Viking raid warfare and tactics

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Vikings tried to gain a reputation for their first ever raids and piracy in many parts of Europe, especially England, Ireland, and Frankish territories.[1] The term "Viking age" refers to the period roughly from 793 AD to the late 11th century in Europe. In this era Viking activity started with raids on Christian lands in England and eventually expanded to mainland Europe, including parts of present-day Russia.[2] While maritime battles were rare, Viking bands proved very successful in raiding coastal towns and monasteries due to their efficient warships, and intimidating war tactics, skillful hand-to-hand combat, and fearlessness.[3] What started as Viking raids on small towns transformed into the establishment of important agricultural spaces and commercial trading-hubs across Europe through rudimentary colonization.[3] Vikings' tactics in warfare gave them an enormous advantage in successfully raiding (and later colonizing), despite their small population in comparison to that of their enemies.

Culture of war[edit]

Vikings, according to Clare Downham in Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland, are "people of Scandinavian culture who were active outside Scandinavia... Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Hiberno-Scandinavians, Anglo-Scandinavians, or the inhabitants of any Scandinavian colony who affiliated themselves more strongly with the culture of the coloniser than with that of the indigenous population."[4]

Parts of the tactics and warfare of the Vikings were driven by their cultural belief, themselves rooted in Norse culture and religion, and vividly recalled in the later Icelandic sagas. In the early Viking Age, during the late 8th century and most of the 9th, Vikings consisted of smaller tribal bands with a lack of any clear central authority, governance being rooted in tribal assemblies. Rooted in honour – a vital concept in Nordic pagan tradition – violence was used as a measure to moderate disputes with other tribal groups. This emphasis on violence as a decisive tool regarding disputes was not limited to a man, but extended to his kin.[5] Violence was seen as a measure to defend honor. Honor was extremely important to Norsemen, and the sense of shaming one's honor extended beyond physical and material injuries. Honor could be shamed from mere insults, where Norsemen were expected to react with violence often resulting in death. With this prevalence of violence came the expectation of fearlessness.[6]

Norsemen believed that the time of death for any individual is predetermined, but that nothing else in life is. Considering this, Norsemen believed there to be two possibilities in life: "success with its attendant fame; or death."[7] The necessity of defending honor with violence, the belief that time of death was preordained, adventure and fearlessness were core values to the Viking Age.[8] These principal values and convictions were displayed in the tactics of Viking raids and warfare.

Seeking violence and appealing to their god of war were not the only reasons why the Vikings began to raid in Europe and in the British Isles. The Vikings were also interested in gathering wealth and loot from their raids. This wealth was to be used for political reasons and also to bring back to Scandinavia to impress their Viking tribal bands.[9] This reasoning aligns with the Viking attacks on churches since they contained riches and expensive relics that the Norsemen saw as valuable for trade.


The Vikings preferred to attack coastal regions because these regions were impossible to block off from the enemies' standpoint.[10]

The Vikings from Scandinavia were born into a seafaring culture. With the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Baltic and North Sea bordering the southern borders of Scandinavia, seafaring proved to be the means of communication for Scandinavians.[11]

In Northern Europe at the end of the 8th century, Vikings began raiding coasts of the British Isles across the sea from Scandinavia, particularly monasteries, which carried a great deal of valuable treasures. The first known raid was on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the English coast in 793. This raid was also the first one that made a lasting impact on the British Isles and made the Anglo-Saxons aware of the Viking threat[12]. A primary source from the raid on Lindisfarne states that there "were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air"[13]. These raids continued for the entirety of the Viking Age. These initial raids had a religious implication to them. Vikings would target monasteries along the coast, raid the towns for their booty, and destroy what was left. This caused mass fear amongst such monks, as they felt that it was punishment from God.[14] There is also the complication of a lack of direct written sources about these raids from the Viking perspective. This leads to biased views of the raiders from Christians who were being attacked in their churches and lands [15]. From their point of view, the Vikings were violent and evil heathens.

Viking raids from the late 8th to the early 10th century consisted of "hit-and-run" style raids that would bring riches back to their respective lands. However, due to the technical success of their shipbuilding, they were able to transform such raids into settlements.[clarification needed] Viking ships made it possible to traverse rivers such as the Thames in England, the Volga in Russian territory, and the Loire in Frankish territory. In the years 814-820, Danish Vikings repeatedly sacked the regions of Northwestern France via the Seine River and also repeatedly sacked monasteries in the Bay of Biscay via the Loire River. Eventually, the Vikings settled in these areas and lived off agrarian production. This was mainly due to Rollo, a Viking leader who seized what is now Normandy in 879, and formally in 911 when Charles the Simple of West Francia granted him the Lower Seine.[16] This became a precursor to the Viking expansion that established important trade posts and agrarian settlements deep into Frankish territory, English territory, and much of what is now European Russian territory.[1] The Vikings had taken control of most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by the 870s, which was after the time of the Great Heathen Army that swept the Anglo-Saxon rulers away from power in 865. This army was different from the smaller "hit-and-run" Viking bands in previous years of the 8th century. It was focused on conquering and settling in Anglo-Saxon Britain, being composed of small bands that were already in Britain and Ireland that worked together for a period of time to accomplish their goals. [17]

The Vikings were also able to establish an extended period of economic and political rule of much of Ireland, England, and Scotland during the Norse Ivarr Dynasty that started in the late 9th century and lasted until 1094.[18] In Ireland, coastal fortifications known as longphorts were established in many places after initial raidings, and they developed into trading posts and settlements over time. Quite a few modern towns in Ireland were founded in this way, including Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.


Expansion of Viking settlements in the 9th and 10th centuries was due to exploration of rivers. The ships used by these Norsemen were essential to this exploration and allowed expansion and colonization. The traditional Viking ship is believed to be a Gokstad ship. It was close to 28 meters long and five meters wide. These long narrow ships could accommodate 50–60 seamen who powered the ship by rowing. The ships were built from strong oak, and split with axes so the grain in between the ship's planks meshed together. Pine was also a material that was used to build ships. Typically, in western and northern Norway, Vikings would use pine to build their ships, but it would depend on the areas's resources. [19] There was a relatively short mast that was used for gathering speed rather than steering, which was instead accomplished with a single rudder in the stern. These boats are known to draft close to a meter of water.[20] Viking longships were built with speed and resilience in mind, which allowed Norse builders to craft strong yet elegant ships. [21] This can also relate to early "hit-and-run" Viking raid tactics, which they needed fast ships to execute with. Later adaptations of these long ships were built with a deeper hull for transporting goods, but what they added in hull depth and durability they sacrificed in speed and mobility.

These ships proved to be extremely fast. Their build was not designed for battle at sea, as they would be no match for slower, but more powerful English vessels. However, there is a mention of the Knörr being used as warships in poems written by skalds. Specifically, a poem titled "Vigf II" describes a Knörr being used as a battleship. [22] Due to the low-lying hull, Viking ships could land directly on sandy beaches rather than docking in well-fortified harbors.[11] The low mast, built for speed when the winds were favorable, could often easily pass under bridges erected in rivers.[23] These masts were designed to maneuver under the fortified bridges that Charles the Bald of West Francia created from 848 to 877.[1] These cargo ships were also built to be sturdy and solid, rather than Drakkar warships which were built to be resilient. [24]

Seafaring military strategies[edit]

The fast design of Viking ships was essential to their hit-and-run raids. For instance, in the sacking of Frisia in the early 9th century, Charlemagne mobilized his troops as soon as he heard of the raid, but completely missed the Vikings when he arrived.[25] The Vikings' ships gave them an element of surprise. Often traveling in small packs, or bands, they could easily go undetected, swiftly enter a village or monastery, pillage and collect booty, and leave before reinforcements arrived.[26] Vikings understood the advantages of the long ships' mobility, and used them to a great extent. Viking fleets would often sail past the horizon of a bay they planned to raid as they traveled up a coast from one town to the next. This allowed them to stay out of sight in their small bands. They often lowered the mast on these occasions to avoid detection.[27]

Viking fleets of over a hundred ships did occur, but often these fleets had little to no cohesion, being composed of smaller fleets led by numerous chieftains or different Norse bands. This was most often seen in the Francia raids between 841 and 892. They can be attributed to the fact that it was during this time that the Frankish aristocracy began paying off Vikings and buying mercenaries in return for protection from Viking raids. Thus, there appeared rudimentary structures of Viking armies.[1]

Viking raids often lacked formation. They have been described as "bees swarming."[citation needed] However, what they lacked in formation they made up with brutality. This naturalistic sense of unconventional warfare is rooted in their lack of organized leadership. These small fleets brutally but effectively scared locals and made it difficult for English and Frankish territories to counter these foreign tactics. Sprague compares these tactics to those of contemporary western Special Forces soldiers, who "attack in small units with specific objectives."[28] Later in the 860s, the formation of the Great Heathen Army brought about a more organized type of warfare for the Vikings. Large squads of raiders banded together to attack towns and cities, with fleets comprising hundreds of ships. [29]

While naval Viking battles were not as common as battles on land, they did occur. Viking ships would often try to ram ships in the open sea. They propelled the boats by rowing fast directly at defending ships that were vulnerable and isolated from their fleet. To combat this, defending fleets would raft up with the bows of their boats facing the attacking Vikings. Depending on the size of the defending fleet, the Viking ships allowed them to maneuver their boats by rowing around such ships to flank them. When they got close enough, Vikings would throw spears and use their longbows. Archers would be positioned in the back of the ships protected by a shield wall formation constructed in the front of the ship.[30] If the Vikings were attacked while in the water they would wait until they were in fighting distance, then group together to create one long line of boats, which made it easier to move between boats and made their formation more compact.[10]

Vikings attacked ships, not with the intent to destroy them, but rather to board them and take control. This is because Vikings originally based their battles around economic gains rather than political or territorial gains.[1] Most of these battles took place with other Viking fleets, as they had little to fear from European countries invading the inhospitable regions of Scandinavia. Rather, many naval battles were fought amongst Vikings, "Dane against Norwegian, Swede against Norwegian, Swede against Dane."[31]

If during a seafaring battle a Viking happened to get thrown overboard they were told to put their shield over their head to protect themselves from arrows or other shrapnel that could kill them.[10]

Battle tactics on land[edit]

Sagas of the Viking Age often mention berserkers. These fabled Viking warriors are said to have spiritual magical powers from the god of war Odin[32] that allowed them to become impervious to injuries on the battlefield.[33] While these stories are exaggerated, the term berserks is rooted in truths about Viking warriors who were able to enter an intense, trance-like state whereupon they would "engage in reckless fighting."[3] These warriors were greatly feared by Christians in Frankish and English regions who viewed such men as satanic. The reason for these raids is unknown, but some have suggested that the increase in trade created a growth in piracy.[32]

Viking raiders would anchor their largest warships before storming a beach. "It has been suggested that Sö 352 depicts an anchor and rope...It is perhaps more plausibly an anchor-stone...". [34] However, it was more common practice for Vikings to beach their regular warships on land, where their battle tactics contained elements of surprise. "Vikings were notorious for laying ambushes and using woods to lay in wait for armies approaching along established roads."[1] If confronted by legitimate forces in raids, Vikings would create a wedge formation, with their best men, or berserkers, at the front of this wedge. They would throw spears, and rush this wedge through enemy lines where they could engage in hand-to-hand combat, which was their forte.[1] Some survivors of sea battles were pressed into guarding the ships during land skirmishes.[10]

Viking military tactics succeeded mainly because they disregarded the conventional battlefield tactics, methods, and customs of the time. They ignored the unspoken rules of leaving holy sites untouched, and they never arranged battle times. Deceit, stealth, and ruthlessness were not seen as cowardly.[35] During raids the Vikings targeted religious sites because of their vulnerability,[36] often butchering the clergy at these sites in honor of a Pagan god.[36] These religious sites also contained vast amounts of wealth, which the Vikings saw as opportunities to loot and plunder. This fulfilled their goal during raids to amass great amounts of wealth. Norsemen who sailed back to Scandinavia after raiding brought back their loot as a symbol of pride and power. "The Viking chieftans Sigfrid and Gorm 'sent ships loaded with treasure and captives back to their country' in 882". [37]

Warriors could be as young as 11 years old.[10] Various basic physical tests were required to join the Viking forces, but these tests were considered easy to pass.[10]

Common weapons[edit]

Battle axe[edit]

The battle axe was popular amongst Norsemen in the Viking Age, but its popularity is often misunderstood in modern culture. The battle axe was not seen as a superior weapon to the spear, and historical evidence shows that its use was rather limited. It was commonly used for agricultural purposes, as well as shipbuilding, and eventually adapted for use in Viking raids.[3] Axes varied in size from small handheld broadaxes that could be used both for raids and in farming, to Danish axes that were well over a meter in length.[38] These axes had a wooden shaft, with a large, curved iron blade. They required less swinging power than expected, as the large bladed heads allowed gravity and momentum to do most of the work.[39] The axe had points on each tip of the blade where the curve tapered off. This allowed it to be used to hook an opponent, while also doubling as a thrusting weapon.[40]

The axe was psychologically intimidating to the people of Christian territories the Vikings sacked. King Magnus of Norway inherited his axe from his patron saint father, Olav Haraldsson. He named this axe Hel, the name of the Norse goddess of death. Christians associated this name with the word Hell. The axe of Magnus is still portrayed in the Norwegian coat of arms.[39]


Swords had to be simple yet functional, and there was little to no design on them; however, once one was given a sword, a strong bond[further explanation needed] was formed between the weapon and its owner.[10] It is believed that the sword was about 90 cm long and had a blade of 80 cm and a handle of 10 cm.[41] Almost every sword was double edged, which meant that they could slash in different directions without having to worry about which side was the sharp side.[41]

Viking Age swords were common in battles and raids. They were used as a secondary weapon when fighting had fallen out of formation or their primary weapon was damaged. While there were many variations of swords, the Vikings used double-edged swords, often with blades 90 centimeters long and 15 centimeters wide.[3] These swords were designed for slashing and cutting, rather than thrusting, so the blade was carefully sharpened while the tip was often left relatively dull.[42]

A sword was considered a personal object amongst Vikings. Warriors named their swords, as they felt such objects guarding their lives deserved identities.[43] A sword, depending on the make, was often associated with prestige and value due to the importance of honor in the Viking Age. No real method has been discovered as to how the Vikings made their weapons, but it is believed that individual pieces were welded together.[10] While the Vikings used their own swords in battle, they were interested in the Frankish battle swords because of their acclaimed craftsmanship. [44]

Weapons often served more than one purpose. If two people were in disagreement, one would often challenge his offender to a duel of honor that was supposed to resolve the issue.[10] This challenge would take place either on a small island or marked off area.[10] A square with sides between 9–12 ft would be marked off with an animal hide placed inside the square.[10] Each man was allowed three shields and a shield bearer who carried the shield during battle. The helper could replace or carry shields for the combatant.[10] The person who had been challenged was entitled to the first blow at the shields.[10] The opponent could parry the blow and counter with his own strike; only one strike at a time was allowed.[10] Once all of someone's shields had been destroyed he could continue to defend himself as best he could with a sword.[10] This would continue until someone was injured; if blood fell on the animal hide then that person was required to pay three marks of silver to be set free and have his honor restored.[10]


The most common weapon in the Viking arsenal was the spear. They were inexpensive and effective. The wooden spear handle was between two and three meters long. There were two types of spears; one was made for throwing while the other was generally used for thrusting. The handles of these were the same, but the tips of throwing spears were roughly thirty centimeters while the thrusting spears were close to sixty.[3] Spears were sometimes used as projectile weapons in the occasional naval fight, as well as during raids on shore and in battle. This was in part due to the Norsemen's natural height and build, being much taller and bigger than Frankish and English men at the time. The popularity of the spear came from its inexpensiveness and advantage over the sword due to its reach, making it the most common battlefield weapon all over the world, despite popular belief.[10]

Defensive equipment[edit]

Only the wealthiest Vikings could afford helmets, as they were expensive.[32] The one piece of defensive equipment that every warrior had was a shield.[10] The shield itself was round and not oval shaped which made it easier to carry and move with;[10] however, it left the legs and some of the lower body exposed. Shields were made out of soft wood, unlike any other shields in existence at the time. This was done in order to allow the shield to bend and give a small amount to prevent them from breaking as often. In addition to this, the weapons of their enemies sometimes became stuck in the shield, allowing the Viking an opportunity to kill them. [10] Shields had handholds on the inside and were about 1 m in diameter (about 3 ft).[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Abels (2009).
  2. ^ Sprague (2007), p. 10.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Fasulo (2011), Viking Warfare.
  4. ^ Downham, Clare. Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland the Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic, 2008. Print, p. xv.
  5. ^ Short (2010), pp. 41–42.
  6. ^ Short (2010), pp. 40–44.
  7. ^ Short (2010), p. 42.
  8. ^ Short (2010).
  9. ^ Winroth, Anders (2012). The Conversion of Scandinavia. Yale University Press. p. 24.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Sprague, Martina. Norse Warfare.
  11. ^ a b Fasulo, Viking Shipbuilding
  12. ^ Winroth, Anders (2012). The Conversion of Scandinavia. Yale University Press. p. 24.
  13. ^ Swanton, Michael (1996). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  14. ^ Sprague (2007), pp. 10–11.
  15. ^ J. Ryan, Martin (2013). The Anglo-Saxon World. Yale University Press. p. 237.
  16. ^ Sprague (2007), pp. 13–15.
  17. ^ J. Ryan, Martin (2013). The Anglo-Saxon World. Yale University Press. pp. 233–259.
  18. ^ Taylor et al (2007), p. 39.
  19. ^ Jesch, Judith (2001). Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age. Boydell and Brewer, Boydell Press. pp. 132–133.
  20. ^ DeVries et al. (2012), pp. 291–92.
  21. ^ R. Hale, John (1998). "The Viking Longship". Scientific American. 278 (No. 2): 57. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0298-56. JSTOR 26057665.
  22. ^ Jesch, Judith (2001). Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age. Boydell and Brewer, Boydell Press. p. 130.
  23. ^ Bruun (1997), p. 1286
  24. ^ Jesch, Judith (2001). Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age. Boydell and Brewer, Boydell Press. pp. 140–141.
  25. ^ Winroth (2014), p. 71.
  26. ^ Winroth (2014), pp. 72–73.
  27. ^ Sprague (2007), p. 26.
  28. ^ Sprague (2007), p. 27.
  29. ^ Winroth, Anders (2012). The Conversion of Scandinavia. Yale University Press. p. 29.
  30. ^ Sprague (2007), p. 144.
  31. ^ Sprague (2007), p. 174.
  32. ^ a b c d Wolf, Kirsten. The Daily Life of the Vikings.
  33. ^ Short (2010), p. 55.
  34. ^ Jesch, Judith (2001). Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age. Boydell and Brewer, Boydell Press. p. 169.
  35. ^ Sprague (2007), p. 374.
  36. ^ a b Winroth (2014).
  37. ^ Winroth, Anders (2012). The Conversion of Scandinavia. Yale University Press. p. 38.
  38. ^ Sprague (2007), p. 148.
  39. ^ a b Winroth (2014), p. 26.
  40. ^ Short (2010), p. 50.
  41. ^ a b Martens, Irmelin. Indigenous and imported Viking Age weapons in Norway – a problem with European implications
  42. ^ Sprague (2007), p. 145.
  43. ^ Sprague (2007), pp. 139–140.
  44. ^ Winroth, Anders (2012). The Conversion of Scandinavia. Yale University Press. p. 32.


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