The Islamic Emirate of Cordoba dealt the Vikings such a crushing annihilation that, some scholars have argued, it stopped further expansion into the Iberian Peninsula.

Viking raids in the early 9th century CE

In the half-century since the Vikings exploded out of their Scandinavian homeland to begin their deadly raids on unsuspecting communities throughout Europe, they had increasingly pushed further south. 

Towards the middle of the 9th century CE, the Vikings had plundered and pillaged their way across the coasts of northern France, especially exploiting three of the larger river systems in the area – the Seine, the Garonne, and the Loire. 

READ MORE: What happened when the Vikings laid siege to Paris?

The Seine, in particular, provided the Vikings with the route to one of their more devastating raids but more on that later. Soon, they turned their direction southward to the adjoining Kingdom of Asturias at the northern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Kingdom of Asturias had been the first Christian political entity created following the Umayyad conquest of Spain (see below) way back in the third century of the 8th century CE. Viking raiders soon began to make their presence felt in this Kingdom, though not successfully at first. 

They suffered devastating losses when raiding the coastal town of A Coruña and were defeated by a Christian force near the Tower of Hercules, a Roman-era lighthouse nearby. 

Yet they pushed further south and managed to take Lisbon and hold it for almost two weeks. The governor of the town sent word to the Emir of Cordoba, the overall political leader of Al-Andalus, with one simple message: the Vikings were coming!

Romans, Goths, and Arabs

Spain, like so many modern countries in Europe, can both trace a portion of its history to, or blame it on, the Romans. 

Following the Roman Empire's collapse in the 4th century CE, the former Roman province of Hispania experienced migratory "invasions" of tribes that included the Alans, Vandals, and Visigoths. 

By the early 5th century CE, the Visigoths, a Romanized Central European people, had established "The Kingdom of the Goths," which occupied much of the Iberian Peninsula and southwestern France.

The Kingdom was seen as one of the largest successor states to the Roman Empire but had many conflicts with the burgeoning Catholic Church due to disagreement over doctrine. With its capital at Toledo, the Kingdom parried attempts by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire to annex it. However, events far away in Arabia would change Spain's history forever.

Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam exploded outward from the deserts of Arabia on what seemed like an unstoppable conquest. These conquests were soon cemented as the Umayyad Caliphate, which saw an Arab elite rule over a mostly non-Arab population from Central Asia to North Africa. 

In 712 CE, an Umayyad force, from North Africa, crossed into southern Spain and decisively defeated a Visigothic force at Guadalete. By 719 CE, the Umayyad conquest was complete, and the Kingdom of the Goths would now become "Al-Andalus." 

The few remaining Christian enclaves of Spain – mainly in the north – would still be referred to as Hispania.

Following initial battles with local forces, the Vikings concentrated their efforts on capturing Seville. Illustration: The Viking Herald 

Capturing Seville and defeat

When the Vikings were eventually evicted from Lisbon, they decided to push further south rather than return home. Given their expertise in river navigation, it should be no surprise that their next target was the city of Seville. 

Lying some 100 kilometers inland on the River Guadalquivir from the coast, the Vikings used their longboat to skilfully sail up and encamp on an island in marshes near the city. Following skirmishes with local forces, which the Vikings easily dispatched, they concentrated their efforts on capturing the city. 

After a brief siege, they stormed the fortifications and took Seville in early October 844 CE. However, local resistance still continued from the citadel, and the Vikings were unsuccessful in their attempts to burn the local mosque.

Holding the city for more than a month, the Vikings set about pillaging the city, its suburbs, and the surrounding areas. In the meantime, however, the Emir of Cordoba, the nominal leader of Al-Andalus, Abd ar-Rahman II, organized a coalition of Muslim forces to try and repel the Vikings. In a marked contrast to other polities under Viking attack, the Emir managed to organize a large coalition army – quickly – to try and retake Seville and expel the Vikings.

Despite various skirmishes which proved indecisive, the Vikings were ultimately defeated in the Battle of Talyata in mid-November. The use of incendiary fire, often called Greek fire as it was first developed by the Byzantine Empire, by the Muslim forces, may well have been the difference between the opposing sides.  

Contemporary sources – (especially when written by the victors) should always be read with skepticism, but the Muslim forces were said to have destroyed as many as 30 Viking ships and killed as many as 1,000 Viking warriors. Regardless of the actual numbers, a decisive blow was dealt to the Vikings.

Impact and aftermath

There are some similarities between the Umayyad and Viking conquests of Europe. Both peoples appeared out of the "margins" – to larger European polities -  (Arabia and Scandinavia) to rapidly conquer, control, and subjugate a huge swathe of Europe. Whilst the Vikings tended to focus on Northern Europe, the Umayyad conquests favored the south.

This "clash of civilizations" showed that the Vikings could be defeated by superior organizational skills, along with a hint of better medieval technology.

Nonetheless, this Viking defeat near Seville is seen as a turning point. The Emir of Cordoba ordered better fortifications to be built and even organized a rudimentary navy along with better coastal communications and defenses. This was, in part, the reason why two further Viking raids – in 859 and 966 CE – were unsuccessful.

Following their eviction from Seville and subsequent defeat, the Vikings sailed back down the Guadalquivir and raided nearby towns, such as Cadiz, and possibly as far away as Asilah in what is now northern Morocco. 

The strategic organization by Muslim forces at Seville, and their brutal defeat of the Vikings, was, some scholars have argued, a key reason for the Vikings' shying away from raiding the Iberian Peninsula again.

For more on the lesser-known Viking history of Spain, visit an article on The Conversation website here

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