Why is there so much academic writing and research on the beginnings of the "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE) but so little attention given to its end?
Why did the Vikings, perhaps the most successful seaborne raiders of premodern history, stop raiding?
Two kings, two deaths, two battlefields, one hell of a year
For our English readers of a certain vintage, one date is perhaps the most important in English history: 1066 CE. This was the year, of course, that sticks out more than any other in the history of England.
This was the year that... Harald Hardrada was felled on a battlefield at Stamford Bridge, and thus with him, the last major Viking incursion into Europe.
Whilst some of you may believe that 1066 CE was the date of a supposed more important battle further south with some Norman called William, you'd be wrong...we are (slightly) biased here at The Viking Herald, but Vikings > Normans any day!
The death of Norwegian King Harald Sigurdsson, the preeminent warrior king of his time, at Stamford Bridge, in northern England, signaled not only the end to a huge invasion force (Hardrada was supposed to have commanded as many as 10,000 troops – though, let's be honest, those early medieval sources aren't the most reliable when it comes to numbers) but heralded the end of the Viking raids on the British Isles and beyond.
After 1066 CE, or so the common history goes, Viking raids, almost overnight, became a thing of the past. A few weeks after Stamford Bridge, the victor, English King Harold Godwinson, rushed his tired force to beat off another invasion by the Count of Normandy, William I.
If we are to believe the Bayeux Tapestry (perhaps one of the most beautiful forms of early medieval propaganda), he met his end with an arrow in the eye, and the rest, they say, is (English) history.
After Hastings, England was transformed into a medieval kingdom whilst, across the North Sea, the Vikings stopped raiding European societies.
Or did they?
A patchwork of polities turned into medieval kingdoms
It seems that every article on The Viking Herald site, like every good European road, leads to Rome.
The Roman Empire was the first, though not the last time, in European history that huge swathes of the continent (as well as parts of Africa and Asia) fell under a single central authority.
Okay, sometimes this central authority was good for the Empire (Trajan or Marcus Aurelius), and sometimes they were not (Nero, Caligula, or Commodus – every bit as paranoid as Joaquin Phoenix's depiction in Gladiator).
When the Empire fell, however, what had been a strong central polity connecting Scotland to Syria, and Portugal to areas of Poland, disintegrated.
What was left was a highly localized rule with leaders and political elites having a small sliver of the military or economic might of Rome.
As such, the Vikings could easily swarm in, with their early medieval form of Blitzkrieg, raid, pillage, plunder and swarm out with little or no resistance. The patchwork of polities throughout Europe made for easy pickings for Viking raiders.
As time progressed, however, the coastal communities and societies (eventually) learned their lesson. These societies gradually transformed into more centralized states that could field larger armies, build fortifications and improve infrastructure to help fend off Viking raids.
When the Vikings did come up against such societies, they often got a bloody nose – one only has to look at the Vikings' raids on Seville as an example. The swift and decisive military response, by the Emir of Cordoba, played a huge role in halting further Viking raids throughout this region.
This process in Northern Europe, it should be noted, did take more than two and a half centuries to complete. By the middle of the 11th century CE, it was just simply not as easy or profitable (in terms of treasure or blood) for Vikings to swarm in and out of coastal communities throughout Europe anymore.
The Vikings found a patchwork of European polities and left it a patchwork of European kingdoms.
Viking raids became less and less frequent from the mid-11th century CE onwards. Illustration: DigitalAssetArt / Shutterstock
Thor and Jesus
The role of Christianity in "taming" the Vikings is another popular reason given by academics and historians for the (relatively) rapid halting of raids from the mid-11th century CE onwards.
If it wasn't for the literate members of the Christian clergy, we might never know of many Viking raids.
In fact, the first Viking raid was on a Christian monastery, on Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of far north England, in 793 CE. This was soon to become a pattern of looting rich and unprotected monasteries and churches throughout coastal Europe.
The Vikings had a warrior ethos embedded in their religious and spiritual beliefs and had no concept of Christian notions of sin. The killing of Christians and the looting of their places of worship was simply part of the "dog eat dog" early medieval world for the Vikings. Yet the contact with Christian societies would eventually transform Viking societies.
Even before the first Viking raid had occurred, Christian missionaries had been risking life and limb, spreading the "good word" throughout Scandinavian societies.
Missionaries, often from the Frankish realms and later what would become The Holy Roman Empire, took the Christian message to Viking societies as early as the 7th century CE.
What was interesting, however, was the fusion of Thor and Jesus. Christianity took on a very Viking flavor in order to win converts. The relationship between God (the Father) and Jesus was compared to Thor and Odin. Jesus had "defeated" death and sin, much like a good Viking warrior would defeat a foe on the battlefield.
Finally, as the early medieval period progressed, more and more European societies, and especially their rules, were becoming Christian. The ticket to further political clout and economic links was Christianity.
The Church heavily dominated most Western European societies, and it soon became politically advantageous for more Viking rulers to adopt this new religion.
As such, Christian messages of peace and harmony conflicted with the warrior ethos of the Old Norse religion. Raids may produce (temporary) earthly goods, but the real treasure, in the afterlife, would be lost forever with any unsanctioned bloodshed or harm to Christians or the Church.
A Roman Holiday
We began this article by talking about the downfall of Harald Hardrada. We must turn back to his earlier life, before he sailed across the North Sea and took his army to try and cross Stamford Bridge.
Hardrada was forced to flee abroad, as a teenager, following his half-brother's defeat at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 CE.
He ended up at the imperial epicenter of the (Eastern) Roman Empire, Constantinople, and rose to the ranks of the head of the emperor's bodyguard, the Varangian Guard.
Not only did he fight everywhere (and seemingly everyone), from the Bulgars to Baghdad, but he also returned to Norway as one of the richest men in all of Scandinavia. Treasure, excitement, and adventure seemingly all went hand in hand in the Byzantine Empire.
Following Hardrada's defeat at Stamford Bridge, many of his followers were said to have traveled southward for employment at the Byzantine Court.
They were soon followed by some of the very same Anglo-Saxon warriors they had fought following Harold Godwinson's deaths at Hastings.
Not for the first time in Scandinavia's history, a horde of (mostly) young males had journeyed to southern Europe in pursuit of adventure and to live amongst exotic cultures and societies.
This was a far more formalized outlet that was unavailable for earlier young males in the so-called "Viking Age" who had to quest their thirst for adventure by joining raiding parties.
BBC History Extra has written more on the repercussions of both the battles of Hastings and Stamford Bridge, available to read here.
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