A recent academic study has also made a revolutionary claim that Viking seafarers may have made their way to the Azores hundreds of years before other European explorers in the early 15th century. This study highlights the strong Norse connection, and history, of Portugal.

The Vikings in Iberia

Throughout the 9th century CE, Viking warriors set to the seas and raided, traded, and colonized large parts of the North Atlantic. Portugal, it seems, was also subjected to sporadic Viking raids throughout much of this century. Before we dive into Portugal's Viking roots, we must first wind back to see what was going on in the Iberian Peninsula during this time.

The collapse of Hispania and the birth of Al-Andalus

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Hispania (the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula) was a patchwork of Visigothic Christian kingdoms. The advent of Islam in the late 7th century CE, however, soon changed this peninsula's history forever. The Islamic religion, and its followers, seemed to explode out of the deserts of Arabia and set about expanding across West Asia and North Africa. By early 711, Tariq bin Ziyad led forces that disembarked at Gilbtatar, just miles from the Spanish mainland. Entering mainland Europe via the Iberian Peninsula was just the first stage of conquest for the Umayyad Caliphate.

Following the Battle of Guadelete, Tariq's army (consisting primarily of North African Berbers) was reinforced by Arab troops and battled northward.  By 717 CE, they had crossed the Pyrenees, and the Muslim conquest of Hispania was complete by 718. They continued further into former Roman Gaul until the mid-8th century CE. This huge area, from Gibraltar in the south to the Pyrenees in the north, from Granada in the south to Braga in the north, was given the Arabic name "Al-Andalus."

The Emirate of Cordoba and Viking raids

By the early 9th century CE, Al-Andalus was a secure, prosperous, and vibrant society. The majority of Al-Andalus was made up, during this period, of the medieval Islamic kingdom of the Emirate of Cordoba (756 CE to 929 CE). Ruled from Cordoba in modern-day southern Spain, it also encompassed much of southern Portugal. It was with the Emirate of Cordoba that the Viking history of Portugal began.

Throughout much of the 9th century, Viking raids had taken place more and more frequently on Frankish kingdoms in modern-day northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. However, as the Frankish kingdoms started to organize better defenses, Viking raiders soon began to travel further and further southwest to eventually reach the Iberian Peninsula.

The first recorded Viking raid was in 844 CE and reached parts of what is now Galicia in Spain, and Braga, Vila Real, and Porto in Portugal. Further raids, especially on coastal villages, saw Ramiro I, King of Asturias, begin the proper organization of troops to defend against these Norse raiders.

The earliest recorded Viking raid on Spain occurred in 844 when a Norse fleet arrived in Galicia. Photo: Alberto Gasco / Unsplash

Further raids and the Chronicle of Ibn Hayyān

Raids seemed to have further occurred throughout the late 9th century. This would also support the theory that Norse ships were a somewhat regular sight off the coast of Al-Andalus. Had some Viking sailors been skillful and brave (this was a world in which many thought the world was flat after all) to sail further west off the coast and make land at the Azores islands? Or was it the blissful accident of bad weather or strong winds that blew them off course to find the Azores?

Following the initial Viking raids in 844 CE, a second, more serious exploratory raid seems to have taken place from 859 – 861 CE. The main source for this was a history compiled by the Muslim scholar Ibn Hayyān much later in the 11th century CE. However, he states that most of these raiders were just adventurers who met with little success in these areas. They sailed further south, onward to richer and easier pickings.

Santiago de Compostela and Dies Lordemanorum

The discovery of supposed remains of St. James, by a shepherd, in Santiago de Compostela, in 813 CE, saw the northern Iberian peninsula become a popular pilgrimage for Christians from all over Europe. Soon, this was a serious moneymaker for local businesses and the all-powerful Catholic church. Monasteries soon began to reap the benefits of pilgrims' offerings and donations. This may have been one of the reasons for the start of Viking raids from the mid to latter 9th century CE.

A bishop in this area, Sisnando Sanchez, was responsible for the defense and fortifications of many of these small villages and towns dotted throughout modern-day northern Spain and Portugal. According to a chronicle by an 11th-century Leonese bishop, Sisnando was killed during one such Viking raid. In fact, this raid was so destructive, so bloody, and so much wealth was removed from local monasteries that the locals called this "dies Lordemanorum" (Day of the Northmen).

The Normans and raids conducted by Olaf II of Norway

By the 10th and into the 11th century CE, Viking warriors had established footholds in what is now modern-day Normandy. These Normans (North men) soon set about conquering much of southern Italy and Malta and perhaps most famously established the Kingdom of Sicily. As such, Portuguese coastal towns and villages were the perfect halfway point between the cold seas of Northern Europe and the warmer climes of the Mediterranean.

According to the 13th century Iceland saga, Heimskringla, Olaf Haraldsson – who would later become the famous Olaf II of Norway -  lead Viking raids down the Iberian Peninsula, especially in the areas corresponding to northern Portugal and Spain.

So whether the Vikings did really reach the Azores first is open to some debate, but they certainly left a strong historical imprint on the history of Portugal.

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