The Ninth Century
King Godfred, the impetuous and ruthless ruler of Denmark, was murdered in 810, while daring, under the very eyes of Charlemagne, to lay hands upon the coast of Friesland. His death put a temporary stop to the Danish plans, but the Godfred episode must have been a lesson to Charlemagne because he instigated an extensive coastal defence programme to protect his northern frontier. His son and successor , Louis the Pious, continued these precautions, and Frankish fleets were stationed in river mouths not only in Friesland, but all along the north-east coast of France, including the Seine; and near Boulogne an ancient watchtower of the time of the Emperor Caligula was converted into a primitive lighthouse. For the first twenty years of his reign Louis the Pious managed to safeguard the country from northern attacks – except for two minor Viking skirmishes in 820, one in Flanders, the other at the mouth of the Seine. France was weakened not by invasion, but by internal conflict between the Emperor and his sons, which gradually drained its resources. In 834 when Louis, by strenuous exertions, had once more established his position, the first large-scale Danish attack since the death of Godfred was launched on the coast of Friesland. The coastal defences were completely overrun, and the Danes without hesitation turned on Dorestad – the trading centre of Friesland – which was captured and looted.
The wealth and property of Dorestad had long been a severe temptation to the Danish Vikings. The town was situated almost in the centre of Holland, south-east of Utrecht, not far from the point where an ancient tributary, the Lek, joined one of the armes of the River Rhine, ‘the winding Rhine’. The rivers run in different courses nowadays, but a small town near to where the junction used to be is still called Wijk bij Duurstede (‘the little place near Dorestad’). Dutch archaeologists have found the site of a Carolingian fort built before Viking times, probably by Charlemagne himself. Between the fort and the fork of the Rhine lay Dorestad, a place stretching for over half a mile/0.8km along the river, protected by palisades and gates.
In early texts Dorestad is called Emporium which means ‘market town’. In the early Viking period it and Quentovic (perhaps the modern Calais) were the Frankish Empire’s main trading ports of the North Sea coast. Quentovic was the centre of the trade with England; having both a customs house and a mint. Dorestad was no less important: here was minted Charlemagne’s famous ‘Dorestad coinage’, eagerly sought and, indeed, copied by the Northerners. From Dorestad, too, sailed the stout big-bellied Frisian vessels carrying the products of France to Norway and the Baltic countries. In its prime, the fifty years or so from 780 to 834, Dorestad was reputedly the largest trading centre in northern Europe.
The Danish storming of Dorestad in 834 was follwed by several others, in spite of every effort on the part of the Franks to restore the coastal defences. Repeatedly the inhabitants had to stand by and watch their town ravaged and plundered by the Vikings. However, it took more than fire and looting to destroy the old towns. As long as the reason for their existence remained it was quite simple to rebuild the simple wooden houses and repair the palisades and earthworks. Dorestad survived for another generation. Then in 864 the real catastrophe struck the town – but not in the shape of yet another Viking raid. A series of tidal waves, followed by extensive floods, put a decisive and to the defiant town. Large parts of Friesland and Holland were inundated, and the vast sand dunes which had formerly stretched out from the coast towards England were swept away. This calamity was described in the chronicles in these words:
Strange portents were observed in the sky, and these were followed by plagues, gales, tidal waves, and floods. The waters of the Rhine were forced back by the sudden inrush of the sea, drowning masses of people and animals in Utrecht and all over Holland. From then on, the River Lek was embarked with dikes, and the Rhine changed its course towards Utrecht, while at Katwik it completely silted up!
In other words the river which was the artery of Dorestad’s trade failed it; this was Dorestad’s real death-blow. Its place was taken by other towns with more stable river conditions, such as Utrecht and Deventer.
it was not only the strength of the Frankish Empire which had kept the Danes in check until 834. Trouble at home in Denmark also played its part. There was strife between King Godfred’s sons and a pretender called Harald, who had ingratiated himself with the Emperor Louis the Pious by becoming a Christian. In 827 Harald was finally driven out of Denmark (1) by Godfred’s son, Horik, who remained king until his death in 854.
Horik did not favour individual pirate ventures; he wanted any Danish Viking raids to be under his direction. In 845 he dispatched several hundred vessels up the Elbe to ravage Hamburg, and at the same time sent Ragnar Lodbrok with a smaller fleet up the Seine to capture Paris. A few years before these events the Emperor Lothar had been forced to cede the island of Walcheren at the mouth of the Scheldt to two Viking brothers called Rorik and Harald – the latter being in all likelihood the pretender banished from Denmark in 827.
Louis the Pious died in 840, and the Frankish Empire entered a period of decline and division which was ended when the Treaty of Verdun of 843 divided the Empire up between the Emperor’s three sons: the east being allocated to Louis the German, the west to Charles the Bald, and the centre to Lothar. However, they were not on their best of terms with each other, and, moreover, had difficulties in controlling their feudal subordinates. Here was the perfect opportunity for the Vikings, and they promptly seized it; the great invasions of France by Danes and Norwegians began. From 840 onwards their armies swept across France: Rouen, Paris, Chartes, and Tours were the principal objectives, and the occupying forces were strong enough to winter in France. Soon Charles the Bald was forced to come terms by buying-off the invaders with danegeld.
Back in south Denmark Horik still reigned, and evidently in a most shrewd and far-sighted fashion. Although he himself was not a Christian, he realized the diplomatic advantages which could be gained by allowing Christian missionaries to have access to his country, and in many ways he was not obliging to Ansgar, whose two visits to the Swedish town of Birka were brought about only through Horik’s intervention. Finally, however, his enemies proved too strong, and in 854 he was killed with almost the whole of his family, except for a young son also called Horik. A few years later the Viking Rorik (mentioned above in connexion with Harald), with the help of the Franks, gained a foothold in southern Denmark, the part ‘which lies between the River Eider and the sea’ – on other words the region at the neck of the Jutland peninsula controlling the trade-routes to the slie Fjord. Exactly how long he held sway in this strategic position is not known.
As for the young Danish king, Horik, he is said to have been sympathetic to Christianity, and to have banished from Slesvig the anti-clerical earl, Hori. After him, and indeed throughout the second half of the ninth century, history does not tell of any Danish rulers of importance. It was as if during this period Denmark was applying all her energies abroad. Her leading figures were independent princes rather than monarchs: chieftains who made convenient and profitable alliances with each other in order to fulfill their aspirations to foreign conquests and pillage. During this period the invasions of northern France and eastern England were primarily carried out by these Danish Vikings, although even then there was some participation by Norwegians and Swedes.
A summary of developments in France about 900 will be useful at this point. From about 860 a seven-year campaign was waged by the Danish and Norwegian Vikings against the Franks in the region of Jeufosse, the island in the Seine north-west of Paris, mentioned earlier. Charles the Bald decided to dislodge the Northerners entrenched there, and was joined in this effort by his brother Lothar. Large Frankish forces descended upon the island, but to no avail; and in the meantime the third brother, Louis the German, invaded France from the south-east, forcing Charles to leave the Vikings. Subsequently, however, another Viking marauder, Weland, commanding two hundred vessels, offered to clear the Vikings from Jeufosse for Charles, for a fee of 5,000 pounds of silver, plus sufficient rations for the operation. This kind of offer was by no means rare among the Vikings, who were frequently willing to fight as mercenaries against their own countrymen. In the ninth century there were many Viking chiefs who cultivated the habit of wintering abroad and selling their services, like the Italian condottieri, to the highest bidder.
The Franks, and not least Charles the Bald, sought other methods than the payment of danegeld to keep the Vikings out. Fortifications seemed to be the answer, especially when they included stone or wooden barriers thrown across the rivers which were the Vikings’ favourite approach. The Vikings never really relished attacking strong fortified positions, and much preferred to take them by ruses and stratagems. The famous stories of the mock burial (2) of Hasting in Luna, which, by the way, the Vikings’ use of birds, bearing fire beneath their wings, against wooden fortresses, illustrate their cunning.
Charles the Bald set about constructing a bridge across the Seine at Pitres, south of Rouen, which would prevent the Viking ships from penetrating farther into the Seine valley; but this barrier does not appear ever to have been completed. Meanwhile, the Vikings were busy elsewhere in northern France: in the west, south of Brittany, for example, where Norwegian raiders forced their way up the River Loire. Worse was in store: there lay ahead the great thirteen-year devastation which was to afflict France, Flanders, Belgium, and western Germany. This invasion was, in fact, started off in England, where Alfred the Great’s resolute defence culminated in his victory at Edington in Wiltshire in 878. When this news reached a newly arrived Danish fleet in the Thames, a majority of its leaders decided to turn towards the Continent. Reinforced by other hordes in the neighbourhood, the ‘Great Army’ sailed for Belgium, and in April 878 reached the Scheldt, with Ghent as their first goal. During the thirteen years which followed, ‘there did not exist a road,’ says the chronicle, which was not littered with dead, priests and laymen, women, children. and babies. Despair spread through the land, and it seemed that all Christian people would perish.’ It cannot be said that the Vikings did not meet any resistance; both the eastern and western Frankish kingdoms (roughly equivalent to the Germany and the France of today) defended themselves fiercely. These two countries had been created following the agreement in Meersen in 870, when Lothar’s empire was divided between two new kings, both named Louis. The eastern Louis (III) was not very successful in his clashes with the Vikings. He lost his only son in the battle of Thuin, fell sick himself, and died a few years later, leaving the Rhine and Moselle valleys at the mercy of the Northerners. The western Louis, a grandson of Charles the Bald and son of Louis the Stammerer (apparently the Carolingians named their kings after their shortcomings rather than their strong points) was more successful. In 881 he defeated the great army at Saucourt, near the Somme. The Franks triumphantly sang ‘Lord, preserve and honour him’; but this prayer was not answered. shortly afterwards this brave soldier, not yet 20, was killed – though not in battle. The story has it that he caught sight of an attractive young girl and spurred after her; to save herself she fled through a low gateway, and he in pursuit rode into it, killing himself. When his brave and capable young brother Carloman died in 884, also as the result of an accident, the responsibility of defending western Franconia fell upon the inadequate shoulders of Charles the Stout. He has already shown his incapacity when, in 882, he faced the enemy with a huge army behind him, at Elsloo, near Maastricht – and bought them off instead of waging battle. Three years later, when the Vikings were making no headway at all in their siege of Paris, which was stoutly defended by Count Odo, Charles the Stout arrived on the scene with a strong force, and once again played the poltroon. First he again paid danegeld in return for renewed promises from the Vikings to leave the country and, secondly, he allowed them to pass the two bridge blocking their further progress up the Seine, and spread over the whole land. The Vikings proceeded to loot and burn the entire countryside for a number of years. Not until 892 did the great army meet its match – in the form of a great famine and pestilence. The Vikings quickly gathered what was left of their men and ships, and returned to their bases in Kent, where their army was dissolved a few years later. France’s respite from the Vikings invader was only brief, and on the summer of 896 Viking vessels were once again sailing up the Seine, their number gradually increasing; until the Frankish king, Charles the Simple, was at his wits’ end. About the year 900, however, the character of the Viking invasions of Frankish territory changed. From being purely marauding raids they began to assume a more settled and pacific purpose, and in fact became deliberate efforts at colonization.
In England the infiltration began in 835 with a Danish raid on the mouth of the Thames. During the next thirty years these assaults continued, with varying results for the Northeners. The islands of Thanet and Sheppey were commonly used as bases for these attacks; from his camp on Thanet the Danish chieftain Rorik (who had settled in Friesland) plundered both Canterbury and London about 850. The next year, however, he was defeated by King Aethelwulf of Wessex, who ruled most of southern England, and who for some years was able to instill into the Vikings a healthy respect for the West Saxon fighting man. On the whole it is clear that southern England was capable of defending itself and at times even of defeating the Vikings in their own element – the coastal waters. In 865, therefore, when the Vikings attacks were intensified, they were launched in a more northerly direction and based on East Anglia. This was the starting point of an attack by a united heathen army led by the three sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar the Boneless, a most clever strategist, Ubbi, and Halfdan. This army turned towards Northumbria, and captured York on 1st November 866. In 867 it invaded Mercia and took Nottingham, after which the Mercians paid danegeld and the Vikings retired to comfortable positions behind the Roman walls of York, where they spent the winter. From here the army proceeded south-eastwards towards Peterborough and Ely, capturing and killing King Edmund of East Anglia who became the King Edmund the Martyr becoming the patron Saint of England and is still so today. It was now the turn of Wessex, which was defended by King Athelred and his brother Alfred, the latter being the famous leader who was to prove in the long run the man able to keep the Vikings at bay.
On 8th January 871, the English came off best at the battle at Ashdown though the victory was not decisive; three months later Athelred died and was succeeded by Alfred who, to gain time, was at first to buy the Vikings off. During 871-2, they wintered in London, and Halfdan emerged as their army’s supreme commander. A couple of years later they moved northwards again and divided their forces. One part under Halfdan moved into Northumbria, and with York as a base began a definite system of colonization, the first Danish effort of the kind to occur in England. Halfdan divided the land among his men, took part in several battles against Picts and Britons in southern Scotland, and then vanished from history. One surmise is that he went across to Northern Ireland and met his death there.
The other part of the Viking army, led by three chieftains, made it headquarters at Cambridge, and from there in 876 resumed violent attacks on Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex. Their land assault from the north was reinforced by naval attacks on the Channel coast; and their combined pressure on Alfred was so intense that according to the true legend he became a fugitive, sheltering in the forests and swamps of the Somerset Levels and made a camp on the Isle of Athelney. However, in the most difficult circumstances, he eventually managed to raise new forces and was relieved with the defeat of a Viking force at the Iron Age camp at Countisbury Hill who had landed there as a pincer movement to flush him out of the Somerset Levels with the forces at Chippenham, and was then able to leave his stronghold and do battle at Edington in Wiltshire in the spring of 878 and decisively defeat them where they completely surrendered after being surrounded in Chippenham where they retreated after the battle of Eddington, Guthrum and his earls were willing to be baptized as Christians under the sponsorship of King Alfred the Great, where upon Guthrum now known as Athelstan fell back to East Anglia on the other Danish side of the Danelaw which Alfred had agreed upon with the Danes earlier, following Halfdan’s example by distributing land among his men in an effort at colonization. London remained in Danish hands until Alfred liberated it in 886.
Alfred was now the acknowledged leader of free England, (the first known King of England was Alfred’s grandfather King Egberht who was crowned King of England on his coronation). He still had to fight battles, however, and particularly after 892 when the ‘Great Army’ returned from the Continent; but four years later, in 896, the Viking forces dispersed. Alfred, one of England’s great rulers, died three years later, in 899, the Father/Founder of England, creating the vision of his grandfather Egberht too Alfred’s grandson Athelstan who became the first true king of all England, a Christian England.
The position in England at the time of his death was this: the whole of southern England, including London, was free, under the leadership of Wessex. North of the Thames, as far as Chester, and to the east of a line roughly coinciding with the old Roman Watling Street, was the region occupied and colonized by the Danes and called the Danelaw – comprising parts of Mercia and Diera as well as East Anglia. In these areas the Vikings settled down as farmers, a society of free men with their own laws, customs, and language – the latter still evident in the place-names of this part of the country. The centre of the Danelaw was the area round the ‘Five Boroughs’: Lincoln, Stamford, Leicester, Nottingham, and Derby – more or less the area from the Humber and the Wash in the east, to Wales and western Mercia in the west. Farther to the north, the area centred on York was also occupied by Vikings, but these included many of Norwegian origin. Judging from the traces which still survive in the dialect and place-names, Lincolnshire must have been a centre of Danish colonization. Country folk speaking the local dialect stil use many Danish words in their speech: ‘lathe’ for ‘barn’ ‘bigg’ for ‘barley’, and ‘bairn’ for ‘child’, to mention only a few. Danish place-names are abundant: well over half of the early settlement names in Lincolnshire are of Danish origin, particularly noticeable being those ending in ‘-by’ and ‘thorpe’, meaning ‘village’. Even today farmers in Lincolnshire call the homestead a ‘toft’, the meadows an ‘eng’.
The Scandinavians introduced into Anglo-Saxon England their own territorial divisions, and the names of these, too, survive in places. For instance in many northern areas hundreds (as they are elsewhere called) are known as ‘weapontakes’, which derives from Old Norse vathnatak, a word used at the sessions of the ancient Thing or assembly. The assembled people showed their agreement with a decision taken or a sentence passed, by striking their shields or rattling their spears, and this was called vathnatak ‘grasping of weapons’. Later this word was applied to the place where the Thing was held, and then to the whole region from which the Thingmen were gathered. Both Thingoe (Old Norse thingaugr ‘assembly mound’) and Thingwall (Old Norse thingvollr ‘assembly field’) are to be found among place-names in the north and east of England. Yorkshire to this day is divided into three Ridings, East, West, and North; Riding derives from Old Norse thrithiungr ‘a third part’. (this has changed somewhat with boundaries changes , but it still recognized if not officially).
The Vikings of the Danelaw no doubt helped themselves to the more substantial properties, and the native inhabitants had to take second place within the farming community. There is no reason, however, to believe that the Anglo-Saxons were pushed out or enslaved by the invaders, though very little evidence is available on this point. (it is ironic in life these Danish would have come from the same places as many of the English who came here from several centuries before and it would happen again with the French-Normans who claim to be elite from the English, but used the hard work of a well governed country to enslave the English).
Norway in the ninth century was not unified by powerful monarchs as was Denmark Danish kings apparently exercised considerable powers in the first half of the century: indeed King Godfred’s domain included parts of southern Norway. Norway itself at the same period, and indeed much later, was divided between numerous local kings and earls. In the second half of the century, at a time when Danish kings are little heard of, a monarchy in Norway began to develop. This was directly related to Harald Finehair’s victory in 872 (or possibly a few years later) at Hafrs Fjord and the subsequent rise of his power. It was his regime, indeed, which is said to have led to the Norwegian colonization of the Faroes Islands and Iceland, as the men who joined these expeditions were malcontents and refugees from his tyranny. On the other hand, the first Norwegian raids on the Scottish islands and mainland and on Ireland were ordinary pirate attacks, which only later changed into efforts to annex new territories.
The treeless islands of Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides had long been inhabited when the Norwegians landed on them at the end of the eighth century. This is proved by buildings still in existence – the towers known as brochs for example – as well as by archaeological investigation. However, the Pictish population could not put up any effective resistance, and soon these archipelagoes became Norwegian bases for attacks upon the Scottish mainland, and more particularly upon Ireland. In the last quarter of the ninth century the situation was changed by the unification of Norway under King Harald Finehair, who pursued his enemies right across the North Sea, seizing the Orkneys and establishing a strong earldom there under his direct sovereignty.
Long before that, however, Norwegian Vikings had settled in Ireland. A green island with a mild climate, it was a prize well worth for. The Viking raids on Ireland increased in intensity after 800; the earles record in the Irish annals dates from 807. The country was divided into numerous petty kingdoms which were consolidated, theoretically at least into two alliances – the south-west and the north-east – conditions favourable to a swift and successful advance in the island. Within twenty years the Norwegians were the masters of many parts of the country in both the east and the west; they had some to stay. Ireland had been Christian for some four hundred years, had been the centre of classical education in Europe during the migration period, and a base for extensive and fanatical missionary activity on the Continent. Its innumerable monasteries were rich in art treasures, many of which now fell into the hands of the Vikings. In 839 the Norwegian chieftain Turgeis arrived with a large fleet in the north of Ireland, and declared himself, as the annals relate, ‘King of all foreigners in Erin’. He was an active soldier and a confirmed pagan. He founded Dublin and tried to replace Christianity by the worship of Thor; in Armagh, the holy of holies of Christian Ireland, he officiated as pagan high priest. The Irish, however, gradually learned to put their resistance in better order; in 844 they captured him and drowned him in Lough Owel.
A few years later Danish Vikings made their appearance in Ireland. The Irish cunningly took advantage of the enmity between the Danes and Norwegians, and allied themselves with the newcomers. Together they inflicted a heavy defeat upon the Norwegians in 851; but later in the same year their luck changed. There arrived on the scene another chieftain from Norway, Olaf the White, who reconquered Dublin, restored Norwegian supremacy, and finally chased the Danes out of Ireland, For the next twenty years Olaf ruled in Dublin, and his brother Ivar in Limerick.
These were hard times for the Irish. Their hatred of the intruders, expressed in typically flowery and colourful langauge, can be seen in the following passage from a contemporary chronicle.
If a hundred heads of hardened iron could grow on one neck, and if each head possessed a hundred tongue cried out incessantly with a hundred ineradicable loud voices, they would never be able to enumerate the griefs which the people of Ireland – men and women, laymen and priests, young and old – have suffered at the hands of these warlike, ruthless, pagans.
That the Vikings in Ireland were mainly Norwegians is proved beyond question by the written sources, but even if such proof were lacking the evidence of place names and archaeology would establish that conclusion. Ninth – and tenth-century graves in Norway contain many objects and jewels of Irish origin; scarcely any similar finds have been made in Denmark and SWeden.
In 870 Olaf the White was recalled to Norway, and the government of Dublin was taken over by his brother Ivar. The rest of the century the Norwegians spent in fighting; partly among themselves, and partly against the Danes under King Halfdan in northern England. Finally, in 901, the Irish captured Dublin from the Norwegians.
The Norwegians were also active in other area around the Irish Sea. Large tracts of south-west Scotland and north-west England were in their power, and their prolonged occupation in this and the next century is shown by the abundance of Norwegian place-names in Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire, and even farther east in Noerthumberland and Yorkshire. The Isle of Man did not escape them either, and here too, especially in the north of the island, there are many place-names which testify to Norwegian settlement.
The Norwegian raiders went south as well. No doubt they participated with the Danes in the great battles of northern France, but their favourite hunting grounds in France were along the Atlantic coast, particularly the Loire estuary which served as a gateway to the centre of France. One of their many raids on Nantes in 843, when that flourishing town was sacked and burned by the Vestfaldingi (the Norwegians from Vestfold in the Oslo Fjord). Subsequently they made a lengthy stay on a small island in the mouth of the Loire called Noirmoutier (New Monastery), from where they were able to control the extensive trade of the area, which mainly consisted of wines and salt. Also, from this convenient base they were able to penetrate the lower reaches of the Loire, and meddle in the affairs of northern France. One would have thought that these achievements would have satisfied the Norwegian desire to expand along the coasts of western Europe, but neither Norwegians nor Danes called a halt. Ahead of them lay Spain and the Mediterranean, where the two nations appear to have operated together. This was a direct continuation of the work of the Norwegian Loire-Vikings, while the Danes operated in the Mediterranean under two leaders, Bjorn Ironside, son of Ragnar Lodbrok, and Hastings.
The earlier expedition of 844 followed the coast of Galicia to the Christian town of La Coruna; but here the Vikings were out of luck, The natives proved to strong, and the Viking ships with their red sails (as the sources relate) passed on. they sailed along the Portuguese coast, and eventually reached and captured Lisbon. Shortly afterwards Cadiz and even Seville suffered the same fate, a remarkable feat, considering that these towns were in the very centre of the mighty Caliphate of Cordova. At this point, however, the luck of the Vikings changed; and after a heavy defeat they were happy to exchange their prisoners for food and clothing and soon the whole fleet was homeward bound.
The later venture was far more ambitious: under the leadership of Bjorn Ironside and Hasting a fleet of sixty-two vessels set out from Brittany. This time, however, they found the coasts of Spain heavily guarded, and they were only able to sack Algerciras just inside the Straits of Gibraltar. From here they crossed to Nekor in Morocco, and eight days later sailed north past the Balearic Islands to the southern shores of France, where they set up camp on the island of La Camargue in the Rhone delta. Here they remained for some time, causing great annoyance and detriment to the inhabitants of the coastal and delta areas. In 860 the Vikings turned east into northern Italy, where they pillaged Pisa. To this campaign belongs the story related by Frankish historians, of how hasting arrived at an Italian town, now vanished, called Luna, which he mistook for Rome itself and which he captured by the famous ruse of the mock funeral. (1) In 862 the expedition was back in Brittany via the Straits of Gibraltar and the Spanish coast. An Irish source recounts that the Vikings brought back with them to Ireland a number of black prisoners, which seems quite feasible
We must still consider the ventures of the Norwegians into the North Atlantic. These were no doubt begun before Harald Finehair came on the scene, though conditions created by him in Norway must have stimulated the colonization of the Faroes and Iceland. The first settlement in the Faroes, according to such medieval Scandinavian sources as the Saga of the Faroes Islanders (in the Flateyjarbok) and Snorri’s Saga of King Harald, occurred during the reign of Harald Finehair, in other words in the latter part of the ninth century. Contemporary foreign sources do not mention the Faroe Islands, although it has been pointed out that the Irish geographer Dicuil, who lived in France, was probably referring to the Faroes when he mentioned, in a document dated about 825, ‘the many islands in the northerly part of the British Sea which can be reached from the north British islands within two days if the wind is favourable’. And he continues: ‘These islands, unnamed and uninhabited from the beginning of time, are now abandoned by the hermits who had sought seclusion there, owing to the arrival of northern pirates. These islands are full of sheep and many varieties of sea birds.’ These references fit the Faroes admirably; and the thought that the Celtic hermits, in their pious wanderings – which history so often records – through the northern seas, should have reached this isolated group of islands and settled with their Christian religion and their sheep, is not at all unlikely. When the land-starved Norwegian emigrants arrived in these distant islands about 800 they evidently found them not wholly waste, and the ejection of the Celtic hermits who had sought sanctuary there must have been an easy matter. This early colonization of the Faroes by the Norwegians took the form of casual and intermittent arrivals by emigrant groups or families, and was, therefore, not important enough to be mentioned in the later, Icelandic, literature of the thirteenth century. This records only the settlements which occurred after Harald Finehair had driven large numbers of dissidents out of his united kingdom. Thus, the Saga of the Faro Islanders says: ‘There was a man called Grim Kamban. He was the first man to settle in the Faroe Islands – in the days of king Harald Finehair. At that time many people fled [Norway] because of the king’s tyranny. Some settled in the Faroe Islands and built up farms there; others went to other uninhabited lands.’ There is also the story of the outlaw called Nadd-Odd who took land in the Faroes apparently towards the middle of the ninth century. In Iceland too there is reason to suppose some Celtic habitation before the arrival of the Norwegians, despite Snorri’s assertion that the colonization of Iceland from Norway was due entirely to pressure brought to bear by Harald Fienhair. Here too we can refer to the work of the Irishman Dicuil, who says that Irish monks had found their way to Iceland. And finally, it is related in Ari Frodi’s Islendingabok (c. 1130) that the Norwegians in Iceland encountered Irish Christians, called papar, who son left ‘because they would not live alongside heathens’.
Scandinavian written sources mention three distinct men as being the first to reach Iceland. Who really did get there first is not known. There was Nadd-Odd, mentioned above, who one a voyage from Norway to his home in the Faroe Islands was thrown off course by a gale, and came upon an unknown land – Iceland – which on his return he called ‘Snowland’. The second was the Swede, Gardar, who was also driven off his course north of Scotland, and so found Iceland. He wintered there, and on his return to Sweden named the island which he had discovered ‘Gardarsholm’ after himself. The third was a Norwegian, Floki, from Rogaland, who had heard of Nadd-Odd’s discovery of Snowland and started off in three ships in search of it, sailing via the Shetlands and the Faroes. He reached hos destination and wintered there, twice in difficult conditions, but found the place little to his liking, and upon his return named it ‘Iceland’. These three journeys in all probability occurred just before Harald Finehair’s rise to power in Norway.
The most important source of information on the settlement of Iceland in the late ninth and early tenth centuries is the famous Icelandic Landnamabok (the book of the taking of the land), which dates from shortly after 1200. In this are mentioned the names of some four hundred settlers and in several cases the places they came from. They were mostly from western Norway, but quite a few came from the Norwegian colonies on the northern Scottish islands and in Ireland. Only a few came from eastern Norway and Sweden, and none at all from Denmark. It is important to notice the influx from Ireland, as it supports the opinion expressed by the Norwegian archaeologist Shetelig, that ‘the Celtic elements may have done much to make the Icelanders distinct from the Norwegians, and they certainly made a valuable contribution to later Icelandic literature’.
The correct and traditional manner in which a colonist chose his settlement-site in the new country was to throw his ‘high-seat pillars’ (4) overboard and follow them as they drifted at the will of the gods. Where they landed the emigrant would take land for himself and his followers, build his house and a temple for the gods. By the end of the century several thousand settlers had made their homes in Iceland. One of the earliest of these, the Norwegian Ingolf Arnason, found that his ‘high-seat pillars’ (3) had drifted ashore on the south-west coast of Iceland, at a spot where there were warm steaming springs. He settled there, naming the place Reykjavik, which means ‘bay of smoke’, and today this is the capital of the country. This new community of Iceland retained Norwegian legal system and the Norwegian language, but it was not long into the next century before the Icelanders began to consider themselves as an independent Nordic people.
We now turn to Sweden. In an earlier chapter, reference was made to Volga Russia during the eighth century, with its two Khaganates (or empires) – the Khazar in the south, and the Bulgar in the north. The situation here made it a logical task for active Scandinavians to link up, by way of the Volga, these two great powers, and to exploit to the full the obvious trading possibilities. The Swedes were just the people for the task. Their colonizing and mercantile ventures, begun in the Baltic, were later developed, still in an easterly direction, towards Lakes Ladoga and Onega. The steady development of trade brought about a meeting between northern and southern cultures, not only by way of the Volga, but also by the much nearer (though possibly more dangerous) route down the Dnieper to the Black Sea and Byzantium. This meeting – not of course a single one under specific circumstances – took place in the early decades of the ninth century. That it really did happen is proved by two convincing pieces of evidence, one archaeological, the other literary. To the north of the little modern town of Steraya Ladoga (Old Ladoga) close to the southern end of Lake Ladoga, Russian archaeologists have excavated a large settlement. The deepest and oldest layers of this site prove to be Finnish. On top of these were found the remains of square log-houses with stone hearths, quadrangular wells of wood, stables, etc., and other remains which establish with certainty that from the early ninth century to the middle of the eleventh century there was on this site a large settlement of Swedish origin. When the Swedish colonists or ‘Rus’ arrived in the land which now bears their name, it was here that they first settled.
The Old Norse name of this place was Aldeigjuborg; let us consider for a moment the situation of this town with regard to its communications with the south and east. Between Lake Ilem and Lake Ladoga runs the River Volkhov; Aldeigjuborg stood about six miles/9.6km south of th river’s entry into Lake Ladoga. In the Viking period anyone wanting to travel south would follow a route from Aldeigjuborg along the River Volkhov to the town of Novgorod (Old Norse Holmgaror). From there the way continued across Lake Ilem and along the length of the River Lovat. By this route the area east of Polotsk was reached, near which three great rivers have their source: the Dvina, which runs into the bay of Riga; the Volga, which flows to the east, and the Dnieper which runs due south to Kiev and the Black Sea. If, on the other hand, the traveller from Aldeigjuborg wished to journey to the lands to the east, he could either go by the rivers Syas nad the Mologa to the Volga bend, north to Rostov, or he could sail up the River Svir, which joins Lakes Ladoga and Onega, and from Onega follow the river to the almost circular White Sea, where he would reach the trading centre of Byelosersk, and go farther south along the Syeksna towards the Volga. from Aldeigjuborg, therefore, both these ways provided openings for bold adventurous men, in search of trading opportunities. The furs, the honey, and the slaves went through territory held by Finnish and Permian tribes down to the Khaganate of the Bulgars. From there they continued, carefully guarded, by way of the Volga, to the Khazar Empire, to Itil and across the Caspian Sea to join the caravan routes to the Caliphate of Baghdad.
The literary evidence for the contacts via the East between Sweden and the distant south comes, oddly enough, from a western European – Frankish- source. It exists because of the chance occurrence that, in the spring of 839, messengers from the Rus to the Byzantine Emperor, Theophilus, were prevented from returning the way they had come by unrest among tribes on the Dnieper. A Byzantine mission was about to set out, sent by Theophilus to the Frankish Emperor, Louis the Pious, and this took the mesangers under its protection as far as the town of Ingelheim on the Rhine where Louis was residing. We know about it from a chronicle written some twenty years later by the Frankish bishop, Prudentius, who was possibly in Ingelheim at the time. He writes that Louis, who had suffered from Viking attacks on his empire, insisted on examining the Rus messengers in order to satisfy himself that they were not Viking spies. Whether they cleared themselves Prudentius does not tell us, but he does disclose two items of the greatest interest to historians. The first is that the Emperor Theophilus, in his letter to Louis, said that the messengers declared that they had been sent from the Khaganate of Rus. The second is that the messengers themselves told Louis that they were not Swedes, though they were ‘of Swedish origin’. The Danish scholar Stender-Petersen, was the first to recognize the significance of this evidence. Prudentius tells no more about the messengers’ home country, but the main point is clear: the men were from a northern Khaganate of Rus wherever that may have been. Before the middle of the ninth century, therfore, the coonizing Swdes had created in northern russia a settlement so independent that they could send their own ambassadors to the distant Byzantine Emperor.
Stender-Petersen suggests that these emigrant Swedes, the Rus, were originally farmers who, recognizing the important possibilities of trading with the East, decided to develop them first by way of the Volga and later the Dnieper. This interpretation is open to doubt, but there is no altering the fact that Swedish expansion was essentially mercantile in character. Between Viking activities in western Europe and Swedish enterprises in the east, there is this difference; the Swedish journeys were undertaken in search not of plunder but of new markets. How independent of its homeland (the kingdom of Uppsala) this Rus Khaganate in northern Russia may have been, is difficult to say.
The many oriental coins and other objects, particularly from the tenth century, found on Gotland and in the Uppland trading-centre of Birka, suggest that the Swedish kingdom had a deep interest in its affairs. Scandinavian archaeologists and historians commonly hold the well-founded belief that from the end of the ninth century Sweden was politically active in developing trade between eastern and western Europe by securing for itself control, not only of the long routes through Russia, but also of the port for the North Sea, Hedeby ,which came into Swedish hands in about 900.
To call this complex activity ‘the foundation of the Russian Empire; is to provoke violent disagreement among eastern and western European historians. Such an expression is in any case misleading, implying as it does the establishment of the Great Russian state. In eastern Russia along the Volga, there were independent Khaganates which owed nothing to Swedish colonization, and many independent states too in southern Russia side by side with Byzantine territories. Yet it is interesting to note how the traditions of their origin developed a fixed form in the literature of the Rus themselves, a kind of birth myth of the nation with a kernel of historical truth. The Russian Primary Chronicle, or Nestor’s Chronicle, dating from shortly after 1100 and said to have been compiled by the monk Nestor in the cave monastery of Kiev, gives the following account of the origin of the Rus people:
The Varangians came from beyond the sea and demanded tribute from the Finnish and Slav peoples. They were driven off, but in due course dissension broke out among the peoples, and became so acute that they said ‘Let us find a prince who will rule us and judge justly.’ So they went across the sea to the Varangians, to the Rus (for the Varangians were called Rus as others were called Swedes, Normans, Angles, and Goths), and they said to the Rus ‘Our land is large and fruitful but it lacks order. Come over and rule us.’ Three brothers were chosen as rulers, and these three agreed to go over, taking all their family and all the Rus people with them. It is further related that the eldest brother, Rurick, came to Ladoga and built there the town of Aldeigjuborg [Old Ladoga]. The second , Sineus, settled near the White Sea [at Byelosersk], and the third, Truvor, at Isborsk in southern Estonia. Two years later the younger brother died, and Rurick assumed full power, after which he went south and built on the shore of Lake Volkhov the town of Novgorod [Holmgaror]. From here the Rus people spread south, to Smolensk among other places.
From this account in Nestor’s Chronicle it is fair to assume that when the Khaganate of Rus sent ambassadors to the Byzantine Emperor in 839, its capital was Novegorod, although Stender-Petersen is of the opinion that the Khaganate came into existence at an earlier date, and in the upper Volga region of north-east Russia. So far there is no conclusive evidence for either contention.
Nevertheless, it is certain that the Rus folk penetrated rapidly south along the Dnieper as far as Kiev. We know the names of two of their rulers: Hoskuld and Dyri. By 860 this advance had already progressed so far that the Rus were able to attack Byzantium itself, which, however, was quite capable of defending itself. Soon after this we hear of more friendly contacts between the Greeks and the Rus.
The Rs prince Hoskuld who captured Kiev adopted the Christian faith, but his example does not seem to have been followed extensively by the Rus people, and his successors in Kiev maintained paganism for a long time.
Apart from the Khaganate of Novgorod, which originated as we have sen, from Aldeigjuborg, there was another line of Scandinavian expansion, beginning at Polotsk on the Dvina. Headed by a man called Rognvald, Vikings ventured south along the Dnieper, and in doing so came into conflict with the Novgorod Rus.
Side by side these ninth-century Scandinavian probes into Rusia – in east and west, warlike and peaceful – there gradualy developed a widespread commercial activity whose leaders were the ‘Varangians’. Scandinavian names appear in records of the area, more or less influenced by Russian forms; Helgi becomes Oleg; Yngvar, Igor; Valdemar, Vladimir; etc. There id no colonization in the sense that the Swedes took over land intending to settle permanently on it. Their motive was to establish )often by violence) trade-routes linking market centres which in due course became towns. This is confirmed by the Arab writer, Ibn Rustah, who reports of the Rus in the mid tenth century, ‘they have no lands, but live entirely on what they import from the countries of the Slavs’.
By 900 Swedish influence had become a very important factor in Eastern Europe; an extensive network of river routes ha been established, and at least two permanent Scandinavian Khaganates set up, one based on Novgorod and the other on Kiev.