Bluffers Guide The Vikings


Who were they?

The Vikings were a race of people from Scandinavia who were best known for raiding in Europe and occasionally beyond. Typically tall, pale-skinned and muscular, with hair and eye colour ranging from dark to fair, their seafaring skill and battle prowess made them the most feared force in Dark Age Europe.

Where were they?

A Germanic people originally from Scandinavia

— mainly Norway, Sweden and Denmark

— Vikings invaded and settled in areas of Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland and Ireland, as well as conquering northern England and Normandy, France. They were employed as mercenaries by other nations, like Russia, and journeyed to Persia and Morocco, as well as settling in Newfoundland, Canada.

When did they live?

Active in Europe between the eighth and 11th centuries, the Vikings gave their name to the Viking Age of history, culture and art. This is often considered to begin on 8 June 793 with their raid on a monastery on Lindisfarne, a north-eastern English island.

Invading France

Vikings had been raiding western France since the 790s and began to settle colonies there in the 840s; they even raided Paris in 845. In 911, the Viking leader Rollo of Normandy forced their king, Charles the Simple, to give him the Duchy of Normandy if he was baptised as a Christian.

The social hierarchy

Vikings lived in farms and small settlements in a society divided into three main classes: jarls, who ‘ were landowners and commanders; karls, who were freemen and farmers; and ^rell (thrall), who were slaves and bondsmen. They differed from others in medieval Europe because of their high literacy levels — most of the middle class and above could read.

Ready for battle

All Viking karls had the right to own weapons and were always expected to carry them. The typical attack weapon was a sword or axe, while ranged options included javelins and bows. Protection came from a wooden shield and, if they could afford it, mail armour. Helmets did not have horns, despite often being depicted (see main image).

Conquest of Britain

In 865, Vikings invaded Northumbria, England, and captured York (Jorvik) in 866. York became the centre of Viking England, despite changing hands several times until its reconquest by Erik Haraldsson in 947. In 1016 the Viking king Cnut the Great took the throne of England itself, making it a Viking nation.

Master sailors

The Vikings were so successful at exploration thanks to technologies they developed. Their famous longships were flexibly built from overlapping planks, making them able to withstand long voyages. The sailors also used a mineral called solarsteinn (sunstone; possibly Icelandic spar) as a form of compass to indicate the position of the Sun.

Famous for raiding

The most renowned Viking raid was on Lindisfame in 793. A force landed on the island, killed or enslaved the monks and

— according to the eighth-century scholar Alcuin — «poured out the blood of saints around the altar… trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets» before sailing back home.

Key figures

Ragnar Lodbrok

Circa ninth century

Lodbrok is a semi-legendary figure generally credited with the Siege of Paris in 845.

Ivar the Boneless

Died 873

Allegedly Ragnar Lodbrok’s son, with his brothers he conquered East Anglia, England, in late-865, before taking York in 866.

Rollo of Normandy


Granted land by French king Charles the Simple, Rollo was Duke of Normandy and possibly an ancestor of British royalty.

Leif Erikson


Son of Erik the Red, Leif is credited with being the first European to land on the American continent.

Cnut the Great

Circa 990-1035

Probably the most successful of all Vikings, Cnut (or Canute) was king of Norway, Denmark, England and areas of Sweden.

Major events

First recorded Viking raid


Vikings raid the Isle of Portland in Dorset, UK, killing the local official who goes to greet them.

The Viking Age begins

8 June 793

Vikings raid the monastery of Lindisfarne, Northumbria, UK, killing most of the monks.

Conquest of Normandy


Leader Rollo becomes Duke of Normandy, after brokering a deal with the French king.

Discovery of North America

Circa 11th century

Vikings beat Columbus to the American continent, settling at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.

Conquest of England


Viking king Cnut the Great claims the English throne, making England a Viking state.

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