Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

The Sea-Kings and their Daring Feats

From the word vik, or bay, comes the word viking, long used to designate the sea-rovers of the Northland, the bold Norse wanderers who for centuries made their way to the rich lands of the south on plundering raids. Beginning by darting out suddenly from hiding places in bays or river mouths to attack passing craft, they in the end became daring scourers of the seas and won for themselves kingdoms and dominions in the settled realms of the south.

Nothing was known of them in the early days. The people of southern Europe in the first Christian centuries hardly knew of the existence of the race of fair-skinned and light-haired barbarians who dwelt in the great peninsula of the north. It was not until near the year 800 B.C. that these bold brigands learned that riches awaited those who dared seize it on the shores of France, England, and more southern lands. Then they came in fleets and spread terror wherever they appeared. For several centuries the realms of civilization trembled before their very name.

"From the fury of the Northmen, Good Lord deliver us!" prayed the priests, and the people joined fervently in the prayer.

Long before this period the sea was the favorite hunting ground of the daring sons of the north, but the small chiefs of that period preyed upon each other, harrying their neighbors and letting distant lands alone. But as the power of the chiefs, and their ability to protect themselves increased, this mode of gaining wealth and fame lost its ease and attraction and the rovers began to rove farther afield.

Sea-kings they called themselves. On land the ruler of a province might be called either earl or king, but the earl who went abroad with his followers on warlike excursions was content with no less name than king, and the chiefs who set out on plundering cruises became from the first known as sea-kings. Pirates and freebooters we would call them to-day, but they were held in high distinction in their native land, and some of the most cruel of them, on their return home, became men of influence, with all the morality and sense of honor known in those early days. Their lives of ravage and outrage won them esteem at home and the daring and successful sea-king ranked in fame with the noblest of the home-staying chiefs. We have seen how King Erik began his career as a viking and ended it in the same pursuit; how Rollo, a king's son, adopted the same profession; and from this it may be seen that the term was one of honor instead of disgrace.

From all the lands of the north they came, these dreaded sons of the sea, from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark alike, fierce heathens they who cared nought for church or priest, but liked best to rob chapels and monasteries, for there the greatest stores of gold and silver could be found. When the churches were plundered they often left them in flames, as they also did the strong cities they captured and sacked. The small, light boats with which they dared the sea in its wrath were able to go far up the rivers, and wherever these fierce and bloodthirsty rovers appeared wild panic spread far around. So fond were they of sword-thrust and battle that one viking crew would often challenge another for the pure delight of fighting. A torment and scourge they were wherever they appeared.

The first we hear in history of the sea-kings is in the year 787, when a small party of them landed on the English coast. In 794 came another flock of these vultures of the sea, who robbed a church and a monastery, plundering and killing, and being killed in their turn when a storm wrecked their ships and threw them on shore. As a good monk writes of them: "The heathen came from the northern countries to Britain like stinging wasps, roamed about like savage wolves, robbing, biting, killing not only horses, sheep, and cattle, but also priests, acolytes, monks, and nuns."

The Norsemen had found a gold mine in the south and from this time on they worked it with fierce hands. Few dared face them, and even in the days of the great Charlemagne they ravaged the coast lands of France. Once, when the great emperor was in one of his cities on the Mediterranean coast, a fleet of the swift viking ships, known by their square sails, entered the harbor. Soon word was brought that they had landed and were plundering. Who they were the people knew not, some saying that they were Jews, others Africans, and others that they were British merchants.

"No merchants they," said the emperor. "Those ships do not bring us goods, but fierce foes, bloody fighters from the north."

The warriors around him at once seized their weapons and hurried to the shore, but the vikings had learned that the great emperor was in the city and, not daring to face him, had sought their ships and spread their sails again. Tears came to the eyes of Charlemagne as he watched them in their outward flight. He said to those around him:

"It is not for fear that these brigands can do me any harm that I weep, but for their daring to show themselves on this coast while I am alive. Their coming makes me foresee and fear the harm they may do to my descendants."

This story may be one of those legends which the monks were fond of telling, but it serves to show how the dread Norsemen were feared. France was one of their chief fields of ravage and slaughter. First coming in single ships, to rob and flee, they soon began to come in fleets and grew daring enough to attack and sack cities. Hastings, one of the most renowned of them all, did not hesitate to attack the greatest cities of the south.

In 841 this bold freebooter sailed up the Loire with a large fleet, took and burned the city of Amboise, and laid siege to Tours. But here the inhabitants, aided, it is said, by the bones of their patron saint, drove him off. Four years later he made an attack on Paris, and as fortune followed his flag he grew so daring that he sought to capture the city of Rome and force the Pope to crown him emperor.

For an account of this remarkable adventure of the bold Hastings see the article, "The Raids of the Sea-Rovers," in the German volume of "Historical Tales." In that account are also given the chief exploits of the vikings in France and Germany. We shall therefore confine ourselves in the remainder of this article to their operations in other lands, and especially in Ireland.

This country was a common field for the depredations of the Norse rovers. For some reason not very clear to us the early vikings did not trouble England greatly, but for many years they spread terror through the sister isle, and in the year 838 Thorgisl, one of their boldest leaders, came with a fleet of one hundred and twenty ships, with which he attacked and captured the city of Dublin, and afterwards, as an old author tells us, he conquered all Ireland, securing his conquest with stone forts surrounded with deep moats.

But the Irish at length got rid of their conqueror by a stratagem. It was through love that the sea-king was lost. Bewitched with the charms of the fair daughter of Maelsechnail, one of the petty kings of the land, he bade this chieftain to send her to him, with fifteen young maidens in her train. He agreed to meet her on an island in Loch Erne with as many Norsemen of high degree.

Maelsechnail obeyed, but his maidens were beardless young men, dressed like women but armed with sharp daggers. Thorgisl and his men, taken by surprise, were attacked and slain. The Irish chief had once before asked Thorgisl how he should rid himself of some troublesome birds that had invaded the island. "Destroy their nests," said the Norseman. It was wise advice, and Maelsechnail put it in effect against the nests of the conquerors, destroying their stone strongholds, and killing or driving them away, with the aid of his fellow chieftains.

Thus for a time Ireland was freed. It was conquered again by Olaf the White, who in 852 defeated some Danes who had taken Dublin, and then, like Thorgisl, began to build castles and tax the people. Two other viking leaders won kingdoms in Ireland, but Olaf was the most powerful of them all, and the kingdom founded by him lasted for three hundred and fifty years. From Dublin Olaf sailed to Scotland and England, the booty he won filling two hundred ships.

The sea-rovers did not confine their voyages to settled lands. Bold ocean wanderers, fearless of man on shore and tempest on the waves, they visited all the islands of the north and dared the perils of the unknown sea. They rounded the North Cape and made their way into the White Sea as early as 750. The Faroe, the Orkney and the Shetland Islands were often visited by them after 825, and in 874 they discovered Iceland, which had been reached and settled by Irishmen or Scots about 800. The Norsemen found here only some Irish hermits and monks, and these, disturbed in their peaceful retreat by the turbulent newcomers, made their way back to Ireland and left the Norsemen lords of the land. From Iceland the rovers reached Greenland, which was settled in 986, and about the year 1000 they discovered North America, at a place they named Vinland.

Such is, briefly told, the story of the early Norse wanderers. They had a later tale, of which we have told part in their conquest of Ireland. Though at first they came with a few ships, and were content to attack a town or a monastery, they soon grew more daring and their forces larger. A number of them would now fortify themselves on some coast elevation and make it a centre for plundering raids into the surrounding country. At a later date many of them ceased to pose as pirates and took the rôle of invaders and conquerors, storming and taking cities and founding governments in the invaded land.

Such was the work of Thorgisl and Olaf in Ireland and of Rollo in Normandy. England was a frequent field of invasion after 833, which continued until 851, when King Ethelwulf defeated them with great slaughter. Fifteen years later they came again, these new invaders being almost all Danes. During all his reign Alfred the Great fought with them, but in spite of his efforts they gained a footing in the island, becoming its masters in the north and east. A century later, in 1016, Canute, the king of Denmark, completed the conquest and became king of all England.

This is not the whole story of the sea-kings, whose daring voyages and raids made up much of the history of those centuries. One of the most important events in viking history took place in 862, when three brother chiefs, probably from Sweden, who had won fame in the Baltic Sea, were invited by the Russian tribes south of Lake Ladoga to come and rule over them. They did so, making Novgorod their capital. From this grew the empire of Russia, which was ruled over by the descendants of Rurik, the principal of these chiefs, until 1598.

Other vikings made their way southward through Russia and, sailing down the Dnieper, put Constantinople in peril. Only a storm which scattered their fleet saved the great city from capture. Three times later they appeared before Constantinople, twice (in 904 and 945) being bought off by the emperors with large sums of money. Later on the emperors had a picked body-guard of Varangians, as they called the Northmen, and kept these till the fall of the city in 1453. It was deemed a great honor in the north to serve in this choice cohort at Myklegaard (Great City), and those who returned from there doubtless carried many of the elements of civilization to the Scandinavian shores.

To some of these Varangians was due the conquest of Sicily by the Northmen. They were in the army sent from Constantinople to conquer that island, and seeing how goodly a land it was they aided in its final conquest, which was made by Robert Guiscard, a noble of Normandy, whose son Roger took the title of "King of Sicily and Italy." Thus it was that the viking voyages led within a few centuries to the founding of kingdoms under Norse rulers in England, Ireland, Sicily, Russia, and Normandy in France.