When we think of the Vikings, we generally think of the early medieval Scandinavians who embarked on raids against their neighbours from the ninth to the 11th century. But the Viking age was about far more than invading and pillaging, says historian Levi Roach. Here, he chooses eight key dates that explain the expansion of the Vikings in Europe and beyond…
February 7, 2019 at 4:31 pm
Inspired by History Extra’s 8 key Viking dates you need to know’article, which focuses almost exclusively on Viking activity in England, I’ve come up with a different list – which seeks to place the Viking phenomenon more firmly in its European and global context. The term ‘Viking’ (sometimes now used with a lower-case V) originally referred to those early medieval Scandinavians who embarked on raids against their neighbours. However, as these eight dates reveal, the Viking Age was about far more than invading and pillaging…
782: First contact with wider Europe
For all the attention garnered by the sack of Lindisfarne in 793, this is not, in fact, the first mention of the Vikings. It is not even the first recorded attack. Already in 789, we hear of a Viking group killing a royal officer in southern England. And seven years earlier (782), we are informed that “the Northmen, messengers of King Sigfred [of Denmark]”, came to the court of the great continental ruler Charlemagne in order to establish diplomatic contact.
This embassy sheds important light on the origins and causes of the Viking Age. Trading links between England, the continental mainland and Scandinavia had been growing for some time – as finds of jewellery, ceramics and other imported matters at the southern Danish port of Ribe reveal. According to a study led by archaeologists at the University of York, Vikings were traveling from Norway to a marketplace at Ribe as early as 725 – well before their ‘infamous pillaging’ years.
The sudden appearance of Viking raiders in the later years of the eighth century can be explained by Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony, just south of Denmark. This was first attempted in 772 and consolidated over the next 30 years. It brought the Frankish empire – the power in mainland Europe – face to face with the Danes, opening new points of contact and new possibilities for raiding. Suddenly, the Danes became aware of the wealth, power and influence of their new neighbours. It was to Denmark that the Saxon leader Widukind fled when he was defeated by Charlemagne’s troops in 777. And just half a decade later, Sigfred made contact with Charlemagne.