Few places suffered more at the hands of the Vikings than Ireland. For the best part of 200 years the Vikings systematically milked Ireland of its people to supply the slave trade, yet, for all their military success they failed to conquer and settle in any territory besides a few fortified coastal enclaves. This is the conundrum of Viking Age Ireland; it was a land that looked weak but was in reality strong and resilient.

Superficially, Ireland must have looked to the Vikings like an easy target. There is no doubt that in England and Francia internal divisions worked to the Vikings’ advantage, and if there, why not even more so in Ireland, which was the most divided country in western Europe? Early medieval Ireland was a complex mosaic of around 150 local kingdoms and a dozen over-kingdoms. The local kingdoms or túatha were usually very small – often less than 100 square miles with populations of only a few thousand – and were defined as a ‘people’ or ‘community’, rather than as territorial units. The people of a túath were, in theory at least, an extended kinship group, or clan, and the king was the head of the senior lineage. The king (rí túathe) was responsible to his people for the fertility of their land and cattle, hence their prosperity: this was a legacy of pagan times when a king who failed to deliver would be sacrificed to the gods. Kings also had duties of lawmaking, judgement and leadership in war. In return all the free families of the túath owed the king taxes (paid in kind) and military service. Local kings might themselves owe tribute (usually in cattle), hospitality and military service to an over-king (ruirí), who in turn might owe it to a high king (rí ruirech). Over-kings, therefore, did not exercise direct rule outside their own túath, their power rested upon their ability to call on the resources and services of their client kings. The most powerful over-king of the day might be described as High King of Ireland (rí Érenn), but this was not really a formal institution with defined rules of succession. The relationships between kingdoms were not fixed. A local king with military ability and ambition could build a strong war band and use it to make himself an over-king by forcing other local kings to become his tributaries. Nevertheless, by the eighth century some stable dynasties of over-kings had emerged, the most powerful of which were the Northern and Southern Uí Néill dynasties of north-east Ulster and Meath respectively. To an outsider, early medieval Ireland would have appeared to be a chaotic and deeply divided country and, indeed, small-scale warfare between its kingdoms was endemic. Yet this highly decentralised political structure was to prove incredibly resilient, well able to absorb the shock of Viking invasions and constantly renew resistance.

In contrast to England and Francia where the Danes dominated, these raids were mainly the work of Norwegians, sailing to Ireland via the Northern Isles and the Hebrides. Viking activity in Ireland developed at first in much the same way as it did in England and Francia, beginning with small-scale hit-and-run raids on exposed coastal monasteries gradually escalating until the Vikings founded permanent bases and became a year-round presence plundering and captive-taking across the whole country. The first recorded Viking raids in Ireland took place in 795 when the same Viking band that sacked Iona sacked a monastery on Rechru, which may either be Lambay Island north of Dublin, or Rathlin Island off the northern Irish coast. In the 830s, larger fleets, numbering around sixty ships, began to arrive. Once its island monasteries had been plundered, Ireland’s wild and mountainous west coast, so similar to the west coast of Scotland, was generally shunned by the Vikings because of its poverty. The Vikings concentrated their efforts on the more fertile and densely populated east coast and the great midland plain. In 836, a fleet sailed for the first time far inland along Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon, and sacked the wealthy monasteries of Clonmacnoise and Clonfert. The following year, a Viking fleet sailed from Donegal Bay into Lough Erne to plunder monasteries around its shores. Another sacked the monastery of Áth Cliath – on the site of modern Dublin – while a third army ravaged on the Boyne, and a fourth was on the Shannon again. Nowhere was safe: ‘the sea cast floods of foreigners into Ireland, so there was not a point thereof that was without a fleet’, wrote one chronicler.

Although the Irish often fought fiercely, the Vikings’ advantage of mobility meant that they often escaped unchallenged: the saints slept and did not protect their monasteries. Monks trembled in their cells and prayed for bad weather to keep the Vikings off the seas. As kings were rarely inclined to help their rivals, the Vikings often benefited from the divisions between the Irish kingdoms. Indeed, most kings took a thoroughly pragmatic view of the Vikings, treating them as just another element in their country’s complex political geography, often welcoming them as allies who could help weaken a rival kingdom. Some bands of Irishmen took advantage of the disorder created by the Vikings to go plundering themselves ‘in the manner of the heathens’. One such band was destroyed by Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid (r. 845 – 62), the powerful Southern Uí Néill high king of Meath, in 847.

The first longphuirt

In 839 there was a step-change in Viking activity. A Viking fleet sailed up the River Bann into Lough Neagh. Instead of plundering and leaving, the Vikings built a fortified ship camp on the lakeshore, which they used as a base to plunder the heart of Ulster for three successive summers. This was the first of many such bases – known as longphuirt by the Irish – that Viking armies were to build in Ireland over the next few years as they intensified their raids. The foundation of the longphuirt subtly changed the dynamics of Viking activity in Ireland. The Vikings were now a permanent presence in Ireland and could raid all year round, but at the same time, they lost some of their mobility, making them more vulnerable to Irish counterattack.

The leader of the fleet on Lough Neagh was a warlord who the Irish called Turgeis, that is probably Thórgestr or Thórgils in Old Norse. Turgeis’ origins are not known, but he may have come from the Hebrides as he had as his allies the Gall-Gaedhil, those ‘foreign Gaels’ who were the product of marriages between Norse settlers and the local Gaelic-speaking population. Turgeis’ greatest coup was plundering St Patrick’s monastery at Armagh three times in 840: after his final attack he burned it down for good measure. Armagh was an especially rich prize; apart from its precious reliquaries and sacred vessels, many Irish kings had their royal treasuries there, hoping that they would enjoy the protection of its powerful patron saint. It would not only have been monks who suffered in these attacks. Armagh was surrounded by a small town of craftsmen, merchants, estate managers and others who serviced the needs of this most prestigious of all Irish ecclesiastical centres. Turgeis’ activities are uncertain for the next few years, but he is thought by some historians to have been the leader of the Vikings who in 841 founded what would become the most successful of all the longphuirt at Dublin. In 844, Turgeis led his fleet up the River Shannon as far as Lough Ree, where he built another longphort from which he plundered widely in the midlands. The following year, in the first serious reverse suffered by the Vikings in Ireland, he was captured by Máel Sechnaill, who drowned him in Lough Owel in County Westmeath.

Turgeis’ reputation grew with the telling and after his death he became a symbol of everything that was wicked about the Vikings. In the colourful but unreliable twelfth-century history of Ireland’s Viking wars, Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’), Turgeis has become the king of all the Vikings in Ireland, bent on conquering the whole island. This Turgeis is a militant pagan who expels the abbot from Armagh and sets himself up as a pagan high priest. His wife Ota (probably Auðr) is just as bad, performing acts of witchcraft on the altar of the abbey at Clonmacnoise. This story might not be wholly improbable as Ota may have been a völva, a Viking seeress with powers to predict the future. According to the Welsh churchman Gerald of Wales, who travelled in Ireland during the 1180s, Turgeis actually conquered Ireland but was lured to his death by his weakness for women. Turgeis took a fancy to Máel Sechnaill’s daughter. The king, ‘hiding his hatred in his heart’, agreed to hand her over to Turgeis on an island in Lough Owel along with fifteen other beautiful girls. Turgeis was delighted and went to the rendezvous with fifteen of his leading warriors, all of them expecting amorous encounters. But Máel Sechnaill had laid a trap for them. His daughter was waiting for Turgeis on the island not with fifteen girls but with fifteen hand-picked young men, all clean shaven and dressed in women’s clothing, under which they carried knives. Turgeis and his unsuspecting warriors were stabbed to death ‘in the midst of their embraces’. Gerald probably recorded the story not to flatter the Irish for their cunning but because it chimed comfortably with his own prejudices: he regarded the Irish as a thoroughly deceitful and untrustworthy bunch who always negotiated in bad faith.

More reverses for the Vikings followed. In 848 the Irish won four major battles against the Vikings, killing over 2,000 of them in the process, according the Annals of Ulster. Irish annalists described these battle casualties as ‘heads’: Irish warriors still practiced the ancient Celtic custom of taking enemy heads as war trophies and rarely took prisoners. Then, in 849, Máel Sechnaill captured and plundered Dublin. Discouraged by their defeats, many Vikings left to seek easier pickings in Francia. The Norwegians suffered another blow in 851when a large force of Danish Vikings expelled them from Dublin. The following year the Norwegians suffered another crushing defeat by the Danes in a three-day battle at Carlingford Lough in County Down. The Danish intervention in Ireland was short-lived. In 853 two brothers, Olaf and Ivar, recaptured Dublin for the Norwegians and expelled the Danes.

The kingdom of Dublin

The arrival of Olaf and Ivar at Dublin in 853 was a decisive moment in Ireland’s Viking Age. Olaf and Ivar (who are called Amláib and Ímhar in Irish annals) became the first kings of Dublin and under their rule it developed from a rough ship-camp into the dominant Viking power centre of the whole Irish Sea area. Irish sources describe Olaf and Ivar as sons of King Gofraid of Lochlann, which is the usual Gaelic name for Norway, but their origins remain uncertain. Most modern historians identify Olaf with Olaf the White, a king of Dublin who features in Icelandic saga traditions. Attempts to identify Ivar with the legendary Viking Ivar the Boneless are unconvincing: Ivar the Boneless’s father was the equally legendary Viking Ragnar Lodbrok who, if he existed at all, was most likely a Dane. What is more certain is that the descendants of Olaf and Ivar, known to the Irish as the Uí Ímair, would dominate the Irish Sea for the next 200 years.

There is not enough evidence about the careers of Turgeis and Tomrair to be sure of their motives: did they aspire to found Viking states in Ireland or were they really just out for the plunder? It is clear, however, that Olaf and Ivar were trying to create a kingdom for themselves because their first actions were to impose tribute on all the Viking armies operating in Ireland. It is hard to work out from the Irish annals exactly how many of these there were but there must have been at least three or four. In their efforts to build a secure power base, the brothers took full advantage of the complex political rivalries of the Irish kingdoms. In 859 Olaf and Ivar allied with Cerball mac Dúnlainge (r. 842 – 880), king of Osraige, against his overlord Máel Sechnaill. According to saga traditions, the alliance was sealed by a marriage between Olaf and one of Cerball’s daughters. A Christian king is unlikely to have married his daughters to pagans, so, if the tradition is true, it is likely that Olaf had at least been baptised. In 858, Ivar and Cerball campaigned together in Leinster, and in Munster against the Gall-Gaedhil. The next year Olaf, Ivar and Cerball together invaded Máel Sechnaill’s kingdom of Meath. After Cerball came to terms with Máel Sechnaill, he dropped his Norse allies. Olaf and Ivar soon found a new ally in Áed Finnliath (c. 855 – 79), the northern Uí Néill king of Ulster. Together they plundered Máel Sechnaill’s kingdom in 861 and 862. After Máel Sechnaill’s death in 862, Olaf and Ivar switched to supporting his successor Lorcán against Áed. The brothers did Lorcán’s standing no good at all when, in 863, they dug open the great Neolithic burial mounds at Knowth on the River Boyne to look for treasure. Although pagan in origin, these ancient mounds were rich in mythological significance for the Irish and this desecration was thought to be shocking behaviour even by the Viking’s low standards. The following year Áed captured the discredited Lorcán, blinded him and forced him to abdicate.

Olaf and his brothers had now run out of willing allies in Ireland and, in 866, they took their fleet across the Irish Sea to raid Pictland in alliance with the Gall-Gaedhil. Áed, now high king, took advantage of their absence to plunder and destroy all the Viking longphuirt in Ulster. After a victory over the Vikings on Lough Foyle, Áed took 240 heads home as trophies. The limited extent of Viking territorial control was starkly demonstrated in 867 when Áed’s ally Cennétig king of Loigis, destroyed Olaf’s border fortress at Clondalkin just 5 miles from Dublin, which he then went on to plunder. Olaf now allied with the southern Uí Néill and Leinster against Áed. Áed crushed the alliance at the Battle of Killineer (Co. Louth) in 868: among the dead was one of Olaf’s sons. Olaf struck back at Áed in 869, brutally sacking Armagh and leading off 1,000 captives for the slave markets. This was a severe blow to Áed’s prestige – he was supposed to be the monastery’s protector. After this success, Olaf and Ivar crossed the Irish Sea to Strathclyde and laid siege to its capital, Alt Clut, on the summit of Dumbarton Rock, overlooking the River Clyde. Alt Clut fell after four months and the brothers returned to Dublin with a hoard of treasure. They went back to Strathclyde for more the following year and this time returned ‘with a great prey of Angles, Britons and Picts’. Olaf and Ivar were back plundering in Meath in 872, but in the next year Ivar died of ‘a sudden, horrible disease’. Olaf survived until 874 or 875: he was killed in battle with Constantine I of Scotland at Dollar in Clackmannanshire.

The deaths of Ivar and Olaf began what the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh dubbed the ‘Forty Years’ Rest’, a long period of reduced Viking activity in Ireland that lasted until 914. Deprived of the strong military leadership provided by Olaf and Ivar, Dublin became politically unstable under a succession of short-lived successors. Olaf’s first successor as king of Dublin, his son Oystín (Eystein), lasted barely a year: he was killed when Dublin was captured by a Danish Viking who Irish annalists called Alband. Alband is most likely to have been Halfdan, the Danish king of York. Áed Finnliath came to the rescue of his Viking allies, quickly expelling Alband and placing Ivar’s son Bárðr on the throne. Alband returned to Ireland in 877, but was killed fighting the Dublin Vikings at Strangford Lough. However, his dream of uniting Dublin and York into a trans-Irish Sea kingdom survived. Bárðr died in 881 and was followed by six short-lived kings, none of whom was able to arrest the kingdom’s decline. In 902, Cerball mac Muirecáin, king of Leinster and Máel Finnia of Brega launched a co-ordinated pincer attack on Dublin from the north and south, forcing the Norse to flee for their ships after a fierce battle. The refugees fled mainly to North Wales and north-west England. Ireland’s first Viking Age was over.

From longphort to town

Most of the Vikings’ longphuirt were either abandoned, or were destroyed by the Irish, after relatively short periods of occupation. Dublin was one of a small group of longphuirt, which also included Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, which developed into permanent towns. These longphuirt all had in common good tidal harbours. The exact location of the original Viking longphort at Dublin now lies buried beneath later buildings. This has necessarily limited archaeological investigation of the city’s origins to rescue excavations on sites that have been temporarily cleared for redevelopment. Evidence for early Viking occupation, including warrior burials, buildings, ship rivets and a possible defensive rampart, excavated from sites at Ship Street Great and South Great George’s Street, suggest that the longphort was probably in the area where Dublin Castle now stands, close to the Dubhlinn, the ‘black pool’ from which the city got its English name. This was a now-vanished tidal pool at the confluence of the River Liffey and its small tributary the Poddle. Dublin was already a place of some importance before the longphort was built as a monastic centre and the site of the lowest ford across the River Liffey: its Gaelic name Áth Cliath means ‘the ford of the hurdles’. This ford made Dublin a natural focus of overland routes and, with its good harbour and short sailing distances to Wales, north-west England, Galloway and the Isle of Man, it was ideally situated to become a successful port and trading centre. The same geographical advantages also made Dublin an ideal base for raiding, not only in eastern Ireland but around the whole Irish Sea region. No other longphort in Ireland had the same combination of advantages: it was almost inevitable that Dublin would become Ireland’s dominant Viking centre.

Early Dublin was probably similar to the well-preserved longphort at Linn Duchaill, about 40 miles further north, near the village of Annagassan in County Louth. Founded in the same year as Dublin, this longphort was built on the site of a minor monastery on the banks of the River Glyde, close to its estuary into the Irish Sea. The Vikings occupied the longphort until 891, when the Irish expelled them. Vikings reoccupied the site c. 914 only for it to be abandoned for good in 927. The site has been open farmland ever since so, unlike Dublin, this longphort’s remains have seen little disturbance. Covering about 40 acres (16 hectares), the longphort at Linn Duachaill was large enough to accommodate an army that was several thousand strong. A rampart and ditch, ¾ of a mile long, protected the landward side of the fort and there was a small citadel on higher ground within the fort. Excavations yielded large numbers of ships’ rivets, testifying to ship repair and perhaps shipbuilding on the site. Pieces of hacksilver and the remains of scales show that loot was divided up here and an iron slave chain dredged from the river is evidence of slave raiding. A shuttle and spindle whorl provide evidence of spinning and weaving in the fort. As these were not occupations for Viking warriors, women must have lived there. Geophysical surveys suggest that the waterfront was densely built-up but this has not yet been confirmed by excavations. Linn Duachaill did not have the good harbour that Dublin had, and it was that which probably prevented it ever developing into a permanent town.


The Viking slave trade

Archaeological evidence indicates that by 902 Dublin had begun to outgrow the longphort and become a true town rather than an armed camp. Significantly, following the Irish conquest in that year, Dublin was not abandoned: there is clear evidence of continuity of settlement through to its recapture by the Norse in 917. That there was an exodus of Scandinavians from Ireland at that time is not in doubt, so this is probably evidence that Dublin had a significant Irish population living alongside the Norse and that they were allowed to remain: they may even have been the majority because genetic studies have found scant evidence of Scandinavian DNA in the modern Irish population.

Dublin owed its transformation to a town to trade. Pre-Viking Ireland did not play a large part in international trade so it had no trading towns to compare with the likes of Dorestad or York. Coinage was not used either. Ireland was not poor, however. The hoards of magnificent gold and silver liturgical vessels from Ardagh and Derrynaflan stand testimony to the wealth of Ireland’s monasteries in the early Middle Ages. Major Irish monasteries like Armagh or Clonmacnoise were much more than communities of monks, they were also centres of political power and economic activity. Secular communities of craftsmen and merchants grew up around the more important monasteries and by the eighth century a few were becoming small towns. Kings, seeking the authority and safety that close association with the saints was believed to confer, often had residences, treasuries and garrisons in these monastic towns. All of this was more than enough to justify the Vikings’ attentions, but their main interest was in Ireland’s people.

Crude estimates based on a count of known settlements suggest that Ireland’s population was about half a million when the Viking Age began. Thanks to the country’s mild winters, cool summers and reliable rainfall, grass grew all year round so cattle and sheep did not have to be kept inside during the winter. The Irish did not bother to gather hay in the summer as it was so rarely necessary. Despite occasional famines caused by cattle epidemics and severe weather, the Irish population was generally well nourished and very few people were desperately poor. The Vikings rounded up these people in their thousands to be ransomed or sold as slaves according to their wealth and status. Slavery was rare in pre-Viking Ireland – it was used mainly as a form of debt bondage – so there was no slave trade. Plundering in wars between the Irish was usually confined to cattle rustling, so Viking slaving added a new form of suffering to the experience of warfare. Perhaps inevitably, Irish kings soon began to take captives during their wars and sell them to the Vikings. Irish captives who were not lucky enough to be ransomed by their relatives could expect to be sold abroad. Anglo-Saxon England and the Frankish kingdoms both had active slave trades but most Irish captives probably finished up in Scandinavia or the Moorish kingdoms in Spain and North Africa. Through developing the slave trade, the Vikings drew Ireland into fuller participation in the international trade networks. This is usually presented as one of the positive impacts that the Vikings had on Ireland, but it is unlikely that their victims were quite so sanguine about it.

We know enough about the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century to guess at the human misery Viking slaving must have caused. Its economic impact is harder to estimate but it is likely that Vikings targeted the young and healthy rather than infants and the elderly. The kidnapping and breaking-up of communities of learned monks must have had a far more serious impact on Ireland’s flourishing monastic culture than ever the destruction of books, sacred vessels and buildings did. As mere commodities, the voices of slaves are rarely heard in the historical record, but two remarkable accounts have survived about the experiences of Irishmen who were captured by Viking slavers. One relates to a Leinsterman called Findan whose sister was captured by Viking raiders some time around the middle of the ninth century. Findan’s father sent him to the Vikings to arrange his sister’s ransom, but they immediately clapped him in irons and carried him off to their ship too. After keeping him without food and water for two days, the Vikings discussed what to do with him. Luckily, his captors decided that it was wrong to capture people who had come to pay ransom, no doubt because it would discourage others from doing so, and they let him, and presumably his sister, go. A short time afterwards Findan got caught up in another Viking raid but evaded capture by hiding behind the door of a hut. For Findan it was third time unlucky, because in his next encounter with the Vikings he was taken prisoner and sold into slavery. After changing hands several times, Findan finished up on a ship bound for Scandinavia. Findan gained his owner’s confidence by helping the crew fight off some pirates and he was released from his leg irons. When his owner made a stop-over in Orkney, Findan seized the opportunity to jump ship and escape. Findan eventually made his way to Rome as a pilgrim and ended his life as a monk at the monastery of Rheinau in Switzerland: one of his fellow monks recorded his life story shortly after he died.

The second story concerns an Irishman called Murchad, a married man with a daughter, who was captured by Vikings and taken to Northumbria, where he was sold as a slave to a nunnery, with comical consequences. After he had seduced several of the nuns and turned the nunnery into a brothel, Murchad was expelled and cast adrift on the sea in a boat without oars or a sail as a punishment for his impiety. Murchad was rescued by Vikings, who took him to Germany and sold him to a roguish widow, who paid for him with counterfeit money. Murchad seduced her too, of course. After many more adventures, Murchad eventually returned to Ireland, was reunited with his family, and took up a career teaching Latin grammar. How much real history there is in this tale is hard to tell; perhaps it is really about making the best of hard times. It is unlikely that many captives were as lucky as Findan and Murchad but neither is it likely that all came to bad ends: most of the thousands of Irish slaves who were taken to Iceland later in the ninth century were eventually freed and became tenant farmers, for example.

Division is strength

By the early tenth century, Vikings had conquered and colonised substantial parts of England, Scotland and Francia, as well as the uninhabited Faeroe Islands and Iceland. Yet for all the fury of their onslaught, in Ireland the Vikings had not even been able to retain a toehold. Appearances can be deceptive. Ireland’s divisions might have been a handicap in combating plundering raids but they also made it all but impossible for the Vikings to conquer and hold territory. On the face of it, it would have seemed that Ireland’s disunity should have made it more vulnerable to conquest by the Vikings than England, which was divided into only four powerful centralised kingdoms. In fact the opposite was true. In early medieval Europe it was always the centralised kingdoms that got conquered most easily. After the ‘Great Army’ of Danish Vikings invaded England in 865, the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia both collapsed as soon as their kings had been killed in battle. Mercia too collapsed when its king decided he would prefer not to get killed and fled the country. Only Wessex survived to prevent England becoming Daneland. The centralised nature of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms meant that it was relatively easy for the Vikings to destroy the small ruling class and take over; just one battle might do the trick, as it did, more or less, in 1066. Little trouble would then be expected from the leaderless peasantry. Ireland, however, had dozens of kings and even more lineages from which new kings could be chosen. No victory, therefore, could ever have the decisive knockout effect it could in a country like England. Nor was there much chance of a lasting peace agreement with so many kings to negotiate with because what one agreed was not binding on the others.

The military resources of the Irish should not be underestimated either. Most Irish local kingdoms could raise armies of around 300 men. This was inadequate to deal with anything but a small Viking raiding party, but there were a great many local kingdoms. Local kings owed military service to their over-kings, so an over-king who could enforce the obedience of his vassals could raise a very large army indeed. However, in a clash of shield walls an Irish warrior was no match for a well-equipped Viking. The Irish fought almost naked without armour or iron helmets, armed with spears and using only bucklers (small round shields) for protection. The Irish recognised the superiority of the Viking warrior and they usually avoided formal battle in favour of irregular tactics, harassing raiding parties and wearing them down with sudden ambushes before melting away into the woods and bogs. In this kind of fighting, their lack of armour was an advantage to the Irish, making them more agile than a mail-clad Viking. A weary Viking raiding party returning home burdened with loot, captives and stolen cattle would have been particularly vulnerable to these tactics.

The Irish countryside was scattered with as many as 50,000 ringforts, but these were probably less of a hindrance to Viking raiders than Ireland’s warriors. Ringforts varied in size according to the status of their inhabitants. An over-king might have a substantial stone structure like the Grianán of Aileach in Donegal, a stronghold of the Northern Uí Néill dynasty. Built in the eighth century, the Grianán’s 15 foot (4.5 m) thick stone walls enclose an area 75 feet (23 m) in diameter. But although it is an impressive structure, modern experiments have shown that it would not have been at all easy to defend so it may have been built mainly as a ceremonial centre rather than to withstand a siege. Local kings and aristocrats had more modest forts, sometimes as little as 30 feet (9 m) in diameter, with earth ramparts and a palisade, containing its owner’s house and ancillary buildings. The ramparts of these small forts were primarily markers of status, for they were barely adequate for keeping livestock in, never mind keeping raiders out. More secure were crannogs, high status dwellings built on artificial islands in the middle of lakes. Communal fortifications like the English burhs, intended to provide refuges for the general population, were unknown.

During the course of the Viking Age, monks began to provide their monasteries with tall, slender, stone round towers. These were primarily used as bell towers and treasuries but they were also refuges against Viking raids. Over eighty round towers are known to have been built: the tallest surviving round tower, at Kilmacduagh in Galway, is 113 feet (34.5 m) tall. The towers’ entrances were set well above ground level so that they could only be entered with a ladder. The entrances of some towers show signs of fire damage, which is likely a result of Viking attacks. Having no source of water, or battlements from which to fight off attackers, round towers could not withstand a long siege but a small Viking raiding party could not really afford any delay.

The Vikings return

During Ireland’s ‘Forty Years’ Rest’, the bulk of Viking forces were busying themselves plundering England and Francia. By the first decade of the tenth century, the English and Franks were finally getting the measure of the Vikings so Ireland once more began to look attractive to them. In 914 Ragnald, a grandson of Ivar I, appeared in the Irish Sea and defeated a rival Viking leader in a sea battle off the coast of the Isle of Man before going to set up a longphort at Waterford in south-east Ireland. The Vikings were back and with a vengeance. In 917, Ragnald’s brother Sihtric Cáech (‘squinty’) recaptured Dublin and in 919 smashed an Irish counter-attack at Islandbridge, killing the Úi Néill High King Niall Glúndubh and five other kings. In 922, Tomar mac Ailche (Thormódr Helgason) re-established Viking occupation at Limerick and around the same time other Viking leaders established themselves at Cork and Wexford. As was the case in the ninth century, the Vikings made no extensive territorial conquests or settlements outside their heavily fortified towns. Dublin came to control the most extensive territory: known as Dyflinnarskíri or ‘Dublinshire’, it extended along the coast from Wicklow (Vikinglo) in the south to Skerries (from Old Norse sker meaning a ‘reef’) in the north, and as far inland as Leixlip (Old Norse lax hlaup meaning ‘salmon leap’) on the River Liffey. A dearth of Norse place-names in the countryside of Dublinshire supports the conclusion that there was little or no Viking settlement outside Dublin and its immediate environs.

The history of the revived Viking kingdom of Dublin is frequently entangled with that of the Viking kingdom of York across the Irish Sea. While the Norse had been exiled from Ireland, Ragnald had briefly held power in York and now he wanted it back. Using Dublin as a base to campaign in northern England, Ragnald recaptured York in 919. York must have seemed a greater prize than Dublin because when Ragnald died in 921, Sihtric gave up the kingship of Dublin to another brother, Guthfrith, and took up the kingship of York. An aggressive ruler, Guthfrith immediately launched a furious campaign of plundering and slaving raids against the Irish, culminating in a curiously respectful sack of Armagh in November. Guthfrith spared the monks, the sick and the monastic buildings, ‘save for a few dwellings which were burned through carelessness.’ It may be that Guthfrith was a Christian. If so, Guthfrith’s show of respect for St Patrick did him no good because he was intercepted on his way home by Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks (r. 919 – 43), the king of the Northern Uí Néill, and heavily defeated. This set the tone for Ireland’s second Viking Age: the days when Vikings might criss-cross Ireland without meeting serious opposition were gone. Muirchertach won another victory over the Dublin Vikings at Carlingford Lough in 925, when 200 of them were captured and beheaded, and the following year he killed Guthfrith’s son Alpthann (Halfdan) in another battle at Linn Duchaill. Muirchertach besieged the survivors in the longphort there until Guthfrith brought an army north from Dublin to rescue them. The longphort was afterwards permanently abandoned.

What had changed since Ireland’s first Viking Age? The shock of Viking raiding had forced change upon the Irish. Irish society became increasingly militarised and those kings who offered the most effective military leadership against the Vikings enhanced their status and power and, as they tightened their grip over their sub-kings, they could raise larger armies and enhance their power even more. It was the same virtuous circle of success that was driving political centralisation and state formation in contemporary Scandinavia. Irish kingship was gradually becoming more territorial and many local kings found themselves reduced to the status of local chieftains. At the same time, the Irish had learned from the Vikings, making greater use of swords and axes in battle. Though they still lacked armour, this went some way to evening the odds on the battlefield. War was also waged with a new ruthlessness, against both the Vikings and other Irish kingdoms. Ravaging and burning had been rare before the Viking Age, but now Irish kings used it routinely as a weapon against their foes irrespective of whether they were Irish or Norse.

After Sihtric’s death in 927, Guthfrith went to York, whether to claim the throne for himself or to support his brother’s son Olaf Cuarán is not known. Both were quickly expelled by Æthelstan of Wessex. Guthfrith returned to lay siege to York, but was forced to surrender to Æthelstan, who allowed him to return to Dublin, which he ruled until his death in 934. Guthfrith’s son and successor, Olaf Guthfrithsson, established dominance over all the Norse in Ireland when he defeated the Limerick Vikings in a naval battle on Lough Ree in 937. It was in the same year that he allied with the Scots and the Welsh of Strathclyde in another attempt to win the kingdom of York only to be defeated by Æthelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh (see p. 124). Muirchertach sacked Dublin the following year, taking advantage of its weakness after Olaf’s defeat in England. However, Æthelstan’s death in 939 finally gave Olaf the chance to seize York and unite it with Dublin in a single kingdom. Olaf did not enjoy his success for long: he died shortly after raiding the Northumbrian monasteries at Tyninghame and Auldhame in 941, a victim, it was said, of divine displeasure. A tenth-century Viking burial discovered in the monastic cemetery at Auldhame almost certainly belongs to a high-status Viking who was involved in these raids. It has been speculated that the burial was even that of Olaf himself. As Olaf was married to the daughter of King Constantine II of Scotland he must have been at least a nominal Christian. The king might therefore have been buried on consecrated ground as a posthumous act of penance. Following Olaf’s death his cousin Olaf Cuarán became king of York, while his brother Blácaire succeeded him at Dublin.

Blácaire was an active raider. On 26 February 943 he defeated and killed Muirchertach at the Battle of Glas Liatháin and five days later sacked Armagh. Muirchertach’s death was mourned by the Irish, the Annals of Ulster described him as ‘the Hector of the western world’ and lamented that his death had left the ‘land of the Irish orphaned’. Irish retaliation was swift. The following year, the newly acknowledged High King Congalach Cnogba captured and burned Dublin, carrying away a vast amount of booty. Four hundred Vikings were said to have been killed in the fighting and Blácaire fled into exile. In his absence, Congalach installed Olaf Cuarán, recently expelled from York by the English, as king of Dublin. Olaf’s dependence on Congalach was such that when the pair were defeated by a rival for the high kingship in 947, Blácaire was able to depose him and reclaim his throne. After his death in battle against Congalach in 948, Blácaire was succeeded by his cousin Godfred, another son of Sihtric Cáech. In 951 Godfred led an enormously successful expedition in the Irish midlands, plundering half a dozen monasteries including Kells. According to the Annals of Ulster, ‘three thousand men or more were taken captive and a great spoil of cattle and horses and gold and silver was taken away’. Divine vengeance followed swiftly, of course. A severe epidemic, described in the annals as dysentery and leprosy, broke out in Dublin on Godfred’s return and the king was one of its victims.

While Godfred had been plundering in Ireland his brother Olaf had briefly regained control of York before being expelled by the Norwegian Erik Bloodaxe in 952. Olaf now succeeded as king of Dublin but the dream of uniting Dublin and York was dead. The Dublin Vikings would never be a power in England again. It is doubtful that a Dublin-York axis was ever really viable in the long term. York is much more remote from Dublin than a casual glance at a map would suggest. As York could only be reached by ship from the North Sea, sailing there from Dublin involved a long, dangerous and time-consuming voyage around the north of Britain. The only alternative would have been to sail from Dublin to north-west England and then trek across the Pennine Hills to York. However, it is far from clear how much, if any, control the kings of York actually exercised west of the Pennines. And, fighting off the English and the Irish at the same time must have been way beyond the resources of the Dublin Vikings.

Olaf was not a peaceable king but neither was he a traditional freebooting Viking, as he rarely raided unless he was acting in alliance with an Irish king. Olaf was also closely linked to Irish dynasties by marriage – made possible by his baptism in England as part of a peace deal with king Edmund in 943. Olaf’s first wife was Dúnlaith, the sister of the high king Domnall ua Néill (r. 956 – 80) and, after her death, he married Gormflaith, daughter of Murchad mac Finn, king of Leinster. Olaf seems to have gained little, if any, political advantage from his marriages because his reign was dominated by conflicts with Domnall and with successive kings of Leinster (some of whom Olaf held hostage in Dublin). On Domnall’s death in 980, Dúnlaith’s son by an earlier marriage, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnall, the king of Meath, succeeded his uncle as high king. Máel Sechnaill clearly had no love lost for his stepfather as he had begun his reign as king of Meath in 975 with an attack on Dublin, in which he burned ‘Thor’s Wood’ (a pagan sacred grove) outside the city. Shortly after becoming high king, Máel Sechnaill heavily defeated a force of Vikings from Dublin, Man and the Hebrides in battle at the Hill of Tara, the traditional inauguration place of the high kings. Máel Sechnaill followed up his victory by laying siege to Dublin, which surrendered after three days. Máel Sechnaill imposed a heavy tribute on the citizens and deposed Olaf, who went into retirement as a monk on Iona, where he died soon afterwards. In his place, Máel Sechnaill appointed his half-brother Jarnkné (‘iron knee’) (r. 980 – 9), Olaf’s son by Dúnlaith, as tributary king. There was no disguising Dublin’s loss of independence.


The Vikings in Wales

One side effect of the strength of Irish resistance was to increase Viking interest in Wales. At its closest points, Wales was only a day’s sail away from Dublin, Waterford and Wexford, and from the Viking colony in the Isle of Man, but despite this had so far suffered relatively little from Viking raids. A combination of strong military rulers such as Rhodri Mawr (r. 844 – 78) of Gwynedd, difficult mountainous terrain, and Wales’ poverty compared to England, Ireland and Francia, seem to have deterred any major Viking invasions in the ninth century. Only a dozen Viking raids are recorded in the period 793 – 920, compared to over 130 in Ireland in the same period. This was fewer than the number of English invasions of Wales in the same period. Place-name evidence points to areas of Viking settlement in the south-west, in Pembrokeshire and Gower, but, as they are undocumented, it is not known when they were made. There was also a small area of Viking settlement in the far north-east, modern Flintshire, most probably by refugees from Dublin following its capture by the Irish in 902. This was probably overspill from the successful Viking colony a few miles away across the estuary of the River Dee in Wirral.

In the first half of the tenth century, Wales was dominated by Hywel Dda (r. 915-50), the king of Deheubarth in the south-west. During his long reign Hywel came close to uniting all of Wales under his rule but his death in 950 was followed by a civil war and the break-up of his dominion. This was a signal to Vikings based in Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Hebrides to launch a wave of attacks on Wales. The area most exposed to Viking raiding was the large and fertile island of Anglesey off the coast of North Wales, which lay only 70 miles due east of Dublin and just 45 miles south of the Isle of Man: raids are recorded in 961, 971, 972, 979, 980, 987 and 993. Another place hit hard was St David’s monastery on the Pembrokeshire coast, Wales’ most important ecclesiastical centre. Founded c. 500 by St David, the monastery became the seat of the archbishops of Wales in 519. Only 60 miles from Wexford, St David’s was first sacked by Vikings in 967, then again in 982, 988 and 998, when they killed archbishop Morgeneu. St David’s would be sacked at least another six times before the end of the eleventh century. In 989 the raids had become so bad that King Maredudd of Deheubarth paid tribute to the Vikings at the rate of one silver penny for each of his subjects. Viking raids declined quickly after 1000, perhaps because the Viking towns in Ireland had come under the control of Irish rulers, but raids from the Hebrides and Orkney continued into the twelfth century. Vikings from Ireland also continued to come to Wales, but they did so mainly as mercenaries signing on with Welsh kings to fight in their wars with one another and with the English.

The Rock of Cashel

The end of Ireland’s Viking Age is traditionally associated with the rise of the O’Brien (Ua Briain) dynasty of Munster, and of its greatest king Brian Boru (r. 976 – 1014) in particular. Brian’s career certainly had an epic quality about it. Brian was a younger son of Cennétig mac Lorcáin (d. 951), king of the Dál Cais, whose kingdom, which was roughly equivalent to modern County Clare, was subject to the kings of Munster. As a younger son Brian probably never expected to rule and his early life was spent in the shadow of his elder brother Mathgamain. Even Brian’s date of birth is uncertain. Some Irish sources claim that he was eighty-eight when he died in 1014, which would mean he was born in 926 or 927, but other sources give dates as early as 923 and as late as 942. Brian’s first experience of war came in 967 when he fought alongside his brother at the Battle of Sulcoit against Ivar, king of the Limerick Vikings. The following year the brothers captured and sacked Limerick, executing all male prisoners of fighting age. The rest were sold as slaves. Ivar, however, escaped to Britain and in 969 he returned with a new fleet and regained control of Limerick only to be expelled again by the Dal Cais in 972.

Probably in 970, Mathgamain expelled his nominal overlord, Máel Muad the king of Munster, from his stronghold on the Rock of Cashel. The rock is a natural fortress, a craggy limestone hill rising abruptly and offering a magnificent view over the fertile plains of County Tipperary. The rock is now crowned by the ruins of a medieval cathedral and one of Ireland’s tallest surviving round towers, so little evidence of earlier structures survives. In legend, Máel Muad’s ancestor Conall Corc made Cashel the capital of Munster after two swineherds told him of a vision in which an angel prophesised that whoever was the first to light a bonfire on the rock would win the kingship of Munster. Conall needed no more encouragement and had hurried to Cashel and lit a fire. This was supposed to have happened around sixty years before St Patrick visited around 453 and converted Munster’s then king Óengus to Christianity. During the baptismal ceremony the saint accidentally pierced Óengus’ foot with the sharp end of his crozier. The king, thinking it was part of the ritual, suffered in silence.

Mathgamain’s success in capturing Cashel promised to make the Dál Cais a major power as Munster was one of the most important of Ireland’s over-kingdoms, covering the whole of the south-west of the island. However, before Mathgamain could win effective control of Munster, Máel Muad murdered him and recaptured Cashel. Brian now unexpectedly found himself king of the Dál Cais and quickly proved himself to be a fine soldier. After his expulsion from Limerick in 972, Ivar established a new base on Scattery Island, close to the mouth of the Shannon, from where he could still easily threaten Dál Cais. This sort of tactic had served Vikings well since the 840s, but no more. Brian had learned the importance of naval power from the Vikings and in 977 he led a fleet to Scattery Island, surprising and killing Ivar. A year later Brian defeated and killed his brother’s murderer to regain control of Cashel. Very shortly afterwards he defeated his last serious rival for control of Munster, Donnubán of the Uí Fidgente, and the remnants of the Limerick Vikings under Ivar’s son Harald. Both Donnubán and Harald were killed. This spelled the end of Viking Limerick. The town now effectively became the capital of Dál Cais, but Brian allowed its Norse inhabitants to remain in return for their valuable military and naval support. In the years that followed, Brian also became overlord of the Viking towns of Cork, Wexford and Waterford.

Now secure in his control of Munster, Brian began to impose his authority on the neighbouring provinces of Connacht and Leinster. Brian’s ambitions inevitably brought him into conflict with Dublin’s overlord, Máel Sechnaill. Almost every year, Brian campaigned in either Leinster, Meath or Connacht. Limerick and other Viking towns provided Brian with fleets, which he sent up the River Shannon to ravage the lands of Connacht and Meath on either side. When Donchad mac Domnaill, the king of Leinster, submitted to Brian in 996 Máel Sechnaill recognised him as overlord of all of the southern half of Ireland, including Dublin. Brian almost immediately faced a rebellion by Donchad’s successor in Leinster, Máel Morda, and the king of Dublin, Sihtric Silkbeard (r. 989 – 1036). Sihtric was another son of Olaf Cuarán, by his second wife Gormflaith, who was Máel Morda’s sister. Brian’s crushing victory over the allies at the battle of Glen Mama in 999 left him unchallenged in the south. Brian dealt generously with Sihtric, allowing him to remain king, and marrying Gormflaith, so making him his son-in-law. There was a brief peace before Brian, his sights now set on the high kingship itself, went back onto the offensive against Máel Sechnaill. Sihtric played a full part in these campaigns, providing troops and warships. Finally defeated in 1002, Máel Sechnaill resigned his title in favour of Brian and accepted him as his overlord: it was the first time that anyone other than an Uí Néill had been high king. Two more years of campaigning and every kingdom in Ireland had become tributary to Brian, hence his nickname bóraime, ‘of the tributes’.

The Battle of Clontarf

Brian’s achievement was a considerable one but he did not in any meaningful sense unite Ireland: outside his own kingdom of Dál Cais, Brian exercised authority indirectly, through his tributary kings, and he created no national institutions of government. Nor was the obedience of Brian’s tributaries assured: he faced, and put down, several rebellions. The most serious of these rebellions began in 1013 when Máel Mórda of Leinster renewed his alliance with Sihtric Silkbeard, who, despite Brian’s conciliatory approach, still hoped to recover Dublin’s independence. To strengthen Dublin’s forces, Sihtric called in an army of Vikings under Sigurd the Stout, the jarl of Orkney, and Brodir, a Dane from the Isle of Man, which arrived at Dublin just before Easter 1014. Brian quickly raised an army that included several of his tributary kings, including Maél Sechnaill, and a contingent of Vikings under Brodir’s brother Óspak. The two armies met in battle at Clontarf, a few miles north of Dublin on Good Friday (23 April) 1014. Neither Brian nor Sihtric fought in the battle. Sihtric watched the battle from the walls of Dublin, where he had remained with a small garrison to defend the city if the battle was lost. Now in his seventies or eighties, Brian was too frail to take any part in the fighting and spent the battle in his tent. The exact size of the rival armies is unknown but Brian’s was probably the larger of the two.

The battle opened around daybreak in heroic style with a single combat between two champion warriors, both of whom died in a deadly embrace, their swords piercing one another’s hearts. The fighting was exceptionally fierce but Brian’s army eventually gained the upper hand and began to inflict severe casualties on the Vikings and the Leinstermen. Brian’s son and designated successor, Murchad, led the attack and was said personally to have killed 100 of the enemy, fifty holding his sword in his right hand and fifty holding his sword in his left hand, before he was himself cut down and killed. Among Murchad’s victims was jarl Sigurd. Of the Dublin Vikings fighting in the army, only twenty are said to have survived the battle and the Leinster-Dublin army as a whole suffered as many as 6,000 casualties. By evening, the Leinster-Dublin army was disintegrating in flight and many Vikings drowned as they tried desperately to reach their ships anchored in Dublin Bay. At this moment of victory, Brodir and a handful of Viking warriors broke through the enemy lines and killed Brian as he prayed in his tent. Brodir’s men were quickly killed by Brian’s bodyguards and, according to Icelandic saga traditions, Brodir was captured and put to a terrible death. His stomach was cut open and he was walked round and round a tree until all his entrails had been wound out. Máel Mórda and one of his tributary kings were also killed in the fighting, as too were two tributary kings on Brian’s side.

For the anonymous author of the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, Clontarf was the decisive battle of Ireland’s Viking wars, but this exaggerates its importance. The author of the Coghad was essentially a propagandist for Brian Boru’s Ua Briain dynasty and he intended, by glorifying his achievements, to bolster his descendents’ claim to the high kingship of Ireland, which they contested with the Uí Néills. The true impact of the battle was rather different. The deaths of Brian and Murchad caused a succession crisis in Dál Cais that brought the rise of the Ua Briain dynasty to a crashing halt. Brian’s hard-won hegemony immediately disintegrated, Cashel reverted to its traditional rulers, and Máel Sechnaill reclaimed the high kingship. Sihtric found himself back where he had started his reign, a sub-king to Máel Sechnaill. There could have been no clearer way to demonstrate how far gone in decline Viking power in Ireland already was. Sihtric continued to take part in Ireland’s internecine conflicts but his defeats outnumbered his successes, and Dublin’s decline into political and military irrelevance continued. Dublin continued to prosper as Ireland’s most important port, however, making Sihtric a wealthy ruler. In 1029 he ransomed his son Olaf, who had been captured by the king of Brega, for 1,200 cows, 120 Welsh ponies, 60 ounces (1.7 kg) of gold, 60 ounces of silver, hostages, and another eighty cattle for the man who had conducted the negotiations. Though he was quite willing to sack monasteries when it suited him, Sihtric was a devout Christian and in 1028 he made a pilgrimage to Rome. Such journeys were primarily penitential and, as an active Viking, Sihtric no doubt had much to be penitential about. On his return to Dublin he founded Christ Church cathedral but pointedly placed it under the authority of the Archbishopric of Canterbury in England, then ruled by the Danish King Cnut. It was not until 1152 that the diocese of Dublin became part of the Irish church. His alliance with Cnut briefly resurrected Dublin as a power in the Irish Sea, but Cnut’s death in 1035 left Sihtric in a weak position. In 1036 Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, a Norse-Gaelic king of the Hebrides, captured Dublin and forced Sihtric into exile: he died in 1042, possibly murdered during another pilgrimage to Rome.

Echmarcach never succeeded in securing his hold on Dublin and in 1052 he was expelled by Diarmait mac Máel, the king of Leinster, who ruled the city directly as an integral part of his kingdom. For the next century Dublin became a prize to be fought over by rival Irish dynasties interspersed with periods of rule by Norse kings from the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, and even Norway.

Ostman Dublin

By the eleventh century the Viking towns had become fully integrated into Irish political life, accepted for the trade they brought and the taxes they paid on it, and their fleets of warships, which made them valuable allies in the wars of the Irish kings. Pagan burial customs had died out during the second half of the tenth century so it is likely that by now the Irish Vikings were mostly converted to Christianity. It was not only kings like Sihtric Silkbeard who had taken Irish wives, and in many cases the children of these mixed marriages were Gaelic speaking. It is even possible that people of Norse descent were minorities in the Viking towns among a population of slaves, servants, labourers and craftsmen that was mostly Irish. The Irish Vikings had become sufficiently different from ‘real’ Scandinavians to have acquired a new name, the Ostmen, meaning ‘men of the east’ (of Ireland). The name seems to have been coined by the English, who by this time had had ample opportunities to learn how to distinguish between different types of Scandinavian.

In its general appearance, Ostman Dublin was probably much like other Viking towns of the period, such as York or Hedeby in Denmark. In the tenth century the site was divided up by post-and-wattle fences into long narrow plots along streets. Sub-rectangular houses built of wood, wattles, clay and thatch were built end-on to the streets, with doors at both ends. Though the houses were often rebuilt, the boundaries of the plots themselves remained unchanged for centuries. Irish kings used these plots as the basic unit for levying tribute on Dublin, as Máel Sechnaill did in 989 when he levied an ounce (28 g) of gold for every plot. Paths around the houses were covered with split logs, or gravel and paving slabs. The streets of Ostman Dublin lie under the modern streets, so it is not known what they were surfaced with, but split logs were used in other Viking towns like York. Different quarters of the town were assigned to different activities. Comb-makers and cobblers were concentrated in the area of High Street, while wood-carvers and merchants occupied Fishamble Street, for example. Other crafts, like blacksmithing and shipbuilding, were probably carried out outside the town. The wreck of a Viking longship discovered at Skuldelev near Roskilde in Denmark proved to have been built of oak felled near Glendalough, 22 miles south of Dublin, in 1042.

The town was surrounded by an earth rampart, which was probably surmounted by a wooden palisade. By 1000, Dublin had begun to spread outside its walls and a new rampart was built to protect the new suburbs. By 1100 it had proved necessary to extend the defences again, this time with a stone wall that was up to 12 feet high. This was such a novelty that a poem of 1120 considered Dublin to be one of the wonders of Ireland. Dublin probably lacked any impressive public buildings – even the cathedral founded by Sihtric Silkbeard was built of wood and it would not be rebuilt in stone until the end of the twelfth century. Dublin’s four other known churches were probably also wooden structures. The basic institution of Dublin’s government, as in all Viking Age Scandinavian communities, was the thing, the meeting of all freemen. The thing met at the 40-foot (12 m) high thingmote (‘thing mound’), which was sited near the medieval castle. This survived until 1685, when it was levelled to make way for new buildings. Of the other Ostman towns, only Waterford has seen extensive archaeological investigations. Like Dublin it was a town of wooden buildings laid out in orderly plots within stout defences.

The end of Viking Dublin

Viking Dublin was finally brought to an end not by the Irish but by the Anglo-Normans. In 1167, Diarmait MacMurchada, exiled to England from his kingdom of Leinster, recruited a band of Anglo-Norman mercenaries to help him win back his kingdom. Reinforcements arrived in Leinster in 1169 and, with their help, Diarmait captured the Ostman town of Wexford. In 1170, Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare, popularly known as Strongbow, the earl of Pembroke, brought an army of 200 knights and 1,000 archers to support Diarmait, and within days he had captured another Ostman town, Waterford. On 21 September in the same year, Diarmait and Strongbow captured Dublin. The city’s last Norse king Asculf Ragnaldsson (r. 1160 – 71) fled to Orkney where he raised an army to help him win it back. In June 1171, Asculf returned with a fleet of sixty ships and attempted to storm Dublin’s east gate. The Norman garrison sallied out on horseback and scattered Asculf’s men. Asculf was captured as he fled back to his ships. The Normans generously offered to release Asculf if he paid a ransom, but when he foolishly boasted that he would return next time with a much larger army, they thought better of it and chopped his head off instead. Cork was the last Ostman town to fall to the Anglo-Normans, following the defeat of its fleet in 1173.

The Anglo-Norman conquest was a far more decisive event in Irish history than the advent of the Vikings. Despite their long presence in the country, the Viking impact on Ireland was surprisingly slight. Viking art styles influenced Irish art styles, and the Irish adopted Viking weapons and shipbuilding methods, and borrowed many Norse words relating to ships and seafaring into the Gaelic language, but that was about it. The Vikings certainly drew Ireland more closely into European trade networks and by the tenth century this had stimulated the development of regular trade fairs at the monastic towns. However, on the eve of the Anglo-Norman conquest, the Viking towns were still Ireland’s only fully developed urban communities. In contrast over fifty new towns were founded in the century after the Anglo-Norman conquest. Sihtric Silkbeard was the first ruler in Ireland to issue coinage in c. 997, but no native Irish ruler imitated his example: coinage only came into common use in Ireland after the Anglo-Norman conquest. The impact of Viking raiding did accelerate the slow process of political centralisation in Ireland, but even in 1169 the country still lacked any national government institutions. The high kings still exercised authority outside their personal domains indirectly through their tributary kings (though there were many fewer of them than when the Vikings had first arrived). A true national kingship would likely have emerged eventually, but the Anglo-Norman conquest brought this internal process to a sudden end. English governmental institutions were imposed in those areas controlled by the Anglo-Normans, while in those areas still controlled by the Irish, kingship degenerated into warlordism. There were no more high kings.

Dublin prospered after the Anglo-Norman conquest, becoming the centre of English rule in Ireland. England’s King Henry II (r. 1154 – 89) granted Dublin a charter of liberties based on those of the important English West Country port of Bristol. This gave Dublin privileged access to Henry’s vast British and French lands, spurring a period of rapid growth. One of Henry’s edicts took the Ostmen of Dublin and the other Norse towns under royal protection: their skills as merchants and seafarers made them far too useful to expel (though some chose to leave voluntarily). An influx of English settlers gradually made the Ostmen a minority in the city, however. The Ostmen also found that they did not always receive the privileges they had been granted because of the difficulty in distinguishing so many of them from the native Irish. In 1263, the dissatisfied Ostmen appealed to the Norwegian king Håkon IV to help them expel the English, but the collapse of Norse power that followed his death later that year ended any possibility that Dublin would recover its independence. Norse names soon fell out of use and by c. 1300, the Ostmen had been completely assimilated with either the native Irish or the immigrant English communities. A last vestige of the Viking domination of the city survives in the suburb of Oxmantown, a corruption of Ostmantown.

The Siege of Paris (885-6)

Viking Siege of Paris, 885–886.

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 emended.’

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 reliable witnesses.

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’.

When Allah met Odin I

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 of Africa.

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 Vikings.

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 such enterprises:

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’.

When Allah met Odin II

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 surplus material.

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 cremated.

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 man’s wife

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 function:

I’ll teach you lore for helping       women in labour,

runes to release the child;

write them on your palms       and clasp her wrists

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 other abominations.

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 together.

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.

Charlemagne’s Tears


“Braver are many in word than in deed.” 

– The Saga of Grettir the Strong

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 himself. 

“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 subjects.”

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 raiders. 

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 trading centers. 

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 empire. 

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 slow-burning war. 

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 nephew. 

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 in agony. 

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 itself. 

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 godfather. 

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 northern border. 

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 godfather’s property. 

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 accomplishing anything. 

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 founder.” 

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.