Viking Invasion

From Assassin's Creed Valhalla, to television series The Last Kingdom, vikings dominate our screens like never before. Historian Tom Holland argues the medieval plunderers are perfectly suited to the strut and swagger required for modern-day blockbusters.

Assassins Creed Valhalla

Viking Invasion

From the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla video game, to television series The Last Kingdom, vikings dominate our screens like never before. Tom Holland argues the medieval plunderers are perfectly suited to the strut and swagger required for modern-day blockbusters.

We are currently in the midst of a Viking invasion. Mead-halls and battle-axes are everywhere. Last November, when Ubisoft released a Viking-themed version of Assassin’s Creed, the launch week sales were the largest in the franchise’s history. Two long-running TV dramas, Vikings and The Last Kingdom, have both been building to berserkir climaxes. In 2020, Neil Price’s new history of the Vikings, The Children of Ash and Elm, was the Sunday Times history book of the year. Monks, scanning the grey waters of the North Sea, used to dread the sight of dragon-ships. Not us, it seems. We can’t have enough of dragon-ships. The more the merrier.

In one sense, this is nothing new. “The Vikings!” wrote an author of historical novels for children back in 1895. “What a world of conjecture and romance unfolds itself before the youthful imaginative mind at the word.” In the 19th century, when there were no PlayStations or streaming platforms, the youthful imaginative mind chiefly had to content itself with adventure books; but today the scope for bringing the Viking world back to life has outsoared the wildest dreams of the Victorians. The appeal in a time of lockdown is, perhaps, particularly strong. To leave a cramped and dreary existence behind; to roam the world; to scorn rules, to dismiss fears, to laugh in the face of danger: such is how we imagine the Viking spirit. Who – even if only as a fantasy – would not want a bit of that right now? 

To be a Viking – a Vikingr – was to be a pirate. That, in Old Norse, was what the word meant. Obviously, not everyone in early medieval Scandinavia was a Vikingr. There were merchants, and craftsmen, and thralls. There were women who kept the home, and seamstresses, and concubines. Shield maidens – despite what Assassin’s Creed Valhalla may imply – were vanishingly rare. The consensus on this has not been altered by the discovery four years ago that a skeleton found buried in a Swedish chamber grave with weapons was female.

Katheryn Winnick playing the shield maiden Lagertha in Vikings

That Viking women were capable on occasion of subverting the assumptions of the society in which they lived does not alter the fact that these assumptions were overwhelmingly patriarchal. Taking to the seas and pillaging monasteries was essentially a masculine activity. The proper sphere of women was seen as the home. Unsurprisingly, then, some scholars have felt uncomfortable with using the word ‘Viking’ to describe an entire civilisation. Yet still we use it. This is partly because there is no obvious alternative; and partly because it does indeed express something vital about the age. That Scandinavians in the early Middle Ages were given to stalking the seas, and looting treasure, and exulting in displays of extreme violence, was not just monkish propaganda. The Vikings were indeed a most piratical people.

“My sword is gore-greedy.” Such is the kind of small talk that features in Assassins Creed Valhalla. The Viking Age – as conventionally measured by historians – began with blood dripping from weapons, and ended with it as well. On 8 June 793, “heathen men” from across the seas descended on Lindisfarne, a wealthy monastery on an island off the coast of Northumbria. Their arrival had been portended by fearsome omens: whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons seen in the sky.

Shock among the Northumbrians that men would dare to attack a shrine holy to God was rivalled only by the surprise of the raiders themselves at finding an unguarded repository of treasure standing conveniently beside the sea. No surprise, then, that the Vikings, over the decades and centuries that followed, should have kept coming back. By 1066, when an entire fleet of dragon-ships came gliding up the Humber, the kingdom of Northumbria had been the object of Viking ambitions for almost 300 years. Those ambitions, over the course of the centuries, had swollen immoderately.


The warlord who in the summer of 1066 had sailed with his army across the North Sea was not a man to rest content with scooping up a mere armful of treasure. Harald Hardrada – ‘the Hard Ruler’ – was already the king of Norway. Now he aimed to seize the throne of England as well. Fate, though, had determined otherwise. Taken by surprise at Stamford Bridge, seven miles east of York, Hardrada and his army were wiped out. It was to prove a fateful moment. 1066 would indeed see a warlord from overseas seize the throne of England – but one who had crossed the Channel, not the North Sea. William the Conqueror was himself descended from Nordmanni, ‘Northmen’; but his dynasty had long ceased to rank as a Viking one. The conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy marked the effective end of an era. The sun had set on the Viking age.

Even so, in England, the trauma of it took long to ease. A few decades on from 1066, a chronicler identified the Vikings as the most terrifying of all the various peoples who had invaded Britain. Unlike the Romans or the Normans, they had “swoooped and rushed upon the land from all directions very frequently over a long period, not aiming to possess it but rather to plunder it, and desiring not to govern but rather to destroy everything.” This was not entirely fair: the Vikings had settled as well as raided Britain, founding settlements, ploughing fields, and stamping dialects across the island with the markers of their language.

The English, though, could be forgiven for remembering them as a pack of predators. In the 9th century, Christian civilisation in their country had come perilously close to being snuffed out entirely. It was a time of fire and slaughter. With no unitary state existing in southern Britain at the time, only a patchwork of fractious kingdoms – Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia – the Vikings had found it a simple matter to graduate from raiding to conquest. Realm after realm was plundered, dismembered, and brought crashing down. By 878, only one was left standing: the kingdom of Wessex.

Then, “in mid-winter after Twelfth Night,” a Viking war-band descended unforeseen upon the Wiltshire fortress of Chippenham. The king of Wessex, Alfred, was ambushed and sent fleeing into a marsh. The entire future of England hung by a thread. Alfred, though refused to buckle. Emerging from the marshes, he scoured his kingdom free of the invaders; he planted towns, ringed about with fortifications and endowed with market places for the generation of war taxes, at regular intervals all over Wessex; he steeled his people for continued struggle. The harvest of these labours, reaped by his heirs over the succeeding decades, proved a spectacular one.

Vikings beyond the borders of Wessex were systematically subdued. In 937, in a bloody and titanic battle fought at an unknown place called Brunanburh, an assemblage of Vikings drawn from their settlements across the British Isles was met and heroically routed. The victor, Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, proclaimed himself ‘King of all Britain’. The title turned out to have been over-optimistic; but a second – ‘King of the English’ – did not. The achievement of Alfred and his heirs was to prove as enduring as it was momentous. Out of the fire and slaughter of defeat, a united kingdom of England had been forged.  

England looked very different in the eighth century.

This is the story told by Bernard Cornwall in the series of novels which, adapted for television, became The Last Kingdom. Compressed and severely distorted, it also provides the early seasons of Vikings with their central structure. Both TV series stand in a long tradition of story-telling, one which reaches back through Victorian adventure fiction, medieval romances and Icelandic epics. The narrative – fittingly for one that helped to inspire Game of Thrones – is both soaring, and adorned with spectacular deaths.

There is Ragnar Lothbrok – ‘Hairy Breeches’ – flung into a pit of poisonous snakes, and laughing as he dies. There is Aella, the Northumbrian king who had ordered Ragnar’s murder, and who, captured by Ragnar’s sons, has his ribs severed from his spine, and his lungs pulled out so that they look like wings: the ‘blood eagle’. There is Edmund, the king of East Anglia, shot through with arrows by his captors until he bristles like a hedgehog, and whose severed head, abandoned in a wood, is guarded by a talking wolf. These ancient tales, recalibrated for the age of Netflix, have lost nothing of their power to shock and grip. 

Lothbrok’s death by snakepit was portrayed in TV series Vikings.

Not, of course, that England was the only theatre of Viking conquest. The plot of Assassins Creed Valhalla ranges as far afield as Vinland, in what today we know as North America. In the later series of Vikings, the action moves from Britain to Russia. From Iceland to north Africa, from Canada to the Caspian Sea, the Vikings were the first people in history to reach four continents.

“Far they travelled, and manfully, to win gold.” This epitaph, inscribed on the memorial to a Swedish adventurer, might just as well have served as the epitaph of Harald Hardrada. His attempt to conquer England was only the last in a series of adventures that over the course of his life had taken him far beyond the limits of his native Norway. As a young man, he had fled a murderous dynastic feud in his homeland for Russia: a land reliably reported to be the haunt of giants and men with mouths between their nipples, but also of booming Viking trading-posts such as Novgorod and Kiev, towns brash with frontier spirit.

Beyond them lay Constantinople, the golden capital of the Byzantine Empire – ‘Miklagard,’ as the Vikings knew it. There, brave, towering, formidable with an axe, Harald had carved out a brilliant career for himself. The name he made for himself as a mercenary in Caesar’s service came to echo as far afield as Iceland. According to one of the epics written there, he had liberated the Holy Land from the Saracens, caught the eye of an empress, and fought a dragon. This was how Harald had ended up rich enough to return to Norway. With treasure, he had won himself followers; with followers, he had made himself a king. 

How much of this story was true? Not every detail of it, clearly. The Icelandic epic which narrated Harald’s career was written in the 13th century, long after the events it describes. How trustworthy is it, then, as a source for what might actually have happened? The challenge of answering this question is compounded by the fact that the Vikings themselves – the odd inscription excepted – wrote nothing.


The overwhelming majority of the contemporary sources for their activities derive instead from their victims, whose horror at “the ravages of heathen men” was hardly conducive to arriving at a measured perspective on their character and beliefs. This is why – more, perhaps, than any other ancient people – the Vikings occupy a dimension in the popular imagination that is potently ambivalent. Suspended as they are midway between history and myth, the real and the imaginary, they are perfectly suited to the strut and swagger required of a shoot ‘em up computer game, or a long-running fantasy series. They are a people whose weapons can be seen in museums, but who are also said to have fought with dragons.

It is hard to believe that the Vikings themselves would not have enjoyed Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. So far as we can tell, the notion that reality was something forever shifting, and that boundaries were almost by definition traversable, was fundamental to how they understood existence. Twelve years ago a silver statuette was discovered in Denmark. It portrays a seated figure dressed in the apron and necklaces of Freyja, the goddess who was believed to have taught sorcery to mankind.

On either side of the figure are perched the two pet ravens of Odin, the ‘All-Father’, king of the gods. Which of the two deities does the figurine represent? It might be either – or both. In the Viking world, where warriors were rumoured to turn into bears and anxious abbots reported rumours of masks that gave men the heads of dogs, nothing was ever stable. Such a world was one that promised those who dwelt in it infinite adventure – and does so still. 

Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster.

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