The Beginning of the Vikings and the Viking Expansion

“King Rollo (centre) and his Viking warriors from season 2 of the ‘Vikings’ TV series.

Viking expansion is the process by which the Vikings sailed most of the North Atlantic, reaching south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople and the Middle East as looters, traders, colonists and mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Ericsson, the heir to Erik the Red, reached North America and set up a short-lived settlement in present-day L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Longer and more established settlements were formed in Greenland, Iceland, Great Britain and Normandy.

Map showing area of Scandinavian settlement in the eighth (dark red), ninth (red), tenth (orange) centuries. Yellow denotes areas conquered by the Normans in the 11th century, partly descendants of the Vikings. Green denotes areas subjected to Viking raids.

Motivation for expansion

There is much debate among historians about what drove the Viking expansion. One widely held idea is that it was a quest for retaliation against continental Europeans for their previous invasions of Viking homelands, such as Charlemagne’s campaign to force Scandinavian pagans to convert to Christianity by killing any who refused to become baptized.

The historian Rudolf Simek has observed, “It is not a coincidence if the early Viking activity occurred during the reign of Charlemagne.” Those who favor this explanation point out that the penetration of Christianity into Scandinavia caused serious conflict and divided Norway for almost a century. However, the first target of Viking raids was not the Frankish Kingdom, but Christian monasteries in England, which seems inconsistent with vengeance as a motive but would be consistent with religious warfare.

Viking ‘Gokstad’ Longship.

Another idea is that the Viking population had exceeded the agricultural potential of their homeland. This may have been true of western Norway, where there were few reserves of land, but it is unlikely the rest of Scandinavia was experiencing famine.

Alternatively, some scholars propose that the Viking expansion was driven by a youth bulge effect: since the eldest son of a family customarily inherited the family’s entire estate, younger sons had to seek their fortune by emigrating or engaging in raids. Peter Sawyer suggests that most Vikings emigrated due the attractiveness of owning more land rather than the necessity of having it.

However, no rise in population, youth bulge, or decline in agricultural production during this period has been definitively demonstrated. Nor is it clear why such pressures would have prompted expansion overseas rather than into the vast, uncultivated forest areas in the interior of the Scandinavian Peninsula, although perhaps emigration or sea raids may have been easier or more profitable than clearing large areas of forest for farm and pasture in a region with a limited growing season.

An idea that avoids these shortcomings is that the Scandinavians might have practiced selective procreation leading to a shortage of women, and that the Vikings main motive for emigration was to acquire wives, although this would not explain why the Vikings chose to settle in other countries rather than bringing the women back with them to Scandinavia.

It is also possible that a decline in the profitability of old trade routes drove the Vikings to seek out new, more profitable ones. Trade between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia may have suffered after the Roman Empire lost its western provinces in the 5th century, and the expansion of Islam in the 7th century may have reduced trade opportunities within western Europe by redirecting resources along the Silk Road. Trade in the Mediterranean was at its lowest level in history when the Vikings began their expansion. The Viking expansion opened new trade routes in Arab and Frankish lands, and took control of trade markets previously dominated by the Frisians after the Franks’ destroyed the Frisian fleet.

Viking settlements in Ireland and Great Britain are thought to have been primarily male enterprises, however some graves show nearly equal male/female distribution. Disagreement is partly due to method of classification; previous archaeology often guessed biological sex from burial artifacts, whereas modern archaeology may use osteology to find biological sex, and isotope analysis to find origin (DNA sampling is usually not possible).

The males buried during that period in a cemetery on the Isle of Man had mainly names of Norse origin, while the females there had names of indigenous origin. Irish and British women are mentioned in old texts on the founding of Iceland, indicating that the Viking explorers were accompanied there by women from the British Isles who either came along voluntarily or were taken along by force. Genetic studies of the population in the Western Isles and Isle of Skye also show that Viking settlements were established mainly by male Vikings who mated with women from the local populations of those places.

However, not all Viking settlements were primarily male. Genetic studies of the Shetland population suggest that family units consisting of Viking women as well as men were the norm among the migrants to these areas.

Viking buildings at Jarlshof in the Shetland Isles, north of Scotland. Image by © Kevin Schafer/CORBIS

This may be because areas like Shetland Island, being closer to Scandinavia, were more suitable targets for family migrations, while frontier settlements further north and west were more suitable for groups of unattached male colonizers.


During the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex (786–802) three ships of “Northmen” landed at Portland Bay in Dorset. The local reeve mistook the Vikings for merchants and directed them to the nearby royal estate, but the visitors killed him and his men. The earliest recorded planned Viking raid, on 6 January 793, targeted the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the north-east coast of Northumbria. According to the 12th-century Anglo-Norman chronicler Symeon of Durham, the raiders killed the resident monks or threw them into the sea to drown or carried them away as slaves—along with some of the church treasures. In 875, after enduring eight decades of repeated Viking raids, the monks fled Lindisfarne, carrying the relics of Saint Cuthbert with them.

Neil Oliver visits Lindisfarne Priory for the filming of a BBC Vikings documentary.

In 794, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a small Viking fleet attacked a rich monastery at Jarrow. The Vikings met with stronger resistance than they had expected: their leaders were killed. The raiders escaped, only to have their ships beached at Tynemouth and the crews killed by locals. This represented one of the last raids on England for about 40 years. The Vikings focused instead on Ireland and Scotland.

In 865 a group of hitherto uncoordinated bands of predominantly Danish Vikings joined together to form a large army and landed in East Anglia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described this force as the Great Heathen Army and went onto say that it was led by Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan.The army crossed the Midlands into Northumbria and captured York (Jorvik).

In 871 the Great Heathen army was reinforced by what was known as the Great Summer Army, one of its leaders was Guthrum. In 875 the Great Heathen Army split into two bands, with Guthrum leading one back to Wessex, and Hafdan taking his followers north. Then in 876, Halfdan shared out Northumbrian land amongst his men, who “ploughed the land and supported themselves”; this land was part of what became known as the Danelaw.

Most of the English kingdoms, being in turmoil, could not stand against the Vikings, but King Alfred of Wessex defeated Guthrum’s army at the Battle of Edington in 878. There followed the Treaty of Wedmore the same year and the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in 886. These treaties formalised the boundaries of the English kingdoms and the Viking Danelaw territory, with provisions for peaceful relations between the English and the Vikings. Despite these treaties, conflict continued on and off. However, Alfred and his successors eventually drove back the Viking frontier and retook York.

Alfred of Wessex (nearest in shot), from the TV series ‘The Last Kingdom’ adapted from the book series by Bernard Cornwell.

A new wave of Vikings appeared in England in 947, when Erik Bloodaxe captured York, The Viking presence continued through the reign of the Danish prince Cnut the Great (reigned as King of England: 1016–1035), after which a series of inheritance arguments weakened the hold on power of Cnut’s heirs.

When King Edward the Confessor died in 1066, the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada challenged his successor as King of England, Harold Godwinson. Hardrada was killed, and his Norwegian army defeated, by Harold Godwinson on 25 September 1066 at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold Godwinson himself died when William the Conqueror defeated the English army at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066.

William was crowned king of England on 25 December 1066, however it was several years before he was able to bring the kingdom under his complete control. In 1070 the Danish king Sweyn Estridsson sailed up the Humber with an army in support of Edgar the Ætheling, the last surviving male member of the English royal family.

However, after capturing York, Sweyn accepted a payment from William to desert Edgar. Five years later one of Sweyn’s sons set sail for England to support another English rebellion, but it had been crushed before the expedition arrived, so they settled for plundering the city of York and the surrounding area before returning home. In 1085 Sweyn’s son, now Canute IV of Denmark planned a major invasion against England but the assembled fleet never sailed. No further serious Danish invasions or raids on England occurred after this.

Note that not all the Norse arriving in Ireland and Great Britain came as raiders. Many arrived with families and livestock, often in the wake of the capture of territory by their forces, The populations then merged over time by intermarriage into the Anglo-Saxon population of these areas, Many words in the English language come from old Scandinavian languages, showing the importance of this contact.



Scandinavian Scotland

The monastery at Iona on the west coast was first raided in 794, and had to be abandoned some fifty years later after several devastating attacks. While there are few records from the earliest period, it is believed that Scandinavian presence in Scotland increased in the 830s.

The isles to the north and west of Scotland were heavily colonised by Norwegian Vikings. Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides came under Norse control, sometimes as fiefs under the King of Norway, and at other times as separate entities under variously the Kings of the Isles, the Earldom of Orkney and the later Kings of Mann and the Isles. Shetland and Orkney were the last of these to be incorporated into Scotland in as late as 1468.


Wales was not colonized by the Vikings significantly as in eastern England. The Vikings did, however, settle in small numbers in the south around St Davids, Haverfordwest, and the Gower. Place names such as Skokholm, Skomer, and Swansea remain as evidence of the Norse settlement. The Vikings, however, were not able to set up a Viking state or control Wales, owing to the powerful forces of Welsh kings, and, unlike in Scotland, the aristocracy was relatively unharmed.

Celtic Welsh Warriors.

Nevertheless, following the successful Viking alliance with Britanny in 865, the Britons made their peace with the Danes, and a Viking/Welsh alliance in 878 defeated an Anglo-Saxon army from Mercia. Although the Welsh had been longtime enemies of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, their relationship with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex was somewhat warmer. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 893, for example, refers to Vikings being pursued by a combined force of West Saxons and north Welsh along the River Severn. The combined Anglo-Saxon and Welsh army eventually overtook the Vikings before defeating them at the Battle of Buttington.

The city of Swansea was founded by Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, who by 1013 was King of the Danes, Anglo-Saxons and Norwegians. The English name for the town derives from Old Norse: Sveinsey, meaning “Sweyn’s island”. The island refers to the area around the estuary of the river Tawe. The neighboring Gower Peninsula has some place names of Norse origin. For example, Worm’s Head is from Old Norse: ormr, the word for snake or dragon, as the Vikings believed that the serpent-shaped island was a sleeping dragon. Some twenty miles (32 kilometres) west of Cardiff on the Vale of Glamorgan coast is the semi-flooded island of Tusker Rock, which takes its name from Tuska, the Viking who established a settlement in the area.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that heathen men (the Danes) raided Charmouth, Dorset in 833 AD, then in 997 AD they destroyed the Dartmoor town of Lydford, and from 1001 AD to 1003 AD they occupied the old Roman city of Exeter.

The Cornish were subjugated by King Æthelstan, of England, in 936 and the border finally set at the River Tamar. However, the Cornish remained semi-autonomous until their annexation into England after the Norman Conquest.


The Vikings conducted extensive raids in Ireland and founded many towns, including Dublin, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford, Wicklow, Arklow and Leixlip. Literature, crafts, and decorative styles in Ireland and Britain reflected Scandinavian culture. Vikings traded at Irish markets in Dublin. Excavations found imported fabrics from England, Byzantium, Persia, and central Asia.

Dublin became so crowded by the 11th century that houses were built outside the town walls.The Vikings pillaged monasteries on Ireland’s west coast in 795, and then spread out to cover the rest of the coastline. The north and east of the island were most affected. During the first 40 years, the raids were conducted by small, mobile Viking groups.

Computer generated image of Dublin during the Viking period.

From 830 on, the groups consisted of large fleets of Viking ships. From 840, the Vikings began establishing permanent bases at the coasts. Dublin was the most significant settlement in the long term. The Irish became accustomed to the Viking presence and culture. In some cases they became allies and also intermarried.In 832, a Viking fleet of about 120 ships under Turgesius invaded kingdoms on Ireland’s northern and eastern coasts. Some believe that the increased number of invaders coincided with Scandinavian leaders’ desires to control the profitable raids on the western shores of Ireland. During the mid-830s, raids began to push deeper into Ireland. Navigable waterways made this deeper penetration possible. After 840, the Vikings had several bases in strategic locations throughout Ireland.

In 838, a small Viking fleet entered the River Liffey in eastern Ireland, probably led by the chieftain Saxolb (Soxulfr) who was killed later that year. The Vikings set up a base, which the Irish called longphorts. This longphort would eventually become Dublin. After this interaction, the Irish experienced Viking forces for about 40 years. The Vikings also established longphorts in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, and Wexford. The Vikings were driven out of Ireland for a short period around 900, but returned to Waterford in 914 to found what would become Ireland’s first city. The other longphorts were soon re-occupied and developed into cities and towns.

The last major Irish battle involving Vikings was the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which a large force from the pan-Viking world and their Irish allies opposed Brian Boru, then the High King of Ireland and his forces, a small contingent of which were Viking defectors. The battle was fought in what is the now Dublin suburb of Clontarf on Good Friday of that year. Boru, the Irish High King had allowed the Viking King of Dublin; Sigtrygg Silkbeard, one year to prepare for his coming assault. Silkbeard responded by offering the bed of his mother to several Viking lords from Scandinavia, Ireland and Britain. The savage mêlée between the heavily mailed Norse and the unarmoured, yet undaunted Gaels ended in a rout of the Vikings and their Irish allies.

Careful accounts were taken by both sides during the battle, and thus many famous warriors sought each other out for personal combat and glory. High King Brian, who was nearly eighty, did not personally engage in the battle but retired to his tent where he spent the day in quiet prayer. The Viking Brodir of Man chanced upon Brian’s tent as he fled the field. He and a few followers seized the opportunity, and surprised the High King, killing the aged Brian before being captured.

Brian’s foster son Wolf the Quarrelsome later tracked down and dispatched Brodir by disembowelment. Wolf watching as Brodir marched and wound his own innards around the trunk of a large tree. The battle was fairly matched for most of the day and each side had great respect for the prowess of the other; however, in the end, the Irish forced the Norse to return to the sea.

Many of the fleeing Vikings were drowned in the surf due to their heavy mail coats as they struggled for the safety of their longships; others were pursued and slain further inland. After the battle, Viking power was broken in Ireland forever, though many settled Norse remained in the cities and prospered greatly with the Irish through trade. With Brian dead, Ireland returned to the fractured kingdom it had once been, but was now cleared of further Viking predation.

Europe and Asia

Statue of Rollo, Duke of Normandy


The name of Normandy itself denotes the Viking origin. After their settlement when it became known as “Northmannia” or Land of The Norsemen.

The Viking presence in Normandy began with raids into the territory of the Frankish Empire, from the middle of 9th century. Viking raids extended deep into the Frankish territory, and included the sacking of many prominent towns such as Rouen, Paris and the abbey at Jumieges. The inability of the Frankish king Charles the Bald, and later Charles the Simple, to prevent these Viking incursions forced them to offer vast payments of silver and gold to prevent any further pillage. These pay-offs were short lived of course, and the Danish raiders would always return for more.

The Duchy of Normandy was created for the Viking leader Rollo after he had besieged Paris. In 911, Rollo entered vassalage to the king of the West Franks Charles the Simple through the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. This treaty made of Rollo the first Norman Count of Rouen. In addition, Rollo was to be baptized and marry Gisele, the illegitimate daughter of Charles. In exchange for his homage and fealty, Rollo legally gained the territory which he and his Viking allies had previously conquered.

The descendants of Rollo and his followers adopted the local Gallo-Romance languages and intermarried with the area’s original inhabitants. They became the Normans – a Norman French-speaking mixture of Scandinavians and indigenous Franks and Gauls. The language of Normandy heavily reflected the Danish influence, as many words (especially ones pertaining to seafaring) were borrowed from Old Norse or Old Danish. More than the language itself, the Norman toponymy retains a strong Nordic influence. Nevertheless, only a few archaeological traces have been found: swords dredged out of the Seine river between its estuary and Rouen, the tomb of a female Viking at Pîtres, the two Thor’s hammers at Saint-Pierre-de-Varengeville and more recently the horde of Viking coins at Saint-Pierre-des-Fleurs.

Rollo’s descendant William, Duke of Normandy (the Conqueror) became King of England after he defeated Harold Godwinson and his army at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066. As king of England, he retained the fiefdom of Normandy for himself and his descendants. The kings of England made claim to Normandy, as well as their other possessions in France, which led to various disputes with the French. This culminated in the French confiscation of Gascony that precipitated what became known as the Hundred Years’ War, in 1337.

West Francia and Middle Francia

West Francia and Middle Francia suffered more severely than East Francia during the Viking raids of the 9th century. The reign of Charles the Bald coincided with some of the worst of these raids, though he did take action by the Edict of Pistres of 864 to secure a standing army of cavalry under royal control to be called upon at all times when necessary to fend off the invaders. He also ordered the building of fortified bridges to prevent inland raids.

Nonetheless, the Bretons allied with the Vikings and Robert, the margrave of Neustria, (a march created for defence against the Vikings sailing up the Loire), and Ranulf of Aquitaine died in the Battle of Brissarthe in 865. The Vikings also took advantage of the civil wars which ravaged the Duchy of Aquitaine in the early years of Charles’ reign. In the 840s, Pepin II called in the Vikings to aid him against Charles and they settled at the mouth of the Garonne as they did by the Loire. Two dukes of Gascony, Seguin II and William I, died defending Bordeaux from Viking assaults. A later duke, Sancho Mitarra, even settled some at the mouth of the Adour near Bayonne in an act presaging that of Charles the Simple and the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte by which the Vikings were settled in Rouen, creating Normandy as a bulwark against other Vikings.

Map of France showing Normandy, the region given to Rollo by Charles the Simple. The enclave was intended as a ‘buffer’ zone, to prevent further conquest of France by the Vikings.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Vikings raided the largely defenceless Frisian and Frankish towns lying on the coast and along the rivers of the Low Countries. Although Vikings never settled in large numbers in those areas, they did set up long-term bases and were even acknowledged as lords in a few cases. They set up bases in Saint-Florent-le-Vieil at the mouth of the Loire, in Taillebourg on the mid Charente, also around Bayonne on the banks of the Adour, in Noirmoutier and obviously on the River Seine (Rouen) in what would become Normandy.

Antwerp was raided in 836. Later there were raids of Ghent, Kortrijk, Tournai, Leuven and the areas around the Meuse river, the Rhine, the Rupel river and the tributaries of those rivers. Raids were conducted from bases established in Asselt, Walcheren, Wieringen and Elterberg (or Eltenberg, a small hill near Elten). In Dutch and Frisian historical tradition, the trading centre of Dorestad declined after Viking raids from 834 to 863; however, since no convincing Viking archaeological evidence has been found at the site, doubts about this have grown in recent years.

One of the most important Viking families in the Low Countries was that of Rorik of Dorestad (based in Wieringen) and his brother Harald (based in Walcheren). Around 850, Lothair I acknowledged Rorik as ruler of most of Friesland. And again in 870 Rorik was received by Charles the Bald in Nijmegen, to whom he became a vassal. Viking raids continued during this period. Harald’s son Rodulf and his men were killed by the people of Oostergo in 873. Rorik died sometime before 882.

Buried Viking treasures consisting mainly of silver have been found in the Low Countries. Two such treasures have been found in Wieringen. A large treasure found in Wieringen in 1996 dates from around 850 and is thought perhaps to have been connected to Rorik. The burial of such a valuable treasure is seen as an indication that there was a permanent settlement in Wieringen.

Around 879, Godfrid arrived in Frisian lands as the head of a large force that terrorised the Low Countries. Using Ghent as his base, they ravaged Ghent, Maastricht, Liège, Stavelot, Prüm, Cologne, and Koblenz. Controlling most of Frisia between 882 and his death in 885, Godfrid became known to history as Godfrid, Duke of Frisia. His lordship over Frisia was acknowledged by Charles the Fat, to whom he became a vassal. In the siege of Asselt in 882, the Franks sieged a Viking camp at Asselt in Frisia. Although the Vikings were not forced by arms to abandon their camp, they were compelled to come to terms in which their leader, Godfrid, was converted to Christianity. Godfrid was assassinated in 885, after which Gerolf of Holland assumed lordship and Viking rule of Frisia came to an end.

Viking raids of the Low Countries continued for over a century. Remains of Viking attacks dating from 880 to 890 have been found in Zutphen and Deventer. The last attacks took place in Tiel in 1006 and Utrecht in 1007.


In 860, according to an account by the Norman monk Dudo of Saint-Quentin, a Viking fleet, probably under Björn Ironside and Hastein, landed at the Ligurian port of Luni and sacked the city. The Vikings then moved another 60 miles (97 kilometres) down the Tuscan coast to the mouth of the Arno, sacking Pisa and then, following the river upstream, also the hill-town of Fiesole above Florence and other victories around the Mediterranean (including in Sicily and North Africa).

Many Norsemen fought as mercenaries in Southern Italy, including the Varangian Guard led by Harald Hardrada, who later became king of Norway, who conquered Sicily between 1038 and 1040, with the help of Norman mercenaries, under William de Hauteville, who won his nickname Iron Arm by defeating the emir of Syracuse in single combat, and a Lombard contingent, led by Arduin. The Varangians were first used as mercenaries in Italy against the Arabs in 936. Runestones were raised in Sweden in memory of warriors who died in Langbarðaland (Land of the Lombards), the Old Norse name for southern Italy.

Later several Anglo-Danish and Norwegian nobles participated in the Norman conquest of southern Italy, like Edgar the Ætheling, who left England in 1086, and Jarl Erling Skakke, who won his nickname after a battle against Arabs in Sicily. On the other hand, many Anglo-Danish rebels fleeing William the Conqueror, joined the Byzantines in their struggle against the Robert Guiscard, duke of Apulia, in Southern I


The presence of Vikings in Galicia took place at the earliest by the mid-ninth century though apparently not before, and no later than the twelfth century, when Vikings from Scandinavia were a naval and military power, launching expeditions of plunder and conquest by the Atlantic coast and European rivers, looting cities and settlements. The Vikings extended their journeys all the way to the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, and on the way they raided Galicia. In contemporary texts, the Vikings are often referred to as normandos or lordimani.

Our knowledge of Vikings in Spain is mainly based on written accounts. There are archeological findings of anchors of Viking ships, and some shapes of mounds by riversides look similar to the Norse longphorts in Ireland. These were ports or docks for Viking longships.

First invasion

The first incursion of the Vikings in Galicia is mentioned in Annales Bertiniani, and dated August 844, when a group from a plundering expedition entered the Garonne and reached Galicia pushed by a storm. After plundering a number of coastal villages they were ultimately repulsed in the vicinity of Farum Brecantium i.e., the Tower of Hercules (called by them FAR). Ramiro I of Asturias who was king of Asturias at the time, gathered troops in Galicia and Asturia for the counter-attack. After the Asturian victory, the Vikings continued their voyage in direction of Lisbon According to Fletcher “Alfonso III was sufficiently worried by the threat of Viking attack to establish fortified strong points near his coastline, as other rulers were doing elsewhere.”

A legend also explains that when the Vikings arrived at the mouth of the river Masma, the holy Bishop of the diocese of Gonzalo Bretoña prayed for protection from the heavens against the forthcoming attack. A major storm was unleashed, sinking most of the fleet and a large number of Vikings fled in their ships.

Second invasion

Vikings returned to Galicia in 859, during the reign of Ordoño I of Asturias, It was a contingent of a hundred ships from looting expeditions by the French coast that was now directed toward the Arousa estuary. After looting Iria Flavia they continued to Santiago de Compostela, where they laid siege. Their neighbours had paid tribute to avoid looting, but in spite of this, the Vikings tried to enter the city. They were faced with an army led by Don Pedro who dispersed them and destroyed thirty eight of their ships; after which the surviving Vikings went south. As a result of this expedition the episcopal see of Iria relocated to Santiago de Compostela. In 861, a group of Vikings ransomed García Íñiguez, king of Pamplona, whom they had captured the previous year, for 60,000 gold pieces.

Later invasions

In 951, the Vikings reappeared and attacked the Galician coast. Galician cities would then strengthen their defenses over the following years. In 964, the Vikings arrived again in Galicia, because the own bishop of Mondonedo, Rosendo of Celanova, they had to face. In 968 Bishop Sisnando Menéndez of Compostela was killed, the monastery of Curtis was sacked, and measures were ordered for the defense of the inland town of Lugo.

The expedition of 1015 was led by Olaf Haraldsson, who later became king Olaf II of Norway. He destroyed four settlements: Castropol, Betanzos, Rivas de Sil and Tui. After Tui was sacked its bishopric remained vacant for the next half-century.

King Olaf II of Norway.

Raiding continued for the next two centuries. Ransom was a motive for abductions: Fletcher instances Amarelo Mestáliz, who was forced to raise money on the security of his land in order to ransom his daughters who had been captured by the Vikings in 1015. Bishop Cresconio of Compostela (ca. 1036 – 66) repulsed a Viking foray and built the fortress at Torres do Oeste (Council of Catoira) to protect Compostela from the Atlantic approaches.

Islamic Iberiia

While connections between the Norse and Eastern Islamic lands (particularly around the Caspian) were well-established (in the form of the Rus’) along the Volga, relations with the Western edge of Islam were more sporadic and haphazard. Islamic Iberia, the first navy of the Emirate of Córdoba was built after the humiliating Viking ascent of the Guadalquivir in 844 when they sacked Seville. Nevertheless, in 859, Danish pirates sailed through Gibraltar and raided the little Moroccan state of Nekor. The king’s harem had to be ransomed back by the emir of Córdoba. These and other raids prompted a shipbuilding program at the dockyards of Seville. The Andalusian navy was thenceforth employed to patrol the Iberian coastline under the caliphs Abd-ar-Rahman III (912–961) and Al-Hakam II (961–976). Córdoba was too heavily defended to be considered a target for all but the most ambitious Vikings. By the next century, piracy from North Africans superseded Viking raids.

In 844 the Vikings attacked Al-Andalus, the administrative area of the Iberian Peninsula ruled by Muslims. They sacked Lisbon, Cádiz and Medina Sidonia, and then captured Seville. However, the Muslims counterattacked and defeated them. The survivors fled. The Vikings carried out further raids on Al-Andalus but the Muslims fought back effectively.

The Vikings retreated and in the next weeks they looted Lisbon before advancing on the river Guadalquivir and occupying Sevilla for forty-two days. But the Blammen (“Black Men”, Arabs) defeated a large host (allegedly 16,000) at Moron and the Vikings retreated from Sevilla. Before retreating they ransomed their hostages, taking only clothes and food.

Aside from Viking raids in the Islamic Mediterranean, there were also sustained diplomatic relations between the Vikings (referred to as “Madjus” in Arabic sources) and the Islamic world. The Arab diplomat Al-Ghazal (“the gazelle”) was dispatched to the court of the Danish King Harek at Hleiðra in 844 (as recounted in Ibn-Dihya) to make peace with the Danes following their defeat at Sevilla. He was reported back in Córdoba twenty months later. Additionally, a century later the Arab merchant Abraham ben Jacob (also known as Al-Tartushi ) was reported to have travelled to the Viking trading town of Hedeby in Schleswig.

In 860, a new fleet of sixty-two ship led by Hastein and Björn Ironside. attacked Galicia (northwestern Spain), the Portuguese shores and Sevilla. The fleet then crossed over to Africa and sacked Nekor. They then returned to Iberia, stopping at the Balearic Islands, and attacked Pamplona after crossing the Ebru river and captured the king of Navarra, García Íñiguez, who paid a ransom for his release.

In 966 Lisbon was again raided by the Norse, this time with a fleet of 28 ships.

Another great campaign took place in 968. The Norman jarl Gundraed attacked Galicia with 100 ships and 8,000 warriors They roamed freely for years and even occupied Santiago de Compostela, but the Vikings were finally defeated by the troops of the count Gonzalo Sanchez in 971.

Islamic Connection

The well-known Harald Hardrada would also serve the Byzantine emperor in Palestine as well as raiding North Africa, the Middle East as far east as Armenia, and the island of Sicily in the 11th century, as recounted in his saga in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla.

Global player: Harald Hardrada, a Norseman with Byzantine ambitions.

Evidence for Norse ventures into Arabia and Central Asia can be found in runestones erected in Scandinavia by the relatives of fallen Viking adventurers. Several of these refer to men who died in “Serkland” (Arabia)

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Mediterranean the Norse (referred to as Rus’) were viewed more as “merchant-warriors” who were primarily associated with trade and business. In particular, Arab scholars such as Ibn-Fadlan recount Norse trade expeditions to Baghdad, a major center of the Islamic world.[70] Indeed, one of the only detailed accounts of a Viking burial come from Ibn-Fadlan’s account. At times this trading relationship would break down into violence – Rus’ armadas raided in the Caspian on at least three occasions, in 910, 912 and 943.

Eastern Europe


In Athens, Greece, Swedish Vikings wrote a runic inscription on the Piraeus Lion,

The Varangians or Varyags (Russian, Ukrainian: Варяги, Varyagi) sometimes referred to as Variagians were Scandinavians who migrated eastwards and southwards through what is now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries. Engaging in trade, colonization, piracy and mercenary activities, they roamed the river systems and portages of Garðaríki, reaching and settling at the Caspian Sea and in Constantinople.

The real involvement of the Varangians came after they were asked by the Slavic tribes of the region to come and establish order, as those tribes were in constant warfare among each other (“Our country is rich and immense, but it is rent by disorder. Come and govern us and reign over us.”). The tribes were united and ruled under the leadership of Rurik, a leader of a group of Varangians. Rurik had successfully been able to establish a set of trading towns and posts along the Volga and Dnieper Rivers, which were perfect for trade with the Byzantine Empire. Rurik’s successors were able to conquer and unite the towns along the banks of the Volga and Dnieper Rivers, and establish the Rus’ Khaganate. Despite the distinction of the Varangians from the local Slavic tribes at the beginning, by the 10th century, the Varangians began to integrate with the local community, and by the end of 12th century, a new people — the Russians, have emerged.

Vikings in Georgia

Separated by several thousand kilometers, medieval Georgia and Scandinavia, surprisingly, had a common link. Around 1036, Varangians appeared near the village of Bashi on the Rioni River, to establish a permanent settlement of Vikings in Georgia (Georgian: ვიკინგები საქართველოში).

The old Georgian chronicle Kartlis Tskhovreba described them as 3,000 men who had traveled from Scandinavia through present-day Russia, rowing down the Dniepr River and across the Black Sea. King Bagrat IV welcomed them to Georgia and accepted some of them into the Georgian army; several hundred Vikings fought on Bagrat’s side at the Battle of Sasireti in 1047.

Other Vikings continued westward, thereafter disappearing from history. Swedish researchers recently suggested that the story in the Georgian chronicle was about the Swedish expedition by the Viking chieftain Ingvar den Vittfarne (Ingvar the Far-Traveled), which features in many rune stones in  mid-Sweden


Iceland was discovered by Naddodd, one of the first settlers on the Faroe Islands, who was sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands but got lost and drifted to the east coast of Iceland. Naddoddr named the country Snæland (Snowland). Swedish sailor Garðar Svavarsson also accidentally drifted to the coast of Iceland. He discovered that the country was an island and named it Garðarshólmi (literally Garðar’s Islet) and stayed for the winter at Húsavík. The first Scandinavian who deliberately sailed to Garðarshólmi was Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki). Flóki settled for one winter at Barðaströnd. It was a cold winter, and when he spotted some drift ice in the fjords he gave the island its current name, Ísland (Iceland).

Iceland was first settled around 870. The first permanent settler in Iceland is usually considered to have been a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfr Arnarson. According to the story, he threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found in the southwestern peninsula, now known as Reykjanesskagi. There he settled with his family around 874, in a place he named Reykjavík (Bay of Smokes) due to the geothermal steam rising from the earth. It is recognized, however, that Ingólfur Arnarson may not have been the first one to settle permanently in Iceland — that may have been Náttfari, a slave of Garðar Svavarsson who stayed behind when his master returned to Scandinavia.


In the year 985, Erik the Red was believed to have discovered Greenland after being exiled from Iceland for murder in 982. Three years later in 986, Erik the Red returned with 14 ships surviving ships (as 25 set out on the expedition).Two areas along Greenland’s southwest coast were colonized by Norse settlers, including Erik the Red, around 986.

Erik the Red

The land was at best marginal for Norse pastoral farming. The settlers arrived during a warm phase, when short-season crops such as rye and barley could be grown. Sheep and hardy cattle were also raised for food, wool, and hides. Their main export was walrus ivory, which was traded for iron and other goods which could not be produced locally.

Greenland became a dependency of the king of Norway in 1261. During the 13th century, the population may have reached as high as 5,000, divided between the two main settlements of Eystribygð (Eastern Settlement) and Vestribygð (Western Settlement). The organization of these settlements revolved mainly around religion, and they consisted of around 250 farms, which were split into approximately fourteen communities that were centered around fourteen churches, one of which was a cathedral at Garðar.

The Catholic diocese of Greenland was subject to the archdiocese of Nidaros. However, many bishops chose to exercise this office from afar. As the years wore on, the climate shifted (see Little Ice Age). In 1379 the northernmost settlement was attacked by the Skrælings (Norse word for Inuit). Crops failed and trade declined. The Greenland colony gradually faded away. By 1450 it had lost contact with Norway and Iceland and disappeared from all but a few Scandinavian legends.

North America

Vikings and Native American’s in Combat.

The Greenlanders called the new-found territory Vinland. It is unclear whether Vinland referred to in the traditionally thinking as Vínland (wine-land) or more recently as Vinland (meadow- or pasture-land). In any case, without any official backing, attempts at colonization by the Norse proved failures. There were simply too many natives for the Greenlanders to conquer or withstand and they withdrew to Greenland.


Vikings may have discovered Svalbard as early as the 12th century. Traditional Norse accounts exist of a land known as Svalbarð – literally “cold shores”. (But this land might also have been Jan Mayen, or a part of eastern Greenland.) The Dutchman Willem Barents made the first indisputable discovery of Svalbard in 1596.

Genetic evidence and implications

Studies of genetic diversity have provided scientific confirmation to accompany archaeological evidence of Viking expansion. They additionally indicate patterns of ancestry, imply new migrations, and show the actual flow of individuals between disparate regions. However, attempts to determine historical population genetics are complicated by subsequent migrations and demographic fluctuations. In particular, the rapid migrations of the 20th century has made it difficult to assess what prior genetic states were.

Genetic evidence contradicts the common perception that Vikings were primarily pillagers and raiders. A news article by Roger Highfield summarizes recent research and concludes that, as both male and female genetic markers are present, the evidence is indicative of colonization instead of raiding and occupying. However, this is also disputed by unequal ratios of male and female haplotypes (see below) which indicate that more men settled than women, an element of a raiding or occupying population.

Often considered the purest remnants of ancient Nordic genetics, Icelanders trace 75–80% of their patrilineal ancestry to Scandinavia and 20–25% to Scotland and Irelan On the maternal side, only 37% is from Scandinavia and the remaining 63% is mostly Scottish and Irish. Iceland also holds one of the most well-documented lineage records which, in many cases, go back fifteen generations and at least 300 years. These are accompanied by one of the largest genetic records which have been collected by deCODE genetics. Together, these two records allow for a mostly reliable view of historical Scandinavian genetic structure although the genetics of Iceland are influenced by Norse-British migration as well as that directly from Scandinavia.

hleomæg wesiKs


  • Forte, Angelo; Oram, Richard; Pedersen, Frederik (2005). Viking Empires. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82992-5. 
  • Hall, Richard (2010). Viking Age archaeology. Shire Publications. ISBN 0-7478-0063-4. 
  • Harck, Ole; Lübke, Christian (2001). Zwischen Reric und Bornhöved: Die Beziehungen zwischen den Dänen und ihren slawischen Nachbarn vom 9. Bis ins 13. International Conference, Leipzig, 4–6 December 1997, Franz Steiner Verlag. ISBN 3-515-07671-9. 
  • Jones, Gwyn (1968). A History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press. OCLC 581030305



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