The Viking Age

Theme

The age of town and empire

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The first written record of the Vikings describes the brutal destruction of Lindisfarne Abbey on the east coast of northern England in 793. The final chapter in the history of the Vikings was written at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

During the Viking Age, Scandinavia underwent enormous political, technological, economic, religious and social changes. The Scandinavian countries rivalled the great powers of Europe. Vikings founded towns, and the centralisation of power that came with the consolidation of the Scandinavian kingdoms led to an entirely different societal structure.

Global Vikings

The most important vehicle of the day was the Viking ship. With it, Vikings not only plundered, they established colonies and traded as far west as Greenland and North America and as far east as Russia and the Byzantine Empire.

The first plundering raids took place along the English and Irish coasts. In the ninth century, Vikings exploited instability in the Frankish Empire and launched violent attacks, wantonly plundering churches and abbeys. By 900 the Franks' political situation stabilised and the Vikings turned their attacks on more vulnerable areas to the east.

Viking raids often meant they established control of foreign trade centres. By attacking market towns and demanding that they pay Danegeld – a form of tax that protected them from further ravaging – Vikings wound up controlling a number of key areas.

The first market towns
The well-organised societies of the Viking Era were the first Scandinavians to found towns. Stronger monarchs, increasing commerce and a greater degree of specialisation amongst craftsmen led to radical societal changes. The oldest and most important trading sites in Scandinavia included Kaupang in Norway, Birka in Sweden and Ribe and Hedeby in Denmark. After the first raids, Vikings also established towns west of Scandinavia, including York and Dublin.

Around 860, trade with the Orient began to grow and large quantities of Arabic silver found their way to Scandinavia. But because these areas were all controlled by a well-established government, the Vikings never established towns there. Viking towns were the centre of the political, economic and social organisation; trade and specialised crafts provided the economic base. They were hubs for local commerce and trade in imported goods. Scales, weights, bars of silver, as well as whole and mutilated silver coins all bear witness to their commercial activity. Early on in the Viking Age, people used coins by weight to pay for goods, but coins later came to take on a fixed value.

Denmark's first town

Ribe is the first Danish town named in writing. A source dating from around 855 states that Danish King Horik II gave permission to a missionary by the name of Ansgar to build a church in the town. Evidence left behind by craftsmen indicate that the town was founded around 705. Soon after that, the town's marketplace was divided into lots along the banks of Ribe River, which was used by traders sailing to and from the North Sea. Ribe's location made it an important centre for trade between Western Europe and Scandinavia. Many of the goods traded in Ribe (ceramics from the Rhine region, millstones of basalt and the raw materials used in forging metals and making pearl jewellery) suggest that the town was probably founded by Frisian merchants. Later, Danish warlords or kings began to exercise tighter control over the town in order to maintain its position as a centre for trade, something which it held thanks to a well-developed distribution system and a well-organised political administration.

The rise of the kingdoms
Denmark was probably a kingdom already in the early part of the eighth century. This is evidenced by major construction projects such as Kanhave Canal (726), the Danevirke (737), Hedeby (808) and later the bridge at Ravning Meadow (980) and the ring-shaped castles (980). Such building projects required such enormous resources that only a monarch would have been able to marshal the manpower and material necessary to complete them.

The Viking Age's most significant king was Harald Bluetooth (c. 935-987). Harald united the kingdom and Christianised it. Travelling missionaries and activities on the British Isles and the continent had introduced the Vikings to Christianity, but Harald probably viewed the new religion as a means to strengthen his power internationally. The new stronger, now Christian kingdom, was an ally of the Church, and with centralised control of towns, a system of fixed-value coins, religion and a civil service system, the state Denmark had been established. Harald's territories included present-day Denmark, northern Germany, southern Sweden and much of Norway.

The defence of the kingdom
Trelleborg on Zealand is the best preserved example of the ring-shaped castles that were built during Harald's reign. Together with the four other ring castles in Demark and Scania – Nonne Hill on Funen, Fyrkat and Aggersborg in Jutland, and Trelleborg in Scania – they make up the most notable Viking Age defensive structures. The ring castles are all based on the same geometric pattern: a circular earthen rampart built around rows of buildings. The castles were all built around 980 and were only used for a short period of time.

Ring castles were buildings commissioned by the king in a period of unrest, when he needed military bases to control his possessions. Medieval historian Saxo linked construction of the ring castles to animosity between Harald and his son Sweyn Forkbeard (c. 960-1104), who is believed to have led attacks against his father. After Harald's death, his son probably had better control over the kingdom, making the ring castles obsolete. Shortly before his death in 1014, Sweyn could claim to have conquered England.

Rise and fall

Canute the Great (995-1035) was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard and during his reign, the Danish North Sea empire reached its greatest extent, when it could claim control over England, Denmark and Norway. After Canute's death, his son, Harald Harefoot, inherited the English throne, while another son, Canute the Hardy, inherited the other parts of the kingdom. Danish dominion over England continued until 1042, when Edward the Confessor staked a claim to the throne. After his death, a struggle for the throne broke out, and in 1066, at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson.