A thousand years ago, a group of warriors set out by sea and land on a series of voyages that would change the world forever.
During the Viking era, the Scandinavians were by far among the more advanced and worldly of European societies. Vikings were often multilingual; many had travelled the world from Iceland and the Hebrides to Constantinople and even to Jerusalem.
Political historians generally credit the foundation of organized central government as a creation of the Norman Vikings adopted by the Royaume de France, and after 1066 by the Kingdom of England, as well as the Kingdom of Sicily, also a Norman foundation.
The Crusaders were heavily influenced by the Norman/Viking warfaring heritage within the French, English and Sicilian nobilities who set out to make the Holy Land the new frontier of neo-Norman expansion. Harald Hardradi, the King of Norway, fought in the Crusades.
He also claimed the English throne. In 1066, Harald fought Harold Godwinson, the King of England. Harold won, only to have to face William’s army days later at Hastings.
It is a mistake to think that 1066 was a foreign invasion of England. It was barely even a civil war, more a family feud. Fighting for Harald of Norway was Tostig, the brother of Harold Godwinson, King of England. Harold was the brother-in-law of the previous King, Edward the confessor. William the Conqueror was Edward’s cousin.
Family history pops up in crucial places throughout the middle ages. When Brian Boru fought the Irish Vikings at Clontarf for instance, it wasn’t simply Gael against Gall. Viking and Irish troops fought on both sides, and Sitric, the rebellious Dublin King, was Brian’s son-in-law.
The Vikings had an influence far beyond Ireland and England alone. They fought as far south as Jerusalem, and travelled as far west as Newfoundland. Wherever they went, they settled and integrated. The Vikings didn’t stay apart from the Irish. They settled down, founded towns, traded and intermarried. and surnames like McLaughlin and Doyle were added to the Irish genepool.
A few generations after settling in Ireland, the Viking Irish wanderlust led them to settle Iceland. Icelanders even today have obviously Irish names, like Kiartan and Niall. Ol Svennson, an Icelandic historian, found an account of the first monks in Ireland coming from “Sliabh na Leac” to Iceland, and visited Ireland in 1941 to see Sliabh Liag, satisfying himself the area matched the description in the old manuscript.
The Vikings are most famous of course for their sea-faring abilities. Even there though, they weren’t simply fighters. Iceland itself didn’t have much in the way of natural resources when the Viking Irish arrived. What it did have was fertile seas. For a thousand years the first sailors and their ancestors lived off the fish in those waters.
In 1972, Iceland fought a ‘cod War’ against the British. English trawlers were sunk in a territorial row as the Icelanders sought to defend a 200 mile fishing limit around their island. I’d forgotten about this it was mentioned in a news article on the State papers released on New Years Day under the 30 year rule here and in the UK.
The Vikings may be a nation of fishermen nowadays, but they still had a few of the old fighting instincts when their interests were threatened. Their cousins in Norway seem to be of the same opinion, having voted twice in the last 30 years to keep out of the EU because of the damage they saw it doing to their fishing industry. In a week when the Irish Naval Service was ordered to take no action against Spanish trawlers entering the ‘Irish box’, it made for an interesting contrast.