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The Origin of the Viking Raids and the Christian Threat

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Vikings were great fighters and Stalwarts of Seafaring!

The Vikings

The Vikings

The Vikings were brave warriors



Who were the Vikings?

The Vikings were a group of Scandinavian tribes comprising of a number of Norwegian, Swede and Danish earldoms. They were great seafarers and it is hypothesized by historians, that they had started building their typical long ships by the early 8th century AD or before that, mainly for two reasons : firstly, to trade, and secondly, to resist and fight the Christian rulers. They spoke the Old Norse language and were Pagans who believed in many Gods and Goddesses (like Hinduism). The daredevil warmongers raided and traded from their Scandinavian homelands during the late 8th to late 11th centuries. Later Non-Scandinavian Christian historians have described the Vikings as heathen barbarians, a bloody race and a terror to northern and central Europe, as well as European Russia. This view however, is not supported by many modern Historians.

Voyages of the Vikings in Europe

Voyages of the Vikings

Voyages of the Vikings

Viking raids on Ireland

Viking raids on Ireland

Viking raids on Ireland

The Viking Era

The first documented Viking raid is the attack on Lindisfarne monastery in 793 AD. Lindisfarne was in the kingdom of Northumbria in England. However, in recent studies it has been proved that the Norwegian Vikings were trading up to Southwest Denmark as early as 725 AD. In the pages of history, the Viking Era ends in the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when the Viking king Haraldr Hardráði (Hard-Ruler) lost. Now, the question arises why and when did this Scandinavian group of tribe begin to go to long voyages? Why did they build long ships? And most importantly, WHY DID THE VIKINGS BECOME SO RUTHLESS WARRIORS? Were they really the “heathen barbarians” as they are portrayed? Or were their attacks the “reaction” to the “Christian threat” they were starting to face?

The Vikings prepared to defend their homelands

The Vikings prepared to defend their homelands after the Christian threat.

The Vikings prepared to defend their homelands after the Christian threat.

Enemy at the Gates

What would you do if there’s an enemy of yours waiting at your gates?

It is now often believed that the Viking raids from Scandinavia were attempts to resist the Frankish expansion and protect their homelands. If we take into accounts the Politics of Europe in the 8th century AD, we will see that the Frankish kingdom was a powerful one (quite close to the Danish lands), Western Europe had been Christianized and wherever they went, they started propagating Christianity. The Danish earldoms could feel the heat of a Frankish invasion from the south and thus, they began building large defensive fleets and other ocean-based defensive systems. One Frankish leader Karl Martell (714-741) pillaged Friesland in 734 AD and killed their military leader. Karl Martell’s attacks forced the Vikings to build a strong naval force mainly for two reasons –

  1. Attack is the best defense! The Vikings wanted to resist the Frankish threat and strike them back from the oceans. As the Vikings started to build long ships for long voyages (Or, improved their boat building skills than before), they became formidable seafarers. Due to their ability to go to long voyages, they could now reach and trade in far-off countries.
  2. It is not illogical to guess, that the Vikings wanted to explore and find new lands where they could be away from the Frankish threat. The Vikings were human beings after all, and everyone would want their homelands, families, kids, to be out of danger.

In the middle of the 7th century, the Christian-Frankish threat increased to a whole new level when a man called Charlemagne became the king of the Franks.

The famous Christian King Charlemagne

The Frankish and Roman king Charlemagne who laid the foundations for modern France and Germany

The Frankish and Roman king Charlemagne who laid the foundations for modern France and Germany

Who was Charlemagne?

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great or Charles I was the great king of the Frankish empire. He is thought to be born in the 740’s, most probably in 747 AD. Historians suggest that he was born in either Aachen (in modern day Germany) or in Liege (in present day Belgium). He is known for uniting most of Western Europe and laying the foundations for modern Germany and France. He became the king of the Franks in 768 AD and of Italy in 774 AD. Charlemagne was the first recognized Roman Emperor in Western Europe after almost 300 years from the fall and collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne spent his life, expanding his kingdom in all directions. He fought and conquered Italy defeating the Lombard’s, he fought against the Saxons, the Vikings (Saxons and Vikings are difficult to differentiate), the Hungarian Avers, the Baltic Slavs, the Hispanic Moors and almost every European race he had knowledge of.

Picture showing Massacre of Verden

Massacre of Verden by Army of Charlemagne

Massacre of Verden by Army of Charlemagne

Christians burned Pagans who refused to convert

Christians burned Pagans who refused to convert

Christians burned Pagans who refused to convert

King Widukind of Denmark

King Widukind of Denmark

King Widukind of Denmark

Charlemagne’s oppression against the Pagans

Most of the Franks had already become Christians by the 7th century AD. Wherever the Frankish rulers and warlords went, they tried to forcefully convert their fellow “Pagan Europeans”. In the year 782 AD, Charlemagne forcefully baptized 4500 unwilling Saxon men by the town of Verden, close to present day Bremen, Germany. After baptizing the men, he decapitated and killed all 4500 of them. This massacre (known as massacre of Verden) was one in a series of similar heinous acts against Pagans who refused Christianity. Important religious centers of the Pagans were destroyed and the priests and priestesses were raped, tortured and killed. The Franks were fought ferociously under the leadership of the Saxon king Widukind who used guerilla techniques as the only means by which they could stand against the huge Frankish land-army.

The Saxons had found natural allies in the Danish Vikings and many Saxon refugees went there to tell the tales of massacres, and their fate. King Widukind himself went to Denmark in 777 AD and received both moral and practical support from the Danish kings, who also made sure to strengthen the Danevirke wall. Charlemagne continued his aggression against the Saxons and in 798 AD, he sent a diplomat to the Danish king Sigfred at Lejrea. It was a deliberate Frankish attempt to stop the Danes from supporting Saxon refugees. However, the Danes supported their Scandinavian neighbors because they had heard the tales of King Widukind and the Saxon people and had understood that their fate could easily become the fate of Denmark. This fearful news reached important Norwegian power centers in Viken, Agder and Rogaland soon. The massacre in Verden and the new religion must have frightened them so much that they gathered forces and prepared to strike back at these Christian people.

(The Franks, under Charlemagne converted and killed 4500 Pagans in Verden in 782 AD and as a result, the Vikings sought back revenge when they destroyed the Lindisfarne monastery and killed the Christian monks in 793 AD, as simple as that.)

A Viking long ship

A Viking long ship

A Viking long ship

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There’s a Reason for Everything

Thus, there’s this solid ground of historical evidence, about why the earliest Viking raids were upon Christian churches and their holy places. The Vikings wanted to scare the Franks and other Christian rulers. Those attacks were not for “looting” and “pillaging” out of fun! The Vikings surely knew that they were fighting a massive battle. A battle which not only threatened their home lands and political power, but also their entire society at large: The Christians wanted to destroy and wipe off their Pagan Gods and Goddesses from the face of the Earth. We know that History has always been written by the victorious (for example, Napolean is the villain in the history books of England!) but the truth about the “Viking barbarity” is finally revealed. They were due to the greater “Christian barbarity” against their culture.

Have you watched the 1958 movie "Vikings" by Kirk Douglas?


Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on January 10, 2019:

Interesting piece, Souradip, and very sensitively tackled with the historical background mostly in place.

However... the motives behind the raids on Britain have been largely misunderstood, and the ethnology a little wide off the mark. Firstly the Scandinavian peoples were Norse, not Viking. 'Viking' has been used for many years as an 'umbrella' term. 'Viking' was an activity under-written often by kings, local chiefs and jarls (earls, the term was introduced to England by Knut 'the Great') in order to swell their ever-dwindling coffers because by and large their generosity had to be supported.

Secondly the raids on Britain, starting with Lindisfarne in AD 793 and followed by Iona in AD 795 came as an 'agreement' between the Danes' king Godred and his West Norse (Norwegian) neighbours when the Franks began to press on his southern boundary. He also initiated the building of the Danevirke (now in Schleswig Holstein, North Germany, with Hedeby at its eastern end facing the Baltic trade routes), as well as the Haerevej - the military road - down the length of much of Jutland to enable reinforcements to reach the border marches.

Thirdly the building of fleets by Norse kings had the purpose of enrichment first and defence was a secondary consideration. Fighting at sea was not how we understand it today as tactics like the Battle of Trafalgar, the Battle of Jutland (WWI) or Midway (WWII), but rather a cabling together in line abreast and slogging it out over hours or even a whole day. Only kings could call on such massed fleets. Mostly ships set out in small groups for raids paid for by regional chieftains, or individually to trade if their routes were secure. Settlement in the British Isles came under the auspices of trade and consolidation under kings or warband leaders such as the legendary Danish king Ragnar 'Lothbrok' ('Leather breeks', these days known as 'Ladbroke', like the famed turf accountants).

His sons came initially to punish the perpetrators of their father's death, and then stayed to establish themselves in small kingdoms such as Halvdan of Jorvik (York) in AD 866.

Nicely written and, as I said, a sympathetic treatment of a hazy subject often misunderstood and once reviled..

Juan on December 31, 2016:

They were of scandinavian origin but, as SF MILLER Pointed they were simply the northern germanic tribes, kindred to their southern neighbors "vandals, Gothas, franks etc etc" they practiced warfare amongst themselves and clashed with the Román world long before christianity became the official religión of the empire. The vikingo raids were simply the last of the great germanic migrations and i doubt the masacre of verden "which many historians think was greatly exagerated regarding the number of víctims" had a significant role in the viking raids. After all vikings novedades to Russia, the baltic, England, Ireland and even attacked muslim lands un Iberia and north África. Btw what pagan were burned for refusing to convert yo christianity? Unlike Islam that was mostly spread by conquest, christianity un late antiquity and early middle ages was spread mostly by peacefull means. The great exception were the campaigns of the franks against the saxons

Sinha (author) from Calcutta on July 28, 2015:

@Mel Carriere- Rightly said.

THE MASSACRE OF VERDEN is the most gruesome example left by the Franks in their verge for 'Civilising' the Pagans.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on July 27, 2015:

This was a very interesting view. The common assumption in the West is that the Vikings really were just looting and pillaging and having fun, not fighting for a cause. History demonstrates that the Franks were just as bad, if not worse than the Vikings were, in terms of massacring conquered peoples. Great hub!

Sinha (author) from Calcutta on July 19, 2015:

@F S Miller-

The Vikings were of Scandinavian origin, i.e. the people of Denmark, Noway and Sweden.

What I tried to explain based on Historical evidence is that the territorial and religious aggression of Charlemagne, the king of Frankish kingdom forced the Vikings to hit back.

Ironically, the Frankish kingdom of CHARLEMAGNE consisted of present day FRANCE and GERMANY.


F S Miller on July 19, 2015:

While I admire this hub's apologetic slant, promoting the idea that the Vikings were provoked to barbarity because of the Christians is as reasonable and historically accurate as suggesting that the Nazis were provoked to extremism because of Western democracies, or that the Mongols couldn't help but to attack the Great Wall after they lost control of China.

Germanic savagery had been noted long before Christianity took root, and was shown indiscriminately to any group of people that the tribes of the North attacked or conquered, not just the Western Christians.

Sinha (author) from Calcutta on June 25, 2015:

Thanks for the interest. I will definitely write more about European politics of that time. :)

Certified Noob on June 25, 2015:

Now this is an interesting hub . I had no idea Vikings had a completely different identity . Also this is the first time I came across the name Charlemagne . I don't even know how to pronounce it !!!! . I hope you write more about this very interesting topic.

Sinha (author) from Calcutta on June 13, 2015:

Many thanks for the nice feedback @HSchneider.

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 13, 2015:

This was a very interesting and thorough examination of this era in world history. All actions have reasons, causes, and reactions and the Vikings were no different. Great Hub, Souradip.

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