Thanks to these Viking journeys, the Scandinavian peoples came into contact with a large number of territories and their inhabitants (when there were any), inevitably favoring an exchange of beliefs, customs and culture. Contrary to what one might expect from a conquering and expansionist people like the Nordics, it was they who ended up being assimilated by the cultures they invaded, adopting, for example, their religion. Although we shouldn’t underestimate the magnificent legacy they left to their descendants and did their part to make today’s society what it is.
Where did the Vikings come from?
Scandinavia is the name given to the geographical and cultural region from which the Vikings come. This name includes the Nordic peoples established in the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden and who had a common language, religion and customs.
The coasts of the Norwegian Sea, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea were where the Vikings lived. Due to the rugged geography of the Viking territories, only a narrow strip of coastline was suitable for life.
Why did the Vikings travel?
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what motivated them to leave their Viking territory to visit unknown countries, although there are various theories regarding this. It is undeniable that human beings, since their origins, have always had the need or the curiosity to explore and investigate everything around them. Of course, the Scandinavian peoples would have been no different. Some theories refer to the scarce and less fertile arable land available in Norway, and therefore to the need to seek better land, as the main cause of the start of the Viking expansion. Others simply speak of their desire for fame and wealth.In any case, the reasons why these brave (or unwitting) adventurers stepped out into the dangerous and unknown open sea, risking their lives with few guarantees of success, remains a mystery.
Where did the Vikings travel?
During the nearly 300 years that Vikings existed as such, they visited a large area of the planet. They spread their tentacles across much of Europe. Viking routes reached America via Iceland and Greenland to the west. To the east, Viking raids reached Russia, Istanbul and even set foot in North Africa.
Viking travels in the British Isles
Viking travels to England
The history of England is strongly linked to the Nordic peoples. Viking attacks on Europe begin, probably due to geographical proximity, from the kingdoms that make up England today. The first documented Viking raid occurred in 793, in a monastery located on the small island of Lindisfarne, in the north-east of present-day England. This fact is considered by scholars to be the beginning of the Viking era. Subsequently, the invasions of the Vikings in English lands occurred more or less continuously.
But the Nordics were not satisfied with sporadic raids with the aim of plundering coastal cities and monasteries. In 865 they assembled a large army and invaded much of the English kingdoms creating a permanent settlement in York which they named Jorvik . After several peace treaties and declarations of war, the Danes were finally expelled from York. But not for long, then, in 947 a new wave of Viking attacks began, recapturing New York. The intention of these new Vikings, led by Harald Hardrada, was to occupy the throne of England.
The various Viking conquests in English lands almost induced the Viking invaders to gain control of the territory but, finally, in 1066, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harald was defeated. This battle marks the end of the Viking era. Curiously, the one who ended up occupying the throne of England was William I the Conqueror, a Norman, that is, a descendant of the Vikings who had settled in France.
Viking travels to Ireland
The Vikings came to Irish lands to stay. The first attacks occurred around the year 795 in coastal monasteries. These looting expeditions lasted for nearly 40 years. By 830 the marauders were already numerous and well organized fleets and began to establish permanent settlements both on the coasts and in the interior of the island. On many occasions these colonizations were accepted or tolerated by the native settlers to the point of leading to a mixture of peoples and cultures.
The legacy left by the Nordics in Ireland is very important. Far from the usual image of this barbarian and bloodthirsty culture, they established a large trade network linking Ireland with an enormous expanse of the planet that included Iceland to the Baltic and Turkey. They also founded cities and towns such as Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, Youghal, Arklow, Wicklow or Dublin itself . They even left their mark on the country’s art. It is the proof of the decorating style urns , which is characteristic for the representation of intertwined animals such as snakes or greyhounds and which appear in numerous historical relics that are currently found in the National Museum of Ireland.
Viking travels in Scotland
There is evidence of a more or less continuous Viking presence in the northern islands , Shetland and Orkney, the islands to the west, Hebrides and Mann, and in other enclaves such as Caithness and Sutherland. These territories were mostly colonized by the Norwegians around the year 830 and, depending on the time, were either part of the kingdom of Norway or were formed as independent kingdoms.
Viking travels in Wales
Although the Vikings had enclaves in Wales, they never had real political or military control over the area and their presence was virtually anecdotal.
Viking travels to Iceland
Following in the footsteps of this first man, some Norwegians, fleeing the government of the Norwegian king Harald I, went to found a new community in this promising new land. Most of the new settlers were of Norwegian descent, but there is scientific evidence confirming that they brought Celtic slaves with them from Scotland and Ireland.
Around the year 930, the Alþingi was founded, the first Icelandic national assembly, the predecessor of the present Icelandic parliament. As the rest of the world sank, hopelessly, into feudalism, Iceland became one of the world’s first representative democracies. The decisions were made by the consent of free men, even though, when the critical moment came, he was not strong enough to enforce the laws he enacted.
Migration to Iceland was decreasing until approximately the year 1000. In this year the island was Christianized.
Viking travels in Greenland
In 982 Erik the Red was expelled from Iceland on murder charges. He took advantage of the 3 years of exile to start a journey of exploration that would culminate in the discovery of a new territory (already sighted by other previous adventurers, but never trampled) after 320 kilometers of navigation. Although at first he could not disembark due to adverse weather conditions, the currents dragged him south of the island where he finally landed at Cape Farewell.
During the next two winters, Erik and his companions set out to explore the island he called Greenland (green land, although the island didn’t have much green). The attractive name served him so much that, around 985, after the end of his exile, he returned to Iceland and convinced a group of compatriots to emigrate with 25 ships to the new land. Only 14 of the ships, after a very tough voyage, were able to see the coasts of Greenland. In this new territory 3 settlements inhabited by more than 5000 inhabitants flourished in about 500 farms.
Nearly 500 years later, the Nordic settlements were disappearing until, in the 15th century, no trace of the Vikings remained in Greenland. They mixed various hypotheses to explain the collapse of Nordic society on the island . Perhaps, the combination of different circumstances was what forced the settlers to flee their homes. Scientific studies show a small ice age between the late 14th and early 15th centuries that lasted for several decades. The people of Greenland needed trade with Norway to supply themselves due to the scarce resources at their disposal.This practice could be made impossible due to the low temperatures and blocks of ice the ships encountered during their voyages.
It is also believed that the demise of the colonies is due to the overexploitation of the already insignificant existing resources. Other causes considered are black plague infections from Europe or conflicts with other peoples such as the Inuit , the English and German pirates or with the whalers of Biscay. Recent studies show new data that could contribute to the mysterious disappearance of the Scandinavians in Greenland. The Greenlanders had a monopoly on the walrus ivory trade in Europe and their economy depended almost exclusively on this business.From around 1400, Europeans, for reasons still unknown, stopped consuming this material and the lack of demand caused the economy of the Arctic island to collapse.
Viking travels in America
Due to the island’s scarce timber resources, around the year 1000, a son of Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson, decided to travel west in search of new territories in which to find the precious raw material. Leif followed in the footsteps of Bjarni Herjólfsson who, in 986, had already sighted and described the coasts of a new territory. Today we know that these coasts were the present Baffin Island, the Labrador Peninsula and the Newfoundland Island, all on the American continent. Leif called them Helluland (land of flat stones), Markland (land of forests) and Vinland (land of wine, due to the many vines he found). And so America was discovered 500 years earlier of the date that is officially considered that of the discovery of the new continent.
After the exploration, Erik’s son returned to Greenland and took over the family farm after his father’s death, but the sagas say that there were 3 Viking trips to America, particularly to Vinland, although, continuous comparisons with the natives made it impossible to colonize the new lands.
Viking travels to France
The French coasts also suffered violent raids by Viking pirates starting from the 9th century. The first attacks took place in the English Channel. They also went up the rivers, such as the Loire, the Garonne, the Seine or the Adour, to access the towns and cities of the interior. Going up precisely one of these rivers, the Seine, it is as if in the year 845 the Vikings attacked Paris . The Vikings in Paris assembled a fleet of 120 ships commanded by Ragnar Lodbrok, saved the coastal defensive line created by Charlemagne himself, and arrived in the city. The king, Carlos el Calvo, is forced to pay a ransom to free the city and prevent its devastation.
But this isn’t the only time Paris has been attacked by the Vikings, there have been many more. The most important occurred between the years 885 and 886 , when a massive Viking army (historians estimate that it could have been about 30,000 men) went up the Seine again to conquer Paris. The Viking attack on Paris will last several days of fruitless battles, as they fail to enter the city despite greatly weakening the defensive line. Finally, Carlos el Gordo, the Carolingian emperor, signs a peace agreement pledging to pay homage to the Nordics and allowing them to pass through Burgundy.
In the year 911, the last major attacks on France by the Vikings occurred. Rollon, a Viking leader, manages to sign a treaty with the king of France, Charles the Simple, with which he is granted the Duchy of Normandy in exchange for the end of the attacks. From then on, he and his men were called Normans and converted to Catholicism. William the Conqueror, a descendant of this ducal dynasty, was the first Norman king of England, having conquered it in 1066. This fact coincides with what historians consider the end of the Viking age.
Viking travels to Spain
The terrible Viking hordes also attacked the Iberian Peninsula . The historical sources are confusing and incomplete, and there are virtually no Viking remains in Spain to back it up. But, even so, there is enough evidence that what is now Spain and Portugal was also a destination for Viking travel. In the year 844 a Viking expedition is sighted in the city of Gijón and subsequently attacks the Galician lands (A Coruña), descends southwards along the coast and enters the Al-Andalus where they attack the cities of Lisbon, Cadiz and Seville climbing from the Guadalquivir with its ships . From Seville they went inland to attack other cities.Finally, the forces of Emir Abd al-Rahman I defeat the bulk of the invading army. More than 1000 Vikings in Seville died in the battles and another 400 were captured and executed . The rest of the invaders were expelled from the territory.
This defeat does not end, far from it, with new waves of Viking attacks and looting on the peninsula in the following years. In 858 they attacked Algeciras, Orihuela and the Balearic Islands, establishing a base in the south of France from where they attacked other cities. Some historians claim to have conquered Pamplona in 859 by going up the Ebro River and its tributaries, although other scholars claim that they entered the city of Navarre from the Bay of Biscay. In any case, they took King García Iñiguez of Pamplona as a prisoner and did not release him until he received a large ransom. In the same year of 858 the Vikings landed in Galicia and attacked Santiago de Compostela by going up the Arosa River.
A new wave of attacks occurred during the second half of the 10th century and lasted for about 5 years. During these years they again attacked Lisbon and Santiago de Compostela among other cities. And they would return again around the year 1030 to continue their forays into Galicia and the Spanish Levant, where they established Viking settlements in Spain in the form of small kingdoms in Valencia, Almería, Denia and the Balearic Islands.
The inhabitants of the city of Cudillero assume that they are descendants of the Vikings in Spain . This small town on the Asturian coast, where the Vikings settled, was used as a base for their ships to plunder the wealthy Al-Andalus and the Galician coasts.
Viking travels to Italy
Were the Vikings in Rome? From the base established in the south of France in 858, the barbarians attacked various Italian cities such as Genoa or Pisa. But the city they most wanted to conquer was undoubtedly Rome . A city built of marble and full of temples and churches, it must have been tremendously rich. The anecdote of this Viking journey in search of Rome is that he failed to reach the desired destination. Instead of going up the Tiber River, they did so from the Magra, encountering the city of the Moon instead of Rome. The opulence and large number of churches in the city confused the Vikings.The invaders’ reaction to being aware of their mistake was to burn down the city and plunder the surroundings with more intensity than usual.
The Norman presence in southern Italy is of different origin than the rest of the territories. The Vikings arrived in the year 1022 and became mercenaries in the dispute between the Lombards, Byzantines and Muslims that loomed on the island of Sicily and in southern Italy. After long struggles and changes of ranks, the Scandinavians ended up taking over the territory and founding the Kingdom of Sicily in the year 1029. The Kingdom of Sicily remained in the hands of the Normans until the end of the twelfth century. Later it remained as an independent kingdom until the early nineteenth century became part of the Kingdom of Naples creating what would have been the germ of today’s Italy.
Viking travels to Russia
The Varangians , Vikings originally from Sweden, migrated to what is now known as Russia and Ukraine during the 9th and 10th centuries, reaching these lands and, through them, eastwards, using the Dnieper rivers as navigation routes. And Volga. These were two important trade routes that connected the south and north of the continent and which they ended up controlling. But the Varangians did not come to these lands just to trade, they also engaged in piracy and became mercenaries.
There are reliable sources that attribute to Rus (descendants of the Swedish Vikings) , if not to the origin of Russia , at least an important contribution to its creation thanks to the foundation of some important Viking cities, such as Kiev, both in Russia and Ukraine.
Viking travels in Constantinople
Even the travel Vikings reached Constantinople . Miklagard was the name that the Vikings gave to the richest and most prosperous city in the world. Constantinople was the natural border between Asia and Europe and therefore one of the most important trade crossroads of the late 10th and early 11th centuries. No other place was so desired by the Norwegians as this city full of treasures. Because of its wealth it was strongly defended and all Viking attacks were unsuccessful.
The Byzantine emperors, seeing the courage and ferocity of these warriors, offered to enter their service as mercenaries. Thus it was that, finally, the Varangians (name given to the Vikings by Sweden) managed to enter Constantinople, but this time, to defend it. The Varega Guard , as they were called, was an elite corps that protected the city and was the emperor’s personal guard. They fought countless battles, including against the Crusaders.
Today it is possible to see the footprint of the Vikings in present-day Istanbul in the form of two runic inscriptions carved in the marble of the Hagia Sophia .