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


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


  • 790s
    Vikings begin their raiding voyages in Europe.
  • c.860
    Swedish Vikings start to move east, to Russia.
  • 860
    Iceland is discovered and Vikings begin to settle there a few years later.
  • 930
    The first meeting of the Althing in Iceland.
  • 982
    Erik the Red explores the coast of Greenland.
  • c.985
    The first Viking settlers move to Greenland.
  • 1000
    Christianity becomes the official religion of Iceland.
  • c.1000
    Leif Ericsson sails to North America.
  • 1004–13
    A Viking settlement is established in Newfoundland, North America.

Vinland was the name given to the area of North America where Leif Ericsson founded his Viking settlement. Vinland may come from "wine land" because the Vikings were so impressed with the size of the grapes there.

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).

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