The Vikings

Who were the Vikings?

The Vikings came from all around Scandinavia (where Norway, Sweden and Denmark are today). They sent armies to Britain about the year 700 AD to take over some of the land, and they lived here until around 1050.

Even though the Vikings didn’t stay in Britain, they left a strong mark on society – we’ve even kept some of the same names of towns. They had a large settlement around York and the midlands, and you can see some of the artefacts from that today.

Top 10 facts

  1. The Vikings are also called Norsemen, and came from Scandinavia.
  2. They spoke Norse, which had an alphabet made up of characters called runes.
  3. They travelled over the sea in longships, which are long, narrow wooden boats that could be sailed in both deep and shallow water.
  4. The Vikings left their homeland because they were looking for better places to farm than the kind of terrain that Scandinavia had.
  5. The Vikings first attacked Britain in 787 AD, but didn’t start to invade and settle here until 793.
  6. In 878, King Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings in battle and had them sign a treaty saying they had to keep to their own land in England – this section of land was called Danelaw.
  7. Jorvik was a large Viking kingdom around York; the last king of Jorvik was Eric Bloodaxe in 954.
  8. Viking warriors believed that when they died in battle, they went to Valhalla – this is where the king of the gods lived, named Odin.
  9. England once had a Viking king – King Canute ruled from 1016-1035, and his descendants ruled until 1042.
  10. A few weeks before the Anglo-Saxons were defeated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, they defeated Viking warriors near York led by Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Timeline

  • 787
    A group of Vikings attacked the Isle of Portland (in Dorset), but then went back to their homes

  • 793
    The Vikings attacked a monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria and started to settle in England

  • 866
    The Vikings raided and conquered York, and established the Viking Kingdom of Jorvik

  • 871
    Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire

  • 878
    Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun, and Danelaw was created

  • 886
    The boundary between Anglo-Saxon and Viking territories was established, called Danelaw

  • 950
    Viking armies raid Wales

  • 954
    The Viking Kingdom of Jorvik became part of England again

  • 994
    Viking armies from Denmark and Norway attempted to raid London, but were defeated

  • 1016-1035
    Canute the Great ruled as the first Viking king of England

  • 25 September 1066
    The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place near York, between the Anglo-Saxons and Viking invaders led by Harald Hardrada

  • 14 October 1066
    William from Normandy won the Battle of Hastings, giving him the nickname William the Conqueror

Did you know?

  • The word ‘Viking’ means ‘a pirate raid’ in the Norse language, which is what the Vikings spoke.
  • Some of the names of our towns and villages have a little bit of Norse language in them. Do you recognise any names with endings like these:
    • ‘-by’, as in Corby or Whitby, means ‘farm’ or ‘town’
    • ‘-thorpe’, as in Scunthorpe, means ‘village’
  • The Viking alphabet, ‘Futhark’, was made up of 24 characters called runes. Each one stood for entire words or gods, as well as sounds.
  • There was a large Viking community around York called Jorvik. Archaeologists have found out a lot about the Vikings by artefacts they’ve found there.
  • The Vikings kept long benches in their homes that they’d use to sit on during the day, and then to sleep on at night. Only rich people had beds.
  • In Viking times, people usually just took baths once a week! This was often on Saturdays.
  • The Normans from France who defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings were actually descendants of Vikings! Vikings settled around more places than just Britain – they went to Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, France and Spain too.

Can you find the following in the gallery below?

  • A map showing where the Vikings originally lived, and where they settled in Britain and Ireland
  • A map showing Danelaw
  • A replica of a Viking longboat
  • The Osberg Ship, the best preserved Viking longboat ever found
  • What a Viking warrior would have looked like
  • A Viking warrior’s helmet
  • What a Viking man would have worn
  • What a Viking woman would have worn
  • The names of clothing that the Vikings wore
  • A diagram of a Viking longhouse
  • Weapons that the Vikings used

Gallery

About

The Vikings wanted new land because the places where they came from in Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden and Denmark – weren’t very easy to live on. It was hard to grow crops, which meant there wasn’t a lot of food as the population got bigger. Britain and Europe had plenty of good farmland, so the Vikings tried to claim some of that land for themselves.

Even though the Anglo-Saxons were pretty well established in England, the Vikings would turn up every now and then to raid towns and take a bit of land. Sometimes, instead of fighting the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons decided it was better to pay them money so they’d stay away. This payment was called Danegeld.

The first Viking attack on England was in 787 on the Isle of Portland. The Vikings went home straight afterwards, but they came back to England in 793 and raided a monastery at Lindisfarne. Monastaries made easy targets because the monks who lived there didn’t have any weapons, and they did have money and food.

The Vikings believed in many different gods, and they thought making sacrifices to the gods kept them all happy. They also told stories about the gods, called Norse mythology. Some of the gods included:

  • Thor, the god of thunder
  • Idun, the goddess of spring
  • Odin, the king of gods and the god of war

The Vikings believed that if a warrior died while fighting in battle, he’d go to Valhalla, which is where Odin was. Other heroes who had died would also be there. Odin would send his warrior maidens, called Valkyries, across the sky to ferry dead warriors to Valhalla.

Viking warriors were very good fighters. They’d wear helmets and carry shields to defend themselves, and they’d also have one of these weapons:

  • spear – a leaf shape or spike at the end of a wooden shaft
  • sword – these were expensive to make and usually double-edged, and warriors would decorate the hilts
  • battle axe – an axe with a long handle, and cheaper to make than a sword

Boats that the Vikings built are called longships – they are long, narrow boats that can be used in both deep and shallow water, making them perfect for travelling over the ocean and carrying lots of warriors onto the shore. VIkings sailed all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland in their longships. Longships were symmetrical, meaning they looked the same at the front as they did at the back. They’d often have dragon heads carved at either end.

Viking homes were long too – they were called longhouses! They were rectangular, made from wood and were usually just one big room without any inside walls. There would be one big fire pit in the centre for cooking and keeping the house warm. The roof was covered in thatch, and there was a hole in the middle for smoke from the fire to go through. Benches around the house would be used both to sit on and to sleep on.

Most clothes that the Vikings had were made from wool, but they also had some clothes made from linen. They used dyes made from plants and minerals to make red, green, brown, yellow and blue, so their clothes were very colourful.

Viking men wore a long shirt, trousers with a drawstring tie and a coat with a belt around the waist. Viking women wore long dresses with a tunic over the top that was held up by two brooches pinned at the shoulders. Both men and women wore woollen socks and leather shoes.

Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun (in modern day Wiltshire). After this, he and the Vikings agreed to set boundaries for their kingdoms. The area that the Vikings lived in was called Danelaw, and it meant that the land south of the diagonal line between London and Chester belonged to King Alfred (Wessex). Danelaw eventually became smaller and smaller as the Anglo-Saxons took more and more control.

Jorvik was a large Viking kingdom around York. The last king of Jorvik was Eric Bloodaxe, who was driven out in 954. The Vikings in England then agreed to be ruled by the king of England rather than having their own king.

But, that doesn’t mean that the king of England couldn’t be a Viking! The first Viking king of England was King Canute in 1016. He ruled until 1035, and then his sons were kings after that – but only for a total of seven years. Harold Harefoot was king until 1040, then Hardicanute was king until 1042.

Names to know:

King Canute (ruled as king of England from 1016-1035) – Canute was the first Viking king of England. He won a battle against Edmund II that divided their kingdoms, but when Edmund died Canute ruled both kingdoms. His sons, Harold Harefoot and then Hardicanute, ruled until 1042.

Harald Hardrada (c.1015-1066) – Harald Hardrada was the king of Norway . He led Viking armies into England, but was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in York by King Harold II.

Leif Erikson (c.970-1020) – Leif Erikson was a famous Viking explorer who sailed all the way to North America. 

Eric Bloodaxe (died in 954) – Eric Bloodaxe was king of the Viking kingdom of Jorvik between 947-948 and 952-954. He was the last king of Jorvik before it became part of England.

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See for yourself

  • Visit Jorvik Viking Centre in York to go back in time and see what it was like to live as a Viking.

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