Vikings who sailed from Scandinavia with their famous longboats marked this period, and historians use it to signal a closing chapter of the uncertain and insecure political situation of the Early Medieval Period.

Lindisfarne - the beginning of the Viking Age?

The term "The Viking Age" has been used by historians since the 20th century to describe a time period in European history following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It is genuinely agreed to have started on June 8, 793 CE, when a group of Vikings attacked and destroyed an abbey on Lindisfarne, an island off northeastern England. This event has been passed down through the ages as it was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This was a series of annals and recorded histories of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, and it describes history's first brush with the Vikings as follows:

"This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island (Lindisfarne), by rapine and slaughter…"

This was the first, though definitely not the last time, that the inhabitants of the British Isles met these Viking warriors.

Viking expansion and conquest

Following the events of Lindisfarne, the Vikings soon undertook expansive trading, colonizing, settling, and conquest throughout much of Europe, especially northwestern Europe (the British Isles and much of the Frankish Kingdom), Eastern Europe (especially the Kievan Rus and much of what is now Russia), even making it as far south as Sicily and Constantinople (what is now modern-day Istanbul).

The Vikings also colonized and settled Iceland and Greenland and were the first Europeans to reach the North American continent, half a millennium before the voyages of Christopher Columbus took place.

In the British Isles and the Frankish kingdoms, the Vikings settled and colonized permanently for hundreds of years. Two of the better-known areas of Viking settlement were the "Dane law" regions of middle and northern England as well as "Normandy" (Land of the Northmen) in France. By the 10th century CE, huge swathes of what is now Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, the Atlantic coastlines of Spain and France, the British Isles, southern Italy, and much of the areas surrounding the Caspian and Black Seas were either settled by Vikings or subjected to frequent raiding and trading there.

Vikings were probably motivated by a bundle of different factors to start expanding. According to some theories, they were attracted by the richness and the urbanism of the expanding and growing towns in the western part of Europe, particularly those in England and Scotland. Photo: GioeleFazzeri / Pixabay

What were some of the reasons for Viking expansion?

There is much speculation, discussion, and disagreement about the causes of Viking expansion and the beginnings of the "Viking Age." The Vikings were originally from the Scandinavian peninsula – including Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, as well as Finland. Political, population, economic and colonization theories have been put forward as to why the Vikings expanded outward from Scandinavia.

First and foremost is the political situation throughout much of Europe. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire left a power vacuum that was not properly filled until the Medieval Period. Much of Europe went from being integrated into a large and prosperous empire to a much less secure situation. As such, the former Roman provinces splintered into a thousand pieces with a multitude of different political and trade structures and networks. This political uncertainty and diversity made it relatively easy for the Vikings – with their superior military naval technology as well as fierce battlefield skills – to raid, trade, and colonize much of these areas.

Some academics have argued population pressure – especially in Norway and Denmark, where there are very limited amounts of land, let alone land for agricultural use – as a push factor for the young warrior men to set out and seek adventure and treasure. The fact that in many Viking societies, the oldest son inherited everything often meant that younger sons were in need of the economic security provided only by raiding and pillaging.

Another reason for the expansion has been the supposed collapse of old Roman-era trade routes. Following the almost Europe-wide collapse in security, economics, and political structures with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, economies in Viking societies needed new trade routes and sources of income. Turning westward to the insecurity of warring kingdoms in the British Isles or the vast resources of the Eurasian steppe, the profit motive may have tempted Vikings to expand.

The expansion of Islam in the 7th century redirected resources along the Silk Road and away from Western Europe, meaning vastly reduced trade networks and routes for the peoples of Europe. This allowed the Vikings to fill the trade and economic vacuum left.

Settlement and colonization were also key factors in the Viking expansion. Using the British Isles as a base for westward expansion, the Vikings managed to settle first Iceland, then Greenland, and made it as far as what is now Newfoundland, Canada, at L'anse aux Meadows.

The establishment of Christianity in Scandinavia, the defeats in the battles and failed attempts to invade the countries of the western part of Europe, and the establishment of royal families in Scandinavia contributed to the end of the Viking age. Photo: Duszkolandia / Pixabay

Is 1066 really the end of the Viking Age?

In academic circles, the "Viking Age" is genuinely agreed to have ended with William the Conqueror's invasion of England and defeat of Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066 CE. The political situation in much of Europe indeed changed.

The three Frankish Kingdoms have evolved into the Kingdom of France, providing much greater political and economic security and structure. The Islamic conquests of Spain had integrated much of the Hispanic peninsula into the larger Islamic world, whilst William the Conqueror's victory at Hastings spawned a royal dynasty that continues to this day in the United Kingdom.

By the Battle of Hastings, much of Western Europe – which had endured so much political uncertainty following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West – had evolved into more secure political entities that made it easier to fend off Viking raids.

Normandy - an example of the Viking evolution

By the 11th century CE, many of the areas that Vikings had conquered earlier had seen successive generations of intermarriage with the local populations.

No more was this changing dynamic and population situation evident than in northwestern France. Following a Viking raid on Paris, the King of the West Franks, Charles the Simple, ceded some territory on his northwestern border to Viking leader and warrior Rollo in 911 CE.

Over the next century and a half, this small fiefdom evolved into the Duchy of Normandy as Rollo's descendants intermarried with the local Gallo-Frankish inhabitants. In a neat ending that history so very rarely offers, the person most responsible for the "ending" of the "Viking Age," William, Duke of Normandy (whose defeat of Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings is seen as an epoch-making victory) was, in fact, a descendant of Rollo, the Viking warrior.

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