So far, we’ve explored Vikings in their roles of farmers, blacksmiths, traders and weavers. However, it’s important to realize that for three centuries, most of Europe saw Vikings in their most ferocious, primal role—as feared raiders. For most of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, Vikings ravaged European communities in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Central Europe and Russia. They came in quick in their superior longships, plundered, killed, raped and burned and just as quickly left the devastated towns and monasteries. They took the captured people as slaves and they looted whatever they could find.
European Christians were terrified, and for good reason—Vikings often returned to raid repeatedly. They attacked all along the coasts and, due to the shallow draft of the longships, inland via the rivers. Nowhere was safe from their attacks. Vikings laid siege to Paris in 845 and again in 860. Vikings nearly took over England in the 9th century and indeed, put three Viking kings on England’s throne.
What was a long-term horrible event for Europe enriched and emboldened the Scandinavian warriors. As they saw the easy profits of the early raids, more Danes, Swedes and Norwegians joined in. Vikings raided Europe from A.D. 793 to 1066.
Historians now look at the raids in three stages. The first stage ran from 790 to 840. Small, disorganized raids took the coastal areas of England and France and occasionally up the rivers as well. Some places were attacked every year. Dorestad, a trading town in Frisia, an area in the Low Countries was attacked every year from 834 to 839.
The second stage of the raids started in 841 and ran to 875. These raids increased in intensity, size, speed and number. Usually, the Vikings encountered no resistance although they did rarely lose battles. Everywhere the “wrath of the Norsemen” found them killing, pillaging and burning, taking slaves and loot. Vikings eventually gathered thousands of men into a Great Army. The Vikings began to winter over, staying in most of the countries they raided.
The third stage of the conquest ran from 876 to 911, as the Norsemen used their Great Army to ravage in England and France. They also began to colonize and Vikings moved in to stay in England, Ireland, northern France and parts of Russia around Novgorod and Kiev. Political disorganization in the attacked countries made effective resistance nearly impossible, although sometimes the defenders fought back and won. Occasionally, Viking war bands fought each other. France and England’s leaders both tried to buy the Vikings off, giving them huge fortunes in silver if they promised to stop raiding. Vikings took over parts of England known as the Danelaw and Normandy in France was ceded to them by the Frankish king in 911.
To get the terror of the times, we read some writings of the victims. In 860, a monk on the island of Noirmoutier wrote:
“The number of ships grows: the endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase. Everywhere the Christians are the victims of massacres, burnings, plundering. The Vikings conquer all in their path and nothing resists them: They seize Bordeaux, Perigeux, Limoges, Angouleme, and Toulouse. Angiers, Tours, and Orleans are annihilated and an innumerable fleet sails up the Seine….”
In 884, a monk in Arras in northern Flanders lamented:
“The Norsemen continued to kill and take Christian people captive, destroy churches, tear down fortifications and burn towns. Along all the roads lay the bodies of clergy and laity, nobles and commoners, women, children and infants. There was no highway or village where the dead did not lie, and all were filled with torment and grief to see the devastation of the Christian people, driven to the point of extermination.”
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about Vikings history. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Vikings history