Vikings in Denmark: History, Raids, Fate


The people known as the Vikings thrived from the 8th century to the 11th century and came from areas belonging to present-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Denmark is conventionally considered the homeland of the Vikings.

The Vikings originated in Denmark in the late 700’s and persisted until the 11th century. Religiously, they adhered to Norse paganism, which included deities like Odin and Thor, but later embraced Christianity under the Danish king, Harald Bluetooth in the 900s.

The cultural and societal influence of the Vikings persists in Denmark, even into the 21st century. There still exists a number of relics and monuments from the Viking era all over Denmark, clear indicators of their historical importance on the Scandinavian nation. 

The Vikings’ rule would eventually come to encompass the majority of Scandinavia, and they would participate in massive amounts of trading and exploration, which helped build connective routes around the world.

Viking runes Denmark
Viking runes in Denmark

Denmark, and the rest of Scandinavia, was Christianized by the 11th century, though missionaries were present long before that.

Due to the Vikings’ practice of assimilating into the populations they conquered, the Vikings have had a long-lasting cultural, technological, and societal impact across Europe and the world.

Ragnar Lodbrok is one of the most well-known Vikings in history, yet myth surrounds his legend. See Ragnar Lodbrok: Separating Fact from Fiction to learn more.

Understanding Danish Vikings

The Vikings are often thought of as raiders and plunderers, yet many of them were courageous explorers and traders that helped spread the Viking influence far and wide. Vikings are thought to be responsible for helping shift European trading into a mercantile market economy. [1]

Around the 11th century, Denmark entered a period known as the High Middle Ages. [2] This period marks the point at which the medieval concepts of economics and politics in European society came to Denmark.

The influence of Christianity had an especially powerful effect on Vikings and is thought to have helped bring about the end of the Viking era. Harald Bluetooth embraced the religion and used it to unite his empire, but it also sowed the seeds to fade out the Vikings.

Viking pole axe
Viking pole axe

Vikings were skilled at crafting weapons and forged intricate jewelry and armor with their advanced metalworking skills. They adapted to the environments of the lands they conquered and would make efforts to perfect farming techniques and build long-lasting structures.

Their art included metalwork, wood crafts, carvings, and pottery, and many surviving artifacts have been found over the years in Denmark and elsewhere. [3]

Due to their influence, Vikings still hold a prominent place in modern Danish consciousness.

The Vikings are known for their seafaring abilities. But how far west did they travel? See Vikings in America: The Evidence to learn more.

Early Viking Battles

In the late 8th century, the Vikings initiated an attack on Lindisfarne monastery in northeastern England that marked the beginning of the Viking Age. [4]

The Vikings were not influenced by customs at the time that understood religious structures should be left untargeted by war, and thus the Vikings made several attacks upon undefended religious institutions and raided these monasteries without hesitation.

Early Viking raids were mostly sporadic, simply raiding for resources and not looking to establish dominance. Later, in the 9th century, Vikings would use tumultuous political conflicts of the time to push attacks further inland and begin to conquer areas in what is now France, Germany, and England.

Danish Vikings Raid England

In the late 800s, Danish Viking armies led by Halfdan Ragnarsson and Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye were able to conquer England.

Many of them settled into the area and became farmers and traders. [5]

Against King Alfred the Great, Halfdan and his brother Sigurd led the Great Heathen Army of Vikings from Denmark and successfully invaded East Anglia. [6]

They would come to establish Danish control over England for many subsequent years. It is uncertain was incited the initial raid against England.

Christian church Denamrk
Christian church in Denmark

Danish Viking Dominance

In the middle of the 10th century, Harald Bluetooth helped solidify the dominance of Danish Vikings by uniting the various tribes that had existed in the area and establishing Christianity as the religion of the land.

This powerful wave of Danish Vikings effectively brought about a second wave of the Viking Age. [7]

The What exactly was Denmark like before the Vikings came on the scene? See Scandinavia Before the Vikings to learn more.

With their amassed power, these late-stage Danish Vikings were able to successfully conduct large-scale raids throughout Europe. The Danish Vikings of this period were thus able to spread their influence wide and assimilate their traditions and practices into many different cultures.

In this time period, Vikings helped establish Danish social structures that divided society into three main classes: the elite, free men and women, and slaves, also called thralls. [8]

Viking women historically had more freedom than within many other cultures of the time. They were able to hold community leadership roles, initiate divorce, and own property. This was a somewhat remarkable amount of independence for women at the time.

The Fall of the Vikings

In 1066, a Viking led invasion to attempt to regain control of the English throne was defeated by William, Duke of Normandy. [9] William was crowned king of England and successfully defended the empire from future Viking attacks.

The dissolution of the Vikings came about in part due to Harald Bluetooth’s efforts of establishing Christianity in the empire. Christianity and other European ideals began to replace and modify what had been considered Viking traditions and culture.

Very quickly, the Viking society was absorbed and overwhelmed by the main cultural currents of Christian Europe and faded from existence.

The age of the Vikings is generally considered to be over by the 11th century.

A Timeline of the Ruling Figures of Denmark in the Time of the Vikings

Due to the fact that Viking culture did not encourage literacy, there is a great amount of speculation and conflicting ideas about Viking rulers and society since there are very little surviving records of the time.

Most information that is known has been gleaned from various sagas and texts, but there are still many contradictory accounts. 

Below is a summary of Viking rulers in Denmark and their approximate dates of reign.

Many of the rulers prior to Gorm the Old are known only from sagas and stories, and as such, much of their history may be fictional and often contradicts each other within sources. 

Ivar Vidfamne

Born in approximately 612 in what is now Denmark, Ivar Vidfavne (also called Ivar Vidfavne and Ivar Vidfadme) ruled Denmark as well as parts of Norway, Sweden, and England. [10] Because of his far-reaching conquest of Scandinavia as well as parts of Europe, Ivar was given the nickname Vidfamne which means “wide-fathoming.”

At this time, the area which would become Denmark was divided into two kingdoms, Scania and Zealand. [11] Ivar was born of the ruler of Scania, but his father was murdered by his mother, the daughter of the Swedish king.

Ivar fled in order to protect himself, but would later return with an army to exact his revenge upon his Swedish mother. He conquered Sweden and then took control of both Scania and Zealand. Ivar would rule with a particularly harsh hand. 

According to the Hervarar saga, he discovered his daughter had married a king from a neighboring land, Gardariki. [12] Ivar decided to attack Gardariki, but upon arrival he supposedly had a strange dream and asked for an interpretation before launching his attack.

The interpreter likened Ivar to the Midgaard Serpent, which upset the king and he threw himself overboard in an attempt to fight the interpreter, who was standing on the shore. [13]

Ivar disappeared into the waves and was never seen again. His death is therefore placed at approximately 700 A.D.

Valdar

According to the Hervarar saga, Valdar served as viceroy of Denmark under Ivar Vidfamne and married his daughter, Alfhild. [14] He would become King of Scania upon the death of Ivar Vidfamne.

Valdar supposedly had two sons. These sons were Randver and Harald Wartooth. 

Randver

Upon Valdar’s death, his son Randver took over the role of King of Denmark in the early 700s. [15] Randver married Asa Haraldsdottir of Agder and had one son, Sigurd Hring.

According to the Danish historian Svend Ellehoj, Randver would die in the midst of a battle in England. 

Ongendus

Ongendus is thought to have served as king of the Danes circa 710. [16] He is generally thought to have been responsible for the reinforcement and expansion of Dannevirke, although occasionally sources dispute the extent of his contributions. [17]

Dannevirke served as a series of defensive walls that ran along the Danish border and protected the nation from invasions from the South. Dannevirke also served to help protect Danish trade routes.

Very little is known about Ongendus, other than he is the first Danish king to be noted in contemporary literature. [18] According to Saint Willibrord, who visited the lands that would become Denmark while Ongendus was ruling, Ongendus was “more savage than any beast and harder than stone.” [19]

This would be quite the compliment for a ruler during the Viking era when a brutal nature and prowess in battle was held in high esteem.

Harald Wartooth

The other son of Valdar, Harald Wartooth is considered a legendary king of Denmark and ruled during the 8th century, and, depending on the source, his empire may have stretched to include parts of Sweden, Germany, England, and Jutland. [20]

According to Saxo Grammaticus, there are two stories of how Harald earned the name “Wartooth.” [21]

In one account, Harald was given the name after losing two of his teeth during a battle against Veseti, the then lord of Scania. Two new teeth supposedly grew to take the place of the missing teeth.

In another account, Harald was given the name simply due to his notably protruding teeth. Most accounts seem to generally see the title as a complementary one that attests to his skill on the battlefield.

At the young age of 15, in 705 Harald ruled over Scania and Zealand, the two kingdoms making up what is now present-day Denmark. He decided to make a claim for Sweden’s throne since his mother’s family had formerly ruled. Despite his young age, Harald was able to successfully conquer Sweden and defend it from minor rulers attempting to lay claim to it.

Harald took control of the areas of England that had been conquered by Ivar Vidfamne and appointed a hierarchy of minor kings and jarls in order to pay him tribute. [22] Depending on the source, Harald has a number of sons linked to him, including several that later go on to become kings. 

Perhaps the most interesting fact about Harald Wartooth is his death. Vikings believed a death on the battlefield meant an afterlife in Valhalla, a sacred realm reserved for honored warriors. [23]

Realizing he was dying of old age, Harald suggested to Hring, king of Sweden, to have a battle so that he could die in battle instead of in bed. By this time Harald was blind, and he rode out in a chariot into the fray with a sword in each hand. He died in this battle.

Sigfred

From approximately 777 to 798, the lands of present-day Denmark were ruled by Sigfred. He is thought to have succeeded Harald Wartooth as the king, but there is no conclusive evidence of the throne’s timeline.

According to Einhards Jahrbücher, Sigfred might be associated with the Swedish King Sigurd Hring, who defeated Harald Wartooth on the battlefield. [24] Sigurd Hring is considered the father of the notable Viking hero Ragnar Lodbrok, who would be chronicled in many sagas over the years. [25]

By the same source, it has also been suggested that Sigfred might be the son of Ongendus, but this seems less likely as it would place nearly 50 years between the two. 

Ragnar Lodbrok

According to Saxo Grammaticus, Ragnar ruled as the Danish and Swedish King during the early 800s. He is a popular figure among legends and sagas, but the accounts of his deeds are wildly varying and there is much debate as to whether he even existed as a singular person.

In the Historical Dictionary of the Vikings, Katherine Holman states that it is very likely that Ragnar is an “amalgam of historical figures and literary invention.” [26] Thus, Ragnar may have merely been a fictional character that compiled reassigned elements of truth from various rulers of the time.

Whatever the case, it is generally accepted that Ragnar had several sons. Holman lists these to include Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Bjorn Ironside, Ubba, Hvitserk, and Sigurd Snake-in the-Eye, although Hvitserk’s credibility is more doubtful than the others. These sons would go on to hold various positions of power in the Viking empire.

Gudfred

Ruling from 804 to 810, Gudfred is one of the first Danish kings from the Viking era who has substantial records available to verify his reign. [27] He sought to conquer lands in western Europe, specifically battling the Franks under Charlemagne, but didn’t make much headway overall during his period of rule.

Gudfred was able to acquire a fair amount of Eastern European lands, forcing Slavic people to pay tribute to him. Gudfred is also thought to have made significant contributions to the reinforcement of Dannevirke due to his desire to protect the Viking Danish lands from the Franks to the South. Dannevirke helped establish a protective wall on the border with Saxony. [28]

According to an account by Notker of St Gall, Gudfred was murdered by his own son with a sword while he was falconing. The motivation behind the murder was said to be due to the fact Gudfred had abandoned his wife and the son wished to avenge his mother’s honor. [29]

Halfdan Ragnarsson

Halfdan Ragnarsson is believed to be one of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. [30] He would share the Danish throne with his brother, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye.

In 865, he led the Vikings in what was known as the Great Heathen Army and invaded England, fighting against King Alfred the Great. Along with his brothers, Halfdan was able to successfully invade East Anglia with the Great Heathen Army.

The Great Heathen Army would then go on to invade Northumbria and in 866 they captured York. Halfdan would come to be the main commander of the Viking forces in East Anglia and would continue to vie for Danish control of the area for many years to come. He would eventually die in battle in approximately 877.

Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye

The brother of Halfdan Ragnarsson, Sigurd earned his unique name due to what is thought to be a physiological defect in his eye that was in the shape of a snake or dragon. He is considered a semi-legendary Viking warrior and ruled the lands of Denmark in the mid to late 9th century. [31]

It is uncertain when Sigurd died, and there is some thought he may have become the sole king of Denmark after the death of his brother, Halfdan Ragnarsson, in 873. 

Olaf the Brash

Unfortunately, very little is known about Olaf the Brash, and the only evidence of his reign is given by a German medieval scholar named Adam of Bremen, about which there is also very little known beyond his historical chronicles. [32]

Olaf the Brash is thought to have ruled Denmark in the 900s, usurping power from another leader named Helge, who is also only known through Adam of Bremen’s accounts. Olaf is thought to have been a Viking leader who came from Sweden and conquered Denmark. Very little else is known, other than he had numerous sons who would continue his dynasty for several more generations.

Gorm the Old

Perhaps one of the most famous of the Danish rulers during the Viking era, Gorm the Old reigned over Denmark from approximately 936 to 958. [33]

He also was the father of Harald Bluetooth, another considerably famous king of Denmark. Gorm is frequently cited as the true beginning of the Danish royal line due to the fact his reign is beyond doubt, unlike previously stated rulers.

The reign of Gorm the Old is mentioned by Adam of Bremen, the Rosklide Chronicle, the Jomsvikinge Saga, Olav Tryggvason’s Saga, Saxo Grammaticus, Sven Aggesen, Hauksbok Fagrskinna, and the Knylinge Saga. These accounts also make it clear that Gorm was a fierce Viking king and successfully ruled the lands until his death in 958.

Gorm ruled from Jelling, where he erected runic monuments that are still present today. This site is now considered a Unesco World Heritage Site. According to the World Heritage Site website, one of the monuments is a large stone that reads “King Gorm made this monument to his wife Thyra, Denmark’s ornament.”

Harald Bluetooth

Harald Bluetooth was the son of Gorm the Old and Queen Thyra. He is responsible for having established a runic stone at Jelling in honor of his father and mother. This stone is now part of the Unesco World Heritage Site at Jelling. [34]

Harald Bluetooth established a peace agreement with the Holy Roman Empire and converted to Catholicism, effectively increasing the Christian church’s influence over Denmark and Scandinavia. In addition to converting the Danes to Christianity, Harald was able to unite the various tribes of Denmark and Norway into one unified empire and one established religion.

Due to the fact he was able to unite these tribes, Bluetooth technology actually takes its name from Harald Bluetooth. [35] Jim Kardach, an engineer working on wireless technologies in the 1990s, saw a similarity in Harald’s unification of Scandinavia with what he hoped to accomplish among cellular and PC industries. The name was a winner and it still exists to this day, providing a modern-day call-back to a Viking king of Denmark.

It is thought that Harald Bluetooth died in 1070 at the hands of his son, Sweyn Forkbeard (grandfather to Sweyn II Estridsen.)

King Canute the Great

Canute, also known as Cnut, is thought to have been born between 985 and 995 AD and is often described as a fierce Viking leader. [36] Under his rule as a Danish prince, Canute’s forces were able to conquer the entirety of England with the exception of London in 1015.

In 1016, Canute would become the King of England as well as some Scandinavian lands as the result of a treaty drawn in 1015 between Canute and King Edmund of England. 

Canute took no chances in regard to threats to his throne and was quick to execute or exile any who posed a potential claim to his kingdom. [37]

Canute would go on to become king of Denmark in 1019 and later, in 1028, additionally obtained the throne of Norway. This meant Canute controlled a huge empire that came to be called the North Sea Empire.

Due to the fact that Canute the Great ruled over the majority of Vikings, he was able to protect England from the violent raids that had been plaguing the country. This allowed the country to begin to rebuild and flourish.

Canute died in 1035. His illegitimate son, Harald I, would take control of England. Denmark would fall into the control of Canute’s son Hardicanute.

Hardicanute

Hardicanute, also known as Harthacnut, was the son of Canut and grew up in Denmark. In the mid 11th century, while Canute was away, Canute’s brother Ulf established the young Hardicanute as King of Denmark without the approval of Canute. [38]

Canute returned and executed Ulf but promised the Danish throne to be inherited by his son Hardicanute upon his death.

When Canute died in 1035, Hardicanute took over Denmark. His attempts to claim his father’s lands in England were thwarted by his half-brother Harald I. 

Hardicanute was known for his love of alcohol and fine food, and in 1042 he died of what is generally presumed to be a stroke after years of excessive alcohol consumption and unhealthy eating habits.

Sweyn II Estridsen

Sweyn II Estridsen reigned as King of Denmark from 1047 to 1074. He was the son of a Danish earl and a sister of Canute I the Great. [39] His father was actually executed under the command of Canute, and Sweyn took refuge in Sweden for his own protection.

After Canute died in 1035 and Magnus of Norway took control of Denmark and became King in 1042, he appointed Sweyn as a viceroy.

While Magnus was away at battle in 1043, Sweyn claimed the Danish Viking throne. This inevitably resulted in a dispute with Magnus and his appointed successor, Harald Sigurdsson, and war broke out over the right to the Danish throne. [40]

Sweyn did not manage to defeat Harald’s forces, but Harald’s troops also did not effectively conquer Denmark because they preferred to plunder and raid rather than establish rule.

In 1064, the two leaders decided to resume control of their respective countries, with Harald taking control of Norway and Sweyn ruling Denmark, in order to pose a greater chance of victory when invading England.

In 1069, Sweyn’s forces were able to execute a successful attack on England and were left in an advantageous position. Rather than continuing to conquer, however, Sweyn formed an agreement with William I and peacefully retreated to Denmark.

Back in Denmark, Sweyn focused his attention on ridding the influence of the English church from the country and supporting the Danish Christian church. His efforts were unsuccessful, and the Viking age was already nearly dissolved.

After his death, the kingdom of Denmark would be ruled by five of his sons and his bloodline would control the throne for nearly 300 years. 

References:

[1] http://www.sourcinginnovation.com/archaeology/Arch07.htm

[2] https://www.britannica.com/place/Denmark/The-Viking-era

[3] http://www.sourcinginnovation.com/archaeology/Arch07.htm

[4] https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/vikings-history

[5] https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/vikings-history

[6] https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/great-heathen-army-viking-coalition-becomes-anglo-saxon-nightmare-009671

[7] https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/vikings-history

[8] https://www.britannica.com/place/Denmark/The-Viking-era

[9] https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/vikings-history

[10] https://www.geni.com/people/King-Ivar-Vidfamne-of-Sweden-Norway-Denmark-and-parts-of-England/5604946580450117771

[11] https://books.google.com/books?id=RrTCAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT87&lpg=PT87&dq=scania+and+zealand+danish+kingdoms&source=bl&ots=au_f7bNozA&sig=ACfU3U1IooHJkB6KmCI5pAY1JLKbnPSdfg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjriM_6y5rpAhXFF80KHUEVA4oQ6AEwDHoECAsQAQ#v=onepage&q=scania%20and%20zealand%20danish%20kingdoms&f=false

[12] http://slovene.ru/ojs/index.php/slovene/article/view/77

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivar_Vidfamne

[14] http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/The%20Saga%20Of%20King%20Heidrek%20The%20Wise.pdf

[15] http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/The%20Saga%20Of%20King%20Heidrek%20The%20Wise.pdf

[16] http://www.viking.no/e/denmark/e-danikin.htm

[17] https://norse-mythology.net/dannevirke-the-viking-wall-across-denmark/

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ongendus

[19] https://books.google.com/books?id=HY_klT7NjvAC&pg=PT51&lpg=PT51&dq=more+savage+than+any+beast+and+harder+than+stone%22&source=bl&ots=h_m6qfltS9&sig=ACfU3U1I3EVwdFmEhgqHD0Xp2NyIxCa05w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiuya3P3JrpAhVIG80KHUjUCV8Q6AEwAHoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=more%20savage%20than%20any%20beast%20and%20harder%20than%20stone%22&f=false

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jutland

[21] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saxo-Grammaticus

[22] https://historica.fandom.com/wiki/Harald_Wartooth

[23] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/valhalla

[24] http://www.mgh-bibliothek.de/dokumente/b/b025198.pdf

[25] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ragnar-Lothbrok

[26] https://books.google.com/books/about/Historical_Dictionary_of_the_Vikings.html?id=3wNpAAAAMAAJ

[27] https://pantheon.world/profile/person/Gudfred/

[28] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gudfred

[29] http://www.mgh-bibliothek.de/dokumente/b/b025198.pdf

[30] http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/vikings_19.html

[31] https://www.history.com/shows/vikings/cast/sigurd-snake-in-the-eye

[32] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_of_Bremen

[33] https://www.followthevikings.com/discover/famous-vikings/gorm-the-old

[34] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/697/

[35] https://www.pcworld.com/article/2061288/so-thats-why-its-called-bluetooth-and-other-surprising-tech-name-origins.html

[36] https://englishhistory.net/vikings/king-canute-the-great/

[37] https://englishhistory.net/vikings/king-canute-the-great/

[38] https://englishhistory.net/vikings/hardicanute/

[39] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sweyn-II-Estridsen

[40] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harald-III-Sigurdsson

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