Despite the dangers, between 20,000 and 35,000 Danish Vikings chose to uproot and migrate to England between the 9th and 10th century. So says a new study published in the archaeological journal Antiquity.
Initially the trips were raiding expeditions, but later on, more and more Vikings decided to stay in the new land to the west, cultivate land, and “proceeded to plough and to support themselves,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 876.
But why did so many Vikings say farewell to the security of their homeland, friends, and relatives to move to a new country?
If you ask Viking researcher Søren Sindbæk, a professor with special responsibilities in the School of Culture and Society from Aarhus University, Denmark, the reasons behind the wave of migration in the 9th and 10th centuries were driven by the same factors that drive migration to Europe today: the chance of a better life.
“It’s the same thing that made people travel to America or Australia a couple of hundred years ago. New transport options developed in the 9th century, and people began to use sailing ships on a large scale. At the same time, the Vikings who went to England to plunder, realised that they could also use their military power to acquire land,” says Sindbæk.
Vikings first hunted after portable treasures
The Viking’s initial trips to England were more or less unsystematic raids. But by the latter half of the 9th century, the Scandinavian Vikings had organised themselves into a large army, often referred to as the Great Heathen Army or micel here in Old English.
“The initial raids were about the need for portable wealth (‘treasure’) that could be taken back to Scandinavia (mainly Norway) to help in building allegiances between lords, their followers, and other families and communities, and perhaps also in marriage relations,” writes Viking scientist and archaeologist Steven Ashby from the University of York in an email to ScienceNordic.
“These raids were then followed by more concerted attacks by the Great Army, who soon come to appreciate the value of land. Many settled down as rural landowners, and became part of a new ‘English’ elite,” writes Ashby.
New farming opportunities in England
These initial raids revealed that The British Isles had more to offer than mere treasure to be stolen. They also offered lands that could be cultivated.
“The warriors of the Great Heathen Army managed to achieve a position of power, so they could expropriate large tracts of land and say, “Now we should own land here.” The English countryside was far from fully cultivated at this time, which probably played a role. So peasants from Jutland (Denmark) or Norway could thus find a relatively fertile land, where you could easily achieve a lucrative life,” says Sindbæk.
Archaeologist and Viking researcher Jane Kershaw, a postdoc at University College London agrees.
“In eastern England the Vikings discovered a milder climate and a rich agricultural landscape, similar to the one they knew back home. Faced with a lack of good farming land in Denmark, many families decided to try their luck on the other side of the North Sea,” says Kershaw.
Vikings settled England as they did Iceland
The same pattern of exploration and then, later, settling down to farm, also occurred in Iceland, says Sindbæk.
“It fits well with the story in England: there was a first phase where warriors plunder and come home with the spoils. The warriors also discover the opportunities of England and some Vikings travel back to settle down and cultivate the earth,” he says.
“Back then, if you were a young warrior that wasn’t set to inherit the family farm back home, you suddenly had the chance to be your own man by heading to England and becoming a farmer. Later, you could send a message home to say that you’d won wealth and honour and ask relatives to send suitable women to England to marry,” says Sindbæk.