50 Places Vikings Lived, Plundered, Traded, Settled, and Conquered
When you mention Vikings to someone, the first thing that comes to mind are warriors with beards in the ice. However, back in the day Vikings made their rounds and traveled all over the world-conquering lands all over the world. Check this slideshow out and see just how far their reach truly was.
“They Come From the Lands of Ice and Snow”
As Led Zeppelin and Thor fans already know, the Vikings immigrated to many new lands across Europe, North America, Asia, and elsewhere. They mostly hailed from the Scandinavian countries now called Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. In their time, people in Western and Central Europe called them Norsemen, Northmen, or Normans. Greek and Slavic people, however, had more experience with a specific group from Sweden and called them “Varangians.”
They Weren't Pirates but Loved their Time out at Sea
When not in Scandinavia, Viking raiders loved slicing through chilly North Atlantic waves or the placid Mediterranean with their fearsomely fast ships. Many Vikings made their homes on the sea whether for plunder or trade. Victims of their pillaging could recognize their ships approaching from miles away, sporting intricately carved dragon heads on the bow. Red and white striped sails also set these war bringers apart from other ships on the high seas. Vikings built their ships with flat bottoms in many cases so that their crews could drag them over land when needed.
Winding Their Way to Wessex
In 793, an eager shire reeve from Wessex raced to the shoreline. This local appointee of the king (an office later called “sheriff”) sought to greet an incoming squadron of what he assumed were trading ships. Unfortunately, this fleet of Norwegians looked to loot the Lindisfarne monastery of its riches. They had no use for the reeve and promptly killed them. Many local residents and Roman Catholic monks shortly thereafter met the same grisly fate.
Normans Go to Nantes
Seven years after the Vikings annihilated Lindisfarne, the Frankish King Charlemgne received a significant upgrade in title. Pope Leo III crowned him “Emperor of the Romans.” It was not exactly the Roman Empire of earlier centuries or the Holy Roman Empire created in the 900s, but it did link the modern countries of France, Italy, Germany, and others under one crown. Despite Charlemagne’s accomplishments in unifying large areas of the old Western Roman Empire and Germany, neither he nor his successors could prevent Vikings from attacking their lands. In 843, 67 ships sailed upriver to Nantes. Their crews slaughtered uncounted Frenchmen who had gathered for the feast day of St. John.
The Appalachian Mountains
Most know the Appalachian Mountains as the backbone of Eastern North America, running in a narrow band over a thousand miles from north Georgia and Alabama northeast through the West Virginia and Pennsylvania coalfields to the North Atlantic coast of Canada.
Geologists will tell you that the mountains extend further than that. Hundreds of millions of years ago, Europe, Africa, and North America were jammed together as part of the Pangaea supercontinent.
Later it split apart again, but evidence of the collision still exists in the greater Appalachian range, which includes the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, the Scottish Highlands, and also the great ranges of Scandinavia.
Paris is Burning
A Frankish city, established by the Romans and named for a Trojan prince, Paris emerged as a center of power and wealth.
By the mid 800s, it served as the Frankish capital.
The Franks wrongly assumed that the over one hundred mile distance from the coast would protect Paris from the seafaring Vikings led by the notorious Ragnar Lothbrok of Denmark, made famous in modern times by the cable television series about his exploits.
With 120 ships and 5,000 men, Ragnar Lothbrok occupied Paris until King Charles paid a king’s ransom to encourage the Vikings to depart.
Invasion of Normandy
Ragnar Lothbrok’s success only encouraged later expeditions with higher aspirations.
A successor, Rollo, led another attack on Paris approximately 40 years later. He hauled away another impressive load of gold, silver, and other treasures.
Rollo also cut a deal with the beleaguered Franks. In exchange for the northern coast of France, Rollo and his band would protect the rest of the kingdom from other marauding bands of Vikings.
Interestingly, Rollo’s success laid the groundwork for establishing one of the world’s great monarchies later on.
Alfred The Great
The second and third generations of Vikings to take to the seas looked for more than plunder. Expedition leaders, such as Rollo in France, looked for lands on which to settle their restive peoples.
Starting in the mid 800s, Danish warriors flooded England in the north near York. Their southward sweeps put powerful rulers such as the King of Mercia to flight.
Just as it looked like the Danish Vikings would seize all of England, their efforts faltered in Wessex. Their king, the youngest son of Aethulwulf, was never supposed to rule. As the youngest in the line, he initially devoted his life to scholarship.
Alfred the Great, however, proved even more skillful in the martial than the liberal arts. Though he stopped the Danes from conquering all England, he could not completely defeat and dislodge them.
In 886, Alfred made a deal legitimizing the Viking kingdom known as the “Danelaw” which dominated the northern sections of England.
Trading Instead of Fighting at Constantinople
In the 800s and 900s, the future kingdoms of France and England lay at the edge of known civilization, not the center.
The city established by Emperor Constantine in the 300s served as one of the world’s great centers of trade. Still the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, it boasted mammoth walls and powerful defenses.
Vikings from Sweden known as Varangians found their way to Constantinople to get rich off of commerce where they could not establish conquest.
A mid 900s effort by Rus based Vikings to attack the Byzantines failed.
From the Varangians to the Greeks
Varangian Vikings soon established a direct, if complicated, route that avoided thousands of miles of sea travel to the rich trade centers of the Byzantine Empire.
They sailed up the Neva River from the Baltic, then carried vessels and cargos to the river systems running south.
According to the Primary Chronicle, Varangian trade routes ran through regions ruled by a series of bickering Slavic tribes. Under a leader named Rurik, the Varangians may have helped to unify the tribes into the Rus which was ruled from the town of Kiev.
Rus eventually evolved into Kievan Russia, which split into Great Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus centuries later.
Lord Novgorod the Great
Varangian and Rus power did not remain centered as Kiev. Trade helped to expand early Russia along commercial routes.
In 862, the Rus Viking Ulrich founded the city of Novgorod. In the early Middle Ages, Novgorod emerged as a powerful military stronghold and even established itself as a republic that respected ideals of freedom more than any state in the world at the time.
Novgorod later halted Germanic efforts to seize Russian lands by defeating the Teutonic Knights of the Livonian Order on the famous Battle on the Ice.
Luck of the Irish
Left alone by the Romans, Ireland enjoyed some immunity from the convulsions that wracked Europe in the Middle Ages.
That is until Viking ships found their fair isle.
As in other areas, plundering raids soon gave way to dreams of conquest. Norway based Vikings made powerful attacks a summer tradition in the early 800s.
By the middle of the century, however, raids gave way to residence. The Norwegians established their own kingdom based in the city of Dublin, which they founded as a center of administration and trade.
Monasteries a Magnet
As the Western Roman Empire slowly dissolved into political and social disorder in the 400s, Christians found cities had transformed into magnets drawing raiders and violence.
Monasteries provided a secure home for the faithful to live, work, and even sell. Some grew notoriously corrupt while others stuck to guidelines such as the Rule of St. Benedict. Most accumulated wealth as they sold goods and services but purchased little with funds earned.
To avoid the violence typical of inland areas at the time, most were constructed on craggy coasts or islands. What protected them from the greed of criminal bandits in the 600s, however, left them vulnerable to attack at the end of the next century and beyond.
A Church Home
When Vikings first emerged from Scandinavia, they worshipped a pantheon of Nordic gods such as Thor and Odin.
Surprisingly as their attacks astounded and confounded Europe, they showed an inclination to adopt, or at least adapt, the faith of those who fell to their swords.
By 1100, most Viking communities had either adopted Christianity entirely or, at the very least, added the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to their native assemblage of divinities.
Experts now believe that early focus on Christian churches and monasteries came from their storehouses of wealth rather than contempt for the religion.
Western Civilization Awaits
This phrase neatly combines thousands of characteristics common to the civilization whose roots grew from combining the cultures of ancient and classical Greece, Rome, and Israel/Judah.
When Vikings evolved from raiding to trading, administration, and conversion to Christianity (more or less), they joined and added substantially to the culture of the West.
Making the Most of the Medieval Warm Period
One of the defining features shaping the centuries between the Roman Empire and the modern era was the Medieval Warm Period.
The climate warmed between the 900s and 1200s in the regions surrounding the North Atlantic. With glaciers in retreat and warmer temperatures all year long, the Vikings flourished in their Scandinavian homeland and sought colonizable areas elsewhere.
As the Western Roman Empire dissolved, it abandoned its previously lucrative province of Britannia. This left the sophisticated Romanized Celts alone to contend with the vicious Anglo-Saxons.
While they enjoyed powerful military leadership, perhaps even from the legendary King Arthur, these Celts retreated to the mountains of Wales. Eventually they did fall under the control of the English monarchy, but not before their coastlines were savaged by Viking raids
Scotland and the Vikings
Rome never dared to move from the lowlands in the north of what became England. The warrior Picts held sway north of the fortress of York.
To define and protect the border, Rome built Hadrian’s Wall. This barrier helped to permanently divide the island between the lowlands of the south and the people of the northern highlands.
Scotland emerged as its own kingdom but suffered raids and even some colonization from the Vikings.
Scapa Flow, A Long Naval Tradition
One notable area of Scotland that attracted Viking notice was Scapa Flow.
This small section of Scotland’s craggy coastline finds spits of land enveloping a large natural harbor, protecting anything within from the oft storm-tossed North Sea.
Vikings found this beautiful barrier to weather and waves a perfect area to settle and use as a base for further explorations.
Later, Scapa Flow’s safe harbor embrace protected the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet from enemies such as the German Navy in the 20th century.
North Sea, the Vikings’ Playground
Until the end of the last Ice Age, the lands between the British Isles and Europe held the massive deltas of the Rhine and Thames Rivers as they emptied into the North Atlantic.
Melting glaciers elevated sea levels, slowly drowning the area and its Stone Age settlements.
The resulting North Sea served as a playground for Viking adventurers sallying forth from Scandinavia to attack, trade, and explore.
In 711, Arab and Berber Muslim armies flooded into the Iberian Peninsula, currently home to the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal.
It took less than six years for these forces to overwhelm the weak Germanic kingdom that replaced the Roman Empire.
Although one of the less wealthy regions, the Al-Andalus administration successfully resisted an incursion by Emperor Charlemagne, memorialized in the Song of Roland.
Sortie to Seville
Viking raiders, called Rus throughout the Muslim world, targeted the Andalusian capital of Seville in 844. Though shaken, the Muslim military beat back the attack.
Officials responded by augmenting Seville’s already potent defenses. Vikings overall enjoyed less success against Muslim foes than Christian or other polygamist peoples.
Today Seville serves as one of Spain’s most popular destinations.
Sending Attacks Against the Scandinavian Sami
Viking communities grew up nestled in the rough coastlines of the Scandinavian realms. As the Medieval Warm Period made their home peninsula more desirable for living and working, Vikings pushed inland and to the north.
As they drove through the mountains northward, they conquered lands belonging to the Finns and the Sami.
Also called “Lapps” or “Laplanders,” these tenacious nomadic tribesmen endured raids for centuries. Today their culture and language is close to extinction, overwhelmed by modern life and ways.
It Was Holy, Roman, and An Empire
In the 900s, with Vikings and Muslim attacks swarming across Europe, Otto the Great forged the heartland of Germany into a new kind of state.
The Holy Roman Empire existed to serve as the sword and the shield of Roman Catholic Europe. It consolidated enough power to preserve the continent against inroads from the Mongols, Muslims, and Vikings alike. For a few centuries, it proved the most powerful force in Europe.
Some Holy Roman Emperors even saw themselves as more important than the Pope himself.
The Empire proved a bulwark that prevented Viking penetration and conquest from occurring deep in the heart of Europe.
Straits of Gibraltar As a Gateway
Where the southern tip of Spain and the northern reaches of Morocco almost, but not quite, touch, lie the Straits of Gibraltar.
In the Classical Age, many saw the Straits as a barrier beyond which lay fantastic monsters and terrifyingly brutal storms at sea.
By the Middle Ages, however, mariners had used it as a passageway for centuries.
In the 800s and 900s, Viking fleets sailed through the Straits. Some sought to trade while others focused on plunder.
All sailors found the calm waters of this sea both more navigable and, for those in the line of work, a rich source of maritime and coastline plunder.
Mining the Mediterranean For Trade and Treasure
One might call the Mediterranean Sea an incubator of civilizations. Its eastern edge bordered both the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations.
Later, the serene seas served as a source of wealth. The Greeks and many others build ships to fish, to trade, and to fight. Colonizers sprang from there and other ancient states such as Phoenicia.
The Vikings used the Mediterranean to bring their fleets to coastlines civilized for thousands of years, but in some cases conquered quite recently.
Muslim's make the World More Challenging for Viking Attacks
Islam commenced its spread from the city of Mecca in the 500s AD. Led first by Muhammed, then other warrior leaders, Muslim armies swept across the Middle East and North Africa, seizing the birthplaces of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Persian civilization from the Byzantines and others.
Arabs, Berbers, and others extended that empire into Europe, seizing the Iberian Peninsula and parts of Italy before meeting decisive defeat at the hands of the Frankish warlord Charles Martel (the Hammer.) The Crusades served as a counterattack that ended Arab aspirations for European conquest.
Between the 700s and 1100, the Arab Empire broke into a number of Caliphates, Kingdoms, Emirates, and other territories.
Despite this, Muslim superiority in science, technology, and administration helped them to fend off Viking raids more effectively than European states.
Bringing Wealth and Trade to Baghdad
Vikings did not always regard Muslim states as enemies or sources of potential plunder. Those whom the Muslim world called the Rus brought their trade all the way to Baghdad.
This center of power in the heart of Mesopotamia was one of the greatest cities in the Muslim world. Likely Viking traders, except in Constantinople, had never seen such a beautiful or flourishing city in all their travels.
Today, the Orkney Islands are a grassy, but treeless windswept chain of islands off the north coast of Scotland. Despite the challenges, different peoples have lived on these lands for over 7,000 years. One site of interest here called Maeshowe contains Viking carvings from the 1100s.
Farmers in the Faroes
Irish monks likely found and settled the Faroes first as a result of their search for “The Islands of Sheep and Paradise of Birds.” Their settlements in the 500s would give way to Vikings three centuries later.
The Vikings practiced a form of island hopping to spread their influence across the North Atlantic. The Faroes lay directly in their path.
Not every Viking thirsted for blood, plunder, or even trade. Many made their living as farmers, challenging in northern latitudes even during the Medieval Warm Period.
On the Faroes even today, visitors can examine the ruins of many Viking farmsteads. Though they fought no battles, they used the same tenacity to succeed that Vikings applied anywhere and in every field.
All Gather at the Althing
Experts say that the Faroe Islands has the oldest functioning representative government in existence.
Vikings practiced an early culture of democracy where often merit elevated more than any other quality. This culture shaped the creation of governing institutions, especially in England.
Vikings established a form of parliament in the Faroes called Althing, where all free men could decide upon law and policy. This somewhat resembled Athens’ classical era Assembly.
The Althing evolved into Logting “Law Thing,” and other forms before becoming the Faroese Parliament that governs today under the aegis of the Kingdom of Denmark.
Settling the Unsettled in Iceland
Around 830, according to their own histories, Naddodd the Viking discovered Iceland when his ship bound for the Faroes got blown over 400 miles off course.
He was followed by Gardar the Swede three decades later who came to the same place via the same accident. Part of his crew attempted the first permanent settlement known in Iceland.
Iceland is a large volcanic outcropping of the geologically active Mid Atlantic Ridge, a seam running north to south through most of the Atlantic. Here two massive plates pull apart, making the entire region active with volcanoes and hot steams.
It was named Gardar’s island until an explorer named Floki Vilgeroarson arrived. Frustrated and trapped by ice, he renamed the entire territory Iceland in honor of his irritation.
Settling in “Smokey Bay”
Other Vikings saw more potential than frustration in their new colony of Iceland. It held no natives to fight or to rule over.
The current capital of Reykjavik means “Smokey Bay.” Ironically the capital of a land of ice earned its name from the hot steams in the area.
Long term and larger scale settlement occurred when fugitive Vikings from Norway and their Celtic slaves arrived and built settlements where they could live safely.
Gone to Greenland
In 1725 Norwegian missionaries set out to find settlements that authorities knew existed, but had not heard from in over two centuries. Native Inuit hunters led them to the crumbling ruins of stone church walls.
The people themselves had either died out or, more likely, had been absorbed into neighboring native communities.
Vikings arrived in Greenland in the 980s under Erik the Red, bringing livestock and hardy plants. That combined with hunting seals and other native animals helped to sustain a settlement.
They benefited greatly from the Medieval Warm Period that helped to expand pockets of arable lands on the coast, at least until the Little Ice Age plunged regional temperatures in the mid-1300s.
By now, Vikings brought the Christian faith with them to their colonies. Most of what remains of them is the churches built to comfort the faithful in a cold and demanding land.
Gardar Domkirke, or, The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas
Between the 1100s and the onset of the Little Ice Age, Greenland’s settlements flourished. The Roman Catholic Church established a cathedral in Gardar, now called Igaliku.
Cathedrals are special churches established in the Roman Catholic faith as the seat of a bishop or archbishop. The appointment of a bishop means recognition of the permanence and importance of a community.
By the 1300s, appointed bishops for Greenland stopped taking their seats. The Vatican stopped appointing such officials at all after the 1400s.
Lapping the Labrador Sea
The exploration aspirations of the Vikings took them to lands unknown in Europe in the Middle Ages.
Until the exploration and settlement of Canada, however, they had only discovered islands, even quite large ones like Greenland.
Explorers kept pushing west as long as the Medieval Warm Period gave such ventures a chance of success. One maritime expedition took ships northward into the Labrador Sea, likely to the point where icebergs threatened their safety.
Only a handful of centuries later, European explorers would ply this area again, pushing through the ice fruitlessly to find a Northwest Passage around North America to the Pacific.
No Viking has enjoyed more historical fame and renown than Lief Eriksson.
Son of the almost as famous Erik the Red, Eriksson enjoyed the traditional path of Viking exploration success – a storm blew him off course. This fortuitous weather brought Eriksson not to yet another island, but to the North American continent itself.
Eriksson named the new land, at that point boasting prodigious grapes and lumber, Vinland.
Viking sources, however, claim that Eriksson knew of the new land from accounts given by Bjarni Herjolfsson, an Icelandic colonizer.
Eriksson focused more on spreading the Gospel to his fellow Vikings and left further exploration to his brothers.
Though not permanent, Vinland remains known as the first known attempt at permanent settlement in America by Europeans.
The English Channel as Thoroughfare and Wall
Separating Great Britain from Europe geographically, culturally, and in many other ways, the English Channel has in many ways helped to define the history of both the British Isles and Europe itself.
It has allowed those living in the British Isles to often enjoy a measure of safety against potential invaders such as the French, Spanish, Germans, and others in modern times.
That said, when those in Britain cannot mount effective defenses, peoples such as the Celts and the Romans after them found the Channel no deterrent.
Vikings used the Channel as a safer passage to reach the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean early on.
In 1066, however, the Channel became a door through which the Normans passed to seize England.
William Conquers at Hastings
After reaching a deal with the Frankish monarchs, the Vikings at Normandy stayed true to their word. They protected the Franks as they evolved into France.
Normandy also emerged as a powerful dukedom, led in the 1060s by William of Normandy.
The last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Edward the Confessor, had no natural heir but promised his throne to three parties.
One, Harold, Earl of Wessex, assumed power on Edward’s death. The other two contenders, Harold Hardraade and William of Normandy, prepared for an attack.
King Harold II moved north and defeated Harold Hardraade at Stamford Bridge.
He did not fare so well when he wheeled around to march on William at Hastings. Backed by European monarchies and the Pope, William proved the stronger contender, defeating Harold decisively at Hastings
Conquering the High Seas In the North Atlantic Ocean
Even today, many regard the waters of the North Atlantic with trepidation.
After all, these icy seas claimed the most famous cruise ship in history, the mighty SS Titanic.
During the time of the Vikings, however, warmer temperatures and seas opened opportunities for the curious and the colonizer alike.
Fleets of Viking ships eventually tamed the North Atlantic in the same way that they mastered the North Sea, Baltic, Black, and the Mediterranean as well.
Learning to Live in London
William the Conqueror imposed a mixed French and Viking elite onto an Anglo-Saxon population. The new rulers spoke French, favored that county’s culture, and found their new subjects rustic, to say the least.
Norman ways would soon fuse with English, transforming both. Norman's contributions reshaped the English language and also transformed other institutions such as the nobility and monarchy.
More importantly, they gave England the seeds of a seafaring tradition that made her the core of the mightiest empire the world has ever seen.
Seizure of Sicily
Viking fleets also found the southern extremities of Europe tantalizingly open to their efforts to raid and rule.
From the 700s through the 900s, Sicily was exchanged over and over by major regional powers. The Byzantine Empire seized the central Mediterranean island in the 500s. Its diminishing power left its lands in Italy open to conquest, however.
Vikings and Muslim forces each took control of the island in this period. Enraged natives had no power to stop the conquest of their homeland but resisted stoutly when they could. They formed bands that specialized in terrorism, kidnapping and ransom, theft, and other enterprises.
Quickly they became known as the Mafia, an institution that has resisted uprooting by various regimes ever since.
The Viking Legacy
Outside of Christianity, most of the future Great Powers of Europe enjoyed one characteristic in common.
Almost every country that grew into influence in the modern era enjoyed substantial ties to the Vikings. Whether through conquest, cooperation, colonization, or trade, the Vikings added to the culture and heritage of several important nations.
This includes the ideals of self-rule that heavily influenced cultures as widely separated as England and Novgorod.
Through the Middle Ages, Denmark forged the Viking connection with continental Europe. Its small size with limited population and resources, however, kept it behind as other counties’ populations and wealth continued to grow.
Denmark in the modern era has found itself pulled into European conflicts, such as its 1860s war with Prussia and occupation by National Socialist Germany in the 1940s.
The kingdom today retains control of many of the North Atlantic islands discovered and settled by Vikings.
The Kingdom of Norway, including Spitsbergen, is one of the most northerly nations in the world. For the most part, it has managed to avoid being drawn into European wars and conflicts because of its position on the periphery of Europe.
For a brief time, Norway and Denmark were ruled by a joint monarchy.
In the past hundred years, however, its increasingly strategic location has forced it to forge alliances. National Socialist Germany used a secret plan and a band of traitors under Quisling to seize the country in an effort to hem in Great Britain. Its proximity to the Soviet Union convinced it to join the American-led NATO alliance later on.
For centuries, Iceland has had little impact or effect on international diplomacy or military strategy.
Until the modern era, Norway held control over Iceland. After the breakup of the brief royal union between her and Denmark, Denmark received Iceland in the divorce.
Iceland established self-rule when National Socialist Germany seized and occupied the mother country. Allied forces used Iceland’s strategic location to their advantage, giving them airfields to help naval forces protect vital convoys.
In 1944, Iceland declared independence from Denmark. They later joined the US-led NATO alliance.
Viking and Slavic cooperation established a powerful state centered on Kiev by the 1100s. As Muslim assaults on Byzantine territory weakened their power and economy, Kievan Russia also struggled as trade declined.
The Mongol conquest subverted Russia under a culture based on violence, conquest, and brutality that even the Vikings could not match. Proud Novgorod not long after their triumph over German invaders refused to resist the Mongols when they came.
When Mongol power receded, however, it was Asiatic Moscow, not Western-oriented Novgorod, that provided the core of Russian development.
England, Great Britain, and the British Empire
England’s decisive defeat at the hands of France in the 1400s turned its aspirations away from Europe and toward the West.
They never, however, lost the Viking inheritance of national restiveness.
By the 1500s English sailors, such as Sir Francis Drake and the Sea Dogs, continued old Viking traditions of fighting on the ocean. Elizabeth I harnessed their energies in service of the state, both for warfare against Spain and exploring new lands.
By the 1700s, Britain built the navy that mastered the world’s oceans and served as her foundation for Empire.
Vikings and the West
In the twilight of the Roman era, as Germans, Italians, Greeks, and even Turks fought to claim the mantle of the Roman Empire, Vikings pushed Europe in another direction.
The Vikings pulled European eyes away from their own continent, first in self-defense, but later on in seeking an opportunity. Their unquenchable restiveness fueled not only brutality but also curiosity. In the prime of their influence, they helped to spread European civilization and the Christian faith to lands completely unknown before their appearance.
For these reasons, the Vikings have earned their role as an influencer and shaper of the West.