Viking Raids and Warfare

A map of Viking raids and settlements by Max Naylor

While the Vikings were certainly more than just raiders and fighters, their war-related activities are justifiably central to our modern image of what the Vikings were, since it was their marvelous successes in battle and piracy that set the Viking Age (roughly 793-1066 AD) apart from the periods that came before it and after it.[1]

Medieval Europe was quite violent across the board, and the Vikings’ raids and conquests should be understood in that context. They didn’t occur in a “peaceful vacuum,” but were instead part of the constant back-and-forth of medieval warfare.[2] By the standards of their time, the Vikings weren’t exceptional for their savagery; in fact, they would have been exceptional if they hadn’t been so savage.

Nevertheless, the Vikings were without a doubt exceptionally good at what they did. Over the course of the Viking Age, the Scandinavians came to occupy large swaths of Europe, and plundered much of the rest. Their accomplishments were the subject of awe and fear among the other Europeans of the time. By the end of this article, you’ll understand why.

The Vikings’ Motivations

Lots of theories have been proposed in an attempt to explain this tremendous outpouring of military exuberance from Scandinavia during the Viking Age.

Some have speculated that the Vikings had run out of vital resources in their homelands, and needed to expand abroad in order to procure such necessities for survival as food and arable land. But no such population pressures existed in Scandinavia in the Viking Age, so this theory holds little weight.[3][4]

Similarly unconvincing is the idea that the Viking raids were somehow religiously motivated – pagan retaliations for attempts to convert Scandinavia to Christianity. No missionaries – let alone Christianizing armies of the sort led by Charlemagne against the Saxons – were at work in Scandinavia until centuries after the first big waves of Viking raids.[5] Even though the force of the Viking raids fell disproportionately on monasteries and churches, this doesn’t indicate any particular hostility toward Christianity on the Vikings’ part; instead, it’s a simple reflection of the fact that so much unprotected wealth happened to be stored in monasteries and other religious centers.[6]

Instead, the Viking incursions seem to have begun for three reasons. The first two are closely related. Norse poets of the Viking Age tell us that the desires for wealth and social stature were the primary motivations behind the Vikings’ military activities.[7] That’s how the Vikings themselves thought of what they were doing.

Modern historians agree that this self-image reflects reality. The Vikings – like virtually all peoples, past and present – prized wealth very highly for its own sake. They habitually accepted tribute peacefully offered by their would-be victims rather than engaging them in battle, which shows that it was wealth that they were really after, and fighting was primarily a means to that end.[8] This wealth came in both portable form (silver, gold, etc.) and non-portable form (land).[9]

Closely tied to the desire for wealth was the desire for honor, prestige, and power. Viking chieftains obtained and enhanced their power by generously dispensing their wealth to the warriors who fought for them in battle. Chieftains who had more wealth could afford to be more generous with their fighters, which made those fighters more loyal and encouraged new recruits to join the chieftain’s band. This increased the chieftain’s ability to win battles, which provided more plunder for him to dispense, and so on, in a self-perpetuating cycle. Both the chieftain and his warriors thereby became more powerful and more honorable.[10][11][12]

A third factor that led the Norse to start raiding throughout Europe in the late eighth century was the adoption of new kinds of ships. While the Scandinavians had always been a maritime people due to the geography of their homelands, it wasn’t until the eighth century that they began building ships with sails. This and other technological improvements made it more logistically feasible for chieftains and their followers to set out to faraway lands in search of plunder.[13]

The Vikings’ Tactics

Vikings invading England (from a 12th-century manuscript)

The quintessential Viking strategy was to show up at a town or monastery suddenly and without warning, loot anything they could get their hands on in short order, and then vanish in their ships before the local military forces could be mustered against them.[14][15]

Over the course of the Viking Age, raids of this sort increased greatly in scale. Early raids involved a handful of ships under the command of chieftains whose power was relatively modest. As the power of the most successful chieftains grew over the course of the Viking Age, however, the scale on which they were able to raid increased proportionately. Later raids – beginning in the mid-ninth century – sometimes involved hundreds of ships under the command of one or more rulers, who by this point sometimes banded together to form even more formidable armies.[16]

As the size and might of Viking armies grew, they became more ambitious. At first, they raided only in the summer, then returned to Scandinavia to enjoy their booty by their own hearth-fires. But in some cases, they eventually began overwintering in the lands they pillaged. Then they conquered those lands. Then they became permanent settlers.[17]

The peoples who were targeted by Viking raids were eventually able to fend them off by adapting to their tactics: building fortified bridges to deny the Vikings access to inland waterways, building ships to meet them in battle before they stepped foot ashore, and fortifying settlements more effectively.[18]

The Vikings in the British Isles

Now let’s look at the Vikings’ grand accomplishments in war in more detail. We’ll start with the region that was impacted more than any other by their military activities: the British Isles.

Viking raids on England began in the late eighth century, and by 792, English kings who ruled coastal areas were organizing defensive forces against, in their words, “seagoing pagans.”[19]

The raid that really established the Vikings as a force to be reckoned with, and not merely a piratical nuisance, was the attack on the Monastery of St. Cuthbert at Lindisfarne in 793. The ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us a sense of how vivid an impression the attack made on the minds of the English:

In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.[20]

Attacks by rival powers were common in England as elsewhere in Europe at the time, but what was so novel about this attack, and what so scandalized the English and other Christian Europeans, was that the raid specifically targeted a monastery, something which no Christian ruler dared to do. To the English and other the Christian Europeans, this was not a normal depredation in the back-and-forth of everyday power struggles; this was evil. The Vikings’ reputation in Christian Europe as demonic barbarians was beginning to fall into place.[21]

After this, Viking attacks on England became more common, until by 835 attacks occurred on an almost annual basis. In 851, the Vikings stayed in England over the winter for the first time. In 865, they began collecting tribute (the “Danegeld”).[22] The English paid the Danegeld in exchange for peace, but the Vikings continued to raid even so.[23]

The year 865 marked the entrance of a so-called “great heathen army” to England. It numbered perhaps two or three thousand men. After overwintering in East Anglia, in 866 the “army” captured York, the capital of the northern English kingdom of Northumbria. They placed a puppet king in control of Northumbria, raided monasteries, and established direct control over certain areas, some of which had formerly been owned by the church.[24]

The army then moved on to the other English kingdoms, conquering or making peace settlements – which obligated the local population to give the Vikings food, lodging, and such – with all of them.[25]

In 874, the “great heathen army” divided in two. Some, under the leadership of Halfdan, consolidated their control of Northumbria, and began working the land in 876. The other part of the army, led by Guthrum, Oscetel, and Anwend, turned their sights toward Wessex, the only English kingdom that remained under English rule. The Vikings conquered most of the realm, sending its king, Alfred the Great, fleeing into the marshes for refuge. But Alfred was able to amass an English army to move against the Vikings in 878, and won a decisive victory over them. The Vikings were forced to leave Wessex, and Guthrum was baptized as part of the bargain. Members of this band of the army settled and began working the land in Mercia in 877 and East Anglia in 880.[26]

In the 890s, other bands of Vikings came up from the Continent and attempted to settle in Wessex, but King Alfred repelled them all. Alfred’s successors proved to be as capable as he was, and during the early tenth century, they gradually extended their domain to encompass the rest of England. After this, control alternated between them and Vikings until 954, when rule passed back to the English.[27]

Throughout much of the ninth and tenth centuries, much of England was known as the “Danelaw” – that is, the area under the law of the “Danes.”[28] (The English tended to refer to all Scandinavians as “Danes.”) Although the Danelaw was never a unified political unit,[29] its formidable influence upon the culture and customs of the inhabitants of those regions lived on for many centuries thereafter.

After a period spent concentrating on other regions, the Vikings returned to England in the late tenth century. In the 980s, raiding recommenced, this time under the true kings who had emerged during the intervening period – figures such as Norway’s Olaf Tryggvason and Denmark’s Svein Forkbeard, who managed to amass great wealth through tribute. They raided until 1013, when Svein set out to conquer the entirety of England. He succeeded, but he died the following year. In the ensuing struggle over succession, rule returned to the English.[30]

However, Svein’s son Cnut the Great managed to re-conquer all of England in 1016. In 1027, the king of Scotland submitted to him, too. Cnut became king of Norway as well in 1028, after defeating its king, Olaf Haraldsson. When Cnut died in 1035, his empire broke up, and England returned to English rule.[31]

In 1066, the Norwegian King Harald Hardruler (Harðráði) attempted to retake England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This was the last major Viking attack on England, and Harald’s forces were thoroughly defeated by those of the English King Harold.[32]

However, this battle was decisive for the history of England in another way: the English army didn’t have time to recover its strength before having to face another invader, Duke William of Normandy. At the Battle of Hastings, the forces of William (thereafter known as “the Conqueror”) were victorious, and King Harold died in battle.[33] Norman rule was to shape England’s subsequent character even more than Viking rule had.

The first recorded Viking raid in Scotland occurred on Iona in 795, but there were undoubtedly earlier raids in the Northern Isles of Scotland, which lie between Iona and Norway on the period sea route, of which we don’t have records.[34] In the ninth century, the Norse seem to have conquered lots of already-thriving settlements in Scotland and its islands, subjugating the local populations.[35]

Viking raids on Ireland began in the 790s, but were isolated events at first. In the 830s, they became more frequent and widespread. In the 840s, the first Viking settlements were established, including the new town of Dubh-Linn (“Black Pool”) by the side of the river Liffey (modern-day Dublin). It became the capital of a new Norse kingdom, and an internationally important center of trade.[36]

In the Battle of Tara in 980, the Vikings were defeated by the Irish, and were compelled from that time forward to pay tribute to the Irish in order to remain in Ireland. But the Viking trading towns generated a great deal of wealth, so the Irish put up with the Viking presence in their midst.[37]

Continental Western Europe

The Vikings sack Paris (German magazine illustration, c. 1900)

Over the course of the Viking Age, virtually all of Europe’s western seaboard, and countless towns along the major rivers that led into the Continent, were plundered by the Vikings.[38]

Viking raids on the Frankish Empire began in earnest in 820, and by 834, attacks became a regular occurrence for a generation.[39] The Vikings plundered seemingly every city and town in the Frankish Empire that they could reach, including such centers as Rouen, Quentovic, and Nantes. In 843, they overwintered on the mainland for the first time. Paris was sacked on Easter Sunday of 845, and the Franks were obligated to pay the Vikings a hefty ransom for them to leave.[40] A Frankish monk gave the following account in the 860s:

The number of ships grows: the endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase. Everywhere the Christians are victims of massacres, burnings, plunderings: the Vikings conquer all in their path, and no one resists them: they seize Bordeaux, Périgeux, Limoges, Angoulême and Toulouse. Angers, Tours, and Orléans are annihilated and an innumerable fleet sails up the Seine and the evil grows in the whole region. Rouen is laid waste, plundered and burned: Paris, Beauvais and Meaux taken, Melun’s strong fortress leveled to the ground, Chartres occupied, Evreux and Bayeux plundered, and every town besieged.[41]

As Viking raids became more common, local kingdoms turned to granting lands at the mouths of rivers to Norse chieftains in exchange for protecting them and becoming Christians. The Frankish region of Normandy was given to the Viking chieftain Rollo in exchange for his protection of the Franks. A similar arrangement was made with the Danes Harald and Rorik with Walcheren, an island in Frisia. They became assimilated into Frankish culture.[42]

In 859, a Viking fleet led by Björn “Ironside” (Jarnsiða) and Hastein set out for the Mediterranean, where for three years they raided Spain, Italy, the Rhône valley, and North Africa. Their fortunes waxed and waned dramatically during that time. By 862, after many raids and battles, only a third of the ships and crew that had set out in 859 returned, but those who did return were massively rich. The Vikings returned to Spain to raid in the mid-tenth century, but this time with mixed success.[43][44]

Eastern Europe and Asia

The Vikings had longstanding and lucrative trade relations with the peoples who inhabited the lands to the east of Scandinavia.[45] But, as one might expect, the Vikings’ relations with them weren’t entirely peaceful, and included activities of a more military nature as well.

Vikings made up the elite warriors of the army that fought for and defended the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey). They were called “Varangians,” and although they were mercenaries, they were famed for their unwavering loyalty.[46]

In the ninth century, Vikings invaded and conquered Russia, establishing the Rurikid dynasty that ruled until the sixteenth century. They even gave Russia its name, as they were called Rus by the local Slavic inhabitants.[47]


[1] Williams, Gareth. 2012. Raiding and Warfare. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 193.

[2] Ibid. p. 195.

[3] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 51-52.

[4] Brink, Stefan. 2012. Who Were The Vikings? In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 4.

[5] Williams, Gareth. 2012. Raiding and Warfare. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 193-194.

[6] Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 19.

[7] Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 188.

[8] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 40-41.

[9] Williams, Gareth. 2012. Raiding and Warfare. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 193-194.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 51-52.

[12] Brink, Stefan. 2012. Who Were The Vikings? In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Williams, Gareth. 2012. Raiding and Warfare. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 196.

[15] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 18.

[16] Williams, Gareth. 2012. Raiding and Warfare. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 194-199.

[17] Ibid. p. 194.

[18] Ibid. p. 198-199.

[19] Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 192-193.

[20] Ibid. p. 193.

[21] Wilson, David M. 1989. The Vikings and Their Origins. p. 72-73.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 26.

[24] Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 234-237.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid. p. 239-240.

[28] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 53.

[29] Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 240-242.

[30] Ibid. p. 250-251.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 32-33.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid. p. 25.

[35] Ibid. p. 59-64.

[36] Ibid. p. 25.

[37] Ibid. p. 25-26.

[38] Wilson, David M. 1989. The Vikings and Their Origins. p. 77.

[39] Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 28.

[40] Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 197-198.

[41] Ibid. p. 199.

[42] Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World. p. 29.

[43] Ibid. p. 31.

[44] Roesdahl, Else. 1998. The Vikings. p. 200.

[45] Wilson, David M. 1989. The Vikings and Their Origins. p. 105.

[46] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 24.

[47] Ibid. p. 45-50.

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