Setting the Record Straight: Viking Warriors

Glossary

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – an account of the events in Anglo-Saxon England by year, possibly started under Alfred’s direction, abbreviated to ASC
  • Berserker – perhaps meaning ‘Hair-shirt’ in Old Norse, these were warriors with mythical powers. They could work themselves into a berserk state, rendering them savage in battle and immune to the bite of weapons
  • Hávamál – a book of proverbs from the Vikings, preserved as part of The Elder Edda, a repository of mythic and heroic material
  • Valhalla – the mead-hall where the souls of slain warriors feasted and drank in preparation for Ragnarok
  • Viking – Scandinavians who raided the Britain and Ireland during the Viking Age. It is not an ethnic marker, but a description of an occupation, from the Old Norse meaning ‘pirate’, or possibly ‘inlet’.
  • Viking Age – a period of history in which the Scandinavian peoples became active as raiders and settlers across Europe and Asia Minor. It covers c.800-1100AD

Who Would Win in a Fight Between…

            On 2nd February this year, the Swedish games studio Iron Gate released Valheim, a survival and crafting game set in an imagined Viking afterlife. As of 3rd March, despite the game being still in early access, it has attracted more than 5 million players worldwide. This is not an isolated occurrence; in 2017 the videogame For Honor was released, announcing its Viking warriors as, ‘the greatest warriors the world had ever known’, who are ‘Wild, free and utterly without fear’, and went on be a widely popular game that still has an active following. It’s intriguing that Vikings as explorers and warriors regularly top polls of the greatest historical warriors. They have lived on in the popular imagination, and the success of The Last Kingdom, Vikings and dozens of videogames and books feed an ever-growing appetite. The language of Viking combat is astonishingly well-known; we are aware of a range of foreign and specialist words, such as ‘Valhalla’, ‘berserker’, or ‘valkyrie’, usually only known by academics and devotees of a historical field.

            The impression is that Vikings are ferocious and cunning warriors, unmatched in battle, and able to overcome any enemy by either sheer force, or by a kind of lateral thinking that makes a mockery of their foes’ conventional tactics. They are portrayed as existing in great freedom, able to move and raid at will, unbound by the stifling normality of the lives of more settled peoples. An aura of romance and danger surrounds them. The word ‘Viking’ provokes a vivid landscape of images; bearded axes and painted shields, longships pulling out of the mist, brutal contests of speed, skill and ferocity.

            But, outside of the popular imagination, what were these Scandinavian warriors who came to Britain as raiders, really like as soldiers? How well do aspects of this myth compare to the historical record and why has the myth endured? My aim here is not to discredit the Vikings as combatants, but to create a more balanced picture of these Norsemen as raiders and warriors.

Raiders from the Sea

            The Vikings had appeared on the shores of Britain before their infamous assault on Lindesfarne in 793, but this raid is significant for its impact and consequences, heralding as it did the beginning of the Viking Age. They immediately became a hated and feared foe; the famous prayer, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was, ‘From the Northmen’s fury, O Lord preserve us’. Contemporary chronicles make for gripping reading, as Britain is plagued by these heathens from the sea; they appear as brutal, invincible, cruel and utterly savage, with an almost supernatural ability to appear at any time, at any place. They spread destruction, rape, murder and theft, taking slaves, gold and plunder back to their homes across the North Sea. They deliberately used fear-tactics to intimidate a civilian population, and it worked. It took a long time, more than 80 years, for their advances to be stemmed and gradually reversed.

            Their physical weapons were very similar to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. They used the round shield and spear, wearing leather armour, or none at all. Like the English, warriors of higher social class wielded swords and had access to chainmail; they used the bow as a hunting weapon, and horses were used for scouting and transport, not combat. They fought primarily on foot, and were skilled users of the axe in battle. Their ships were what made them infamous; with carved dragon-prows and colourful sails, they could land easily on beaches or riverbanks, disgorging a large number of warriors with speed and ease. The fear of Vikings could do as much damage as the raid itself, with some shire levies fleeing even before giving battle in the early days of the Viking raids. Cultures in the Northern World understood the power of reputation, both personal and national, and they cultivated their reputation for being indomitable in battle.

Tactics & Technology

            The Vikings were, at least initially, sea-borne raiders. They developed the ability to construct clinker-built ships, which are ships with hulls made of overlapping planks of wood. This gave their vessels a very shallow draft, meaning they could strike far up-river at towns and cities traditionally safe from invasion. Until the arrival of larger armies of settlers or invaders, they never strayed far from their vessels, and so had a means of quickly departing should enemy forces arrive that they could not defeat. An interesting legacy of this idea is that in 1066, at the battle of Stamford Bridge, the army of Harold Hardrada had left their heavy armour in their ships because of the heat of the day. Even at the end of the Viking age, they still viewed their ships as their primary logistical base of operations. A King cannot keep armies on the banks of every river all the time, and so the Vikings had the raiding advantage; they forced their opponents to react to them, keeping the initiative. This is a principle of martial arts and combat doctrine throughout the ages, and the Vikings were masters at it. If they did choose to fight an enemy force, then they also possessed another advantage. Each man (or sometimes woman) in the raiding party was a warrior by profession, with at least some level of combat experience. They had, after all, volunteered for this. The literature of the time calls them, ‘Spear-Danes’ as a kenning for a warrior. The forces they faced were often local militia or garrison troops, who had far less battle experience, and were not trained combatants. The Vikings thus benefitted from the cumulative effect of survival; the man who survives a battle has learnt a lot more about staying alive than the man who does not.

Chronicles, Battles & Berserkers

            So, the Vikings used raider tactics to spread fear and plunder civilian targets before their enemy could react. However, as I read more of the historical records, one of the greatest surprises was that Viking armies fared neither significantly better nor significantly worse than any other contemporary armed force. In fact, in a pitched battle of equal numbers and equipment, with experienced leaders on both sides, the Vikings lost slightly more than they won. If you were putting money on the fight, as a kind of time-travelling combat bookie, it would be about even-money odds.

            The historical records also reveal other interesting phenomenon. There are many times when their enemies were victorious, when they should not have been. One such example is the Battle of Ethandum, or Eddington as it is sometimes written. Alfred the Great’s triumphant victory over the army of Guthrum reads like a bestseller; an exiled king strikes out from his island refuge, leading a rag-tag band of militia troops, and destroys the army that had occupied his land. Despite overwhelming odds, Alfred broke the Viking army. The question is, why did Guthrum lose? Unfortunately that question is tantalizingly impossible to answer, because we know little of the actual back-and-forth of the battle. The ASC only records that it was a great victory, but it demonstrated that Viking armies could be beaten. Like the legions of the Napoleon or Hitler’s Luftwaffe, the one needful thing for Alfred was to break the myth of invincibility. Alfred showed his nation that, as the famous line goes, ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it’.

            The sources also tell us that Viking forces often avoided pitched battles, withdrawing or making truces when the odds were not in their favour. Viking commanders were every bit as calculating and shrewd as their enemies; they would not give battle where they could not reasonably be assured of a fairly quick victory. It is true that they believed in the warrior’s place in Valhalla, but this shrewdness is attested in the literature; one of the sayings of the Hávamál is, ‘often the better man holds back, where the worse one fights on’. This habit of watchful deliberation runs deeply through the psyche of the Northern World. They were fully aware that, even if it earns some of your warriors a seat in the mead-hall of Valhalla, charging heedlessly into battle is a good way to lose it and waste your soldiers.

            A famous figure from recent fiction is the axe-wielding berserker, carving through enemies in his battle-rage. It is true that this was a powerful figure from mythic poetry and oral storytelling in Scandinavian culture. However, reading through the Icelandic Sagas, the figure of the berserker is not presented in the light we would expect. Instead of fearsome warriors of renown, they appear as thugs and bullies, who many saga-heroes earn favour and respect by slaying. They are not mythological, merely men of great strength with very little in the way of moral courage or brains, suitable only to be killed as outlawed criminals. This motif, which appears in The Saga of Grettir the Strong and Egil’s Saga among others, may be a sign of the distaste felt for heathen warrior-ideals by the 14th century saga authors, but probably represents an accurate contemporary view, at least in part.

            The sources also reveal many occasions where Viking victories were the result of their enemies’ actions. Poor morale, divided leadership and tactical errors all played a part. A famous example is Maldon, where the Viking warriors were probably no better equipped or skilled than their English counterparts. However, it was arguably Lord Byrhtnoth’s decisions, and the poor morale of some of his troops, that gave the Vikings victory. Owing to the greater significance given to traumatic defeats in the chronicles, we may be viewing history through Viking-tinted lenses, as many minor English victories were simply not recorded. The Viking campaign to conquer Wessex in 870-871 is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Although many English losses are recorded, the campaign was unsuccessful, which tells us something in itself; we have records of only a few significant engagements, so as the archaeologists tell us, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. We should not always read history to find what we expect to be there.

Alfred the Great

            As we have seen from the example of Alfred’s victory at Ethandum, the Vikings could be defeated. One of Alfred’s legacies, carried on and perfected by his children and grandchildren, was realising how to beat the Vikings tactically. He did this by analyzing their behavior. We know this from an account of his life by the Welsh monk Asser, who was a close companion of the king for part of his life. Alfred realized that Vikings could strike quickly, motivated by the need for food and plunder, before the slow business of mustering local defence levies could begin. They were highly factional, with armies and warbands often having two, three or four leaders. They could disappear quickly, should a threat emerge, and often did so. This revealed that Viking leaders were often careful, despite their reputation for fearlessness, to avoid losses where possible. Every English fyrd soldier who was killed could be replaced, whereas the Vikings had no way of easily replenishing their losses, or repairing their ships. They had to carry their wounded with them, or leave them behind. Alfred thus had two advantages on his side; time, and the fact that his armies operated on friendly soil.

            Alfred began creating a network of burhs, fortified towns that served as local centres for quickly marshalling soldiers to respond to Viking raids. Many of them survive today; any settlement ending in ‘-burh’ or ‘burg’ may well have been an Anglo-Saxon burh-settlement. These burhs were permanently garrisoned, and could withstand sieges, for which the Vikings, at least in the 9th century, showed little taste. Warships were commissioned, and naval battles became a regular feature of Anglo-Saxon defence, further disrupting the Viking ability to strike unchallenged. Alfred also realized that engaging the Vikings was not always necessary; a better tactic was often to encircle them by sea and by land, and let Viking morale collapse. Under these conditions, violent factional infighting often broke out, and the Vikings, denied the ability to gather food or plunder, were forced to either leave or give battle. In this situation, the Vikings lost their ability to seize the initiative. Alfred and his descendants had found a way to force the Vikings to either make peace or fight, and the fight was on English terms this time. Once on the back foot, the Vikings were not the invincible warriors people thought them to be.

            It should be said here that these tactics were not the pure invention of Alfred. Fortified centres, blockades and naval forces had been used before, but he was the first Anglo-Saxon monarch to implement such a comprehensive and thorough raft of these measures in a way that was integrated and coordinated on a national scale.

When the Battle’s Lost or Won

            The events of 1066, as mentioned above, make a fitting conclusion to this consideration of the Viking warrior. The victory of Duke William the Bastard at Hastings ushered in the medieval period, and saw the death of the Anglo-Saxon way of fighting; likewise, the earlier battle at Stamford Bridge was arguably the swansong of the Viking age and way of warfare. In an age of emerging nation-states, crusades in the Holy Land, armoured cavalry and centralized government, the shield-wall and the raiding longboat became obsolete. It became apparent that no warrior is invincible, and no weapon so preserved that it will not eventually rust.

            However, that the Vikings have lived on in popular imagination as mighty warriors who know no fear is a testament to our enduring need for mythic warriors. The reasons for this need are interesting speculation; perhaps they represent a time of simpler gendered spaces, as the Viking warrior is a masculine archetype (the admiration for the shield-maiden is an interesting addition to this), or an inspiring embodiment of martial valour and courage. They are like a fantasy hero who can overcome nearly every challenge or obstacle by brawn or by cunning, and when they do face death, it is with a smile and a mocking verse. They represent a liberated existence on the margins of society, living against a savage and unforgiving natural landscape of mountains, sea and forest, which is as much an enemy as the armies they fight. Their longship voyages into the unknown represent a spirit of adventure that is largely denied us in the 21st century, as our world is so extensively mapped, documented and known.

            In an age of scientific precision and popular skepticism, we still need to read about Ragnar Lothbrok and Uhtred of Bebbanburg, of Beowulf and Horsa, of Thor and Loki, Alfred and Guthrum; we still need, ‘the greatest warriors ever known’.

Sources & Further Reading

Below are some sources, if you want to read further about the topics mentioned here:

  • The Northmen’s Fury, by Philip Parker
  • The Sea Kingdoms, by Alistair Moffat
  • The Norse Myths, by Dr Tom Birkett
  • Alfred the Great, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge
  • Njal’s Saga, by anonymous
  • Egil’s Saga, by anonymous
  • Grettir’s Saga, by anonymous

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