For the Anglosphere, much of the focus of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100) is centered on events in the British Isles. 

In fact, it was a raid on a monastery off the coast of northeast England that was said to kickstart this age, though we now know that, despite contemporary accounts, this was neither the first nor the worst Viking raid conducted. 

One of the most remarkable and bloody events of the early medieval period was what modern historians have dubbed the "Viking expansion." 

This period saw people from Viking societies, including the ferocious and feared warriors, expand from their Scandinavian homelands. They ventured out to raid, trade, ravage, and settle vast swathes of the North Atlantic world.

From the shores of North America to the shores of the Black Sea, from the British Isles to Baghdad, these peoples left an indelible mark on world history.

It is only in recent decades that the geographic focus of the Viking Age has shifted to include regions less or never studied. 

The region that constitutes the modern nation-state of Spain is one such example that is seeing a whole new generation of scholars and academics scrutinize its history with the Vikings. 

Though only recently "rediscovered," the Viking history of Spain is as rich and varied as any more storied country further north. 

In the early medieval period, Granada exemplified Spain's remarkable era of cultural harmony under Islamic rule, where the coexistence of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities led to significant advancements in science, architecture, and literature. Photo: Macronatura.es / Shutterstock

Ancient history, new focus 

Since the return of democracy to Spain in 1981, following over four decades of dictatorial rule under General Franco, Spain has finally had the freedom to explore its past, both recent and ancient.

Part of this historical analysis has focused on aspects of Spain's early medieval period, which had previously been little studied, including its interactions with people from Viking societies. 

Although sparse, archaeological evidence from this period, enhanced by recent technological advances, has led archaeologists to identify debris along the coast of Galicia, in northern Spain, as anchors from Viking-era longships. 

However, the primary focus of research has been analyzing contemporary written accounts from this time. 

For much of the early medieval period, what is now Spain was firmly in the Islamic world. 

Following the power vacuum left in Spain after the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, several peoples migrated into the region. 

The Visigoths, a tribe of Germanic peoples, migrated and established a civilization that lasted until the 8th century CE. 

The conquest of Islamic armies from their homeland in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century CE is one of the most consequential events in history. 

By the 8th century CE, the Umayyad Caliphate crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to invade the Iberian Peninsula and had, within a decade of its initial arrival, defeated the Visigoth Kingdom and established the new Islamic territory of Al-Andalus. 

Whilst much of the rest of Western Europe was entering centuries of transition – a period formerly known as the "Dark Ages" – Spain was reaching new civilizational heights. 

This progress was partly due to a relative amount of cultural harmony, known as convivencia (meaning "living together," but more akin to "coexistence"), which allowed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim populations to survive, thrive, and flourish. 

Fields such as modern medicine, science, mathematics, architecture, and literature owe a great deal to this convivencia. 

This atmosphere of cooperation led to a wide range of scholars flocking to Al-Andalus, creating a cultural blossoming at a time when most of the rest of Europe was mired in cultural and intellectual stagnation.

It was the Islamic world, of which Spain was a part, that led the world, and particularly Europe, in cultural, scientific, and economic achievements. 

This more advanced civilization, compared to the Scandinavian homeland, drew Vikings to venture southward... 

The Torres del Oeste (Towers of the West), located at the mouth of the Ulla River in Galicia, are ancient fortifications that witnessed Viking raids in medieval Spain. Photo: David Garcia Eirin / Shutterstock

Smash and grab in Galicia 

Following what historians have termed the "initial" phase of Viking attacks (c. 750 – 800s), around the second half of the 9th century, Europe witnessed a more aggressive and expansive series of Viking raids. 

Venturing out of their homeland and its nearby surrounds, Vikings started to pillage and raid further afield, harassing both coastal and inland communities from Ireland down to the Iberian Peninsula. 

In 844, the coastal community in Galicia, a region of northern Spain, suffered a vicious Viking raid. After sacking Bordeaux, they sailed across the Bay of Biscay to plunder several coastal villages. 

Their advance was halted only when King Ramiro I of Asturias, the local ruler, dispatched his elite troops to confront these "seaborne wolves." 

A local legend, however, claims it was not troops but prayers from a local priest that fended off the Vikings. The priest was said to have prayed for divine intervention, leading to a storm that sank most of the Viking ships. 

Legends aside, a combination of soldiers and storms ultimately thwarted further Viking raids. 

If the local population thought this was the end of these new Viking invaders, they were sorely mistaken. 

The Viking siege of Sevilla (Isbiliya) in 844 ended in failure for the invaders, thanks to the robust defense strategies implemented by Abd al-Rahman II. Photo: Serhiy Stakhnyk / Shutterstock

Scourged in Sevilla 

The most famous Viking attack in Spanish history was to take place later in that year. 

Vikings came sailing again down the Iberian Peninsula, raiding and attacking northern parts of Spain before traveling southward to lay waste to and capture the then town of Lisboa (today the capital city of Portugal). 

Following the Iberian coast further south, the Vikings headed to Sevilla, a rich prize of southern Al-Andalus. 

Advancing inland via the Guadalquivir River, they besieged the town known then as Isbiliya (modern-day Sevilla). 

However, the Muslim garrison held the citadel, forcing the Vikings to terrorize the local population in a bid to gain it. 

Yet, this was unlike the uncoordinated communities of Northern Europe. The Vikings had encroached upon the Emirate of Cordoba, led by Abd al-Rahman II. 

Hearing of this raid, al-Rahman quickly organized a force, and, for once, the Vikings were on the receiving end of a lightning attack. 

The local troops were said to be armed with impressive military technology, the famous "Greek fire," which laid waste to their ships. 

Marooned inland and cut off from any means of transport, the Vikings were mercilessly cut down. Contemporary accounts boast that as many as 1,000 Vikings were captured and then hung. 

Sevilla, however, lay in ruins, and al-Rahman invested in secure fortifications to prevent this from happening again.

Less than a year later, Viking embassies contacted al-Rahman to seek a treaty, which resulted in the appointment of a famous poet, Al-Ghazal, as an ambassador to the court of King Harek in Denmark. 

The logistical coordination of the defense, as well as the ferocity and advanced technology of al-Rahman, kept Vikings away for at least a decade. 

After their limited success in southern Spain, the sons of Björn Ironside, Hastein and Ubbe, used the Straits of Gibraltar as a gateway to further Viking exploits in North Africa. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory (Public domain)

Later Spanish escapades 

The next major Viking attack in Spain occurred 15 years later, led by Hastein and Ubbe, sons of the legendary Björn Ironside. While Björn was ravaging Paris, his sons followed a similar path to their previous incursion in Spain. 

They wreaked havoc on coastal communities in northern Al-Andalus but, mindful of their prior defeat in Sevilla, refrained from extensive raids in the south. 

According to contemporary Muslim chronicles, such as those by Al-Bakri, after their restrained success in the south, they navigated through the Straits of Gibraltar to conduct raids in present-day Morocco, eventually moving eastward towards the territories of the (Eastern) Roman Empire. 

Over a century passed before chroniclers documented another significant Viking attack. 

The Chronicle of Sampiro, authored by a bishop from the Kingdom of Leon in northern Spain, details Viking raids during the 960s and 970s. 

In these accounts, the coastal communities of Galicia repeatedly fell victim to Viking incursions. Subsequent raids in the 11th century included a notable attack in 1015 by the forces of Olaf II en route to Jerusalem. 

Additionally, a royal charter from 1024 in the Kingdom of Leon records the devastation of a local bishopric by these "Northmen." 

As the 12th century dawned, however, the focus of the local inhabitants shifted predominantly to the internal conflicts of the Reconquista. 

This period saw the Iberian Peninsula divided between Christian and Muslim kingdoms, each fiercely intent on subduing and conquering the other. 

Recent genetic studies, analyzing the DNA of local mice, suggest that the Vikings may have reached the Madeira Islands, possibly arriving there before the Spanish and Portuguese colonization efforts. Photo: Gerda Arendt / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Viking mice 

The Viking presence in Spain began to wane from the late 11th century onwards. 

Yet, a question arises: did the Vikings journey as far as the Madeiras during their Spanish expeditions at the peak of their era? 

Recent scientific research, which involved analyzing the DNA of mice, suggests that Viking societies reached these remote outposts of the Iberian world well before Spanish and Portuguese settlements. 

This discovery underscores, not for the first time in history, the significant impact of Viking naval technology in reshaping historical narratives. 

For more insights into the saga of Viking incursions into France and Spain and their daring ambitions towards Rome, explore the article on National Geographic here

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