The island of Lindisfarne, not far to the south and east of Edinburgh. The year is 793. A horde of hirsute, lousy, smelly and cruel Vikings attack the humble, saintly, defenceless christian monks. They pillage, rape, kill, plunder and loot the monastery, stealing the cover for the Lindisfarne Gospels as well as much more. Tales of the Vikings could easily open like this.
These Vikings understood the value of gold and gemstones. The Lindisfarne Gospel was nothing but a collection of colourful doodles, painted on useless vellum, whereas the binding was covered with jewels and precious metals. It was no surprise then, when the cover vanished at the same time the longboats left Lindisfarne behind. The Gospel itself was no use to the Vikings, who worshipped the Norse gods instead. Fortunately for us the gospel survived up to our time and is now on display in the British Library in London – but without its binding – a testimony to a Viking raid more than a 1000 years ago.
Are you a modern Viking?
The Vikings were not just pirates, raiders and barbarians. They were also merchants, explorers, peasants, founders of an empire and they had an international outlook. Many aspects of the Viking way of life and culture are still present in modern Denmark. The thrill of travelling, a receptive mind and openmindedness towards the rest of the world, a talent for trade, strong and independent-minded women. This were also Viking virtues. Wouldn’t you agree this is also characteristic of modern Danes?
Let us turn our attention to present day Denmark with the borders as they are today. There is a vast number of locations around Denmark where you can still find the remnants of the Viking Age. A Viking-themed vacation in Denmark might be a brilliant idea if you want a general theme for a trip around Denmark and discover some exciting, beautiful and scenic locations.
Viking Markets – re-enacting History
Many Danes practise the Viking way of life as a hobby and have fun re-enacting Viking Culture at markets all over Denmark. The actors themselves have great fun and the tourists as well when they when they become stand-ins at some of the many Viking markets around Denmark during summer. Without mentioning them all, you can find Viking markets e.g. at Bork Havn, at Moesgaard Museum, in the Iron Age village in Odense and in Ribe.
Many of the dedicated participants at the Viking markets go all in. In this way, they re-enact history and demonstrate what it was like to live way back when. You will find these reenactors most fascinating when they demonstrate Vikings dress, what kind of shoes they had, which kind of weapons they used – entertainment and education merge in a happy way, providing a very vivid experience for young and old. Just imagine being back from a journey abroad and telling friends and family, “I had a discussion with a Viking. He spoke a beautiful English”. I expect most children will find it cool – even if it is a modern Viking.
In cartoons, comics and not least in some parts of the tourist industry, Vikings are portrayed as fierce, axe wielding warriors carrying rounded shields and wearing helmets with horns. Let us agree this is a distorted or factious picture of the Vikings – but the production has been effective. Most of us probably picture vikings this way.
The Real Vikings – Seriously now
If you are still curious after visiting the Viking markets, it might be a good idea to book a tour with a professional local guide for you and your family. Obviously not for your entire holiday around Denmark, but at some sites it makes very good sense and the guide can transform your visit into something better by explaining, telling the stories and – not least – answering most of your questions. A good example of a worthwhile trip could be a visit to the birthplace of Denmark, the rune stones at Jelling and the somewhat controversial Viking bridge Ravningbroen also near Vejle. There also are the ring forts at Trelleborg near Slagelse and at the newly discovered Borgring near Køge, as well as Fyrkat, Aggersborg and Lindholm Høje in Northern Jutland where the Vikings also had a stronghold.
Alternatively, choose a city walk in Odense, and you can learn the story of where and why the Vikings built Nonnebakken, i.e. Nuns’ Hill as later Sancta Clara Nuns had a nunnery here. Or visit Ribe which has a long history going back to the Vikings. This is where Christianity entered Denmark and the very first church on Danish soil was built here. At Ladbyskibet, the Ladby Boat on Funen and at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, focus is on sefaring Vikings. As you can see, there are quite a number of places in Denmark that are connected to the Vikings and far from all of them were mentioned here.
Today we know of a number of Viking ring forts or Viking fortresses spread all over Denmark and one in Scania. As to the purpose of the ring forts we do not know for sure. It is characteristic that they are all almost circular and roughly similar in shape. Obviously they were planned with a view to defence of the realm, the protection of those who stayed in the ring forts and to project royal power.
It is rather interesting that we keep discovering new ring forts. In 2014, a new one was discovered, namely Borgring near Køge and excavations were completed in 2019. Now in 2020 an excavation has just been started on Falster of yet another new find of what probably was a Viking fortress. The fortified area appears to be significantly larger than any of the other ring forts we know about. With anticipation, we look forward to the results once archaeologists and historians have finished their work, but we will have to wait as the excavations have only just begun.
Harold Bluetooth – King, Viking and Murder victim
I believe that most Danes will think of Harold Bluetooth if challenged to quickly name a Viking king. Harold Bluetooth is probably best known for uniting Denmark and Norway into one kingdom, introducing Christianity and for establishing several ring forts in his kingdom. Harold Bluetooth was the son of Gorm the Old and today we know Harold’s son as Sweyn Forkbeard. What is so incredible about both Viking kings is the vast lands they ruled over.
Harold Bluetooth ruled Denmark and Norway. However, we do not know exactly how vast an area that really was or whether Norway under Harold Bluetooth was identical to Norway as we know it today, probably not. However, it must have been a vast territory with extremely long distances at a time when travelling 10-15 miles on foot or riding a horse would be considered a full days travel. It is quite clear that only the ability of the people to travel by boat would unite and hold the realm together. Key words were mobility and seatravel. It may come as a surprise when you consider how small a country Denmark now is, but it is certainly no coincidence that even today the world’s largest shipping company is Danish – Maersk. We have a history we can be proud of and from which we have learned a lot.
Obviously, the king himself could not be present and visible at all times throughout the country, he needed support from strong allies and men of great power who were placed strategically around in his kingdom. Regardless the number of allies and friends, such a vast area could only be ruled with a high-level organization. Our guide can explain how this could be done e.g. on a visit to one of the ring forts. The secret was mobility rather than strength in numbers and fortifications. All ringforts are located in easily accessible areas that the Viking boats could easily reach. This tradition continues after the Viking Age into the middle ages. The oldest, surviving Danish royal residence is Nyborg Castle, which is in the centre of Denmark and just 1 km from a good natural harbour.
Sweyn Forkbeard – King of Denmark and England
Sweyn Forkbeard was as powerful as his father was. He also ruled vast areas. He conquered much of England, and along the way he deposed his father. It came to a chase between the longboats in the Baltic Sea. Harold sailed from settlement to settlement to seek assistance; probably he buried parts of his treasure on Hiddensee during the escape before he continued west. At least that would explain the large viking treasure hoard from this time recently found there. Soon after, he was captured and killed in Hedeby, now part of northern Germany.
Harold Bluetooth was far from the last Danish king to be killed in rivalry over the throne. Also the kings Erik Klipping and King Niels, who was also cornered in Hedeby following a long escape and killed more than 100 years after Harold. This was was a generation after his brother Canute was killed in Odense and canonized shortly after. This explains why the modern city of Odense has the Cathedral of St. Knud. A guide can introduce you to these dramatic events and show you the remains of Saint Canute, which are on display in the church. The story is so much more captivating when a guide explains what happened to the king, and it is arguably much more interesting to look at bones in a coffin when you actually understand what this regicide was all about.
The Danelaw – Danish Vikings in England
It is rather impressing to image how Sweyn Forkbeard along with only a few hundred or a few thousand men managed to conquer large parts of England at a time when the most deadly weapons were probably swords, spears and axes. At this time, Vikings really did not know and master siege warfare. Do you know about the Danelaw? Danelaw is the area in England that was ruled by Sweyn Forkbeard and where he collected Danegeld from the locals, which in modern language would be tax or rather a kind of protection money to keep the peace. I.e. he would not attack as long as the subject kept paying. In 1015 his son, Canute the Great became the last Viking king in England while his brother Harald Hen became king in Denmark. Unfortunately, we do not know much about Harald Hen as a king – apart from his name.
Vikings – Warriors, Seafarers and Merchants
Is it primarily the warlike attitude we should remember the Vikings for? Far from it. The Vikings were basically merchants with an open mind towards the rest of the world. They travelled far and wide in Europe and their journeys were mostly about trade. They were sailors. They sailed on the North Sea, on the European and Russian rivers and all over the Baltic. Maybe they went even further. Greenland and Iceland were colonized and we know about a few places on the Newfoundland coast that the Vikings also reached with their boats. In those days it was quite an achievement as they has only the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate by and oars and sails to make the ship move forward.
Have you recently seen the bridge of a modern ship with all the modern equipment, satellites and satnav used today to stay on course and on the proper sailing route? The Vikings could manage without modern technology, even without a compass. Had they not had the highest professional expertise as shipbuilders and navigators, they would have quickly perished on the open sea. They usually did not. They reached their destination. We can only admire them for that.
Havhingsten – a Modern Viking ship
A few years ago, some shipbuilders chose to investigate if the Vikings’ shipbuilding and sailing techniques had been figured out right. At the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde they made a replica of a Viking ship found in Roskilde Fjord and excavated. The replica was named Havhingsten, i.e. the Sea Stallion from Glendalough. This ship was manned, rowed, and sailed to Dublin. The Sea Stallion from Glendaloug, often just called the Sea Stallion, is a replica of the longest of the Skuldelev boats, which are five Viking ships excavated in Roskilde Fjord in the early 1960s. With a crew of close to 60 people the Sea Stallion was sailed to Dublin. An impressive achievement. If you would like to see the Sea Stallion you should plan a visit to the Viking Ship Museum.
The Sea Stallion is far from the only replica of a Viking ship in Denmark. The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde has several other replicas of various ships and at Ladbyskibet on Funen, a group of volunteers at the museum have also built a replica of Ladbyskibet, the Ladby Dragon. Unfortunately, it is not quite finished and fully seaworthy yet, but during the summer you can see it moored in Kerteminde Fjord. To be anchored is definitely not very Viking-like, but Vikings are true professionals. While the crew still lacks adequate training, the Ladby Dragon cannot leave. At the moment the crew is practising their skills and it needs lots of practise. Once all members of the crew have enough experience and all preparations are complete, the world lies open to another Viking ship. It can finally take off and sail out to new adventures. So Beware! More Vikings are on their way.
Is there anything more Viking-like than traveling, visiting new places and bringing back good things, memories and impulses from around the world? This is something we Danes have greatly appreciated for centuries, and fortunately it is now possible to travel in style and comfort across Denmark and Europe and reenact that Viking spirit without considering it part of the itinerary to smash the skulls of those monks at Lindisfarne.