The History of the Vikings' Innovations

The History of the Vikings' Innovations

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1. Advances in Shipbuilding and Navigation

Perhaps the most striking of Viking achievements was their state-of-the-art shipbuilding technology, which allowed them to travel greater distances than anyone before them. Their signature longboats—sleek wooden vessels with shallow hulls and rows of oars along the side—were faster, lighter, more flexible and more easily maneuverable than other ships of the time. But the Vikings’ exploring prowess also owed a great deal to their skill as navigators. They relied on simple but sophisticated tools like the sun compass, which utilized calcite crystals known as “sunstones” to identify the position of the sun even after sunset or on overcast days. Such innovations gave Vikings a distinct advantage when traveling long distances to foreign lands. In their heyday, Vikings were active on four continents simultaneously, making them the first true global citizens.

2. Language

In the centuries after their first raid on English soil in A.D. 793, Vikings made a historic series of attacks, waged wars and formed settlements in the British islands, leaving a permanent impact on the land, culture and language. As the Vikings interacted with their English neighbors, first through farming and trading activities and later through intermarriage, the two languages (Old Norse and Old English) mixed as well. This process is evident in place names such as Grimsby, Thornby and Derby (the suffix -by was the Scandinavian word for “homestead” or “village”), or Lothwaite (-thwaite meaning “meadow” or “piece of land”). “Give,” “window” and “dream,” among other common English words, also derived their modern meanings from Viking influence. In another famous example, the word “berserk” comes from the Old Norse berserker, meaning “bear shirt” or “bearskin.” These Viking warriors worshipped Odin, the god of war, and whipped themselves into a frenzied state before and during battle.

3. Dublin

We owe the capital of the Emerald Isle to the Vikings, who founded the first recorded settlement on the south bank of the River Liffey in A.D. 841. Named Dubh Linn (“Black Pool”) after the lake where the ancient Norsemen moored their boats, the Viking settlement centered around a timber-earthen fort called a longphort. Built at what is now the heart of modern-day Dublin, it became the hub of one of Europe’s largest slave markets. The Vikings kept firm control of Dublin for nearly three centuries, until the Irish High King Brian Boru defeated them in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Unlike in England, Vikings left few Norse place names in Ireland or words in the Irish language, but they made their mark there nonetheless. In addition to Dublin, the Irish cities of Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick also began as Viking settlements.

4. Skis

Though the oldest known skis, dating to between 8000 and 7000 B.C., were discovered in Russia, and the first written reference to skiing comes from China’s Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), we have the Vikings to thank for inaugurating the Western tradition of skiing. Even the word “ski” comes from the Old Norse “skío.” Ancient Norsemen skied across their snowy homelands for both recreation and transportation purposes, and the Norse goddess Skaoi and god Ullr were often depicted on skis or snowshoes.

5. Combs

Though their enemies considered them unkempt barbarians, Vikings actually bathed more frequently than other Europeans of the day, taking a dip at least once a week—preferably in a hot spring. Bristled combs, often made from the antlers of red deer or other animals they killed, are one of the objects most commonly found in Viking graves. In fact, though comb-like devices existed in other cultures around the world, Vikings are often given credit for inventing the comb as the Western world knows it today. Tweezers, razors and ear spoons (for scooping out wax) are among the other grooming objects turned up in excavations of Viking burial sites, proving that even longhaired, bearded Viking warriors took their personal grooming very seriously.

6. Sagas

Aside from archaeological evidence, one of modern historians’ primary sources for information about Viking life comes from a somewhat dubious but endlessly entertaining source. The Icelandic sagas, written by unknown authors in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, chronicle life in the Viking Age around the year A.D. 1000, when the ancient Norsemen abandoned their pagan gods and converted to Christianity. Victorian-era scholars accepted the sagas, with their graphic depictions of the deeds of both powerful rulers and ordinary people, as fact. Today, most historians agree they are an unreliable—yet still valuable—source of information about the Vikings, laced with a hefty dose of mythology and fantasy. In any case, we can thank the Vikings and their exploits for providing fodder for one of the earliest forms of our favorite guilty pleasure: the soap opera.

The history of Denmark 

The first Danes were hunters and fisherman who probably entered the country migrating from Southern and Eastern Europe by the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 BC.

By 3000 BC, farms had begun to appear on the flat, fertile land we now call Denmark. At first, the farmers used stone tools and weapons, but they later adopted bronze and iron.

By the time of the Iron Age, the Danes had established trade links with the Roman Empire, trading goods such as animal furs and amber. By 200 AD, the Danish people had begun using the Rune language chiseled in stone.

Ten Inventions That Inadvertently Transformed Warfare

Bayonet: In the early 17th century, sportsmen in France and Spain adopted the practice of attaching knives to their muskets when hunting dangerous game, such as wild boar. The hunters particularly favored knives that were made in Bayonne—a small French town near the Spanish border long renowned for its quality cutlery.

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The French were the first to adopt the “bayonet” for military use in 1671—and the weapon became standard issue for infantry throughout Europe by the turn of the 17th century. Previously, military units had relied on pikemen to defend musketeers from attack while they reloaded. With the introduction of the bayonet, each soldier could be both pikeman and musketeer.

Even as modern weaponry rendered bayonets increasingly obsolete, they endured into the 20th century—in part because they were deemed effective as psychological weapons. As one British officer noted, regiments “charging with the bayonet never meet and struggle hand to hand and foot to foot and this for the best possible reason—that one side turns and runs away as soon as the other comes close enough to do mischief.”

Barbed Wire: Invented in the late 19th century as a means to contain cattle in the American West, barbed wire soon found military applications—notably during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in what is now South Africa. As the conflict escalated, the British Army adopted increasingly severe measures to suppress the insurgency led by Dutch settlers.

One such measure was constructing a network of fortified blockhouses connected by barbed wire, which limited the movement of the Boers in the veldt. When British forces initiated a scorched-earth campaign—destroying farms to deny the guerrillas a means of support—barbed wire facilitated the construction of what was then termed “concentration camps,” in which British forces confined women and children.

More than a decade later, barbed wire would span the battlefields of World War I as a countermeasure against advancing infantry. A U.S. Army College pamphlet published in 1917 succinctly summarized the advantages of a barbed-wire entanglement:

𔄙. It is easily and quickly made.
2. It is difficult to destroy.
3. It is difficult to get through.
4. It offers no obstruction to the view and fire of the defense.”

Steamship: “The employment of steam as a motive power in the warlike navies of all maritime nations, is a vast and sudden change in the means of engaging in action on the seas, which must produce an entire revolution in naval warfare,” wrote British Gen. Sir Howard Douglas in an 1858 military treatise.

He was correct, although this revolution in naval warfare was preceded by a gradual evolution. The early commercial steamships were propelled by paddle wheels mounted on both sides of the vessel—which reduced the number of cannons a warship could deploy and exposed the engine to enemy fire. And a steamship would need to pull into port every few hundred miles to replenish its supply of coal.

Still, steamships offered significant advantages: They were not dependent upon the wind for propulsion. They were fast. And they were more maneuverable than sailing ships, particularly along coastlines, where they could bombard forts and cities.

Arguably the most important enabler of steam-powered warships was the 1836 invention of the screw propeller, which replaced the paddle wheel. The next major breakthrough was the invention of the modern steam turbine engine in 1884, which was smaller, more powerful and easier to maintain than the old piston-and-cylinder design.

Locomotive: Justus Scheibert, an officer in the Royal Prussian Engineers, spent seven months with the Confederate Army observing military campaigns during the Civil War. “Railroads counted in both sides’ strategies,” he quickly concluded. “Trains delivered provisions until the final moments. Therefore the Confederacy spared nothing to rebuild tracks as fast as the enemy destroyed them.”

Although railroads had been occasionally used during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Civil War was the first conflict where the locomotive demonstrated its pivotal role in rapidly deploying troops and material. Mules and horses could do the work, though far less efficiently a contingent of 100,000 men would require 40,000 draft animals.

Civil War historians David and Jeanne Heidler write that, “Had the war broken out ten years before it did, the South’s chances of winning would have been markedly better because the inequality between its region’s railroads and those of the North would not have been as great.”

But, by the time war did break out, the North had laid more than 21,000 miles of railroad tracks—the South had only about a third of that amount.

Telegraph: The Civil War was the first conflict in which the telegraph played a major role. Private telegraph companies had been in operation since the 1840s—a network of more than 50,000 miles of telegraph wire connected cities and towns across the United States when war erupted.

Although some 90 percent of telegraph services were located in the North, the Confederates were also able to put the device to good use. Field commanders issued orders to rapidly concentrate forces to confront Union advances—a tactic that led to victory in the First Battle of Bull Run, in 1861.

Arguably the most revolutionary aspect of the device was how it transformed the relationship between the executive branch and the military. Before, important battlefield decisions were left to the discretion of field generals. Now, however, the president could fully exercise his prerogative as commander in chief.

“Lincoln used the telegraph to put starch in the spine of his often all too timid generals and to propel his leadership vision to the front,” writes historian Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails. “[He] applied its dots and dashes as an essential tool for winning the Civil War.”

DDT proved to be so effective at relieving insect-borne diseases that some historians believe World War II was the first conflict where more soldiers died in combat than from disease. (Bettmann / Corbis) Invented in the late 19th century as a means to contain cattle in the American West, barbed wire soon found military applications. (Bettmann / Corbis) The French were the first to adopt the "bayonet" for military use in 1671—and the weapon became standard issue for infantry throughout Europe by the turn of the 17th century. (Corbis) Although railroads had been occasionally used during the Crimean War, the Civil War was the first conflict where the locomotive demonstrated its pivotal role in rapidly deploying troops and material. (Medford Historical Society Collection / Corbis)

Caterpillar tractor: During World War I, engineers sought to design a war machine robust enough to crush barbed wire and withstand enemy fire, yet agile enough to traverse the trench-filled terrain of no man’s land. The inspiration for this armored behemoth was the American tractor.

Or, more specifically, the caterpillar tractor invented in 1904 by Benjamin Holt. Since the 1880s, Holt’s company, based in Stockton, California, had manufactured massive, steam-powered grain harvesters. To allow the heavy machines to traverse the steep, muddy inclines of fertile river deltas, Holt instructed his mechanics to replace the drive wheels with “track shoes” made from wooden planks.

Later, Holt sought to sell his invention to government agencies in the United States and Europe as a reliable means for transporting artillery and supplies to the front lines during wartime.

One person who saw the tractor in action was a friend of Col. E. D. Swinton of the Engineering Corps of the British Army. He wrote a letter to Swinton in July 1914 describing “a Yankee machine” that “climbs like hell.” Less than a year later, Swinton drafted specifications for a tank—with a rhomboid shape and caterpillar treads—designed to cross wide trenches. It later became known as “Big Willie.” The tanks made their combat debut during the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916.

As historian Reynold Wik has noted, “the first military tanks had no American parts, neither motors, tracks, nor armament. However. . . the technological innovation which occurred in Stockton in November 1904 had proved that heavy machines could be moved over difficult terrain with the use of track-type treads.”

Camera: Aerial photographic reconnaissance came of age in World War I, thanks to higher-flying planes and better cameras. Initially, planes were deployed to help target artillery fire more accurately. Later, they were used to produce detailed maps of enemy trenches and defenses, assess damage after attacks and even scout “rear echelon” activities to glean insights into enemy battle plans. Baron Manfred von Richthofen—“the Red Baron”—said that one photoreconnaissance plane was often more valuable than an entire fighter squadron.

The opposing armies took measures to thwart photographic reconnaissance. Potential ground targets were disguised with painted camouflage patterns. (The French, naturalment, enlisted the help of Cubist artists.)

Of course, the most effective countermeasure was to mount guns on planes and shoot down the observation aircraft. To provide protection, fighter planes escorted reconnaissance craft on their missions. The era of the “dogfight” began—and with it the transformation of the airplane into a weapon of warfare.

Chlorine: Historians generally agree that the first instance of modern chemical warfare occurred on April 22, 1915—when German soldiers opened 5,730 canisters of poisonous chlorine gas on the battlefield at Ypres, Belgium. British records indicate there were 7,000 casualties, 350 of which were lethal.

German chemist Fritz Haber recognized that the characteristics of chlorine—an inexpensive chemical used by the German dye industry—made it an ideal battlefield weapon. Chlorine would remain in its gaseous form even in winter temperatures well below zero degrees Fahrenheit and, because chlorine is 2.5 times heavier than air, it would sink into enemy trenches. When inhaled, chlorine attacks the lungs, causing them to fill with fluid so that the victim literally drowns.

In response, all sides sought even more lethal gases throughout the remainder of the conflict. Chlorine was an essential ingredient in manufacturing some of those gases—including the nearly odorless phosgene, which was responsible for an estimated 80 percent of all gas-related deaths in World War I.

DDT: In the late 1930s, with war on the horizon, the U.S. military undertook preparations to defend soldiers against one of the most lethal enemies on the battlefield: insect-borne diseases. During World War I, typhus—a bacterial disease spread by lice—had killed 2.5 million people (military and civilian) at the eastern front alone. Health specialists also worried about the prospect of mosquito-borne diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria, in the tropics.

The military needed an insecticide that could be safely applied as a powder to clothes and blankets. Initially synthesized by an Austrian student in 1873, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) remained a laboratory oddity until 1939, when Swiss chemist Paul Müller discovered its insecticidal properties while researching ways to mothproof wool clothing. After the military screened thousands of chemical compounds, DDT eventually emerged as the insecticide of choice: it worked at low dosages, it worked immediately and it kept working.

DDT proved to be so effective that some historians believe World War II was the first conflict where more soldiers died in combat than from disease. Yet, even before the war ended, entomologists and medical researchers warned that the insecticide could have long-term, dangerous effects on public health and the environment. The United States banned DDT in 1972.

Tide-Predicting Machine: As the Allies planned their invasion of Europe in 1944, they faced a dilemma: Should they land on the beaches of Normandy at high tide or low tide?

The argument in favor of high tide was that troops would have less terrain to cross as they were subjected to enemy fire. However, German Gen. Erwin Rommel had spent months overseeing the construction of obstacles and booby traps—which he called a “devil’s garden”—to thwart a potential Allied landing. During high tide, the devil’s garden would be submerged and virtually invisible but during low tide it would be exposed.

Ultimately, military planners concluded that the best conditions for an invasion would be a day with an early-morning (but steadily rising) low tide. That way, landing craft could avoid the German obstacles, and Army engineers could begin clearing them away for subsequent landings.

To complicate matters, the Allies also wanted a date when, prior to the dawn invasion, there would be sufficient moonlight to aid pilots in landing paratroopers.

So the Allies consulted meteorologists and other experts to calculate the dates when the tides and the moon would meet the ideal conditions. Among those experts was Arthur Thomas Doodson, a British mathematician who had constructed one of the world’s most precise tide-predicting machines—which reduced the risk of ships running aground when entering a harbor. Doodson’s machine was essentially a primitive computer that produced calculations using dozens of pulley wheels. Doodson himself calculated the ideal dates for the D-Day invasion—a narrow set of options that included June 5-7, 1944. The Allied invasion of Europe commenced on June 6.

The way of the Viking

On this site we will be looking at all aspects of the Vikings. Who they were and where they came from.

We will show them as warriors and farmers, family man and merchants. We will be looking at their homes and working places, craft and culture, mothers and children. We hope that you’ll see that these were ordinary people in not so ordinary times.

For us this subject is part of our heritage. Being Icelandic, we can trace our roots to the Vikings of the 10th century and most of all, we could understand them if we met today. Our language is the old language of the Vikings and that is a privilege in itself.

Primary Chronicle

The identity of the mythic leader Rurik remains obscure and unknown. His original birthplace, family history, and titles are shrouded in mystery with very few historical clues. Some 19th-century scholars attempted to identify him as Rorik of Dorestad (a Viking-Age trading outpost situated in the northern part of modern-day Germany). However, no concrete evidence exists to confirm this particular origin story.

A page from the Primary Chronicle or The Tale of Bygone Years. This rare written document was created in the 12th century and provides the most promising clues as to the arrival of Rurik in Ladoga.

The debate also continues as to how Rurik came to control the Novgorod region. However, some clues are available from the Primary Chronicle. This document is also known as The Tale of Bygone Years and was compiled in Kiev around 1113 by the monk Nestor. It relates the history of Kievan Rus’ from 850 to 1110 with various updates and edits made throughout the 12th century by scholarly monks. It is difficult to untangle legend from fact, but this document provides the most promising clues regarding Rurik. The Primary Chronicle contends the Varangians were a Viking group, most likely from Sweden or northern Germany, who controlled trade routes across northern Russia and tied together various cultures across Eurasia.

A monument celebrating the millennial anniversary of the arrival of Rurik in Russia. This modern interpretation of Rurik illustrates his powerful place in Russian history and lore.

The various tribal groups, including Chuds, Eastern Slavs, Merias, Veses, and Krivichs, along the northern trade routes near Novgorod often cooperated with the Varangian Rus’ leaders. But in the late 850s they rose up in rebellion, according to the Primary Chronicle. However, soon after this rebellion, the local tribes near the Novgorod region began to experience internal disorder and conflict. These events prompted local tribal leaders to invite Rurik and his Varangian leaders back to the region in 862 to reinstate peace and order. This moment in history is known as the Invitation of the Varangians and is commonly regarded as the starting point of official Russian history.

1013: the year the Vikings conquered England

It's more than 1,000 years since Swein Forkbeard employed superior military strength and tactical ability to supplant the descendants of Alfred the Great. Sarah Foot traces Swein's journey from foreign adventurer to first Viking king of England.

This competition is now closed

Published: August 1, 2013 at 12:00 am

Around one thousand years ago, the king of Denmark (and lord also over Norway and Sweden) invaded England with a large fleet. After a brief campaign, he secured the submission of all the English people apart from the inhabitants of London. When, as a near-contemporary English chronicler reported, “all the nation regarded him as full king”, the citizens of London finally capitulated and submitted, giving the Dane hostages, “for fear that he would destroy them”.

That king was Swein Forkbeard. His swift conquest sent the Anglo-Saxons’ native ruler, Æthelred (nicknamed ‘the Unready’) into exile in Normandy, leaving his English subjects to pay a large tribute and supply their conqueror and his army with provisions.

How could a foreign adventurer have brought such an abrupt end to the rule of the descendants of Alfred the Great? How could he have reversed the victory Alfred had won over the ninth-century Vikings, and reduced England to a subject realm within a Scandinavian empire?

Determining that the “grim game of battle” would arbitrate between them before the English would pay tribute, Byrhtnoth ordered his men to pick up their shields and walk to stand on the edge of the river, where the flood tide flowed, separating the two forces. Only when the waters receded could the seaborne attackers try to take the causeway, which bold Englishmen defended resolutely, refusing to take flight from the ford.

The perfidious Vikings (as the poem portrayed them) tricked their way into getting Byrhtnoth to yield some ground he then paid the ultimate price for that act of pride, as the poet saw it, of conceding the Danes too much land. Byrhtnoth fell in the battle, with his last breath commending his soul to the Lord of hosts and of angels.

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great (r. 871-899 CE) was the king of Wessex in Britain but came to be known as King of the Anglo-Saxons after his military victories over Viking adversaries and later successful negotiations with them. He is the best-known Anglo-Saxon king in British history thanks to his biographer Asser (died c. 909 CE) and that work's impact on later writers.

Alfred's epithet 'the great' was not given to him in his lifetime but centuries later when Asser's work became more widely known and the significance of Alfred's reign was more fully recognized. Even so, in his lifetime, Alfred was respected as a noble king who won the trust of his people for his reforms in education and law, and most notably, his leadership against the Viking threat. Alfred is featured in the TV series Vikings where he is played by Irish actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. The character in the show is loosely based on the historical Alfred but significant departures are made, most notably in his parentage.


The Vikings had begun their raids on Britain c. 793 CE and, by Alfred's time, had established themselves throughout the land from Northumbria through Mercia with increasing incursions into Wessex. Alfred defeated the Viking leader Guthrum (died c. 890 CE) at the Battle of Eddington in 878 CE, after which he was able to deliver terms including the Christianization of Guthrum and his closest advisors, thus bridging the religious gap between the two peoples. Although this victory did not end Viking raids in Britain nor drive the Vikings back to Scandinavia, it allowed for a period of relative peace in which Alfred's reforms could be implemented and take root.

Alfred's impressive military and administrative skills stabilized Britain after almost a century of Viking raids and warfare. He established the practice of translating classical works from Latin into English, set up public schools, reformed the military, and revised and expanded the law code. Later historians, especially during the Victorian Age, would consider him the most perfect king of the Middle Ages for his piety, justice, and noble vision of a better future for his people.


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Youth & Rise to Power

Alfred was born in 849 CE, the son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and his wife Osburh. At the age of four, his father sent him to Rome on pilgrimage, where he was confirmed in the faith by the Pope and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was anointed as king. Although it is possible this ceremony took place, it seems unlikely as Alfred was the youngest of five children and his older brothers – Aethelbald, Aethelberht, and Aethelred – would have all been in line to succeed to the throne before him.

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Whatever effect the trip to Rome may have had on Alfred's character, it does not seem to be as profound an influence as that of his mother. Osburh is described in Asser's Life of King Alfred as a religious and intelligent woman who had a significant effect on his life-long interest in learning a characteristic which chiefly defines Alfred and shaped his later accomplishments.

He learned poetry by hearing it recited and then repeating it but could not read it himself until sometime in his teenage years and even then could not read Latin in which the most important works of his time were written.


The role of his mother in his life, as well as his paternity, are the most significant departures made in Alfred's character arc in the TV series Vikings. In the show, his mother is Judith, Princess of Northumbria (played by English actress Jennie Jacques) who is married to Aethelwulf but becomes pregnant through an affair with the Christian monk-turned-Viking-turned-cleric, Athelstan (played by English actor George Blagden). Although the character of Judith is portrayed as caring and concerned for her son, no mention is made of Alfred's mother's impact on his literacy. His frailty in youth and the trip to Rome are also depicted with more or less accuracy but his brothers and their accomplishments are combined and fictionalized in the character of Aethelred (played by Darren Cahill) and elements of Aethelwulf's reign and personality are also significantly altered.

Alfred's brothers each ruled in succession following their father's death until Alfred was officially named successor to his brother Aethelred in c. 865 CE and elevated to the rank of military commander. It may be that Alfred's family had low expectations of him as a warrior-king as he was more given to books than action and was often ill as a young man (possibly afflicted with Crohn's disease). If so, they were mistaken as Alfred proved himself a capable leader in battle, between c. 865-871 CE, alongside his brother and on his own after Aethelred died.

The Viking Wars

In 865 CE the Great Army of Vikings led by Halfdane and Ivar the Boneless invaded East Anglia and swiftly defeated any force sent against them. In 866 CE they took the city of York, and in 867 CE they killed the Northumbrian kings Osbert and Aelle and consolidated their control of the region. In 868 CE they made constant raids throughout Mercia and by 869 CE had completely overrun East Anglia. In 870 CE reinforcements for the Great Army arrived from Scandinavia and Halfdane led his forces to take Wallingford, ravage Mercia, and drive on into Wessex the next year.


Aethelred and Alfred mobilized their forces and met the Vikings in battle at Reading but were badly defeated. Asser comments how “the Christians were aroused by the grief and shame of this, and four days later, with all their might and in a determined frame of mind, they advanced against the Viking army at a place called Ashdown” (Asser, 37, Keynes & Lapidge, 78). The Battle of Ashdown in January 871 CE would prove Alfred's skill in military leadership and his ability to think clearly and act in a crisis.

Although Asser never criticizes Aethelred directly, he makes the point that a strategy had been laid whereby Alfred and Aethelred would command joint forces which would strike at different points of the Viking forces but that Aethelred never appeared to take command of his part of the battle. The Vikings held the high ground and had already fortified their defenses when Alfred arrived on the field and found his brother the king was still at his prayers. Alfred, then, had no choice but to take command of the entire army and lead the attack. It should be noted that Asser's account of the battle has been challenged and other sources credit Aethelred with full participation in the engagement.

Whether his brother was involved or not, Alfred was victorious, skillfully leading his forces, and drove the Vikings from the field. Encouraged by this victory, the brothers pursued the Vikings and met them again at Basing but were defeated. In April, Aethelred died and Alfred became king. He led his army against the Vikings again at the Battle of Wilton and here again seems to have shown himself an effective leader on the field – at least at first. The Viking lines were broken and in flight, but there were too few of Alfred's forces to pursue. The Vikings were able to regroup and countercharge, defeating the West Saxons and taking the field. Alfred at this point had no choice but to pay the Viking commanders a large sum to leave Wessex.


Over the next few years, Alfred would continually have to mobilize what troops he could muster to defend his realm. Although the money he had paid to Halfdane secured Wessex for the time, it did not mean the Vikings had to leave Britain. They consolidated their power in Northumbria, made peace with the Mercians, and were free to threaten the autonomy of Wessex whenever they pleased. In 875 CE the Vikings had firmly established their kingdom, and a new Norse warlord, Guthrum, had taken command.

In 876 CE Alfred made a treaty with Guthrum in which he gave the Viking leader hostages, and the Vikings swore an oath to leave Wessex alone. For unknown reasons, the Vikings broke the treaty, killed the hostages, attacked, and then retreated to Exeter where they wintered. Alfred rallied his forces and blockaded the Viking fleet at Devon, forcing them to withdraw to Mercia but, by 877 CE, the Vikings were back at the borders and, in early 878 CE, they took Chippenham. The raid on Chippenham was a surprise attack launched during the Christmas season when Alfred was observing the holiday in the area and was completely unprepared. The Vikings massacred much of the populace, but Alfred escaped with his family and a few men and went into exile. Asser describes this period:

At the same time King Alfred, with his small band of nobles and also with certain soldiers, was leading a restless life in great distress amid the woody and marshy places of Somerset. He had nothing to live on except what he could forage by frequent raids, either secretly or even openly, from the Vikings as well as from the Christians who had submitted to the Vikings' authority. (Asser, 53, Keynes & Lapidge, 83)

Alfred & the Burnt Cakes

It is during this period that the events related in the legends surrounding Alfred are said to have taken place. Although it is often assumed that these legends come from Asser's work, they are all later creations, c. 10th century CE. The most famous of these is the story of Alfred and the burnt cakes, which comes from The Life of St. Neot.

It relates how Alfred, traveling alone at this time, came upon the cottage of a swineherd and asked for hospitality without revealing who he was. They took him in for a few days, and one day when the swineherd was out, his wife was baking bread in the oven while Alfred sat nearby preoccupied with his troubles. The wife was cleaning house when she smelled the bread burning and hurried to the oven to draw the loaves out. She chastised Alfred, who was sitting close by, saying, “You hesitate to turn the loaves which you see to be burning, yet you're quite happy to eat them when they come warm from the oven!” (Keynes & Lapidge, 198).

The story would go through many different incarnations with the wife depicted as evil and ignorant or simply exasperated by her houseguest, but in all, Alfred's response epitomizes humility and grace. He never reveals himself as king or argues with the wife but accepts her scolding as appropriate and helps her bake the bread.

The Battle of Eddington

Alfred remained in exile, hiding from the Vikings, for less than three months, during which time he seems to have been preparing for an offensive against the Vikings through a network of spies and chieftains who remained loyal to him. By March, according to Asser, he was waging a successful guerrilla war against the Danes. By May of 878 CE, he had assembled a large enough force to meet the Vikings in battle. He had a fortress built at Athelney which formed a base of operations and seems to have used this to recruit men as well as to launch raids.

At some point in early May, he managed to draw the Vikings out of their stronghold at Eddington and defeated them in battle using the tactic of the shield wall. The Wessex forces would have held tight formations against the Viking onslaught and then counterattacked. The Vikings were driven from the field and fortified the defenses of their stronghold. Alfred, however, destroyed all of the crops surrounding the Viking defenses, killed all the men found outside, and took the cattle. The Vikings were left with whatever provisions they had inside and after two weeks of siege surrendered.

Alfred's terms were lenient: Guthrum and 30 of his chieftains would submit to Christian baptism and renounce their pagan faith, hostages would be provided to ensure compliance, and the Vikings would leave Wessex all of these conditions were met. Wessex was secure for the time being, but there is no evidence that Alfred thought Eddington had put an end to his Viking troubles.

Restoration, Reform, & Education

The theory that Viking raids were the wrath of God had gone unchallenged since the Lindisfarne raid in 793 CE as there was no better available, and Alfred most certainly believed it. Following the Battle of Eddington, he went to work to resolve the underlying causes of the raids which, in his view, were the poor state of education, clerical learning, and lack of unity in his kingdom.

Beginning in 880 CE, Alfred reorganized his kingdom and implemented educational, legal, and military reforms which would transform Wessex and eventually the whole of Britain. He began by rebuilding those cities and towns which had been destroyed in the Viking Wars and improving upon the earlier structures. Recognizing that these could be destroyed just as easily as their predecessors, he then reformed the military and the very structure of settlements in his kingdom.

Early in the 880's CE, Alfred implemented innovations which included a restructuring of the network of towns and cities. These initiatives are known as the Burghal System, in which improved roads linked a series of 33 burhs (fortified settlements) throughout his kingdom. On a trip to Rome, at some point after Eddington, Alfred had learned defensive tactics and stratagems from the Carolingian kings of France who had been dealing with their own Viking problems for centuries. Alfred's Burghal System seems to have been adapted from the Carolingian precepts.

In order for each burh to be able to defend itself, it had to be garrisoned, and those men had to be paid, and so Alfred reformed the tax code based on the abundance of crops gathered from a person's land. The productivity of a region was then taken into consideration when stationing a certain number of troops there. The burhs were situated in such a way that any garrison could move to support any other within a day's march.

At the same time, Alfred imported a number of learned clerics from Wales and France to reintroduce Latin learning to the court and translate Latin works into English. Public schools were created in which students learned to read English those who were to go on to pursue holy orders would also be taught Latin. It was during this period that Asser, formerly of Wales, came to Alfred's court as his personal tutor. In time, Alfred himself would translate works from Latin to English, serving as a role model for his subjects.

It should not be thought, however, that this period was – as has often been claimed – a “quiet time” in which Alfred could devote himself to study and domestic policies. He was daily involved in foreign policy decisions, and the problems of the Vikings in Britain persisted. In the early 880's Alfred had gained control of Mercia, but the Vikings had settled the region from Northumbria known as the Danelaw and still made incursions into other regions.

Efforts to Unite England

In 886 CE Alfred captured London in a stunning victory, and “all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes submitted to him” (Keynes & Lapidge, 38). There may have been an official oath of loyalty to the king that the populace, or at least landowners, had to take, but even if there was not, it is clear that Alfred had united the people of Britain under his rule. Keynes and Lapidge note that Alfred's victory at London marked “the emergence among the English of a sense of common identity, under a common leader, in a common cause” (38). Alfred was now king of all England not occupied by the Danes.

Shortly after taking London, Alfred sealed an alliance with Mercia by arranging a marriage between his daughter Aethelflaed (r. 911-918 CE) and the earl of that region, Aethelred II (r. 883-911 CE). It is certain they were married by 887 CE when Aethelflaed's name appears on land charters with Aethelred's. Aethelflaed would continue Alfred's work in conjunction with her husband and then as sole ruler and Lady of the Mercians.

Alfred continued his educational programs, enlarged and reformed the navy, and drew up his own law code based on the Christian Bible and founded on the Ten Commandments. All penalties took the form of fines except for those which involved crimes of treachery or treason. The supremacy of lordship was emphasized throughout as Alfred believed that the king ruled by divine will and, if he were true to his calling, would rule justly in the best interests of his people.

Although illiterate in his youth, Alfred himself wrote the law code and translated a number of works, including Gregory's Pastoral Care, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine's Soliloquies, and the first 50 psalms. All of these books had influenced Alfred personally for the better and so, he believed, would do the same for others.

By the time Alfred died, on 26 October 899 CE, he had transformed Britain from a disparate region of separate kingdoms to something resembling a unified nation. In spite of his accomplishments and fame, Alfred was not as highly respected at this time as he would come to be in later centuries, possibly because the Viking invasions would continue in Britain until c. 1066 CE.

Another important factor, however, is that Asser's Life of King Alfred was not widely read at this time since Asser never completed it or had it copied for distribution. The work was only brought to public attention in the 17th century CE when Sir John Spelman published it as a guide for kingly behavior. In the 18th century CE, Alfred was regarded as the epitome of a noble king, and by the time of the Victorian Period (1837-1901 CE), he was embraced as the founder of the British Empire, father of the British Navy (although he only reformed it), and the greatest king to ever rule England.

His educational reforms paved the way for public schools in England, his law code served as the basis for future legal reforms, and his restructuring of the cities, towns, and roadways changed the infrastructure of the country forever. His daughter Aethelflaed of Mercia would continue his war with the Vikings as well as his educational reforms and Burghal System along with her brother Edward of Wessex, who had succeeded Alfred. Edward's son, Aethelstan, would in time become the first King of England, reigning over a united land, and continue his grandfather's legacy.

History of the Vikings (700-999) (Vikings in the New World)

"The Vikings were the people who came from Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) from about AD 700 to about 1125. This period is called the Viking Age. Vikings traveled great distances in their longships, as traders, settlers and warriors. Many of the Vikings were tall and had red or blonde hair and beards. Villages on or near any coast in early medieval Europe lived in great fear of Viking attacks. Some of the countries most affected by Viking piracy were England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and France.

The first recorded raid in the west was at Lindisfarne in 793. Europeans were frightened of the Vikings because of their strong weapons, swift attacks, and cruel fighting tactics. They were known for their bad treatment of women, children and monks in the places where they fought. When the Vikings came to England, the English kings paid them to leave the country, but the Vikings took their money and sometimes fought them anyway. These payments were called Danegeld. From the 9th century to 1066, when the French Duke of Normandy, who became King William I of England conquered it, Danish and Norwegian Vikings ruled large parts of England.

Because of their longships, which could float in 4 feet (1.3m) of water, the Vikings were able to make their way up rivers and land deep inside a country. For example they sailed up the River Shannon in Ireland and built a harbour 60 miles (100 km) from the coast.

There was a difference in who led Viking raids. In the 9th century Viking Age raids were led by men who may have been exiles in their own countries. The later Viking raids in the late 10th century and early 11th century and were led by Kings. Some of the early leaders tried to become kings with the riches they plundered from Europe and Russia. Some were successful but most were not."


Saga of Gudmundr the Good, written c 1710. © The most detailed accounts which we possess of the Viking Age are the Icelandic sagas. Some of these deal with the deeds of powerful rulers, such as the kings of Norway or the earls of Orkney. Others deal with the 'ordinary people' of Iceland, although the central characters even then tend to come from the ruling class. Often the sagas describe events in great detail, including what was said by those involved.

This may sound ideal for the historian, but the picture is far more complicated. The earliest sagas weren't written down until the twelfth century, and many of the most famous ones are even later. This means that the sagas were often written down two or three hundred years after the events which they describe, and it is not always clear where the compilers of the sagas used earlier material and where they simply made things up. There is a further problem that the sagas are primarily works of literature. Both events and particularly speech might well be rewritten to give a particular literary effect.

Detail from Saga of Gudmundr the Good © Historians in the nineteenth century accepted the sagas as more or less accurate accounts, except where they clearly strayed into mythology and fantasy. The graphic accounts of the sagas played a large part in the creation of the 'Viking' myth. More recently, historians have looked at the sagas more critically, and for a period in the late twentieth century, many historians wouldn't accept that the sagas had any historical value at all.

Today, most historians would accept that the sagas are not reliable, and that some saga material is clearly not factual, or reflects a much later society rather than the Viking Age. However, this does not mean that the sagas have no value at all. Sometimes the broad outline of events in the sagas is supported by other sources. In other words, we can use sagas to study history, but we have to be very careful when we do.

Watch this special operator lead a ship assault with a jetpack like Iron Man

Posted On April 28, 2021 22:52:00

From James Bond to Tony Stark, fictitious characters have inspired the idea of jetpacks and personal flying suits for decades. The technology has progressed exponentially in the 21st century. Defense departments and contractors around the world are developing personal transportation equipment to give individual soldiers an unprecedented increase in maneuverability on the battlefield.

Gravity Industries partnered with the Netherlands Maritime Special Operations Force in a practical test of its new Gravity Jet Suit. Using 1050bhp of thrust, the suit enables the assaulter to easily and precisely board an underway ship from the air. Normally, troops have to pull alongside in a boat or fast-rope from a helicopter. Four mini jet engines and a healthy dose of human balance from the operator allow for an incredible combination of speed and control. In fact, the system won Gravity a 2019 Guinness World Record for “fastest speed in a body controlled jet engine powered suit.”

As the technology develops and improves, so too does the application of the jetpack on the battlefield. In addition to underway boardings, jetpacks could provide enhanced capabilities to a number of different combat roles. Scouts could move quickly across the battlefield to locate and report on enemy troop composition and disposition. Airborne troops could be inserted with greater precision and survivability by flying onto a drop zone rather than falling. As with other military technologies like the internet and GPS, it would only be a matter of time before jetpacks became part of everyday civilian life too.


How the Vikings Worked

When the Northmen went i viking, they were well-armed and armored. Although a variety of weapons were used, including bows, lances and javelins, Vikings most commonly carried sturdy axes that could be thrown or swung with head-splitting force. The Viking longsword was also common -- a typical sword was about as long as a man's arm.

For armor, Vikings wore padded leather shirts, sometimes fronted by a breastplate of iron. Wealthier Vikings could afford chain mail shirts. They wore helmets of iron as well. Some were made of a solid piece hammered into a bowl or cone shape. Others were made of separate pieces riveted to an iron headband and riveted at the seams, or used leather to connect the pieces. An iron or leather nosepiece extended down to protect the face -- in some cases a more elaborate face guard was built to surround the eyes. Cheek guard extensions weren't uncommon. Viking shields were made of wood, again often fronted with pieces of iron.

One thing Vikings almost certainly did not wear on their heads was a horned helmet. Such a device would be impractical in battle, with excess weight poorly distributed, offering no real protective value. Archaeologists found such helmets at Scandinavian settlements and, in the absence of technology that allows us to date things precisely, assumed they belonged to the Vikings. Such helmets may have been worn by Scandinavian chieftains in the pre-Viking era. The image of the Viking in a horned helmet was cemented by use as costuming in operas, the preeminent pop culture entertainment in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Along with their weapons, the Vikings are well-known for their boats. The Viking longship, with which they are usually associated, was not the only type of vessel the Scandinavians built. They made merchant ships and cargo vessels as well. However, all of their designs have several common characteristics:

  • Riveted wood construction
  • Keel (the piece of wood on the bottom of a boat that helps keep it from tipping over)
  • Single mast with a square wool sail
  • Double-sided hull (both bow and stern were shaped the same, so the ship could move in either direction without turning around)
  • A side rudder

The hulls were coated with tarred animal fur to seal them against water. In all, a typical 70-foot longship would have required 11 trees, each three feet in diameter to build, plus a very tall tree to make the keel [source: Wolf]. Warships were narrower and had more oars to increase speed. The oarsmen didn't have special seats, they just sat on the crossbeams that made up the internal framework of the boat, or on trunks that contained their possessions. The oar holes could be covered by wood­en discs, and warships had mounts where the Vikings' shields could be lined up, adding extra protection from attacks.

The square Viking sail could be as large as 330 square feet of double-thick wool, often dyed red or with red stripes to strike fear into their enemies [source: Cohat]. The Vikings also used metal anchors and primitive navigation devices.