Why Viking raiders seemed to disappear from history

The Vikings are perhaps one of the most misunderstood groups of people to ever raid and sack Europe. The enigma that remains is because the Vikings as a whole didn’t particularly like actually writing things down. In fact, much of what is known about Vikings today comes from the writings of people who fought Vikings.

When the history of your entire culture is being written by your enemies, they’re bound to get things wrong. What we do know is that they raided coastal villages from the Middle East to North America and kept spreading until they stopped.

The Viking Age lasted approximately 300 years, beginning with the raid on Lindisfarne, England in 793. While raids had taken place against England and elsewhere in the past, this time the pagan Vikings sacked a Christian monastery. Monks were thrown into the sea and valuables carried away.

Viking raids probably happened many times before this one, but this attack put the Vikings on the map. The raid on the Northumbrian Isles was recorded as the most violent attack in the British Isles to date. Tales of the Norsemen spread almost as fast as the Vikings themselves began to spread.

As they spread to the Faroe Islands, Scotland, Greenland, Iceland and even what is now coastal Canada, they began to establish permanent settlements that included agriculture as a means of production and not just raiding. To find out why they stopped raiding altogether, we need to look at Europe as a whole.

In the early Middle Ages, Europe was not the place with clearly defined borders and leaders that we know today. Small kingdoms and principalities dominated, if they had any central authority at all. This meant that the towns and villages had no means of defense apart from a loosely deployed militia.

The Vikings, on the other hand, were a close-knit, egalitarian society. When they went out to invade other countries, they did so as individuals. Their tactics were effective mainly due to surprise and shock. They were skilled warriors, but a Viking longboat or two was not meant to create a true invasion force.

Fighting Vikings (part of a festival), photo taken August 2005 in Denmark by Tone.

Over time, the Viking homelands drew ever closer to Christianity, a conversion that Viking leaders resisted for centuries. In 911, a Viking chief named Rolo was in charge of the French province of Normandy. He secured his fief by promising the Frankish king to convert to Christianity and keep Viking raiders at bay.

As Christianity began to adopt Viking culture and religion, raids began to slow down. As this change took place in the Viking lands, the other areas of Europe increasingly came under centralized authority, meaning things like taxes, standing armies, and coastal fortifications. Viking tactics were no longer as effective as they had to fight against professional soldiers, new weapons, new fortifications and fewer settlements along the coasts.

Why Viking raiders seemed to disappear from history
Magnus Barelegs Viking Festival, Delamont Country Park, Killyleagh, County Down, Northern Ireland, June 2012. (Wikipedia)

As Christianity reformed Norse culture and more raids became less effective, it was almost time for a final balance sheet. A Viking named Earl Totsig Godwinson was banished from England after a failed attempt to take over Northumbria, paving the way for the end of the Viking Age.

Godwinson turned to Harald Hardrata, King of Norway. Forced to help Godwinson return to England, Harald invaded England in 1066. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harald and Totsig were both killed by the armies of the English king Harold Godwinson, Totsig’s brother.

It was the last major Viking invasion of Europe. The raids subsided as they became less and less fruitful.

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