The Real Origin of Viking Raids

“They (the Vikings) were not ignorant barbarians. They knew exactly what kind of military and ideological pressure they were up against.”

                                                     (Bjørn Myhre)

Whenever we hear of Vikings we are presented with the idea of completely unprovoked attacks by ignorant barbarians who performed acts of cruelty and sacrilege more or less for the fun of it. This is a stereotype that needs to be seriously revised. More and more historians begin to agree that the first Viking attacks were the direct result of Christian provocations and a very real threat against Scandinavian culture and religion and a means to secure ancient and very important international trade routes. This article is a continuation of the article on Iron Age Migrations, see here.

The Viking Age…

It is common to say that the Viking Age began with the attack on Lindisfarne monastery in 793 AD and lasted until the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when king Haraldr Hardráði  (Hard-Ruler) fell. In Britain, even small groups of Vikings operating with three to six ships could wreak havoc, and such raids crushed existing power structures and paved the way for the establishment of the kingdoms of England and Scotland. In Ireland, the Vikings established the first great cities. In the continent they influenced the divisions of the Carolingian Empire and established the realm of Normandy which had an enormous influence on the history of France, England and Italy. Also Norway became a kingdom of its own as a direct result of the Viking Age.

But Viking raids had been going on in Scandinavia a long time before the early 9th century. The various sagas suggest centuries of Viking fleets in the Baltic and Finnish oceans and along the Scandinavian and North European coasts, and Viking chieftains had settled in Aldeigjuborg, Russia, at least by 752 AD. But the raids were given a whole new character from the end of the 8th century AD onwards.

The Christian, Frankish Threat

It is now often believed that the Viking raids from Scandinavia from the start were attempts to ward off the Frankish expansion. Even in the early 8th century AD the threat from the south could be felt in Scandinavia. The Danes in particular could not but see the danger of invasion from the south and began building large defensive fleets and other ocean-based defensive systems. This was intensified when the Frankish leader Karl Martell (714-741) pillaged Friesland in 734 AD and killed their military leader.

This Frankish victory so close to Denmark was the main reason why the Danes built such a strong naval military fleet, yet even as early as the 720s they had built their first canal defensive system, the Kanhave Canal. Another system of defense was to place poles in the ocean close to the entrance to important ports and power centers. The first Danish maritime military base in Schlei is dated to 734 AD and the first constructions of the great wall known as Danevirke began in 737 AD. The Danevirke was a sort of northern European “Chinese Wall” – the palisade was 4-5 meters high, and from the top the Danes could view well the flat landscape to the south. The Danevirke was North-Europe´s largest defense construction in its time and lasted until the 11th century AD.

Charlemagne´s Suppression

Charlemagne (748-814 AD) became the new Frankish king from 768 AD and spent his entire career expanding his realms in all directions. He also forcefully converted his new subjects to Christianity. In the year 782 AD he force-baptized 4500 unwilling Saxon (the Saxons of contemporary Germany south of Denmark) men by the town of Verden, close to present day Bremen. After baptizing the men, he decapitated all 4500 of them. The massacre was but one in a series of similar outrageous acts against heathens who refused Christianity. Adding to this important religious centers were destroyed and priests and priestesses were murdered, raped, tortured, and so on… The Franks were fought ferociously under the leadership of the Saxon king Widukind who used guerilla techniques as the only means by which they could stand against the Frankish land-army.

The Saxons found natural allies in the Danes and many Saxon refugees went there to tell the tales of massacres, sacrileges and abuse. King Widukind himself went to Denmark in 777 AD and received both moral and practical support from the Danish kings, who also made sure to strengthen the Danevirke wall. When Charlemagne continued his aggression against the Saxons in 798 AD, he sent a representative (diplomat) to the Danish king Sigfred at Lejre (Hleidargard, and ancient royal seat and the very one in which Beowulf once met with his monsters…), a Frankish attempt to stop the Danes from supporting and receiving Saxon refugees.

Democracy versus Dictatorship

But the Danes had heard the tales of Widukind and the Saxon people many times already and understood that their fate could easily also become the fate of Denmark. Reports spread to Norway, since the ocean way between Denmark and important Norwegian power centers in Viken, Agder and Rogaland was very short. It was not only the massacre in Verden and the new religion that frightened them (or, perhaps, angered them… but also the realization that Charlemagne´s empire threatened the very core of their cultural and political system.

Charlemagne had crushed the old Saxon societal order where the political and still quite democratic parliament-system played such an important role. Fortunately we have some detailed descriptions of this from the monk Lebuini who was a missionary among the Saxons in 770 AD and wrote down his observations:

“It is the custom among the Saxons that once a year they hold council by the river Weser…There came usually all the chiefs from all the various areas (tribes) as well as 12 chosen nobles, 12 free men and even 12 less free men (slaves? Vassals?) There together they renewed their laws, made decisions in important court cases and decided what to do in the year´s coming peace and war operations…”

Indeed, other sources confirm that there were some 36 “parliament-men” representing the highest political power in all public cases among the Saxons. To compare, the Icelandic parliament had to begin with 36 leaders. We may reasonably assume that this custom was general among all the Germanic-Scandinavian tribes.

Charlemagne understood that this kind of decentralized democratic ruling system threatened the kind of rule that he wanted, and promptly forbid it entirely as soon as he conquered Sachsen during the 780s. He wanted absolute power monopoly and introduced his own laws overruling all others. Thereafter he also introduced Christianity with violence and the death penalty to all heathens and heretics.

The Very Real Threat

Scandinavian people had never before encountered such a dominant threat against their cultural, political and religious traditions. The way in which Charlemagne ruled was completely at odds with all their traditions. They had seen how he went forth in Sachsen, and saw that he also made attempts to gain influence in England and managed to make an alliance with the English people in 793 AD. It was easy for Scandinavians to see that the alliance between England and Frankland was dangerous and could be a way of strengthening the forces against Denmark. Norway lay right next in their path.

Norwegians allied themselves with the Danes in their common interest against further Frankish expansion. In 787, the Franks had established a missionary station in Bremen very close to the Danish border at the time, and represented a possible military challenge against the Danes. They had seen for themselves that Christening under Charlemagne´s “protection” was strongly associated with military and political submission.

With their intelligence-network in the form of traders, the Danes and the Norwegians gathered the information (confirmed in writing) that they were on the Anglo-Saxon missionary agenda. They had also seen and understood the consequences of Frankish missionary activity. Around 791 Charlemagne had gained so much power that he could go against Denmark.

Christian “Vikings” versus Heathen Vikings…

Like the heathen Scandinavians, Christian Charlemagne also based his power on pillaging just like the Vikings. His officers expected many great gifts, and Charlemagne could only comply by expanding militarily and pillaging his new subjects. The Frankish pillaging has been called an “Orgy of Conquests”. Charlemagne´s officers and soldiers were motivated by the prospect of spoils.

The Saxons fought relentlessly against the Franks for almost thirty years until they were thoroughly crushed. In 799, Charlemagne chased all the old Saxon clans away and gave their lands to his own men. More than 10 000 free people were exiled and made into serfs. Even the defeated Saxon noblemen were made into serfs, and in this and many other ways the entire Saxon population was thoroughly humiliated.

Charlemagne´s alliance with the English and the way his expansions negatively affected the important and age-old Scandinavian international trade with prestigious goods from Asia and southern Europe was another serious threat. They also remembered how they had earlier been able to stand up against the Roman Empire (The Franks were by themselves and the entire Catholic world considered the new Roman Empire, only now it was also “Holy”).

The Scandinavians and the Danes understood that they could not stand up against a Frankish land-army. However, they were the masters of naval warfare. They wanted to scare the Franks away. Some historians believe this was the reason for the rapid development of the famous Viking Ship constructions that began in this age. They used some years to build up a new fleet, and before the end of the 8th century this particular kind of war ship was tried out and deemed forever after successful.

The first Viking attacks were most certainly meant to frighten the Franks out of their wits and a majority of them were consciously directed against Christian holy places and monasteries. As Bjørn Myhre writes about the Vikings: “They were not ignorant barbarians. They knew exactly the kind of military and ideological pressure they were up against.”

Indeed, the many and vicious Viking attacks did have a preventive effect: They showed the Franks and the English what kind of revenge they could expect if they tried to advance further north.

Of course, the expeditions proved very lucrative and worked well to increase the power of ruling elites…

The most important source to this article is Torgrim Titlestad´s “Norge i vikingtid (Stavanger 2011)

28 Responses to The Real Origin of Viking Raids

  1. Kathy Salkeld Bonilla says:

    Well done!

  2. Lucy Lynch says:

    Thank you for this article. It has given me a new insight to what was happening during the 700′s.

    • Arthur Robey says:

      Yes. It puts a completely different spin on what I was spoon fed in history. I had a fantasy of reading it out to my class, and watching the reaction of of my teacher.
      I probably would have been caned.

  3. Thorgrun Odden says:

    The shutting of the ancient trade routes to Rome and the East by the Holy Roman Empire was the principle reason that the Rus trade routes down the Volga were established. The Vikings went around the Christian trade blockage, and also fought many battles in France and England for the same reason. History is written by the victor. Truth has a way of winning however.
    To bad Harald Hardrada didn’t defeat the Christian king, Harold at Stamford Bridge, treachery and lies most likely were the cause of this defeat. Harald Hardrada, may he be remembered, throughout time, warrior king, his clan hasn’t forgotten!

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  5. Eric Swanson says:

    This is certainly a very interesting explanation of what the vikings did and why they did it. It all makes sense to me now. This is certainly not what I was taught in school about the vikings, but it makes sense to me. I need to read and study more. Perhaps I will start with Torgrim, Tltlestad’s book.

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  7. Mark says:

    This article needs to go viral……

    It sounds like an Aspect of the expansion/instituition of the System; the ensuing new world order.

    This also sheds clearer light on the actions by founders of Black Metal in Norway. The church burnings.

  8. Leif Trollbani says:

    I think Thorgrun Odden is on the right track. The Skandinaviabns were in particular forst and formost TRADERS. Lindisfarne as an island had unique features and requirements. It was a large religious establishment which needed to import and pay for many of it’s requirements, including food. It would not surprise me if the real origin of the Lindisfarne raid was that the Christian Monks defaulted on paying their bills to the Heathen Traders and fishermen and the vikings decided to 1) collect their debts personally and 2) Create an example which discouraged further default on debts.

    Of course, in the course of the raid, when they discovered how much silver the Monastry at Lindisfarne actually had squirrelled away, the cat was out of the bag!

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  12. Nico de Vos says:

    It is also interesting to see how in the 9th century the history of the Frisians mixes with that of the Danes. To prevent viking raids after the death of Charlemagne The Saxon Slayer the Danes were asked to rule Friesland. In fact this included the entire North Sea coast from current Dunkirk (meeting Normandy) to Danmark.


  13. Robert McCormick says:

    I agree with this historical analysis. The old idea thar the Vikings only lusted for rape and pillage is too simplistic. Another contribution made by the Vikings is they established the principle of separation church and state. For two hundred years the Catholic mass ended with the prayer: “Domine salvabis nos ab Ira Normanorum.” “Dear Lord preserve us from the wrath of the Northmen.” However, only Vikings who on land they conquered could repel other Vikings. The foundation of the modern feudal states was based on the strong arms of Vikings who had conquered new lands and defended their kingdoms by strength, not prayers. Vikings understood that all is conflict and they understood the principle of creative destruction that comes from conflict. They did not need Plato to tell them: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

  14. Neil Wasmund says:

    Excellent essay, and it is interesting to note how one-sided the written history being taught still is, even 1000 years later.

  15. Drake says:

    Thorgrun answered my question to some degree. Which was about whether the spread of Islam had any effect on this. Islam’s spread had the Christian world of Rome and Byzantium sandwiched between the pagans and the Arabs. This little bit from wikipedia mentions Charlemagne at the end and how he might not have come to power had it not been for the Arab raids. They also suggest that feudalism came about for the same reason. When the Byzantines lost Egypt and Syria and navigation to the south they had to turn north and inward to make up for it.
    I’m not a historian but my guess is that had the Christians not succeeded in converting the north they would not have the strenght to fight the crusades and Europe would have been Islamic for the last 1000 years. I wonder what the relationship was like between Heathens and Muslims back then and how it would have played out without the Christians in the middle.

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  17. G Coldham says:

    I’m not so convinced. One of the prime forces behind he Viking raids was the inheritance tradition of dividing lands between sons, and the belief in lebensraum and “expansionism by war” as a means of new land acquisition. After 850 nobody was attacking Norse lands, and the Viking expansion was self-propelled & unprovoked in fact. One Danish king sent a fleet to burn Paris in that year in an entirely unprovoked attack. The “vikking” became a summer sport or pastime which was of course extremely lucrative, until the Vikings realised they could aterrorise Francia / Neustris to the point that they were able to grab an entire province [later Normandy] ceded to them officially in 911 AD.

  18. Dana Ely says:

    The northern north like Norway and the like, seem to me to be Christianized by terror. The very same sort of terror at the same time in the 700s the Muslims were using to Islamacize great stretches of the Mediterranean coast. Actually the terror here was Christian terror used by Charlemagne to tame the Saxons and also terrorize their northern cousins.
    In 782 Charlemagne was pissed at the Saxons so he baptized 4,500 men and then cut off their heads at Verden. Sounds positively Islamic.

    Rodney Stark, who has written a boatload of books on the idea that ‘Christianity is good’ (relatively speaking) has another recent book out titled ‘How the West Won.’(2014) Regarding pre-Christian Europe, especially northern Europe, nowadays few people discuss the beheading of the 4500 Saxons in 782 at Verden in the name of the Prince of Peace. In today’s demographics that is 180,000 hairy dudes. That is a lot of men, who, contrary to our time, were very valuable as a resource in those days. A few years ago I had never heard of Verden and usually understood the success of Christianity as due to its greater guilt generating activities creating more cooperation.

    In this view (just a suggestion in the book) Christianity was imposed in the most brutal fashion on the people of the North, it was a religion they did not want, it was not the doctrine that attracted them, it was the simple idea of living another day that forced them to pay lip service to Jesus. It was a forcible conversion of fear for the people of the North, not a conversion of belief. On p. 97 Stark discusses the idea that the Vikings, a hundred years later, targeted British Monasteries and Monks, not necessarily because they were defenseless but as Rodney Stark says, “because they were angry about efforts to Christianize the North. Especially provocative would have been the atrocities committed by Charlemagne, who, for example, had about 4,500 unarmed Saxon captives forcibly baptized and then executed. The Vikings seem to have known that Charlemagne had issued an edict imposing the death sentence on all who tried to resist Christianization.”

    Stark cites a 2009 book by Robert Ferguson for this idea about the Vikings attacking religious centers in England as a sort of revenge, ‘The Vikings, a History,’ p 54.

    So you could look at the Christianization of the North as a forced conversion of terror.

    Stark has written other books on the Christianization of the Roman Empire emphasizing Christianity’s emphasis on the the respect for women and the coming together to help the sick and poor, two things Paganism, which was more Darwinist, ignored. But here he acknowledges Christianity was not always the religion of peace.

    At the same time as the Saxon beheadings, Charlemagne, again in the name of the price of peace sent every third Saxon family south to live and be Christianized. Ethnically cleansed and beheaded the Saxons converted. Perhaps they learned their lessons too well, nowadays maybe they love too much.

    Mass beheadings and ethnic cleansing, two ideas you will not hear discussed much from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.

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  20. Thank you so much for this informative article! Your hypothesis is a revelation to me! I was taught that the Vikings began their raiding in response to over-population of their home lands, which is possible since this was the beginning of the Medieval Warming Period when the levels of the ocean rose, claiming some of their best farm lands.
    The coming of the Christians would have been a huge detriment to their way of life, so the burning and pillaging of churches makes sense too, as Mark, above, says. I also believe Leif Trollbani’s idea that the Vikings were collecting taxes, as some Danish kings may have held portions of England going back to the 7th century. Keep up the good work!

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  22. John Thorburn says:

    Very interesting my past folks came from Norway to Caithness ( Freswick I think) and became builders. The family, well some of them came south became fishermen and one a blacksmith ( like Thor) and I live eight miles from Lindisfarne. So yes I never thought the oldies where murdering blood thirsty folk.

  23. John Thorburn says:

    Excellent article, my family came to Caithness Scotland from Norway and became builders. Later some of the folks went south to Northumberland became fishermen and one even a blacksmith ( remember Thor) I now live eight miles from Lindisfarne and always felt my past folks where educated and very civilised people.

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  27. Kikkan says:

    The attack on Lindisfarne that started the viking age, was a sort of guerillawarfare against Charlemagne. They did not have the manpower to attack his army, so they attacked his institutions instead. In order to focus its bloody past elsewhere, i do believe christianity has played its part in not pointing out the reason for the start off the viking age.

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