Famous Danish Vikings

Those famous Danish Vikings

The world has long been fascinated by what seems like a pantheon of famous Danish Vikings and the near-mythic lore that infuses their history.

Interpreted by popular historical fiction and gritty on-screen narratives, we envision tall muscular blondes, a bit dirty and scuffed up, but not enough to ruin their natural Nordic beauty. These rugged warriors wield really cool weapons and pithy words with which to vanquish the enemy.

These romanticized versions are fun, and they illustrate our collective infatuation with the Vikings and the time they inhabited.

But as much as we may think we know about the famous Danish Vikings, there is much that eludes our understanding. Vikings relied primarily on oral history, so written accounts came from outsiders who met them under unfavorable conditions.

Still, their legacy and how they transformed their world is evident even today.

What is a Viking?

The Viking era ran from 793 AD — 1066 AD. Etymology of the word Viking is not agreed upon.

One theory suggests that ‘Viking’ derives from the word vik which means ‘small creek’ or ‘body of water’ in Old Norse. This may be plausible if the Vikings were using this word to describe themselves, but those we consider Vikings were generally known as Norse or Norsemen during the era in which they lived.

It isn’t until late in the Viking era, that references to ‘the Viking’ are used to describe individual people.

Another origin theory has been attributed to the Anglo-Saxon word wicing, a term for pirate or raider. This seems plausible to have been initiated by the people under siege. The first accounts of Viking raids were written by Christian monks who had personally endured the pillaging and violence.

Germans referred to these Danish warriors as “ashman” either due to the darkened wood of their boats or as a derogatory term. The Irish called them “dark and fair foreigners” or pagans. They were simply “Danes” or heathens to the Anglo-Saxons.

Viking was not a race nor ethnicity, but more of a shared cultural and geographical inclusivity. Viking culture was not homogeneous. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway had regional variations.

The Norwegian Vikings are considered to have been amazing boat builders and seafaring people, so it is no surprise that early explorers to Greenland and North America came from that region of Scandinavia.

Swedish Vikings may have been primarily interested in establishing successful trade routes to the Middle Eastern regions.

Famous Danish Vikings
Credit: julochka

Danish Vikings: the ‘original’

Historians generally agree that famous Danish Vikings were central to the Viking era, and the most of what is associated with Vikings comes from the Danish version of Viking culture.

Danes were the most politically organized and also the most consistently active in leading and carrying procurement raids and the later conquest of new lands.

As they became successfully established in their hit and run raiding conquests, the Danish military power continued to grow. Expansionist exploits continued, and their military strength remained largely undefeated.

England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Greenland were under the reign of famous Danish Viking kings at one point or another.

The Viking era begins

The start of the Viking era is marked by the successful Norsemen raid on the Lindisfarne monastery off the coast of Northumberland in northeastern England in 793AD. The attacking forces were led by the Danish with full intention to relieve the Christian monks of all earthly treasures.

Unlike other attackers who typically left Church premises unharmed, the Vikings held no regard for Christian religious institutions, as was noted in written accounts of the attacks. The treasures found within monasteries and churches were generally unprotected and easily taken.

Two years after the first successful raid at Lindisfarne, two monasteries were plundered in the Hebrides, and one off the coast of Ireland. As the coastal raids continued to be a success, the Danish Vikings became more adventurous. In 799 they began attacks on inland monasteries.

The Danish Viking conquest

There are few places throughout Europe and the western world that remained untouched by Viking exploits, each of the three Scandinavian regions went in slightly different directions in their exploration and conquests.

The mid-9th century saw the Danish Vikings successfully taking lands in England, Ireland, and Scotland. By 840 these Vikings were overwintering in Ireland, building settlements with Viking-style long houses near the coast. They built the first trading port towns in Ireland.

They successfully ransacked Pisa, Italy. In 842 they made successful conquests into France, including Limoges, Orleans, and Paris. The Vikings attacked Arab-controlled Seville in 844.

In 911, Rouen and the surrounding lands in Northern France were given to the Danish Vikings and in return the Vikings would prevent access from other invaders to the Seine. It was this area that became known as Normandy, the ‘Land of the Norse’.

Danish Vikings sat upon the throne of England from 1013 until 1042.

William the Conqueror Duke of Normandy, himself descended from the Danish Viking nobles in France lordships, claimed the throne of England in 1066. He remained successful in defeating further incursions from the Danes, the last of which was planned in 1085 by Canute IV of Denmark but never sailed.

Famous Danish Vikings
Credit: Helgi Halldórsson

Danish Viking social structure

Petty kings

Until the mid 10th century, Denmark consisted of several small kingdoms that resulted from tribal wars. These ‘petty kings’ ruled over their kingdoms, but remained interconnected based on familial lines and social and rivalries and loyalties.

Jarls

These noble were the wealthy landowners who held title, power, and lands. The lands would be leased to individual tenant farmers who lived and worked the land. The Jarls also leased lands to nearby communities for communal farming.

Karls

Members of the local community that were free men and women. They were merchants and could own land outright if they had the means. Then as now, they worked a range of occupations required in a functioning society.  They were not necessarily wealthy but self-sufficient and contributing of their own accord.

Thralls

Slaves that were either captured from other lands, or forced into slavery to pay debt or as punishment for a crime. Slavery was not necessarily a life sentence as slaves were allowed to buy their freedom if they found the means.

But they were typically killed outright if too old or too sick to work, and sometimes to accompany a deceased noble into the grave.

Danish Viking life

Danish Vikings were by all written accounts well-groomed.

Bathing was considered essential and performed weekly from either drawn water or in nearby streams. Hair was combed regularly and teeth were cleaned. Some Danes regularly soaked their hair in a lye solution for killing lice which also had the effect of lightening their hair to a reddish blonde.

Women tended to keep their hair long but pinned up for practical reasons. Men also grew their hair and beards, but length was likely determined by occupation for practical reasons.

Prior to the spread of Christianity in Denmark, the Old Norse religion was practiced widely but with regional variations regarding Odin, Thor, Loki and the rest. Religion was not centralized but was interpreted within families and communities.

However, there is archeological evidence that large religious and festive gatherings did take place.

Burial rituals varied as cemeteries and general burial pits were used. There was not always a separation of rich and poor in burial plots. Most people were buried with meaningful objects from their daily lives. Some wealthy Vikings were buried with their animals and slaves.

As Christianity was introduced in the late 10th century, the massive burial mounds predating the Viking era regained favor possibly as an effort to reconnect with ancestral religions.

There was no stigma attached to children born to unmarried parents. Women who were wives and those who were concubines had similar rights in regard to their children and often in regard to any other legal issues that arose.

Men could have a wife and a concubine, but were expected to have means enough for both and all the children, even if it meant living within the same household. Women were punished severely if sexually active outside of marriage, but premarital sex was accepted.

Extended families lived together in long-houses. These are designed as having one very long room with designated areas for cooking and eating, sleeping, food storage, and working indoors (such as repairing, weaving).

Pits were dug outside for human waste. A massive stone fireplace warmed the long-house. Livestock were also kept inside nightly at one end of the long-house during cold winters. Slaves slept near the animals at night.

Danish Viking slaves

Written sources, including legal texts describing the details related to slave buying, describe Viking trading centers along the Volga. The ‘highway of slaves’ from Scandinavia to Constantinople and Baghdad was a well-traveled trade route.

Vikings acquired slaves during raiding attacks on other countries, with written accounts describing the cruel abductions in Ireland, England, and most regularly in the Slavic countries. The term ‘slave’ itself an indication of the frequency of capture in Eastern Europe.

Slaves were treated as advanced animals to be used as ‘cattle’ for whatever purpose the owners decided. They were relegated to live with the other domesticated animals and were expected to do hard labor on farms and community projects, building at home and in conquered nations.

They performed domestic chores and it was accepted that they were to be exploited sexually.

Norse men and women could be sentenced to slavery as punishment for a crime, often in service to the person against whom the crime was committed. If a slave regained freedom, the social stigma remained for that individual, although their children did not suffer the same social stigma.

Famous Danish Vikings: names everyone should know

Famous Danish Vikings
Credit: bruun-rasmussen.dk

King Gorm the Old

Ruler of Denmark in 936-958, he is responsible for uniting the smaller tribal kingdoms of Denmark into one nation under one King. He is considered the first King of Denmark, and he is the father of Harald ‘Bluetooth’ Gormsson.

Famous Danish Vikings

Harald ‘Bluetooth’ Gormsson

Considered the first hereditary King in a unified Denmark, c. 958 – c. 985. His father, Gorm the Old, brought together the smaller tribal kingdoms governed by ‘petty kings’ and nobles into a unified nation. He was the first successor to inherit Denmark as a unified nation.

Inscribed in ancient runic letters on the Jelling burial stones located in Jutland, Denmark, Harald is referred to as King of Denmark. He was also the first Christian ruler in Scandinavia.

This is notable as the cultural and political changes brought by the Catholic Church significantly altered the trajectory of Denmark and Europe as a whole.

Most recently, the runic H and B of his initials are the logo for Bluetooth technology.

Famous Danish Vikings
Credit: August Malmström

Ragnar Lodbrok (Regnar Lodbrog)

This Danish Viking hero and King of Denmark and Sweden is held in near mythic status across Scandinavia.  His exploits are shared in Old Norse poetry, legends, and the sagas.

Historians have differing opinions about how much is fact and how much is embellishment, but there is agreement that his conquests across Europe were brutal and largely successful. In 845, he led the Siege of Paris and the ransacking of Paris which was the culmination of a series of attacks in Europe.

He was killed when trying to avenge his warriors, slaughtered in battle by the England’s troupes. Legend says he was thrown to his death into a pit of venomous snakes by King Aella of York.

Ivar the Boneless

Ivar Ragnarsson was the son of Ragnar Lodbrok. It is unclear where the ‘boneless’ reference originated.  Some accounts assert that his legs were impaired or possibly missing. Some believe it was a derogatory term started by his detractors to imply male impotence.

It is also considered possible that he had a hereditary disease that made his bones fragile and easily broken. But given his reputation to be berserker in battle, fighting in a frenetic trance-like state, this may be debatable.

In 853, Ivar began challenging the powerful kings of Ireland. He had his troops plunder the prehistoric Irish tombs that had lain untouched for 4000 years. He laid waste to the Irish settlements, and in time became the First Viking King of Ireland.

His descendents ruled over Ireland for hundreds of years.

In 865 Ivar and his brother, Halfdan, led the Great Heathen Army across England.  Intent on avenging their father’s death, these sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, captured York and killed King Aella in an extremely gruesome manner.

Famous Danish Vikings
Credit: Joseph Martin Kronheim

Cnut the Great (Canute the Great)

His father, Sweyn Forkbeard, successfully conquered England in December 1013 but died unexpectedly some few weeks later. After 2 years as head of the Danish army, Cnute took the throne of England in 1016.

After some initial cruelty toward the English, Cnut began a reign that brought peace and prosperity to England and Denmark. He proved to be strategically diplomatic for both his own benefit and the benefit of the countries he ruled.

He remained King of England until his death in 1035. He was also the King of Denmark 1019-1035 and King of Norway 1028-1035.

Famous Danish Vikings
Credit: Orf3us

Estrid Svendsdatter

Daughter of Sweyn Forkbeard and sister of Cnut the Great, Estrid married a regent for Denmark, Ulf the Earl, who had fought with her brother in the conquest of England and been appointed regent to Denmark when Cnut became King.

When Ulf changed loyalties and aligned with the monarchy of Sweden to take the thrown of Denmark away from Cnut, Estrid may have been complicit in a plot to murder Ulf the Earl.

Estrid then either demanded a man-price payment from her brother, or it was granted due to her loyalty.  Either way, she received a vast lands and money for the murder of her husband.

She became a benefactor of the Catholic Church and funded construction on a simple stone cathedral where Roskilde Cathedral now stands.

Estrid raised her son, Sweyn II, who eventually became King of Denmark when Cnut died in 1035. He was called King Sweyn Estridsson of Denmark. Instead of the title Queen Mother, Estrid received the title of Queen which is usually conferred only upon a sovereign Queen or a King’s wife.

Famous Danish Vikings
Credit: Oleryhlolsson

Sweyn II Estridsson of Denmark

Reigning from 1047-1074, this son of Estrid is considered the last Viking King of Denmark and the first medieval King of Denmark. He is considered a fearless warrior who battled tirelessly for Denmark against a usurper King of Norway.

He also proved a successful diplomat by eventually making peace with the King of Norway, and returning the throne of Denmark to Danish rule. He became King of Denmark and ruled for 27 years.

Danish Viking women

Much attention has been given to the role of women in Viking society, prompted in part by renewed interest in grave excavation that took place in 1889. When discovered, the 10th century grave was taken to be a man’s because the items in the burial chamber were the weapons and possessions of a Viking warrior.

In 2017, the remains were revisited as part of another study and it was discovered the DNA had no Y chromosome so was therefore genetically a female. Since then, discussions continue whether it is proof that women were accepted as equals.

At the very least, it demonstrates one occurrence of a woman being laid to eternal rest as an honored warrior. Alternatively, she may have lived as and been accepted fully as a man in her time, as this was not uncommon in many cultures prior to Christianization.

There is also DNA evidence that this particular human may have been Slavic, so may have been a slave earning her freedom.

Still, Danish Viking women enjoyed more freedoms than women in other societies in that same era because Christianity was slow to arrive in Scandinavia.

When married, women were expected to run the household and farm. When husbands were called away on raids, this included harvesting the crops and caring for livestock in addition to usual time-intensive household duties of cooking, childrearing, weaving, sewing, educating the young, selling goods, and maintaining all manner of home labors.

Women could request divorce without social repercussions, and remarry or live independently. Women could be entrepreneurs, and there was no stigma being unmarried with children. If widowed, they would be declared head of household and be treated as such in community gatherings requiring votes or decisions.

These same rights were afforded to all women, not only those of noble birth.

Danish Viking farmers

Historical narrative is constructed around large scale global activities rather than the subtle human efforts that make those activities possible. The emphasis on the famous Danish Vikings as seafaring conquerors overlooks an important detail directly linked to their success as seafaring conquerors.

Danish Vikings were primarily farmers. This includes those who joined in raiding missions.

This is important because their aptitude for large scale agriculture and animal husbandry created a stable economic foundation from which the famous Danish Vikings could venture to other lands.

Successful sea voyages also require substantial economic resources, and conquering and settling other lands requires skills necessary to survive and thrive.

The structure of the famous Danish Vikings’ society was centered on farming, both independent and communal. Communal farms were typically owned by the noblemen, but they were governed by the community members who would gather to address strategies, work load planning, and general issues.

While most families had self-sustaining individual farms, surplus crops cultivated collectively created a means to resilience and communal longevity. They also created a social structure that required individuals to work together and in support of each other to create benefit for everyone.

Historical and archeological evidence bears witness to the well-ordered methods used throughout Danish farmlands.

The Viking era was a time of drastic climate fluctuations, which required the famous Danish Vikings to adapt by varying their agricultural reliance from year to year and between extended periods occurring over several years.

In warm phases, farmers relied heavily on crop production. In colder phases, raising livestock became the focus. The collective knowledge gained from working together translated into successful endeavors in other lands.

These skills made Danish Vikings adaptable and resourceful, and most importantly resilient.

Seekers of famous Danish Vikings

By 1066, all the Scandinavian kingdoms were Christianized, and the Viking era was decidedly over.

With Christianity came the spread of written language but too late to record the events during the decades in which they happened.  

The rolling landscapes transformed from forests to farmlands, ancient burial ruins on every horizon, and spoken language still filled with famous Danish Viking phrases. Even their ships can be viewed up close in museums like Roskilde Vikingskibsmuseet (Roskilde Viking Ship Museum).

Their legacy is everywhere. Seekers of these famous Danish Vikings will find them here in Denmark.

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