Who were the Vikings?
Imagine a cold misty morning and you are down on the beach collecting seaweed. You hear a strange noise and look up. Suddenly, out of the mist, coming straight at you, is an enormous dragonhead. You can’t believe your eyes. Seconds later you see it’s the figure-head of a long, sleek Viking ship. Eek! You have only moments to flee and hide. Large, wild-eyed men, armed with swords and a battle-axes, leap ashore. Yelling loudly, they charge up the beach to your village and set about destroying everything they can. They burn the village down, loot everything valuable and capture and carry off your family as slaves.
Now, I imagine you’d not be too pleased about that, and would have pretty dim view of the Vikings. And you wouldn’t be alone. This is the typical view of many people. Vikings, pirates of the ninth and ten centuries, from the northern lands of Scandinavia, are usually seen as callous and cruel blood- thirsty bandits only interested in conquest, plunder and pillaging across the known world.
The monks of Lindisfarne Island, off the North-east coast of England, had a prayer every morning that went, Oh God protect us from the wrath of the Northmen. Having been there though, I imagine the rest of the prayer went, And God, also from the weather up here.
However, in spite of their fearsome reputations, the Vikings were also skilled craftsmen and many became peaceful farmers and great traders, searching for new markets as far away as Constantinople in the Mediterranean and even Moscow. Although, getting away from Danish winter and ending up in Moscow in winter doesn’t seem too clever. I can just imagine the third oarsman on the right asking, “Olaf, why didn’t we turn right towards Turkey?”
Vikings settled farmland and integrated with the locals, and, in fact, more than half of England became Viking territory ruled over by Canute the Great, King of both Denmark and England (his name was sometimes written as Knut).
They conquered Ireland, Orkney and Shetland Islands, many places in Europe , and then in 1000AD, Leif Ericson, son of Viking King, Eric the Red, travelled east and discovered America, five hundred years before Christopher Columbus did. Even today, a thousand years later, Viking ruins can still be seen at L’ans aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Leif the Lucky, as he was known, named the settlement Vinland. And hardly anyone seems to know that.