The History of Norway during the Viking Age

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The flag of the Kingdom of Norway. Image source: www.think0.deviantart.com

The history of Norway during the Viking Age commences with a major event known as the raid against the monastery of Lindisfarne which was situated on an island less than one mile off the north-eastern coast of England, pertaining at the time to the early medieval Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria, which took place in 793.

This raid was the first documented one of its kind to unfold on British soil and was organised by Norwegian Vikings. Being successful during their first incursion in England and looting everything valuable from the abbey of Lindisfarne, the Norsemen would continue to raid the coastlines of Britain more often during the following decades. Prior to their landing at Lindisfarne, the Norse used to raid the Baltic coastlines more often, due to geographic proximity.

The ruins of the once Catholic church of Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island, from Northumbria. Image source: http://www.saintsandstones.net/saints-lindisfarne-journey.htm

The ruins of the once Catholic church of Lindisfarne, in Northumberland, England. Image source: www.saintsandstones.net

In addition to the loot they might have presumably gathered from these raids, the Norse also enslaved some of their prisoners and used them as farmers when they returned to Scandinavia. However, because of the lack of farming space on the western coast of Norway, the Norsemen were therefore obliged to set sail for new lands which could grant them the opportunity of having the needed soils in order to cultivate crops of vegetables, cereals or fruits.

Thus, starting from the 8th century, the Norwegian Vikings gradually traveled to the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Faroe Islands, and the Hebrides where they had made various settlements. Prior to their arrival on these islands, several Pictish and Celtic populations sparsely inhabited them, only to be eventually assimilated several centuries later by the newly arrived Norse colonists, although certain episodes of skirmishes between the allied Celtic kings against the invaders made possible the expulsion of the Norse for a brief period of time.

The Kingdom of the Isles (also referred to as ‘Kingdom of Mann and the Isles’) was an early medieval kingdom situated westward of Scotland that was controlled by the Norwegian Vikings during the reign of King Magnus III of Norway in the late part of the 11th century. These islands were known in the Old Norse language as ‘Suðreyjar’, as opposed to ‘Norðreyjar’ (i.e. Old Norse denominations for the Orkneys and the Shetlands).

Subsequently, the Norwegians discovered Iceland in circa 870 and from there a group of Vikings led by the legendary Norse hero Erik the Red created several small settlements in Greenland during the late 10th century. Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, overtook Columbus in the search for the American continent by discovering Newfoundland in circa 1000. Leif Eriksson then gave it the name ‘Vinland’ (literally ‘the land of wine’).

Statue of Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, in Qassiarsuk, southern Greenland. Image source: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Statue-of-Leif-Eriksson-Son-of-Erik-the-Red-in-Qassiarsuk-South-Greenland-Polar-Regions-Posters_i6062210_.htm

Statue of Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, in Qassiarsuk, southern Greenland. Image source: www.allposters.com

In the meantime, in Scandinavia, a series of dynastic wars broke out between the chieftains of several Norse factions resulting in a diminution of their regional power and influence in the respective area. Christianisation was successfully introduced by the Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason in the early 11th century. Nevertheless, due to the fact that he was killed during the Battle of Svolder, which took place in 1000, his attempts of prohibiting the old rites of the pagan Norse mythology and replace it with Christianity were fruitless.

Another Norwegian king, by the name Olav Haraldsson, commencing from the year 1015, pursued his predecessor’s policy in regards of confession and, for the very first time, created church laws, destroyed the heathen hofs, built Christian churches and created several ecclesiastical institutions.

Many Norse noblemen feared that along with the newly created process of Christianisation they would lose their social status, power and wealth. So it was that the two sides, one supporting the conversion to Christianity, the other being in favour of Norse Paganism, clashed at the Battle of Stiklestad. The aftermath was a harsh one on behalf of the Norse Christians, with their king Haraldsson being killed during the fight.

Eventually, the church elevated Haraldsson to the rank of saint, thus making it possible for Niðarós (modern day Trondheim) to become the centre of Christianity in Norway.

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