Had there been a significant physiological difference between the Vikings and the Europeans (around the 11th century)?

Had there been a significant physiological difference between the Vikings and the Europeans (around the 11th century)?

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Everyone who has seen the show The Vikings surely noticed that the Nordic men are far more muscular and much bigger. Is there a genetic difference that was making them better fighters or had they been better fighters rather thanks to their rough nurture and violent culture?

Is there any evidence that supports this hypothesis? If so, has the physiological difference between the Vikings and the Europeans played a significant role in the wars of Vikings?

The Romans did notice a physiological difference between themselves and Germanic Tribes, as already mentioned by DevSolar. The Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan aswell noted down in his journals when he encountered the Volga Vikings: "I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy". Scandinavians still today ranks quite high on the average human height index.

Based on this i think it safe to say that there was some physiological difference between Vikings and other groups of people in Europe. But answering your question is hard because you group all other people living in Europe together as Europeans but dismiss and place the Norse in a separate distinct group. You miss to take into consideration that for example Germans have more in common with Norsemen but genetically and culturally than they have with Spaniards, yet you label both these groups together as Europeans.

Whether or not physiological differences have helped the Vikings in wars and conquests is hard to answer. It is logical that a bigger man has an advantage over a smaller man when it comes to combat, but in war there are so many different factors to consider. My personal opinion is that the possible advantage coming from physiological differences that might of occurred when the Vikings encountered and fought some of the other groups, is negligible.


There probably were some physiological differences, at least in height, between the Vikings and some of the other groups of people in Europe. But this difference is probably negligible and have not played any significant role in wars.

IMHO opinion there were no ethnic Vikings. Scandinavians were ethnic Danes, or Norse, or Swedes. The pagan Scandinavians who sailed to raid and pillage foreign lands were vikings by occupation.

Scandinavians who wanted to be vikings and were accepted into viking crews probably had distinctive personalities. Egil's Saga says he killed a boy when he was seven years old and his mother suggested with his violent personality he should be a viking when he got older. ("Son be a viking"?). And Egil did go on viking voyages.

And possibly viking crews recruited bigger than average Scandinavians in the belief that would make them better at fighting. In real life the average viking raider might have been significantly bigger than the average native of the lands they raided, but various factors probably made some vikings smaller than usual.


In the 9th century ad seafaring warriors known as Vikings began raiding the coasts of Europe, burning, plundering, and killing as they went. These marauders, or pirates, came from Scandinavia—what is now Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The people who lived there were known as Norsemen, or Northmen. Their expression for these campaigns of swift, cruel raids was to “go a-viking.” Vik in Norse means “harbor” or “bay.” The Vikings came to be the most feared raiders of their time and were the only Norsemen with whom most Europeans came in contact. They also colonized wide parts of Europe. Their name was given to the era that dated from about ad 800 to about 1050—the Viking Age.

Were Vikings dreadlocks special?

Contrary to certain modern stereotypes, historical evidence shows that physical hygiene was important to the Vikings in the Middle Ages. Caring for their hair was seemingly part of their hygiene routine.

Based on written records, like the Roman writings mentioned above, as well as some hair care artifacts, like combs, that Scandinavian archaeologists have discovered, there is reason to believe that the Vikings valued managing their hair.

This doesn’t imply that caring for their hair was about appearance only they could have managed it out of necessity.

Some historians believe that the Vikings may have had a distinct way of braiding their hair or arranging and growing it into dreadlocks.

Even though people in different places and at different times in history wore dreadlocks, that doesn’t mean the hairstyles were exactly the same.

The texture, length, and thickness of hair, as well as other attributes, can vary from culture to culture based on the genetic makeup of certain people groups or environmental conditions, which impact hair differently.

Did Vikings get dreadlocks from the Celts? See below.

The clothes Vikings wore were partly practical and partly fashionable. See The Viking Dress Code: What They Wore and How to learn more.

Did the Vikings invent dreadlocks?

Dreadlocks are mention in multiple ancient sources from a variety of places around the world. From religious writings in India to depictions on art from ancient Greece, dreadlocks are clearly evident in ancient civilizations.

Why? There is an array of opinions about why this is the case. Ancient writers and artists weren’t just interested in dreadlocks, but recorded, drew, sculpted and painted different hairstyles, which were sometimes even emphasized.

One reason why this was so may be so is because some cultures associated women’s hair with femininity and men’s hair with masculinity.

Highlighting someone’s hairstyle was then a way to suggest something about their nature as people.

So did the Vikings invent dreadlocks? No. According to Roman records, the Celtic people, Germanic tribes, and the Vikings, may have worn their in rope-like strands.

Even early Christians were believed to have worn their hair in dreadlocks as a tribute to Samson, who had seven locks of hair. [1]

Historians have uncovered that the hairdo was common among the people in ancient Egypt, Pacific Islanders, the New Guineans, as well as the Somali and the Maasai, apart from many other tribes, including the Vikings.

Historical records indicate that Vikings had markings on their skin. See How Vikings Got Tattoos and Why to learn more.

Viking dreadlocks and Celtic elflocks

In the Middle Ages, the Vikings occupied northern Europe, the region known today as Scandinavia.

The Vikings neighbors to the south were the Celts and being in close geographical proximity, they influenced each other in different ways.

“Elflocks” or “fairy-locks” are a hairstyle of tangles and knots similar to dreadlocks.

Going on raids was important to Viking culture. What role did Viking women play in the raids? See Did Female Vikings Go on Raids? to learn more.

Did Celtic elflocks influence Viking dreadlocks?

Descriptions of elflocks are found in ancient Celtic folklore. These stories survived through oral transmission as opposed to written records.

Storytelling, art, and songs were common ways to transfer stories from one generation to the next.

In Celtic folklore, it was told that elves appear at night to tie knots in people’s hair hence, the term “elflocks.” It is also said that combing out these knots brings bad luck.

There is no irrefutable evidence to suggest that Celtic hairstyles influenced Scandinavian hairstyles. Both forms of locks may have been simply the result of practical necessity or the lack of regular combing or brushing.

Were dreadlocks important to the Vikings?

Vikings were known to place great importance on personal hygiene, and that even extended to their hairstyles.

The importance that they placed in these matters can, in part, be seen in the story about Odin when the Norse god was distraught after the death of his son and refused to wash or comb his hair for days. This detail implies how serious the Vikings were about these matters.

It is also believed that the hairstyles were also indicative of the person’s designation and that it may have also carried religious and other culturally symbolic meanings.

Cultural Significance of Dreadlocks Among the Vikings

It is believed that unmarried Viking girls sometimes wore dreadlocks and heavily braided to mark a festival or formal occasion. Sometimes their hair as further accessorized with a decorative circlet that matched their clothing.

Hairstyles among the Vikings may have been an indicator of the social status of individuals. Slaves mostly wore their hair cropped, which was a sign of servitude and loyalty to their master. Married women wore their hair in a knot at the top of their heads. (Also see Here’s How the Vikings Proposed and Got Married)

The Viking men who traveled to distant lands in order to fight and loot often wore their hair in long braids and sometimes dreadlocks.

Some believe that this was done to create an even more imposing persona and thereby intimidate their enemies. Others believe the hairstyle was practical and served to keep their long hair out of their faces when raiding. Both may be true.

Are you curious about what the Vikings looked like? See What Did the Vikings Look Like? to learn what scientists believe about what their faces, hairstyles, clothing, skin color, and more.

Is There a Difference Between Braids and Dreadlocks?

Some historians make a distinction between braids and dreadlocks. But are they the same thing?

  • Braids: Some note that braids are intentionally formed by taking three or more strands of hair and weaving them one on top on another until it reaches each strand’s ends.
  • Dreadlocks: On the other hand, are more naturally formed as a result of hair matting together over time.

While braids can be taken out quite easily, it is not the same with dreadlocks, which are for all practical purpose, permanent.

Braids require much less maintenance compared to dreadlocks. Having dreadlocks means that there is a need to take additional care to preserve the look and maintain hair health.

Dreadlocks and braids are also different because of the impact they have on hair. Braids can be taken out without causing significant hair damage, whereas dreadlocks need to be teased and matted if they are to be untangled, which may lead to hair breakage.

That is why many people who would like to stop wearing dreadlocks often opt to shave their head.

Where does the word “dreadlocks” come from?

The etymology, or word history, of the term “dreadlocks” is uncertain. Some believe it has European origins, but others associate it with Rastafarian language and culture:

“Some authors have speculated that the “dread” component could refer to the reaction of British soldiers upon encountering Mau Mau fighters who had this hairstyle.

Dreadlocks are also worn by some Rastafarians, who believe they represent a biblical hair style worn as a symbol of devotion by the Nazirites, as described in Numbers 6:1–21.” [2]

Dreadlocks likely had practical and cultural purposes

The fact is the Vikings were one of several ancient people groups to have worn dreadlocks, along with the ancient Gauls, Celts, Indians, and many more. The reasons the Vikings wore dreadlocks isn’t clear, but to was likely due to practical and cultural reasons.

Medieval Scotland & Ireland: overcoming the amnesia

There is one overriding and rather obvious dissimilarity between Ireland and Scotland: Ireland is an island. Throughout its early history, at least until the arrival of the Vikings at the end of the eighth century, Ireland was inhabited by a people who spoke a common language and who thereby could convince themselves that they were one nation: they were the Gaídil, and their language was the language of the Gaídil, and took its name from them, Goídelc (Gaeilge in Modern Irish). This made the island’s inhabitants very sensitive to new arrivals and their distinctiveness: the indigenous inhabitants were always the Gaídil, and the newcomers, no matter how long they had been in Ireland, were always the Gaill. So, in Ireland there never emerged, at any stage in the Middle Ages, a willingness to accept foreigners and to offer them, as it were, membership of the Irish nation.

Exclusivity versus inclusivity

In contrast, that part of northern Britain that became Scotland found it much harder to be exclusive, since it was only part of an island and was surrounded to north and west by many others. Foreigners who settled in Scotland could very quickly (within the space of a generation or two) become Scots. Thus, although there was a massive programme of Anglo-Norman settlement in both Ireland and Scotland in the twelfth century and later, in Ireland those Anglo-Normans remained a separate nation to the Irish, whereas in Scotland they became part of the Scots nation. The latter did not become ‘the English of the land of Scotland’ as their counterparts in Ireland became ‘the English of the land of Ireland’.
Instead, they came to see themselves as every bit as Scottish as the people they found there on their arrival, and Scotland and Scottishness—the Scots identity—adapted itself to make room for them. Hence, for instance, the Irish wrote a famous Remonstrance to the Pope in 1317 saying that they were so different from the English of Ireland in language and customs that there could never be peace between them, whereas three years later the Scots sent to the Pope their famous Declaration of Arbroath in which they boasted of their ancestral triumphs over the Britons, the Picts, the Angles, the Norwegians and the Danes, and yet many of the men who signed this letter were the grandsons and great-grandsons of men who had migrated, usually via England, from Normandy, Brittany and Flanders, and only settled in Scotland in the quite recent past! The fact that they now believed that they were Scots, part of a nation that had inhabited the northern part of Britain since the dawn of history, only goes to prove that, unlike Irishness, Scottishness was not an exclusive club membership was wide open, and it was that openness, that receptiveness, that adaptability, which contributed to the emergence of Scotland as a well-respected monarchy on the western European model, from the twelfth century onwards.

Scotland’s multi-ethnic society

Thus, medieval Scotland was, as Ireland was not, a multi-ethnic society, with a very heterogeneous mix long before a single Anglo-Norman set foot in it. In Caithness, Argyll, and the Western Isles there was a strong Scandinavian input as a result of settlement in the Viking era. Stretching south from Dumbarton on the Firth of Clyde to the Lake District in north-west England were the people of the ancient kingdom of Cumbria or Strathclyde, who were predominantly Brittonic or British, related, in other words, to the people of Wales. They were matched on the east coast by the northern part of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, usually called Lothian, which provides the very important English element in the mix.

Early eleventh-century Scotland. (Matthew Stout)

To the north, lay people descended from the Picts, but now fully subsumed into the Gaelic social order, which had been imposed on northern Britain as a result of the Dalriadic invasion from Ireland. By the time that Scotland truly emerges into the pages of history, that Gaelic culture was supreme and gave the land its very name, Scotia, the land of the Scotti, the original preferred Latin name for the Irish. So, whilst there may be quite stark differences between Scotland and Ireland in the Middle Ages, there is no escaping this one overriding link. The Irish and the Scots (that’s to say, the dominant political élite within what we call Scotland) traced their ancestry back to a common origin. They were, taken to its logical extreme, of the same nation.

The Scots’ Irish origins ignored

With few exceptions, historians of medieval Scotland have paid little more than lip-service to this most fundamental of facts. What is worse, they have even ignored it. To take one example: in 1965, the great Scottish medievalist Geoffrey. Barrow produced his classic biography of Robert Bruce, which contains his translation of a Latin letter probably sent by Robert Bruce to Ireland:

The king sends greetings to all the kings of Ireland, to the prelates and clergy, and to the inhabitants of all Ireland, his friends. Whereas we and you and our people and your people, free since ancient times, share the same national ancestry and are urged to come together more eagerly and joyfully in friendship by a common language and by common custom, we have sent over to you our beloved kinsmen, the bearers of this letter, to negotiate with you in our name about permanently strengthening and maintaining inviolate the special friendship between us and you so that with God’s will your nation may be able to recover her ancient liberty…

Professor Barrow translated the letter thus, in spite of the fact that the original text did not contain the phrase vestra nacio, but rather nostra nacio, ‘our nation’. Robert Bruce wrote seeking an alliance with the Irish so that ‘our nation’, the Scots and Irish nation, might be able to recover her ancient freedom.
One should say that in a subsequent edition Professor Barrow amended his translation so that it now does indeed read ‘our nation’, but one can’t help but feel that his original decision to translate this phrase the way he did—in effect, to assume that it contained a scribal error—stemmed from an inability or unwillingness to accept that a man like Robert Bruce, a Scot in the fourteenth century (other than perhaps an inhabitant of the Highlands and Islands) might regard himself or seek to pass himself off as of the same nation as the Irish. And yet, this is something which we must accept, and is indeed happening: a younger generation of Scottish historians has emerged who are much more open to the Irish dimension in Scottish history, and are reminding us that medieval Scots, and their kings, were indeed conscious of their Irish links, whether in a strictly ethnic sense in the form of genealogies and king-lists which linked them into the Irish chain of descent, or in the broader cultural, social, and ecclesiastical sense with which we are more familiar.

Writing history backwards

This has been a very positive development, because it has helped to a certain extent to free us from the shackles of hindsight. Because Scotland has had a constitutional link with England for the last four centuries, there is something of a tendency to write its history as if that had always been the case, or had always been inevitable, and to focus historical writing on examining how it came to be. This is useful to the extent that part of the purpose of history is to help us understand how things came to be the way they are. It is not helpful, and is rather disingenuous, if it involves airbrushing the picture to remove those images which might have suggested a different story. If the story that is to be told is of the emergence of a distinct kingdom of the Scots, the development of the Scottish monarchy and parliament, and eventual union of both crown and parliament with England, then there are going to be a lot of red herrings lying around. And Ireland will be one of them. Eyes will be firmly focused on Scotland’s frontier to the south, not on the damp and misty west, and telling the story of Scotland’s relationship with Ireland in the Middle Ages is not going to be part of the ‘enterprise’ of Scottish historiography.

Late thirteenth-century woodcut of Edward I of England, Bruce’s great rival.

A similar situation pertains in Ireland, where the historiography of the country from the twelfth century onwards is dominated by discussion of Anglo-Irish relations. Thus, the book shelves and the academic journals in both countries are packed with works on Anglo-Scottish relations and on Anglo-Irish relations in the Middle Ages, but the story of Scotland’s connection with Ireland in this period still remains largely untold. This is not because there is very little to say on the subject, and neither can it be because it was not viewed as important in its own day. The shelves remain empty and the story remains untold, because we do not regard it as important.
Another example of this springs to mind. It’s a crude test, but there may be some lesson to draw from it. Again, it involves Robert Bruce and Geoffrey Barrow, though it is by no means intended as a criticism of the latter, whose work one cannot but admire. Bruce died in 1329 but did not find himself a biographer as such for another half-century, when John Barbour, archdeacon of Aberdeen, wrote his epic poem The Bruce. As it has come down to us, this fourteenth-century metrical biography has 13,645 lines. From an Irish point of view, one of the most remarkable things about Bruce’s career is his decision, not long after his great victory at Bannockburn, to launch an invasion of Ireland, led by his brother Edward, who was set up as king here. Archdeacon Barbour obviously thought this important too, because he devoted a full 1,407 lines to it, over 10 per cent of his poem. Yet Professor Barrow’s 446 page biography of Bruce devotes only one paragraph to the Irish invasion.
Again, it must be stressed that this is not a criticism of Geoffrey Barrow. He was not being a ‘bad historian’ in relegating the Irish aspect of Bruce’s career to this position but he was being a man of his time. In the 1370s, when Archdeacon Barbour was writing, the affairs of Ireland and Scotland were quite closely entwined. They had been even more closely entwined earlier, but Barbour was not to know that they were now inexorably drifting apart. He just told it as he saw it, and gave Ireland the coverage he thought it deserved. The plans which the Scots had for Ireland a generation or two earlier still seemed important, even though Edward Bruce had been killed in battle there, and the Scottish kingship of Ireland had died with him. Barbour was, it seems, simply expressing a contemporary belief that Scottish involvement in Ireland in the time of Robert Bruce was relevant, and not an aberration from the main story of Scotland. By the mid-1960s, things looked very different. No one can deny that Ireland and Scotland had indeed drifted very far apart in the intervening centuries. Ireland had come to occupy a very peripheral role in Scottish affairs, and anyone writing about Robert Bruce, and trying to assess his contribution to Scottish history, would not spill too much ink on waxing lyrical about his Hibernophilia.

A new Scots-Irish awareness

Well, that was the 1960s, and that was acceptable then. But something has happened since. Whatever the reason—perhaps a growing sense of being or of wanting to be more distinctively Scottish—the fact is that work produced in recent years on the history of medieval Scotland seems to be less preoccupied with England. Other neglected aspects of Scottish life in the Middle Ages are getting the attention they deserve, and Scottish links with places besides England are being investigated, whether it be trading contacts with the North Sea ports, the whole Scandinavian world to which much of Scotland and the Isles belonged since the Viking Age, and links with Ireland which reach back further still. In Scotland today, therefore, there is a growing interest in Ireland or so it seems. But why? Could it be that, as Scots have gone in pursuit of their Scottishness, their search has brought them to Ireland, that the Scottish historian who tries to understand what made medieval Scotland ‘tick’ is driven to the conclusion that, perhaps, in the past, we have underestimated the significance of the Gaelic component in that society?

‘Stemming from one seed of birth’

One wouldn’t want to make too much of this point, since by the reign of Robert Bruce its Gaelic inheritance was no longer at the very heart of the Scots nation. But nonetheless a vital ingredient in the dynamic of Scottish society continued to be supplied by Ireland. That is what Robert Bruce meant when he spoke of the Scots and Irish sharing ‘the same national ancestry’, or, to give a more direct translation, ‘stemming from one seed of birth’. Now, one is tempted to take that with a pinch of salt, and it can be argued that Robert had quite a nerve talking in such terms since the Bruces were of Anglo-Norman extraction, though he did have Gaelic ancestry on his mother’s side. Furthermore, when Ó Néill of Ulster wrote to the pope during the course of Edward Bruce’s invasion, explaining why he supported the Scots’ attempt to overthrow English rule, he said of the English that

in order to shake off the harsh and insufferable yoke of servitude to them and to recover our native freedom which for the time being we have lost through them…we call to our help and assistance the illustrious Edward Bruce, earl of Carrick, brother of the lord Robert, by the grace of God the most illustrious king of Scots, and sprung from our noblest ancestors.

Therefore, in this period we are not simply dealing with the Bruces manipulating Irish dissidence for their own ends, by exploiting some vague memories of ancestral links with Ireland we have perhaps the most powerful king in Ireland trying to convince the outside world that Edward Bruce was more entitled to rule the Irish than Edward II because he was ‘sprung from our noblest ancestors’, clearly as part of an attempt to harness the shared background of the Scots and Irish in a campaign against their common enemy, England. And it is that shared Gaelic inheritance that produced the Bruce invasion of Ireland.

The Bruce invasion in context

In a recent paper on this subject, another giant of Scottish historiography, A.A.M. Duncan, stated his conclusion that the invasion is ‘an expedition which cannot be explained by a close or continuous inter-relationship of Irish and Scottish families or politics’, but, however much one respects Professor Duncan’s work, I would contend that the Bruce invasion cannot be explained by any means other than a close and continuous inter-relationship between Irish and Scottish families and politics.

The Monymusk Reliquery, a seventh-century casket that originally contained relics of Columba, was traditionally borne before the Scots in battle. The Abbot of Arbroath carried it at Bannockburn. (National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland)

To prove the case to the contrary involves an examination of the politics of the north Irish Sea area over a lengthy time-span, and of the relationships between families with connections on both sides of the North Channel over a similar time-span, an exercise which will have to await another occasion.
But where, clearly, we have been going wrong, in examining events in the Irish Sea world of which the Bruce invasion is simply one of the most dramatic and best-documented, is in our refusal to view them in a sufficiently long-term context. Over the centuries really extraordinary things happened that involved men from Ireland in Scotland and men from Scotland in Ireland. Each, however, has tended to be looked at in isolation, and has therefore given the appearance of happening out of the blue, so that it has been impossible to build up a contextual framework for them. Hence, the result is that they are ignored, or relegated to the realm of anecdote, or just explained away as once-off random eccentricities of the Celtic world. However, a long-term study of the subject, even if it did not explain each incident fully, would make it possible to fit such occurrences into a long-standing pattern.

A Scots-Irish realignment

There is, though, one way in which the events of Robert Bruce’s reign do mark a change and do not, therefore, fit into an earlier pattern. Professor Rees Davies recently published an important set of essays, Domination and Conquest. The Experience of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, 1100-1300, in which he analyses the way in which, the English kings gained an ever-increasing dominance over the other peoples inhabiting these islands. It’s a very persuasive argument which brings out extremely well the similarities in the experience of the Scots, Irish and Welsh at English hands, and the gradual intensification of English overlordship over each. But for much of the time (and Professor Davies admits as much himself), in trying to treat of the affairs and experience of Scotland in the same breath as Ireland and Wales, one gets the feeling that one is pushing a square peg into a round hole. The reason is that Ireland and Wales had very similar experiences of Anglo-Norman aggression—in the case of the Welsh, it came a century before the Irish, shortly after 1066—including dispossession, colonisation, denial of access to the law, erosion of the power of the native rulers, and ultimately the assertion of English lordship over both countries.
However, at the same time in Scotland something very different was happening. Unlike Ireland and Wales, Scotland had only one king, and far from being invaded by Normans, he was inviting them in, using them as instruments in the assertion and expansion of his own royal authority. So when the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland, the Scots, at least the Scots nobility many of whom had good Anglo-Norman pedigrees, felt no great sympathy for the native rulers whose lands were removed and power eroded. Their sympathies, in fact, lay full square with the invaders, the contemporary Melrose chronicle, for instance, pointing out proudly that their leader Strongbow was a first-cousin of the Scottish king! And when Edward I conquered Wales in the early 1280s, Alexander III was still comfortably on the Scottish throne, and there is no reason to think that he felt any unease at this development. However, twelve years later when Alexander was dead and his direct royal line extinct, the Scots found themselves in a very different position, facing war with England, and an attempt by Edward I to repeat there his earlier success in Wales.
It is at this point that a major sea-change takes place in the affairs and attitudes of the Scots. They very quickly found that hand in hand with a campaign of opposition to the king of England went the attempt to foment trouble for him elsewhere. The Welsh, in the past, had been able to benefit from sympathetic outbursts of rebellion across the Irish Sea, because they themselves were free of ties with the Anglo-Norman colonists there, and in many cases, as already noted, suffered at their hands in the same way that the native Irish did. The problem for the Scots, when their breakdown in relations with the English occurred, was that they could not make such ready recourse to Irish support, since they themselves were products of the Anglo-Norman world, and their ties and sympathies had lain hitherto with the colonial community in Ireland.

Rediscovering lost links

Thus, here we find one of the most remarkable consequences of the rupture with England that took place in the 1290s, and that is that the Scots—and most spectacularly in the case of the Bruces—in trying to sow the seeds of trouble for the domineering Edward I and for his weak son and successor Edward II, were forced into the camp of the native Irish—and forced, in some respects, to re-discover or re-invent their identity, including their links with their ancestral homeland.

The illustration at the bottom of this page from Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (c. 1440) shows the legendary Scota, daughter of Pharaoh (after whom Ireland, and later Scotland, were supposed to have been named), sailing westwards from Egypt with her husband Gaythelos, believed to have invented the Gaelic language! (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

Looking at Scotland over the recent past, it occurs to one that there was more than a bit of Edward I about Margaret Thatcher. John Major, on the other hand, had Edward II written all over him. It is interesting, therefore, that it was during this recent period that we have witnessed such a swell of enthusiasm for Scottish independence, and one cannot help but wonder to what extent those two English leaders’ eighteen years or so of not entirely unchallenged rule over Scotland, like that of the first two Edwards, contributed to Scotland’s rediscovery of itself, its Scottishness, and, in some small respect, its Irishness.

Seán Duffy is a lecturer in the Department of Medieval History, Trinity College Dublin.

Vikings abused and beheaded their slaves

The Vikings in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland had slaves, or thralls. These thralls probably held multiple roles, serving their masters in many ways in Viking society a thousand years ago.

They could also be given the ultimate rough assignment when important Vikings died.

Some followed their masters into the grave.

Few contemporary descriptions of Viking burials exist. But the Arab explorer Ibn Fadlān witnessed one such ritual when a Viking chieftain died. Fadlān had met the Eastern Vikings, also called Rūsiyyah, in what is now Russia:

&ldquoSix men entered the pavilion and all had intercourse with the slavegirl. They laid her down beside her master and two of them took hold of her feet, two her hands. The crone called the &lsquoAngel of Death&rsquo placed arope around her neck (&hellip) She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs (&hellip) while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.&rdquo [From Ibn Fadlān&rsquos Account as related in an article by James E. Montgomery, Cambridge, published in The Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 2000] (more text here)

Ibn Fadlān journeyed into what is now Russia in the 920s AD and left us a manuscript describing his experiences. He told the above story of this slave girl who volunteered to be sacrificed.

The Viking Age started in the late 700s and lasted until the year 1050. Vikings travelled far out of Scandinavia, west as far as present day Canada and east through Russia to Constantinople.

But who were their slaves and what can we learn from the archaeological findings?

Physical labourers and advisors

As many as 10 percent of the population of Viking Scandinavia could have been slaves, according to the Norwegian website Norgeshistorie.no. These can have been kidnaped and forced into slavery. They can have been captured during Viking raids but they can also have simply sunk into debt and had to meet their obligations by entering into lifelong servitude.

In &ldquoRigsthula&rdquo, which is one of the Edda Poems of Iceland, it is clear that the thralls comprised the lowest class in society. They were shouldered with the heavy and undesirable tasks on the farms, such as digging peat or watching over pigs, according to Norgeshistorie.no. They could also be exploited sexually.

There were probably many categories of these thralls. But how much do we know about their roles?

Anna Kjellström is a researcher at the Osteological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University. We met her recently at the conference &ldquoViking World 2016&rdquo, held at the University of Nottingham in England.

Kjellström participates in a project examining the graves of what are assumed to be slaves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The skeletal remains of these servants of the Vikings are being analysed to reveal some facts about where they came from and how they lived.

Several of these slave graves have one thing in common: The thralls did not end their lives in a peaceful way. Most of them had been abused, injured and decapitated before being laid to rest together with their masters.

In some of the graves the skulls were missing altogether but no one knows why.

Not typical slaves

Few archaeological traces of the Viking&rsquos slaves are found. Kjellström&rsquos investigations cover around ten graves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark where slaves are thought to be buried, either alone or along with persons of rank.

But can slavery be detected by studying bones?

&ldquoOften what we find in graves are higher-ups, but other individuals can also be present. These are not as dutifully interred in the grave,&rdquo explains Kjellström.

These companions in death were also buried without any grave goods or treasures, which are otherwise common in Viking graves. The graves in this study have been known for a long time and excavated decades ago. One of these graves belonged to the &ldquoMoose Man&rdquo from Birka, near Stockholm.

This is a famous grave found in 1988. Its occupant was a warrior who had been buried with weapons, a shield and moose antlers. Beside the man was a thrall who was interred without any possessions. The head had been separated from the body. This person is thought to have been sacrificed.

&ldquoMany bare signs of execution or mortal harm. They don&rsquot have signs of injuries which have healed. This would have suggested that their injuries came to them earlier in life, for instance in battle,&rdquo says Kjellström.

Another example is the Grimsta grave, also in the Stockholm area. Two decapitated men were found here who could also have been slaves and perhaps sacrificed.

Human sacrifices?

&ldquoIn addition to Fadlān&rsquos tale there are a few descriptions in the sagas of slaves and wives who volunteer to being killed and placed in the grave,&rdquo says Elise Naumann, an archaeologist and postdoc at the University of Oslo.

&ldquoWe have no reason to doubt that the burials were brutal,&rdquo says Naumann in comment to the Fadlān narrative.

&ldquoAnother common practice was the sacrificing of animals and placing them in human graves, so this does tie in with Viking rituals.&rdquo

Naumann has also studied a Viking grave at Flakstad, in Norway&rsquos Lofoten Islands. Again, slaves might have been included along with grave goods. Here too, the dead who accompanied a person of high rank had been decapitated and are presumed to have been slaves.

&ldquoBut we don&rsquot really know why the slaves were killed. The term &lsquohuman sacrifice&rsquo can be a bit off the mark, as that usually applies to sacrifices to the gods.&rdquo

Naumann mentions the theories of the archaeologist Neil Price who works at Uppsala University. He has pointed out that every one of these graves is different, despite sharing common characteristics. The grave goods in them differ and the slaves have been abused or killed in various ways.

&ldquoThere are lots of macabre treatments of the bodies. Some have chopped off limbs, such as in the Viking graves at Kaupang [Norway].&rdquo

&ldquoThe fact that the graves are so disparate might mean that they are part of a burial ritual that recreates important incidences in the deceased person&rsquos life. This would explain why each grave is unique,&rdquo says Naumann.

In any case, many slaves seem to have suffered a brutal death.

Not much difference

Anna Kjellstrøm&rsquos project is not complete yet. But she presented some initial results at the conference in Nottingham.

Strontium isotope analyses have been made on the remnants of the persons who were assumed to be slaves. These can show where a person has grown up. Strontium is present in rocks round the world and we absorb it in our bodies through water and food. It builds up in our teeth and bones in the course of our lives, as described in Archaeology magazine.

Strontium levels can thus provide indications of whether, for instance, persons have grown up at the same location.

&ldquoThe results clash. Some individuals have come from other places. But some of the skeletal material we have seen shows little difference from other, local groups,&rdquo she says.

This could mean that a few of the slaves in the graves had grown up in the same place as their masters. People may have a notion of thralls being captured elsewhere and brought to Scandinavia. But many might have been locals who were born into slavery.

&ldquoWe don&rsquot have may graves to og by. So it&rsquos hard to tell whether these are common slaves or whether these once had special roles, perhaps as advisors.&rdquo

Despite the obviously brutal executions, the skeletons do not indicate that these persons were undernourished.

&ldquoSome diseases leave traces in the bones. Theoretically, you would see whether individuals have suffered much, but we are not seeing this here.&rdquo

&ldquoIn some of the graves it looks like these persons have lived quite like their masters.&rdquo

Kjellström stresses that bones do not tell the whole story and she would be cautious about drawing conclusions.

&ldquoThey can have been slapped around daily, but that doesn&rsquot turn up in the bones.&rdquo

Local slaves

Elise Naumann also thinks it probable that many slaves came from the same locations as the rest of the Viking population.

&ldquoThe female slaves might have given birth to lots of children. Even though the master had sired many of these kids, such offspring could still grow up as slaves,&rdquo says Naumann.

Researchers who have studied slavery in the Nordic countries commonly think the majority of the thralls came from Scandinavian countries.

The historian Tore Iversen took his doctorate with a study of Norwegian slaves in the Middle Ages and concludes that many were recruited from within the country.

World's largest DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons reveals they weren't all Scandinavian

Invaders, pirates, warriors -- the history books taught us that Vikings were brutal predators who travelled by sea from Scandinavia to pillage and raid their way across Europe and beyond.

Now cutting-edge DNA sequencing of more than 400 Viking skeletons from archaeological sites scattered across Europe and Greenland will rewrite the history books as it has shown:

  • Skeletons from famous Viking burial sites in Scotland were actually local people who could have taken on Viking identities and were buried as Vikings.
  • Many Vikings actually had brown hair not blonde hair.
  • Viking identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. The study shows the genetic history of Scandinavia was influenced by foreign genes from Asia and Southern Europe before the Viking Age.
  • Early Viking Age raiding parties were an activity for locals and included close family members.
  • The genetic legacy in the UK has left the population with up to six per cent Viking DNA.

The six-year research project, published in Nature today (16 September 2020), debunks the modern image of Vikings and was led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John's College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen.

He said: "We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books -- but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn't that kind of world. This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was -- no one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age."

The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term 'vikingr' meaning 'pirate'. The Viking Age generally refers to the period from A.D. 800, a few years after the earliest recorded raid, until the 1050s, a few years before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The Vikings changed the political and genetic course of Europe and beyond: Cnut the Great became the King of England, Leif Eriksson is believed to have been the first European to reach North America -- 500 years before Christopher Columbus -- and Olaf Tryggvason is credited with taking Christianity to Norway. Many expeditions involved raiding monasteries and cities along the coastal settlements of Europe but the goal of trading goods like fur, tusks and seal fat were often the more pragmatic aim.

Professor Willerslev added: "We didn't know genetically what they actually looked like until now. We found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia which shows Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed. Our research even debunks the modern image of Vikings with blonde hair as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia."

The team of international academics sequenced the whole genomes of 442 mostly Viking Age men, women, children and babies from their teeth and petrous bones found in Viking cemeteries. They analysed the DNA from the remains from a boat burial in Estonia and discovered four Viking brothers died the same day. The scientists have also revealed male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not actually genetically Vikings despite being buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.

There wasn't a word for Scandinavia during the Viking Age -- that came later. But the research study shows that the Vikings from what is now Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland. The Vikings from what is now Denmark travelled to England. And Vikings from what is now Sweden went to the Baltic countries on their all male 'raiding parties'.

Dr Ashot Margaryan, Assistant Professor at the Section for Evolutionary Genomics, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen and first author of the paper, said: "We carried out the largest ever DNA analysis of Viking remains to explore how they fit into the genetic picture of Ancient Europeans before the Viking Age. The results were startling and some answer long-standing historical questions and confirm previous assumptions that lacked evidence.

"We discovered that a Viking raiding party expedition included close family members as we discovered four brothers in one boat burial in Estonia who died the same day. The rest of the occupants of the boat were genetically similar suggesting that they all likely came from a small town or village somewhere in Sweden."

DNA from the Viking remains were shotgun sequenced from sites in Greenland, Ukraine, The United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.

Professor Martin Sikora, a lead author of the paper and an Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, said: "We found that Vikings weren't just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analysed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia which has never been contemplated before. Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe."

The team's analysis also found that genetically Pictish people 'became' Vikings without genetically mixing with Scandinavians. The Picts were Celtic-speaking people who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

Dr Daniel Lawson, lead author from The University of Bristol, explained: "Individuals with two genetically British parents who had Viking burials were found in Orkney and Norway. This is a different side of the cultural relationship from Viking raiding and pillaging."

The Viking Age altered the political, cultural and demographic map of Europe in ways that are still evident today in place names, surnames and modern genetics.

Professor Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist from Moesgaard Museum in Denmark who collaborated on the ground-breaking paper, explained: "Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlement stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe. They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures. Importantly our results show that 'Viking' identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. Two Orkney skeletons who were buried with Viking swords in Viking style graves are genetically similar to present-day Irish and Scottish people and could be the earliest Pictish genomes ever studied."

Assistant Professor Fernando Racimo, also a lead author based at the GeoGenetics Centre in the University of Copenhagen, stressed how valuable the dataset is for the study of the complex traits and natural selection in the past. He explained: This is the first time we can take a detailed look at the evolution of variants under natural selection in the last 2,000 years of European history. The Viking genomes allow us to disentangle how selection unfolded before, during and after the Viking movements across Europe, affecting genes associated with important traits like immunity, pigmentation and metabolism. We can also begin to infer the physical appearance of ancient Vikings and compare them to Scandinavians today."

The genetic legacy of the Viking Age lives on today with six per cent of people of the UK population predicted to have Viking DNA in their genes compared to 10 per cent in Sweden.

Professor Willeslev concluded: "The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated."

A Brief History of the Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans?

Up to the usual standards of the A Brief History series. I think I have not read about the Vikings since I was in high school back in the mid 1970&aposs so it was very good to have this primer to bring back the memories. Recommended to those with an interest in the short story of the more familiar names but are not keen on the intricacies or too much depth.

Good footnotes and a strong bibliography. Up to the usual standards of the A Brief History series. I think I have not read about the Vikings since I was in high school back in the mid 1970's so it was very good to have this primer to bring back the memories. Recommended to those with an interest in the short story of the more familiar names but are not keen on the intricacies or too much depth.

Good footnotes and a strong bibliography. . more

I picked up this book because I&aposd read another from this series many years ago (on the Opium Wars, I believe), and enjoyed it very much. This book, however. not so much.

With a title like "A Brief History. " I expected the book to be less academic than it was. The author is extremely knowledgeable about the topic, but because of that very knowledge seems to forget that some readers will come to the book having little to no knowledge on the vikings (hence, picking up the book). Clements quite I picked up this book because I'd read another from this series many years ago (on the Opium Wars, I believe), and enjoyed it very much. This book, however. not so much.

With a title like "A Brief History. " I expected the book to be less academic than it was. The author is extremely knowledgeable about the topic, but because of that very knowledge seems to forget that some readers will come to the book having little to no knowledge on the vikings (hence, picking up the book). Clements quite often will make references and comments about events or people that, without context or background info, mean little to the average reader.

While I slugged through it, I can't recommend this book to anyone interested in viking history, unless they are already fairly knowledgeable on the subject. . more

If one is looking for a quick-hit history of the Vikings, this is the book for them. Clements does a good job condensing the age of Viking exploration, conquest, and settlement into a fast-paced book. Viking influence existed before the sacking of monasteries in Ireland and continued beyond the Battle of Hastings in 1066. A battle, ironically, that saw two Viking armies square off against one another to claim the throne of England.

The author makes a not so subtle point that being a Viking is the If one is looking for a quick-hit history of the Vikings, this is the book for them. Clements does a good job condensing the age of Viking exploration, conquest, and settlement into a fast-paced book. Viking influence existed before the sacking of monasteries in Ireland and continued beyond the Battle of Hastings in 1066. A battle, ironically, that saw two Viking armies square off against one another to claim the throne of England.

The author makes a not so subtle point that being a Viking is the equivalent of being a modern day war-lord, pillager, thief, or pirate. The romantical notion of going a-viking is in severe contrast the actual brutal acts perpetrated by the young men who followed this lifestyle. However, the Vikings, culturally and religiously speaking, had a profound influence over much of northern Europe as they spread, colonized, and even converted to Christianity. Viking descendants could be found in almost every major ruling house of northern Europe, including Russia, and even spent time in Byzantium, creating the famous Varangian Guard. They even visited North America before Columbus and, although Clements fails to mention it, there is a story about Columbus being privy to the find of a "foreign" body that washed up in England that proved to him that inhabitable land existed far to the west of Europe.

I'd recommend this book to anyone looking to delve into Viking history. It is a good starting point for anyone interested in where the Vikings truly came from, who they were, what they believed, and where they went. The book is an ideal starting point for deeper readings such as Jones' History of the Vikings and, of course, the many Viking sagas that have come down to us today. . more

A decent book but that has some flaws too it denying it a four star score.

First of all I have to point out that the book was well written and is fairly accessible for a non academic or even for those who normally don&apost read these kinds of book while not dumbing it down or over dramatizing. The work is an excellent overview and is definitely a good starting point to further research the various events and persons of interest mentioned in the book. So why only three stars? Two reasons, one a stra A decent book but that has some flaws too it denying it a four star score.

First of all I have to point out that the book was well written and is fairly accessible for a non academic or even for those who normally don't read these kinds of book while not dumbing it down or over dramatizing. The work is an excellent overview and is definitely a good starting point to further research the various events and persons of interest mentioned in the book. So why only three stars? Two reasons, one a strange omission of the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and two the at times openly biased position of the author.

On the first criticism, the omission of Ragnar Lothbrok has become even more troubling now with the popularity of the history channel series Vikings. However my problem with the absence of Ragnar Lothbrok is more fundamental than a missed publicity stunt, (I know the book is older making it a moot point anyways). Clements makes a great point of his methodology using the old saga's of the vikings era and to reevaluate them for their historical worth. Interesting approach, but why no Ragnar? His saga is linked to known historical persons, events and places all of them discussed in detail in this publication. The raiding of the first English monastery, the foundation of Hedebey as a site of power and Ragnar supposedly fathered the leaders of the great heathen army and the vikings who entered the Mediterranean the first time. Combined with the presence of many symbols of morality and role models in the sage would have made it an excellent addition to this book. But no not a single word on Ragnar.

One could argue that the tale of Ragnar is so distorted and blends so deep with myth that it would be impossible to distinguish what is true and what is not. That would be a valid argumenthad Clements not spent so much energy on discussing the norse mythology suggesting that the many species (dwarves, giants, elves) are but old references of conquered peoples with the aesir and Vanir the ancestors of the norse culture. Clearly if one starts to use the tales of wars between Thor and the Jotun Giants as potential proof of culture clashes in the mist of ancient history, then the tale of Ragnar should be a valid source as well. I did like the idea though, a comparison can be made with the legendary Chinese dynasties cited in classic Chinese history and ideology that intermix with Godlike beings or African culture/communities foundation stories involving mythical heroes slaying demons and mastering the elements for his descendants to use.

More troubling for me however was his at times blatant bias. I get that he was writing a counterpoint to the earlier Victorian age saga readers who were enthralled by a sense of adventure and all those contemporary viking lovers (the viking craze is particularly prominent in the metal scene with bands as Amon Amarth) yet this does not make up for some of the bizarre statements. For instance when discussing Anglo Saxon politics, he praises strong kings uniting the country, collecting taxes and subduing local lords. While when discussing the early attempts at unifying Norway he calls the taxes extortions made by third world dictator like types who hired skalds and poets to tell nice stories about themselves. The thing is, Clements is probably not that far off, but this near obsessive anti viking rhetoric was misplaced. Is there truly a qualitative difference between a Saxon king slaying a political rival and a would be viking king burning down the homes of those who oppose him? Clements seems to think so and I believe it is due his personal preference for claims for ruling made by those raised to become rulers, while the viking would be king is a powerhungry thug out for what belongs to someone else. It is telling that the later viking dynasties are treated as the saxon kings, as people with valid reasons to gain power.

True these viking lords did commit horrible acts and were murders and rapist but his theory that these were nothing more than scandinacvia's gutter trash is baffling. The problem I believe is that the author clearly was inspired by the saga's he uses as source material, raids made by later scandinavian kings and would be rulers are portrayed in these historical sources as clear political moves with an economic bonus. While the early raids were portrayed as heroic cunning actions with no overt political agenda (even if there was one). Clemens presents these raids as those made by men with silly gang like nicknames ( Ivar Horse-hung and Halli the sarcastic being my favorites), who are dismissed as thugs being thugs. Clements misses a point, if these raids, conducted before the advent of the big political family feuds, were indeed raids orchestrated by the lowest in the social ladder of Scandinavia how could they afford to do so? Ships, weapons, supplies all of this cost money and or resources, how did these supposed medieval age equivalent of soccer hooligans get that if not due to some form of sponsorship by local elites? Clearly several of those considered the plunder and prestige of raiding to be crucial to their power just as much as later kings would on a larger scale? Perhaps it were the democratic assemblies of farmers and freemen that might have fostered dangerous expeditions to gain influence and meritocratic based leadership credit. it certainly encouraged the Trondheim rebellious regional attitude according to Clements. I wholeheartedly disagree with his description of the viking warband " as an outlet for a community's bad seeds" as part of a society generational cycle. A description that feels as a moral judgement not a historical analysis of the social function of the warband in medieval Scandinavia and one that does not acknowledge the various research on warrior societies in the world and their role in their respective societies.

His bias also extends to his view on religion, the norse mythology is presented as inferior, only of interest to those who glorify and justify raiding and killing for irrational barbaric motives, while Christianity is presented as a logical choice for any settled civilized farming society. The proof of which (besides mass conversions for political reasons and or force used against pagans) seems to be that the cross won the war of religion in the viking world presenting it as an inevitable conclusion. He goes well into detail of how the region of Trondheim Norway resisted conversion but he presents it as part of a regional stubbornness to resist outside interference rather than seriously discussing why some people fought to remain pagan from a religious point of view. contradictionally he makes a point in how conversion often did little to change the frequent raiding and pillaging only who and why there was pillaging (the pagans for loot and christian vikings for politcal gains, presenting the latter as rational in contradiction to the first). He does rightly point out the influence of Christianity on those who wrote the saga's of the old gods after conversion to Christianity and how wrong it is to believe we do have an accurate view on what the viking of the 9th century believed. But his view is so one sided. Could it not be that Viking myths of the devious Loki and shining Balder influence north european tales of the angel of light and beauty Lucifer falling from grace and being transformed into the king of fire and deception Satan? I don't know but for Clements such a idea would be ludicrous, clearly Christianity was the superior force here.

Overall I liked the book, it made me reconsider my own assumptions (I did indeed believe that vikings came out of nowhere to plunder England, instead of being a continuation of earlier contacts between scandinavia and north west europe) and it is a solid starting point for anyone who wants a comprehensible overview of this particular part of European and global history, the conclusion raises a strong case for acknowledging the role of climate change on societies and cross cultural contacts. The flaws, which I attribute to the authors bias towards a classical civilization over barbarism mentality, however do bring the book down, which is a shame but despite these the book does remain a strong work of research if one remains skeptic and reads between the lines. It a debate inspiring book and that is worth something. . more

Invaders! Angles, Saxons and Vikings

The Romans had been troubled by serious barbarian raids since around AD 360. Picts (northern Celts) from Scotland, Scots from Ireland (until AD1400 the word ‘Scot’ meant an Irishman) and Anglo-Saxons from northern Germany and Scandinavia, all came to plunder the accumulated wealth of Roman Britain. The Roman legions began to withdraw from Britain in AD383 to secure the Empire’s borders elsewhere in mainland Europe. By AD410 all Roman troops had been withdrawn, leaving the cities of Britain and the remaining Romano-British to fend for themselves.

As the Romans departed, so did the source of any major written historical data. For the rest of the fifth century and early sixth century, England entered what is now referred to as a period of time known as the Dark Ages.

A time of legend, a time perhaps of a great hero and war leader of the Britain’s – King Arthur. Possibly a Romano-Celtic leader defending his lands from the pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders? It was during these Dark Ages that the Anglo-Saxons became established in eastern Britain.

The Romans had employed the mercenary services of the Saxons for hundreds of years, preferring to fight alongside them rather than against these fierce warriors. An arrangement, which probably worked well with the Roman military in place to control their numbers, using their mercenary services on an as required basis. Without the Romans in place at the ports of entry to issue visas and stamp passports however, immigration numbers appear to have got a little out of hand.

First Saxon warriors raided England’s south and east coasts. Little mercy was shown as men, women and children were slaughtered. A British monk Adomnan, suggested a Law of Innocents to protect the women and children. The Saxons appear to have rejected this strange and foreign concept! Following these early Saxon raids, from around AD430 a host of Germanic migrants arrived in east and southeast England. The main groups being Jutes from the Jutland peninsula (modern Denmark) Angles from Angeln in southwest Jutland and the Saxons from northwest Germany. Much fun and fighting followed over the next hundred years or so as the invading kings and their armies established their kingdoms. Most of these kingdoms survive to this day, and are perhaps better know as the English counties / regions of Kent (Jutes), Sussex (south Saxons), Wessex (west Saxons), Middlesex (middle Saxons), East Anglia (east Angles) and Northumbria (land north of the Humber).

The mighty Midlands kingdom of Mercia (west Angles) grew in importance with its warlike King Offa (757-96), established as Bretwalda, or “Britain Ruler” (King of Kings)! On the subject of King of Kings, Christianity also returned to the shores of southern England with the arrival of Saint Augustine in Kent in AD597. The Kentish King Ethelbert was converted to the faith. The church and monastery of Lindisfarne, off the Northumbrian coast, was established in AD635.

From AD793 a new prayer could be heard at Matins across England, “Save us, Lord, from the fury of the Northmen!” The Northmen, or Vikings came from Scandinavia. Like the Saxons before them, the Viking onslaught first started with a few bloody raids. The first recorded raids include the sacking of the monasteries at Lindifarne, Jarrow, and Iona. The Great Heathen Army (Old English: mycel hæþen here) of mainly Danes landed in East Anglia in AD865. Within nine years the Vikings had attacked and established their rule, or Danelaw, over the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia, their former Anglo-Saxon kings having been put to the sword. The Vikings also ravaged the once mighty East Mercia, driving King Burgred overseas.

Alfred (The Great) the Saxon king of Wessex (AD 871-99) recognised the opportunity to establish himself as Bretwalda. He added southeast Mercia as well as London and the Thames Valley to his territories and organised Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Viking onslaught. Between AD 912 and AD 954 Anglo-Saxon Wessex conquered Danelaw and the Viking Kingdom of York, exit one Mr Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking king of York. It was in 937 at the Battle of Brunanburgh, that for the first time, the England of both Vikings and Saxons was united as a country, under the rule of Athelson, grandson of Alfred. Further, it was the Battle of Brunanburh that defined the countries that we now recognise as England, Scotland and Wales, ‘The battle that defined Britain’.

The good times ended with arrival on the throne of Aethelred the Unready. The Vikings had recognised some years earlier that whilst they enjoyed all of that looting and pillaging, just the threat of it was, in most instances, sufficient to extort money from their prey. This protection money, or Danegeld as it was called, was obviously much easier to obtain from a frightened weak king than from a strong one. Aethelred must have been very frightened, as more Saxon coinage has to date been found in Scandinavia than has been found in England. The country was bled dry. Smelling weakness from the other side of the North Sea, an army of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark conquered England in 1009. Anticipating that he may have upset Sweyn a little, by having Sweyn’s sister killed a few year’s earlier during the St Brice’s Day Massacre, Aethelred fled abroad.

Sweyn, was followed by his son Canute, and subsequently his son Harthcanute – The Three Danish Kings of England.

When Harthcanute died in 1042, Edward (later known as The Confessor) was chosen as king. Edward was a Saxon – his real father was Aethelred the Unready.

As established previously, anything to do with Aethelred was generally considered ‘bad news’ for England. Edward’s mother Emma, was from Normandy in northern France. The area had been gifted to the Nor(th)men or Vikings by the king of France, some 150 years earlier. Edward had spent much of his youth in Normandy, and Norman influence was evident in his London court.

Amongst many Norman visitors to Edwards’s court came the Duke of Normandy himself, a red haired man named William. It was during this visit in 1052 that Edward the Confessor is said to have promised the Crown of England to William.

On the 5th January 1066 Edward died. The Witan (a council of high ranking men), elected Harold Godwin, Earl of Wessex, to be the next king of England. Back at home in Normandy, William had some problems in coming to terms with this decision… The Norman Conquest was on its way!

A brief history of the Vikings

Invaders, predators, barbarians – the Vikings are often portrayed merely as one-dimensional warriors whose achievements include little more than plundering and raiding. But from where did the Vikings originate and were they really violent, godless pagans? Here, historian Philip Parker explains the real history of the Viking world…

This competition is now closed

Published: April 20, 2020 at 11:30 am

In 793, terror descended on the coast of Northumbria as armed raiders attacked the defenceless monastery of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne. The terrified monks watched helplessly as the invaders made off with a haul of treasure and a clutch of captives. It was the first recorded raid by the Vikings, seaborne pirates from Scandinavia who would prey on coastal communities in north-western Europe for more than two centuries and create for themselves a reputation as fierce and pitiless warriors.

That image was magnified by those who wrote about the Viking attacks – in other words, their victims. The Anglo-Saxon cleric Alcuin of York wrote dramatically of the Lindisfarne raid that the “church was spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments… given as a prey to pagan peoples” and subsequent (mainly Christian) writers and chroniclers lost few opportunities to demonise the (mainly pagan) Vikings.

Yet, though they undeniably carried out very destructive and violent attacks, from small-scale raids against churches to major campaigns involving thousands of warriors, the Vikings formed part of a complex and often sophisticated Scandinavian culture. As well as raiders they were traders, reaching as far east as the rivers of Russia and the Caspian Sea explorers, sending ships far across the Atlantic to land on the coastline of North America five centuries before Columbus poets, composing verse and prose sagas of great power, and artists, creating works of astonishing beauty.

The reputation of the Vikings simply as raiders and plunderers has long been established. Restoring their fame as traders, storytellers, explorers, missionaries, artists and rulers is long overdue…

When and where did the Vikings come from?

The Vikings originated in what is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden (although centuries before they became unified countries). Their homeland was overwhelmingly rural, with almost no towns. The vast majority earned a meagre living through agriculture, or along the coast, by fishing. Advances in shipping technology in the 7th and 8th centuries meant that boats were powered by sails rather than solely by oars. These were then added to vessels made of overlapping planks (‘clinker-built’) to create longships, swift shallow-drafted boats that could navigate coastal and inland waters and land on beaches.

Exactly what first compelled bands of men to follow their local chieftain across the North Sea in these longships is unclear. It may have been localised overpopulation, as plots became subdivided to the point where families could barely eke out a living it may have been political instability, as chieftains fought for dominance or it may have been news brought home by merchants of the riches to be found in trading settlements further west. Probably it was a combination of all three. But in 793 that first raiding party hit Lindisfarne and within a few years further Viking bands had struck Scotland (794), Ireland (795) and France (799).

Their victims did not refer to them as Vikings. That name came later, becoming popularised by the 11th century and possibly deriving from the word vik, which in the Old Norse language the Vikings spoke means ‘bay’ or ‘inlet’. Instead they were called Dani (‘Danes’) – there was no sense at the time that this should refer only to the inhabitants of what we now call Denmark – pagani (‘pagans’) or simply Normanni (‘Northmen’).

When and where did the Viking begin to raid?

At first the raids were small-scale affairs, a matter of a few boatloads of men who would return home once they had collected sufficient plunder or if the resistance they encountered was too strong. But in the 850s they began to overwinter in southern England, in Ireland and along the Seine in France, establishing bases from which they began to dominate inland areas.

The raids reached a crescendo in the second half of the ninth century. In Ireland the Vikings established longphorts – fortified ports – including at Dublin, from which they dominated much of the eastern part of the island. In France they grew in strength as a divided Frankish kingdom fractured politically and in 885 a Viking army besieged and almost captured Paris.

In Scotland they established an earldom in the Orkneys and overran the Shetlands and the Hebrides. And in England an enormous Viking host, the micel here (‘great army’) arrived in 865. Led by a pair of warrior brothers, Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, they picked off the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England one by one. First Northumbria, with its capital at York, fell to them in 866, then East Anglia, followed by the central English kingdom of Mercia. Finally, only Wessex, ruled by King Alfred, remained. A pious bookworm, Alfred had only become king because his three more martial older brothers had sickened or died in battle in previous Viking invasions.

Thomas Williams explores the key events and legacies of the Viking era:

In early January 878 a section of the Great Army led by Guthrum crossed the frontier and caught Alfred by surprise at the royal estate at Chippenham. Alfred barely managed to escape and spent months skulking in the Somerset marshes at Athelney. It looked like the independence of Wessex – and that of England generally – might be at an end. But against the odds Alfred gathered a new army, defeated the Vikings at Edington and forced Guthrum to accept baptism as a Christian. For his achievement in saving his kingdom he became the only native English ruler to gain the nickname ‘the Great’.

Silver penny of King Alfred. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)For 80 years England was divided between the land controlled by the kings of Wessex in the south and south-west and a Viking-controlled area in the Midlands and the north. Viking kings ruled this region until the last of them, Erik Bloodaxe, was expelled and killed in 954 and the kings of Wessex became rulers of a united England. Even so, Viking (and especially Danish) customs long persisted there and traces of Scandinavian DNA can still be found in a region that for centuries was known as the Danelaw.

By the mid-11th century united kingdoms had appeared in Denmark, Norway and Sweden and the raids had finally begun to subside. There was a final burst of activity in the early 11th century when royal-sponsored expeditions succeeded in conquering England again and placing Danish kings on the throne there (including, most notably, Canute, who ruled an empire in England, Denmark and Norway, but who almost certainly did not command the tide to go out, as a folk tale alleges). Vikings remained in control of large parts of Scotland (especially Orkney), an area around Dublin and Normandy in France (where in 911 King Charles the Simple had granted land to a Norwegian chieftain, Rollo, the ancestor of William the Conqueror). They also controlled a large part of modern Ukraine and Russia, where Swedish Vikings had penetrated in the ninth century and established states based around Novgorod and Kiev.

Where did Vikings settle and live?

This was not the full extent of the Viking world, however. The same maritime aggression that had caused them to plunder (and ultimately conquer) settled lands also led them to venture in search of unknown shores on which to settle. Vikings probably arrived in the Faroes in the eighth century and they used this as a stepping-stone to sail further west across the Atlantic.

In the mid-ninth century a series of Viking voyages came across Iceland and in the year 872 colonists led by Ingólf Arnarson settled on the island. They established a unique society, fiercely independent and owing no formal allegiance to the kings of Norway. It was a republic whose supreme governing body was, from 930, the Althing, an assembly made up of Iceland’s chief men which met each summer in a plain beside a massive cleft in a ring of hills in the centre of the island. It has a strong claim to be the world’s oldest parliament.

From Iceland, too, we have other vital pieces of evidence of the inventiveness of Viking societies. These include the earliest pieces of history written by Vikings themselves in the form of a 12th-century history of Iceland, the Íslendingabók, and the Landnámabók, an account of the original settlement of the island (with the names of each of the first settlers and the land they took).

But more important – and surprising for those who view of the Vikings is as one-dimensional warriors – is the collection of sagas known as the Íslendingasögur or Icelandic Family Sagas. Their setting is the first 150 years of the Viking colony in Iceland and they tell of often-troubled relations between the main Icelandic families. Alliances, betrayals, feuds and murders play out against the backdrop of a landscape in which features can still often be identified today. At their best, in tales such as Njál’s Saga or Egil’s Saga, they are powerful pieces of literature in their own right, and among the most important writing to survive from any European country in the Middle Ages.

Levi Roach describes how the Norse people travelled, raided and settled far beyond their Scandinavian homeland:

Who was the most famous Viking?

Ivarr the Boneless – a famous warrior and one of the leaders of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ that landed in East Anglia in 865, and that went on to conquer the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia – was remembered as the founding father of the royal dynasty of the Viking kingdom of Dublin.

It is not known how Ivar came by the nickname ‘the Boneless’, although some have suggested it could have been due to an unnatural flexibility during combat or because he suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder, eventually resulting in him having to be carried everywhere. Unless his body is ever recovered – which would be difficult if he really was ‘boneless’ – we will never know.

Other famous Vikings include Aud the Deep-Minded, Eirik Bloodaxe and Einar Buttered-Bread. Click here to read about the 8 most famous Vikings

Vikings and religion: what gods did they believe in?

Iceland was the location of another drama that highlights the transition of Viking societies away from warrior chieftainships. Christianity came later to Scandinavian Viking societies than to many other parts of Europe. Whereas France’s kings had accepted Christianity by the early sixth century and the Anglo-Saxon kings of England largely in the seventh, Christian missionaries only appeared in southern Scandinavia in the ninth century and made little headway there until Harald Bluetooth of Denmark accepted baptism in around 960. Harald had become Christian after a typical piece of Viking theatre: a drunken argument around the feasting table as to which was more powerful – Odin and Thor, or the new Christian God and his son, Jesus.

Iceland remained resolutely pagan, loyal to old gods such as Odin the All Father a one-eyed god who had sacrificed the other eye in exchange for knowledge of runes and Thor, the thunder-god with his great hammer Mjölnir, who was also especially popular with warriors.

Iceland became Christian to avoid a civil war. Competing pagan and Christian factions threatened to tear the Althing apart and dissolve Iceland into separate, religiously hostile, states. At the Althing’s meeting in the year 1000 the rival factions appealed to Iceland’s most important official, the lawspeaker Thorgeir Thorkelsson. As a pagan he might have been expected to favour the old gods but, after an entire day spent agonising over the decision, he concluded that henceforth all Icelanders would be Christian. A few exceptions were made – for example the eating of horsemeat, a favoured delicacy that was also associated with pagan sacrifices, was to be permitted.

Acclaimed screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst talks about his work on Vikings and the secrets of making great history drama:

What was Valhalla and how did Vikings get there?

For a Viking, what two things would be desired the most in the afterlife of Valhalla, the hall of slain warriors? Feasting and fighting, of course.

If chosen to die by the mythical Valkyries, a Norse warrior longed to be welcomed by the god Odin into Valhalla, a magnificent hall with a roof thatched with golden shields, spears for rafters, and so large that 540 doors lined its walls, says BBC History Revealed magazine. The honoured dead, known as the Einherjar, spent all day honing their battle skills against each other in preparation for Ragnarök – the end of the world – then every night, their wounds magically healed and they partied like only Vikings could.

Their drinking horns never emptied thanks to Heidrun, a goat on the roof of Valhalla that ate from a special tree and produced the finest mead, and there was always enough meat as the boar named Sæhrímnir came back to life after each slaughter so it could be cooked over and over.

To join the Einherjar, a Viking had to die in battle – and even then, they only had a 50:50 chance. The half not chosen to go to Valhalla instead went to the field of the goddess Freya, so they could offer to the women who died as maidens their company.

As for the old or sick, they went to an underworld called Hel. It was largely not as bad as the name suggests, though there was a special place of misery reserved for murderers, adulterers and oath-breakers, where a giant dragon chewed on their corpses.

Where did the Vikings travel to?

Iceland, too, was the platform from which the Vikings launched their furthest-flung explorations. In 982 a fiery tempered chieftain, Erik the Red, who had already been exiled from Norway for his father’s part in a homicide, was then exiled from Iceland for involvement in another murder. He had heard rumours of land to the west and, with a small group of companions, sailed in search of it. What he found was beyond his wildest imaginings. Only 300 kilometres west of Iceland, Greenland is the world’s largest island, and its south and south-west tip had fjords [deep, narrow and elongated sea or lakedrain, with steep land on three sides] and lush pastures that must have reminded Erik of his Scandinavian homeland. He returned back to Iceland, gathered 25 ship-loads of settlers and established a new Viking colony in Greenland that survived into the 15th century.

Erik’s son, Leif, outdid his father. Having heard from another Viking Greenlander, Bjarni Herjolfsson, that he had sighted land even further west, Leif went to see for himself. In around 1002 he and his crew found themselves sailing somewhere along the coast of North America. They found a glacial, mountainous coast, then a wooded one, and finally a country of fertile pastures that they named Vinland. Although they resolved to start a new colony there, it was – unlike either Iceland or Greenland – already settled and hostility from native Americans and their own small numbers (Greenland at the time probably had about 3,000 Viking inhabitants) meant that it was soon abandoned. They had, though, become the first Europeans to land in (and settle in) the Americas, almost five centuries before Christopher Columbus.

For centuries Erik’s achievement lived on only in a pair of sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red’s Saga. The location of Vinland, despite attempts to work out where it lay from information contained in the sagas, remained elusive. It was even unclear if the Vikings really had reached North America. Then, in the early 1960s, a Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine, found the remains of ancient houses at L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland in Canada. Fragments of worked iron (many of them nails, probably from a ship), which the native population did not possess the technology to produce, meant that it was soon clear this was a Viking settlement. Although perhaps too small to be the main Vinland colony, it was still astonishing confirmation of what the sagas had said. Leif Erikson’s reputation as a great explorer and discoverer of new lands was confirmed without doubt.

This might well have pleased him, for a man’s reputation was everything to a Viking. Quick wit, bravery and action were among the key attributes for a Viking warrior, but to be remembered for great deeds was the most important of all. The Hávamál, a collection of Viking aphorisms, contains much apt advice such as “Never let a bad man know your own bad fortune”, but most famous of all is the saying “Cattle die, kindred die, we ourselves shall die, but I know one thing that never dies: the reputations of each one dead”.

Did Viking shield-maidens exist?

Apologies to fans of the hit series Vikings: historians just can’t agree on whether Norse warrior women like Lagertha actually existed, says BBC History Revealed magazine. While there are stories of shield-maidens, or skjaldmaer, in historical accounts, nearly all can be dismissed as unreliable, apocryphal, allegorical or more myth than reality.

Still, tantalising clues and mysterious finds – including artefacts showing women carrying swords, spears and shields – have boosted the idea that Viking women went into battle alongside men. In the 12th century, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote of women in Denmark who sought “so zealously to be skilled in warfare that they might have been thought to have unsexed themselves”. In 2017, meanwhile, archaeologists discovered that a 10th-century grave of a warrior, filled with weapons, actually belonged to a woman.

Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir explores what everyday life was like for women in Norse society, the opportunities available to them and the challenges they faced:

What was a Viking sunstone?

The Vikings were superb sailors who got as far afield as Russia and North America, but their navigational techniques haven’t always been completely understood, says BBC History Revealed magazine. A mysterious ‘sunstone’, mentioned in a medieval Icelandic saga, was considered mere legend until an opaque crystal, made from Iceland spar, was recently discovered among the navigation equipment of a sunken Tudor shipwreck.

Intriguingly, scientists have proven that Iceland spar, when held up to the sky, forms a solar compass that indicates the Sun’s location, through concentric rings of polarised light, even in thick cloud cover or after dusk. It’s now thought that this was the mysterious sunstone that helped guide Vikings such as ‘Lucky’ Leif Erikson to Newfoundland, and usage of it may have persisted until the end of the 16th century.

When did the Viking Age end?

It is traditionally said that the raiding, pillaging age of the Vikings, which began in Britain with the ransacking of Lindisfarne in AD 793, ended with the failure of Harald Hardrada’s invasion in 1066.

Yet the Viking influence spread from the Middle East to North America, and could not be undone by a single defeat in battle. At the same time that Hardrada was picking up his career-ending neck injury at Stamford Bridge, the Norman Conquest was being launched. Its leader, and future king of England, was William – the great-great-great-grandson of Rollo, a Viking.

Philip Parker is author of The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World (Vintage, 2015). For more information, visit www.philipparker.net

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016 and has since been updated to include information taken from BBC History Revealed magazine

Tents - A Home from Home.

Tents were used by both Vikings and Saxons. When the ship burials at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway were carried out the frames for several wooden tents were found, all terminating in fierce, carved animal heads. It is thought that most Viking ships probably carried some tents of this type to provide shelter, at least for the more important members of the crew, when the ship was away from home. These tents varied considerably in size, some of them being large enough to have a fire inside! Unfortunately, we do not know exactly how the canvas fitted to these tents, or indeed, if they may have just used the ship's sail to cover the frame. These tents may well have functioned as a 'market stall' when the ship's crew were engaged in trade, although they could equally well have provided shelter for soldiers on campaign. We do not know much more about Viking tents because they do not seem to be illustrated in any contemporary pictures, or mentioned in any contemporary literature.

In contrast, the tents used by Anglo-Saxons are well known from literature and illustrations, but completely unknown from archaeology. This means that, although we know what they looked like, we do not know how they were made. These tents appear to be identical to the tents used in the rest of mainland Europe at this time, but unfortunately none of these have been excavated either. Illustrations of these tents are remarkably consistent in the type of tent they show.

Anglo-Saxon tents appear to have been mainly used for armies on the march, the very word camp is an Old English word meaning 'battle or warfare', although it appears they may also have been used by other people when away from home, for example, traders, farmers (?) out slaughtering animals, etc.. We also have several literary references to people being 'at prayer in their tent', usually in descriptions of military events, and also have references to 'tabernacles or tents'. From this, it seems that some tents may have been used as 'mobile churches', and this may well be what the 'bell' tents, usually surmounted by a cross seen in manuscript illustrations, may represent.

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