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The success of Viking combat techniques
Christena Hurley

During the ninth century in western Europe, the sight of a boat approaching from the river would be a terrifying scene for the local inhabitants, for people knew it was a band of Viking raiders who approached. Starting in the late eighth century, successful Viking raids became a common occurrence in western Europe and later actual battles were fought. Modern scholars have debated over the reasons for the Vikings' many victories, mainly focussing on the timing of the raids and occasionally the weapons. However, the success was based on far more than this. The Vikings owe their success in raiding and battles not only to their weapons and techniques but also to their cultural background. These main aspects in combination made the Vikings a force to be reckoned with in the early medieval times.

The name Viking is applied to the people who appeared in western Europe at the end of the eighth century on raiding expeditions; eventually this name encompassed not only the raiders themselves, but all the people in their homelands. The Vikings were also called the Norse and they were the inhabitants of Scandinavia which included the countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The early Vikings were a pagan people that were later converted to Christianity based on their contact with Christian Europe. As already stated the early contact with Europe was in the form of raids.1 The goal of these raids was to seize as much wealth as possible from the local people and leave quickly. It was only later, when the population of Scandinavia surpassed the land's carrying capacity, did battles take place for the possession of land.2 These battles with few exceptions were a resounding success.

The first appearance of the Vikings and consequently the first raid, took place in England in 793 CE, when a band of Vikings attacked the monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria.3 This pivotal event was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written by the Anglo-Saxon monks. In the entry for the year 793 CE taken from the Laud version of the chronicle it states,

793. In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightening, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January (June), the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.4

By raiding a monastery, the Vikings ensured that there would be transportable wealth available to them with minimal defences to overcome. The isolated location of Lindisfarne with its easy access by sea, made it a prime location for a Viking raid. The Anglo-Saxons, unsurprisingly, were outraged at the desecration of a monastery, however, it is probable that some of the outrage stemmed from the lack of foresight to prepare for an event such as this; the monks were left completely defenceless. This guaranteed the success of the Norse raid.

Viking success however, was not completely dependant on the passiveness of the targets. It was the culture of the Norse, that made them such competent raiders. The culture of the Scandinavians was deeply rooted in combat. This adds another dimension to the raids, they were ways to gain not only wealth but glory and higher social status in the eyes of their peers. 5 The warrior lifestyle of the Norse appears not only in the literature but on their skeletal remains as well. Though their skeletons show a high standard of living, they also show the dangers of the lifestyle; male skeletal remains show these dangers in the form of healed wounds, that were severe enough to leave marks on bone. Osteo-arthritis was also evident on the bones and is caused by intense physical strain, though there are other factors that can cause this, the use of iron weapons and the repeated movements of combat would exacerbate the symptoms leaving more evidence on the bones.6

The Skaldic poetry of the Scandinavians themselves is another source that attests to the warrior lifestyle of the Norse. The Lidsmannaflokkr poem about the campaigns of Knutr and Þorkell in England illustrates fighting techniques of the Vikings and the reputation they had in western Europe. The first verse of this poem talks about Vikings using their spears on the enemy and the enemy, in this case the English, fleeing from their swords.7 Several verses later, the fearlessness of the Norse in battle is attested when the men of Þorkell, engage the enemy oblivious to the sounds of the swords and 'showers of weapons' and later how the 'remorseless man' could overcome the stronghold of the English.8 In this poem the Viking are successful and take London from the Anglo-Saxons The point of this poem is to epitomize the greatness and glory of the Norse warrior and the fact that it was written at all shows the prominence of battle in the Viking culture. The Lidsmannaflokkr poem provides contrast to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, while the Anglo-Saxons monks are writing about the ascension of kings and bishops with short descriptions of battles and raids, the Vikings are composing elaborate poems of their battles and subsequent victories. The cultural focus of the two groups is clearly depicted.

The Norse were not the only ones commenting of their warring lifestyle, many of their targets relayed this information as well. There is an Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon, in which the Anglo-Saxon author mentions the Norse's notoriety for cruelty and great ability to kill men on the battlefield.9 Though the Anglo-Saxon author did not appear to realize it, these fighting skills were what set the Norse apart as warriors. The very essence of the Viking way of life was meant for men whose personality was suited to nothing but combat and death.10

Most of the Viking men were warriors or raiders by profession, while most of the Anglo-Saxons were not. These warriors had the ability to fight in long campaigns with many battles to achieve their goals; this was not a common happening for the Anglo-Saxons where small battles were the norm.11 The Vikings of the later period were described in the Jomsvikinga Saga as a "highly trained army of professional soldiers whose purpose was not to colonize but spend their lives fighting."12 This professional army cleared the way for the Scandinavians who needed more land and resources. It has been determined by many scholars that a Viking 'army' actually consisted of only several hundred men, it should be noted however, that several scholars believe this number to be underestimated.13 The historical literature of the time is unreliable for accurate numbers of Vikings, as most works claim that thousands of Vikings were either involved in the battle or died in battle. Often the most exaggerated claims come from sources on continental Europe, where numbers reached 40,000 Vikings for a single attack on Paris.14 If this number was accurate, nearly the entire population of the Scandinavia would have been present for the attack.

The fighting lifestyle of the Norse made them well prepared and skilled in battle. The Vikings entered battles well armed as well as protected. The remains of helmets and chain mail have been uncovered in burials in Norway, the Gjermundbu burial of the tenth century contained a particularly well preserved helmet and chain mail shirt.15 The Lidsmannaflokkr poem makes references to chain mail and helmets, saying that they were worn when they Vikings engaged the Anglo-Saxons in battle.16 There are also sources from Francia, describing the body armour of the Norse invaders. They are described as wearing iron and brass body armour with a helmet as protection for the head.17 Though chain mail and helmets were used and referred to the Skaldic poetry and historical accounts, it is believed by scholars that leather jerkins and leather caps were the common outfit of the average raider. They were common as they afforded some protection and allowed for a large range of motion.18 This would allow the Vikings full access to their fighting skills.

As for actual weapons, swords were favoured but daggers and spears were also present. The swords used by the Vikings were pattern welded, meaning that pieces of iron were folded together and forged to form the core of the sword. Once the core was formed, strips of steel were welded along the edge to provide a sharp cutting surface.19 There is an account from ca 943-944 CE by an Arabic writer, Ibn Miskawayh, who describes the Norse he encountered. He states "they fight with spear and shield, they gird themselves with a sword and carry a battle-axe and a dagger-like weapon."20 The Vikings as it can be seen were well prepared for any opponent they might encounter. The swords of the Vikings were undoubtable of the pattern welded manufacturing technique. The Vikings used the good quality pattern-welded swords, these held an edge as well as being strong enough to deliver and withstand repeated blows; many of their spears were also of this manufacture. The swords were usually double edged and approximately 5-6cm wide with a length close to 1m in length. This allowed them to inflict a great deal of damage to the opponent when wielded by a skilled warrior.21 There are implications from the sources that every Viking whether in a raid or in battle carried a sword.

The ways of the Vikings are in contrast to those of the Anglo-Saxons. Though they did indeed use a double edged sword that is believed that they were pattern-welded, it is not known whether every member of the army possessed one. 22 Considering the expense of a sword, the men drafted into the Anglo-Saxon armies probably used whatever weapons available at the time. References are even made to the English wearing mail coats in the Lidsmannaflokkr poem.23 Again, in all likelihood, this armour, which was expensive, was not worn by all soldiers in the defending army as many of the soldiers were not professionals. Even when using similar weapons and armour, the Vikings were often victorious over the Anglo-Saxons for reasons that stem from the abilities of the individual fighter; weapons and armour cannot grant the user skills not possessed prior.

The tactics used by the Norse played a large part in their success. The most common of these tactics were in and out raids, that gave the local inhabitants little time to retaliate, as the example of Lindisfarne shows. 24 The fighting techniques of the Vikings are also described by Ibn Miskawayh, he states "they fight as foot soldiers, particularly those who come by ship."25 Fighting on foot would allow the Vikings a large degree of manoeuvrable on unfamiliar terrain. The Lidsmannaflokkr poem, with its rich details, speaks of the Norse engaging battle with the English and the warband falling into battle formation. 26 Unfortunately, exactly how this formation functioned is unknown. What can be concluded, was that it was successful as the Vikings won the battle.

Another tactical advantage the Vikings had was being the aggressors in their conflicts allowing for added advantage of being well prepared and bringing skilled warriors. The defenders in many cases where unprepared and had to use whatever manpower they could muster, generally farmers and craftspeople. Vikings used surprise attacks whenever possible. There was a case of a reeve in Dorset, going out to meet the new 'merchants' who were arriving from down river. 27 Clearly, the people in this attack were not prepared to defend themselves and the heavily armed Vikings had an easy victory.

The Battle of Maldon poem illustrates the idea of non soldiers being used as a defending army. This short poem is about the Battle of Maldon, fought between the Anglo-Saxons of Essex and Danish Vikings. The Anglo-Saxons lose this battle and their leader, Byrhtnoth, is killed. The poem makes references to specific Anglo-Saxon warriors being sent to various points on the battlefield to confront the Norse, while the rest of the army stand in front of the stronghold in case any of the Vikings break through the ranks of the trained warriors.28 There seems to be an implication that the rest of the army are not warriors by profession and are being lead by a small group of men who are skilled. This puts them at a serious disadvantage to the Danes, who are all trained in combat. This indeed seems to be the case, as another scholar has mentioned that the Anglo-Saxon defences were composed of foot soldiers with little skill that were prone to disorganized charges against an enemy.29

The Vikings for the most part picked strategic times to attack. With the ascension of King Ethelred and religious unrest in the tenth century, the Vikings saw an opportunity to gain more wealth and territory as the transition between kings occurred. The successful attacks that followed were led by Olaf Tryggvason and Svein of Denmark. 30 The Battle of Maldon is an example of one of these attacks. Interestingly enough, the Anglo-Saxons did not attribute a lack of preparedness to the defeat; many of the Anglo-Saxons, particularly those who were extremely pious, blamed the defeat on the lack of piety in England.31

As the ninth century progressed, the Viking employed a new tactic. Prior to this time, it was customary for Viking to concentrate their efforts in a particular area for years at a time, with a winter base nearby that as easily defended. 32 Once land in Scandinavia became scarce, the new tactic was employed. This tactic saw the Vikings moving to a new location every fall in a new kingdom and establishing a base camp in or around a fortified Anglo-Saxon administrative centre. This tactic was only used temporarily by Vikings campaigning on the continent. 33 As already stated the army is clearing the way for the settlers from Scandinavia. Much of the land the Scandinavia settlers were occupying were once lands owned by the Church and controlled by the local monastery. However, after a century of raiding, the controlling monasteries were destroyed and the land was separated from the Church.34 This allowed the Scandinavians to settle with relative ease in these areas. The movement of the people helped easy the strain on the resources of Scandinavia.

Clearly, the Vikings had many advantages against their opponents. One of the main reasons for their great success in their raids and battles was their cultural background; theirs was a cultural deeply rooted in ways of combat and the warrior lifestyle. In conjunction with their heritage, the Vikings used quality weapons and ensured their men were well armed. The fighting techniques employed allowed for minimal effort in most cases by Vikings. The combination of their cultural background, weapons and tactics provided the Norse with a immense advantage that few opponents had the ability to overcome.

1. Kirkby 1977, 9-11.(back)
2. Musset 1992, 88.(back)
3. Garmonsway 1962, 56-57.(back)
4. Garmonsway 1962, 55-57.(back)
5. Musset 1992, 88.(back)
6. Sellevold and Hagland 1992, 116.(back)
7. Poole 1991, 86.(back)
8. Poole 1991, 87-88.(back)
9. Crossley-Holland 1965, 30.(back)
10. Kirkby 1977, 68.(back)
11. John 1977, 175.(back)
12. John 1977, 175.(back)
13. Brooks 1979, 2.(back)
14. Brooks 1979, 4-5.(back)
15. Lehtosalo-Hilander 1992, 194.(back)
16. Poole 1991, 89.(back)
17. Hudson 2005, 100.(back)
18. Lehtosalo-Hilander 1992, 195.(back)
19. Walton 1995, 995.(back)
20. Lehtosalo-Hilander 1992, 194.(back)
21. Lehtosalo-Hilander 1992, 195.(back)
22. Walton 1995, 990.(back)
23. Poole 1991, 89.(back)
24. Garmonsway 1962, 55-57.(back)
25. Lehtosalo-Hilander 1992, 194.(back)
26. Poole 1991, 87.(back)
27. Kirkby 1977, 58.(back)
28. Crossley-Holland 1965, 29-35; Walton 1995, 995.(back)
29. Hollister 1962, 128.(back)
30. John 1977, 173.(back)
31. John 1977, 176.(back)
32. Brooks 1979, 9.(back)
33. Brooks 1979, 9-11.(back)
34. Fleming 1985, 250.(back)

Michael Hasloch Kirkby. The Vikings, (Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1977)
Lucien Musset, " The Scandinavians and the Western European Continen,." From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, ed. by Else Roesdahl and David M. Wilson, (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1992)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. by G. N. Garmonsway (New York: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1962)
Berit Jansen Sellevold and Jan Ragnar Hagland, " People and Language,"From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, ed. by Else Roesdahl and David M. Wilson (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1992)
R.G. Poole, Viking Poems on War and Peace: A Study in Skaldic Narrative, (Toronto: Univesity of Toronto Press, 1991)
The Battle of Maldon and Other Old English Poems, trans. by Kevin Crossley-Holland, ed. by Bruce Mitchell (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965)
Eric John, "War and Society in the Tenth Century: The Maldon Campaign." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 27 (1977)
N. P. Brooks, " England in the Ninth Century: The Crucible of Defeat," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 29 (1979)
Pirko-Liisa Lehtosalo-Hilander, "Weapons and Their Use,"From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, ed. by Else Roesdahl and David M. Wilson, (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1992)
Benjamin Hudson, Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion and the Empire in the North Atlantic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Steven Walton, "Words of Technological Virtue: 'The Battle of Brunanburh' and Anglo-Saxon Sword Manufacture," Technology and Culture 36 (1995)
Robin Fleming, "Monastic Lands and England's Defence in the Viking Age," The English Historical Review 100 (1985)
C. Warren Hollister, Angle-Saxon Military Institutions: On the Eve of the Norman Conquest, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1962)
      Updated: 4 Dec, 2007
Text © Christena Hurley, 2007
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