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5 Major Factors That Ended The Viking Age

5 Major Factors That Ended the Viking Age

The internet abounds with a multitude of theories on why the Viking Age began. Why it ended is equally as interesting because it was a pivotal segue into the medieval period so romanticized by 19th Century historians. Scandinavian raiders ruled the seas and rivers of Europe for hundreds of years, yet their maritime hegemony did eventually end, although their seafaring technology would not be bested for another long while. Why did the Viking Age end? What led to the demise of their notorious raids? The following are brief summaries of five of the most impactful themes and events that contributed to the end of the Viking Age. Keep in mind, however, that the end of the Viking Age was the result of a vastly complex interweave of issues and events and therefore this list is neither all-encompassing nor exhaustive.

The Christianization of Scandinavia

Throughout their three-hundred-year-long reign of terror, a less pronounced force gradually chipped away at the Vikings’ roots. Charlemagne’s Christian empire sought to convert the world to their faith through force of arms, but he stopped short of Denmark and died before launching any significant invasions of it. Spared the constraints of a Frankish occupation, Danish rulers started some of the most memorable raids of their day. However, they were not a unified people. Frequent civil wars plagued Jutland in the early 9th Century, and some of the claimants to the throne sought support from their neighbors to help them ascend to power. Harald-Klak, one such claimant from the early 9th Century, allied himself with the Carolingian emperor Louis and even received baptism to show his dedication to the conversion. The Franks, in turn, sent weapons and supplies through the Danevirke to the Danes loyal to Harald. These early conversions for political reasons were not initially considered a serious commitment, but they began a trend wherein they allowed the Christians to start incursions into Scandinavia.

Later conversions were more aggressive. Missionaries in the 10th Century continued to convert Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes en masse. Certain rulers, such as Harald Bluetooth, made Christianity their official religion and instituted laws requiring their subjects to convert. By 1066, the date used by historians to demarcate the end of the Viking Age, a majority of Scandinavia was Christian.

The Peace and Truce of God

In the 11th Century, the Roman Catholic Church felt that the incessant, bloody wars between the various European kingdoms were a bane on their efforts to spread their faith. Violence among Christians was a growing existential problem for them at the time. To abate some of this violence, they instituted two edicts, dubbed The Peace of God and The Truce of God. These edicts banned violence between Christians under threat of excommunication. Both reforms helped to end the Viking Age by formally dissuading an increasingly Christianized Scandinavian population from launching raids on fellow Christians. This did not entirely stop the flow of raiding parties, but they gradually diminished as time passed.

The Feudal System

As the feudal system took hold and spread across Europe, the societal structure which had allowed free men to sail to new lands to raid vanished. Free men became the indentured servants of the new feudal monarchs who depended on their labor to generate income (rather than slaves). Where all men were once required to learn how to fight, they were now dissuaded from doing so. As part of a broad move to consolidate power, the monarchs of Scandinavia instituted reforms to convert their subjects into servants, much as their southern European neighbors had done. Putting together a crew to raid a faraway land became less and less feasible.

The Assimilation of Settlers Into New Societies

The Viking Age saw its twilight when the lands they had once raided were settled and defended by their own kin. This occurred in Britain, Ireland, Russia, and France, among several others. Normandy is a prime example of how the Vikings assimilated into the culture of the people who had previously owned the land they settled. By 1066, the Normans were francophone (old French) and loyal to the French king. They obeyed the commands of the Pope and answered to the local church. They retained some vestiges of their Viking past and, arguably, those cultural traits later contributed to the political climate in England that led to the Magna Carta. But for all intents and purposes, the men who invaded Britain in 1066 were no longer Danes, they were French.

A Final Blow

One Scandinavian monarch defied the tide of history and continued to raid as his forefathers had done. This last Viking, named Harald Hardrada, built a reputation for himself as a formidable warrior and tactician. In 1066 he attacked England as one of the many rival claimants to the English throne. He was killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge by the forces of Harold Godwinson. Thus ended the life of the last infamous Norse raider; thus ended the Viking Age.

Learn more about the Vikings with these great books:

Christophe Adrien

A bestselling​ author of Viking historical fiction for young adults.

This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. I do so love your posts on the Vikings and their countries! This is a subject area that was totally skipped over in my history education in school and I find it very fascinating! Please keep them coming! I appreciate your hard work! 🙂

  2. A good analysis, but incomplete. You fail to mention three of the major reasons for the end of Viking raids.
    First, the development of fortification throughout Europe. At the dawn of the 9th century, when the Viking raids began in earnest, most of the villages, towns, and monasteries in Europe were unwalled. There were no local professional soldiers any closer to the sites of raids than the seat of the local ruler; who maintained a small full-time bodyguard (hearth-troops). The sudden appearance of a ship’s crew of hardened Scandinavian warriors, armed and armored and well experienced at their business were more than any local militia could deal with. By the time the militia (or the local lord’s house troops) arrived the Vikings were long gone; slaves and booty on board their ships.

    But by the 10th century, the Viking’s erstwhile victims had found ways to slow if not stop their depredations. In England, Alfred and his successors were fortifying every town and village (the “burhs”). These burhs made quick “grab-and-dash” raids impossible for small Viking expeditions; and slowed any major invasion; long enough for the king to call out the “fyrd” to flesh out the professional fighting forces of the Ealdermen and his own household. In France and Germany, the same process took hold; along with fortified bridges to deny the Vikings passage up the rivers. Also, the spread castles (motte-and-bailey), garrisoned by small professional bands of cavalry (who would eventually become the feudal knightly-class) allowed quicker response to raids.

    The second factor was the strengthening of the monarchies throughout Europe. In the 9th century, the British Isles were weak and divided. England and Ireland was comprised of small, competing kingdoms; incapable of uniting for long (if at all). On the continent, the empire of Charlemagne had broken into three competing kingdoms; ruled for much of the next century by incapable monarchs.

    But by the 10th century, much of that had changed . England was united by Athelstan into a strong and wealthy realm capable of resisting any large-scale invasion. The same process happened in Ireland (to a lesser extent) as the High Kings and strong local monarchs offered better resistance. Germany had grown powerful under the Ottonians, and in France the Capetians provided better leadership than had the late Carolingians. (Normandy, long the staging area for Viking penetrations into France) had been ceded to Rollo (Rolf Ganger) and his descendants; who, as the Normans, provided a shield against their erstwhile countrymen. When there was a weak monarch, the Vikings could still take advantage (as happened during the reign of Athelred the Unready in England).

    Finally, by the 11th century, the professional warrior class of Europe was as well trained, armored, and equipped as the best Viking armies. No longer were the European kingdoms reliant on a Arrière-ban of peasant militia to defend the realm (though these could still be called up to oppose a major invasion. The knightly class, supported by armored “sergeants-at-arms”, that comprised most castle garrisons were every bit as capable on the battlefield as the fiercest Viking hirthmen. In England, the establishment of a very strong monarchy under Canute, and the attendant establishment of a standing body of professional warriors (the Huscarls) provided the kingdom with an army capable of standing toe-to-toe with the best Scandinavian warriors (as happened at Stamford Bridge in 1066).

    Good article

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, the three factors you mention are at the very core of the end of the Viking Age. I simply listed 5 out of the many, many factors that are thought to have contributed to the end. I appreciate you stopping by my blog 🙂

  3. All those things had an influence, but perhaps the most important was the medieval cold period which brought famine to most of Europe, converted England from wine to beer, brought plague and disease, and hit the northern lands especially hard. Something like 1/4 of the whole population of Europe died, and Viking settlements in Greenland were exterminated. North men at home must also have had such a struggle to survive that there was little energy left for boat building and conquest. The viking age happened during an especially warm time, and ended when it got cold. That’s not a coincidence.

  4. The Viking Era was completely climate induced. The era began gradually during the Medieval Warming and it ended as the world entered the Little Ice Age. The population of Denmark (then consisting of Denmark and Skaane) was 1/2 million at the beginning of the Viking Age and 1/2 million at the end of the Viking Age (which remained so for the next 5 centuries). However, at the height of the Viking Era, and as a result of the Medieval Warming, the population was 1 million. That resulted in severe overpopulation symptoms, one of which was foreign ‘excursions’, which included emigrations, foreign raids, trading tours and explorations of foreign lands.

    Viking raids were more of a survival strategy, than an adventure excursion and Vikings were mostly young and landless peasants, who were seeking to improve their own predicament.

    A raid was a financial investment. The cost of a boat, against what it could bring, in the form of valuables, consumables, slaves, wives and new knowledge. There was a degree of adventure but it was primarily a necessity. It was a choice of poverty at home or the chance of great wealth from over the sea. There was also a risk involved. The boat could be lost at sea or fatal injuries could be incurred.

    The word VIKING comes from the Danish phrase “VIG KONGE” and it is a derogatory name given to young ‘louts’ who sailed away as poor peasants and who returned as wealthy adventurers. Upon returning from their trip, they showered their friends with part of their loot and won admiration from those who had stayed behind. As a result, the village leaders became jealous of them and, mockingly, called the leader KING OF THE BAY or VIG KONGE. Eventually, the name stuck and they all became known as VIKINGS. It is a Danish name, not a Norwegian name. The water inlets in Norway are called FJORD. The water inlet in Denmark is called VIG (bay). Today, people associate Vikings as coming from Norway. In fact, most Vikings came from Denmark, which had, by far, the largest population. That is the reason that Vikings are Danish in origin. At the time, Denmark dominated the whole region and Norway and Sweden were considered wilderness and of little consequence.

    At the end of the Viking Era, the population of Denmark again halved to 1/2 million inhabitants and it remained so til about 1600 AD. The Viking Era merged into the Feudal Era which saw a shortage of labor and no need for young men to risk their lives on sea voyages or to do battle with hostile foreigners. The Vikings were driven to do what they did. The Viking Age was a symptom of the Medieval Warming and it ended as the Little Ice Age cooled the climate and made food production more of a challenge.

    A result of the Viking Era (from the 7th century to the 11th century) was the the ‘corporatising’ of Denmark, from a tribal domain into a Kingdom. Denmark has never (more than a few months) been occupied by foreign powers. It has varied in size and once occupied most of the Baltic region. Unlike most of the European powers, Denmark has, since it began, in the Viking Era (and possibly because of the Viking Era), always been there.

  5. You all just gave an amazing account and great history lesson that should be taught to all. So many questions can be answered just by reading the article and following comments. Thank you so much! Eternal Blessings to all! Valhalla…I am coming…

  6. You wrote:
    “… the men who invaded Britain in 1066 were no longer Danes, they were French.”
    I wonder, is it really apt to call them “French?” Let’s not forget that the Franks were not French, but rather Germanic people. So if it’s decided that the conquering Normans of 1066 were “no longer Danes,” should we not more correctly then say that they were German?
    Or is it the case that a distinct ‘French’ identity had developed by this stage that was clearly distinct from the Frankish (read: Germanic) heritage that aborned it?

    1. You bring up an interesting point. The Carolingian dynasty is one of those contested parts of history that both France and Germany claim as their own. France derives its name from the Franks, and this heritage was long reflected their name and in their currency, le Franc. At the treaty of Verdun (signed in August of 843), the Carolingian empire was split into three parts, one of which corresponded roughly to the future kingdom of France. Hugues Capet took the throne in the 10th century as “Roi des Francs” or “king of the Franks”, and he is considered the first ruler of “France”. By 1066, his dynasty, under the rule of Phillipe I, was, for all intents and purposes, French, who spoke French (an archaic version, of course), and who ruled over a kingdom called “France”. The Normans owed their allegiances to the king of France, and it was recorded as such in the annals of the time.

      Now, in regards to the concept of national identity, there was no such thing at the time. A person from Normandy would not have thought of him/herself as Norman, but as being of the fiefdom or region of their birth. Think of it like if you asked an American where they are from, and they reply “Oregon” instead of the U.S. The concept of national identity as we know it today didn’t firmly take root until the early 1400’s, when Joan of Arc rallied the French to fight back against the English as a unified group. Before her, the various lords in the French kingdom did not think of themselves as French, but rather the rulers of small, independent countries of their own with various alliances with other lords, including the king of France. They understood loosely that they lived in a territory called “France” but it was ill-defined. Joan of Arc convinced them that they all belonged to a larger identity, French, to muster their support in the Fight against England. She more or less created the concept of a divinely ordained nation-state, although she did so unwittingly. In the same way, she helped the English to unify more succinctly under an English national identity. The 100 years’ war was a catalyst for the creation of national identities as we know them today, whereas identity had previously been more regional.

      It’s a very complicated subject, and one which we all, to a certain degree, struggle to understand from our modern lens, which is steeped in national identity and politics that did not exist back then. Therefore, when I write my articles, I tend to explain things in a way that is more relatable to the modern reader rather than get bogged down in a discussion about national identity.

  7. Great stuff from all. Does anyone know much about the Estonian Vikings (Danish origin?), particularly of Saarema Island? They too were an island unto themselves for centuries. Wiki has some good info but wondered if this illustrious group can comment.

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