Possible Causes Which Led To The Start Of The Viking Age

Historians have tried to discover the main reasons that determined the territorial expansion of the Norsemen beginning in the 8th century. As there are several competing theories on the matter, it is clear that each of them can’t be universally accepted and that each can match the historical background.

As such, four main causes/scenarios that triggered the Viking Age and subsequently led to the Norse expansion in Europe and overseas can be identified as follows:

  • The geographic and demographic situations. Given the fact that the climate in most of Scandinavia couldn’t support agriculture and that the overpopulation in the coastal areas which were favourable to many human activities (including agriculture) represented serious concerns, the Norsemen had no alternative but to expand by either trade or conquest.
  • Political pressure could signify another cause that might likely caused the Viking expansion. Before Denmark, Norway and Sweden became unified kingdoms, early medieval Scandinavia was fragmented into many earldoms, each ruled by a local earl (jarl). In order to obtain more influence and recognition, each earl could decide to conquer proximal lands and then trade with the neighbouring civilisations so as to ensure social, political and economical stability to the earldom.
  • By spotting a weakness which likely stemmed from internal divisions in the neighbouring kingdoms outside Scandinavia, the Norsemen could easily take advantage of this situation by conquering and colonising new lands. So it was, for instance, that the Danish Vikings took advantage of some division in the empire of Charlemagne in the early 9th century and eventually seized control of Normandy, or that the Norwegian Vikings conquered several parts of the northern Britain.
  • The expansion of the Frankish Empire might have led to the military campaigns of the Norsemen in Francia and/or Britain. The Frankish Empire under Charlemagne was also quite close to invading modern day Denmark following the Saxon Wars (late 8th century-early 9th century), but the Danes built the Danevirke, a system of fortifications in Schleswig-Holstein, thus preventing a large-scale military invasion on behalf of the Franks.

Regardless of the degree of certainty of the aforementioned causes/scenarios, the event that most historians agree to have triggered the beginning of the Viking Age was the raid that took place at the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, located on an island less than one mile off the coast of modern northern England (at the time being part of the Kingdom of Northumbria).

In June, 793 a group of Norsemen landed on the shore of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and plundered the local abbey, killing and enslaving the monks in the process. Some of the monks were killed in the abbey, some had been thrown into the sea to drown, and the remainder were carried away back to Scandinavia as slaves.

The shores of the tidal island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, northeastern England. Image source: www.pixabay.com

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne pertained at the time to the early medieval Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, a region that will gradually be raided more often during the upcoming centuries. The incursion of the Norsemen at Lindisfarne is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle under the following manner:

‘In this year (i.e. 793 AD) came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.’

Another documentation of this raid can be found in the ‘History of the Church of Durham’ written by the Catholic monk Simeon. In this manuscript, a slightly detailed description of this event is accounted as follows:

‘On the seventh of the ides of June, they reached the church of Lindisfarne, and there they miserably ravaged and pillaged everything; they trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars, and plundered all the treasures of the church. Some of the brethren they slew, some they carried off with them in chains, the greater number they stripped naked, insulted, and cast out of doors, and some they drowned in the sea.’

While it is doubtless that this was not the first Viking raid to have unfolded on British soil — given the fact that the Anglo-Saxon chronicle recounts an earlier incursion at Portland Bay in Dorset during the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex (786-802) — it was the first recorded one and by far the most significant of its kind to trigger the beginning of the Viking Age in early medieval Britain at least. The monks at the abbey of Lindisfarne were certain that the arrival of the Norsemen was a divine punishment for them.

After the Norsemen returned home to Scandinavia with the church holdings and the enslaved monks, larger convoys of Vikings set sail for the eastern coastline of Britain, attacking both Northumbria and Wessex in the 9th century. Today the vast majority of the historians are convinced that the group of Norsemen who pillaged Lindisfarne were of Norwegian descent. Nevertheless, others claim that they were either Saxons or Danes.

An earlier start for the Viking Age has been recently suggested. Thanks to several archaeological findings excavated on the site of the old marketplace in the small town of Ribe, Denmark, the Viking Age might have started 70 years earlier than previously thought.

Nonetheless, some historians tend to ignore the importance of the Salme ships unearthed on the island of Saaremaa, Estonia. They were built for burial purposes between 700 and 750, thus suggesting an even earlier start for the Viking Age.

In a nutshell, below you can also watch a short animation which portrays the Norsemen and the Viking Age (in a somewhat comic manner):

Documentation sources and external links:


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