The cause of the siege was the construction of the fortress Sarkel by Byzantine engineers, restricting the Rus’ trade route along the Don River in favor of the Khazars. Accounts vary regarding the events, with discrepancies between contemporary and later sources. The exact outcome is unknown.
It is known from Byzantine sources that the Rus’ caught Constantinople unprepared, while the empire was preoccupied by the ongoing Arab–Byzantine wars and unable to deal with the Rus’ threat. After pillaging the suburbs of the Byzantine capital, the Rus’ retreated, although the nature of this withdrawal, and indeed which side was victorious, is subject to debate. The event gave rise to a later Orthodox Christian tradition, which ascribed the deliverance of Constantinople to a miraculous intervention by the Theotokos.
The Rus‘ (Slavic: Русь; Greek: Ῥῶς) were an early medieval group, who lived in modern Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries, and are the ancestors of modern Russians and other Eastern European ethnicities. According to both contemporary Byzantine and Islamic sources and the Primary Chronicle of Rus’, compiled in about A.D 1113, the Rus’ were Norsemen who had relocated “from over sea”, first to northeastern Europe, creating an early polity that finally came under the leadership of Rurik.
Later, Rurik’s relative Oleg captured Kiev, founding Rus’, academically known as Kievan Rus’. The descendants of Rurik were the ruling dynasty of Rus’ (after 862), and of principalities created in the area formerly occupied by Kievan Rus’, Galicia-Volhynia Principality (after 1199), Chernigov, Novgorod Republic, Kingdom of Rus (1253–1349), Vladimir-Suzdal, Grand Duchy of Moscow, and the founders of the Tsardom of Russia.
The first mention of the Rus’ near the Byzantine Empire comes from Life of St. George of Amastris, a hagiographic work whose dating is debated. The Byzantines had come into contact with the Rus’ in 839. The exceptional timing of the attack suggests the Rus’ had been informed of the city’s weakness, demonstrating that the lines of trade and communication did not cease to exist in the 840s and 850s. Nevertheless, the threat from the Rus’ in 860 came as a surprise; it was as sudden and unexpected “as a swarm of wasps”, as Photius put it. The empire was struggling to repel the Abbasid advance in Asia Minor. In March 860, the garrison of the key fortress Loulon unexpectedly surrendered to the Arabs. In April or May, both sides exchanged captives, and the hostilities briefly ceased; however, in the beginning of June, Emperor Michael III left Constantinople for Asia Minor to invade the Abbasid Caliphate.
On June 18, 860, at sunset, a fleet of about 200 Rus’ vessels sailed into the Bosporus and started pillaging the suburbs of Constantinople (Old East Slavic: Tsarigrad, Old Norse: Miklagarðr). The attackers were setting homes on fire and drowning and stabbing the residents. Unable to do anything to repel the invaders, Patriarch Photius urged his flock to implore the Theotokos to save the city. Having devastated the suburbs, the Rus’ passed into the Sea of Marmora and fell upon the Isles of the Princes, where the former Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople was in exile at the time. The Rus’ plundered the dwellings and the monasteries, slaughtering the captives. They took twenty-two of the patriarch’s servants aboard ship and cut them into pieces with axes.
The attack took the Byzantines by surprise, “like a thunderbolt from heaven”, as it was put by Patriarch Photius in his famous oration written on the occasion. Emperor Michael III was absent from the city, as was his navy dreaded for its skill in using Greek fire. The Imperial army (including those troops that were normally garrisoned closest to the capital) was fighting the Arabs in Asia Minor. The city’s land defences were weakened by the absence of these garrisons, but the sea defences were also lacking. The Byzantine Navy was occupied fighting both Arabs and Normans in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. These simultaneous deployments left the coasts and islands of the Black Sea, the Bosporus, and the Sea of Marmara susceptible to attack.
The invasion continued until August 4, when, in another of his sermons, Photius thanked heaven for miraculously relieving the city from such a dire threat. The writings of Photius provide the earliest example of the name “Rus” (Rhos, Greek: Ῥῶς) being mentioned in a Greek source; previously the dwellers of the lands to the north of the Black Sea were referred to archaically as “Tauroscythians”. The patriarch reported that they had no supreme ruler and lived in some distant northern lands. Photius called them ἔθνος ἄγνωστον, “unknown people”, although some historians prefer to translate the phrase as “obscure people”, pointing out the earlier contacts between Byzantines and the Rus’.
The sermons of Photius offer no clue as to the outcome of the invasion or the reasons why the Rus’ withdrew to their own country. Later sources attribute their retreat to the Emperor’s speedy return to the capital. As the story goes, after Michael and Photius put the veil of the Theotokos into the sea, there arose a tempest which dispersed the boats of the barbarians. In later centuries, it was said that the Emperor hurried to the church at Blachernae and had the robe of the Theotokos carried in procession along the Theodosian Walls. This precious Byzantine relic was dipped symbolically into the sea and a great wind immediately arose and wrecked the Rus’ ships. The pious legend was recorded by George Hamartolus, whose manuscript was an important source for the Primary Chronicle. The authors of the Kievan chronicle appended the names of Askold and Dir to the account as they believed that these two Varangians had presided over Kiev in 866. It was to this year that (through some quirk in chronology) they attributed the first Rus’ expedition against the Byzantine capital.
Nestor’s account of the first encounter between the Rus’ and the Byzantines may have contributed to the popularity of the Theotokos in Russia. The miraculous saving of Constantinople from the barbarian hordes would appear in Russian icon-painting, without understanding that the hordes in question may have issued from Kiev. Furthermore, when the Blachernitissa was brought to Moscow in the 17th century, it was said that it was this icon that had saved Tsargrad from the troops of the “Scythian khagan”, after Michael III had prayed before it to the Theotokos. Nobody noticed that the story had obvious parallels with the sequence of events described by Nestor.
In the 9th century, a legend sprang up to the effect that an ancient column at the Forum of Taurus had an inscription predicting that Constantinople would be conquered by the Rus. This legend, well known in Byzantine literature, was revived by the Slavophiles in the 19th century, when Russia was on the point of wresting the city from the Ottomans.
As was demonstrated by Oleg Tvorogov and Constantine Zuckerman, among others, the 9th century and later sources are out of tune with the earliest records of the event. In his August sermon, Photius mentions neither Michael III’s return to the capital nor the miracle with the veil (of which the author purportedly was a participant).
On the other hand, Pope Nicholas I, in a letter sent to Michael III on September 28, 865, mentions that the suburbia of the imperial capital were recently raided by the pagans who were allowed to retreat without any punishment. The Venetian Chronicle of John the Deacon reports that the Normanorum gentes, having devastated the suburbanum of Constantinople, returned to their own lands in triumph (“et sic praedicta gens cum triumpho ad propriam regressa est”).
It appears that the victory of Michael III over the Rus’ was invented by the Byzantine historians in the mid-9th century or later and became generally accepted in the Slavic chronicles influenced by them. However, the memory of the successful campaign was transmitted orally among the Kievans and may have dictated Nestor’s account of Oleg’s 907 campaign, which is not recorded in Byzantine sources at all.
Vinland, Vineland or Winland (Old Norse: Vínland) is the area of coastal North America explored by Norse Vikings, where Leif Erikson first landed in c. 1000, approximately five centuries prior to the voyages of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot.
Vinland was the name given to North America as far as it was explored by the Vikings, presumably including both Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as far as northeastern New Brunswick (where the eponymous grapevines are found).
In 1960, archaeological evidence of a Norse settlement in North America (outside Greenland) was found at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland. Before the discovery of archaeological evidence, Vinland was known only from Old Norse sagas and medieval historiography. The 1960 discovery conclusively proved the pre-Columbian Norse colonization of the Americas. L’Anse aux Meadows may correspond to the camp Straumfjörð mentioned in the Saga of Erik the Red.
Vinland or “Winland” was the name given to part of North America by the Icelandic Norseman Leif Eiríksson, about year 1000. The exact meaning of this Norse toponym has not been established. Three likely translations of the name have been advanced by linguists:
The earliest record of the name Winland is found in Adam of Bremen’s Descriptio insularum Aquilonis (“Description of the Northern Islands”, ch. 39), written c. 1075. To write it he visited the King of Denmark, Sweyn II Estridsson who had knowledge of the northern lands. The name contains Old Norse vin which means meadow. Adam implies that the name should be mistranslated via Latin (a language not significantly related to Old Norse) vinum to “wine” (rendered as Old High German win):
Moreover, he has also reported one island discovered by many in that ocean, which is called Winland, for the reason that grapevines grow there by themselves, producing the best wine.
This etymology is retained in the 13th-century Grœnlendinga saga, which provides a circumstantial account of the discovery of Vinland and its being named from the vínber, i.e. “wineberry”, a term for grapes or currants (black or red), found there.
There is a long-standing Scandinavian tradition of fermenting berries into wine. The question whether the name refers to actual grapevines (as implied by Adam of Bremen) or just to berries was addressed in a 2010 excavation report on L’Anse aux Meadows. The discovery of butternuts at the site implies that the Norse explored Vinland further to the south, at least as far as St. Lawrence River and parts of New Brunswick, the northern limit for both butternut and wild grapes (Vitis riparia).
Another proposal for the name’s etymology, was brought up by Sven Söderberg in 1898 (first published in 1910). This suggestion involves interpreting the Old Norse name not as vín-land but as vin-land, with a short vowel. Old Norse vin (from Proto-Norse winju) has a meaning of “meadow, pasture”.
This interpretation of Vinland as “pasture-land” rather than “vine-land” was accepted by Valter Jansson in his classic 1951 dissertation on the vin-names of Scandinavia, by way of which it entered popular knowledge in the later 20th century. It was rejected by Einar Haugen (1977), who argued that the vin element had changed its meaning from “pasture” to “farm” long before the Old Norse period. Names in vin were given in the Proto-Norse period, and they are absent from places colonized in the Viking Age. Haugen’s basis for rejection has since been challenged.
There is a runestone which may have contained a record of the Old Norse name slightly predating Adam of Bremen’s Winland. The Hønen Runestone was discovered in Norderhov, Norway shortly before 1817, but it was subsequently lost. Its assessment depends on a sketch made by antiquarian L. D. Klüwer (1823), now also lost but in turn copied by Wilhelm Frimann Koren Christie (1838). The Younger Futhark inscription was dated to c. 1010–50. The stone had been erected in memory of a Norwegian, possibly a descendant of Sigurd Syr. Sophus Bugge (1902) read part of the inscription as
uin (l)a(t)ią isa
Vínlandi á ísa
“from Vinland over ice”
This is highly uncertain; the same sequence is read by Magnus Olsen (1951) as
uin ka(lt)ą isa
vindkalda á ísa
“over the wind-cold ice”
The main sources of information about the Norse voyages to Vinland are two Icelandic sagas, the Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. These stories were preserved by oral tradition until they were written down some 250 years after the events they describe. The existence of two versions of the story shows some of the challenges of using traditional sources for history, because they share a large number of story elements but use them in different ways. A possible example is the reference to two different men named Bjarni who are blown off course. A brief summary of the plots of the two sagas, given at the end of this article, shows other examples.
The sagas report that a considerable number of Vikings were in parties that visited Vinland. Thorfinn Karlsefni’s crew consisted of 140 or 160 people according to Saga of Eric the Red, 60 according to the Greenland Saga. Still according to the latter, Leif Ericson led a company of 35, Thorvald Eiriksson a company of 30, and Helgi and Finnbogi had 30 crew members.
According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Þorfinnr “Karlsefni” Þórðarson and a company of 160 men, going south from Greenland traversed an open stretch of sea, found Helluland, another stretch of sea, Markland
This saga references the place-name Vinland in four ways. First, it is identified as the land found by Leif Ericson. Karlsefni and his men subsequently find “vín-ber” near the Wonderstrands. Later, the tale locates Vinland to the south of Markland, with the headland of Kjalarnes at its northern extreme. However, it also mentions that while at Straumfjord, some of the explorers wished to go in search for Vinland west of Kjalarnes.
According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Þorfinnr “Karlsefni” Þórðarson and a company of 160 men, going south from Greenland traversed an open stretch of sea, found Helluland, another stretch of sea, Markland, another stretch of sea, the headland of Kjalarnes, the Wonderstrands, Straumfjörð and at last a place called Hóp, a bountiful place where no snow fell during winter. However, after several years away from Greenland, they chose to turn back to their homes when they realised that they would otherwise face an indefinite conflict with the natives.
This saga references the place-name Vinland in four ways. First, it is identified as the land found by Leif Ericson. Karlsefni and his men subsequently find “vín-ber” near the Wonderstrands. Later, the tale locates Vinland to the south of Markland, with the headland of Kjalarnes at its northern extreme. However, it also mentions that while at Straumfjord, some of the explorers wished to go in search for Vinland west of Kjalarnes.
In Grænlendinga saga (“Saga of the Greenlanders”), Bjarni Herjólfsson accidentally discovers the new land when travelling from Norway to visit his father in the second year of Eric the Red’s Greenland colony (about 986 CE). When he does manage to reach Greenland, making land at Herjolfsness, site of his father’s farm, he remains there for the rest of his father’s life and does not return to Norway until about 1000 CE. There, he tells his overlord (the Earl, also named Eric) about the new land and is criticised for his long delay in reporting.
On his return to Greenland he tells the story and inspires Leif Ericsson to organise an expedition, which retraces in reverse the route Bjarni had followed, past a land of flat stones (Helluland) and a land of forests (Markland). After sailing another two days across open sea, the expedition finds a headland with an island just offshore; nearby is a pool accessible to ships at high tide in an area where the sea is shallow with sandbanks. Here the explorers land and establish a base which can plausibly be matched to L’Anse aux Meadows, except that the winter is described as mild, not freezing.
One day an old family servant, Tyrker, goes missing and is found mumbling to himself; he eventually explains that he has found grapes. In spring, Leif returns to Greenland with a shipload of timber towing a boatload of grapes. On the way home, he spots another ship aground on rocks, rescues the crew and later salvages the cargo. A second expedition, one ship of about 40 men, led by Leif’s brother Thorvald, sets out in the autumn after Leif’s return and stays over three winters at the new base (Leifsbúðir (-budir), meaning Leif’s temporary shelters), exploring the west coast of the new land in the first summer, and the east coast in the second, running aground and losing the ship’s keel on a headland they christen Keel Point (Kjalarnes).
Further south, at a point where Thorvald would like to establish a settlement, the Greenlanders encounter some of the local inhabitants (Skrælings) and kill them, following which they are attacked by a large force in hide boats, and Thorvald dies from an arrow-wound. After the exploration party returns to base, the Greenlanders decide to return home the following spring.
Thorstein, Leif’s brother, marries Gudrid, widow of the captain rescued by Leif, then leads a third expedition to bring home Thorvald’s body, but is driven off course and spends the whole summer wandering the Atlantic. Spending the winter as a guest at a farm on Greenland with Gudrid, Thorstein dies of sickness, reviving just long enough to make a prophecy about her future as a Christian.
The next winter, Gudrid marries a visiting Icelander named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who agrees to undertake a major expedition to Vinland, taking livestock. On arrival, they soon find a beached whale which sustains them until spring. In the summer, they are visited by some of the local inhabitants who are scared by the Greenlanders’ bull but happy to trade goods for milk and other products. In autumn, Gudrid gives birth to a son, Snorri. Shortly after this, one of the local people tries to take a weapon and is killed; the explorers are then attacked in force, but manage to survive with only minor casualties by retreating to a well-chosen defensive position a short distance from their base. One of the local people picks up an iron axe, tries it, and throws it away.
The explorers return to Greenland in summer with a cargo of grapes and hides. Shortly afterwards, a ship captained by two Icelanders arrives in Greenland, and Freydis, daughter of Eric the Red, persuades them to join her in an expedition to Vinland. They sail that autumn, but disagreements during the winter lead to the killing, at Freydis’ order, of all the Icelanders, including five women, as they lie sleeping. In spring the Greenlanders return home with a good cargo, but Leif finds the truth about the Icelanders. That is the last Vinland expedition recorded in the saga.
In the other version of the story, Eiríks saga rauða or the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif Ericsson accidentally discovers the new land when travelling from Norway back to Greenland after a visit to his overlord, King Olaf Tryggvason, who commissions him to spread Christianity in the colony.
Returning to Greenland with samples of grapes, wheat and timber, he rescues the survivors from a wrecked ship and gains a reputation for good luck; his religious mission is a swift success. The next spring, Thorstein, Leif’s brother, leads an expedition to the new land but is driven off course and spends the whole summer wandering the Atlantic.
On his return, he meets and marries Gudrid, one of the survivors from a ship which has made land at Herjolfsnes after a difficult voyage from Iceland. Spending the winter as a guest at a farm on Greenland with Gudrid, Thorstein dies of sickness, reviving just long enough to make a prophecy about her future as a far-travelling Christian.
The next winter, Gudrid marries a visiting Icelander named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who, with his business partner Snorri Thorbrandsson, agrees to undertake a major expedition to the new land, taking livestock. Also contributing ships for this expedition are another pair of visiting Icelanders, Bjarni Grimolfsson and Thorhall Gamlason, and Leif’s brother and sister Thorvald and Freydis, with her husband Thorvard. Sailing past landscapes of flat stones (Helluland) and forests (Markland) they round a cape where they see the keel of a boat (Kjalarnes), then continue past some extraordinary long beaches (Furthustrandir) before landing and sending out two runners to explore inland.
After three days, the pair return with samples of grapes and wheat. After sailing a little farther, the expedition lands at an inlet next to an area of strong currents (Straumfjörð), with an island just offshore (Straumsey) and makes camp. The winter months are harsh, and food is in short supply. One day an old family servant, Thorhall the Hunter (who has not become Christian), goes missing and is found mumbling to himself; shortly afterwards, a beached whale is found which Thorhall claims has been provided in answer to his praise of the pagan gods.
The explorers find that eating it makes them ill, so they pray to the Christian God, and shortly afterwards the weather improves.
When spring comes, Thorhall Gamlason, the Icelander, wants to sail north round Kjalarnes to seek Vinland, while Thorfinn Karlsefni prefers to sail southward down the east coast. Thorhall takes only nine men, and his vessel is swept out into the ocean by contrary winds; he and his crew never return.
Thorfinn and Snorri, with Freydis (plus possibly Bjarni), sail down the east coast with 40 men or more and establish a camp on the shore of a seaside lake, protected by barrier islands and connected to the open ocean by a river which is navigable by ships only at high tide. The settlement was known as Hop, and the land abounds with grapes and wheat.
The teller of this saga is uncertain whether the explorers remain here over the next winter (said to be very mild) or for only a few weeks of summer. One morning they see nine hide boats; the local people (Skraelings) examine the Norse ships and depart in peace. Later a much larger flotilla of boats arrives, and trade commences (Karlsefni forbids the sale of weapons).
One day, the local traders are frightened by the sudden arrival of the Greenlanders’ bull, and they stay away for three weeks. They then attack in force, but the explorers manage to survive with only minor casualties by retreating inland to a defensive position a short distance from their camp. Pregnancy slows Freydis down, so she picks up the sword of a fallen companion and brandishes it against her bare breast, scaring the attackers into withdrawal.
One of the local people picks up an iron axe, tries it, and throws it away. The explorers subsequently abandon the southern camp and sail back to Straumsfjord, killing five natives they encounter on the way, lying asleep in hide sacks.
Karlsefni, accompanied by Thorvald Eriksson and others, sails around Kjalarnes and then south, keeping land on their left side, hoping to find Thorhall. After sailing for a long time, while moored on the south side of a west-flowing river, they are shot at by a one-footed man, and Thorvald dies from an arrow-wound. The explorers return to Straumsfjord, but disagreements during the following winter lead to the abandonment of the venture. On the way home, the ship of Bjarni the Icelander is swept into the Sea of Worms (Madkasjo) by contrary winds. The marine worms destroy the hull, and only those who escape in the ship’s worm-proofed boat survive. This is the last Vinland expedition recorded in the saga.
The oldest commonly acknowledged surviving written record of Vinland appears in Descriptio insularum Aquilonis, by Adam of Bremen, a German (Saxon) geographer and historian, written in about 1075. To write it he visited the Danish king Svend Estridsen, who had knowledge of the northern lands and told him of the “islands” discovered by Norse sailors far out in the Atlantic, of which Vinland was the most remote. The exact phrasing of this, the first mention of Vinland in known written sources, is as follows:
He also told me that many in this part of the Ocean have discovered an island called Vinland because there are grapevines growing wild which produces the best of wines. From trustworthy Danes rather than from fantastic tales, I also have heard that there is an abundance of cereal which is self-sown. Beyond this island, he (King Sven of Denmark) says, are no more inhabitable islands in the Ocean. Everything farther out is covered by immense masses of ice and perennial fog. Martianus tells of this: “One day of sailing beyond Thule the sea is solid.” This the widely travelled King Harold of Norway found to be true. With his ships he recently investigated the extent of the northern Ocean but finally had to turn back when the extreme limit of the world disappeared in fog before his eyes. He barely escaped the gaping ravine of the abyss.
Adam became confused between Helluland and Halagland, the northernmost part of medieval Norway, where the “midnight sun” is visible. He also spelled Vinland in Latin the same as Wendland, the Slavic province closest to Denmark.
In the early 14th Century, a geography encyclopedia called Geographica Universalis was compiled at Malmesbury Abbey in England, which was in turn used as a source for one of the most widely circulated medieval English educational works, Polychronicon by Ranulf Higden, a few years later. Both these works, with Adam of Bremen as a possible source, were confused about the location of what they called Wintland—the Malmesbury monk had it on the ocean east of Norway, while Higden put it west of Denmark but failed to explain the distance.
Copies of Polychronicon commonly included a world map on which Wintland was marked in the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland, but again much closer to the Scandinavian mainland than in reality. The name was explained in both texts as referring to the savage inhabitants’ ability to tie the wind up in knotted cords, which they sold to sailors who could then undo a knot whenever they needed a good wind. Neither mentioned grapes, and the Malmesbury work specifically states that little grows there but grass and trees, which reflects the saga descriptions of the area round the main Norse expedition base.
More geographically correct were Icelandic texts from about the same time, which presented a clear picture of the northern countries as experienced by Norse explorers: north of Iceland a vast, barren plain (which we now know to be the Polar ice-cap) extended from Biarmeland (northern Russia) east of the White Sea, to Greenland, then further west and south were, in succession, Helluland, Markland and Vinland. The Icelanders had no knowledge of how far south Vinland extended, and they speculated that it might reach as far as Africa.
The “Historia Norwegiae” (History of Norway) compiled around 1200 does not refer directly to Vinland and tries to reconcile information from Greenland with mainland European sources; in this text Greenland’s territory extends so that it is “almost touching the African islands, where the waters of ocean flood in”.
Icelandic chronicles record another attempt to visit Vinland from Greenland, over a century after the saga voyages. In 1121, Icelandic bishop Eric Gnupsson, who had been based on Greenland since 1112, “went to seek Vinland”. Nothing more is reported of him, and three years later another bishop, Arnald, was sent to Greenland. No written records, other than inscribed stones, have survived in Greenland, so the next reference to a voyage also comes from Icelandic chronicles. In 1347, a ship arrived in Iceland, after being blown off course on its way home from Markland to Greenland with a load of timber. The implication is that the Greenlanders had continued to use Markland as a source of timber over several centuries.
The definition of Vinland is somewhat elusive. According to a 1969 article by Douglas McManis in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers,
The study of the early Norse voyages to North America is a field of research characterized by controversy and conflicting, often irreconcilable, opinions and conclusions. These circumstances result from the fact that details of the voyages exist only in two Icelandic sagas which contradict each other on basic issues and internally are vague and contain nonhistorical passages.
This leads him to conclude that “there is not a Vinland, there are many Vinlands”. According to a 1970 reply by Matti Kaups in the same journal,
Certainly there is a symbolic Vinland as described and located in the Groenlandinga saga; what seems to be a variant of this Vinland is narrated in Erik the Red’s Saga. There are, on the other hand, numerous more recent derivative Vinlands, each of which actually is but a suppositional spatial entity. (…) (e.g. Rafn’s Vinland, Steensby’s Vinland, Ingstad’s Vinland, and so forth).
In geographical terms, Vinland is sometimes used to refer generally to all areas in North America beyond Greenland that were explored by the Norse. In the sagas, however, Vinland is sometimes indicated to not include the territories of Helluland and Markland, which appear to also be located in North America beyond Greenland. Moreover, some sagas establish vague links between Vinland and an island or territory that some sources refer to as Hvítramannaland.
Another possibility is to not understand the name of Vinland as fixed to one defined location, but as merely referring to every location where vínber could be found, i.e. to understand it as a common noun, vinland, rather than as a toponym, Vinland. The Old Norse and Icelandic languages were, and are, fusional languages.
Sixteenth century Icelanders realised that the “New World” which European geographers were calling “America” was the land described in their Vinland Sagas. The Skálholt Map, drawn in 1570 or 1590 but surviving only through later copies, shows Promontorium Winlandiae (“promontory/cape/foreland of Vinland”) as a narrow cape with its northern tip at the same latitude as southern Ireland. (The scales of degrees in the map margins are inaccurate.) This effective identification of northern Newfoundland with the northern tip of Vinland was taken up by later Scandinavian scholars such as bishop Hans Resen.
Although it is generally agreed, based on the saga descriptions, that Helluland includes Baffin Island, and Markland represents at least the southern part of the modern Labrador, there has been considerable controversy over the location of the actual Norse landings and settlement. Comparison of the sagas, as summarised below, shows that they give similar descriptions and names to different places. One of the few reasonably consistent pieces of information is that exploration voyages from the main base sailed down both the east and west coasts of the land; this was one of the factors which helped archaeologists locate the site at L’Anse aux Meadows, at the tip of Newfoundland’s long northern peninsula.
Erik Wahlgren examines the question in his book ‘The Vikings and America’, and points out clearly that L’Anse aux Meadows cannot be the location of Vínland, as the location described in the sagas has both salmon in the rivers and the ‘vínber’ (meaning specifically ‘grape’, that according to Wahlgren the explorers were familiar with and would have thus recognised), growing freely. Charting the overlap of the limits of wild vine and wild salmon habitats, Wahlgren indicates a location near New York.
Other clues appear to place the main settlement farther south, such as the mention of a winter with no snow and the reports in both sagas of grapes being found. A very specific indication in the Greenlanders’ Saga of the latitude of the base has also been subject to misinterpretation. This passage states that in the shortest days of midwinter, the sun was still above the horizon at “dagmal” and “eykt”, two specific times in the Norse day. Carl Christian Rafn, in the first detailed study of the Norse exploration of the New World, “Antiquitates Americanae” (1837), interpreted these times as equivalent to 7:30am and 4.30pm, which would put the base a long way south of Newfoundland. According to the 1880 Sephton translation of the saga, Rafn and other Danish scholars placed Kjalarnes at Cape Cod, Straumfjörð at Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, and Straumsey at Martha’s Vineyard.
However, an Icelandic law text gives a very specific explanation of “eykt”, with reference to Norse navigation techniques. The eight major divisions of the compass were subdivided into three hours each, to make a total of 24, and “eykt” was the end of the second hour of the south-west division, which in modern terms would be 3:30pm. “Dagmal”, the “day-meal” which is specifically distinguished from the earlier “rismal” (breakfast), would thus be about 8:30am. The sun is indeed just above the horizon at these times on the shortest days of the year in northern Newfoundland – but not much farther north.
A 2012 article by Jónas Kristjánsson et al. in the scientific journal Acta Archeologica, which assumes that the headland of Kjalarnes referred to in the Saga of Erik the Red is at L’Anse aux Meadows, suggests that Straumfjörð refers to Sop’s Arm, Newfoundland, as no other fjord in Newfoundland was found to have an island at its mouth.
Newfoundland marine insurance agent and historian William A. Munn (1864–1939), after studying literary sources in Europe, suggested in his 1914 book “Wineland Voyages: Location of Helluland, Markland & Vinland” that the Vinland explorers “went ashore at Lancey Meadows, as it is called today”.
In 1960 a Viking era settlement was discovered by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad at that spot, L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland, and excavated during the 1960s and 1970s. It is most likely this was the main settlement of the sagas, a “gateway” for the Norse Greenlanders to the rich lands farther south. Many wooden objects were found at L’Anse aux Meadows, and radiocarbon dating confirms the site’s occupation as being confined to a short period around 1000 CE.
In addition, a number of small pieces of jasper, known to have been used in the Norse world as fire-strikers, were found in and around the different buildings. When these were analyzed and compared with samples from jasper sources around the North Atlantic area, it was found that two buildings contained only Icelandic jasper pieces, while another contained some from Greenland; also a single piece from the east coast of Newfoundland was found. These finds appear to confirm the saga claim that some of the Vinland exploration ships came from Iceland and that they ventured down the east coast of the new land.
Based on such interpretations and archaeological evidence, it is now generally accepted that L’Anse aux Meadows was the base of the Norse explorers. The location has been named both a National Historic Site of Canada and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However the southernmost limit of the Norse exploration remains a subject of intense speculation. Samuel Eliot Morison (1971) suggested the southern part of Newfoundland; Erik Wahlgren (1986) Miramichi Bay in New Brunswick; and Icelandic climate specialist Pall Bergthorsson (1997) proposed New York City. The insistence in all the main historical sources that grapes were found in Vinland suggests that the explorers ventured at least to the south side of the St. Lawrence River, as Jacques Cartier did 500 years later, finding both wild vines and nut trees.
Three butternuts were a further important find at L’Anse aux Meadows: another species which grows only as far north as the St. Lawrence.
These travels explain as well how the vinviðir (wine wood) the Norse were cutting down in the sagas is actually referring to the vines of Vitis riparia, a species of wild grape that grows on trees. As the Norse were searching for lumber, a material that was needed in Greenland, they found trees covered with Vitis riparia south of L’Anse aux Meadows and called them vinviðir.
Artifacts attribute to the Norse Greenlanders have been found in Canada, particularly on Baffin Island and in northern Labrador. A late-11th-century Norwegian penny, with a hole for stringing on a necklace, has also been found in Maine. There is dispute about the authenticity of this small penny, and its discovery by an amateur archaeologist in 1957 has become controversial; questions have been raised whether it was planted as a hoax.
Other claimed Norse artifacts in the area south of the St. Lawrence include a number of stones inscribed with runic letters. The Kensington Runestone was found in Minnesota, but is generally considered a hoax. The authenticity of the Spirit Pond runestones, recovered in Phippsburg, Maine, is also questioned. Other examples are the Heavener Runestone, the Shawnee Runestone, and the Vérendrye Runestone. The age and origin of these stones is debated, and so far none has been firmly dated or associated with clear evidence of a medieval Norse presence. In general, script in the runic alphabet does not in itself guarantee a Viking age or medieval connection, as Dalecarlian runes have been suggested to have been used until the 20th century.
Possible archeological findings in 2015 at Point Rosee, on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, could be the location of a bog iron-smelting site and therefore a possible Norse settlement. The site was discovered through satellite imagery and magnetometer readings, but no positive identification has been made thus far.
Since the late 8th century, the Vikings had settled for mainly “hit-and-run” raids on centres of wealth, such as monasteries. However, the intent of the Great Army was different. It was much larger and its purpose was to conquer.
The name Great Heathen Army is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865. Legend has it that the force was led by three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. The campaign of invasion and conquest against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms lasted 14 years. Surviving sources give no firm indication of its numbers, but it was clearly amongst the largest forces of its kind.
The invaders initially landed in East Anglia, where the king provided them with horses for their campaign in return for peace. They spent the winter of 865–66 at Thetford, before marching north to capture York in November 866. York had been founded as the Roman legionary fortress of Eboracum and revived as the Anglo-Saxon trading port of Eoforwic.
During 868, the army marched deep into Mercia and wintered in Nottingham. The Mercians agreed to terms with the Viking army, which moved back to York for the winter of 869–70. In 870, the Great Army returned to East Anglia, conquering it and killing its king. The army moved to winter quarters in Thetford.
In 871, the Vikings moved on to Wessex, where Alfred the Great paid them to leave. The army then marched to London to overwinter in 872 before moving back to Northumbria in 873. It conquered Mercia in 874 and overwintered at Repton on the River Trent By this time, only the kingdom of Wessex had not been conquered. Towards the end of 875, Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington, and a treaty was agreed whereby the Vikings were able to remain in control of much of northern and eastern England.
Viking raids began in England in the late 8th century, primarily on monasteries. The first monastery to be raided was in 793 at Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the Vikings as “heathen men”. Monasteries and minster churches were popular targets as they were wealthy and had valuable objects that were portable. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 840 says that Æthelwulf of Wessex was defeated at Carhampton, Somerset, after 35 Viking ships had landed in the area. The Annals of St. Bertin also reported the incident, stating:
The Northmen launched a major attack on the island of Britain. After a battle lasting three days, the Northmen emerged the winners – plundering, looting, slaughtering everywhere. They wielded power over the land at will.
Despite this setback, Æthelwulf did have some success against the Vikings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has repeated references during his reign of victories won by ealdormen with the men of their shires. However, the raiding of England continued on and off until the 860s, when instead of raiding, the Vikings changed their tactics and sent a great army to invade England. This army was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a “Great Heathen Army” (OE: mycel hæþen here or mycel heathen here).
Historians provide varying estimates for the size of the Great Heathen Army. According to the ‘minimalist’ scholars, such as Pete Sawyer, the army may have been smaller than traditionally thought. Sawyer notes that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865 referred to the Viking force as a Heathen Army, or in Old English “hæþen here”.
The law code of King Ine of Wessex, issued in about 694, provides a definition of here (pronounced /ˈheːre/) as “an invading army or raiding party containing more than thirty five men”, thus differentiating between the term for the invading Viking army and the Anglo-Saxon army that was referred to as the fyrd. The scribes who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle used the term here to describe the Viking forces. The historian Richard Abels suggested that this was to differentiate between the Viking war bands and those of military forces organised by the state or the crown. However, by the late 10th and early 11th century, here was used more generally as the term for army, whether it was Viking or not.
Sawyer produced a table of Viking ship numbers, as documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and assumes that each Viking ship could carry no more than 32 men, leading to his conclusion that the army would have consisted of no more than 1,000 men. Other scholars give higher estimates. For example, Laurent Mazet-Harhoff observes that many thousands of men were involved in the invasions of the Seine area. However, Mazet-Harhoff does say that the military bases that would accommodate these large armies have yet to be rediscovered. Guy Halshall reported that, in the 1990s, several historians suggested that the Great Heathen Army would have numbered in the low thousands; however, Halshall advises that there “clearly is still much room for debate”.
The army probably developed from the campaigns in France. In Francia, there was a conflict between the Emperor and his sons, and one of the sons had welcomed the support from a Viking fleet. By the time that the war had ended, the Vikings had discovered that monasteries and towns situated on navigable rivers were vulnerable to attack. In 845, a raid on Paris was prevented by the large payment of silver to the Vikings. The opportunity for rich pickings drew other Vikings to the area, and by the end of the decade all the main rivers of West Francia were being patrolled by Viking fleets.
In 862, the West Frankish king responded to the Vikings, fortifying his towns and defending his rivers, thus making it difficult for the Vikings to raid inland. The lower reaches of the rivers and the coastal regions were left largely undefended. Religious communities in these areas, however, chose to move inland away from the reaches of the Viking fleets. With the changes in Francia making raiding more difficult, the Vikings turned their attention to England.
The term vikingr simply meant pirate, and the Viking heres may well have included fighters of other nationalities than Scandinavians. The Viking leaders would often join together for mutual benefit and then dissolve once profit had been achieved. Several of the Viking leaders who had been active in Francia and Frisia joined forces to conquer the four kingdoms constituting Anglo-Saxon England. The composite force probably contained elements from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Ireland as well as those who had been fighting on the continent. The Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard was very specific in his chronicle and said that “the fleets of the viking tyrant Hingwar landed in England from the north”.
The bulk of the army consisted of Danish and Norwegian Vikings, who, prior to the invasion, would have been raiding Francia and Frisia. Some of the grave goods unearthed at Repton, where the Great Heathen Army spent the winter in 874, were of Norwegian origin, indicating that part of the army was likely to have contained elements of Norwegian Vikings, who would have been operating in Britain, raiding and conquering lands around the Irish Sea. The Great Heathen Army would also have consisted of various independent bands, or liðs, coming together under a joint leadership.
The Vikings had been defeated by the West Saxon King Æthelwulf in 851, so rather than land in Wessex they decided to go further north to East Anglia. Legend has it that the united army was led by the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok: Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless (Hingwar), and Ubba. Norse sagas consider the invasion by the three brothers as a response to the death of their father at the hands of Ælla of Northumbria in 865, but the historicity of this claim is uncertain.
In late 865, the Vikings landed in East Anglia and used it as a starting point for an invasion. The East Anglians made peace with the invaders by providing them with horses. The Vikings stayed in East Anglia for the winter before setting out for Northumbria towards the end of 866, establishing themselves at York. In 867, the Northumbrians paid them off, and the Viking Army established a puppet leader in Northumbria before setting off for the Kingdom of Mercia, where in 867 they captured Nottingham. The king of Mercia requested help from the king of Wessex to help fight the Vikings. A combined army from Wessex and Mercia besieged the city of Nottingham with no clear result, so the Mercians settled on paying the Vikings off. The Vikings returned to Northumbria in autumn 868 and overwintered in York, staying there for most of 869. They returned to East Anglia and spent the winter of 869–70 at Thetford. There was no peace agreement between the East Anglians and the Vikings this time. When the local king Edmund fought against the invaders, he was captured and killed.
In 871, the Great Summer Army arrived from Scandinavia, led by Bagsecg. The reinforced Viking army turned its attention to Wessex, but the West Saxons, led by King Æthelred’s brother Alfred, defeated them on 8 January 871 at the Battle of Ashdown, slaying Bagsecg in the process.
Three months later, Æthelred died and was succeeded by Alfred (later known as Alfred the Great), who bought the Vikings off to gain time. During 871–72, the Great Heathen Army wintered in London before returning to Northumbria. It seems that there had been a rebellion against the puppet ruler in Northumbria, so they returned to restore power. They then established their winter quarters for 872-73 at Torksey in the Kingdom of Lindsey (now part of Lincolnshire). The Mercians again paid them off in return for peace, and at the end of 873 the Vikings took up winter quarters at Repton in Derbyshire.
In 874, following their winter stay in Repton, the Great Heathen Army drove the Mercian king into exile and finally conquered Mercia; the exiled Mercian king was replaced by Ceowulf. According to Alfred the Great’s biographer Asser, the Vikings then split into two bands. Halfdan led one band north to Northumbria, where he overwintered by the river Tyne (874–75). In 875 he ravaged further north to Scotland, where he fought the Picts and the Britons of Strathclyde. Returning south of the border in 876, he 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.
According to Asser, the second band was led by Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend. This group also left Repton in 874 and established a base at Cambridge for the winter of 874–75.
In late 875 they moved onto Wareham, where they raided the surrounding area and occupied a fortified position. Asser reports that Alfred made a treaty with the Vikings to get them to leave Wessex. The Vikings left Wareham, but it was not long before they were raiding other parts of Wessex, and initially they were successful. Alfred fought back, however, and eventually won victory over them at the Battle of Edington in 878. This was followed closely by what was described by Asser as the Treaty of Wedmore, under which England was divided between the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex and the Vikings. Guthrum also agreed to be baptised.
In late 878, Guthrum’s band withdrew to Cirencester, in the kingdom of Mercia. Then, probably in late 879, it moved to East Anglia, where Guthrum, who was also known by his baptismal name of Aethelstan, reigned as king until his death in 890.
The part of the army that did not go with Guthrum mostly went on to more settled lives in Northumbria and York. Some may have settled in Mercia. Evidence for this is the presence of two Viking cemeteries in modern-day Derbyshire that are believed to be connected to the Great Army, at Repton and at Heath Wood.
Excavations at the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Repton in the heart of Mercia between 1974–1988 found a D-shaped earthwork on the river bank, incorporated into the stone church. Burials of Viking type were made at the east end of the church, and an existing building was cut down and converted into the chamber of a burial mound that revealed the disarticulated remains of at least 249 people, with their long bones pointing towards the centre of the burial. A large stone coffin was found in the middle of the mass grave; however, the remains of this individual did not survive. A study of the skeletal remains revealed that at least 80% of the individuals were male, and were between the ages of 15 and 45. Further investigation of the male skeletal remains revealed that they were dissimilar to the local population of Repton, and most likely of Scandinavian descent. In contrast, analysis of the female remains revealed that they were similar to the local population, suggesting an Anglo-Saxon lineage. It is possible that the people in the grave may have suffered some sort of epidemic when the army overwintered in Repton during 873–74, leading to the mass burial. The nearby cemetery at Heath Wood barrow cemetery contains about sixty cremations (rather than burials). Finds of cremation sites in the British Isles are very rare, and this one probably was the war cemetery of the Great Heathen Army.
In 878, a third Viking army gathered on the Thames. It seems they were partly discouraged by the defeat of Guthrum but also Alfred’s success against the Vikings coincided with a period of renewed weakness in Francia. The Frankish emperor, Charles the Bald, died in 877 and his son shortly after, precipitating a period of political instability of which the Vikings were quick to take advantage. The assembled Viking army on the Thames departed in 879 to begin new campaigns on the continent.
The rampaging Viking army on the continent encouraged Alfred to protect his Kingdom of Wessex. He built a navy, reorganised the army, and set up a system of fortified towns known as burhs. He mainly used old Roman cities for his burhs, as he was able to rebuild and reinforce their existing fortifications.
Historically, every freeman in the land could be called out to protect the realm in times of trouble. However, the speed of Viking hit-and-run raids had been too quick for the local militias to act, so part of Alfred’s reforms were to create a standing army that could react rapidly to attacks. The Anglo-Saxon rural population lived within a 24 km (15-mile) radius of each burh, so they were able to seek refuge when necessary. To maintain the burhs, as well as the standing army, Alfred set up a system of taxation and conscription that is recorded in a document now known as the Burghal Hidage. The burhs were interconnected with a network of military roads, known as herepaths, enabling Alfred’s troops to move swiftly to engage the enemy. Some historians believe that each burh would have had a mounted force that would be ready for action against the Vikings.
By 896, the remains of the Danish army that had not gone to East Anglia or Northumbria found it difficult to make any progress in Alfred’s fortified kingdom, so according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle those that were penniless found themselves ships and went south across the sea to the Seine. As for Anglo-Saxon England, it had been torn apart by the invading Great Heathen Army, and the Vikings were now in control of northern and eastern England, while Alfred and his successors remained in control of Wessex.
A runestone is typically a raised stone with a runic inscription, but the term can also be applied to inscriptions on boulders and on bedrock. The tradition began in the 4th century and lasted into the 12th century, but most of the runestones date from the late Viking Age.
Most runestones are located in Scandinavia, but there are also scattered runestones in locations that were visited by Norsemen during the Viking Age. Runestones are often memorials to dead men. Runestones were usually brightly coloured when erected, though this is no longer evident as the colour has worn off.
The tradition of raising stones that had runic inscriptions first appeared in the 4th and 5th century, in Norway and Sweden, and these early runestones were usually placed next to graves. The earliest Danish runestones appeared in the 8th and 9th centuries, and there are about 50 runestones from the Migration Period in Scandinavia. Most runestones were erected during the period 950-1100 CE, and then they were mostly raised in Sweden, and to a lesser degree in Denmark and Norway.
The tradition is mentioned in both Ynglinga saga and Hávamál:
For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone, a custom that remained long after Odin’s time.
- —The Ynglinga saga
What may have increased the spread of runestones was an event in Denmark in the 960s. King Harald Bluetooth had just been baptised and in order to mark the arrival of a new order and a new age, he commanded the construction of a runestone. The inscription reads
The runestone has three sides of which two are decorated with images. On one side, there is an animal that is the prototype of the runic animals that would be commonly engraved on runestones, and on another side there is Denmark’s oldest depiction of Jesus. Shortly after this stone had been made, something happened in Scandinavia’s runic tradition. Scores of chieftains and powerful Norse clans consciously tried to imitate King Harald, and from Denmark a runestone wave spread northwards through Sweden. In most districts, the fad died out after a generation, but, in the central Swedish provinces of Uppland and Södermanland, the fashion lasted into the 12th century.
There are about 3,000 runestones among the about 6,000 runic inscriptions in Scandinavia. There are also runestones in other parts of the world as the tradition of raising runestones followed the Norsemen wherever they went, from the Isle of Man (Manx Runestones) in the west to the Black Sea in the east (Berezan’ Runestone), and from Jämtland in the north to Schleswig in the south.
The runestones are unevenly distributed in Scandinavia: Denmark has 250 runestones, Norway has 50 while Iceland has none. Sweden has as many as between 1,700 and 2,500 depending on definition. The Swedish district of Uppland has the highest concentration with as many as 1,196 inscriptions in stone, whereas Södermanland is second with 391.
Effect of religion
In many districts, 50% of the stone inscriptions have traces of Christianity, but, in Uppland, which has the highest concentration of runic inscriptions in the world, about 70% of the 1,196 stone inscriptions are explicitly Christian, which is shown by engraved crosses or added Christian prayers, and only a few runestones are not Christian.
Scholars have suggested that the reason why so many Christian runestones were raised in Uppland is that the district was the focal point in the conflict between Norse paganism and the newly Christianized King of Sweden. It is possible that the chieftains tried to demonstrate their allegiance to the king and to display their Christian faith to the world and to God by adding Christian crosses and prayers on their runestones. What speaks against this theory is the fact that Norway, Denmark, and Götaland did not have any corresponding development in the runestone tradition. Moreover, not a single runestone declares that there was any relationship towards the king. Additionally, the runestones appear to show that the conversion was a rather peaceful process.
According to another theory, it was a social fashion that was popular among certain clans, but not among all of them. Once some clans in southern Uppland had begun to raise runestones, neighbouring clans emulated them. However, in parts where these clans were less influential, the runestone raising did not reach the same popularity. Several scholars have pointed out the long Viking expeditions and the considerable amassment of wealth in the district. At this time, Swedish chieftains near Stockholm had created considerable fortunes through trade and pillaging both in the East and in the West. They had seen the Danish Jelling stones or they had been inspired by Irish high crosses and other monuments.
The runestones show the different ways in which Christianity changed Norse society, and one of the greatest changes involved no longer burying the deceased on the clan’s grave field among his ancestors. Instead, he was buried in the cemetery of the church, while the runestone would serve as a memorial at the homestead, but for certain families, there was less change as they had churches built adjoining the family grave field.
The main purpose of a runestone was to mark territory, to explain inheritance, to boast about constructions, to bring glory to dead kinsmen and to tell of important events. In some parts of Uppland, the runestones also appear to have functioned as social and economical markers.
Virtually all the runestones from the late Viking Age make use of the same formula. The text tells in memory of whom the runestone is raised, who raised it, and often how the deceased and the one who raised the runestone are related to each other. Also, the inscription can tell the social status of the dead person, possible foreign voyage, place of death, and also a prayer, as in the following example, the Lingsberg Runestone U 241:
Most runestones were raised by men and only one runestone in eight is raised by a single woman, while at least 10% are raised by a woman together with several men. It is common that the runestones were raised by sons and widows of the deceased, but they could also be raised by sisters and brothers. It is almost only in Uppland, Södermanland, and Öland that women raised runestones together with male relatives. It is not known why many people such as sisters, brothers, uncles, parents, housecarls, and business partners can be enumerated on runestones, but it is possible that it is because they are part of the inheritors.
A vast majority, 94%, are raised in memory of men, but, contrary to common perception, the vast majority of the runestones are raised in memory of people who died at home. The most famous runestones and those that people tend to think of are those that tell of foreign voyages, but they comprise only c. 10% of all runestones, and they were raised in usually memory of those not having returned from Viking expeditions and not as tributes to those having returned. These runestones contain roughly the same message as the majority of the runestones, which is that people wanted to commemorate one or several dead kinsmen.
Expeditions in the East
The first man who scholars know fell on the eastern route was the East Geat Eyvindr whose fate is mentioned on the 9th century Kälvesten Runestone. The epitath reads:
It is unfortunate for historians that the stones rarely reveal where the men died. On the Smula Runestone in Västergötland, we are informed only that they died during a war campaign in the East: “Gulli/Kolli raised this stone in memory of his wife’s brothers Ásbjôrn and Juli, very good valiant men. And they died in the east in the retinue”. Another runemaster in the same province laconically states on the Dalum Runestone: “Tóki and his brothers raised this stone in memory of their brothers. One died in the west, another in the east”.
The single country that is mentioned on most runestone is the Byzantine Empire, which at the time comprised most of Asia Minor and the Balkans, as well as a part of Southern Italy. If a man died in the Byzantine Empire, no matter how he had died or in which province, the event was mentioned laconically as “he died in Greece”. Sometimes an exception could be made for Southern Italy, which was known as the land of the Lombards, such as Inga’s Óleifr who, it is presumed, was a member of the Varangian Guard, and about whom the Djulafors Runestone in Södermanland says: “Inga raised this stone in memory of Óleifr, her … He ploughed his stern to the east, and met his end in the land of the Lombards.”
Other Norsemen died in Gardariki (Russia and Ukraine) such as Sigviðr on the Esta Runestone who his son Ingifastr reported had fled in Novgorod (Holmgarðr): “He fell in Holmgarðr, the ship’s leader with the seamen.” There were others who died not as far from home and it appears that there were close contacts with Estonia due to many personal names such as Æistfari (“traveller to Estonia”), Æistulfr (“Wolf of Estonians”) and Æistr (“Estonian”). One of the runestones that report of deaths in Estonia is the Ängby Runestone which tells that a Björn had died in Vironia (Virland).
There were many ways to die as reported by the runestones. The Åda Runestone reports that Bergviðr drowned during a voyage to Livonia, and the Sjonhem Runestone tells that the Gotlander Hróðfúss was killed in a treacherous way by what was probably a people in the Balkans. The most famous runestones that tell of eastern voyages are the Ingvar Runestones which tell of Ingvar the Far-Travelled’s expedition to Serkland, i.e., the Muslim world. It ended in tragedy as none of the more than 25 runestones that were raised in its memory tells of any survivor.
Expeditions in the West
Other Vikings travelled westwards. The Anglo-Saxon rulers paid large sums, Danegelds, to Vikings, who mostly came from Denmark and who arrived to the English shores during the 990s and the first decades of the 11th century. What may be part of a Danegeld has been found submerged in a creek in Södra Betby in Södermanland, Sweden. At the location, there is also a runestone with the text: “[…] raise the stone in memory of Jôrundr, his son, who was in the west with Ulfr, Hákon’s son.” It is not unlikely that the voyage westwards is connected with the English silver treasure. Other runestones are more explicit with the Danegelds. Ulf of Borresta who lived in Vallentuna travelled westwards several times, as reported on the Yttergärde Runestone:
Tosti may have been the Swedish chieftain Skoglar Tosti who is otherwise only mentioned by Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla and who Snorri reports to have been a “great warrior” who “was out for long periods of time on war expeditions”. Þorketill was Thorkell the Tall, one of the most famous Viking chieftains, and who often stayed in England. Knútr is no one else but Canute the Great, who became king of England in 1016.
Canute sent home most of the Vikings who had helped him conquer England, but he kept a strong bodyguard, the Þingalið. It was considered to be a great honour to be part of this force, and, on the Häggeby Runestone in Uppland, it is reported that Geiri “sat in the Assembly’s retinue in the west”, and the Landeryd Runestone mentions Þjalfi “who was with Knútr”. Some Swedish Vikings wanted nothing else but to travel with Danes such as Thorkell and Canute the Great, but they did not make it to their destinations. Sveinn, who came from Husby-Sjuhundra in Uppland, died when he was half-way to England, as explained on the runestone that was raised in his memory: “He died in Jútland. He meant to travel to England”. Other Vikings, such as Guðvér did not only attack England, but also Saxony, as reported by the Grinda Runestone in Södermanland:
There are in total about 30 runestones that tell of people who went to England, see the England Runestones. Some of them are very laconic and only tell that the Viking was buried in London, or in Bath, Somerset.
Swedish men who travelled to Denmark, England, or Saxony and the Byzantine Empire played an important part in the introduction of Christianity in Sweden, and two runestones tell of men baptized in Denmark, such as the runestone in Amnö, which says “He died in christening robes in Denmark.” A similar message is given on another runestone in Vallentuna near Stockholm that tells that two sons waited until they were on their death beds before they converted: “They died in (their) christening robes.” Christening robes or baptismal clothes, hvitavaðir, were given to pagan Scandinavians when they were baptized, and in Uppland there are at least seven stones that tell of convertees having died in such robes.
The language used by the missionaries appears on several runestones, and they suggest that the missionaries used a rather uniform language when they preached. The expression “light and paradise” is presented on three runestones, of which two are located in Uppland and a third on the Danish island Bornholm. The runestone U 160 in Risbyle says “May God and God’s mother help his spirit and soul; grant him light and paradise.” and the Bornholm runestone also appeals to Saint Michael: “May Christ and Saint Michael help the souls of Auðbjôrn and Gunnhildr into light and paradise.”
Christian terminology was superimposed on the earlier pagan, and so Paradise substituted Valhalla, invocations to Thor and magic charms were replaced with Saint Michael, Christ, God, and the Mother of God. Saint Michael, who was the leader of the army of Heaven, subsumed Odin’s role as the psychopomp, and led the dead Christians to “light and paradise”. There are invocations to Saint Michael on one runestone in Uppland, one on Gotland, on three on Bornholm and on one on Lolland.
There is also the Bogesund runestone that testifies to the change that people were no longer buried at the family’s grave field: “He died in Eikrey(?). He is buried in the churchyard.”
Other types of runestones
Another interesting class of runestone is rune-stone-as-self promotion. Bragging was a virtue in Norse society, a habit in which the heroes of sagas often indulged, and is exemplified in runestones of the time. Hundreds of people had stones carved with the purpose of advertising their own achievements or positive traits. A few examples will suffice:
It appears from the imagery of the Swedish runestones that the most popular Norse legend in the area was that of Sigurd the dragon slayer. He is depicted on several runestones, but the most famous of them is the Ramsund inscription. The inscription itself is of a common kind that tells of the building of a bridge, but the ornamentation shows Sigurd sitting in a pit thrusting his sword, forged by Regin, through the body of the dragon, which also forms the runic band in which the runes are engraved. In the left part of the inscription lies Regin, who is beheaded with all his smithying tools around him. To the right of Regin, Sigurd is sitting and he has just burnt his thumb on the dragon’s heart that he is roasting. He is putting the thumb in his mouth and begins to understand the language of the marsh-tits that are sitting in the tree. They warn him of Regin’s schemes. Sigurd’s horse Grani is also shown tethered to the tree.
Another important personage from the legend of the Nibelungs is Gunnarr. On the Västerljung Runestone, there are three sides and one of them shows a man whose arms and legs are encircled by snakes. He is holding his arms stretched out gripping an object that may be a harp, but that part is damaged due to flaking. The image appears to be depicting an older version of the Gunnarr legend in which he played the harp with his fingers, which appears in the archaic eddic poem Atlakviða.
The Norse god who was most popular was Thor, and the Altuna Runestone in Uppland shows Thor’s fishing expedition when he tried to capture the Midgard Serpent. Two centuries later, the Icelander Snorri Sturluson would write: “The Midgarth Serpent bit at the ox-head and the hook caught in the roof of its mouth. When it felt that, it started so violently that both Thor’s fists went smack against the gunwale. Then Thor got angry, assumed all his godly strength, and dug his heels so sturdily that his feet went right through the bottom of the boat and he braced them on the sea bed.” (Jansson’s translation). The Altuna Runestone has also included the foot that went through the planks.
It appears that Ragnarök is depicted on the Ledberg stone in Östergötland. On one of its sides it shows a large warrior with a helmet, and who is bitten at his feet by a beast. This beast is, it is presumed, Fenrir, the brother of the Midgard Serpent, and who is attacking Odin. On the bottom of the illustration, there is a prostrate man who is holding out his hands and who has no legs. There is a close parallel from an illustration at Kirk Douglas on the Isle of Man. The Manx illustration shows Odin with a spear and with one of his ravens on his shoulders, and Odin is attacked in the same way as he is on the Ledberg stone. Adding to the stone’s spiritual content is a magic formula that was known all across the world of the pagan Norsemen.
On one of the stones from the Hunnestad Monument in Scania, there is an image of a woman riding a wolf using snakes as reins. The stone may be an illustration of the giantess Hyrrokin (“fire-wrinkled”), who was summoned by the gods to help launch Baldr’s funeral ship Hringhorni, which was too heavy for them. It was the same kind of wolf that is referred to as the “Valkyrie horse” on the Rök Runestone.
Today, most runestones are painted with falu red, since the colour red makes it easy to discern the ornamentation, and it is appropriate since red paint was also used on runes during the Viking Age. In fact, one of the Old Norse words for “writing in runes” was fá and it originally meant “to paint” in Proto-Norse (faihian). Moreoever, in Hávamál, Odin says: “So do I write / and colour the runes” and in Guðrúnarkviða II, Gudrun says “In the cup were runes of every kind / Written and reddened, I could not read them”.
There are several runestones where it is declared that they were originally painted. A runestone in Södermanland says “Here shall these stones stand, reddened with runes”, a second runestone in the same province says “Ásbjörn carved and Ulfr painted” and a third runestone in Södermanland says “Ásbjôrn cut the stone, painted as a marker, bound with runes”. Sometimes, the original colours have been preserved unusually well, and especially if the runestones were used as construction material in churches not very long after they had been made. One runestone in the church of Köping on Öland was discovered to be painted all over, and the colour of the words was alternating between black and red.
The most common paints were red ochre, red lead, soot, calcium carbonate, and other earth colours, which were bound with fat and water. It also appears that the Vikings imported white lead, green malachite and blue azurite from Continental Europe. By using an electron microscope, chemists have been able to analyse traces of colours on runestones, and in one case, they discovered bright red vermilion, which was an imported luxury colour. However, the dominating colours were white and red lead. There are even accounts where runes were reddened with blood as in Grettis saga, where the Völva Þuríðr cut runes on a tree root and coloured them with her own blood to kill Grettir, and in Egils saga where Egill Skallagrímsson cut ale runes on a drinking horn and painted them with his own blood to see if the drink was poisoned.
The exposed runestones face several threats to the inscribed rock surface.
In Sweden, lichen grows at approximately 2 mm (1⁄16 in) per year. In more ideal conditions it can grow considerably faster. Many runestones are placed alongside roads and road dust causes lichen to grow faster, making lichen a major problem. The lichen’s small root strands break through the rock, and blast off tiny pieces, making the rock porous, and over time degrade the inscriptions. Algae and moss also cause the rock to become porous and crumble.
Water entering the cracks and crevices of the stone can cause whole sections to fall off either by freezing or by a combination of dirt, organic matter, and moisture, which can cause a hollowing effect under the stone surface.
Proper preservation techniques slow down the rate of degradation. One method to combat the lichen, algae and moss problem is to smear in fine grained moist clay over the entire stone. This is then left to sit for a few weeks, which suffocates the organic matter and kills it.
I purchased a reproduction Cnut Viking penny from Amazon this week. I had been forewarned that this is a single penny and not a set. The Amazon style of advertising is a little misleading and you could be forgiven for thinking that you are purchasing more than one coin.
Nevertheless, the packaging is professional and the coin is good quality and makes a nice display piece if you are interested in the period.
Amazon describes this product as;
The coin replica has the crowned bust of Cnut on the obverse and a long cross on the reverse.
Viking is an umbrella term for a range of people, mostly from the East of England, either from Scandinavian countries or further away. Amongst them were pirates, travelling tribes, individual explorers and warriors and very often traders and merchants. Best known are, of course, those who pillared the English cost, although more influential were those who traded and finally settled along the cost of England, Scotland and even other coasts of northern Europe. The pirate problem is as old as history, but Vikings refers to the period of the Middle Ages from around the period of Charlemagne in the 8th c. and William the Conqueror in the 11th. c. Famous amongst the kings who had to deal with the Vikings is around the turn of the millenium the Saxon Aethelred. He tried to keep the Vikings out of the country by paying them money, the famous ‘Danegeld’. Nevertheless, the people from Denmark and their King Sweyn Forkbeard set for England in 1013 and made his son Cnut the emperor there by incorporating England into his own empire.
The coin pack costs £3.99 with free shipping in the UK and $10.12 + $6.00 shipping if purchased in the US.
Norse activity in the British Isles occurred during the Early Medieval period when members of the Norse populations of Scandinavia travelled to Britain and Ireland to settle, trade or raid. The Norse peoples who came to the British Isles have been generally referred to as Vikings, but it is a matter of debate if the term Viking represented all Norse settlers or just those who raided.
At the start of the Early Medieval period, Norse kingdoms of Scandinavia had developed trade links across southern Europe and the Mediterranean, giving them access to foreign imports such as silver, gold, bronze and spices. These trade links also extended westward into Ireland and the British Isles.
In the last decade of the 8th century AD, Norse raiders sacked a series of Christian monasteries located in what is now the United Kingdom, beginning in 793, with a raid on the coastal monastery of Lindisfarne on the east coast of England. The following year they sacked the nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, and in 795 they attacked again, raiding Iona Abbey on Scotland’s west coast.
During the Early Medieval period, Ireland and Britain were culturally, linguistically and religiously divided into various peoples. The languages of the Celtic Britons and Gaels were descended from the Celtic languages spoken by those of Iron Age Europe.
In Ireland, parts of western Scotland, as well as the Isle of Man, people were speaking an early form of Gaelic known as Old Irish. There may have been another pre-Indo-European language spoken by the Erainn up until the 8th century in what is today Kerry, but this is likely to have been Celtic or some other Indo-European language.
In Western Britain, which includes; Cornwall, Cumbria, Wales, and Southwest Scotland, the Celtic Brythonic languages were spoken, with modern descendants such as Welsh and Cornish still being used. In Northern Britain, past the Forth and Clyde rivers which constitutes a large portion of modern-day Scotland, dwelled the Picts who spoke the Pictish language.
Due to the scarcity of writing in Pictish, all of which can be found in Ogham, views are conflicted as to whether Pictish was Celtic like the southernly languages, or perhaps even a non-Indo-European language like Basque. However, most inscriptions and place names hint towards the Picts being Celtic in language and culture.
Most peoples of Britain and Ireland had already predominantly converted to Christianity from their older, pre-Christian polytheistic religions. In contrast to the rest of the isles though, much of southern Britain was considered to be part of Anglo-Saxon England, where Anglo-Saxon migrants from continental Europe had settled during the 5th century CE, bringing with them their own Germanic language (known as Old English), a polytheistic religion (Anglo-Saxon paganism) and their own distinct cultural practices. By the time of the Viking incursions though, Anglo-Saxon England had too become mostly Christian.
The Isle of Man had supported its own agrarian population, but it is widely believed that it was Brythonic-speaking before Old Irish (later to become Manx) spread there. Gaelicisation could have taken place before the Viking age or perhaps during it, when the area was settled by Norse-Gaels who practised their own culture.
In northern Britain, in the area roughly corresponding to modern-day Scotland, lived three distinct ethnic groups in their own respective kingdoms; the Picts, Scots and Britons. The Pictish cultural group dominated the majority of Scotland, with major populations concentrated between the Firth of Forth and the River Dee, as well as in Sutherland, Caithness, and Orkney.
The Scots were, according to written sources, a tribal group which had crossed to Britain from Dalriada in the north of Ireland during the late 5th century. Archaeologists have not been able to identify anything that was unique to the kingdom of the Scots, noting similarities with the Picts in most forms of material culture. The Britons were those dwelling in the Old North, in parts of what have become southern Scotland and northern England, and by the 7th or 8th centuries, had apparently come under the political control of the Anglo-Saxons.
By the mid-9th century, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into four separate and independent kingdoms; East Anglia, Wessex, Northumbria, and Mercia, the latter of which was the strongest military power. Between half a million and a million people lived in England at this time, with society being rigidly hierarchical. This class system had a king and his ealdormen at the top, under whom were the thegns, or landholders, and then the various forms of agricultural workers below them.
Beneath all of these was a class of slaves, who may have made up as much as a quarter of the population. The majority of the populace lived in the countryside, although a few large towns had developed, namely London and York, which were centres of royal and ecclesiastical administration. There was also a number of trading ports, such as Hamwic and Ipswich, where foreign trade took place .
Society in 8th century Scandinavia was, unlike parts of the British Isles, still pre-literate, existing in the final stages of European prehistory, known to archaeologists as the Iron Age. In Scandinavia, the 8th century proved to be “a period of rapid technological, economic and social development” which would lead the region out of the Iron Age and into what has come to be known as the Viking Age.
At the start of the Early Mediaeval period, the Norse populations saw themselves primarily as inhabitants of specific locations, such as Jutland, Vestfold and Hordaland. It would only be in the later centuries that the national identities would develop amongst the Scandinavians, dividing them into such national groups as the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.
The Late Iron Age peoples of Scandinavia had not yet been converted to Christianity as the peoples of Britain and Ireland had, and instead followed Norse paganism, a polytheistic set of beliefs that revered such deities as Odin, Thor, Frey and Freyja.
Scandinavian society was heavily dependent on fishing herring, and when that failed, the seafaring Norse sailors turned to navigating around much of Europe during the Early Mediaeval period. The Norse populations of Scandinavia had developed trade links with many areas of Europe, obtaining large quantities of gold in the late 5th century, most of which had been found in Sweden, and to a lesser extent, Norway.
In the final decade of the 8th century AD, Norse raiders attacked a series of Christian monasteries located in the British Isles. In the British Isles, Christian monasteries had often been positioned on small islands and in other remote coastal areas so that the monks could dwell there in seclusion, devoting themselves to worship without the interference of other elements of society.
At the same time, it made them isolated and unprotected targets for attack. Historian Peter Hunter Blair remarked that the Viking raiders would have been astonished “at finding so many communities which housed considerable wealth and whose inhabitants carried no arms.” These raids would have been the first contact many Norsemen had with Christianity, but such attacks were not specifically anti-Christian in nature, rather the monasteries were simply seen as ‘easy targets’ for raiders.
Archbishop Alcuin of York on the sacking of Lindisfarne.
The first known account of a Viking raid taking place in Anglo-Saxon England comes from 789, when three ships from Hordaland (in modern Norway) landed in the Isle of Portland on the southern coast of Wessex. They were approached by the royal reeve from Dorchester, whose job it was to identify all foreign merchants entering the kingdom, and they proceeded to kill him. It is likely that other raids (the records for which have since been lost) occurred soon after, for in 792 King Offa of Mercia began to make arrangements for the defence of Kent from raids perpetrated by “pagan peoples”.
The next recorded attack against the Anglo-Saxons came the following year, in 793, when the monastery at Lindisfarne, an island off England’s eastern coast, was sacked by a Viking raiding party on 8 June. The following year they sacked the nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey.
In 795 they once again attacked, this time raiding Iona Abbey on Scotland’s west coast. This monastery would be attacked again in 802 and 806, when 68 people dwelling there were killed. Following such devastation, the monastic community at Iona abandoned the site and fled instead to Kells in Ireland.
In the first decade of the 9th century AD, Viking raiders began to attack coastal districts along Ireland. In 835, the first major Viking raid in southern England took place and was directed against the Isle of Sheppey.
Various hoards of treasure were buried in England at this time, some of which may have been deposited by Anglo-Saxons attempting to hide their wealth from Viking raiders, and some of which may have instead been buried by the Viking raiders themselves as a way of protecting their looted treasure.
One of these hoards, discovered in Croydon (historically part of Surrey, now part of Greater London) in 1862, contained 250 coins, three silver ingots and part of a fourth as well as four pieces of hack silver in a linen bag. Archaeologists interpret this as loot collected by a member of the Viking army. By dating the artefacts, archaeologists came to believe that it was likely that this hoard had been buried in 872, when the army wintered in London.
The coins themselves came from a wide range of different kingdoms, with Wessex, Mercian and East Anglian examples found alongside foreign imports from Carolingian-dynasty Francia and from the Arab world. Not all such Viking hoards in England contain coins, however – for example, at Bowes Moor, Durham, 19 silver ingots were discovered, whilst at Orton Scar, Cumbria, a silver neck-ring and penannular brooch were uncovered.
The historian Peter Hunter Blair believed that the success of the Viking raids and the “complete unpreparedness of Britain to meet such attacks” became major factors in the subsequent Norse invasions and colonisation of large parts of the British Isles.
From 865 the Norse attitude towards the British Isles changed, as they began to see it as a place for potential colonisation rather than simply a place to raid. As a result of this, larger armies began arriving on Britain’s shores, with the intention of conquering land and constructing settlements there.
In 866, Norse armies captured York, one of the two major cities in Anglo-Saxon England. In 871, King Æthelred of Wessex, who had been leading the conflict against the Vikings, died and was succeeded to the throne by his younger brother, Alfred the Great. Meanwhile, many Anglo-Saxon kings began to capitulate to the Viking demands, and handed over land to the invading Norse settlers. In 876, the Northumbrian monarch Healfdene gave up his lands to them, and in the next four years they gained further land in the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia as well. King Alfred continued his conflict with the invading forces, but was driven back into Somerset in the south-west of his kingdom in 878, where he was forced to take refuge in the marshes of Athelney.
Alfred regrouped his military forces and defeated the armies of the Norse monarch of East Anglia, Guthrum, at the Battle of Edington. Following Guthrum’s defeat, in 886 the Treaty of Wedmore was signed between the (Norse-controlled) East Anglian and Wessex governments that established a boundary between the two kingdoms.
The area to the north and east of this boundary became known as the Danelaw because it was under the control of Norse political influence, whilst those areas south and west of it remained under Anglo-Saxon dominance. Alfred’s government set about constructing a series of defended towns or burhs, began the construction of a navy and organised a militia system whereby half of his peasant army remained on active service.
Although there were continuous attacks on Wessex by new Viking armies, the kingdom’s new defences proved a success and in 896 the invaders dispersed, instead settling in East Anglia and Northumbria, with some instead sailing to Normandy.
Alfred’s policy of opposing the Viking settlers was continued under the regime of his daughter Æthelflæd, who married Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia, and also under the regime of her brother Edward the Elder. In 920 the Northumbrian government and the Scots governments both submitted to the military power of Wessex, and in 937 the Battle of Brunanburh led to the collapse of Norse power in northern Britain. In 954 Erik Bloodaxe, the last Norse King of York, was expelled from the city.
The early Norse settlers in Anglo-Saxon England would have appeared visibly different from the Anglo-Saxon populace, wearing specifically Scandinavian styles of jewellery, and probably also wearing their own peculiar styles of clothing as well. There was also a difference in the style of hair worn by Norse and Anglo-Saxon men, with the former typically wearing a hair style that was shaved at the back and left shaggy on the front, whilst in contrast to this the latter typically wore their hair long.
Under the reign of Wessex King Edgar the Peaceful, England came to be further politically unified, with Edgar coming to be recognized as the king of all England by both Anglo-Saxon and Norse populations living in the country. However, under the regimes of his son Edward the Martyr, who was murdered in 978, and then Æthelred the Unready, the political strength of the English monarchy waned, and in 980 Viking raiders from Scandinavia once more started making attacks against England.
The English government decided that the only way of dealing with these attackers was to pay them protection money, and so in 991 they gave them £10,000. This fee did not prove to be enough, and over the next decade the English kingdom was forced to pay the Viking attackers increasingly large sums of money. Many English began to demand that a more hostile approach be taken against the Vikings, and so, on St Brice’s Day in 1002, King Æthelred proclaimed that all Danes living in England would be executed. It would come to be known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre.
The news of the massacre reached King Sweyn Forkbeard in Denmark. It is believed that Sweyn’s sister Gunhilde could have been among the victims, which prompted Sweyn to raid England the following year where Exeter was burned down. Hampshire, Wiltshire, Wilton and Salisbury also became victims to the viking revenge attack. Sweyn continued his raid in England and in 1004 his viking army looted East Anglia, plundered Thetford and sacked Norwich, before he once again returned to Denmark.
Further raids took place in 1006–1007, and in 1009–1012 Thorkell the Tall led a Viking invasion into England.
In 1013 Sweyn Forkbeard returned to invade England with a large army, and Æthelred fled to Normandy, leading Sweyn to take the English throne. Sweyn died within a year however, and so Æthelred returned, but in 1016 another Norse army invaded, this time under the control of the Danish King Cnut son of Sweyn Forkbeard. After defeating Anglo–Saxon forces at the Battle of Assandun, Cnut became king of England, subsequently ruling over both the Danish and English kingdoms. Following Cnut’s death in 1035, the two kingdoms were once more declared independent and remained so apart from a short period from 1040 to 1042 when Cnut’s son Harthacnut ascended the English throne.
The Battle of Fulford took place at Fulford near York, on 20 September 1066, when an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and Tostig Godwinson, his English ally, fought and defeated the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar. When King Harold II of England heard of this defeat he marched his English army from the south coast of England to meet the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place near the village of Stamford, East Riding of Yorkshire in England on 25 September 1066. The Norwegian invasion was repelled but before the English Army had fully recovered, the Normans—under the leadership of Duke William II of Normandy (William the Conqueror)—invaded Anglo-Saxon England. William defeated Harold II of England’s army at the Battle of Hastings.
Archaeologists James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey noted that there was a lack of historical sources discussing the earliest Viking encounters with the British Isles, which would have most probably been amongst the northern island groups, those closest to Scandinavia.
The Irish Annals provide us with accounts of much Norse activity during the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Viking raids that affected Anglo-Saxon England were primarily documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals initially written in the late 9th century, most probably in the Kingdom of Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great. The Chronicle is however a biased source, acting as a piece of “wartime propaganda” written on behalf of the Anglo-Saxon forces against their Norse opponents, and in many cases greatly exaggerates the size of the Norse fleets and armies, thereby making any Anglo-Saxon victories against them seem more heroic.
The Norse settlers in the British Isles left remains of their material culture behind, which archaeologists have been able to excavate and interpret during the 20th and 21st centuries. Such Norse evidence in Britain consists primarily of Norse burials undertaken in Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, the Isle of Man, Ireland and the north-west of England. Archaeologists James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey remarked that it was on the Isle of Man where Norse archaeology was “remarkably rich in quality and quantity”.
However, as archaeologist Julian D. Richards commented, Scandinavians in Anglo-Saxon England “can be elusive to the archaeologist” because many of their houses and graves are indistinguishable from those of the other populations living in the country. For this reason, historian Peter Hunter Blair noted that in Britain, the archaeological evidence for Norse invasion and settlement was “very slight compared with the corresponding evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasions” of the 5th century.
Draken Harald Hårfagre brings the seafaring qualities of a warship from the old Norse sagas to life. It is a ship that combines ocean-crossing sailing capabilities with a warship’s use of oars.
Building began in March 2010. Construction was funded by Sigurd Aase, described as a “Norwegian oil and gas tycoon.”
The longship is a ’25-sesse’ (25 pairs of oars) – in other words, it is equipped with 50 oars. Each oar is powered by two men. Under sail it requires a crew of 30 people.
Draken Harald Hårfagre is 35 metres (115 ft) long with a beam of approximately 8 metres (26 ft) and a displacement of about 95 metric tons. The longship is constructed in oak and carries 260 square metres (2,800 sq ft) of sail.
Draken Harald Hårfagre is the largest Viking ship built in modern times. In the Viking age, an attack carried out from the ocean would be in the form of a “Strandhogg”, i.e. hit and run tactics, being highly mobile. By the High Middle Ages the ships changed shapes to become larger and heavier with platforms in the front and back. This was done for the sake of sea battles, that made it possible to board ships that lay alongside each other. In the 13th century, this tactic was well known and widely used in Scandinavia. The law of the land in those days (Norwegian: Gulatingsloven) included standards that required Norwegian provinces (fylker) to cooperate in supplying 116 such warships of 50 oars size (Norwegian: 25-sesser) (25 pairs of oars) for duty in the Norwegian fleet of warships.
Copies of Viking ships are usually based on interpretations of archaeological material. But in the construction of Draken Harald Hårfagre an alternative method has been used. It was decided to begin with the living tradition of Norwegian boatbuilding, with roots that can be traced directly to the Viking Age. The foremost Norwegian traditional boat builders are involved in the project. Their knowledge of traditional boatbuilding is supplemented with the results of investigations carried out on archaeological material, source material in Norse literature, literature from the same period from foreign sources, iconographic material, etc. The goal of the project is to recreate in this manner an oceangoing warship of 50 oars taken right out of the Norse Sagas.
The launching of the longship took place in the summer 2012. Because no one today has real experience handling a Viking ship of this size, the initial period was one of exploring how to sail and row the ship, and for experimentation with the rigging along the coast of Norway.
In summer 2014, skippered by Swedish captain Björn Ahlander, the longship made its first real expedition, a 3-week passage under sail from Norway to Merseyside. There it was hosted by the Liverpool Victoria Rowing Club. It also visited various other locations around the coast of the British Isles including the Isle of Man, Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.
The ship left its home port of Haugesund, Norway on the 26th of April, 2016, bound for Newfoundland, the aim being to explore and retrace the first transatlantic crossing and the Viking discovery of the New World. The route included stops at the Shetland and Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, before landfall on Newfoundland was finally achieved on the 1st of June that year. Future stops are planned along the Atlantic Canadian and American coast.
The schedule of the voyage is:
In mid-July 2016 doubts were raised about the ship’s ability to visit US destinations in the Great Lakes. The U.S. Coast Guard deemed it a commercial vessel, requiring a pilot per a 1960 law. The total cost of piloting was estimated at $400,000. Sons of Norway raised over $60,000 in order to help pay the pilot fees. On 4 August 2016 Viking Kings issued a press release declaring that Green Bay would be the ship’s last stop in the Great Lakes, planning to make its next stop in New York in September.