The Vikings are known as great warriors. This reputation is based on what we know about their weapons and battle tactics - as Barry Ager explains.
The Vikings were daring masters of the sea. Their swift wooden longships, equipped with both sails and oars, enabled them to mount piratical raids on the coastal monasteries and settlements of the British Isles, western Europe and beyond. The shallow draught of these ships meant that they were able to reach far inland by river and stream, striking and moving on before local forces could muster.
'Fearsome figureheads would be raised at stem and stern as a sign of warlike intent ...'
Well preserved remains of Viking ships, like those found at Oseberg and Gokstad in Norway and Skuldelev in Denmark, show they were clinker-built of overlapping planks and measured between about 17.5m and 36m in length. They were steered not by a rudder, but by a single oar mounted on the starboard side. A few late examples are said to have had iron-clad bows and sterns. An average speed of 10 to 11 knots could have been achieved, or perhaps rather more in short bursts. Crews of 25 to 60 men would have been common, seated on benches on open decks, although the largest ships could have carried as many as 100 or more. Packhorses and provisions would also be included if needed.
Fearsome figureheads would be raised at stem and stern as a sign of warlike intent, underlined by rows of shields mounted along the sides for defence or show. These could be removed while at sea. Raids in single ships were quite frequent and, before around 850, fleets rarely comprised more than 100 ships. Much larger fleets of 200 and upwards were recorded later, but it is difficult to know how accurate the reports were.
Actual sea-battles were rare, and even then were fought close to shore. Ships were roped together in lines to face an enemy fleet and showers of arrows and missiles would have been exchanged. Each side then resorted to hand-to-hand fighting as they attempted to board their opponents' ships. The warriors in the prow were specially selected for this task. The aim was not to destroy enemy craft, but to capture them if possible, as they represented a considerable investment in time, resources and labour.
Forts and forays
Before the end of the 11th century the Vikings fought mainly on foot. Their horses were small and they had no real cavalry. Documentary sources do report horses occasionally being used by Viking leaders in battle, but more usually they served as a rapid means of transport to the battlefield, where their riders dismounted to fight.
Types of military engagement might range from small-scale family feuds or gang-raids to full-scale pitched battles. At the battle of Stiklestad in Norway, St Olaf and his army of some 3,600 warriors were defeated by a much larger force in 1030, and at Ashingdon, in Essex, the Danish king Cnut routed King Edmund in 1016. The largest armies may have consisted of 4,000 to 7,000 men. But they would generally have dispersed after a campaign and either returned to their lives as farmers, merchants or craftsmen, or joined up with other war-bands.
According to sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings on campaign abroad sometimes constructed temporary winter camps. Only one English example has yet been identified, at Repton in Derbyshire. There the Danish Great Army, which had landed in East Anglia in 865, took shelter over the winter of 873-4.
But in Scandinavia itself we find the remains of ringforts constructed in the late tenth century, such as at Fyrkat, Trelleborg and, the largest, at Aggersborg, in Denmark. They were precisely planned to a similar design and their diameters range from around 120 to 240m. It is estimated that the buildings they once enclosed could have housed between 6,000 to 9,000 inhabitants. It was formerly thought that they were barracks prepared for an attack on England. But their date suggests rather that they were royal defensive and administrative centres, possibly built by Harald Bluetooth to unify the country at a time of conflict with the German Empire. They appear to have lasted for only 30 years or so.
Laws of the late Viking period show that all free men were expected to own weapons, and magnates were expected to provide them for their men. The main offensive weapons were the spear, sword and battle-axe, although bows and arrows and other missiles were also used. Weapons were carried not just for battle, but also as symbols of their owners' status and wealth. They were therefore often finely decorated with inlays, twisted wire and other adornments in silver, copper and bronze.
'Weapons were not just for battle, but also symbols of their owners' status and wealth.'
The spear was the commonest weapon with an iron blade on a wooden shaft, often of ash and 2 to 3m in length. It was used for both thrusting and throwing. The blades varied in shape from broad leaf shapes to long spikes. Skilled spearsmen are said to have been able to throw two spears at once using both hands, or even to catch a spear in flight and hurl it back with deadly effect.
Swords were very costly to make, and a sign of high status. The blades were usually double-edged and up to 90cm, or a little over, in length, but early single-edged sabres are also known. They were worn in leather-bound wooden scabbards. Early blades were pattern-welded, a technique in which strips of wrought iron and mild steel were twisted and forged together, with the addition of a hardened edge. Later blades of homogeneous steel, imported probably from the Rhineland, bore inlaid makers' marks and inscriptions, such as INGELRII or ULFBERHT. Viking craftsmen often added their own elaborately decorated hilts, and many swords were given names, such as Leg-biter and Gold-hilt.
Long-handled battle-axes might be used instead of swords, particularly in open combat. The famed, double-handed broad axe is a late development, typical of the late 10th and 11th centuries. But as the owner could not hold a shield at the same time, he would take cover behind the front line of warriors, rushing out at the right moment to hew down the enemy.
For defence, circular shields up to one metre across were carried. They were made of wooden boards and had a central hole for an iron hand-grip, which was riveted to the back of the boards. A domed iron boss was fitted over the hole to protect the hand. Viking shields were probably leather covered, with a rim binding also of leather, or metal in some cases. The Viking sagas - mostly composed in Iceland in the 13th century - show that they could have been painted with simple patterns, as in the case of those found in the Gokstad ship, or even possibly with mythological scenes and heroes. Around 1000, the continental, kite-shaped shield was introduced, which gave more protection for the legs.
'Reindeer hide is said to have been used as armour ...'
The sagas also mention 'byrnies' - long tunics of mail armour reaching below the waist - but surviving examples are rare. The mail consisted of interlocking rings with overlapping ends, formed by coiling an iron wire around a rod and then snipping it along the length of the rod. It took many hours to produce a mail shirt, making it very expensive, so they were probably worn mainly by the leaders. It was essential to wear thick padding underneath to absorb the force of sword blows or arrow strikes. Reindeer hide is said to have been used as armour, too, and was reputedly more effective even than mail. Plate armour was not employed, but scale or lamellar armour may occasionally have been obtained from the East, as pieces have been found at the site of Birka, in Sweden.
Helmets were likewise probably worn only by the leading men, although the horned helmet is a modern myth! Helmets required considerable skill to produce: an example of the tenth century from a man's grave at Gjermundbu, Norway, has a spectacles-like visor, an iron dome consisting of four sections with a spike on the crown, and possibly a mail neck-guard. Caps of hide may have been commonly worn, but have not survived.
Battles and tactics
The Vikings had no professional standing army, and tactics and discipline seem to have been fairly rudimentary. They did not fight in regular formations, although the bonds of loyalty between men and their lords would have given their armies some cohesion. Weapons training began in youth in hunting, sports and raiding. Aspiring warriors sought armed service in the retinues of the famous, for which they hoped to be rewarded with weapons and fame of their own. A leader therefore needed to wage war frequently in order to keep his following and maintain power against rivals.
'The famous "berserks" ...would work themselves into a battle frenzy so intense it is said ...they could even ignore the pain of wounds.'
In preparation for battle the younger warriors would draw up in line, with their shields overlapping in a 'shield-wall' for better protection; their chiefs were well defended by a close bodyguard. The older veterans formed up in support behind them. Battle then began by throwing a spear over the enemy line to dedicate them to Odin, it is said, and this was followed by a shower of spears, arrows and other missiles.
If this was not enough to decide the outcome, each side then attempted to break through and rout the opposition, capturing or killing their leaders if possible. The experienced commander knew that the best way to achieve this was by forming a wedge of 20 to 30 warriors, with its point towards the enemy line in what was known as the svinfylking, or 'boar formation', and then charge, hoping to break through by sheer weight of numbers.
The famous 'berserks', whose name suggests they wore bearskins, may have fought in groups, and believed that Odin, the god of war, gave them both protection and superhuman powers so they had no need of armour. They would work themselves into a battle frenzy so intense it is said they bit on the edges of their shields, and could even ignore the pain of wounds.
Find out more
The Viking Achievement by PG Foote and DM Wilson, (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980)
Viking Hersir, 793-1066 AD by M Harrison (Osprey, 1993)
The Viking Art of War by P Griffith (Greenhill Books, 1995)
Viking Weapons and Warfare by JK Siddom (Tempus, 2000)
Nova Online: The Vikings. Build a Viking village, write your name in runes and discover the secret of Norse ships.
Compass. Take a tour of some of the British Museum's best artefacts on the web.
The Smithsonian Institution's Vikings Exhibit. Commemorating the 1,000-year anniversary of Leif Eriksson's arrival in North America.
Places to visit
The British Museum. Important collections of Viking material, as well as displays relating to religions and beliefs from all over the world.
Bede's World. Provides a fascinating insight into Christian life in Anglo-Saxon England just before the Viking Age.
Jorvik Centre. Explores many aspects of daily life in Viking York in the tenth century.
About the author
Barry Ager is curator of the Continental Early Medieval Collections at the British Museum, and has special research interests in the cultural contacts and weaponry of the early medieval period. He has published a number of articles on these topics, including, together with Janet Lang, Swords of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods in the British Museum: a radiographic study', in Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England edited by SC Hawkes (Oxford, 1989).