The History of Norway during the Viking Age

The traditional date given for the commencement of the Viking Age is 793, when the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne that 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) was plundered by a group of Norsemen stemming from Hordaland, southwestern Norway.

This raid was one of the earliest of its kind to unfold on British soil (alongside another one which took place at Portland Bay in Dorset in c. 787 AD as per the Anglo-Saxon chronicle) and was conducted by Norwegian Vikings.

Being successful during their first incursion in England and looting everything valuable from the abbey of Lindisfarne in the process, the Norwegian Vikings 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, given the geographic proximity.

The ruins of the Catholic abbey of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, United Kingdom. Image source: www.pixabay.com

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, they were obliged to set sail for new lands which could give them the opportunity to adequately cultivate crops of vegetables, cereals, or fruits.

Thus, starting in the 8th century, the Norwegian Vikings gradually traveled to the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Faroe Islands, and the Hebrides, places where they had made various settlements. Prior to their arrival on these islands, several Pictish and Celtic-speaking 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 Gaelic kings against the Scandinavian 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

Detailed map highlighting petty kingdoms in Norway in 1000 (according to Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla). Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

kingdom situated westward of Scotland that was controlled by the Norwegian Vikings during the reign of King Magnus III of Norway during the late 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 explorator Erik the Red established several settlements in Greenland during the late 10th century.

Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red, overtook Columbus in the search for the American continent by discovering Vinland (Newfoundland, present-day Canada) in circa 1000.

In the meantime, in native 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 peninsula.

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 ancient rites of the Norse mythology and replace it with Christianity were fruitless.

Commencing in the year 1015, another Norwegian monarch by the name Olav Haraldsson pursued his predecessor’s policy in regards to confession and, for the very first time in early medieval Norway, created church laws, destroyed the heathen hofs, built Christian churches, and created several ecclesiastical institutions during his reign.

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 King Olav Haraldsson being killed during the battle. 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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