What exactly caused the massive westward expansion of Vikings in the late 8th century? There is, as of now, no definitive explanation.
Others 3 have suggested that the raids began in retaliation for Charlemagne’s wars against the Saxons in the 8th century. That might explain the attacks in France, and particularly the attacks launched from Denmark, but doesn’t really explain the raids into Britain and the settlement of islands in the North Atlantic like Iceland and Greenland.
What does help to explain why the Vikings were all over the North Atlantic (and into Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East) is silver. Silver was the metal of choice for trade, and Vikings were traders as well as warriors. Huge hoards of silver coins with origins ranging from Britain to Russia to Iran to northern India have been found in Scandinavian graves from the Viking age 4. Even modern cities with Viking Age origins like Dublin and Bergen still have strong ties to silversmithing and trading.
Timeline of the Vikings’ expansion westward
So, when did the Viking age begin? Well, that does depend on a lot of factors, not the least of which is where you happen to be. In the English-speaking world, the commonly held date is 8 June, 793 CE 5. This is the day that the abbey of Lindisfarne was sacked by Viking raiders, and marks the start of a very large upswing in raiding and violence in Britain and Europe from Scandinavians.
Of course, like everything related to the early Viking Age, it’s not quite that simple.
There was undoubtedly contact between the Scandinavians and Britons before the raid on Lindisfarne, and not all of it was peaceful 6. Of course, peaceful trade had happened often enough for a royal reeve named Beaduheard to be killed by Vikings when he thought he was actually talking to a band of friendly traders in 789 7.
Elsewhere in Europe, Scandinavian attacks begin both earlier and later than 793 CE. In Estonia, we have evidence of pirate activity across the Baltic Sea, with archaeological evidence 8 9 supporting the story from Ynglingatal of the Swedish king Ingvar being killed in a raid during the 8th century 10. Meanwhile, in the Frankish kingdoms, we don’t start hearing about Northmen attacking until the 9th century 11.
Of course, the end-point is also debated, but it’s generally accepted that sometime between the conversion of Iceland in 1000 and the Norman Conquest of 1066 12.
The Vikings in England
England had been in contact with Scandinavians long before the Viking age began. It was, apparently, most often through trade that the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with their Scandinavian cousins, though, in the last decades of the 8th century, that would all change. The first recorded Viking attack in Britain was in Wessex, in the year 789 when the royal reeve Beaduheard was killed by what he had thought were traders coming ashore on the island of Portland 13. The extent of their raid was not recorded. After that, numerous smaller raids and attacks occurred, but it wasn’t until 793 14, when the holy island of Lindisfarne was sacked, that the Viking age truly began in Britain.
After Lindisfarne, other religious sites were sacked across the northern Anglo-Saxon coasts, including Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey 15, which was located near Lindisfarne as well. The first recorded Viking raid in southern Britain was in 835, against the Isle of Shippey in Wessex 16.
These raids continued for another 30 years, until 865, when the Danes invaded, seeking new territory to colonize and settle in. By 876, the Danes had conquered a vast stretch of northeast England, claiming it as the Danelaw, and held it until the middle of the 10th century, when they were driven out of York 17.
By the 11th century, at the end of the Viking era, the last great battle fought by the Vikings in England was at Stamford Bridge by king Haraldr harðráði of Norway. The Norwegians were defeated, but the Anglo-Saxons soon fell to the descendants of the Vikings who had raided France nonetheless.
Vikings raided and settled in Scotland
Like their Saxon neighbors to the south, Scotland was not immune to Viking invasions in the 8th century. In 795, just three years after Lindisfarne was sacked, Iona Abbey, on the west coast of Scotland, was attacked by Vikings. The raids against Iona did not let up, and the abbey was eventually abandoned in 849 18.
There are precious few documents detailing the Viking incursions in mainland Scotland, though the repeated attacks on Iona suggest that there was at least some infrastructure in place to support raids along the western coastline. Orkneyinga saga, a Norse saga about the colonization of the Orkneys and the establishment of the Earldom there, would suggest that the Vikings were raiding from the northern and western isles of Scotland into the mainland and Ireland 19.
Another, more controversial position is that the Vikings established a kingdom across broad expanses of the Scottish coastline and raided from there 20. Unfortunately, there is very little in terms of archaeological or literary evidence to support that theory. There is, however, evidence that the Vikings settled and integrated with existing Scottish communities along the west coast. In the 9th century, references to the Gall-Ghàidheil, or foreign Gaels, begin appearing, and the term was used eventually to refer to all Scandinavian-Celtic peoples. Place names – like that of Galloway, in southwest Scotland – also suggest that the Vikings integrated themselves quite tightly with the Scots. The first Viking boat burial to be discovered on mainland Britain is also in Scotland: the Port an Eilean Mhòir boat burial. The burial was discovered in 1924, at Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point on mainland Britain.
Ireland and Dublin under Viking rule
Much like Britain, Ireland was a target during the Vikings’ westward expansion during the late 8th century, and, much like Britain, the first major recorded attack on Ireland was a raid on an island called Rechru 21. Later raids occurred along the coasts of the Irish kingdoms of Brega and Connacht 22 and continued along the west coast of Ireland into the middle of the 9th century. These raids were simply for plunder, rather than permanent settlement 23, although that would soon change.
In 841, Vikings attacked Dublin, as they had before 24, but this time it was no simple raid. The Vikings instead settled in Dublin, building military and naval camps and fortifying the city 25. They used Dublin as a base from which to raid all across Ireland, striking particularly into Leinster and the Midlands 26, and by 845 they had established bases across the kingdom of Leinster.
Things weren’t all easy for the Vikings, though. In 848 the Irish attacked Dublin and defeated them in a number of battles. The situation got so dire that Ólafr hinn hvíti and Ívarr hinn beinlaussi arrived in 849 to settle the situation and restore Viking authority 27. They managed to do this extremely well and resumed raiding across Ireland.
The Vikings island hopping during the westward expansion
In 872, Haraldr hinn hárfagri became the first king of a unified Norway, and his defeated opponents fled to the Scottish islands. Not one to leave a threat waiting for him, Harald followed them and defeated them by 875, when he declared the islands to be under Norwegian control. That lasted about a decade, until the inhabitants of the Hebrides rebelled, and eventually declared themselves independent. Haraldr sent Ketill fláttnef to return the islands to Norwegian control, but he wound up declaring himself the King of the Isles instead – not quite what Haraldr had hoped for.
The northern isles – the Orkneys and Shetland islands – were ruled by the Earls of Orkney, and that earldom was a gift from Haraldr to Rǫgnvaldr Eysteinsson, in compensation for the death of his son while fighting in Scotland. Rǫgnvaldr did not particularly want the earldom and gave the title to his brother Sigurdr. Eventually, Einarr Rǫgnvaldsson would solidify the rule of the Orkneys and Shetlands around 890, and rule until his death in 910 30.
The Viking influence in the isles of Scotland wasn’t restricted to the northern islands, however. The Hebrides – which had revolted against Haraldr and declared themselves independent around 885 – continued to remain at least occupied, if not ruled, by Vikings well past the end of the Viking age 31. The Kingdom of the Isles also controlled the Isle of Mann, and the influence of the Vikings’ culture is still evident in the modern Manx place- and personal names 32.
The Viking invasions and occupations of France happened in a relatively short time and took advantage of the massive disruption in the Frankish kingdoms after the death of Charlemagne and the subsequent partitioning of his empire. By 843, Charles the Bald was established as King of West Francia and was dealing with raids launched by a Norse chieftain by the name of Reginherus – though modern readers may know him better as Ragnar loðbrókr. Ragnar attacked Paris in 845 and occupied the city, ransacking it 33 and leaving only after a ransom of over 2.5 tonnes of silver and gold was paid 34.
On 25 November of 885, Paris was attacked again, this time by Hrólfr, Sigfred, and Sitric. The three warlords brought a force of over 10,000 men with them and laid siege to the city after the Count of Paris, Odo, refused to pay the ransom. The siege lasted over the winter and, by February of 886, King Charles the Fat paid the besieging Vikings 700 pounds of gold and silver to leave and attack the Burgundians further downriver. Most of the Viking army left, but Sigfred’s group stayed until October of that year.
These massive attacks were so devastating to the Frankish kingdom that, in the summer of 911, King Charles the Simple signed the treaty of Saint-Clair-Sur-Epte which granted Hrólfr the territory that would become the Duchy of Normandy in exchange for peace between the Vikings and Franks.
The westward expansion leads to Iceland
Sometimes you take a wrong turn and find a great new coffee shop. A Norwegian named Naddoðr got lost in a storm during a journey to the Faroe Islands and discovered Iceland in 860 CE. He landed on the east coast, climbed a mountain to look for any signs of habitation, found none, and made his way back to the Faroes 35.
Naddoðr was likely not the first person to find the island, though. Landnámabók, the history of the settlement of Iceland, says that a group of Christians called the Papar lived there before the Norse settled. Despite the fact that the Papar may have lived in Iceland from about 800, there is no evidence of them outside of one small area on the south coast 36, though, which means that the first permanent settlement was made by Ingólfr Arnason, a Norwegian.
Ingólfr made his way west from Norway, following the stories told of another Norseman, Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson 37, who had overwintered in the Westfjords of Iceland previously. Hrafna-Flóki got his nickname by bringing three ravens with him when he left the Faroes to find Iceland. One went back to the Faroes, the second returned to his ship, and the third and final one flew westward, towards Iceland.
By 874, Ingólfr had made a settlement at what is now Reykjavík, and others began to join him. By 930 CE, Iceland was considered to be fully settled: The land had all been claimed and divided, and Alþingi, the national assembly of Iceland, had been established in Þingvellir.
Greenland was settled near the end of the Viking Age, and the Norse colonies there lasted well into the 14th century. Just like with Iceland, the locations of the Greenland colonies were unpopulated when the Norse arrived, which meant that there was no raiding or other violence against the original inhabitants of the area. While it wasn’t settled until the end of the 10th century, Greenland’s existence had been known to the Vikings since at least the 930s. Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, one of the original settlers of Iceland, was blown off course while sailing to Iceland from Norway and spotted some small islands between Iceland and what we now know as Greenland 38. It wasn’t until 978 that those islands were revisited, though, when Snæbjörn galti used them as a staging ground to attempt settling Greenland. That attempt, though, ended in disaster, and Snæbjörn was killed by his fellow colonists, who promptly abandoned the attempt 39.
Around 982, Eirikr hinn rauði was exiled from Iceland “due to some killings” for three years, and opted to try and start a settlement in Greenland, rather than returning to more populated areas 40. After spending the required three years in exile, he returned to Iceland and drummed up support to start a new colony. He left with 25 ships, but only 14 survived the journey; despite that, they founded the Eastern and Western Settlements 41, which flourished as a trading hub, sending ivory, fur, and hides from the narwhal, walrus, and polar bears that they hunted to Iceland, and from there further east 42.
Far reaches of the westward expansion leads to Vinland
The first Viking to spot Vinland was Bjarni Herjólfsson, who was blown off course while traveling to Greenland from Norway. He spotted land to the west, realized he was off course, and turned northeast. When he arrived at his father’s farm in Herjólfsness, he told the story of the land he spotted, which eventually got back to Leif Eiríksson. Leif organized an expedition to the new land, and eventually landed at a headland on the north point of a larger island 43. This particular headland was very likely L’Anse Aux Meadows, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it was there that Leif set up a small encampment before returning to Greenland. Leif’s brother, Þórvaldr, led an expedition the next year and returned to the same camp, where he stayed for three years while exploring the land and looking for a suitable place to establish a permanent settlement.
Vinland was not uninhabited, however. The ancestors of the Beothuk people had lived there for millennia by the time the Greenlanders arrived and, while their population was small, Þórvaldr managed to find them. They fought and killed several Beothuk, and were in turn attacked by a large group of them. Þórvaldr died in the battle and the Greenlanders were forced to retreat to the base camp, and eventually abandoned the island.
There was one further voyage to Vinland, undertaken by Freydis Eiríksdóttir, which returned with a huge cargo. Despite that, because of the killing of a number of Icelanders by Freydis’ group of Greenlanders, and the danger posed by the Beothuk, there were no further recorded voyages to Vinland.
The end of the era of westward expansion for the Vikings
The Viking age in western Europe was a complex period. The violence against continental European, British, and Irish coastlines – and in particular religious and urban centers – defines it in the popular culture, and for good reason. While the prayer “save us, O Lord, from the fury of the Northmen” may be apocryphal, it was created for a reason: the violence visited by the Vikings was unparalleled, especially against the church. The why of that violence is still unanswered, and likely will be forevermore.
But despite the sacking, burning, pillaging, and murder that dominated the Viking experience in heavily populated European territory, the Vikings were also explorers, traders, and colonizers. They settled in Iceland, founded colonies in Greenland, and were the first Europeans to make an, admittedly, short-lived stay in North America.
The Viking kingdoms and earldoms in England, Ireland, and the Isles may have faded away, but their influence still persists, in names and traditions, whether it’s the silversmithing of Dublin or the monastery of Kells in Ireland, or the names of English places like York, Whitby, Skegness, and Ormskirk. The very existence of modern England is due entirely to the influence of the descendants of Vikings in France who were granted the duchy of Normandy in exchange for their pledges to peace, and the countries of Iceland and Greenland (which is, technically, still a dependent of Denmark) owe their very existence to the exploration of Vikings.
While the westward expansion of the Vikings was violent and destructive for the most part, its impact throughout history has been far greater than could have been expected.
- Raffield, Price, and Collard
- Dudo of Saint-Quentin wrote his Historia Normannorum between 996 and 1015, and suggested Viking raids were launched because of a lack of women in Scandinavia
- Dumezil, Dillmann, and Einhard
- The Sundeva Hoard has 482 coins in it, all but one of which have eastern, Middle Eastern, or Indian markings on them
- Jesch, p. 8
- Williams, in Brink & Price, p. 195
- Bede, 787/789
- Magi, pp. 233-234
- Ynglingatal 35
- Einhard, 14
- Jesch, pp. 9-10
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 787/789
- ASC, 793
- Blair, p. 55
- ASC, 835
- Abrams, pp. 138-139
- Yeoman, p. 61
- Orkneyinga saga
- Ó Corráin
- An island whose identity is currently unknown. It may have been Lambay Island or, more likely, the Isle of Rathlin. See Ó Crónín, pp. 9-10
- Bryne, pp. 609-610
- See Ó Crónín II, pp. 3-4
- Annals of Ulster, 837
- Annals of Ulster, 841
- Annals of Ulster, 841, 845
- Annals of Ulster, 849
- Annals of Ulster, 871
- Annals of Ulster, 873
- Orkneyinga saga
- Sharples and Smith
- Medieval Sourcebook: Annals of Xanten, 845-853
- Ogg, p. 166
- Literally Raven-Flóki
- Grænlendinga saga
- Snæbjörns saga galti
- Grænlendinga saga
- As well as what is referred to as the Middle Settlement, though most sources combine it with the Eastern Settlement
- Grænlendinga saga
- Eiríks saga hinn rauði, Grænlendinga saga