History of the Vikings
Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland; they discovered America; at home they made themselves into a Christian nation united under one king. The Danes extended their authority over Frisia and won all England for their keeping; like the Norwegians they also had towns in Ireland and like them they too became a single Christian kingdom. In France a rich and pleasant colony was won from the Western Empire by Danish and Norwegian vikings. In the east the Swedes took large tracts of the East Baltic lands, they became lords of the Dnieper basin and founded the Russian state, they dared even to assail Constantinople and made commercial treaties with the emperors of the Greeks.
All this, stated in its simplest terms, is unquestionably a fine-sounding achievement, and though its real worth will presently demand examination, it establishes plainly enough the fact that the vikings were not only thieves and destroyers of property, but also from the earliest times onwards a folk soberly addressing themselves to the necessary task of winning lands abroad. Thus at the very outset of the Viking Period there was an important colonizing movement, namely the westward migration of a part of the Norwegian peasant population to the Orkneys and the Shetlands, and the settlement of more adventurous Norsemen in the Hebrides, while only shortly afterwards the Norwegians seized victoriously upon another territory; for the occupation of the Hebrides was immediately followed by the attacks upon Ireland that culminated during the '30's of the ninth century in the substantial conquests of the illustrious Turgeis.
The vikings, therefore, were not only buccaneers, they were often invaders intent upon securing a dominion for themselves, and they could also live as colonists in foreign or empty lands, peaceably settled, while others of them, filibustering merchant-adventurers, circulated between the mother-country, the colonies, and the neighbouring states. In certain areas it is possible to distinguish phases in their history during which one or other of their roles prevailed, as for example in England when random marauding gives way to the great invasion that preceded the first establishment of the Danelaw and this in turn is followed by a short period of earnest colonization in the new-won province; but on a larger canvas such phases are seen to have only local and episodic value, and viking history as a whole does not lend itself to a schematic presentation on this basis. For from the beginning to the end most of the vikings remained opportunists, and as a result the first glimpse of their history should
reveal a disorderly and kaleidoscopic picture, showing a long series of strivings, isolated and concerted, after new conquests, of expeditions and the rumours of expeditions, of plans frustrated by desertion and treachery, of settlements weakened by feud and suspicion, by robbery and by arson. So great indeed is the surface confusion of their story that the real aim and attainments of the three northern folks are momentarily obscured in the clash and clamour of this tumultuous time and they seem at first to be the most restless, ineffectual and irritable creatures that ever sought power and dominion in lands other than their own.
Their history, in its baldest outline, must be set forth by selecting certain main episodes of migration, attack, conquest, and defeat, and stringing these together in catalogue form. But for their easier presentation they may be grouped into five time-periods or phases.
PHASE I. A.D. 785—820:
(a) Minor raids upon the west and the first plundering of the monasteries.
(b) Settlement of Norsemen in the Scottish Islands.
(c) The Danes appear as a military power on the continent and threaten Frisia with invasion.
(d) The Swedes explore the Russian waterways and found the Ladoga settlement.
In this opening phase there was but little sustained fighting; indeed the far-off grumblings of the gathering storm were not sufficient to warn Christendom of the danger at hand, and only Charles the Great, who feared for the safety of Frisia, cast anxious eyes upon the darkening horizon. But in the second phase, suddenly and terrifically the storm bursts, and in the west the grand attack upon Christendom begins.
PHASE II. A.D. 835—865:
(e) Danish raids upon Frisia (834—850); the country overrun by vikings and Dorstad ceded to Rorik.
(f) Twenty-four years (841—865) of sustained attack by vikings, chiefly Danes, upon the monasteries and towns along the coasts and river-valleys of Francia.
(g) Thirty-one years (834—865) of assault upon southern England.
(h) Conquests of Turgeis in N. Ireland; foundation of the viking harbour-towns in Ireland and establishment of the kingdom of Dublin by Olaf.
(i) 850—860. Swedish conquests in East Baltic lands, southward movement of Swedes who occupy the Slavonic towns of Russia and become masters of the waterways. First raid upon Constantinople.
In these thirty years of the second phase, a period of bloodshed, rapine, and terror, the vikings possessed themselves of new homes in Russia, on the Irish coast and in Frisia. The Swedes laid a part of the East Baltic states under them, but took little profit of their victory, having their eyes upon the Russian trade-routes and intent upon the rule of the inland river-towns; but in southern England and Francia the attacks, failed and no permanent conquests were made, even though a footing was won by the establishment here and there of fortified strongholds to serve as winter quarters. Yet this double failure only served to divert the Danish attack to a new quarter, and the third phase opens with a most notable success, the outright conquest of the eastern half of England.
PHASE III. A.D. 866—896:
(j) Great Danish invasion of Northumbria and eastern England (867) and beginning of the conquest of the Danelaw; renewed viking attack upon Wessex (870896) which fails after twenty-five years fighting.
(k) Ravages of Loire vikings in West Francia (866—869). Renewed attack upon northern Francia (876—882).
(l) Godfred becomes lord of Frisia (882), but at his death (886) Danish power in this country comes to an end.
(m) Beginning of Harald Fairhair's rise to power in Norway (c. 890); Norse colonization of Iceland begins (874).
The thirty years of this phase have England as the theatre of the principal struggle by the vikings to win new dominions. There is still fighting in Ireland and the Celtic lands, but already a change is noticeable, for the vikings of the Irish coast are now living in partly Christian communities that rank as the equals, and sometimes the allies, of the Irish kingdoms, even though after the departure of Olaf of Dublin in 870 their prestige and their numbers most seriously declined. Here the period of the sacking of the religions houses is almost over, but in Francia the terror of the vikings is unabated in the towns and monasteries of the Loire valley and up the Seine. In Russia the Swedish state has flourished and is becoming more and more orientated towards the Byzantine Empire. In the north the empty country of Iceland is discovered and colonized by Norsemen of the Celtic