Early Danes/Vikings
c.700-800 AD

By Ivo Bleijenberg

Scandinavian raiders pillaged England, Ireland, Frankia, Frisia and many other countries during the Dark Ages. Even today everybody knows who the Vikings were. They are chiefly remembered as raiders and warriors. It is often forgotten that were also successful traders and explorers. During this age of warfare and violence, raiding and brigandage were common enough, but the Vikings somehow speak more to the mind than any other invaders.

The Vikings where highly successful and cunning raiders capable of attacking where they were least expected, often performing ‘blitzkrieg’ attacks long before the word was invented. Striking from nowhere, looting riches and taking slaves, only to sail off before an effective defence could be mustered. Kings were powerless in the face of these localised attacks which could only be met effectively by local lords - who grew in authority and influence as a result.

The Vikings were aware of the many churches and monasteries, often remote coastal or island communities, where great piles of gold and silver lay practically undefended. This must have made pillaging almost too tempting. So effective where the raids on these unfortunate men of faith that a general boost in the European economy occurred as hoarded riches were put to use in trade once more. The chroniclers of the dark ages were almost exclusively these same men of faith; therefore most of the written sources are from the Vikings’ victims rather than the Vikings themselves. As a result these merciless raiders became well known and universally feared, albeit not very popular. 

The Viking raids started around the early 700 and grew steadily in intensity. The majority of the Scandinavians who went Viking (literally: pirating) in Western Europe were Danes. During 850 a great army of Danes invaded England with conquest in mind rather then raiding. The Saxon Kingdoms suffered and fell one by one. The Dane Guthrum joined the great Danish army during these years and became King over other Danish Chieftains. Under Guthrum the war on the Saxons continued until only Wessex of King Alfred the Great stood before the Danish Army. Battles were fought, peace treaties made and broken, until against all odds, the Saxons won the battle of Edington in 878. This resulted in a uneasy peace, new borders and Guthrum baptised with Alfred becoming his Godfather. In the long run the wars in England were far from over and it was not until the mid 900’s that they really came to an end.

These setbacks forced many Danes to leave England and started looking for more tempting targets elsewhere. (Direct result: the Danish siege of Paris in 885 by Rollo, which in turn resulted in the establishment of  the province of Normandy after the French King bought the Danes off)

The Viking raids continued to be effective until the increased fortification of towns and building of castles made easy raids almost impossible. During the 10th century, many Scandinavians turned to Christianity and learned that trade and settlement was becoming far more profitable, thus the Vikings became part of the population and their aggressive presence as raiders came to an end.