ship headed straight for the earl’s ship, and his men held it fast with grappling hooks. Svein responded by having the whole of his ship’s stem cut off, enabling him to flee.
A runestone in Sweden memorializes the man Geirbjörn, who had been killed in a fight: “Norwegians killed him on Asbjörn’s ship.” It is tempting to think that Asbjörn was a Viking chieftain and that Geirbjörn died during a sea battle, but perhaps the ship was a merchant vessel and Geirbjörn was killed during a quarrel among merchants, or when a cargo ship was attacked by raiders.
Be that as it may, Vikings certainly knew how to fight at sea, although they did not at first have to do it much when they attacked their victims on raids in Europe, for the kings there did not have navies that could meet the Vikings on equal terms. The Europeans eventually learned to challenge the Vikings in their own element, on the water, as when, in 882, “King Alfred went out with ships and fought against four ship-loads of Danish men and took two of the ships, and killed the men; and two surrendered to him, and the men were badly knocked about and wounded before they surrendered.” Still, European navies never became very effective in defending against the Vikings, and the kings preferred to “fight fire with fire,” that is, to rely on Viking mercenaries to defend territory against other Vikings.
In Scandinavia itself, ambitious chieftains and kings often fought one another in great sea battles. The skalds liked to describe such heroic occasions in some detail, so we are happily able to learn much about how Vikings fought on ships. Later saga literature, such as the Heimskringla, tells with great verve exciting stories about sea battles, but they represent simply later authors imaginatively weaving narratives that have very little value as historical sources.
Before the actual sea battle began, the chieftain exhorted his warriors to fight bravely. Before he battled the Danish king in 1062, King Harald Hardruler of Norway, for example, “told the troops of warriors to shoot and strike,” and “the famous ruler said each of us must fall crosswise on top of one another rather than yield.” Ten the ship would be rowed to an enemy ship, preferably the leader’s: it would “lie alongside the ship.” When the warriors “join[ed] together the stems of the longships,” they created a platform on which they could fight.
Then the battle started. As one poet expressed it, with typical northern understatement, “it was not as if a maiden was bringing a man leek or ale”: in other words, it was a horrid experience. “The bold lord cut down warriors; he walked enraged across the warship.” “We [warriors] went enraged onto the ships under the banners,” the warrior poet Sigvat recounted after fighting under Olav Haraldsson in the battle of Nesjar in 1016. Different poets celebrating different battles fill in the details. Warriors and, especially, their leaders were supposed to be “angry” during the fight- the word shows up repeatedly in the poetry. Their enemies suffered their anger; there was blood everywhere: “Dark blood splashed on the pliant row of nails [= ship], gore spurted on the shield-rail, the deck-plank was sprinkled with blood.” “The army fell on the deck” so that “the slain lay tightly packed on the boards,” unless they “went wounded overboard.” In the end, “the prince won the victory” and could take over the ships of those he had defeated. If they were still in a repairable state, ships were extremely valuable war booty, not surprising considering the amount of work that went into constructing the great longships.
Afterward, the bodies of the dead washed up on the beaches. With their characteristic fascination with gore, skalds like Arnorr jarlaskald did not hesitate to describe the grisly scene, where carrion eaters like eagles and wolves had been given a feast: Sandy corpses of [the loser] Sveinn’s men are cast from the south onto the beaches; far and wide people see where bodies float off Jutland. The wolf drags a heap of slain from the water; Olav’s son [= King Magnus Olavsson of Norway] made fasting forbidden for the eagle; the wolf tears a corpse in the bays.
Sea battles often had momentous effects, with the lives and reputations, not only of warriors, but also of entire kingdoms, hanging in the balance. Many a Scandinavian king and chieftain met his end in battle, like the Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason, who fell in the battle of Svöldr in 1000, fighting a coalition of the Danish and Swedish kings as well as a Norwegian chieftain. His namesake Olav Haraldsson won Norwegian kingship at the battle of Nesjar in 1016. Olav’s half-brother Harald Hardruler tried to conquer Denmark from his rival, King Svein Estridsson, in the battle of Nissan River in 1062, but although the Norwegians were victorious in the battle, Harald did not gain Denmark. The battle was inconclusive since King Svein and some of his warriors managed to escape Harald’s clutches by ignominiously rowing ashore in a small boat. Great sea battles were often the decisive events when Scandinavian rulers fought wars with one another, and the skalds of the victorious ruler would make sure that his lord’s exploits became famous. In the historical sagas of high-medieval Iceland, battle narratives often allow for the most impressive and rousing prose. The Saga of Olav Trygvason from the early thirteenth century ends, for example, with a climactic retelling of the battle of Svöldr. The story has fascinated generations of Scandinavian schoolchildren, and it continues to impress modern readers.
If a woman served as head of the household in a family which lacked a man to fulfil this role, she could be buried with symbols of manhood. In Sountaka (Hämne) in Finland two decorative swords have been found in a female burial dated to the 11th century. This one has the blade and the hilt made in bronze, decorated in Jelling style.
Warrior women appear frequently in Scandinavian folklore, whether as pirates, fighters, leaders of armies or avengers. In sagas and poetry, women who chose to live as warriors were called ‘warrior women’. These were women who had chosen to stand outside the traditional gender role, and they seem to have been an accepted part of Old Norse society. In many of the stories and the poems they are referred to a ‘shield maidens’, meaning young women who had chosen to work as warriors. This expression is often used in the texts without further explanation, which suggests that the readers and listeners were well acquainted with the phenomenon The shield maidens must not be confused with the Valkyries, who were divine beings associated with the battlefield.
The question is whether warrior women are literary fantasies, myths, or a historical reality. Warrior women are not mentioned in any contemporary Nordic rune inscriptions, but that is perhaps not so surprising if they comprised only a small part of the Scandinavian warrior groups. Also, we know that rune stones often functioned as documentary records of inheritance and were usually raised by widows or mothers of fallen husbands and sons. Nor are warrior women named in French and Anglo-Saxon annals and chronicles.13 They are not mentioned either in the Irish chronicles in connection with the Vikings, but the phenomenon was not unfamiliar to the Irish themselves. The most famous were the protagonists Scáthach and Aífe, who probably had Scottish-Celtic origins and lived in the 5th or 6th century.
Several older sources claim that warrior women were found in northern Europe and Scandinavia around the time of Christ’s birth. Historians such as Strabo and Plutarch (1st century BC), Dio Cassius (49 AD) and Tacitus (100 AD) all say that there were warrior women among the tribes in northern and eastern Europe. In the 1st century AD, Saxon men and women were regarded by the Romans as of equal value. According to Tacitus, when a man married he gave to the woman oxen and a horse with its bridle, together with shield, spear and sword. She gave him the weapons back. Such reports, probably based on witness observation, surely contributed to reinforcing the Romans’ view of Germanic women as warlike. Such a ritual does not automatically imply that all women fought in war, or that all women bore weapons, but it can mean that Saxon men and women had shared responsibility for defending their nearest and dearest if necessary, and that fighting was part of life.
Two particular features recur in all Roman descriptions of the Germans: their appearance, with powerful bodies and reddish-blond hair and beard; and their women. According to the sources, the women supported their men in war and sometimes took part in the battles themselves.
Roman war reports regularly told of warrior women being found among the enemy’s dead. This can mean that some of the women fought in war, especially if the reports are from conflicts where the Romans were attacked, but it can also mean that women defended themselves with weapons when the tribe was attacked, just as Saxon women apparently did. As we do not know what types of conflict were being described, it is difficult to distinguish if these were warrior women who attacked the Romans, or whether they were taking part in a defence, or if they did both.
At the end of the 3rd century AD, 30 captured ‘Gothic warrior women’ were paraded in front of the populace when Emperor Aurelian (emperor 270–275 AD) held a triumphal procession in Rome. It is quite possible that these women really were warrior women, but the Roman triumphal processions were theatre and these ‘Gothic warrior women’ may also have just been the result of the Romans wishing that such women did exist. The Romans, with their severe and puritanical view of women and their double moral standards regarding sex, must have been terrified and aroused at the same time by the thought that they could be attacked by women. Such emotions certainly led to many stories and fantasies being played out in the gladiatorial arenas and the triumphal processions.
Eastern Roman historians also mention warrior women among their European enemies. In Procopius’ account of the war against the Goths (535–552) there is a story about an English princess who led an invasion of Jutland and captured the young king, Radigis, because he had deceived her. This story is characteristic of Saga material, and it can hardly be used as a reliable source to prove the existence of the warrior woman. On the other hand, another Byzantine historian, Johannes Skylitzes, tells in his historical writing from the 12th century that warrior women took part in the fighting when Prince Svjatoslav of Kiev lost a battle against the Byzantines in Bulgaria in 971. He says that the Byzantines were amazed when they found armed women among the fallen warriors.
Even though Skylitzes was writing 200 years after the events, it is possible that he had access to contemporary archives. Just like the West Romans, the East Romans were prolific writers of reports. In this context, we must also consider the social structures among the rus. Svjatoslav and his warriors were almost nomadic. They could be absent from Kiev for years, and therefore would have their women, female slaves and children with them when they went raiding. It may have been these women who were killed in the battles, as they tried to defend themselves and their families.
Nearly all the descriptions of warrior women are in texts from the Middle Ages. They were written several centuries after the events they describe. Some of these reports are of events said to have taken place in the time of tribal migrations, which was even more remote.
The Fornalder sagas (‘Sagas of Earlier Times’) comprise a collection of legendary sagas which were gathered together at the end of the 14th century. Among others, they include Hervor’s and Hedrek’s Saga, which is about the magic sword, Tyrfing, with the action taking place in the 5th century. Hervor, Angantyr’s daughter, dressed like a man and learned to use weapons in her youth, and went on plundering raids in search of valuables.
In Rolf Gautreksons Saga, which was written down in the 13th century, we find Torbjørg the shield-maiden. She was daughter of a King Erik in Uppsala and preferred to spend her days in fighting and athletic activities than in womanly activities. She even had her own guard troops. In oral tradition she was known as ‘King Torberg’.
A number of women warriors also appear in Saxo’s 13th-century Gesta Danorum (‘Chronicle of the Danes’). It is important to note that all the warrior women in the Fornalder sagas and in Saxo’s writings are upper-class women. In fact, this makes the stories appear more authentic. Even if they had wanted to do so, women from other layers of society would not have had the same opportunity to distinguish themselves in masculine arenas. In theory, upper-class women had the time and the authority to be able to assert themselves outside the wholly traditional role model.
According to Saxo, the warrior women were so numerous that he needed to explain to the reader why this was so. In Book Seven, which mainly deals with events at the end of the 8th century and beginning of the 9th, he says that he will explain how some women behaved in older times:
In olden days there were among the Danes, women who dressed like men and used nearly every moment of their time in battle-training so as not to run the risk that the sickness of luxurious life would drain away their courage. They hated luxury, preferring to harden both body and soul with toil and endurance (…) they forced their womanly nature to act with manly ruthlessness. And they absorbed the art of warfare with such zeal that one would not believe they were women any longer. It was especially those with a strong personality or a tall, handsome body who chose such a life.
After his introduction, Saxo turns back to the story itself, which is an account of the line of Danish kings. Warrior women appear again in Book Eight. In the battle of Brävall, between the Danish King Harald Hildetann and the Swedish King Ring, there are among the leaders of the Danish army two woman warriors, Hede and Visna, ‘to whom nature has given manly courage in women’s bodies’. These two women led a force from Slesvig in the battle. Visna carried the unit’s banner and is described by Saxo as ‘a tough woman with good knowledge of the arts of warfare’. Hede led Harald’s right flank.
Vebjørg was another woman warrior who took part on the Danish side. She led a group of ‘battlethirsty men’ and was herself a feared warrior. She felled a giant called Sote during the battle, but when she began to challenge further warriors to individual combat she was killed by a well-aimed arrow. The other women were all killed in the battle too. Among other wounds, Visna had her hand chopped off. On King Ring’s side, it is mentioned briefly among other things that Gerd den glade (‘Gerd the Happy’) fought for him together with a group of warriors from Värmland.
There is nothing in the reports to indicate that a warrior woman lost her femininity in the eyes of men. In the written sources it appears that the warrior women were desired by men and that they married and had children.
Saxo’s histories are exciting reading and good entertainment, but most people agree that his presentation of historic facts cannot be relied upon as accurate. He wrote in ponderous Latin and was inspired by classical texts, and many of his female characters have classic precedents, such as the Amazons and Camilla in The Aeneid. However, Saxo’s warrior women are not just classic models transferred to a Scandinavian scene. Saxo based his material on Scandinavian sources, mainly Icelandic. He himself says that he had copied much of this material in his presentation, especially from the heroic poetry. Many of Saxo’s stories about the warrior women have literary parallels in the heroic poems in The Older Edda and elsewhere. The events in these lays are mostly supposed to have taken place in the time of the tribal migrations, and they are preserved in Icelandic parchment manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries.
A good example of such parallel stories is Saxo’s account of Hagbart, who in his struggle to win Signe pretended to be a woman warrior, and the story of Helge in Det andre kvadet om Helge Hundingsbane (‘The second poem about Helge Hundingsbane’). In Saxo’s account, Hagbart is asked why he is so masculine. ‘She’ replies that it is not usual for warrior women to concern themselves with feminine arts. In The Older Edda, Helge is asked the same question when he pretends to be a slave girl. His patron explains that the slave girl is so masculine because she was previously a warrior woman from a noble family:
The grinding-stone groans
On the grinding-bench
When a prince’s daughter
Turns the quern.
Once she rode
Above the clouds;
Ventured to fight
Like a Viking;
Sister is she
To Sigar and Hognes;
Quick and sharp-eyed,
We don’t know who wrote these poems, but they are thought to be survivals from an oral folk tradition that existed for hundreds of years before the Viking Age. We know them from early written sources including excavations at Bryggen in Bergen where a number of runic inscriptions from the 12th century have been found, containing verses from the Edda poems. They are also found in fragments of the German Hildebrandslied (‘Song of Hildebrand’) from the 9th century.
Do the Roman and Norse stories reflect an actual reality, namely that warrior women existed in Germanic tribal culture in northern Europe and Scandinavia until well into the Viking Age? Alternatively, are the stories of warrior women just based on misunderstanding, or are they pure literary fantasy?
Women also feature outside their established roles in the Old Norse sagas about events in Iceland; not directly as warrior women, but as women who take up arms. Here, however, they are often punished for this, or have to tolerate social criticism. In the Laksdøla Saga we hear about Aud, who attacked her husband, Tord, with a sword. She was called Broka-Aud (‘Trousered Aud’) because she preferred to wear men’s clothes rather than skirts. This led to Tord divorcing her, because her lack of femininity offended his manly honour. She herself didn’t think there was anything noteworthy or dishonourable in wearing trousers. When Tord found himself a new woman, Aud took the sword and wounded him as an act of revenge. In Gisle Surson’s Saga, Tordis took upon herself the role of avenger when her family was offended. She wielded a sword against Øyolv and injured him to avenge the killing of her brother.
In The Greenland Saga and Eirik Raude’s Saga we meet Frøydis, who was Eirik Raude’s daughter. She was a very determined woman who didn’t hesitate to take up a weapon. She killed five women with an axe after first having their men killed. In Vinland she grasped a sword and displayed her breasts and pregnant abdomen to show the Indian warriors that she was a woman. She hit herself on the breasts with the flat of a sword when they attacked the new settlements. Frøydis’s aim in doing this was probably not to fight with the Indians, but first and foremost to demonstrate that she was a woman and pregnant, and that she was prepared to defend herself and her child.
Neither Aud, Tordis nor Frøydis were warrior women, but as participants in these dramas they were in a theatre where it was considered legitimate for women to handle weapons. These women were also to a certain extent upper-class women. They were married to independent farmers. In Iceland, where there was no king, the free farmers constituted the upper class and the landless, the tenant farmers, the freed serfs and the slaves made up the lower classes. It is possible that the Icelandic family sagas are pure fiction and should really be regarded as intended to combine the telling of good stories with imparting to the readers the kind of behaviour that was accepted in Icelandic society in the Middle Ages.
Gender roles in Viking times were clearly defined and separated. Men and women each related to their symbolic world of rights, values and attributes. A free man had weapons as his symbol, with which to defend himself and his family. The woman held the keys to the rooms and storage chests on the farm. Another symbolic distinction of both sex and status was clothing and appearance. One Icelandic legal decision specified that women who wore men’s clothing, cut their hair or carried weapons could be condemned as outlaws, and the same applied to men who wore women’s clothes. The distinction was most acute in the social milieu of the warriors, which promoted a purely masculine culture.
In the daily toil on the farm, by contrast, many of the areas of responsibility overlapped. The gender distinctions were manifested instead in cultural practices and symbolism.
Marriage between a man and a woman was one of the most important social institutions of the Viking Age. Getting married was a symbolically important decision which affected the whole extended family, and a man had to consult his friends and relatives before he could choose a bride. In theory the woman had no say in the matter but in practice it was probably usual for both bride and groom to give their consent. Women in the aristocratic classes, though, differed from farming-class women in being largely pawns in the game of politics.
A description of a marriage ceremony tells us that the man gave the family sword to the woman as a wedding present, to be passed on thereafter to a male heir. She also received and gave to the man gifts of weapons, as the Germanic women had done in Tacitus’s time.
Weaponry in female burials
Remains of weapons have been found in many sites of female burial from Roman, Germanic migration and Viking times. In some instances, where there is evidence of more than one weapon, this could be interpreted as indicating that the weapons were actually used by the women. There are several female burials in northern Germany which contain evidence of military gear, shields, spears and swords. Two of these are dated between 450 and 650 AD. More usually, however, the graves contain a single weapon rather than the whole equipment. Moreover, it is often difficult to be certain that the surviving artefacts really are the remains of a weapon.
In 1867 a Scandinavian female burial from the Viking Age was found in Norfolk, England. In addition to a pair of oval brooches this contained an object resembling a sword. This obviously made headlines, but it is equally likely that it was a weaving shuttle.
Weapons have been found with greater certainty in other burials from Viking times. In 1981, during an excavation in the neighbourhood of the village of Gerdrup in Denmark, a female skeleton was found buried with a needle-case, an iron knife and a spear. This grave dates from the beginning of the 9th century. It has been suggested that she was either a warrior woman or a woman with ‘man-status’, serving as head of a household which lacked a man to fulfil this role. In such circumstances it was legitimate for a woman to be buried with symbols of manhood. But this does not tell us anything about whether she actually fought with the spear.
In Sountaka (Hämne) in Finland a decorated sword has been found associated with a female burial dated to the 10th century. Perhaps here too we have a woman carrying out a manly role? However, later investigations seem to connect the sword to a secondary grave and not the female burial. Weapons have also been found in two female burials from Kaupang in Norway. In a boat burial from the last quarter of the 9th century, an axe, eight knives, a quiver for holding arrows and a whetstone were found in addition to a pair of oval brooches and other feminine accessories. In addition to these two, nearly 20 burials have been found in Norway containing both women’s and men’s equipment. Many of these were excavated during the 19th and early 20th centuries and are therefore not so well documented as the Gerdrup and Kaupang graves. As documentation is scantly or entirely lacking, we cannot be sure whether there was more than one skeleton in each of these graves. So they cannot be used as a source.
In the light of corresponding finds, it is not unthinkable that many of these Norwegian ‘undocumented’ burials were single female burials with a weapon. The finds are obviously not evidence that these women were warrior women, but they are evidence that women and weaponry were not incompatible in the Viking Age.
Was it possible for women in the Viking Age to appear as warriors in the battle line alongside men? Even though the Edda poems and many sagas should perhaps be interpreted as allegories conveying moral values in the form of parables rather than as factual accounts, and the warrior women should be seen as fictitious, there are many archaeological finds which associate women with weapons. As we have seen, such finds of weapons can be explained other than as weapons for use by women in battle. We have also seen that the gender roles in Viking society were normally kept strictly separate, and that it was associated with shame and dishonour to break those boundaries, though it was still possible for men and woman to break out of such bonds if the conditions were right.
It is however difficult to say anything about why some women in Viking society wanted to appear as warriors and about how some of them seem to have acquired the right to do so. There is much research still to be done in this area, but the preliminary conclusion is that women warriors would probably have represented too big a deviation from the gender roles of the Viking Age.