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4. Viking Raids |

Viking Raids is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 88, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Huge, brave and arguably the greatest sailors ever, they all but destroy the church in the North until apostles, braver than they, bring them to Christ

Viking Raids - Horror from the sea, the Vikings butcher and loot Christendom

Viking Raids - Horror from the sea, the Vikings butcher and loot Christendom
A Viking longship rides a North Atlantic storm. At the end of the eighth century, these sleek, durable vessels, packed with Norse privateers, burst out of Scandinavia to bring terror and ruin to the Christian world and beyond.

Two huge stones, carved twelve hundred years ago with bold Scandinavian runes, stand in the quiet lake country southwest of Stockholm. One memorial celebrates a warrior named Gudver, who “went westward to England … and manfully attacked the Saxon towns.” The second stone recounts how Torsten, another local man, “fell fighting in the East, in Russia, the chief of the army, the best of his countrymen.” At the end of the eighth century, thousands of men such as these, armed with battle-ax and broadsword, and helmed with iron, burst suddenly out of the remote North to lay waste Christendom. From the Irish isles to the walls of Byzantium, the mere appearance of these far-wandering warriors evoked a near-paralyzing terror for more than two centuries. They were the Vikings.1

The peoples of what are now Sweden, Norway and Denmark spoke a common dialect, Old Norse. They worshiped an assortment of gods–Woden, Thor, Freya and others–who rode from heaven to earth along a rainbow bridge. Generous but capricious, the gods unrelentingly pitted their courage and cunning against the evil genius Loki, terrible ice giants and other demonic figures. The Viking equivalent of saints were the berserkers, a species of warrior who lost all sense of self-preservation and pain in the frenzied bloodlust of battle.

Besides bravery, this harsh folk cherished practical jokes, sometimes decidedly gruesome. The Jomsburg Saga tells how Earl Haakon, himself a Viking, tied a bunch of his captured foes (also Vikings) along a log, seated side by side. At the earl’s order, the captives were beheaded one by one, none flinching from the fatal blow. Any cowardice would mean forfeiting the sacred spark that bound the clans of gods and men alike. Only valiant warriors could be received into the celestial Valhalla, where they would feast forever with their ancestors.

In due course, the executioner reached Sigurd Buisson, a prisoner who had an exceptionally fine head of hair. “I fear not death,” cried out Sigurd, “but let no slave touch my hair, nor blood defile it.” Deciding to grant that wish, a man-at-arms stepped forward and held Sigurd’s long locks up and away from his neck. But when the executioner swung, the victim jerked downward, pulling the other man’s wrist into the path of the ax. That ruse, although it cost their companion his hand, so amused the captors that they spared the lives of Sigurd and the remaining Jomsburg Vikings.

The Scandinavians trickled into recorded history initially as barely-noticed traders and occasional auxiliaries with Roman armies. All Vikings, linguistic cousins of their German neighbors, practiced polygamy, human sacrifice and slavery. Even so, this class of independent freeholders was large and libertarian. Kings traditionally ruled more by influence than coercion over populations of farmers and craftsmen. Viking smiths in particular were widely admired, transforming iron from native ore deposits into sharp weapons and tools. Equally skillful shipwrights applied those blades to the plentiful northern timber, creating ships that would become the bane of ninth- and tenth-century Europe.

The earliest Viking vessel discovered intact dates to about A.D. 300. Although the ships grew larger over the next five centuries, all carried just one square sail. Each had a pointed prow and stern, with steering provided by an oar at the stern (always on the right, hence the nautical term starboard, or “steerboard”). All of these “sailing canoes” were clinker built, the overlapping planks of oak providing the strength needed to endure the storms of the north Atlantic. Although the superbly graceful craft featured the high dragon’s head at the bow and rose again at the stern, their steeply curved sides amidships rode just three-and-a-half feet above the waterline, allowing the crew to row. Also, the ships lacked a deep keel, so a seventy-foot longship carrying a couple of hundred fighters could be rowed upriver against the current in waters as shallow as two or three feet.2

Historian Michael Hasloch Kirkby, author of The Vikings, refers to the dragonships as “oceangoing landing craft.” Like the horses that carried the Central Asian hordes across their far-horizoned steppes, like the Arabs racing across their sandy wastes on camels, the Viking longships provided a mobility that their Christian enemies could not match. Furthermore, their vessels’ bellies could carry plenty of passengers and cargo, including horses, enabling warriors to move quickly on land as well as water. And the ferocious storms encountered on passages across some of the world’s most frightening saltwater only strengthened the valor of men born and bred to fight.

“Seafaring was in their blood,” writes British historian and philologist Eleanor Duckett (Alfred the Great). Even so, precisely what prompted the eruption of these violent rovers at the end of the eighth century is still debated. Local raiding had been practiced since time immemorial, and overpopulation was a recurring problem in a marginal subarctic agricultural region. Whatever their motive, when the Scandinavian pirates first landed on foreign shores they met little resistance from their fear-paralyzed victims.

On June 8, 793, a Viking flotilla drew up on the broad beach at Lindisfarne, a small island off northeast England. Its monastery, founded by the saintly Aidan more than a century and a half earlier, had become the most revered site in Britain. (See previous volume, Darkness Descends, chapter 9.) The pagans seized the weapons stored in wooden chests fixed to the decks, and loosed the black and yellow shields tied along the gunwales of their ships. Roaring their war cries, they charged. Simeon of Durham described the attackers as “running hither and thither like ravening wolves … they lay waste to everything in sight–trampling holy relics and defiling them underfoot…. Some of the monks they killed outright, others they overpowered and carried away with them. Many they taunted and abused and flung out naked. Some they drowned in the sea.”3

In 795 came the turn of another iconic island, Iona, home to a monastery established by Columcille. Iona recovered briefly after the first assault by the northerners but they returned in 806, slaughtering sixty-eight monks. Similar orgies of butchery were inflicted all along the coast of western Scotland. These early pirates were likely Norwegians. At this stage, their ships were small (perhaps no more than fifteen or twenty crew members) and the raids limited to a few vessels. But the success of the first forays spurred others to go a-viking for profit and fame. Raids spread to Ireland. The Annals of Ulster record how hardly a year passed without the “devastation of the Kingdom by pagan raiders.” Everything became a target, from the wealthy monastery at Bangor to a solitary hermit on the ocean-girt barren rock of Skellig Michil.

For Celtic Christianity, the Vikings were a decisive disaster. “Somewhere between 795 and the middle of the ninth century, the Irish missionary church completed its work by carrying Christianity to Iceland,” says British historian C. F. Keary (The Vikings in Western Christendom). “Almost immediately there began the process of undoing its work at the hands of the Vikings, who were not only murdering all the communities of monks whom they found scattered over the north seas and the Scottish coasts and islands, but had already struck at the very root or fountainhead of the ‘movement’ in Ireland itself.” Their strategy was crude but efficient. Raids of appalling violence would yield not only large quantities of plunder but also hefty payments from people willing to buy off the invaders. Bribed or not, however, the Vikings would keep returning until a district had been stripped clean.

Raids by Danish Vikings along the Frankish coast remained modest in scale during the initial devastation of Britain. Meanwhile, the Franks tried to introduce Christianity in Denmark. In 826, the Danish prince Harald Klak traveled with much pomp to be baptized in the cathedral at Mainz, and an energetic young Saxon monk named Ansgar returned home with him to establish a mission in southern Denmark. Ansgar, full of youthful enthusiasm, would become the first major figure in Scandinavian Christianity.4

But Ansgar soon realized that Harald’s baptism had more to do with politics than religion. A rival had recently deposed him, and he needed powerful allies. The Danish mission stalled. Then, in 829, the Swedish king Björn asked the Frankish court to send priests for the growing number of his people “who had a leaning towards Christianity.” In compliance, Ansgar and two companions sailed to the Swedish trading center of Birka. The trip turned dreadful when pirates seized the books and other gifts that the emperor Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne) was sending to the Swedish king. Even so, Ansgar’s biographer and disciple, Rimbert, says Björn willingly granted permission to preach the gospel of Christ in his realm.

Trade from the East and plunder from the West fueled unprecedented prosperity in Scandinavia. Its first urban settlements began to sprout, including Birka. Björn appointed a prefect to regulate the growing port, and that official, Hergeir, accepted Christ. But the king refused to convert to the new religion and virtually all of his people, difficult to even reach in their isolated farms, proved equally resistant. Ansgar persisted. Appointed the first archbishop of the North, he had the satisfaction of seeing Rimbert, now a bishop, build two churches in Denmark. In 851, Sweden’s first church rose at Birka.

As sometimes happened elsewhere, slaves provided the finest initial seedbed for Christianity in both countries. Their value was low, about the same as the domestic animals whose legal status they shared, their numbers were distressingly high. The trade mushroomed, particularly after 845, when Christian kingdoms in the West under church prodding outlawed slave transport across their lands. The Vikings’ route through the Slavic lands to the east became the preferred alternative for shipping them via Constantinople to the Muslim world. There the demand, especially for women, seemed insatiable. The number of Slavs, Celts and Saxons sold into bondage, although unknown, must have reached hundreds of thousands.5

More than any other European people, the Vikings enjoyed imaginative nicknames, with scarcely a king or leader lacking his colorful moniker.6 Typical was Ragnar Lodbrok (“Hairy-Breeches”), who led a Danish assault on Northumbria, a kingdom in northeastern England. Its ruler, Aelle, captured the barbarian chief and had him thrown into a pit of venomous snakes. Hairy-Breeches, who had four sons still at home, glared up at his Saxon tormentors and snarled, “The little pigs would grunt now if they knew how it fares with the old boar.”

Winston Churchill describes the legendary reaction of those sons in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. The eldest gripped his spear shaft so hard that he left the print of his fingers on it. Another clenched a chess piece so tightly that blood spurted from under his nails. A third, paring his nails, cut through to the bone. The youngest turned red, blue and pale by turns. Their revenge on northern England is also on record. In 851, the Danes seized the cathedral city of York (which the Romans had called Eboracum and the Vikings renamed Jorvik or Jarvik) in Northumbria. Ragnar’s vengeful sons slit open King Aelle from throat to crotch and ripped out his “still-palpitating” lungs. There was worse to come. Following the pattern already established in Ireland, the raiders began staying year-round in the north of England, and dividing up its soil between their warriors.

The year before, the Danes had already hit the south. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that three hundred and fifty ships intruded into the estuary of the river Thames. Thousands of Danes sacked the cathedral city of Canterbury, then attacked London. In 864, the Saxons of Kent paid a massive bribe in silver, but their region was put to the sword anyway. The campaign of terror now turned on East Anglia. Its king, Edmund, went down to a valiant defeat. The Danes asked the royal prisoner to share sovereignty with a Danish chief, but Edmund refused to associate himself with a pagan monarchy. So the Vikings used him for target practice, then lopped off his head. St. Edmund the Martyr remains a symbol of English resistance to this day. Mercia fell next, leaving only Wessex unconquered. The Saxon ascendancy in England, about four centuries old, appeared on the brink of an immediate and bloody conclusion. But the indomitable spirit of one man still stood in the way.

Alfred of Wessex was born in 849, youngest son of King Ethelwulf. With three older brothers, he seemed to have little likelihood of ruling. His father sent him at age four with an entourage of reliable warriors on the long road to Rome. Seeking papal benediction had become a trend among western Europe’s royal houses after Pope Adrian blessed Charlemagne’s two sons, Louis and Pepin. With Vikings swarming across Britain, the royal family of Wessex had need of divine favor.

In fact, the Vikings also menaced the young prince’s pilgrimage through Frankish lands, sweeping “like a savage hurricane” upon the two great monasteries of St. Martin at Tours and slaughtering 126 monks. But Alfred’s trip proved so satisfactory that two years later King Ethelwulf himself went to Rome, taking Alfred along. They stayed almost a year, also visiting the court of Charles the Bald, king of the West Franks. What impression these travels made upon the six-year-old child can only be surmised, but they exposed him to the religious, cultural and administrative centers of Western Christendom. Perhaps the experience helps account for his later piety, love of learning and administrative skill.

Across northern and eastern England, Viking destruction “left nothing standing but roofless walls,” records Simeon of Durham, writing a century later. The once-great kingdoms of Northumbria, Deira and East Anglia would never reemerge. Alfred’s youth would leave him memories of ever-larger Danish raids upon Wessex, causing the death of two of his brothers. King Ethelwulf died in 865. The third brother became King Ethelred I, and Alfred at sixteen was expected to stand at his side in defense of their patrimony. In December 870 the Vikings crossed the river Thames in force. The two armies faced each other in Berkshire, near the gigantic image of a white horse cut in prehistoric times into the chalk hillside (it can still be seen today). Legend has it that the king insisted on finishing the Mass in his tent as the battle began, leaving his brother Alfred to rally the English as the Danish horde rushed down the slope. Had the Danes won that attack, historian Keary contends, “the course of history would have been rolled back; Christianity would have been driven out.”

But the Saxons held the field after a day of intense combat, then spent several months pursuing the Vikings. However, Viking reinforcements kept arriving from the mainland in discouraging numbers. In March, the English lost a key battle. Ethelred died soon after, and at twenty-two, Alfred found himself king. Over the next year, he doggedly fought nine major engagements and many smaller ones. Finally, the Danes accepted a heavy payment to withdraw, sacking London as they retreated. But in 877, they attacked Wessex again under a fearsome leader, Guthrum, and this time the English forces simply evaporated. “Now the whole opposition to their [i.e., Viking] movements seems to have collapsed,” Keary observes. “Alfred himself was not wanting, but his subjects, wearied with their long vigil, their marchings and their countermarchings, seemed to have given up hope, to have begun to think of submitting to the inevitable, as the Northumbrians and East Anglians and Mercians had submitted.”

Alfred, accompanied only by his housecarls–the professional army of the royal household–took refuge in a fort hidden amid the almost impenetrable marshlands of Somerset. He skulked in this reedy waste for months, staying in touch via covert messengers with important comrades across his fully overrun realm, and working out with them a plan to revive the resistance. One by one, they secretly committed themselves and their men to the cause. Meanwhile, according to an immensely popular English tale, which could easily be true, Alfred sat one day by the fireside in a woodsman’s cottage, pondering strategy. The peasant’s wife, unaware of who her raggedly garbed guest was, asked him to mind a pan of baking biscuits. He agreed to do so, but then got lost in thought until the smell of burning alerted his hostess. “Alack, man,” cried she, “why have you not turned over the bread when you see it is burning–especially as you so like eating it hot!” Alfred, far from taking offense, humbly apologized for his carelessness.

That spring, he emerged from the swamp at the head of a guerrilla army, assembled so it seemed out of nowhere. “To their beloved leader, with hearts rejoicing, came all the inhabitants of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire,” exults The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Near the ancient fort of Bratton Castle, at Ethandun, now Edington in Wiltshire, Alfred’s men crested a windswept summit and beheld the enemy. A mass of heavily armed Vikings was advancing toward them, the pagans confident that a final victory over the English was at hand. In wedge formation, the grim men of Wessex stormed through the Danes, and sent them flying for shelter to their fortified camp a few miles away. This time, the hitherto all-but-irresistible invaders had been thoroughly thrashed.

Alfred the Great, the only English king ever to bear that title, now showed his quality. Even if he could annihilate his present foes in their weakened state, more Scandinavian pirates would continue to arrive. But at the moment, he was in a position of power–perhaps only fleetingly, but enough for a chance at a lasting settlement. The treaty that Alfred concluded with Guthrum–a copy still exists–acknowledged a permanent Danish presence in England for those who wished “to plough the land and make a living for themselves.” They would be governed by Danish law. In return, Alfred demanded, the mighty Guthrum must accept baptism and agree to rule as a Christian king, treating equally and fairly both his Viking and English subjects. To all this, Guthrum agreed.

And so, writes Churchill, King Alfred “received Guthrum with thirty prominent buccaneers in his camp. He stood godfather to Guthrum; he raised him from the font; he entertained him for twelve days; he presented him and his warriors with costly gifts; he called him his son.” The price of the treaty was high. The Danes acquired most of central and eastern England, but there was no realistic alternative. While Guthrum issued coinage under his Christian name Aethelstan, Alfred gained a fourteen-year respite to heal his people.

Continental Europe enjoyed no such reprieve. Viking fleets plundered at the mouths of the Rhine and Loire. Always they sought out monasteries, where treasure troves had been conveniently collected and an effective defense was mounted only rarely. Their pagan depredations could scarcely have been better designed to damage the fledgling civilization emerging in the West. And the Frankish church, thoroughly demoralized by being singled out for excruciating torment and the starvation conditions imposed on its human flocks, failed to rally the sheep against the predators.

The raiders probed further southward along the Atlantic coast and into the Mediterranean, where they encountered Islamic Spain, a land far richer than any Christian realm of the West. But Muslim armies consisted of experienced regular soldiers; their swift war galleys were manned by hard-bitten veterans. Despite rich winnings from some cities, the Vikings’ own losses prompted them to permanently avoid the Iberian Peninsula. In Germany, by contrast, the largest Viking fleet yet seen–some six hundred ships–sailed into the river Elbe and attacked Hamburg. In a day and a half of murder and rape, the frontier town’s new church and monastery were looted, its other buildings burned.

Yet another northern fleet made its way into the Seine, its crews smashing into Paris. There they began their usual pitiless routine–until, according to both Viking and Frankish histories, a strange and almost impenetrable fog enveloped the city. The unnerved brigands returned to their ships, many getting lost in the process, so the Parisians were able to kill quite a few. But that success proved as ephemeral as the fog. Across France, the Vikings ravaged at will for years to come.7 “All men give themselves to flight,” reads a chronicle of the time. “No one cries out, ‘Stand and fight for your fatherland, for your church, for your countrymen.’ What they ought to defend with arms they shamefully redeem by payments. The commonweal of Christendom is betrayed by its guardians.”

Charles the Bald, ruler of the West Franks and Charlemagne’s grandson, urged every man who could maintain a horse to do so. He authorized the fortification of towns, monasteries and strategic bridges, which became standard medieval procedure. The king offered Weland, chieftain of a large Viking force on the Somme, three thousand pounds of silver to attack other Vikings in the Seine Valley. Weland took the money, failed to honor the deal, and the next year demanded a double payment. With this in hand, he finally did move against the Seine Vikings–until they offered him another six thousand pounds of silver to leave them alone.

The Frankish nobility meanwhile, consistently protected their own interests rather than uniting for the common good. Feudal lords disbanded peasant militias that had formed in desperate attempts at self-defense, the aristocrats sometimes using brutal measures to assure their own continued dominance. News of easy pickings in Francia reached England, attracting men who preferred war to farming in the domain ruled peaceably by Guthrum. In 879, these freebooters began looting the lands that are now Belgium and Holland, later joining forces with comrades who had been similarly occupied in Saxony. Together they easily pillaged the entire lower Rhine Valley. Cologne’s churches were reduced to ash. Aachen, Charlemagne’s old capital, fell in 881, the Vikings stabling their horses in churches built by the emperor.

On one notable occasion, Charles the Fat, grandson of Charles the Bald, assembled a sizeable army and surrounded a contingent of those same Vikings in an old royal villa. Instead of attacking, however, the Frankish king cravenly offered payment to move on. As negotiations proceeded, the Vikings threw open the gates of the villa and began a gigantic sale of their plunder. Crowds poured in: curious gawkers, merchants, clerics hoping to redeem holy relics and treasures from half the Rhineland abbeys and churches. Then in the midst of the sale, the Vikings withdrew their token of safe conduct (a shield hung outside the wall), clanged shut the gates, and fell upon the captive crowd, putting many to the sword.

By this time, all organized attempts to convert the Viking homelands to Christianity had foundered. The mission at Birka was abandoned, and its priest moved to the Danish port of Hedeby, but that church lasted little longer. Ansgar’s death in 865, followed by the faithful Rimbert three years later, ended virtually all Christian contact with Scandinavia. As a result, Christians could no longer be ransomed from the northern slave market (Rimbert himself had been one of Ansgar’s earliest purchases).

In November 885, another record-setting Viking fleet–by report, seven hundred longships plus many smaller barks–sailed up the Seine. Again the goal was Paris. But Count Odo, the regional lord, led a truly gallant defense despite rivers of blood and a serious outbreak of plague. Amid the clouds of arrows, the city’s spirited bishop fell wounded but survived. On the strength of this victory rested the initial prestige of the name Capet, a dynasty that would rule France for longer than any other. (See page 76.) The Vikings never again threatened Paris.

In 891, another great contingent of Northmen was slaughtered by King Arnulf of the East Franks near Louvain in present-day Belgium. Their raids, often destructive, would continue until the middle of the tenth century, but the worst was over for the continent. Some of the invaders joined their compatriots already settled in Ireland and England, and these families soon converted to Christianity. But others renewed the assault against Alfred in Wessex.

Now, however, the great king was prepared. A particular problem had been the English militia, called the fyrd. Its ranks of farmers had traditionally sworn to fight for forty days at a time. During planting and harvesting seasons, however, they returned home to produce food. In response, the Viking armies of full-time pirates often avoided battle until the fyrd had depleted. But once Alfred ruled all of the English outside the Danish territories, he split his increased manpower into two levies, one draft always on active duty while the other worked at home.8

Fortresses with permanent garrisons dotted the land, often beside strategic bridges, offering refuge for people, livestock and portable wealth. At the king’s command, Wessex also constructed sixty-oar warships, larger and stronger than almost all Viking longships. This navy, England’s first, restricted the enemy’s previous freedom of the sea. After four fruitless years of fighting, this renewed Viking offensive burned itself out in 896.

Alfred had won. Throughout the long struggle with the Northmen, the devout Christian never lost his wish to win souls of all stripes. In fact, he viewed Viking piracy as a divine punishment for his own people’s sins. A scholar himself, the king personally translated Pastoral Care, the manual composed by Pope Gregory I that became a textbook for medieval bishops. In his preface, Alfred wrote: “We were Christians in name only, and very few possessed Christian virtues.”

Like Charlemagne, Alfred established a code of laws, drawing on principles from the Book of Exodus and earlier Saxon laws. Although the king avoided unnecessary changes to custom, he restricted the blood feud and dictated harsh penalties for breaches of oath. He also rescued education. “Learning had declined so thoroughly in England,” the king wrote, “that there were very few men on this side of the River Humber who could understand their divine services, or even translate a letter from Latin into English, and I suppose that there were not many beyond the Humber either. There were so few of them that I cannot recollect a single one south of the Thames when I succeeded to the kingdom.” To right the situation, Alfred offered patronage to scholars from Wales and the continent, learned Latin himself, and opened schools.

By the time this archetypical medieval monarch died in 899, while no Saxon or Dane would have imagined himself to be living in an earthly replica of Augustine’s City of God, former foes could nevertheless conceive of living together in a community. From that mutual respect emerged a single kingdom, England. Over the next several decades Alfred’s descendants extended his realm to include all of the Danelaw, and reclaimed the ancient Christian centers of the north.9

Across the English Channel, Danish Vikings established their own fiefdoms on the fertile lands of the lower Seine. Their leader was Rollo, a man said to be so large that no horse could support him, so he customarily walked. In 911 a new king of the Franks, Charles the Simple, recognized Rollo’s control of the region now known as Normandy. In exchange for his dukedom, Rollo accepted baptism, acknowledged Charles as overlord and married Charles’s daughter Gisele. His heathen comrades quickly intermarried with Christian Franks. This new branch of the Viking stem would itself soon become a force to reckon with as far afield as Asia Minor.

At about the same time, an Arab by the name of Ahmad ibn Fadlan traveled up the Volga River in the Khanate of Khazaria. There he met the Rus. “Never before have I seen men of such magnificent bearing,” ibn Fadlan wrote. “They are all as tall as palm trees, with reddish-blond hair, and their skin is fair.” Those Rus were, in fact, Vikings, most of them Swedish. In the eighth century, they had explored south from the Baltic coast, portaging their boats over the Valdai Hills, the source of rivers flowing into the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.10

Thus the Northmen gained an overland access to Constantinople, to the Muslim empire and to the fabled Silk Road to China. The physical barriers, starvation and other hardships encountered along the rivers were as punishing as the storms of the North Sea and Atlantic. During the 830s, the first group of Rus reached Constantinople via the Dnieper, exhausted and reduced by many deaths. Emperor Theophilus permitted them to return by the Mediterranean, and the Annals of St. Bertin recorded their arrival at the Frankish court.

The Rus built trading centers at Novgorod and Smolensk. By 882, their chieftain Rurik had organized a kingdom controlled from Kiev, capital of modern Ukraine. His descendants would rule Russia until the sixteenth century. Under Rurik, the Rus brought furs, slaves, weapons, honey and wax to the south. Silver, glass, spices and Chinese silk made the return trip to Scandinavia. In 950, the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus recorded: “In winter, life is hard for the Rus. In the beginning of November, their chiefs and all the Rus at the same time leave Kiev and make the rounds of the lands of the Slavs and other tribes subject to their taxation. They settle there for the winter, but return to Kiev in April when the ice melts on the Dnieper. There they buy boats from the Slavs, which the latter have hewn in the forest during the winter.”

The emperor also described the gathering of the Rus merchant fleet downstream from Kiev, at a fortified camp. Every June, a convoy would descend the fast-flowing Dnieper, negotiating the river’s infamous rapids. The arrival in Constantinople of these heavily armed, backwoods freebooters was clearly not without its problems. A treaty signed in 945 stipulated that the Rus “must enter the city with an imperial inspector, by a gate which will be shown to them, unarmed, by groups of no more than fifty, and do their trading.”

That caution was warranted. Viking fleets from Kiev attacked Constantinople around 860, 907 and 941. The Byzantines repelled the Rus with Greek fire (a fearsome secret weapon described in the previous volume Sword of Islam, chapter 10). The Vikings also assailed the Muslims, raiding Azerbaijan in 912 and 943. Muslim valor and dysentery defeated those offensives. In general, the eastern Vikings found more profit through trade treaties than war, but their relationship with Byzantium remained edgy until the extraordinary prince Vladimir reigned in Kiev. (His story is told at the end of chapter 8 of this volume.)

But the West, mired in a subsistence economy, could not buy off Viking aggression by permitting access to rich markets. Again the Danes assaulted England–but this time with unexpected gains to Christianity. After its king, Ethelred II the Unready (more properly translated, say some scholars, as “Ethelred the Ill-Advised”), died in 1016, the country ended turmoil by accepting Canute (or Knut), a Danish prince, who later inherited the crown of his native land as well. This steel-willed warrior, who had mutilated hostages and committed political murder, fell under the influence of Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Therefore, Canute rebuilt the English churches and monasteries, and constructed new ones. He performed the pilgrimage to Rome, and under his protection, English missionaries flooded into Sweden and Denmark.

In Norway, King Olaf Haraldsson proclaimed his territory officially Christian. By the time he died in 1030, his Vikings charged into battle bellowing, “Forward Christ’s men, Cross men!” rather than the names of the Norse gods. Olaf became the patron saint of Norway, which fought its way to independent nationhood. Canute, who had tried to add Norway to his conquests, died in 1035. His northern empire broke up within seven years, England reverting to its old Saxon royal line.

In 1066, the relentless northmen tried again. England’s Harold II shattered a Norwegian army in the north, then fell himself at Hastings in combat against Duke William of Normandy (see subchapter page 111). There Saxon royal rule over Britain ended, finally and forever. In a remarkably short time, the Normans had evolved from illiterate barbarism into the most tightly knit feudal realm of all Christendom. William, a close ally of the papacy, soon fastened a tightly woven net of military and ecclesiastical authority over his new kingdom.11

Paganism was now in retreat across the northern lands. Swedish kings became Christian after Ansgar’s early mission was revived at the beginning of the eleventh century, with much help from English monks and nuns. Thousands accepted baptism, churches sprouted and bishoprics formed, although so many Swedes resisted that their Christian rulers continued to officiate at pagan state ceremonies. The chronicler Adam of Bremen noted that mob violence in Sweden’s heartland made it a heathen bastion in 1075, but in the face of that popular fury, King Inge abolished the pagan royal ceremony five years later. Rebels killed the bishop and forced Inge to flee southward to territory where Christian Swedes predominated. The king rallied his forces, broke the revolt and pulled down the great Viking temple at Uppsala, for centuries the heart of Swedish worship. Inge built a church on the site.

Generations would pass, however, before the old gods were completely eradicated in rural Scandinavia. An exasperated twelfth-century monk named Elnoth complained that Vikings too often linked Christianity to prosperity: “But if the wind changes for the worse … if storm or fire causes suffering, then they turn on the faith they pretended to respect … and take it out on the Christians.” In Elnoth’s own day, however, King Erik of Sweden organized a crusade aimed at conversion of the pagan Finns. But the Finns stubbornly clung to their own heritage that lay, not with the Vikings, but with Siberian peoples to the East. Not for another century and a half would Finland really accept Christian tutelage.12

A people less likely than the Scandinavians to accept the Prince of Peace would be difficult to imagine. Early Christians repeatedly noticed that Vikings, from kings to thralls, had genuine difficulty in appreciating either sympathy or remorse as virtuous. Historian Keary, in The Vikings of Western Christendom, cites the example of a leader who stopped his men from tossing captive children up in the air and playfully catching them on their spears. His men, who found his tenderheartedness eccentric, gave him the nickname “Börn” (meaning child).

Why did men of these inclinations yield to a religion that preaches love of God and care for fellow humans as a central principle? In part, Viking kings came to recognize that the medieval church hierarchy could be a useful, even crucial ally in organizing their free-spirited folk. But the immense upwelling of dedication to Christ across the Germanic peoples could hardly have been forced by royal decree. Fueling that surge was the figure of Jesus, presented as the god-man whose courage dwarfs the bravest warrior, the divine brother whose self-sacrifice surpasses the deepest motherly devotion, the Savior who will lead his church to final victory over all evil. As it happens, the English word hell descends from the Norse term Hel, the dead land ruled by the malignant trickster Loki. Scandinavia had had enough of Loki. They had found the truest Viking of them all.

This is the end of the Viking Raids category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page , of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Viking Raids from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at