William Sterling

Baltic Cruise Lecture 6

Lectures for Baltic and St Petersburg Cruise on the Ocean Countess July 2011


Lecture 6 Vikings Everywhere

In the first five lectures we have looked at the transformation of Roman Britain into Anglo-Saxon England. By the time William of Normandy conquered Britain in 1066 many institutions and ways of life had become so well established that we still recognise them today. England has a monarch with a council of advisers; it is divided into counties; we speak English; our currency is based on the penny with the monarch’s head on one side in profile and varying designs on the other; our legal system is a combination of customs and laws passed on from varying sources. All these come from the Anglo-Saxons. In the third, fourth and fifth lectures we have seen how important the Vikings were to the development of England. In this lecture we are going to look a bit more at the Viking homelands and how far they stretched their influence.

[SLIDES: Maps of Viking voyages.]


As the pagan Norse had no written records it is impossible to say how far back their culture goes. The Gunderstrup cauldron dating from C1st BC has images which appear to show Vikings. It was found in a bog in Jutland and may have been an offering. Many images from the Iron Age appear to show gods familiar from the later period. The Viking Era is said to start around 800 AD when they started to expand by sea from Denmark and the other homelands. The early history of Denmark and the other Scandinavian kingdoms is difficult to unravel from legend as much of it depends on sagas and accounts preserved in Iceland and written down in the C12th and C13th.

The first recorded king of Denmark was probably Sigurd Snogoje in 794 but the first authenticated king was Gorm the Old who reigned in the first half of the C10th. The five ships scuppered to protect Roskilde at Skuldelev date from about this time. Gorm was succeeded by his son Harold Bluetooth in 950. He converted to Christianity in 980 which was celebrated on the Jelling stone. He was deposed by his son Sweyn Forkbeard in 985. Sweyn had already raided England in 982 and did again in 994 and after. He was briefly king of England just before his death in 1014. Sweyn was succeeded by his sons Harold and Canute and their dynasty continues to rule today. The only gap was when Magnus of Norway conquered Denmark in 1042 and held it for 5 years. Sweyn Estrithson re-established Danish rule in 1047.

[SLIDES: Gunderstrup cauldron, Jelling stones, Skuldelev ships, weapons, coins, brooches.]


The first recorded king of Norway was Harald Fairhair who united the country in 872. This provoked many of the earls he had deposed to leave and settle elsewhere in places like Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides and Normandy. The Danes were responsible for most of the Viking raids in England in the C9th including the armies which ravaged and conquered East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia but the Norwegians also made some raids. The two beautifully preserved burial ships from near Oslo at Oseberg and Gokstad were buried in 834 and 887 respectively according to dendrochronology and show the sort of ships the Vikings used. Oseberg is 70 feet long, was discovered in 1904, contained two women, one old, one young (+14 horses, 3 dogs, 4 sleighs, cart, bed, chest, bucket) possibly Queen Asa, grandmother of Harald Fairhair. Gokstad is 76 feet long, was discovered 1880, built for 32 oarsmen and up to 70 passengers, contained one old man in a hut on a bed (+3 small boats, tent, sledge, riding equipment).

Harald died in 930 and was succeeded by his son Eric Bloodaxe. He was expelled in 934 and later became king of York. Eric’s benign brother Haakon the Good (probably a Christian) reigned till he was killed in 961 when Eric’s son Harald Graypelt took over till he was killed in 970. After 25 years of Danish rule Norway re-established its independence under Olaf Tryggvason (also a Christian) but he only ruled for 5 years before being killed in 1000. A return to Danish rule was ended by Olaf Haraldson who was the first Christian king of Norway to try and convert his country. His attempts to convert Norway by force led to his expulsion in 1030 and again Denmark took over in the person of Canute. Olaf was killed trying to regain his throne but was canonised in 1164 and became the patron saint of Norway.

His son, Magnus the Good took the throne after Canute’s death in 1035 and was succeeded by his brother Harald Hardrade in 1047. Harald had been a mercenary (along with many other Vikings before and after) at the court of the Byzantine Emperor and was a strong fighter who claimed the English throne in 1066 only to be killed by King Harold at Stamford Bridge.

The Lewis Chessmen pay tribute to the continuing contact between Norway and the British Isles. Norway retained its independence until united with Denmark under Queen Margaret in 1387. Most of the Viking conquests to the West came from Norway including the settlements in North West England, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Faroes, Iceland and eventually Greenland and Newfoundland.

[SLIDES: Saga manuscripts, Oseberg ship, Gokstad ship, Norse gods and heroes depicted on churches, brooches, Lewis chess pieces.]


Legendary kings date from the C6th but the first authenticated king was Eric VII who united Sweden before his death in 994. Swedish history is less well recorded as it is not mentioned much in the Icelandic sagas. There are some eastern sagas but they largely relate to the Swedish expeditions into Russia and the founding of Kiev. Olof Skötkonung, son of Eric VII is credited with uniting much of Sweden and is mentioned by Snorri Sturluson, the C13th Icelandic historian and the German Adam of Bremen. He was baptised in 1008 and remained a Christian, being martyred in c. 1027 for refusing to return to the pagan gods.

[SLIDES: Gotland picture stones showing Odin, Thor and other gods, saga manuscripts, weapons and helmets from Vendel, bronzes, tapestry, gold collars, silver brooches, glass and pottery.]


Discovered in the mid C9th by sailors from the Faroe Islands (which had been settled by Scots and Irish for some centuries and by the Norse in the C9th). The first settler was Ingólfr Arnarson who founded Reykjarvik in 874. Settlers arrived from Norway, Scotland and Ireland but it was largely a Norse society and never had a king. The Parliament or Althing was founded in 930 and convened each year to settle disputes and pass laws. During the C10th pressure to convert to Christianity grew and a civil war broke out in 1000. The first bishop was appointed in 1056. In 1262 Iceland came under the rule of the Norwegian kings and only gained independence in 1944.


First spotted in the early C10th by sailors blown off course from Iceland. Erik the Red settled the south west coast in 985. His son Leif set off to discover Vinland in 1000 and a small settlement was made in Newfoundland. In 1126 the diocese of Gardar was founded and five churches have been excavated. In 1261 they accepted the rule of the Norwegian king. The climate started to get colder and the settlements started to decline from 1350. The last recorded visit from Europe was in 1426 and by 1448 the Pope was expressing concern over the lack of priests but it is probable the colony had died out, less than half a century before Columbus returned to the New World.


The first Norse king of Dublin was Olaf I in 856. He was followed by Ivar Ragnarsson in 871 and various other rulers until their expulsion in 902. Sihtric Coach re-established Viking rule in 917 and his descendants ruled until 1052. The Viking kingdom finally came to an end in 1170.


The first Viking jarl of Orkney was Ragnvald in 874 and they retained their independence till 1329.


The Norse duchy was founded by Rolf the Ganger, brother of the Jarl of Orkney, in 911 after he invaded and captured Rouen. King Charles the Simple granted him the territory in return for adopting Christianity. Normandy maintained its independence until lost by King John in 1204.


The Norse colony in Kiev was founded by Rurik in 862 and his descendants ruled in up to 64 different principalities up to the C13th. He moved his capital to Novgorod in 864.  The Chronicle of Rus written around 1113 recorded the arrival of Rurik and the early history.

[SLIDES: Items from around the world which ended up in Scandinavia including a Buddha from India, pieces from Germany and Ireland, church on Egilsay, a hoard from Skye, a reliquary from Man, various Icelandic items, a church and items from Greenland, Lanse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, pieces from Russia and Estonia.]

Thank you for listening to me over these six lectures. I hope they have added to your knowledge of early English history and some of the sites we have seen on this cruise. If you want to know more or read these lectures they will appear on my website in the near future.