Viking Raids

The Early Medieval Practice of Viking Raids

Up Helly Aa Fire Festival on Shetland
The Jarl Squad march around a Viking Longship before torching it on January 28, 2014, in the Shetland Islands, Scotland at the traditional festival of fire is known as 'Up Helly Aa'. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Viking Raids

Viking raids were a characteristic of the Scandinavian early medieval pirates called the 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. But, as the population grew, and trading networks into Europe became established, the Vikings became aware of the wealth of their neighbors, both in silver and in land.

The earliest serious Viking raids were small in scope. 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 in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, at Iona (795). These raids were exclusively for money—if the Norwegians couldn't find enough money in the monastery stores, they ransomed the monks back to the church.

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.

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.

The Great Army

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 Great Army was a fleet of Scandinavian warships that 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 would settle what would be called the Danelaw.

Accounts of the size of the Great Army vary, but it is clear that hundreds of longboats were involved.

Viking Raids to Imperialism

One-half of England fell to the Vikings by 870. By 959, the settler Vikings are part of the English populace; but beginning in 980, a new wave of attacks from Norway and Denmark occurred. In 1016, King Cnut controlled all of England, Denmark, and Norway. But in 1066, Harald Hardrada died at Stamford Bridge, essentially ending the Norse control of any lands outside of Scandinavia.

However, the Norse built settlements or took over existing towns, and, after 1066, eventually were subsumed into the local cultures. 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.


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