As Christianity spread throughout Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, those who refused to believe the new dogma were driven underground. Pagans across Scandinavia secretly held onto their ancient Norse myths—particularly those of Thor, the god of thunder, noble warrior, and divine protector. Devotees of this cult of Thor would go on to become the most notorious gang of marauders the world has ever known.
While the Vikings—a Scandinavian term for “pirate,” which has Norse roots—mostly came from the area that is now Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, they were not a race of people per se. Rather, members of the region’s differing kingdoms and tribes found commonality in both their heathenism and hankering for riches.
As early as the 7th century CE, great commercial centers began popping up across the north of Europe, including the former Dorestad in what is now The Netherlands, and Quentovic near the English Channel, along with Lundenwic (London), Gipeswic (Ipswich), and York in modern-day England. These emporia grew rich off the new trend in local trading, with Scandinavian furs as a prized commodity.
During their interactions, Germanic fur traders learned of new sailing techniques and technologies—leading to the creation of the famous longship—as well as the ever-growing riches in these booming markets. These Vikings or Norsemen (“Northmen”) would begin preying on merchant ships and raiding vulnerable coastal sites, particularly unguarded monasteries throughout the British Isles.
The first recorded large-scale attack, which took place in 793 CE on the Lindisfarne monastery in northeastern England, revealed a new brand of bandit, one without respect for religious icons and institutions. At first, the Vikings limited their activities to such monastic raids, but they soon began taking advantage of long-held rivalries among European kingdoms to spread their own freebooting reign.
From the 8th through 11th centuries, with Thor as their divine guardian, these pillagers would leave a trail that stretched across the United Kingdom and much of the Continent, including the sackings of Nantes, Seville, and Pisa. In 911 CE, in exchange for protection from other attackers, the king of West Fracia granted Vikings the city of Rouen and its surrounding territory in northern France—what is today known as Normandy, or the “land of the Northmen.”
Soon these marauding mercenaries would occupy Iceland, Greenland, and parts of modern-day Russia; storied explorer Leif Eriksson is credited with colonizing Newfoundland and the northeastern seaboard of North America. Indeed, Viking seafaring prowess would expand Norse culture into Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.
By the beginning of the 11th century, Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his pilfering Norsemen had conquered the entire British kingdom, making Sweyn king of England. Skirmishes to regain the British throne would continue for the next few decades until 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the last great Viking king, Harald Hardrada, at Stamford Bridge near York. The famous Battle of Hastings would mark the beginning of the Norman Conquest as well as the end of the Viking Age—an era marked by great battles, technological innovation, and lasting contributions to commerce, democracy, and Western culture that would have made Thor proud.