The Viking reputation for ferocity made them ideal mercenaries. Mercenary units tend to be ad hoc affairs of adventurers from all over, gathered together under a captain for a specific mission, campaign, or war. As such, mercenary units seldom last for more than a few years before they are disbanded, once the conflict that gave rise to their creation is concluded. The Varangian Guard were an exception. Their history as a mercenary unit lasted for hundreds of years, from the early tenth to the fourteenth centuries. As seen above, Viking adventurers from what is now Sweden had penetrated deep into what are now Russia and the Ukraine in the ninth century. By 850, they had formed their own principalities in Kiev and Novgorod.
From there, they dominated the region’s Slavs as a ruling caste of a new civilization that came to be known as Kievan Rus. The princes of Rus tended to hire new Viking fighters from Scandinavia, who were known as Varangians. The term means a stranger who had taken military service, or a member of a union of traders and warriors. By the early 900s, some of these Varangians had ventured further south, sailed across the Black Sea, and raided Constantinople and the Byzantine lands. Some, however, took service with the Byzantine emperors as mercenaries. As early as 902, contemporary records describe a Viking force of about 700 Varangians that took part in a Byzantine expedition against Crete.
In 988, Byzantine Emperor Basil II sought military aid from his ally, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev. The Rus ruler sent 6000 of his most unruly Viking warriors, whom he had been unable to pay anyhow. The emperor put Vladimir’s discards to good use against his enemies, then organized them into what became the nucleus of the Varangian Guard. As foreigners, the Vikings had no local ties, and thus few political links that could enmesh them in the Byzantine court’s intrigues and cabals. That made them suitable as bodyguards.
They were not just palace soldiers, however. They accompanied the emperor on campaign, and formed the Byzantine army’s shock infantry. The Varangians proved themselves in battle time after time, and their unit became an elite outfit whose members received higher pay than the rest of the army. In addition to higher pay, they were often granted the privilege to loot first after victory. Another informal privilege, which fell into their lap as the main armed force in the imperial palace, was the privilege to plunder the emperor’s possessions after his death.
The Viking sword was a double-edged and relatively light straight sword that weighed between 2 to 4 pounds. A fuller that ran down the blade’s length reduced weight, without compromising strength. The blade measured between two and three feet, and 1.5 to 2.3 inches wide, and was balanced by the hilt and pommel. A slight blade taper helped bring its center of balance closer to the hilt. The grip was typically made of wood wrapped in leather. For swords owned by the wealthy, the grip could by wrapped with gold or silver wire. By the close of the Viking era, blade lengths had increased, and some recovered samples from that era had blades up to three and a half feet long.
The sword’s tip was not pointed, but rounded – a rounded tip is stronger than an acute one, and is not significantly less effective in piercing than a sharply pointed blade. “Viking sword” is actually a misnomer, as it implies that it had been developed or used only by Vikings, when that was not the case. It was actually developed by Frankish swordsmiths in the Frankish Empire during the Carolignian era. It got its name because the most and best preserved samples were recovered by archaeologists from Viking burial sites. By the time the swords’ true provenance had been recognized, the name “Viking sword” had already stuck, although “Carolignian sword” or even “Viking era sword” would have been more accurate.
Viking swords first emerged in the eighth century. They evolved from the Merovignian sword, which in turn had evolved from the Roman spatha, and were prevalent in Northern and Western Europe in the early Middle Ages. Early versions were made via pattern welding, in which iron bars of soft and hard qualities, for flexibility and strength respectively, were combined, and heated to weld them together. They were then twisted and drawn out in a thin strip that eventually became the blade.
Later, pattern welding was abandoned after advances in metallurgy produced quality iron that could be smelted into good steel for sword blades. In use, the Viking sword was wielded one-handed, although some historic texts mention two-handed use. However, the space on the sword’s handle between hilt and pommel, while commodious for a single handed grip, is too small to be gripped by two hands. Some speculate that the texts might have meant not two hands on the handle. Instead, it might have meant one hand gripped the sword, while the other cupped the wrist of the sword hand to deliver blows with significantly more power.
Viking Religion Accidentally Produced Strong Steel Swords
Scandinavians in the Iron Age only had access to bog iron – an impure and soft metal. That put Scandinavians at a disadvantage against neighbors armed and armored with better iron. However, Scandinavian religious beliefs led them, unwittingly, to forge an early version of steel swords. That gave them a literal edge over their opponents. Scandinavians believed that mixing the bones of killed animals with the iron used to forge swords imbued the resultant weapon with the spirit – and strength – of the killed animal. That was mumbo jumbo, but the swords that emerged were pretty strong, nonetheless. It was not because of spirituality, however, but science.
The mixture of sacrificial bones with the iron that went into swords did not imbue the swords with any spiritual powers. However, what Scandinavian smiths did not realize was that the bones, like any organic matter, contained carbon. If you mix carbon with iron, you get a rudimentary form of steel. When they burned coal alongside their low quality bog iron, Scandinavian smiths unwittingly produced bone coal – similar to how burning wood produces charcoal. When modern researchers conducted experiments and mixed bone coal with bog iron to forge swords, they discovered that the process significantly improved the sword. Carbon from the bones penetrated up to three millimeters deep into the bog iron, and produced a significantly stronger weapon.
The Swiss got seriously salty when it was first reported that one of their greatest national hero stories might have been cribbed from an old Viking tale. One day in 1307, William Tell strode through Altdorf, Switzerland, with his son. There, an agent of the ruling Hapsburgs, Albrecht Gessler, demanded that all passersby remove their hats as a show of respect. Tell kept his hat on, and was dragged before Gessler. He ordered an apple placed above the head of Tell’s child, and decreed that he’d let both live if dad shot the apple with a single bolt from 120 paces. Tell shot off the apple and Gessler freed him, but asked why, despite the challenge specifying a single bolt, he had placed a second bolt in his jacket. Tell replied: “If my first bolt had missed, I would have shot the second at you and I would not have missed“.
The incensed agent ordered Tell locked up in a dungeon. He freed himself, killed Gessler, and triggered a rebellion that overthrew the Hapsburgs and led to Swiss independence. Awesome story. Unfortunately, as seen below, it never happened. Today, William Tell is a Swiss national hero. Most non-Swiss know of him either as the guy who shot an apple off a kid’s head, or from the upbeat William Tell Overture finale from Loony Tunes cartoons or the Lone Ranger. In Switzerland, there is hardly a town that does not have a statue or monument that commemorates him.
The most famous William Tell statue is in Altdorf, where his heroics reportedly took place. It is the first stop in a pilgrimage of Swiss fathers and sons, and is visited by thousands of non-Swiss tourists. Next is a chapel on the site of Tell’s home, the lakeside pier where he was placed on a boat headed to a dungeon, and a ledge where Tell freed himself during a storm, sprang from the boat to safety, and drowned the baddie Gessler and his goons. Unfortunately, all the statues, monuments, and sites on the William Tell pilgrimage circuit commemorate heroic deeds that never occurred, and a man who never was.
Today, historians and scholars agree that neither Tell nor the Hapsburg agent, Albrecht Gessler, had ever existed. Indeed, the whole story was cribbed from a tenth century Viking legend about a man named Toko. He was forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head, and reserved a second arrow for the baddie who had made him do it. However, the Swiss were quite attached to the Tell tale. When an eighteenth century historian wrote a book detailing the legend’s Viking origins, they burned his book in public. They would have burned him, too, if he had not apologized.
The Dark Ages were a violent era in Anglo-Saxon England. In 655 Penda, a warlike king of Merica, one of several rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, breathed his last. Everybody breathed a collective sigh of relief, because Penda’s era of widespread warfare was followed by one of relative peace. It came to be seen as an Anglo-Saxon golden age. It was a period of economic expansion, which produced a surplus that helped fund a growing number of monasteries – centers of learning in the early Middle Ages. In 669, the Archbishop of Canterbury founded a school in his city – the first school in England. The Venerable Bede described it about 60 years later as having “attracted a crowd of students into whose minds they daily poured the streams of wholesome knowledge“.
Some of them, who survived into Bede’s own day, were as fluent in Greek and Latin as they were in their native English. Other academic institutions produced scholars and poets who wrote in Latin. One of them, Aldhelm, pioneered a grandiloquent style that became the dominant Latin style for centuries to come. Anglo-Saxon scholars were the most highly respected throughout Europe in this period. Bede himself was one of the foremost scholars and men of letters in Christendom. Unfortunately for the Anglo-Saxons, as seen below, the Vikings were about to wreck their golden age.
The peoples of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms initially spoke distinctive dialects. However, those different strains melded into each other over time, and evolved to form a common language, known as Old English. It lent itself to an exceptionally rich vernacular literature. Examples include the epic poem Beowulf, and a collection of manuscripts about the early history of England, known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Unfortunately for the Anglo-Saxons, the very prosperity and plenty that fueled their golden age led to its sudden end. Anglo-Saxon England’s wealth, and especially the wealth of its monasteries, attracted the covetous attention of Viking raiders.
They erupted from Scandinavia in the late eighth century to terrorize Europe and the Mediterranean world, and nearly brought the Anglo-Saxon era to a premature end. What came to be known as the Viking Age began in 793, when raiders struck the great monastery at Lindisfarne, massacred the monks, and seized its riches. After generations of peace, the destruction of Lindisfarne was a shock probably equivalent to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 rolled into one. Unlike the US, the Anglo-Saxons lacked the means to strike back, and were unable to even defend their shores from further raids.
Anglo-Saxon England was wholly unprepared for the Viking onslaught. Ironically, it was quite similar to the Anglo-Saxon onslaught upon Roman Britain centuries earlier. In the decades after they destroyed Lindisfarne, the Vikings continued to raid England. Their assaults were marked by a wanton savagery, and gratuitous destructiveness that terrorized all and sundry. For decades, the raiders retreated after they struck, wintered in their homeland, and returned the following spring. By 850, however, they had had grown sufficiently disdainful of Anglo-Saxon resistance to overwinter in England for the first time, in the island of Thanet off Kent.
They repeated that in subsequent years until, in 865, they switched from raids to outright conquest. That year, Vikings gathered into what came to be known as “The Great Heathen Army”, landed in East Anglia, then marched northward into Northumbria. There, they established the Viking community of Jorvik – modern York. It was the first Viking settlement in England. The Anglo-Saxons couldn’t stop the invaders. By 867, the Vikings had conquered what came to be known as the Danelaw – a territory that eventually stretched from London and the Thames to north of York, into Northumberland. In 871, the Great Heathen Army, reinforced by a newly arrived Viking army known as the “Great Summer Army”, invaded Wessex, the last independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Fear of the Vikings Finally United the Rival Anglo-Saxons
For centuries after they settled in Britain, the Anglo-Saxons had divided their lands into disparate kingdoms that often fought against each other. It took the Vikings, who extinguished some of those kingdoms outright and brought the rest to the brink of extinction, to unify the Anglo-Saxons into the single country of England. That unification was conducted by Alfred the Great (849 – 899) and his successors. Alfred was the youngest son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex, who set up a succession whereby the throne would get inherited by each of his sons, from oldest to youngest. It was a departure from the primogeniture, where the throne passed from father to son, not from brother to brother. However, Wessex faced an existential threat from the Vikings, and Aethelwulf’s system sought to prevent a child from inheriting the throne in such a dangerous time.
Accordingly, Aethelwulf was succeeded by Alfred’s older brothers Aethelbard, then Aethelbert, then Aethelred. In 868, King Aethelred of Wessex and his younger brother Alfred tried, and failed, to keep the Vikings’ “Great Heathen Army” out of the neighboring kingdom of Mercia. By 870, Wessex was the last independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, when it was attacked by the largest Viking army assembled to date. King Aethelred and his brother Alfred led the Anglo-Saxons in a series of battles with varying outcomes. Victory in an early skirmish was followed by a severe defeat a few days later. That was followed by a brilliant victory in the Battle of Ashdown, January 8th, 871, in which Alfred played a leading role. Ashdown was followed by two defeats, Aethelred died soon thereafter, and Alfred finally became king of Wessex.
The newly crowned King Alfred’s reign commenced inauspiciously, with two defeats. The second defeat in particular, at Milton in May, 871, was a bad one, and it smashed all hopes of driving the Vikings from Wessex by force of arms. Alfred was thus forced to make peace with the invaders, and had to pay them a hefty sum to withdraw from his kingdom – which they did, by the autumn of 871. The Vikings returned in 876, and Alfred was forced to make a new peace with them, whose terms the invaders soon violated. In 878, a sudden Viking onslaught overran Wessex, and forced Alfred to flee to the marshes of Somerset. He led a guerrilla resistance, before he emerged in May, 878, to rally the surviving Wessex forces and lead them to a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington.
Alfred then pursued and besieged the Vikings at Chippenham. He starved them into surrender, and forced their leader, Guthrum, to convert to Christianity. In 885, Vikings from East Anglia attacked Kent, but Alfred beat them back, then went on a counteroffensive that captured London. That victory led all Anglo-Saxons not then under Viking rule to accept Alfred as their king – a major step towards the unification of England. London acted as a springboard and base of operations for Alfred’s successor, his son Edward the Elder (reigned 899 – 924). By the end of his reign, Edward had decisively defeated the Vikings, and extended his authority over nearly all of today’s England.
Viking Earl Sigurd Eysteinsson, also known as Sigurd the Mighty (died 892), ruled the Orkney and Shetland Islands off Scotland’s northern coast. Allied with other chieftains, he invaded the Scottish mainland, conquered northern Scotland, overran Sutherland and Caithness, and asserted Viking control as far south as Moray. Sigurd’s exploits in that conquest earned him the epithet “the Mighty” from fellow Vikings. The king of recently unified Norway had sent Sigurd’s brother, Rognvald Eysteinsson, to conquer the Shetland and Orkney islands after they became a refuge for Norwegian exiles, from which they raided their homeland. Rognvald lost a son in that conquest, and in compensation, Norway’s king gave him the islands and made him earl. With interests elsewhere, Rognvald gave the islands and title to his younger brother, Sigurd.
In the course of his conquest of northern Scotland, Sigurd challenged a local chieftain, Mael Brigte the Bucktoothed, head of the Mormaerdom, or kingdom, of Moray, to a forty-man-per-side battle. In a slimy move, Sigurd cheated and showed up with eighty men. Outnumbered, the Scots were defeated and massacred, and Sigurd personally beheaded Mael Brigte. He tied the defeated leader’s head to his saddle as a trophy, rounded up his men, and rode back home to celebrate the victory. However, on the way back, as the severed head tied to the saddle bounced around, the bucktooth that gave Mael Brigte his nickname cut Sigurd’s leg. The cut became inflamed and infected, and Sigurd died of the infection before he got back home.
One of the last heroic kings of the Anglo-Saxon era was Edmund II, AKA Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016), who ruled England king from April 23rd to November 30th, 1016. He was the son of one of England’s worst kings: the weak and vacillating Ethelred the Unready. The son was a vast improvement over his father, and Edmund proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the surname “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a massive invasion led by the Danish King Canute – the one whom supposedly ordered the sea’s waves to stop. In in 991, Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready had unwisely sought to buy off the Danes, who occupied northern England at the time. To get them to stop their nonstop raids into his kingdom, Ethelred paid them a tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”.
That only emboldened the Danes. Aware that Ethelred was a pushover, they upped their demands, and insisted on ever greater tribute payments. Ethelred had set himself up for extortion, and did not get anything out of the Anglo-Saxons’ gold. The Danes collected the tribute, and continued to raid and plunder England, secure in the knowledge that they had little to fear from its weak king. Finally, after over a decade of bankrupting his kingdom and beggaring its people with the high taxes needed to pay the Danegeld, Ethelred snapped. In 1002, he ordered a massacre of all Danish settlers in his kingdom.
The King Who Led a Fierce Resistance Against a Renewed Viking Invasion of England
Understandably, the massacre of the Danes upset other Danish settlers and their countrymen across the sea. The result was yet another Viking invasion of England, this one by Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. He conquered England in 1013 and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died shortly thereafter, at which point Ethelred returned. With his son Edmund playing a leading role, he chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014. Canute returned a year later with a large Danish army, and proceeded to pillage and devastate much of England. However, crown prince Edmund mounted a fierce Anglo-Saxon resistance, which stymied the Danish invaders.
When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, who by now had earned the nickname “Ironside” because of his toughness and tenacity, succeeded him on the English throne as Edmund II. Unfortunately for Anglo-Saxon England, their heroic king’s reign proved short lived, as Edmund died not long thereafter, in weird circumstances that demonstrated that even if the king’s sides were iron, his bottom was not. On the night of November 30th, 1016, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature. Unbeknownst to him, an assassin lay in wait in the cesspit for the royal bottom to show up. When Edmund sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, then fled, leaving the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels.
The Viking Descendants in Normandy Who Eyed England as a Prize
Edmund Ironside’s assassination left the path open for the Danish King Canute to become king of England and inaugurate a short lived Scandinavian dynasty. Canute ruled until his death in 1035. He was then followed on the throne of England by his sons Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035 – 1040), and Harthacanut (reigned 1040 – 1042). Harthacanut’s death in 1042 triggered a succession crisis. A struggle for the English throne pitted King Magnus the Good of Norway, and Edward the Confessor, Edmund Ironside’s half-brother. A wily Anglo-Saxon, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, intervened, played kingmaker, secured the throne for Edward the Confessor, and became the power behind the throne.
Edward had grown up an exile in the court of the Dukes of Normandy, and was half Norman himself. His mother was the daughter of a Duke of Normandy. The Normans were descendants of Vikings who had invaded France, and were eventually given what is now Normandy by the French crown. William thus had strong Norman ties and attachments. They caused serious problems down the road, and brought the Anglo-Saxon era to an end. Trouble began in 1051, when Edward’s reliance on Norman advisors led to a quarrel with Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin was banished and stripped of his lands, but he returned with an army and forced Edward to restore him to power.
After Godwin’s death in 1053, he was succeeded by his son Harold Godwinson as England’s most powerful figure. When Edward the Confessor died childless in 1066, Harold was crowned as king of England. The new king’s title was disputed by his younger brother, Tostig, and by Duke William of Normandy. The latter was related to Edward the Confessor on his mother’s side, and claimed that he had been promised the English throne upon Edward’s death. King Harold gathered his forces in readiness for a seaborne invasion from Normandy by Duke William.
Contrary winds kept the Normans on the other side of the English Channel. It was Harold’s brother, Tostig, who struck first. Allied with the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, Tostig landed with a largely Scandinavian army near York, in the north of England. It was to be the last Viking invasion of England. Harold, who had had been encamped in the south of England on guard against an invasion from Normandy, led a forced march north to York, and surprised his brother and the Norwegian king by his unexpected arrival.
In a hard fought battle at Stamford Bridge on September 25th, 1066, Harold won a decisive victory. Most of the invaders, including Tostig and Harald Hardrada, were slain. Of the 300 ships that had landed the invading army, only 24 were needed to carry the survivors back to Norway. However, King Harold did not get to savor his victory at Stamford for long. Two days later, the Channel winds finally changed, and Duke William finally crossed and landed his army in southern England. Harold assembled his weary troops, and hurried back to meet him.
Harold led his men on another forced march back to the south of England. He gathered reinforcements along the way as he rushed to meet the new invasion. He approached Duke Williams at Hastings with about 7000 men – only half of England’s trained soldiers. Harold was advised to wait for reinforcements, but chose instead to offer battle immediately, in order to stop Williams from devastating the countryside. Thus, the Anglo-Saxons met the Norman invaders at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th, 1066.
The Viking Descendants Who Finally Conquered England for Good
The Anglo-Saxons assembled atop a protected ridge, where they formed a shield wall. King Harold occupied the center of the line. However, their tactics and military doctrine, derived from their own Germanic tribal history and reinforced by generations of warfare against the Vikings who fought in similar fashion, were outdated. The Anglo-Saxons were an entirely infantry army, without archers and cavalry. Duke Williams had both, and that doomed the Anglo-Saxons. The battle begam with mounted charges by Norman knights, which were beaten back by the Anglo-Saxon shield wall.
However, a pair of feigned retreats drew sizeable numbers of Harold’s men from their battle lines into disastrous pursuits, in which the pursuers were surrounded and destroyed. That thinned the Anglo-Saxon lines, and by late afternoon, Harold was hard pressed, when a random arrow struck him in the eye, killing him. The leaderless Anglo-Saxons fought until dusk, then broke and scattered. The victorious William secured the countryside, then advanced upon and seized London. Now known as William the Conqueror, he was crowned as King William I on December 25th, 1066, bringing the Anglo-Saxon era to an end. The new king established the Norman Dynasty, and inaugurated a new era that reoriented England from the Scandinavian world to that of Continental Europe.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading