Though they last set sail centuries ago, the Vikings have left such a deep imprint on Norway's history, culture, and society. To understand Norway today, one must travel back a millennium to the time when Vikings dominated Norwegian society.

The situation in Norway before the Vikings

There has been evidence of human habitation in Norway since, at least, 12,000 BCE. However, the population remained relatively low until the use of iron in 500 BCE. The use of iron in tools allowed for more intensive and extensive farming, and clearing of the land, allowing better and bigger harvests to sustain increased populations. By the last century BCE, Norse peoples had developed their own alphabet – runes – and there was limited trade contact with the Roman Empire that dominated much of Europe.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, large-scale migrations saw a vast movement of peoples across Rome's former provinces. By this time, rich farmers had become chieftains ruling over several tribes or clans, and some had even constructed simple fortifications. By 550 BCE, local communities wanting protection only added to the political and economic power of chieftains as Germanic tribes migrated from the continent into the Scandinavian Peninsula. 

The 6th century CE saw a plague (not for the first time) cripple Norway's population. It would take more than a century to repopulate these areas, yet a trade boom, across the North Sea, resulted in many fishing hamlets being constructed along the southern and western coasts of Norway.

By the 8th century, these local chieftains had exploited the booming trade to grow in stature and power. The increased trade meant more disposable income to be spent on military adventures and exploits. This, along with the development of the longship – nimble enough to navigate rivers whilst also sturdy enough for trans-oceanic voyages – would signal a new era in Norway's history.

Why did the Norwegian Vikings start raiding?

The so-called "Viking Age" has a traditional start date of 793 CE. This was the first recorded Viking raid – on a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England. Despite it being a singular event, this raid was the process of more than a century of underlying social, political, and economic forces that resulted in Viking warriors setting sail to plunder and pillage.

The geography of Norway plays an important part in the development of the Viking societies throughout Norway. Unlike other Viking societies in Denmark or Sweden, Norway's mountainous terrain, with little arable farmland, as well as a huge coastline, presented both a unique disadvantage and opportunity for late 8th-century political elites. 

Unlike Viking societies in Sweden and Denmark, these geographic boundaries would not sustain huge populations. As such, by the end of the 8th century, Norway was a collection of some 30 petty kingdoms, dotted mostly along the southern and western coastline.

The sea for these petty kingdoms was vital. It was not only the easiest way of communication with the outside world but also within the country itself. The limited farmland between the coastline and the vast Scandinavian Alps (that run down the spine of Norway) was overpopulated by the late 8th century CE. Population pressure saw many peoples living in these societies landless and with no status or wealth.

These men took to the seas, raiding first along the vast Norwegian coastline and then further abroad – westward to the British Isles or eastward in the Baltic region.

The early medieval period was a time of insecurity for Britain. Rome's collapse in the late 4th century CE saw the political cohesion and security that Rome offered the British province shattered and fragmented. A series of small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerged over the preceding centuries though none could offer the political unity or security that Rome had once offered. The divided nature of the British Isles meant a lack of unified defense against Viking raiders.

Finally, people in Viking societies in Norway, like the rest of Scandinavia, had a secret weapon: the longship. This sophisticated tool of naval technology was nimble enough to slip up rivers whilst being sturdy enough for trans-oceanic voyages. For people in Viking communities in Norway, the development of the longship was a perfect storm: it was the perfect piece of technology at the perfect time.

The raid on the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne was a combination of all of these elements. Viking warriors – more than probably young men – sailed on longships across the seas to raid the riches of a Christian monastery in a remote and unprotected part of the British Isles.

The geography of Norway plays an important part in the development of the Viking societies throughout Norway. Photo: Chris Stenger / Unsplash

Norwegian Viking settlements

Following the raiding at Lindisfarne, the following two and a half centuries (or more, depending on which academic you talk to) of Norwegian history were dominated by the Vikings. Up until approximately 830 CE, the Vikings, from Norway, targeted mostly coastal communities in Ireland. 

These Vikings founded a new town, in 841 CE, on the banks of the River Liffey in Ireland, which the locals would call 'Black Pool,' or, in their Irish tongue, Duibhlinn.

The majority of Norwegian Vikings would travel westward across the North Sea to raid in northern areas of the British Isles, including Northern England, Scotland, and Ireland, and sparsely populated islands, including the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroe, and the Hebrides. However, what had begun as mere raiding for treasure, gold, and human capital (the trade in flesh was an important part of the Viking economy and society) would evolve into a more substantial Viking footprint across the North Sea.

The dawning of the so-called Viking era also neatly coincided with the Medieval Warm Period (approximately 800 – 1300 CE). This saw mild climatic conditions throughout much of the North Atlantic region. Iceland was "discovered" by Vikings in the 9th century CE and was soon settled. 

Within a century, more than 400 Norse chieftains ruled over this remote island and outpost of Norse society. From here, Norse Vikings would then travel westward to establish settlements in Greenland and even explore and establish a small community as L'Anse Aux Meadows on the island of Newfoundland, Canada.

However, the situation in Norway, from the mid-9th century CE, was dynamic and insecure. The various petty kingdoms that once dotted the landscape now engaged in a series of bloody power struggles. Harald Fairhair began the slow process of trying to unify these petty kingdoms under one crown. 

When he entered an alliance with the powerful northern Earls of Lade, Fairhair seemed unstoppable. By the late 9th century CE, he had defeated all his enemies and declared himself the sole king of Norway following his crushing victory at the Battle of Hafrsfjord (sometime between 872 – 900 CE).

Viking Norway at a crossroads

If we were to believe many of the Norse sagas, including the epic Hemiskringla, Harald Fairhair would become the first King of a united Norway. However, did he exist? 

The first written record of a king of united Norway was Harald Bluetooth – who ruled Denmark but also lay claim to the throne of Norway. This description was recorded on the Jelling stones, huge runestones dated from early in the 10th century.  Nonetheless, it was Fairhair's son, Håkon the Good, whose rise to the throne of Norway marked a turning point in Norwegian history.

Håkon the Good was raised in England and ascended to the Norwegian throne in 930 CE. Not only did he establish the first proto-parliaments in Norwegian history (the two things covering western and northern Norway respectively – Gulating and Frostating), but he also made early attempts to enforce the new religion of Christianity onto mostly pagan subjects.

The ascension of Håkon the Good to the throne of Norway also signals the creeping importance of Christianity into the pagan Viking kingdom. Though mainly missionaries into the petty kingdoms of Norway from the 7th century CE had introduced Christianity onwards, the beginning of the Viking raids saw the further infiltration of this new religion and its belief in one God.

From Håkon's ascension to the throne onwards, the future of Norway, and the Vikings, would be intertwined with that of Christian Europe. The process of Christianization of Norway would transform the mainly pagan Viking societies of Norway into the medieval Christian kingdom of Norway. However, when Håkon ascended to the throne, in 930 CE, the result of this centuries-long process was anything but clear.

Continued in part 2…

For a brief overview of the history of the Vikings, visit the BBC History Extra website here.

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