Vikings in East Anglia: Conquest and Impact

Restoration of the Sutton Hoo helmet / National Trust, London

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 04.22.2017
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

East Anglia had a special relationship with the Vikings. They attacked this region many times and settled here in large numbers. For generations they ruled it as part of the Danelaw (a geographic region where Danish laws applied) in a separate kingdom, and long after it became part of a united England their influence continued to be felt. In some ways, that influence still remains.

A Brief Introduction to the Vikings

By Eleanor Heans-Glogowska

Who Were the Vikings?

The exact meaning of the term “Viking” remains uncertain. The Old Norse (the language spoken in medieval Scandinavia) word vik means bay or creek, so one suggestion is that this refers to the practice of raiders to conceal themselves in bays prior to launching a raid. Another suggestion is that it comes from the verb vikja, which means “to turn aside” and refers to people who had left their homeland. The world could also refer to a geographical area, namely Vik, which is an area around the Oslofjord.[1]

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles we see reference to wicing, which is used to describe pirates operating in the Mediterranean, but these were not Scandinavian. It was only in the 10th century that Scandinavians began to be called “Vikings” in the Anglo-Saxon texts. In the Old Norse sagas víkingr means pirate or warrior, and an expedition is termed víking.[2]

It is important to remember that the term “Viking” does not refer to a particular ethnic group. Historical texts from Western Europe refer to the raiders that we now know as Vikings as Dani (Danes), Nordmanni (Norwegians), or “Northmen” without regard to their actual nationality. They were also referred to as “heathens” and “pagans” or gentiles. In Eastern Europe the Scandinavian invaders were referred to as “Rus”, which ultimately derives from a Finnish word meaning “rowers” or “crew of oarsmen”. The Rus gave their name to Russia.[3] Groups of Viking warriors consisted of many different nationalities, just as a mercenary army today might.[4]

The Scandinavians who raided, conquered and colonised areas from the North Atlantic, England, the Frankish Empire and beyond from the 8th to the 11th centuries were probably mostly from Denmark and Sweden.[5]

The Scandinavian Homelands

When the first Viking raids took place, the formation of the kingdoms which we now know as Norway, Denmark and Sweden was yet to take place. It is not until the 11th century that we can speak of, for example, a kingdom of Norway. Many Scandinavian rulers had links with England. The Norwegian kings Óláfr Tryggvason (reigned 995-1000) and Óláfr Haraldsson (reigned 1015-1028), who were the first kings to exercise significant control over the whole of Norway, were both involved in raiding and also fought as mercenaries for the English king against other Scandinavian invaders. When king Æthelred the “unready” was forced into exile in Normandy after the conquest of England by the Danish King Svein Forkbeard, he was accompanied by Óláfr Haraldsson. It is likely that the money gained by mercenary activity and raiding was very important when it came to making a bid for the kingship.

Everyday Life

The Scandinavian countries were mainly rural, but we do have evidence of early trading places as Kaupang in Norway, Hedeby in Denmark and Birka in Sweden. By the 11th century, towns had developed which were centres of trade and royal and ecclesiastical administration. An example of this is Trondheim in Norway.

Scandinavian imports to England include walrus ivory, steatite or soapstone and schist.

The Longhouse

Viking longhouse / Photo by Paul Berzinn, Wikimedia Commons

The typical house of the Viking Age is the longhouse. This had a hall with benches to either side and a hearth. This was the main living area where people ate and slept. There was also an area for animals. The roof was covered in turf.


Clothes were made from wool, linen or animal skins. Women wore oval-shaped brooches to hold their clothes together.


Scandinavia’s first script developed as early as the 1st or 2nd century AD. The Roman alphabet was introduced with the conversion to Christianity.

Pre-Christian Religion in Scandinavia

When the Viking raids on England first began, the peoples of Scandinavia were pagans. We have a very rich mythology preserved in sagas and poetry. One of our most important sources is the Poetic Edda, written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. However, we have to be careful when we use this source as it was written in the 13th century, long after Iceland and Scandinavia as a whole had converted to Christianity.

The Lejre Odin

Some Key Terms for Old Norse Mythology

  • Miðgarðr – “the fenced world in the middle”. This I the inhabited part of the world.
  • Ásgarðr – “the fenced world of the Æsir (gods)
  • Útgarðr / Jǫtunheimr – “the world outside / the world of the giants”. These terms both describe where the giants, the enemies of the gods, live.
  • Yggdrasill – “the world tree”. This grows in the middle of Ásgarðr. It reaches to the sky and its roots encompass the world.
  • Ymir – a giant killed by the Æsir, who then shaped the world from his body. This is why the gods and the giants are enemies.
  • Ragnarǫk – the end of the world.[6]

A Few Norse Gods

  • Óðinn – this one-eyed god lives in Vallhǫll, the hall of the slain warriors who continuously feast and battle, preparing to fight the giants at Ragnarǫk, the end of the world.
  • Þórr – Þórr continually fights the giants with the aid of his hammer, Mjollnir.
  • Loki – Loki is a troublemaker. At Ragnarǫk he joins the giants.
  • Freyja – Freyja is often connected with fertility. She can be recognised by her famous necklace.
  • Iðunn – Iðunn keeps the apples which allow the gods to stay young.

Pre-Christian Cult

We know from place names that different gods were worshiped in different areas For example, many place names in Sweden and Denmark include Óðinn, but very few in Norway and Iceland. Þórr seems to have been popular throughout Scandinavia.[7]

There was probably a great deal of regional variation in religious beliefs and practices. This is reflected in the mythology where we often have different versions of the same myth.

There were no temples or priests, and religious practices were probably carried out in the home. A poem composed by Sighvatr, who was in the service of the (Christian) King Óláfr Haraldsson, tells of his journey in an area of Sweden which was still pagan. He describes how he asked for hospitality in a farm but was turned away because the people there were sacrificing to the elves.[8]

Sacrificial feasting hosted by leading members of the community also seems to have been an important element of pagan cult.

Many Viking-age pagan graves include grave goods, and some are very richly furnished. For example, the Oseberg ship burial contained amongst other things cooking utensils, beds and bed linen, a cart, sledges, 13 horses, six dogs and two oxen.[9] This suggests the idea of a journey to the next world which must have closely resembled our own.

What Caused the Viking Raids

As with the meaning of the word “Viking”, this is a problematic issue with no single answer. It has been suggested that a growth in population and a subsequent lack of good, arable land motivated young men to seek their fortunes abroad. It is true that good arable land is hard to come by in Norway, but this is not the case elsewhere in Scandinavia, and archaeological evidence does not show a sharp increase in population. It is probably more likely that increased trade in northwest Europe, particularly between England and the Continent laid the foundation for the Viking raids. Scandinavia was part of this trade network as an important source of furs and ivory, and contact with traders and the countries engaged in trade introduced new knowledge into Scandinavia, such as the introduction of sail-ships. Further to this increased contact meant that the wealth and political divisions of Europe were known. The merchant ships operating in the Baltic were also easy targets for pirates who later became active further afield.[10] Viking armies were able to take advantage of conflicts within, for example, the Frankish empire by hiring out their services as mercenaries and were richly rewarded for this.

The Vikings in England

The east end of Lindisfarne Priory Church, Northumberland. The rainbow arch is visible, with the remains of the presbytery behind it. / Photo by Nilfanion, Wikimedia Commons

Our earliest reference to “Northmen” in England tells of three ships landing on the Dorset coast. They were greeted by the reeve, who assumed that they intended to trade. Their plans were in fact less peaceful and they killed the reeve and his men.[11] On 8th June 793 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “the ravages of the heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter”. This is usually taken as the beginning of the Viking raids on England.

From the 830s raids became more frequent. In 850/1 the nature of the raids changed. In this year a group of Viking raiders did not return to their homelands in the winter but stayed in England at Thanet. In 851 a Viking force of around 350 ships attacked London and Canterbury, forcing the Mercian King Berhtwulf and his army to flee. In 856/7 “a great heathen army” spent the winter in East Anglia. This army moved through England in the following years and in 869 they killed Edmund, king of the East Angles, and conquered the kingdom.

From East Anglia the army mounted a series of attacks against Wessex and in other parts of England. In 874 the Vikings conquered Mercia and set up a puppet king there. In 875 the Viking leader Halfdan conquered Northumbria, and the following year the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles records that they “shared out the land of the Northumbrians and they proceeded to plough and support themselves”. This represents the establishment of the northern part of Scandinavian settlement known as the Danelaw.[12]

In 875 the army invaded Wessex for a second time. In 877 the army divided up Mercia and the Scandinavian settlements in the east midlands were established. A third invasion of Wessex was undertaken in 878 under the Viking leader Guthrum. They were initially successful and drove Alfred, king of Wessex, into hiding. However, Alfred launched a counterattack and defeated the army at the battle of Edington, Wiltshire. As part of the political settlement, Guthrum and 30 of the leading men of the army were baptised.

In 879/80 the boundary between “English” England and the “Danelaw” was established.

Viking Raids 978-991 CE

Æthelred in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle / British Library, London

Viking raids resumed at the end of the 10th century during the reign of Æthelred the Unready. They were bought off with large sums of money. For example, after defeating the English at Maldon in 991 the Viking army received 10,000 pounds in gold and silver. Many Vikings remained in England as mercenaries to protect the English from other Viking armies.[13]

In 1013 the Danish king, Svein Forkbeard, invaded England and Æthelred was forced into exile. These attacks are in many ways different to those which took place in the 8th and 9th centuries. Svein was king of Denmark and he was also a Christian king. Svein died only a year after his conquest and Æthelred returned, forcing Svein’s son, Knútr, to return to Denmark. He soon returned, however, and succeeded in becoming king of England in 1016 following the deaths of Æthelred and his son Edmund Ironside.

Anglo-Scandinavian England

The evidence of archaeology suggests that the Scandinavians who settled in England very quickly integrated into the existing society. There are fewer than 25 known pagan burial sites in the Danelaw. This contrasts with, for example, the Isle of Man where we have 40 known burials in an area of just c.600 square km.[14] One example of a pagan Viking-age burial in England is from Repton where the skeleton of a man was found with a necklace that featured two glass beads and a silver Þórr’s hammer amulet.[15]

It seems that the Scandinavian settlers adopted Christianity quite quickly and were buried in Christian churchyards. At York minster we have examples of stone slabs and headstones with Scandinavian-style ornament.

Stone Sculpture

The Lingsberg Runestone, Sweden, known as U 240 / Photo by Berig, Wikimedia Commons

One of the best examples of the interaction of English and Scandinavian cultures in the areas of Scandinavian settlement is stone sculpture.[16] This brought together Scandinavian-style animal ornament with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic styles. Many were grave markers, but some seem to have been raised in honour of saints. Another distinctive form of sculpture to emerge in areas of Scandinavian settlement is the hogback tomb. These are often decorated with beasts, usually bears. They are mostly found in Northern England and central Scotland.[17]

The motifs on the stones combine art styles and motifs found in Scandinavia with Anglo-Saxon motifs. Thus it represents a distinctly Anglo-Scandinavian development.


Linguistic evidence is very important for showing Scandinavian influence in the Danelaw. Many of our most common words were borrowed into English fro Old Norse, including the third person pronouns “they” and “their” from Old Norse þeir and þeirra. Other examples are:

  • “Take”, from Old Norse taka
  • “Choose”, from Old Norse kjósa
  • “Freckle”, from Old Norse freknur
  • “Guest”, from Old Norse gestr
  • “Knife”, from Old Norse knifr
  • “Ransack”, from Old Norse rannsaka (to search the house)
  • “Skirt”, from Old Norse skyrta

The English word for “egg” also comes from Old Norse, but the expression “to egg someone on” comes from the verb eggja, “to incite”.

Place Names

The majority of Scandinavian place names in England are concentrated in the areas of Scandinavian settlement recorded in our written sources, i.e., Yorkshire, Mercia, East Anglia and the Wirral. There are four main categories of Scandinavian-influenced place names:

  1. Places names ending in -by, meaning town or settlement. Examples of this are Aislaby, Balby, Brandsby, Dalby, Ferriby, Kirby and Selby. The English equivalent of -by is -tun. Compare Osmondiston and Aismunderby: Osmund’s tun and Asmund’s by.
  2. Place names ending in -thorpe. This ending is believed to denote a secondary settlement. Examples are Bishopsthorpe, Danthorpe, Fridaythorpe, Newthorpe and Towthorpe.
  3. Grimston hybrids“. These are place names which combine a Scandinavian personal name and an Anglo-Saxon element such as -tun or -hide. Examples of this are Burneston, Catton, Saxton, Scampston, Wiggington, Grimston, Olaveshide.
  4. Changes to pronunciation where the Old English name would have been difficult for speakers of Old Norse. For example, Anglo-Saxon Shipton changes to Skipton, Cheswick becomes Keswick.[18]



  • Richards, J., 1991, Viking Age England, p.9
  • Richards, J., 1991, Viking Age England, p.10
  • Sawyer, P., ‘The Age of the Vikings and before’ in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, p.2
  • Richards, J., 1991, Viking Age England, p.11
  • Sawyer, P., ‘The Age of the Vikings and before’, p.1
  • Sørensen, P.M., ‘Religions old and new’ in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, pp.210-213
  • Sawyer, P., ‘Kings and Vikings’, p.131
  • Sørensen, P.M., ‘Religions old and new’ p.213-214
  • Sørensen, P.M., ‘Religions old and new’ p.216-217
  • Sawyer, P., ‘The Age of the Vikings and before’ p.7
  • Keynes, S., ‘The Vikings in England’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, p.50
  • Keynes, S., ‘The Vikings in England’, pp.52-55
  • Keynes, S., ‘The Vikings in England’, pp.74-75
  • Richards, J., Viking Age England, p.102
  • Richards, J., Viking Age England, p.111
  • Richards, J., Viking Age England, p.119
  • Richards, J., Viking Age England, p.123
  • Richards, J., Viking Age England, p.33

When Were the Vikings in East Anglia?

Viking attacks on East Anglia came in three phases:

  • 867 – Armies overthrew kingdoms, set up local princes and concentrated on plunder and tribute. The focus in the first few years was the usual Viking interest in gold, silver and slaves.
  • From 876 – Land was added in order to settle.
  • From the 990s – A third wave came under Svein Forkbeard and his son Canute, who aimed to secure the throne of England itself.

In northern Britain and Ireland, the Vikings seem to have come from Norway; but in eastern England they are always called Danes. Although many did come from Denmark, the soldiers in their armies may have come from other parts of Scandinavia and even parts of England.

The end of the Viking period is considered to be 1066, when the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II defeated a Viking invasion at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire – just two weeks before the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. Still, many Danes who had settled in Britain remained and integrated into the population.

How Did the Vikings Change East Anglia?

By Dr. Robert Harding

East Anglia / Wikimedia Commons

Although the Vikings’ time in East Anglia was relatively brief, they made many contributions to the area’s culture. Their legacies include contributions to language, laws, place names, churches – and even England’s own saint.

East Anglia had a special relationship with the Vikings. They attacked this region many times and settled here in large numbers. For generations they ruled it as part of the Danelaw in a separate kingdom, and long after it became part of a united England their influence continued to be felt. In some ways, that influence still remains.

Who Were They?

Viking attacks on East Anglia came in three phases. The first started in 867, when armies overthrew kingdoms, set up local princes and concentrated on plunder and tribute. The focus in the first few years was the usual Viking interest in gold, silver and slaves. From 876 was added land, in order to settle. In the 10th century, from the 990s, a third wave came under Svein Forkbeard and his son Canute, who aimed to secure the throne of England itself.

In northern Britain and Ireland, the Vikings seem to have come from Norway, but in eastern England they are always called Danes. Although many did come from Denmark, the soldiers in their armies may have come from other parts of Scandinavia and even parts of England. In this period, Scandinavians together spoke Old Norse, so it is difficult to separate them.

What Happened?

In 864-5 a Viking army wintered at Thetford in Norfolk. From there they started a campaign of conquest and plunder across England. One by one each Anglo-Saxon kingdom was destroyed – Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the Midlands, East Anglia in Norfolk and Suffolk – until only Wessex in the southwest was left.

St. Edmund

Edmund was the King of East Anglia (the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk). After attempts to make peace with the Danes and their leader Ivar the Boneless, he met them in battle at Hoxne in Suffolk, in 869/70.

In this year the host rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford; and the same winter king Edmund fought against them, and the Danes won the victory, and they slew the king and overran the entire kingdom. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

He was captured, whipped, shot full of arrows and then had his head cut off. His followers, looking for the head, heard a cry of “Here, here” and found it nestled between the paws of a wolf. He soon became a saint – in fact, the Danes venerated him after their conversion to Christianity, and Canute turned his shrine into an abbey. It gave its name to Bury St. Edmund’s and was one of the most powerful abbeys in the country. Edmund himself became patron saint of England until he was replaced by St. George in the 14th century.

The following years were to have a terrible effect on the East Anglian church. Monasteries were a favourite target across Europe since they had great concentrations of wealth. St. Etheldreda’s monastery at Ely was sacked in 870, and the site may have been abandoned for a hundred years. Dummuc and Elmham, the two bishoprics, lay unoccupied well into the 10th century. It was not until the reign of Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) that Benedictine monks colonised the Fens and the Church recovered.

Alfred the Great

Statue of Alfred the Great by Hamo Thornycroft in Winchester, unveiled during the millenary commemoration of Alfred’s death, 1899 / Photo by Odejea, Wikimedia Commons

Alfred was a younger son of the house of Wessex, the kingdom of southwest England, and campaigned against the Danes even before he became king. His most famous victories came after the Danes surprised him in 876 at Chippenham (Berkshire) as he was celebrating Christmas. He was forced to retreat to the Isle of Athelney in the Somerset marshes. Gathering his forces he was eventually powerful enough to meet Guthrum at Edington, where the Danes were defeated.

And afterwards at Easter, King Alfred with a small force made a stronghold at Athelney, and he and the section of the people of Somerset which was nearest to it proceeded to fight from that stronghold against the enemy. Then in the seventh week after Easter he rode to “Egbert’s stone” east of Selwood and there came to meet him all the people of Somerset and of Wilshire and of that part of Hampshire which was on this side of the sea, and they rejoiced to see him. And then after one night he went from that encampment to Iley, and after another night to Edington, and there fought against the whole army and put it to flight, and pursued it as far as the fortress, and stayed there a fortnight. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

Guthrum, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “in this year [880] the army went from Cirencester into East Anglia and settled there and shared out the land”. At the Treaty of Wedmore in 886 Guthrum agreed to convert to Christianity (taking a new name, Athelstan) and a boundary separating his kingdom from Alfred’s was established. This was from the river Lea in Essex up to Bedford, then along the Ouse Valley. In the treaty this kingdom was called “Eastenglum” – East Anglia – but later it would be known as the Danelaw. It was around this time the Danes began settling in numbers.

How Many Were There?

Traditionally it was believed East Anglia received thousands of Danes at this time, both elites and peasant farmers. But the region was already densely settled and some have argued that only a ruling elite settled. Evidence in the debate includes:

  1. Village names – in Suffolk there are just five place-names derived from Scandinavian words, though in Norfolk there are several dozen. Most have -by endings, meaning the “the settlement of”. They could be villages founded by Danes, but might also be Anglo-Saxon settlements taken over by a Danish lord.
  2. Words – about 200 words in Standard English or in dialects come from Old Norse. Some of these are very basic words such as sky and egg, and many argue only a huge number of settlers could have had such an influence.
  3. Archaeology – in East Anglia, as elsewhere in England where they ruled, it is difficult to find Viking house types or other signs of settlement. There are only a few Viking burials, probably because the population converted to Christianity very quickly. Recently though, metal detectorists have reported a large number of metal ornaments, such as jewellery and harness mounts, that are either Scandinavian or of Scandinavian style. They are usually mass produced and of low quality, the type used by peasants rather than an elite; so it’s good evidence that there may have been more colonisation than some have argued.

Whatever the number, eastern England developed an Anglo-Scandinavian society with a mixed identity that continued even after Wessex conquered the Danelaw. The “Law of the Danes” still operated; the two different languages were mutually intelligible; and intermarriage would have helped bring the communities together. Because paganism was abandoned so quickly, the church was able to accept the new rulers, but church organisation in East Anglia was in tatters until the later 9th century. Bishoprics needed to be recreated and a number of important monasteries, such as Ely, were not refounded until well after the Danelaw ceased its independence.

The Early Danelaw

England, 878 / Wikimedia Commons

Guthrum never ruled all of the Danelaw, only most of East Anglia and part of the Midlands; in the north, a kingdom developed around York (Viking Jorvik) that was both more centralised and longer-lasting than Guthrum’s realm. Not much is known about rulership after the end of Guthrum’s reign in 890. But it seems there were a number of burhs (fortified towns), including Cambridge, Norwich and Thetford. Each burh had its own Danish army (here) that formed the main decision-making body. It is from around this time that evidence comes for Viking fortifications, either rounded or D-shaped, and consisting of a ditch and embankment. In Cambridge, the Danes moved the town from north of the river to its south, and may have built the King’s Ditch (along Pembroke and Downing Street) as one arm of the D. Norwich was also enclosed in a D-shaped fortification. Evidence for Danish influence on the plan of Norwich comes from the roads with -gate endings, such as Colegate (from “gata” or street). Either from this period, or under Canute, come churches dedicated to St. Clement (the patron saint of sailors), often located next to river crossings or at points where a main street runs through Viking fortifications.

From the early 900s Edward the Elder and his sister Aethelflead (the Lady of the Mercians) began a programme of reconquest, and in East Anglia one by one the heres submitted. Cambridge, ruled by Early Sihtric from a base in Great Shelford, submitted in 917. After this, Anglo-Scandinavian society developed within a united English kingdom. It appears that each Danish here submitted at each town:

And Earl Thurferth and the holds submitted to him, and so did all the army which belonged to Northampton, as far north as the Welland, and sought to have him as their lord and protector. …And the army which belonged to Cambridge chose him especially as its lord and protector, and established it with oaths just as he decreed it. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

Svein and Canute

Another wave of Danish settlement is connected to the attempts of Svein Forkbeard of Denmark and his son Canute (Knutr) to take the English throne. This began in 991 when Svein landed in Essex and met Ealdorman Brhytnoth at the Battle of Maldon in 991. Maldon was one of the worst defeats ever suffered in Anglo-Saxon history and was commemorated in one of the great poems of English literature. From this time dates the Danegeld an attempt by England to pay off Viking marauders so that they would go home; thousands of pounds of English coins were transferred to Scandinavia as a result.

This led to King Ethelred the Unready’s command that on St. Brice’s Day, 1002, Danes throughout his kingdom were to be put to the sword. Among the victims were Svein’s sister and her husband, and it led to further attacks from Denmark. These campaigns culminated in England’s acceptance of Svein as king in 1014, but it was to be Canute who took the throne in 1016. His Danish army occupied a number of East Anglian towns -including Norwich, Thetford and Cambridge – but his rule was benign and his sponsorship of religious houses benefited both Ely and Bury St. Edmunds. He ruled until 1035, which is the end of the Viking age in East Anglia; and soon after, in 1066, the Norman Conquest ended Anglo-Saxon England, too.

What was the Vikings’ Legacy?

The Vikings were close enough culturally to the Anglo-Saxons that they were able to integrate quickly. It is difficult to distinguish a genetic contribution, although many East Anglians must have Viking ancestry. But they probably gave an extra stimulus to processes that might have happened anyway. They may be important in the growth of towns – for instance, in repositioning Cambridge and helping in the growth of other centres. Thetford grew to be 75 hectares in size and by the end of the period was smaller than Norwich. Both by the time of the Norman Conquest were two of the largest cities in England and perhaps this is due to trade. The Vikings have a reputation as merchants and it is known Danish traders resided in a number of towns, though regional and local exchange seems to have been more important than international. Most importantly, they helped in the unification of England and in the creation of the English people.

What We Know of St. Edmund the Martyr

A medieval illumination depicting the death of Edmund the Martyr on 20 November 869 by the Vikings. / British Library, London

By Eleanor Heans-Glogowska

Very little was written about St Edmund’s life, especially at the time. What received the most attention was how he died at the hands of the Vikings in 869 – he was shot through with arrows and then beheaded. It’s said that his severed head cried out to be found by his followers.

St Edmund was king of East Anglia in the mid-9th century. We know few details about his life, but a great deal about his grisly death. He died at the hands of a Viking army in 869 and was, according to his earliest biographer, Abbo of Fleury, tied to a tree and shot with arrows until he bristled “like a prickly hedgehog or a spiny thistle”. He was then beheaded, with his head thrown into brambles in a forest. As Abbo tells us, some devoted followers were determined to find his head, which helpfully called out to them while they searched. Once his head was reunited with his body, it was buried, venerated, and, according to legend, later found to be incorrupt (i.e., had not decomposed). Edmund was the last king of an ancient dynasty that had ruled East Anglia since perhaps as far back as the 5th century.

East Anglia after Edmund

  • What happened in East Anglia immediately after Edmund’s death is unclear, though we know at least that the Vikings remained a presence in the region. A turning point occurred, however, in 878, when King Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon king in Wessex, defeated a Viking army led by the Viking leader Guthrum at the Battle of Edington (in Wiltshire). As a result, Guthrum had to accept baptism and to adopt the name Athelstan; in return, he was permitted to occupy and rule East Anglia.
  • Following the treaty between King Alfred and Guthrum, East Anglia was ruled by Viking kings until it was conquered by Alfred’s son Edward in the early 10th century.
  • As for Edmund, sometime in the 10th century his body was moved to a church at Bury St Edmunds. Many people went on pilgrimage to visit Edmund’s shrine, and such was his popularity that the town and its abbey became one of the wealthiest places in medieval England.

The Evidence

  • Most of what we know about Edmund’s possible life and death comes from much later sources; we’re told, for example, by a 12th-century record compiled at Bury St Edmunds that Edmund was consecrated king of East Anglia at Bures (now a village in Suffolk) on Christmas Day 856. The earliest account of Edmund’s death was written more than a century after the event, in the 980s, by Abbo of Fleury, a French monk who spent time at Ramsey Abbey (now in Cambridgeshire). That people were still discussing and retelling stories about Edmund so long after his death is testament to his popularity as a saint, in East Anglia and beyond.
  • Our understanding of Edmund and his veneration can be developed by the study of coins. Between c. 895 and the 910s (and perhaps as late as c. 930), some coins in East Anglia were inscribed with Edmund’s name, demonstrating that Edmund was being venerated within 30 years of his death and, perhaps most interestingly, while East Anglia was under Viking rule.

Martyred Anglo-Saxon Kings

  • Edmund was one of several Anglo-Saxon kings who were venerated as saints; several of these, like Edmund, were “martyrs” (i.e., they were killed for defending their religious beliefs). Of these martyred Anglo-Saxon kings, Edmund is certainly one of the most enduringly popular. It is particularly remarkable that despite the potential for Edmund to become a symbol of resistance against the Vikings, the Viking rulers of East Anglia – perhaps tactically – embraced Edmund’s cult.

Evidence of How the Vikings Lived

By Dr. Rob Howell

A Viking grave. New studies on bones reflect the harsh conditions many endured. / Wikimedia Commons

Archaeological artefacts found in places such as Viking graves and former villages – including animal bones, brooches, weapons, pottery, etc. – can tell researchers many things about the Vikings, including how wealthy they might have been, what they wore, what items they used in their homes and even what they liked to eat for dinner.

The material culture of the Scandinavians who came to England can stand out in some ways, but at the same time there were definite overlaps between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian material culture.

Perhaps the most notable difference between the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians through the 9th century was that the former were Christian, while the majority of Scandinavians still held the pagan faith of their ancestors. This did change with increased contact with the Christian world, and therefore not all Scandinavians could be considered pagan. This religious difference does lead to differing evidence for material culture, with pagan graves containing grave goods, which Christianity forbade.

This material from graves is a strong indicator of what was important to a person, or at least deemed important by those who buried them. Across the Scandinavian world, men could be buried with weapons, with swords only appearing in the most high-profile graves. Other items found in male graves included dress accessories, such as belt buckles and brooches (most commonly made from copper or bronze, but more precious metals are found in higher-status burials), as well as pottery for food, and other similar items possibly deemed necessary for an afterlife. However, low-status graves were often considerably less furnished, showing the differences in wealth between different levels of society.

Female graves could also be very well furnished. Unlike those for men, they did not contain weapons. Instead, items such as loom weights and distaffs can be found, showing the industrial role women often played. They could also be buried with ornamental keys, seeming to represent the woman who carried them as the one in charge of the household, or at least the activities which took place there. As well as these items, women also are commonly found buried with dress accessories, perhaps most famously the distinctive Scandinavian oval brooches which were worn on each shoulder. Receptacles for food are also known from female graves.

A recent study of brooches by Oxford University researcher Jane Kershaw has revealed that following the creation of the Danelaw, the form of brooches a person wore was indicative of their chosen identity, either as more Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian. Brooch finds are most common in East Anglia, seeming to show more of a trend for declaration of identity when closer to areas under Anglo-Saxon control. This case of identity is most prevalently seen in instances where a Scandinavian artistic style or form has been made with Anglo-Saxon style fittings, meaning that it was created somewhere in England, for use by an Anglo-Saxon wanting to use the Scandinavian fashion.

The most famous site for Scandinavian presence in England from the 9th century onwards is York, known to the Norse as Jorvik. Major excavations, particularly in the Coppergate area, have revealed extensive Scandinavian activity and settlement. Although the archaeological excavation did look back through 2000 years of history, its focus was on the Viking Age archaeology of York. The site is highly unusual in that there are up to 9 metres of archaeological layers, the majority of which date to the Viking Age. There is also the advantage that these layers are moist and peaty, meaning better preservation of organic material, so that many timbers from buildings have survived, but so have some textiles and even some leather shoes.

The site yielded a great number of finds, all allowing the interpretation of daily life for people in Jorvik. This includes: five tons of animal bones, which mostly seem to be food waste, although some were probably used in industrial contexts. There were also large numbers of oyster shells; Roman roof tiles, which were sometimes re-used in the Viking Age; woven wattles and timbers used for the construction of buildings and pathways; metal slag as a residue of industrial production; and in excess of a quarter of a million pieces of pottery, which can indicate both date and purpose of the vessels they were once a part of. These are just the more simple and common items, with 20,000 items deemed “individually interesting” also being uncovered, showing a huge amount of activity in York before, during and after Scandinavian settlement.

Viking Ships

By Dr. Shadia Taha

The Vikings used a variety of vessels for different purposes, from broad ships to fishing vessels, but the longship is the most iconic ship associated with them. The longship was sturdy enough to traverse the seas but nimble enough to navigate rivers, It could be powered by sails or by oars, depending on conditions. The longship was among the first to feature a keel, giving it greater stability in the ocean. Longships were even used for the burials of important people, male and female. Longships helped the Vikings rule the seas from the 9th to 11th centuries, spreading their influence as far as North America, Africa and Asia. Wherever the Vikings went, their ships proved to be an inspiration – not only to shopbuilders, but also to artists. As a result, we have a rich multi-cultural record of Viking ships

The Vikings used a variety of vessels for different purposes, from broad ships to fishing vessels, but the longship is the most iconic ship associated with them. The longship was sturdy enough to traverse the seas but nimble enough to navigate rivers, It could be powered by sails or by oars, depending on conditions. The longship was among the first to feature a keel, giving it greater stability in the ocean. Longships were even used for the burials of important people, male and female. Longships helped the Vikings rule the seas from the 9th to 11th centuries, spreading their influence as far as North America, Africa and Asia. Wherever the Vikings went, their ships proved to be an inspiration – not only to shopbuilders, but also to artists. As a result, we have a rich multi-cultural record of Viking ships

The Viking Seafarers

The ships were the foundation of Viking power, the most significant achievement of their technical skills. It was the Viking ship that stretched their influence to the far reaches of the medieval world. With them, they managed to achieve a maritime dominance between the 9th and the 11th centuries.

How Do We Know about Viking Ships?

We have many sources on the Vikings, their activities, beliefs and culture. The sagas, archaeological remains, written sources from medieval times, a number of images which consist of pictures on coins, stone carvings and manuscripts from the Viking age give an idea of what Viking ships might have looked like. Many of the existing written sources on the Vikings come from other cultures that were in contact with them.

These are complemented by substantial amount of archaeological finds of the Vikings craftsmanship, art, work and evidence of their daily lives in general.

Several well preserved buried or sunken ships have been found. These finds have increased our understanding of the many types of ships and boats that existed in the Viking age. For example, famous discoveries of Viking ships at Gokstad and Oseberg, Norway, in 1880 and 1906, revealed the best preserved Viking ships ever found. Respectively, they established the classic image of the dragon-headed warship. Longships from both sites were preserved almost intact, with splendid carved decoration, in the waterlogged clay of royal burial mounds. Built around 890 AD, three-quarters of a century after the Oseberg ship, the Gokstad vessel shows great improvements in design, particularly in the sturdiness of the mast supports. They show its shipbuilders’ beautiful construction style.

The modern phase of Viking ship investigation began with the recovery of five vessels at Skuldelev in Roskilde fjord, Denmark, between 1957 and 1962. The most important discovery at Skuldelev was the variety of the vessels, which ranged from a cargo ship to two longships. Tree rings of its oak timbers revealed that they had been cut down around 1060-70 AD near Dublin, suggesting the presence of a major shipyard at this key Viking trade centre in Ireland.

What Types of Ships Did the Vikings Have?

Archaeological finds show that there were many types of Viking ships built according to their intended uses, but share a common ship building traditions. They had big broad ships for trading trips overseas, smaller freight vessels for journeys in safer waters, fishing boats and the well known long, narrow and fast warships as well as ceremonial longships. Viking expertise in naval craftsmanship soon led to the evolution of other types. Among these were the knarr, or ocean-going cargo vessel, which facilitated distant trade networks and manoeuvres in narrow channels. The knarr was a merchant vessel designed to carry heavy cargo. It was common for seafaring Viking ships to tow or carry a smaller boat to transfer crews and cargo from the ship to shore.

The most iconic type of Viking vessel is the longship. The longboat was fast and flat, and built to survive both the stormy seas and to sail on shallow rivers. They were also built light enough to be carried over land. When the wind was behind a longboat, the Vikings used large sails. If there wasn’t any wind, or it was blowing in the wrong direction, up to 80 warriors could use oars to power the boat.

People with a high status were sometimes buried in burial ships along with animal sacrifices, weapons, provisions and other items, as evidenced by the buried vessels at Gokstad and Oseberg in Norway. Ship burials were also practised by Vikings abroad as evidenced by excavations in Scotland, Estonia and other areas were the Vikings settled.

How were Viking Ships Made?

The secret of the Viking ship lay in its unique construction. Planks of timber, usually oak, were overlapped and nailed together. The ships were made watertight by filling the spaces between the planks with tarred wool or animal hair.

For a long time it was the considered opinion that only oak was used, but from archaeological finds we learned that ships were made out of ash, elm, pine, larch and several other woods, too. Generally, only the greatest warships were always made from oak, not only because of the great strength of the timber, but also because the tree was sacred to their warrior god Óðinn.

Viking longships were among the first to have a keel. The keel is exceptionally important as it provides the ship with support in rough weather and enables it to travel easily and rapidly across the sea. Oars were of different lengths according to where they would be used on the ship. In strong winds, the sail enabled a fast sea or ocean crossing. On the open sea, oars were only used when there was no wind, but rowing was necessary to navigate rivers.

With the flexibility to use either oars or sails, Vikings ships can manage the most difficult of conditions of current and strong wind. No one knows where the idea came from and whether the Mediterranean square sail was adopted. Nevertheless, it was the sail power which allowed Vikings ships to travel further than solely oar power.

Ship Decoration

They were their owners’ proudest possession, an essential part of a life of a Viking, and considered a treasure. Craftsmen decorated these ships with elegant elaborate head pieces. One of the most outstanding might be its figurehead. Often, the front of the ship was decorated with a carving of an animal head, perhaps a dragon or a snake, and designed to frighten the spirits of the land the Vikings were raiding. These carvings were put up when the ship was sailing in to land.

How Did the Vikings Navigate Their Ships?

There are several assumptions about how the Vikings navigated. Vikings did not use maps; they had lots of different ways of working out where they were and which direction to travel in. The Vikings probably navigated by landmarks, they might have developed a feeling for direction and position by observing the sun and the stars, known the wind, observed the sun’s maximum height at noon and compared their latitude with known places. In addition, they used visual sightings of landmarks and animals, and felt the temperature to guide them. One of the Icelandic sagas – narratives of Norse history and legends written in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries – includes sailing directions from Norway to Greenland that rely on distant landmarks and the presence of birds and whales to signal the position of land.

With no access to modern navigational instruments, Vikings navigated with their senses. They looked out for birds and could smell if they were near land. Important knowledge and skills were passed on from one generation to the next. They looked at the colour of the sea, the way the waves were moving and patterns of the stars. The use of actual navigational instruments is unresolved but no definite proof has been found yet. It has been argued that the Vikings knew about Arab navigation, which made extensive use of astronomical observations.

But in addition to sight, Vikings used their other senses:

  • Hearing: The Vikings could hear how close they were to land when it was too foggy to see. They paid attention to the squeals of birds and the sound of waves breaking on the shore.
  • Touch: The sense of touch on peoples’ faces can be used to indicate changes in the speed and direction of the wind. This sense can give an idea about differences of wind direction. And since nearby coasts can reflect swells back, an experienced Viking could obtain a lot of information just from a sea breeze.
  • Taste: One of the few navigation instruments the Vikings had at their disposal was a plumb bob, which they used for assessing the depth of the water. The plumb bob also collected a tiny sample of the seabed, which the men could then taste and touch. An experienced sailor could link the taste to other features. It’s likely that the Vikings were able to determine, using only their sense of taste, if fresh water flowed from land into the seawater.
  • Smell: An experienced mariner can smell whether or not he’s close to land. In humid conditions, the human nose is able to identify trees, plants and fire some distance from land.

Viking Travel: Trade, Networks, and Expansion

The Vikings ship building capability was fundamental to their overseas exploration, trading, conquest and settlement. The 8th-11th centuries witnessed an extraordinary movement of people out of Scandinavian homelands. This expansion created a cultural network, and led to interaction with a number of cultures, not only in Northern Europe but also as far as North America in the west, central Asia in the east and North Africa in the south. These versatile ships allowed the Vikings to explore the northern islands and coasts of the North Atlantic; settle and travel as far east as Constantinople, the Middle East, and the Volga river in Russia; as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland; and as far south as Nekor. This period of expansion, known as the Viking Age, had an enormous influence on the history of many parts of Europe. One of these influences was in technology; the Vikings had a great influence on shipbuilding in the territories where they settled. During the Viking age and for a long time after the Viking age ended, the dominant vessels in Northwest Europe were various forms of the Viking long boats.

The Vikings created a trade network that extended over distant areas around the world as far east as the River Volga and Byzantium, west to Dublin and Newfoundland, and north to Greenland and the North Cape. There is also evidence that they had contacts with the Middle and Far East. Evidence from Jorvik (York) demonstrates links with many parts of the world; objects found at Coppergate came from Norway, the Baltic, Uzbekistan, and the Red Sea. Large amounts of Islamic silver coins in Swedish archaeological diggings testify to intensive trading.

The use of ships facilitated the development of trade both internally and externally. In addition, ships connected the Vikings with different cultures and continents.


The Vikings had a great influence on shipbuilding in the territories where they settled. The extraordinary Viking expansion from the Scandinavian homelands during this period created a cultural network with contacts from the Caspian Sea to the North Atlantic, and from the Arctic Circle to North Africa and the Mediterranean.


Viking Weapons

Viking swords / The National Museum of Denmark

By Dr. Rob Howell

Historians have used written accounts and archaeological records to determine that Vikings fought – on foot and on horseback – with swords, shields, spears and axes. Historians also think the Vikings wore defensive armour and helmets (without horns), but archaeological proof has been harder to find.

The weapons used by the invading Scandinavians during King Alfred’s reign differed very little from those being used by the Anglo-Saxons in the same period. Both groups also used extremely similar tactics and techniques, with little to separate the prowess of the military might they could bring.

Warfare for each group was primarily fought on foot. Horses were certainly used by soldiers. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that members of the Viking Great Army would steal horses in order to more effectively raid the surrounding country after leaving their ships. However, if a battle were to take place, then men would usually dismount in order to form a shield wall, which was a preferred tactic of both the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians. This was a tight formation where the shield of each man overlapped with his neighbours’, making a more solid wall which was more of a challenge to penetrate for the enemy. Looser formations would also be used for smaller skirmishes, but for larger battles the shield wall seems like the primary tactic.

By far the most common weapon used by the Scandinavians and the Anglo-Saxons alike was the spear. Spears in the Viking Age were typically between 7′ (213 cm) and 11′ (335 cm) in overall length, with the blade length of the spearhead being as short as 3″ (7.6 cm) for lighter javelins, and up to sizes of 18″ (46 cm) for thrusting spears. This leaves room for a lot of variation, which would largely depend on personal taste and, of course, expense. Part of the reason for the popularity of the spear was the relative low cost due to a low metal content, but it also afforded the user greater range and therefore the ability to stay further away from the enemy. Typically spears were used in one hand, with the other being used for the shield, but the longest of spears would have required two hands to use with any accuracy. The shaft of the spear was usually made from ash, because of the strength and flexibility of the wood, while remaining relatively lightweight.

Axes were also very common in the Viking Age. Although the Vikings are stereotypically viewed as carrying large, two-handed axes, there is no evidence for these being used in Scandinavia or England before the 11th century. The typical axe used during the reign of King Alfred was a single-handed weapon, with a single-edged iron cutting edge. This again was a very common weapon throughout all strata of society because every household would have at least one axe as a general household tool, and thus they were widely available and did not use much high-quality metal. Axes were extremely versatile weapons, able to be swung with enough force to cut deep, or to break bones if armour was worn. However, they were just as useful when being hooked over an opponent’s shield, making it possible to pull the shield away in order to let an ally incapacitate them more easily.

The weapon which always receives the most attention is the sword. This is perfectly understandable because they are the most highly decorated and impressively crafted of all Viking Age weapons, and they were regarded as indicators of social status in England and Scandinavia alike. Their form changed little after the fall of the Roman Empire, being broad, double-edged swords averaging nearly 3 feet (91 cm) in length, although some single-edged blades are known from Norway in particular. These swords were designed for use in one hand, and used in slashing motions, most commonly downwards from a raised position. Their weight let them do large amounts of damage, although some weapons do seem to suggest that only the part of the blade nearest the tip was highly sharpened. This meant that the crushing ability of the weight of the blade was recognized, and that swords were intended for use against armoured men as well as unarmoured.

In terms of defensive equipment, the most common item was the shield. For a man to go into battle without a shield would be extremely rare because they were relatively cheap and easy to make. They were constructed from planks of wood, usually lime-wood or ash with a diameter of up to 3 feet (91 cm), with a metal boss in the centre over the handgrip. The shield was therefore held in one hand, allowing large amounts of manoeuvrability. The edge, which was most commonly covered in leather, stitched to the board of the shield, could be used offensively for extremely strong punches, allowing the shield to be both offensive and defensive. The surface of the shield was usually faced with material, or painted, or both. This strengthened the surface against attacks, and disguised the direction of the planks, which prevented an opponent from exploiting that knowledge and splitting the shield more quickly.

Items of armour are known but are far less common than shields. If leather armour was used, it has not survived, although it is commonly postulated that it would have been relatively common. The metal armour which has survived is all chainmail, and in the 9th century mail shirts were typically only knee length, with the sleeves not reaching beyond the elbow. The meshes of iron were nearly impossible to cut through, but had to be worn with padding underneath to counteract impacts on the flexible shirt and prevent breakage of bones. Because of the sheer amount of metal and craftsmanship involved, mail shirts were very uncommon, and only rich warriors would have been able to afford them.

Helmets are even more rare in archaeological finds, with less than 10 being known from Europe throughout the entire Viking Age, and only one of these was found in Scandinavia – and unlike the common stereotype, not horned. All helmets would have had smooth, domed or conical surfaces in order to reflect blows more efficiently, while horns would have only increased the risk to the wearer. Manuscript illustrations suggest that helmets were fairly common, and it could be the case that many were re-used and never made it into the archaeological record. But they could simply have been very rare items.

Norse Medicine in the Sagas

By Eleanor Heans-Glogowska

Two sagas – one about King Magnús the Good of Norway, the other about an Icelandic doctor – tell us about some medicinal practices. Otherwise we are reliant on archaeology and historical writings to give us an idea of how the Vikings took care of health needs.

Sagas about Medicine

Magnús saga góða (the saga of King Magnús the Good of Norway, d.1047) has a scene where, following a battle, there is a shortage of surgeons. So Magnús selects three men with the softest hands to dress wounds. In Óláfs saga helga (the saga of St. Óláfr, d.1030), after the battle of Svolðr (1030), women are depicted as dressing wounds:

“The girl said, ‘Let me see thy wound, and I will bind it.’ Thereupon Thormod sat down, cast off his clothes, and the girl saw his wounds, and examined that which was in his side, and felt that a piece of iron was in it, but could not find where the iron had gone in. In a stone pot she had stirred together leeks and other herbs, and boiled them, and gave the wounded men of it to eat, by which she discovered if the wounds had penetrated into the belly; for if the wound had gone so deep, it would smell of leek. She brought some of this now to Thormod, and told him to eat of it.” (ÓSH, chapter 234).

The saga of Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson tells the story of the life of an Icelandic doctor in the 13th century. Hrafn is described as treating many people, e.g. removing bladder stones, cauterizing wounds, etc.


Examination of skeletons has produced evidence of bloodletting, uses of needles and forceps, and operations for gallstones and cleft palate. Trepanation, or drilling into the skull, was also practised.

Examples from Medical Texts

The most important medical text of the middle ages in Iceland is preserved in the manuscript Royal Irish Academy 23 D 43 dated to the 15th century. This manuscript is late, but is believed to preserve earlier material.

Some examples from the text:

Wormwood: for new wounds, itches and seasickness

Malurt er god vid grœn sar ef hun stappaz ok legzt vid. Hun dugir vid klada ef madur þværr sig i hennar sodi. Madur spyr ok eigi af sioverck ef madur dreckur hana first.

“Wormwood is good for new wounds if crushed and applied. It is also good for the itch if one bathes in water it has been boiled in. Nor does one spew from seasickness if he drinks this first.”

Wormwood: sore or dull eyes

Blandur madur edik vid malurtvid hunand ok ridur i augu. Þa skiraz þau þat vatn sem kemur af sodenne malurt er got vid aygna verck.

“If one mixes wormwood with honey and rubs in the eyes, that brightens them. Water from boiled wormwood is good for sore eyes.”

Southernwood (Abrotanus): aches, asthma, cough and lumbago. Also, sleep-talking.

Hun dugir vid ollum verk ef madur dreckur smior þat er hun sytz i. Sva dugir þat ok vid aungva ok hosta ok lenda verck…Abroth stappat med edik ok drukinn dugir þeim er i svefni talar.

“It [Southernwood] helps against all aches if one drinks butter in which it is boiled. Likewise it helps for asthma and cough, and lumbago…Southernwood crushed in vinegar and drunk helps him who talks in his sleep.”

Dill: headaches and colds

Þat dugir mest vid þeim siukleika er madur færr af kulda. Þat er goo vid hofud verck ok vid sinaspronte.

“It helps particularly for illness which comes from the cold. It is also good for headache and for strain of the tendons.”

Cumin: stomach ache, poor complexion

Verdur þat temprad vid edik þat er godt vid kvidreppu ok usott…Etur madur þat iduliga þat gerir lit.

“If it [cumin] be tempered dry with vinegar it is good for cramps of the bowels and diarrhoea…If one eats it regularly it makes for good complexion.”

Lime: blisters, boils and wounds

Blandaz med oleum þa er þat got vid blodrur ok rotna kauna. Þat drengur sar saman.

“If it [lime] is mixed with oil it is good for blisters and foul boils. It draws together wounds.”

Cress: toothache, baldness

Hans logur er godur vid tanna verck ef hann er lattin i þann munn er tanna verckur er undir. Hanne r ok godur vid harfalli.

“Its [cress’] juice is good for toothache if it is put in the mouth in which the toothache is. It is also good for falling hair.”

Additional Resources

An extensive discussion of Viking medicinal practices – including wound care, use of herbs and childbirth – can be found on the Viking Answer Lady website.


  • Larsen, Ø. “Medicine and Medical Treatment”. in P. Pulsiano ed. Medieval Scandinavia: . 411.
  • Larsen, H. An Old Icelandic Medical Miscellany: 1

Characteristics of Viking Art

By Eleanor Heans-Glogowska

Many items the Vikings would have decorated – such as wood and fabric – were not resilient enough to survive to the present day. Those items that do survive such as painted stones are filled with intricate, stylized drawings of animals, people and plants.

The term “Viking Art” embraces a number of different art styles which were in use during the Viking Age and beyond in Scandinavia and the areas settled by Scandinavians. Most styles take their names from significant archaeological discoveries such as the Oseberg ship burial, which gives its name to the Oseberg style. Most of this art is preserved on materials which survive in the archaeological context so, although textiles and carved wooden objects are assumed to have been very common mediums, few of these survive.

The most dominant motifs are stylized animals, some of which are found as early as the 4th and 5th centuries. From the mid-10th century plant ornamentation became popular in response to European influences. Several memorial stones narrate scenes from pre-Christian mythology.


  • Mundal, E., The Vikings, P. 170

Viking Contact with Eastern Europe

By Caroline Stone

The Vikings raided, traded and settled as far afield as the Baltic, modern Russia, Byzantium (later Constantinople) and Baghdad. (In this region the Vikings were often known as the “Rus”, from which we get the name “Russia”.) Some cultures came to appreciate the Vikings skills as traders and warriors, and in some respect the Northmen helped maintain stability in Eastern Europe for a time.

Scandinavian settlement was not restricted to Western and Northern Europe. The town of Ladoga (established in c.750) is believed to be the first town in Russia with Scandinavian inhabitants.

They came not to pillage and raid, but to engage in trade and production. At first the Scandinavians probably stayed in the town only on a seasonal basis, but gradually a permanent settled Scandinavian population developed. Ladoga was home not only to Scandinavian settlers, but was a ‘multinational centre of craft production and international trade.’ Scandinavians traded in the Baltic, modern day Russia, Byzantium and as far afield as Baghdad. In the 10th century Kiev emerged as an important power centre.

The Varangian Rus

The Russian Primary Chronicle tells of how warring peoples in the region between the Black Sea and the Baltic sent a message to the Varangian Rus (in other words, the Swedes), saying: “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.” Judgement may be reserved on the truth of the story, which has other folklore elements. Three brothers, the oldest of whom was named Rurik, answered the call, established wise rule and founded city states; by the 9th century and probably before, the area was being settled by men of Scandinavian origin.

Warriors and merchants -like all the Vikings – they spread along the river systems as far as the Caspian, until they were stopped by the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire (centred on Constantinople) the Arab Empire (centred on Baghdad) or by aggressive Turkic tribes such as the Petchenegs and the Bulgars. The Byzantines, after successfully countering their attempted raids, approved on the whole of these newcomers; they were useful as traders and a valuable buffer against the Turkic peoples.

Swedish Expansion

The Viking tactic of swift, devastating raids before vanishing – not unlike the Mongols attacks on land in later centuries – were very hard to counter. Mas’udi, the 10th-century Arab historian, in describing the operations of the Rus in the Volga and Caspian region about 912 AD, gives a very similar picture of swift sorties, changing to the use of an island base for a systematic harrying of the countryside and, finally, their total defeat at the hands of a Muslim general who had succeeded in trapping them into a pitched battle, after which they left the area alone and sought out easier prey. Mas’udi, writing in Baghdad, was, incidentally, perfectly aware that the Northmen who harried Spain were the same as those raiding around the Caspian, although he was unsure of the geographical link-up.

An early reference to the Swedish expansion comes from the court of the Frankish ruler, Louis the Pious, in 839 when the Byzantine ambassadors brought with them some “Rus” merchants, originally from Sweden, who were trying to get home after a visit to Constantinople without running the gauntlet of hostile tribes. Louis and his advisors, whose experiences had been with the other kind of Northmen, insisted on making some investigations before giving them permission to proceed.

There is nothing surprising about Vikings, merchants, raiders, settlers and later pilgrims being found so far afield. Numerous Sagas are devoted the wanderings of the “far travelled”, and rune stones bear evidence to numbers who died fighting or trading in the East, North Africa, at Jerusalem, in London … To say nothing of the lost tombstones of numerous English Varangians that were once built into the walls of Constantinople. One of the most famous runic inscriptions is on the flank of one of the great stone lions that guard the Arsenal at Venice. The runes were cut at Piraeus, where the lions originally stood, and are illegible today:

“They cut him down in the midst of his force: but in the harbour the men cut runes in memory of Horse, a good warrior, by the sea …The Swedes set this on the lion … He went his way with good counsel; gold he won in his travels. The warriors cut runes, hewed them in an ornamental scroll, Æskel … and Thorleif had them well cut, they who lived in Roslagen, … son of … cut these runes. Ulf and … coloured them in memory of Horse, he won gold in his travels.”

Vikings in Constantinople

Information on the Vikings and their trade with the Byzantines was set down by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus in his De Administando Imperio, written about 950 for the benefit of his son, who did not make much use of it. The journey along the river system to Constantinople is described in some detail and surviving documents give the terms and conditions on which the Vikings could stay:

“When Rus come here (as envoys) they shall receive such supplies as they require. When they come as merchants they shall receive a monthly allowance for six months, including bread, wine, meat, fish and fruit. Baths shall be provided for them as often as they want them…”

“If Rus come here without cargoes they shall receive no such allowances. Your prince shall personally order any of the Rus who come here not to commit acts of violence in our towns and territories. Such Rus as come here must reside in the Saint Mamas quarter of the suburbs. Our authorities shall send officials to list their names … They shall enter the city by one gate only, unarmed and in groups of fifty, escorted by an imperial officer. They may conduct such business as they need without paying dues.”

An irrelevant, but irresistible footnote on the tax question: St Mamas was a holy man from Cyprus, who absolutely refused to pay the poll tax on principle. Summoned to the Emperor’s presence and threatened with death, he befriended a lion on his way to court and arrived there riding on its back. He was exempted from all dues and subsequently became the extremely popular patron of those who felt they were being unfairly taxed. The 13th century chronicle The Sweet Land of Cyprus endearingly adds that he also milked the lions in order to make cheese for the poor.

A treaty dating from 945 contains provisions very similar to those quoted, but it is interesting that by then written documentation, as opposed to seals, were being requested and the number of Scandinavian names had declined while those of Slavic origin had increased. There were also now limits on what could be exported -a maximum of 50 gold bezants worth of silk, for example, indicating an economic shift.

The Vikings doubtless dreamed of taking “Miklagard” – the Great City – and we know from Ionannis Diaconi’s Chronicum Venetum that in 860 they attacked Constantinople. Further attacks between c.907-12 allowed the ruling dynasty, the Riurikids, to conclude favourable trade agreements with the Empire. But on the whole they contented themselves with defending it and trading there. It was probably more for reasons of urban security than fear of invasion that they were expected to register and obtain residence permits. They were also forbidden to settle over the winter in the Constantinople region, or even at the mouth of the Dneiper, unless they had officially enlisted as mercenaries in the Emperor’s army, or belonged to the Varangian Guard, formed about 988. The Byzantines were well aware of the Vikings’ raiding techniques and had not forgotten how the western Empire had collapsed under uncontrolled hordes of barbarian immigrants.

Merging Cultures

However it may have occurred, then, the Rus merged with the indigenous Slavic peoples and, by the latter part of the 9th century, Novgorod and Kiev were already important centres. These cities were also to become in later centuries points at which two trading systems intersected – the Eastern overland route, connected with Baghdad and the Silk Road to China and hence the trade centres of Iran, India and Central Asia, and the eastern termini of the sea-borne Hanseatic League, thus linking Bergen, London, Bruges, Hamburg and the cities of the Baltic with the markets of the Orient.

As in other areas colonized by the Vikings, assimilation and mutation came rapidly. “And the fourth generation descended from Rurik,” relates the Chronicle of Novgorod, “was the Grand Prince Vladimir who enlightened the Russian land with baptism in the year 988”, although missionary work had already begun in the previous century by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, “the Apostles to the Slavs”. Again, the Primary Chronicle tells of how Vladimir, feeling that paganism was no longer a fitting religion for a great power summoned representatives of the major faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam to come and debate in his presence, so that he could choose the most worthy. He selected Orthodox Christianity. The story may or may not be believed – although religious debates of this kind seem to have been a Central Asian sport, commissioned among others by Genghis Khan and the Mughal Emperors.

Vladimir was the son of Svyatoslav, the ruler of the Rus who was killed in 972 by the Petchenegs, who turned his skull into a drinking cup. A blend of Viking and Slav who rode without baggage or tent and used his saddle as a pillow, Svyatoslav is described by Leo Diaconus in 971:

“Svyatoslav crossed the river in a kind of Scythian boat; he handled the oar in the same way as his men. His appearance was as follows: he was of medium height – neither too short nor too tall. He had bushy brows, blue eyes, and was snub-nosed; he shaved his beard but wore a long and bushy moustache. His head was shaven except for a lock of hair on one side as a sign of the nobility of his clan. His neck was thick, his shoulders broad, and his whole stature pretty fine. He seemed gloomy and savage. On one of his ears hung a gold ear-ring adorned with two pearls and a ruby set between them. His white garments were not distinguishable from those of his men except for cleanness.”

Vladimir, like his father, was a pagan, although his grandmother Olga had converted to Christianity and the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus describes the lavish ceremonies attendant on the occasion. After his father’s death, Vladimir fought his brothers for power and then turned to subduing the Petchenegs and Bulgars.

Vladimir married Anna, the sister of the Emperor Basil II. Like many other royal women – Byzantine or Chinese – given to the “barbarians of the steppes” for reasons of policy, Anna was deeply reluctant. The marriage entailed Vladimir’s formal baptism – and the mass baptism of a large number of his subjects. Conversion, of course, greatly changed the status of “Greater Sweden”, as the area was known, and it entered the cultural world of the Byzantine East.

One very important decision made by Vladimir was the choice of language for his church: Slavonic, not Greek as might have been expected, nor a Scandinavian language – presumably as in France the invaders’ original tongue had already largely vanished. This linguistic choice provided a powerful bond among different groups in the area and also ensured that Russia developed its own independent cultural and intellectual tradition, even if it owed much to its Greek roots.

The intersecting of two trade networks mentioned above mirrored the intersection of two cultural traditions: on the one hand the Norse-type councils or veches where the citizens could discuss issues of importance and generate their own laws, rather than having them imposed from above and on the other the growing tendency towards absolute despotism on the eastern pattern, as later practised by the Tsars. Arguably, the stress between the two traditions has continued up to the present.

The Slave Trade

Although the Rus were energetic slavers, neither Russia nor Scandinavia were dependent on slave labour and only small numbers were owned; the slaves were largely for export east. Similarly, the serfdom associated with feudal rule was not fully established in Russia until the 15th century.

Large scale slaving in Western Europe also came into existence, largely as a result of the Vikings building up their contacts with the Muslim world, the major market for human merchandise. A thousand souls was the estimated take at Armagh in 869 and another 710 were carried off from the same place in 895. Slave raiding to supply the Muslim market was to continue into the 19th century, often with Christian renegades taking the place of the Vikings in the later period.

Maintaining Stability

First as mercenaries and later under Vladimir as the personal body-guard of the Emperor, the Varangians – Scandinavians, Rus intermarried with Slavs, and after the Norman Conquest, disaffected Frenchmen, Englishmen and Danes from Eastern England – defended the Byzantine Empire in what is now Iraq, the Balkans, South Italy, the shores of the Caspian … By doing so, they protected the Roman Empire of the East and by extension Europe. The Turks would eventually engulf the Byzantine Empire, take Constantinople and invade and colonize Eastern Europe, but the Northmen played their part in holding them back and protecting Europe at the same time as their relatives from the north were still undermining it by the raids and harrying already described.


  • Duczko, W. 2004. Viking Rus: Studies on the Presence of Scandinavians in Eastern Europe. Leiden: Brill: 23
  • Jones, G. 1984. History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 261-2622.
  • Noonan, T., “Scandinavians in European Russia” in Sawyer, Peter 1999: The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 143
  • Sawyer, P. 1999. Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 96

Viking Impacts on the Mediterranean World

By Caroline Stone

Initially, the Vikings were a destructive force in the Mediterranean (as elsewhere): they sacked and plundered churches, attacked villages and built a reputation for treachery, thieving and ruthlessness. But, as they did in Britain, the Vikings eventually switched to settlement – becoming, in time, patrons of art and architecture.

A Furore Normannorum, Libera Nos Domine

In 793, the English encountered the Vikings for the first time:

“And they came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers; some they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults; and some they drowned in the sea” wrote Simeon of Durham.

The news reached Alcuin, a monk trained at York, one of the great scholars of the age and Charlemagne’s “Master of the Palace School” at Aix-la-Chapelle:

“It is some 350 years that we and our forefathers have inhabited this lovely land, and never before in Britain has such a terror appeared as this we have now suffered at the hands of the heathen. Nor was it thought possible that such an inroad from the sea could be made.” And he lamented with Jeremiah [1:14] “Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the North an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land”.

This cry of despair became familiar, repeated over the next 250 years along all the coasts of Europe and as far as way as Constantinople, where, as the massed fleet of the Vikings appeared before the city, the Patriarch Photius, ambassador to the Caliph at Baghdad and inspirer of St Cyril and St Methodius, lamented from the pulpit of Hagia Sofia:

“What is this? What is this grievous and heavy blow … A people has crept down from the North … fierce and (having) no mercy; its voice is as the roaring sea.”

It is one of the remarkable characteristics that the Vikings shared with other unsettled groups – the Goths, the Arabs and later the Turks – that after an initial period of barbarous destruction, within two generations they were to become some of the greatest patrons of architecture and the arts.

Both groups, Vikings and Arabs, were savage and cruel, beautifully attuned to the vacillating weakness of the European rulers and the helplessness of the common people, unarmed and vulnerable in the face of attack. They were also perceived as treacherous and slippery because they did not subscribe to the moral or diplomatic codes at least theoretically accepted across Europe; hence there was no basis from which to negotiate with them.

It is extremely interesting to compare the techniques, impact and long-term effects of these Muslim and Viking adventurers who passed from raiders to colonial powers in a couple of generations, often harrying the same cities within a few years of each other and even coming into direct conflict, as at Seville where the Muslims were already established as an official power and the Vikings were still ranging foot-loose in search of new bases.

The Vikings in the Iberian Peninsula

Viking raids were not limited to northern Europe. In 843 the Northmen took Nantes and reached Bordeaux and Toulouse. The following year, they tried their luck on the rivers to the south. Fifty-four ships and a number of minor vessels made their way up the Tagus and for two weeks battles were fought over and around Lisbon. Then the Majus – “fire worshippers”, as the Muslims called them – took their departure and headed south to find another promising river; they reached the Guadalquivir.

Meanwhile, tache Muslim governor of Lisbon had sent out warning messages in all directions, but there was little Seville could do. The city had no navy and no walls; its governor fled inland to Carmona and all the citizens who could do so left. The Vikings sacked the city in exactly the same way that the Muslims were sacking the cities of France and Italy: men killed, women and children enslaved, anything worth taking looted and the rest torched. This was the standard pattern.

The Vikings dumped their spoils at their river island base of Isla Menor not far from Seville and went back for more. They found the city virtually abandoned, but attacked one mosque (the ‘Umar ibn ‘Adabbasand) and the old men inside it – hence it was subsequently known in the Muslim annals as the Mosque of the Martyrs. The governor of Lisbon’s warning had, however, reached Cordoba, and the Northmen were soon facing government forces. The principal battle took place at Tablada, where the Northmen, vastly outnumbered, were defeated on 11 November, 844. Next morning, the palm trees of Tablada “bore strange fruit”: the heads of the vanquished Vikings. The butcher’s shops of the city displayed their body parts. Thirty ships were burned.

The remainder headed back along the Algarve, raiding fitfully, and then on to Aquitaine. The ships that attacked Arcila in Morocco about this time may have been a separate expedition.

(According to one of the chronicles, a certain number of the Vikings escaped, fled into the country and eventually settled down in the villages keeping cattle and making cheese – doubtless their peacetime occupation back home. They converted to Islam and later Christianity and vanished into the population.)

The Muslim rulers, unlike many of their Christian counterparts, learned from this experience. Seville was given proper fortifications: along the river; watch towers were built on the Atlantic Coast, some of which would serve against North African pirates at a later date; a ship-building programme was launched; arsenals set up; and young Muslims volunteered for periods of religious instruction and military service – ribat.

The result of this intelligent and determined response to a serious threat was that the next major Viking attack about 859 was easily rebuffed. On reaching the mouth of the Guadalquivir, the Northmen realized that the Muslim naval forces were waiting for them and veered off to Algeciras, which they raided, setting fire to the main mosque. They were driven off, and tradition has it that on the site of their encampment a mosque was built in commemoration, its doors made of wood from their captured ships. The Northmen continued into Murcia and sacked Nakur in Morocco. Then the fleet seems to have divided, some to raid the Balearics and others to Pamplona, where they seized the King of the Basques, receiving tens of thousands of gold pieces in ransom. They then continued into more disorganized and undefended areas of Europe, sailing up the Rhône and sacking Nîmes and Arles, before moving on to Northern Italy. Andalus, largely thanks to Abd al-Rahman’s decisive action, was basically left in peace for another 100 years.


  • Brent, P., 1975. The Viking Saga. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson: 28-29
  • Simeon of Durham. Historia Regum