The Vikings were feared warriors and successful explorers of new land because of their long-ships, their employment of the element of surprise, their weapons, and their aggressive nature during battle. The Vikings’ reign of terror began in the late 8th century CE and for almost 300 years, these adventurous, violent, and fearless Scandinavian warriors ravage various parts of Europe.
In 793 CE, they sacked the Lindisfame monastery in northeast England. They slaughtered the monks before carrying off the booty of silver crosses, chalices, and other treasures. In 795 CE, the Vikings reached Ireland’s east coast. Four years later, the Vikings attack the French west coast. By the early 9th century CE, Swedish Vikings were moving through Russia, using the Dnieper River to facilitate their raiding operations. Some Vikings reached Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire.
The Viking Long-ship
The secrets to Viking raiding success were their long-ships and the element of surprise. Their long-ships could quickly and quietly sail up many large rivers and from the seashore, Viking warriors sprang upon their victims before their enemy could properly prepare for the attack.The Vikings were almost invincible at sea. Ship building and seafaring were their lifeblood, and they even took their ships with them to their graves. Archeological excavations of Viking burials at Oseberg and Gokstad in Norway revealed real boats buried with dead Viking warriors. These vessels are now in an Oslo museum.
The long-ships were known to the Vikings as a “surf dragon” and an “oar steed,” and these vessels varied in length from about 20 to 30 meters to than in length. The long-ships were propelled by oars, sails, and crews ranging from 25 to 100 Viking warriors. Viking shields were fixed to the ships sides, and wooden figures of dragons or snarling beasts were designed to strike terror into their enemies. Viking Warriors The most terrifying Viking warriors were the berserkers. Since the berserkers believed that they were divinely protected by Odin, the Viking god of warfare, the warriors worked themselves up into a fighting frenzy by drinking a mixture of alcohol and various drugs that caused them to violently bite into their shields. Although they fought without body armor, the berserkers won many battles because the alcohol and drugs they took did not allow them to feel physical pain of their wounds during intense combat.
Viking land armies lacked the organization and discipline of the celebrated Roman legions, but they were fearless, courageous, and ferocious in battle. The average Viking warrior was about 1.7 meters tall, but a few Viking warriors were about 1.9 meters tall. The younger warriors usually formed the front line in a battle with their round shields overlapping to create a defensive wall. Behind the young warriors stood the older combat veterans who shouted words of inspiration to motivate and urge the young warriors forward in battle.
Viking warriors were armed with sharp double-edged swords, bows, spears, daggers, and their most deadly weapon of war were their famous battle axes. Viking warriors used a long battle axes for one-on-one fighting and a short battle axes for throwing at the enemy. An accurate hit from a thrown battle axes would kill an enemy warrior instantly. Viking warriors also protected themselves with their helmets. Their helmets did not have horns protruding out of them. Their helmets were strong metal caps made up of either iron or bronze with chain-mail attached in the rear to protect their neck and shoulders during battle.
Vikings would occasionally adopt a “boar formation” where a group of 30 warriors would assemble into a wedge shaped formation with the point facing the enemy. Spearmen on the outside would protect archers in the center or rear of this formation. These wedge formations were sometimes joined up to form a zigzag line formation. These weapons and battle tactics facilitated the Vikings conquests of significant portions of Europe.
Viking Exploration and Settlements Not all Vikings were raiders because many of them were farmers looking for new land since there was not enough land for everyone in their original homelands. In Britain they settled mainly in northern and eastern England, northern Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland. In France they settled in Normandy, which was given to their leader, Rollo, by the French King in 911 CE. Others settled in Iceland and some went from there to Greenland and to the North American east coast.
The Viking warriors often married the local women. They adopted local languages, but added words of their own to them. The some of week days of English speaking nations are named after the Viking gods. For example, Wednesday was derived from Odin or Woden, Thursday originated from Thor, and Friday originated from Frigg. Vikings wrote in runes, sticklike letters, which were carved on stone, wood, or metal.
The Vikings sailed across the Atlantic Ocean when many people would never dare to sail away from the sight of land. From Iceland they colonized Greenland around 985 CE. At the same time Bjarni Herjolfsson saw the North American coast before he was blown off course by a storm. He did not land there, but told people in Greenland about his experience and observations. The Viking, Lief Ericsson, went in search of this new land, which he called Vinland; the land was filled with gooseberries and cranberries, used for wine making. The Vikings settled there briefly around 1005 CE. Archeologists and historians have discovered traces of the settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, and Maine in New England.