Viking raiders return to their homeland. Viking raiders return to their homeland. The Vikings, also known as Norsemen (or Northmen), were seafaring peoples from Scandinavia (modern-day Denmark, Norway and Sweden). Their English name came from the old Norse word vikingr, meaning "someone who goes on an overseas expedition" or “pirate”. From the 790s to the mid-11th century, the Vikings were a constant menace, raiding and looting coastal towns and villages all over Europe. But the Vikings were also peaceful farmers, craftworkers and traders. They travelled all over Europe and beyond, even as far away as North America, in their quest for trade and for new lands to settle.

Pommel (part of the hilt) of a Viking swordPommel (part of the hilt) of a Viking sword


The Vikings began raiding and pillaging coastal settlements of the British Isles, France and elsewhere in northern Europe in the 8th century. They frequently made surprise attacks on churches and monasteries, stealing valuables and farm animals. Their victims were shown little mercy. The first recorded Viking attack was in AD 793 on a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England.


Reconstruction of a longship figureheadReconstruction of a longship figurehead


The Vikings used their fastest ships, longships, for raids. These ships were long and slender, and had flat bottoms. Their shape allowed them to be navigated up narrow inlets or be landed on beaches—good for surprise attacks and quick getaways. The ships were fitted with sails but could also be rowed. The warriors' brightly painted shields were slotted into racks that ran the length of the ship on either side.

A map showing Viking expansion 8th–11th centuriesA map showing Viking expansion 8th–11th centuries

Building a longshipBuilding a longship


Later, the Vikings became settlers of the lands they once raided. Some Norwegian Vikings sailed west to Scotland, Orkney, Shetland, the Faroe Islands and Ireland. Many Danes settled in England, the Netherlands and a region of France called Normandy (from “Norseman”). Many Vikings from Sweden went east and founded settlements in Russia and Ukraine. Viking seafarers sailed further still, to colonize Iceland and Greenland. They even explored the coast of North America, and founded at least one settlement there. 

The quayside of a Viking townThe quayside of a Viking town


As well as being warriors, the Vikings were great traders. The superiority of their ships enabled them to trade with distant lands, including Russia and the Middle East. Viking traders took furs, skins, honey, weapons and amber and exchanged them for silver, silks, spices, wine and pottery. They also sold slaves to the Arabs in exchange for silver. Merchants would weigh out pieces of silver using sets of scales they carried with them. Viking trading towns, where merchants came to trade various goods, soon grew up along the trade routes.

Consultant: Philip Parker

Timeline of Viking history

  • 793
    Viking raiders sack the monastery of Lindisfarne on the east coast of England
  • 794
    Vikings attack a monastery at Jarrow in northeast England
  • 794–806
    Vikings attack the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland and the northern and western coasts of Ireland
  • 799
    Aquitaine in France is raided by Vikings
  • 810
    Frisia (North Sea coast of Netherlands and Germany) is attacked by the King Godfred of the Danes
  • 832
    Vikings raid Armagh in Ireland
  • 836
    Vikings raid Antwerp and other places in the Low Countries
  • 838
    Viking fleet lands on east coast of Ireland and founds Dublin
  • 839
    Led by Turgeis, the Vikings march into Ireland, conquering Ulster
  • 843
    Vikings plunder the town of Nantes in western France; they sail up the River Loire as far as Tours
  • 844
    Vikings sail up the River Guadalquivir and attack Seville in southern Spain
  • 845
    Under Ragnar Loddbrok, Viking raiders threaten Paris; the French king pays them a ransom of 7000 pounds of silver not to attack
  • 847
    Inner Hebrides conquered by Vikings
  • 853
    A Norse kingdom is established in Dublin
  • 859
    Danish chieftain Hastein leads a fleet of ships through the Straits of Gibraltar and raids Algeciras and the coast of Morocco
  • 860
    The Rus people, originally Vikings from Sweden (known as Varangians), found the cities of Kiev and Novgorod and raid Constantinople
  • 860
    Viking fleet commanded by Hastein attacks Galicia, Portugal, North Africa and the coast of Italy
  • 860s
    Viking sailors from the Faroe Islands discover Iceland
  • 865
    Danish Vikings form a large army (“Great Heathen Army”) and land in East Anglia
  • 866
    The Viking Great Heathen Army marches north and captures the city of York, which they rename Jorvik (it becomes the Viking capital of England)
  • 868–78
    The Vikings ravage Northumbria and march south through England, attacking towns in Mercia and Wessex
  • 874
    First Viking settlement in Iceland, Reykjavik, founded
  • 878
    King Alfred of Wessex defeats the Viking army at the Battle of Edington; by Treaty of Wedmore of that year, and Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, a boundary is agreed between Viking Danelaw terriroty and the English kingdoms
  • 879
    King Godfrid of Denmark ravages Low Countries using Ghent as his base
  • 882–85
    Vikings conquer Frisia
  • 885–86
    Viking leader Rollo (Hrolfr) besieges Paris
  • 907
    Swedish Viking Oleg the Wise leads an army of 80,000 men and 2000 ships to threaten the Byzantine capital of Constantinople; Byzantines pay him off
  • 918
    Rollo granted Duchy of Normandy in exchange for agreeing to end raids on Frankish lands
  • 947
    Erik Bloodaxe becomes King of Northumberland
  • 958
    Harald Bluetooth becomes King of Denmark
  • 982
    Viking chief Erik the Red, accused of murder, is banished from Iceland; he sets sail westwards and discovers Greenland (985)
  • 985
    Death of Harald Bluetooth; Sweyn Forkbeard becomes King of Denmark
  • 986
    Greenland’s southwest coast colonized by Norse settlers
  • 992
    Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, leaves Greenland with 35 men in search of land to the west; he lands on Labrador, becoming the first European to discover America
  • 994
    King Olav of Norway and King Sweyn Forkbeard attempt an invasion of London but is unsuccessful
  • 1000
    King Olav Trygvason of Norway is killed in battle by Sweyn Forkbeard
  • 1001
    Leif Eriksson lands on the coast of Newfoundland in North America
  • 1004–13
    A Viking settlement is established on Newfoundland
  • 1013
    Sweyn Forkbeard conquers England, driving King Aethelred the Unready into exile
  • 1014
    Sweyn Forkbeard dies and Aethelred is restored to the throne
  • 1014
    Battle of Clontarf; Brian Boru, King of Ireland, routs the Viking army, ending Viking rule in Ireland
  • 1016
    Death of Aethelred; Cnut the Great, son of Sweyn Forkbeard, conquers England and marries Aethelred's widow, Queen Emma
  • 1036
    Varangians establish a settlement in Georgia
  • 1038–40
    King Harald Hardrada of Norway conquers Sicily
  • 1066
    King Harald Hardrada of Norway invades England, but is killed at the Battle at Stamford Bridge near York; The English king Harold Godwinson is himself killed three weeks later at the battle of Hastings, won by William, Duke of Normandy; William is crowned King of England on Christmas Day
  • 1070
    King William thwarts an invasion attempt by the Danish king Sweyn Estridsson

The althing (general assembly) of Iceland is one of the oldest parliaments in the world. It was first held in 930 at Þingvellir, the "assembly fields", near Reykjavík, the modern-day capital of Iceland.

In the right conditions, longships could plough through the water at up to 27 kph (17 mph).

Sicily was conquered by the Normans under the leadership of Roger I in 1091. He and his men were Christian descendants of the Vikings who had settled in northwestern France, known as Normandy after the Norse men.

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