Viking Raids - Why Did the Norse Leave Scandinavia to Roam the World?

The Vikings Had a Well-earned Reputation for Raiding and Pillaging

Norse chessmen, from a Viking hoard, Isle of Lewis, Scotland
Norse chessmen, from a Viking hoard, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

Viking raids were a characteristic of the Scandinavian early medieval pirates called the Norse or Vikings, particularly during the first 50 years of the Viking Age (~793-850). Raiding as a lifestyle was first established in Scandinavia by the 6th century, as illustrated in the epic English tale of Beowulf; contemporary sources referred to the raiders as "ferox gens" (the fierce people). The predominant theory for the reasons for the raiding is that there was a population boom, and trading networks into Europe became established, the Vikings became aware of the wealth of their neighbors, both in silver and in land.

Recent scholars are not so certain.

But there is no doubt that Viking raiding ultimately led to political conquest, settlement on a substantial scale across northern Europe, and extensive Scandinavian cultural and linguistic influences in eastern and northern England. After the raiding all but ended, the period was followed by revolutionary changes in landownership, society, and economy, including the growth of towns and industry.

Timeline of the Raids

The earliest Viking raids outside of Scandinavia were small in scope, isolated attacks on coastal targets. Led by the Norwegians, the raids were on monasteries in Northumberland on the northeast coast of England, at Lindisfarne (793), Jarrow (794) and Wearmouth (794), and at Iona in the Orkney Islands of Scotland (795). These raids were chiefly in search of portable wealth--metalwork, glass, religious texts for ransoming, and slaves--and if the Norwegians couldn't find enough in the monastery stores, they ransomed the monks themselves back to the church.

By AD 850, Vikings were over-wintering in England, Ireland, and western Europe, and by the 860s, they had established strongholds and taken land, violently expanding their landholdings. By 865, the Viking raids were larger and more substantial. The fleet of hundreds of Scandinavian warships which became known as the Great Army ("micel here" in Anglo-Saxon) arrived in England in 865 and stayed for several years, running raids on cities on both sides of the English Channel.

Eventually, the Great Army became settlers, creating the region of England known as the Danelaw. The Great Army's last battle, led by Guthrum, was in 878 when they were defeated by West Saxons under Alfred the Great at Edington in Wiltshire. That peace was negotiated with the Christian baptism of Guthrum and 30 of his warriors. After that, the Norse went to East Anglia and settled there, where Guthrum became a king in a western European style, under his baptismal name of Æthelstan (not to be confused with Athelstan).

Viking Raids to Imperialism

One reason the Viking raids succeeded so well was the comparative disarray of their neighbors. England was divided into five kingdoms when the Danish Great Army attacked; political chaos ruled the day in Ireland; the rulers of Constantinople were off fighting the Arabs, and Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire was crumbling.

One-half of England fell to the Vikings by 870. Although the Vikings living in England had become just another part of the English populace, in 980 a new wave of attacks from Norway and Denmark occurred. In 1016, King Cnut controlled all of England, Denmark, and Norway. In 1066, Harald Hardrada died at Stamford Bridge, essentially ending the Norse control of any lands outside of Scandinavia.

Evidence for the impact of the Vikings is found in place names, artifacts and other material culture, and in the DNA of today's residents all across northern Europe.

Why Did the Vikings Raid?

What drove the Norse to raid has been long debated. As summarized by British archaeologist Steven P. Ashby, the most commonly believed reason is population pressure--that the Scandinavian lands were over-populated and the excess population left to find new worlds. Other reasons discussed in the academic literature include the development of maritime technology, climatic changes, religious fatalism, political centralism, and "silver fever". Silver fever is what scholars have termed a reaction to the variable availability of Arabic silver flooding into Scandinavian markets.

Raiding in the early medieval period was widespread, not restricted to Scandinavians.

The raiding emerged in the context of a flourishing economic system in the North Sea region, based primarily on trade with Arab civilizations: Arab caliphates were producing demand for slaves and fur and trading them for silver. Ashby suggests that may have led to Scandinavia's appreciation of the increasing quantities of silver entering the Baltic and North Sea regions.

Social Factors for Raiding

One strong impulse for building portable wealth was its use as bridewealth. Scandinavian society was experiencing a demographic change in which young men made up a disproportionately large part of the population. Some scholars have suggested that arose from female infanticide, and some evidence for that can be found in historic documents such as Gunnlaug’s Saga and in a reference to the sacrifice of female children at 10th c Hedeby described by the Arab writer Al-Turtushi. There's also a disproportionally small number of adult female graves in Late Iron Age Scandinavia and the occasional recovery of scattered children's bones in Viking and medieval sites.

Ashby suggests that the excitement and adventure of travel for the young Scandinavians shouldn't be dismissed. He suggests this impetus could be called status fever: that people who visit exotic locations often garner some sense of the extraordinary for themselves. Viking raiding was, therefore, a quest for knowledge, fame, and prestige, to escape the constraints of the home society, and, along the way, acquire valuable goods. Viking political elites and shamans had privileged access to the Arabian and other travelers who visited Scandinavia, and their sons then wanted to go out and do likewise.

Viking Silver Hoards

Archaeological evidence of the success of many of these raids—and the range of their booty capture—is found in the collections of Viking silver hoards, found buried all over northern Europe, and containing riches from all of the conquest lands.

A Viking silver hoard (or Viking hoard) is a stash of (mostly) silver coins, ingots, personal ornaments and fragmented metal left in buried deposits throughout the Viking empire between about AD 800 and 1150.

Hundreds of hoards have been found cached in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and northern Europe. They are still found today; one of the most recent was the Galloway hoard discovered in Scotland in 2014.

Amassed from plunder, trade, and tributes, as well as bride-wealth and fines, the hoards represent a glimpse into the wide-ranging grasp of the Viking economy, and into the minting processes and silver metallurgy of the world at the time. About AD 995 when the Viking King Olaf I converted to Christianity, the hoards also begin to show evidence of the Viking spread of Christianity throughout the region, and their association with trade and urbanization of the European continent.

Sources