The Vikings were Norsemen, people of the North, who took to the sea to engage in raids and colonize new lands from around AD 780 to 1066. We associate the Vikings with the warrior ethos and pillaging, but what symbolizes the end of the Viking Era?
The defeat of the last great Viking king, Harald Hardrada of Norway, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in AD 1066 marks the end of the Viking Era. Harald conducted the last significant Viking raid on England. By this time, the Vikings were already assimilating into European culture.
This article will discuss the key contributing factors that led to the end of the Viking Era.
How Did the Viking Period End?
The Viking period ended after Anglo-Saxon King Harold II Godwinson defeated the last great Viking king, Harald Hardrada of Norway, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in AD 1066. However, William the Duke of Normandy, a descendant of the Vikings who invaded France, defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings a few weeks later.
Early Viking Period
The Vikings raided and settled the Shetland and Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland in AD 780. Meanwhile, Viking raids on England began in AD 786 with the raid on Portland, Wessex, and ended in AD 1066 with the failed invasion of Harald Hadrada.
The Vikings were Norse pirates who raided the coasts of Europe from the 8th century until the 11th century. They were Nordic peoples from Scandinavia, which now includes Denmark, Sweden, and Norway (source).
In the 9th century, the Vikings conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia, a region the English would subsequently refer to as the Danelaw (source). The Danelaw received its name because of the Danish influence on the region’s laws.
By AD 927, the Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex recovered the Danelaw, but the Northumbrians would attempt to reestablish Norse kings in York, England. Finally, the Anglo-Saxon King Eadred defeated the last Norse King of Northumbria, Erik Bloodaxe, in AD 952.
Meanwhile, the Vikings began converting to Catholicism, the religion of most of Europe. This was the case with the Viking king of York, Guthrum, in AD 878 and Rollo, Duke of Normandy, France, in AD 912 — both accepting baptism.
Viking and Catholic symbolism began to merge, which you can read more about in “Why the Vikings Wore Thor’s Hammer.”
Vikings within Scandinavia itself also began to convert, notably Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, who accepted baptism in AD 960. However, Harald’s son, Sweyn Forkbeard, rebelled against his father in AD 987 and conquered England in AD 1013. Sweyn died the following year, and the Anglo-Saxon kings returned to the throne.
Sweyn’s son Canute then became King of England in 1016, and Danish kings ruled England until AD 1042 when the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor came to the throne. Edward the Confessor had close connections to the dukes of Normandy, and his mother was the daughter of Richard II, Duke of Normandy.
According to Norman accounts, Edward the Confessor designated William of Normandy as his successor. However, later in his reign, Edward appointed the powerful earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, as his heir. Harold was also able to gain the earldom of Northumbria for his brother, Tostig.
Subsequently, Harold Godwinson became estranged from his brother Tostig when he failed to support Tostig during a revolt by the Northumbrians adequately. Instead, Tosting would turn to Harald Hadrada of Norway to help regain his earldom.
Harald Hadrada, the Last Great Viking King
Historians consider Harald III Sigurdsson (1046–1066), nicknamed Hadrada, meaning “Ruthless” or “Hard Ruler,” as the last great Viking king. Harald continued to promote Catholicism, though he contended with the Pope and the archbishop of Bremen to keep the Norwegian church independent (source).
Though nominally Christian, Harald Hadrada had a reputation as forceful, self-willed, courageous, ambitious, and ruthless — qualities we typically associate with the Vikings. At age 15, Harald fought in the Battle of Stiklestad (1030) on behalf of his half-brother, Olaf II Haraldson.
Wounded during the battle in which Olaf II died, Harald fled to the Kievan Rus and married the daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kiev (AD 1019–1054).
Shortly after, he went to Constantinople and became part of the Byzantine Varangian Guard. Then, after campaigning in Sicily and Bulgaria, he returned home to share the throne of Norway with his brother Magnus I Olafson.
Prior to this, Magnus had reached an agreement with Hardecanute, king of Denmark and England and the son of Canute. The deal was that whichever one outlived the other would become the ruler of Norway, Denmark, and England.
Magnus outlived Hardecanute by five years, but the son of Canute had appointed Edward the Confessor as his heir instead in AD 1041. Though Edward the Confessor took England’s throne after Hardecanute, Harald Hadrada believed that right should fall to him as the successor of Magnus.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
When Harold Godwinson became king in AD 1066, Tosting and Harald Hadrada invaded England by sailing up the Humber River in Yorkshire with 300 ships and around 11,000 Vikings. They quickly defeated the earl of Northumbria and occupied the city of York (source).
Once Harold Godwinson learned of the invasion, he marched an army north from London toward York and reached Tadcaster near the end of September 24th. Covering 185 miles in 4 days, Harold caught Tostig and Harald by surprise when he drew up for battle at Stamford Bridge on September 25th, AD 1066.
The sources tell us that Harald’s forces were unprepared, and most had left their armor with the ships at Riccall on the River Ouse. Riccall was south of Stamford Bridge, which crossed the River Derwent.
Oddly, instead of defending Stamford Bridge with his main force, Harald Hadrada withdrew to higher ground and apparently left one Viking to defend the bridge. Meanwhile, he sent a rider to the base camp at Riccall to call for reinforcements.
Once Harold Godwinson’s forces made it past the bridge, they headed for the Viking shield wall. According to tradition, an arrow from an Anglo-Saxon archer killed Harald Hadrada when it struck him in the throat.
The two sides briefly tried to reach a settlement before the fighting renewed, resulting in the death of Tostig. When the reinforcements from Riccall arrived, their leader, Eystein Orri, died in the fighting.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, there were so few survivors that the Vikings required only 24 of the original 300 Viking ships to carry them home (source). Thus ended the last great Viking raid.
When Did the Viking Era End?
Historians typically date the end of the Viking Era to 1066 with the defeat of Harald Hadrada. However, there were still minor raids after William of Normandy became king since Danish king Sweyn II continued to lay claim on England.
A few weeks after his victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, King Harold suffered defeat at the hands of William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th, AD 1066. As Duke of Normandy, William was a descendant of the Vikings who settled in Northern France under Rollo.
However, the Normans had become so culturally assimilated by that time that we do not consider William a Viking. Additionally, the Normans would rule England until AD 1154, when the Angevin Dynasty came to power (source).
Meanwhile, Normans had also become dukes of Apulia and Calabria in Southern Italy and counts of Sicily before Roger II combined both realms into the Kingdom of Sicily by AD 1127.
Normans also participated in the First Crusade. Among the Norman crusaders were Robert II, Duke of Normandy and son of William the Conqueror, and Bohemond of Otranto, Italy.
Gradually, the Scandinavians lost much of the overseas territory they had gained, such as the Scottish Islands. In AD 1263, King Haakon IV of Norway fought what some call the last Viking battle against the Scottish king Alexander III over Norwegian possessions in the Hebrides (source).
However, the Battle of Largs was really a series of skirmishes with the Scots driving the Norwegians back to their ships. Haakon IV died shortly after, and his successor abandoned Norwegian claims in the Hebrides (source).
What Caused the Vikings to Disappear?
The Vikings as a people didn’t really disappear. Instead, they adopted European culture in France, England, Southern Italy, and Sicily. In Scandinavia, Norse rulers consolidated their authority, gained control over piracy, and imposed Roman Catholicism on their subjects. In Russia, the Kievan Rus adopted much of Byzantine culture.
The Frankish King Charlemagne and his successors sought to convert the Scandinavians to Catholicism, initially by force. Often, Scandinavian kings would adopt the same policy.
Harald Bluetooth of Denmark accepted Roman Catholicism in AD 960 and sought to convert his people to the new faith.
Haakon the Good and Harald Bluetooth helped bring Catholic influence to Norway, but Olaf I Tryggvason made the first major push to convert the Norwegians. Like Charlemagne with the Sa
Climate change also affected Viking settlements in Greenland, where they established the walrus ivory trade. Possibly due to a shift to a colder climate and competing markets for ivory, the settlements declined in the 14th century until settlers finally abandoned them in the 15th (source).
Adoption of Catholicism
The Frankish King Charlemagne and his successors sought to convert the Scandinavians to Catholicism, initially by force. Often, Scandinavian kings would adopt the same policy. Harald Bluetooth of Denmark accepted Roman Catholicism in AD 960 and sought to convert his people to the new faith.
Haakon the Good and Harald Bluetooth helped bring Catholic influence to Norway, but it was Olaf I Tryggvason that made the first major push to convert the Norwegians. Like Charlemagne with the Saxons, Olaf attempted to convert those who resisted by the edge of the sword.
Sweden was the last of the Norse kingdoms to convert. Olof Skötkonung made the first efforts to impose Catholicism, while Inge the Elder destroyed the Viking temple at Uppsala dedicated to Thor, Odin, and Freyr around AD 1080.
Missionaries founded the first diocese in Sweden during the reign of King Stenkil (AD 1060-1061), but it was during the reign of King Sverker (AD 1130-1156) that their efforts met with real success (source).
The Swedish King Sverker imported French monks and set up Catholic bishoprics before he was murdered in AD 1156. Subsequently, Uppsala became an archdiocese in AD 1164.
A key factor in the end of the Viking raids was the development of strong, centralized kingdoms. Gradually, the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden emerged. As the Scandinavian lands stabilized, Norse kings reigned in the roaming bands of warriors (source).
Similarly, the emergence of the strong feudal kingdoms of France and England helped stem the tide of further Viking raids. For instance, Alfred the Great of Wessex, England, developed a strong coastal defense system to help fight off pirates.
The Early Middle Ages
The Early Middle Ages or Migration Period from AD 476 to 1000 saw the migration of various Germanic tribes. The Vikings were among the latest in this series of migrations in Europe. This instability of this period has also earned it the designation of the Dark Ages.
However, learned monks helped preserve scholarship throughout this tumultuous time, and great kings like Charlemagne of the Franks and Alfred the Great of the Anglo-Saxons encouraged scholarship at their courts (source).
The end of the Viking Period marks the end of the Early Middle Ages and the beginning of the Central or High Middle Ages, beginning around AD 1000 or 1100. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
The trade links established by the Vikings ultimately aided the flow of goods and ideas, contributing to the urban growth, economic expansion, and scholarship that characterized the High Middle Ages (source).
Harald Hardrada’s loss at Stamford Bridge in AD 1066 marks the end of the Viking Era. The emergence of the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden helped curtail the sort of piratical raids we know the Vikings for.
The Scandinavians assimilated into European culture and gradually lost control of the territorial gain of the Viking Age, such as the Scottish Islands and Greenland.