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The History of the Vikings Since AD 976

Posted in Vikings  by antiques

the-history-of-the-vikings-since-ad-976Brian, known as Boru from his birthplace by the river Shannon, is the son of a small local ruler. His family gain power through their successful attacks on the Vikings. In 964 Brian’s elder brother asserts his dominance over the local Irish potentates, the royal dynasty of Munster.

Taking their famous stronghold, the rock of Cashel, he becomes accepted as king of Munster and as leader of resistance to the Vikings in southern Ireland. Brian succeeds him in both roles in 976.

Brian Boru successfully drives the Vikings from the Shannon. In 1002 he is accepted as high king of all Ireland. His final confrontation with the Norsemen follows a plot set in motion in 1013.

In 1013 the Norse king of Dublin spends Christmas in the Orkneys with another Viking ruler - the local earl. They hatch a scheme. The earl of the Orkneys will bring a fleet and army to Dublin, before Easter, to assist the Norse king in overwhelming the king of all Ireland, Brian Boru.

The engagement takes place, and at the appointed season. On April 23, 1014, Brian Boru confronts the Norse army at Clontarf, on the coast just east of Dublin. He is now seventy-three, so he only directs the battle. His son, Murchad, leads the men in the field and dies fighting (as does the earl of the Orkneys). After twelve hours the Norsemen are defeated. But a Viking chieftain, fleeing the battlefield, comes across Brian Boru in his tent and kills him.

The Irish victory at Clontarf puts an end to any serious Norse threat to the whole of Ireland. But it does not remove the Vikings from their coastal strongholds of Dublin and Waterford. And, with both Brian Boru and his son casualties of the battle, it leaves the Irish themselves in a disordered state.

This remains the case for more than a century until a stronger group of Vikings, of Norman descent, arrive on the Irish coast in 1169.

Vikings in the North Atlantic: 9th - 10th century AD

Rowing and sailing through the northern seas, in their superbly streamlined longships, the Norsemen settle in islands close to land which have been inhabited since neolithic times (such as the Orkneys and Shetlands) and in others further afield where their only predecessors - in the previous century or two - are Irish Christian hermits, searching for isolated discomfort.

Islands with only hermits to displace include the Faeroes and above all Iceland. From Iceland the Vikings venture even further west to perch on the edge of Greenland, where they are preceded only by the Eskimo.

The first family of Iceland: AD 874

In 874 Viking longships are beached on a promontory in the southwest of Iceland, where Reykjavik now stands. They have brought from the coast of Norway a chieftain, Ingókfuyr Arnarson, together with his family, dependents and livestock. Arnarson establishes a settlement, based on fishing and sheep farming.

Other similar groups soon follow, staking out territories round the coast of the island. Two centuries later the population of Iceland is already about 75,000 people - a level not exceeded until the 20th century. Meanwhile Norse colonists from Iceland have formed the first European settlements on the American continent, naming them Greenland and Vinland.

Vikings in France: 9th - 12th century AD

As elsewhere in northwest Europe, Viking raids on the coast of France gradually evolve into settlement. During the last decades of the 9th century, Danes are in possession of the territory round the lower reaches of the Seine. Early in the 10th century they are joined by a Norwegian who has already distinguished himself adventuring in Scotland and Ireland. His name is Hrölfr. He is known in western history as Rollo the Ganger.

Rollo becomes leader of the Seine Vikings and by 911 he is strong enough to besiege the French city of Chartres. The siege ends when the Frankish king, Charles III, agrees at St. Clair-sur-Epte to grant Rollo feudal rights over the territory round Rouen.

The Viking word for a Scandinavian is Northman, which in medieval French becomes Normand. Rollo the Viking and his successors, rapidly expanding their territory beyond his original feudal grant, are known therefore as Normans. Their dukedom, in its larger boundaries, becomes and remains Normandy.

Rollo’s descendants rule Normandy for two centuries, until the male line dies out in 1135 with the death of Henry I. Meanwhile they have become keen Christians (Rollo is baptized, though his son William I is the first Norman duke fully committed to the religion). But they lose nothing of their Viking restlessness, which finds expression in adventures outside Normandy.

Vikings in Russia: from the 9th century AD

Unusually for the Vikings, trade rather than plunder is the main reason for their penetration deep into Russia during the 9th century AD. The rivers of eastern Europe, flowing north and south, make it surprisingly easy for goods to travel between the Baltic and the Black Sea.

One spot is particularly well-favoured as a trading centre. Near Lake Ilmen the headwaters of the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga rivers are close to each other. Respectively they flow into the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Caspian. Goods ferried by water between these important trading regions converge on this area. By the early 9th century Viking tribes known as the Rus have a base on the site of Novgorod.

Although they are not Slavs, there is justice in the Rus giving Russia her name. Their development of trade, particularly down the Dnieper (a route which becomes known as Austrvegr, or the ‘Great Waterway’), lays the foundation of the Russian nation.

In 882 a Viking leader, Oleg, moves his headquarters down the Dnieper, seizing the town of Kiev. Here, in 911, he negotiates a commercial treaty with the Byzantine empire.

A Viking successor of Oleg’s in Kiev, two generations later, describes how this first Russian city is the centre of a triangular trade between civilized Byzantium in the south, the steppe lands in the middle, and the wild forests of the north.

In this place ‘all goods gather from all parts: gold, clothes, wine, fruits from the Greeks; silver and horses from the Czechs and Hungarians; furs, wax, honey and slaves from the Rus’.

The first Russians: 10th - 11th century AD

The rulers of Kiev in the 10th century are still Vikings. But as they settle and become more prosperous they begin to seem something new and different - Russians. This is particularly true of Vladimir, who is proclaimed prince of all Russia in 980 after capturing Kiev from a rival.

Vladimir’s early life is spent in full-blooded pagan style, fighting and wenching (the chronicles credit him with 800 concubines), but in about 988 he takes a step which gives Russia its characteristic identity and brings him personally the halo of a saint. He sends envoys out to discover which is the best religion. Their report persuades him to choose for Russia the Greek Orthodox brand of Christianity.

The line of grand princes and tsars in Russia seems, with hindsight, quintessentially Russian. Yet the descendants of Vladimir, a Scandinavian princely adventurer, rule in an unbroken male line for nearly six centuries.

The Russian royal dynasty is as much a part of Viking history as the Norman conquest of England or the settlement of distant Iceland and Greenland.

Greenland: from the 10th century AD

From high ground in western Iceland the peaks of Greenland are sometimes visible, across 175 miles of water. In about AD 981 the distant sight attracts a Viking adventurer, Eric Thorvaldsson, also known as Eric the Red. He has a reason for leaving Iceland. He has been exiled for three years as a punishment for manslaughter.

Eric puts his family in a longship, together with their retainers and their livestock, and they sail towards the distinct peaks. They land in the southern tip of the island, near what is now Julianehaab, where they survive the necessary three years.

At the end of his exile Eric returns to Iceland to persuade more settlers to join him. With a better sense of public relations than of accuracy, he gives his territory the attractive name of Greenland. He sets off again with twenty-five longships, of which fourteen complete the journey (some turn back). About 350 people land with their animals. The colony survives four centuries in this inhospitable climate; eventually Greenland is abandoned in the early 15th century.

Meanwhile, in the very earliest years of Greenland, an outpost settlement is briefly established in north America.

Vinland: AD c.1000 - 1013

Icelandic sagas of the 13th century give various versions of how Leif, a son of Eric the Red, comes to spend a winter at a place west of Greenland which he names Vinland (the root vin in old Norse could imply either that grape vines or flat grassland characterized the place). In some accounts Leif loses his way when returning from Norway, in others he is following up reports made fifteen years earlier by Bjarni Herjolfsson, another Viking blown off course.

Either way it seems likely that in about the year 1000 Leif Ericsson lands at three successive spots in north America which he calls Helluland, Markland and Vinland. There is no way of identifying them, but it is possible that they fall somewhere on the coasts of Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland, as Leif makes his way southward.

Leif returns in the following year to Greenland, but the sagas state that a few years later an Icelandic expedition - led by Thorfinn Karlsefni - establishes a new settlement at Vinland. The settlers survive only three winters, before being discouraged by the hostility of the native Americans - called in the sagas Skraelings, or ’savages’.

Archaeology proves that Vikings did indeed settle, however briefly, in north America. A site at L’Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, has a longhouse with a great hall in Viking style. It has also yielded artefacts of a kind used in Iceland - including a soapstone spindle, suggesting that women were among the settlers. A famous map of Vinland, however, has been proved a forgery.

Adventures outside Normandy: 11th century

The Frankish empire is too strong for the Normans to expand far within France, but the adventurous spirit of the Vikings does not fit well with a settled life of agriculture. To their inherited skills as sea raiders, they now add another fighting discipline learnt from the Franks - that of heavy cavalry, with all the weight and power of armoured knights on strong chargers. Normandy has little to offer the ambitious younger son of a noble family. But with these military accomplishments, he is superbly equipped to become a mercenary.

From about 1017 Normans arrive in southern Italy in increasing numbers to fight against the enemies of the pope.

In the Mediterranean there are two kinds of enemies, both anathema to Normans with a simple devotion to Roman Catholicism. Parts of southern Italy are still held by representatives of the Byzantine emperor, asserting the Greek Orthodox version of Christianity. And Sicily is in the hands of outright infidels, the Muslims. In both regions the pope encourages Norman rule from 1059.

Meanwhile, just seven years later, there is a tempting opportunity for expansion nearer home. The Norman conquest of England begins in 1066. It is the last major step in the explosion of Scandinavian energy which is the story of the Vikings. —

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