Loyal warrior and peaceful farmer; skilled craftsman and crafty trader. The Norseman has many astonishing qualities for someone commonly seen as a bloodthirsty, unprincipled marauder, but perhaps one of his most astonishing traits is a seemingly unquenchable lust for adventure and travel, which often leads him far from his native land.
The Norseman seems to be everywhere in the ancient world: his longboats can be found docked in the harbours of England and France; his caravans loaded with goods can be discerned winding their way through the desert to the markets of Arabia; his cattle can be heard calling on the slopes of the most isolated islands of the Atlantic Ocean; his laughter can be heard ringing through the corridors of Eastern palaces. Every corner of Europe, no matter how far from their frigid home, seems to harbour a Norseman or two.
A new home in the North
Towards the north, one would hardly be surprised to find the Norsemen in large settlements. There is, of course, Greenland, home of Erik Thorvaldsson, also known as Erik the Red and an excellent example of the adventurous Norseman. His father was Thorvaldsson, a hot-tempered man who was banished from Norway for killing a man. The family settled in Iceland, but Erik, who was nicknamed ‘The Red’ for his hair and his temper, followed in his father’s footsteps and killed two men, which resulted in his banishment from Iceland for three years. Erik decided to use his time well and discover a land rumoured to exist to the west of Iceland.
Erik didn’t actually have any selfless colonization thoughts when he decided to look for this new land: in fact, he was on a good old fashioned plundering raid, for he believed it to be ‘Greater Ireland’, the fabled western land settled by the wandering Irish Culdee monks and filled with rich monasteries such as could be found in Ireland itself. Erik packed up his family and belongings and set sail in search of this rich loot. Unfortunately for him, the priests had already left the new land. After the first landfall on a ruggedly inhospitable shore, Erik spent many months exploring before he found a place with sufficient grass to make dairy farming possible.
When he returned to Iceland after his banishment he named his new land Greenland, as he shrewdly realized a pleasant name would make the land more attractive to settlers. Indeed, he was able to fill 25 ships with people who believed they were going to a green pastoral paradise. What they thought when they arrived at their new home is not recorded, but they did go on to found a colony on the harsh land, so perhaps they were forgiving of the deception. The colony of Greenland sprang up, and Erik became the de facto leader of the colonists.
Incidentally, though Erik was King Greenland, he was by no means all-powerful. His Christian wife Thjodhild bullied her pagan husband into building a church on the land, though Erik was at least successful in refusing to convert. Unfortunately, his refusal put him at odds with his pious wife, who refused to share a bed with him.
Constantinople’s Northern Guards
Yes, men such as Erik the Red have conquered the forbidding north and made it their home. The problem however is keeping the Norsemen in the north, for they seem to have a perpetual wanderlust, and an eye for the treasures and the softer life found in the warmer south. Even far to the east there is no escaping them. As far east as Baghdad and East Chorum, which is halfway along the Silk Road to China, the Norseman’s trade caravans can be found, carrying delicately crafted goods.
In Constantinople, that beautiful, impossibly decadent last bastion of the Holy Roman Empire, not only can the Norseman be found in great numbers, he is even an esteemed member of the royal court. There we would also find one of the most famous Norsemen of his time, the courageous Harald Hardrada, whose exploits include conquering towns, decimating armies and absconding with princesses.
Born Harald Sigurdsson, he was the half brother of Olaf the Saint, King of Norway, and even in his youth, was known for his love of warfare. After a particularly crushing battle in which King Olaf was killed, Harald escaped and made his way to the city of Navgorod, where he was guested by the friendly Prince Yaroslav, then made his way to the distant citadel of Constantinople. Here, Harald joined the Varangian Guards, an elite military body, personal bodyguard to the Emperor and almost entirely made up of his fellow Norsemen, who are after all counted the best fighters in the world.
Harald’s bravery and cunning soon made him a leader. He lead his troops on numerous campaigns, sacking cities and tearing down formidable castles in Africa, Sicily and any other land the Emperor wished to chastise. Harald was pragmatic enough to send much of the loot he obtained from the plundered town back to Norway. Together with the exceptionally high pay he received from the Guards, the treasure he sent back to his homeland was enough ‘be more than any one man had ever amassed in the land.”
Once he had had his fill of Constantinople, Harald sailed back to Norway. Back in his homeland, Harald’s money, experience and cunning stood him good stead and within a few years, he was King of Norway. It was at this point that he earned the name ‘Hardrada’, which means ‘hard rule’ and succinctly describes his reign. Governing a country was not enough for him however, and he continued to war, sailing expeditions here and there, and generally becoming a holy terror.
Harald’s end came, predictably, in another land. In England, the Norseman in his long ships was a cursedly regular visitor — hardly surprising given the number of rich monasteries and wealthy towns scattered conveniently along the coast. Waves of Norseman settlers had also established communities on the island and in 1066, what did Harald decide but that England needed a Norseman king as well. He based his legitimacy on some claims made by a former ruler and when he heard that the Saxon leader Harold had had the temerity to crown himself king, Harald roused himself and set sail immediately for England.
He took with him 300 long ships and landed near York, where he first plundered the nearby towns. Harold was still in the environs of London and Harald apparently thought himself safe, for he permitted his men to doff their clothes and lie sunbathing along the Avon River. When the company saw a detachment of men approach, they made no move to rearm for they thought it was the local townspeople, come to sue for peace. Harald and his men reacted too late when they realized that Harold had managed to march his men 200 miles in three days and were now upon them. Their defeat was so ignominious that only 13 ships out of the original 300 made it back to Norway.
Harald died at the battle of York, but may have been pleased know that even though he did not deliver the deathblow himself, he was at least able to contribute to his enemy’s defeat. In wearying out the Saxon army at York, Harold was unable to turn back the Norman invasion led by William (afterwards known as the Conqueror), and lost his life at the battle of Hastings. Ironically, the Normans are also descendants of Norsemen.
Norsemen in the New World
So, England owes much of its history to the deeds of the Norseman, but surely not every country has seen the fearsome form of the Norseman? Perhaps the west is free of him? Ah, but no, he seems to have left his footprints to the west as well — and not just any Norseman, but the son of a famous adventurer too. Much like his father, Leif Eiriksson, son of Erik the Red, was an adventurer to his bones.
When Leif heard rumours of a land far to the west of Greenland, he resolved to explore it and together with a fleet of three long ships, made off and found the coast of the American continent 500 years before Columbus set foot on its shores.
He came first of all to a land whose beach was littered with stones, and so he called it ‘Helluland’ or ‘Flat-Stone Land’, which now is thought to be Baffin Island.
Then he came to a place with many majestic trees, and so he named it ‘Markland’ or ‘Woodland’, which now is thought to be Newfoundland.
Finally he came to a place where it was very pleasant to live, filled with green grass, many tall trees, edible berries, juicy fruits and other delights. This place he named ‘Vinland’. He built a colony at this pleasant place and spent the winter there. In the spring, he sailed back home to Greenland. Along the way he rescued a stranded merchant ship, whose passengers gave him all their belongings in gratitude; this feat, together with his good fortune in finding the New World, earned him the nickname ‘Leif the Lucky’. Erik the Red died soon after Leif’s return, so Leif took over his father’s farm and never traveled again.
Archaeologists have struggled for years to discover the actual location of the mysterious Vinland colony and dozens of sites have been suggested from as far north as Newfoundland to as far south as Cape Cod. Most bets have now settled on L’anse Aux Meadows in Northern Newfoundland, which has the remains of a Norseman colony. Unfortunately, even this find is heavily disputed and many believe it was simply a base point between Greenland and the real Vinland site, which thus far has been pleased to remain undiscovered.
Leif’s legacy continues to trouble the sleep of serious archaeologists, who dream of a find that will change the course of both European and American history, but he is not alone in the influence he has wielded over history. Erik the Red and Harald Hardrada both had profound effects on the nations they came into contact with, and many of their nameless brethren were just as quietly influential. North, south, east and west, the roaming feet of the Norseman took them to all points of the compass and in the countries they found there, for better or for worse, they altered the course of events and helped shape the nations of today.