VIKINGS MILITARY TACTICS AND FORTIFICATIONS

Perhaps the most popular aspect of the Viking Age is the military one.  Whether it be the battle of Maldon, or the Viking raids on England, the Siege of Paris or the military camps in Denmark, there is always interest in the violent side of Viking life.  The seafaring warriors did not always choose to fight at sea but sometimes they had no choice.

When the Norsemen were at sea and a battle materialized, despite their hatred for sea battles, then they would try to make the battle as much like a land battle as possible.  First of all, they would try to find a sheltered bay with the point being to maneuver into a favorable position, and to take the wind away from the enemy and encircle their forces.  They would rope together their ships and keep them abreast, this way they would meet their enemy head on.  As the two lines got closer projectiles were exchanged, consisting of stones, spears and arrows.  But once the two forces were joined, hand to hand combat ensued with it being focused around the prows and forward parts of the ships, while this was going on the men in the back of the boats shot bows and arrows, trying to eliminate as many as possible. 

Victory usually came when resistance on a ship subsided and it was impossible to board the boats, due to the piles of dead bodies.  This mode of maritime fighting meant that the fleet gave away its maneuverability, the only way a ship could retire or pursue was by cutting themselves free.

On the land was where the Vikings would rather stage a pitched land battle and here the general practice was to have the force split into three groups, consisting of the center and the wings or flanks.  A chief or leader would usually have a shield fort around him, a close group of men whose job was defense not offense, it was considered a great honor to be chosen for this duty and failure to protect the leader was a great dishonor.   Close to the leader was the standard bearer, usually a man of great strength and courage for the enemy's attack were centered on him.

When it came time for the battle to commence, trumpets and horns as well as fires were used for signaling in warfare. This was also the time when the emergence of heraldic signs on shields was necessary 'in order to distinguish between the warriors.  Before the battle began the leader would give his men a rousing speech to carry them into battle.  There was also the use of war cries to raise the confidence level and the wide spread use of slogans.  Each side would hurl slurs and different projectiles at each other, then they would start to scream out battlecries that would motivate the allies and scare the enemies. Once the lines clashed the battle became a series of individual fights, with it being very difficult to see progress until the death of the leaders or a retreat.  Men who asked for quarter were usually given it, with the church offering a place of  sanctuary, which was not always respected.  When the fighting finished the slain and wounded were collected and the burying and tending took place.  Then the booty was collected and split up.

                 According to tradition, when a Viking leader wanted peace he would raise up his sword high in the air.  But their is one occasion  ~.. . when the Vikings were besieged in a fortress in Elsloo (by the river Maas, on the present day border of Holland and Belgium), they tricked the enemy by doing this But when it was for real the sources imply that peace was' sworn on weapons, on oaths and on lives and possession of hostages and gifts.  But, if the battle took place abroad then the army would collect tribute and supplies for the army.

Although horsemen were not used much by the Vikings there is mention of a battalion of horsemen amongst the Swedes. Calvary officially developed in Denmark in the twelfth century as apart of the upper class.  The cavalry that did appear there were not cavalry in the true ,sense of the word, because these early horse soldiers relied basically on their horses for transportation and reconnaissance but not to act as a battle weapon.  The strategy of' these horse soldiers was to ride to where ever they were needed the most, then dismounting and acting as a quick reserve unit.

There  were various strategies and formations that the     

Vikings employed and executed in battle.  They consisted of feigned  flights, ambushes', encirclements, and 'tricking the enemy into believing that there were more men then there actually were.  The Viking armies as very inventive and mobile, excelling in sudden attacks and in the quick erection of fortified camps and field fortifications of wood and earth. In the Battle of Dyle in 891; the Frankish Army had to descend from their horses and fight on foot because of these field fortifications.

There was a strategy that is known through the Scandinavian phrase at hamalt fylkja, which means to form a wedge shaped battle formation, which is also known as svinfylking or swine order.  It was this strategy that had a devastating effect on the enemy line.  While another Viking strategy was to attack with the sun to their back.  But basically the Vikings held a distinctive advantage to a great number of their enemies and that was the mere fact that the majority of their enemies were very unorganized and could be defeated through the use of very rudimentary military tactics.

But, the most fearsome strategy that was employed was the ability to blunt sword blades, and javelins, which was believed to exist in the fighters called beserkir or bear shirts, it is believed that they looked at the bear as a totem animal. These men worked themselves or fell into a frenzy which gave a wild increase to their strength and made them indifferent to blows. 

They howled savagely as they went into battle.  This form of running amuck probably has its roots in a state of paranoia, related to lycanthropy.  This effect can be induced by alcohol and drugs and in some individual cases it may have been linked to epilepsy.  These such men were prized warriors and were regarded as having some sort of magnificent supernatural powers.

          The Vikings also had a national military organization in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden was based on the leidang.  The leidang was the levy of ships, men, provisions, and armaments called out by the king or, supreme military leader and supplied by the population.  The military needs behind the levy were responsible for the division the people from the provinces into small units that provided one man per group and the collect,' ion of these units provided one ship.  By the twelfth century the levy had shifted 'from men and ships to cash taxation.

          If an attack was made in a district, every man was under obligation to turn out to fight off the invaders.  It was an accepted custom that a full. levy could be called out if it was for defense, while if it was offensive only half of the levy could be called.  Once the levy was established for defensive purposes, all they could do was assemble and wait for news of the enemies arrival.  This sort of levying people for provincial protection and the existence of the military fortification of this time shows some sort of clear evidence of political organization.  It would also be very possible to transmit warnings through the use of beacons situated on discernible spots.  There can also be no doubt that the King was the leader and the supreme military ruler who could summon his people to arms if necessary.  There would also have to be a major central figure in order for the monumental efforts that encompassed the construction of the ramparts and fortresses.

One of the most impressive looks at military organization on rune stones.  Fundamental seems to have been the lip (company of warriors) whose members were felagi (companions). They had a drottinn (leader) to whom the others, his hempaegar (home companions) owed loyalty.  Both the king and other great men could be a drottinn and have a band of retainers. The pegn and dreng probably had a relationship of dependence on or sworn loyalty to the king, and some were doubtless members of his lip.  A pegn was probably often older and of greater importance than a dreng.  Viking armies that operated independently abroad seem to have been organized on a lip system, an army consisting of a number of such bands, each of which was led by a drottin but under the overall command of a person offered to as king.

          These runes give a very basic make up of the viking military unit, but a very crude view of the make up.  In this military unit the, personal weapons of a man were as important as his clothing and the laws lay down what weapons a man should own.  These weapons were called the folk weapons, folk meaning war-band, and these were inspected annually by the local royal official.  In Sweden the basic requirements were shield, sword, spear, and iron hat for each man, with a mail coat and a bow with three dozen arrows for each rowing bench.  Elsewhere a axe might be used instead of a sword and each man might be expected to, own armor and bow and arrows. While in Norway, sword or axe, shield and spear were required with a bow and arrows to a bench.  The Danish ordinary man needed a sword, iron hat, shield, spear while the straesman, local military leader, had to provide a horse, coat of mail and a crossbow.

 After repeated raids for, over two hundred years the people of Western Europe started to build new fortifications to protect the ever growing trading centers.  In particular at Hedeby, Birka, Ribe, and Arhus which had defensive ramparts and fortifications that were semi-circular and faced inland.  These ramparts were built out of soil and rock, while it was topped off with turf and wood.  There was usually a wooden palisade with guard towers on top of the entrance ways.  At Hedeby and possibly Birka, the harbor was also protected by a series of stakes, that were submerged to conceal their location.

          At Hedeby, which for it's time a very well established town, there was protection on three sides by the rampart.  This rampart, the semicircular Wall, was connected to the Danevirke through the connecting Wall.  On the fourth side it was protected by Haddeby Noor.  This rampart which had begun as a meter high wall with stockade and ditch, had kept on growing until in the mid tenth century it was over 30 feet high, with a deep moat and strong timber revetments.  It had three gateways, one to the north and south for the movements of people and livestock and the western opening for the small stream that ran to the fjord.  These entrances or tunnels were six feet wide, wedge shaped and lined with planks,.  The entire area inside the walls at Hedeby was 60 acres, with only small areas not built up. In Haddeby Noor there was a 480 foot arc that ran north to south­east, this acted as protection for the shore from floods and also provided a place to dock the vessels.  In Hedeby there were numerous dwellings, workshops, storehouses, barns, stables, shipbuilders, and the two main roads which were paved with timbers and off these main roads there developed a small road system.  This road system which consisted of roads that ran either at right angle to the main roads or parallel to them, creating a grid ,system which was lined with small rectangular houses.  These houses were usually fenced and contained a well and outhouse.  The town continued to grow with it reaching its peak during the tenth century.

Hedeby came under sporadic attack in the beginning of the eleventh century and constant attack by Harold Hardrada in 1050, with the Slavs conquering the city in 1066 and it was during this part of the eleventh century that the city was virtually destroyed by the occupying armies.  Added to this was the decline in the water level, caused by what is now known as the Little Ice Age, made the very shallow Haddeby Noor unusable to deep sea vessels.

For battling the Vikings the people of Scandinavia had to protect mainly against sea invasions.  The people would employ wooden stakes, rocks and sunken ships hidden, below the water to impede the progress of the' invading pirates.  At that place a bright of the sea which is called the Baltic or Barbarian Sea by extending northward forms a desirable, but to the unwary those unacquainted with places of this kind, a very dangerous port for the barbarous tribes that lie spread about this sea. For the people of Bjorko, very often assailed by the inroads of pirates, who, are numerous there, have set about deceiving by cunning artifices the enemies whom they could not resist by force of arms.  They have that light of the restless sea for a hundred or more stadia (about 200 meters) by masses of hidden rocks, making it's passage as perilous for themselves as for the pirates.

It is this description of Birka by Adam of Bremen that shows the extent of the underwater, obstacles that were constructed without regard even for the safety of the local people.

          Despite the description of Birka it is the defenses at Hominde that are the most famous.  At Hominde a broad strip of spikes that numbered ten to twenty per meter in some places, with horizontal logs on the inside.  This barrier according to C14 dating suggests that it was made in the late Viking Age. Here at Hominde, unlike the Helnaes barrier which uses a considerable smaller amount of strategically placed logs, the strength lay in the number of logs and spikes.  At Helnaes the barrier consisted of two parallel rows of piles with horizontal sticks at the base to prevent them from going in too deep. This barrier was several hundred meters long and like the barrier at Hominde it is dated in the Late Viking Age.  The true mystery that surrounds these barrier's is whether the king, local lords or the community was responsible for their building and maintenance.

At this time in western Europe there was wide spread use of linear defensive earthworks.  There is only one such earthwork in Scandinavia, it is called the Danevirke, which was used as Denmark's southern border.  This position is made up of several different ramparts that were constructed at different periods of time.  Part of it was built by the Danish King Gorfred, as a defense against the armies of Charlemagne in 808, and it continued to change and expand until the thirteenth century. It was enlarged by the Prussians in 1864 before their invasion of the area and the German army constructed anti tank defenses there during the Second World War.

This defensive position covers a combined distance of 30 kilometers, from the Schlei fjord across Jutland to the river Treene.  Although this rampart does not run continuously between these two points, it links impassable natural barriers and thus funnels all traffic down the main north  south route, the Ox Road, which itself runs through the Danevirke at Hedeby.  This road provided a link between most of Denmark and connected all the towns in the area together.

          The Danevirke in 737 originally consisted of merely a bank faced with timbers about 7 kilometers long, 10 meters wide and 2 meters high with a u-shaped ditch about 2 meters from it about 1.5 meters deep and 5 meters wide.  At this point it was simply the area north of Hedeby known as the North Wall, it is also believed that the eastern wall was under construction as well.  This wall which had special foundations to be used when they had to cross marshy lands, which allowed access across the defensive side.  And on firm ground the wall was preceded by a ditch and topped with a palisade.

The East Wall which was used to protect the Svansen peninsula was about 3.4 kilometers in length.  Through certain similar features it can be assumed that the East Wall and the North Wall are from the same time period, even though there is no concrete scientific evidence.  The reason for the construction is unknown but around this time the king of Denmark Ongedus had refused to convert to Christianity when summoned to do so by Charles Martel, this led Martel to lead a campaign against the Saxons in 738.  Then with Charlemagne a conquest of Saxony in 770's there arose a bitter rivalry on this border.  This invoked King Godfred to land a large force at Hedeby and in 808 he decided to build a border wall across the peninsula, decided that he wished to fortify his kingdom towards Saxony by means of a rampart so that a defensive wall should stretch from the eastern sea which the Danes call Ostersalt (the Baltic) to the North Sea and along the entire northern bank of the Elder, the wall to be broken by only one gate through which wagons and horsemen could go out and return home again

This action provoked Charlemagne and the Slav, Abrodites, to build fortresses for their own protection along the borderlands with Denmark.

The second part of the Danevirke which is the Korvirke, is a straight section that is to the south of Hedeby, it runs between Selk Nor and the marshes of the river Rheide.  This section is over six kilometers long and it was the part of the rampart that contained the only gate and was built during a single building phase.  This section of the wall was simply an earthen wall faced with timber and fronted by a v-shaped ditch.  The third part, The Great Wall, was fourteen kilometers long and in a giant zig-zag that incorporated the first two sections of the Danevirke, the Semicircular Wall and the Fore Wall. To the west, the Crooked Wall, as it became to be known, greatly extended the earlier defensive perimeter.  This third part or Connecting Wall has been dated, through the use of dendrochronology, to the year 968.  It appears, according to historical record, that King Harald Bluetooth was becoming adversarial toward to the Germanic tribes which led to open warfare between the two in 974.  This warfare led to the collapse of the Danevirke and its eventual occupation by Germanic troops. But by 983, the Danevirke was in Danish hands again.  The Danevirke remained to be utilized and in the mid twelfth century King Valdemar the Great enlarged and improved the line of fortifications which continued to be the southern border of Denmark.

          Purely military fortifications was rare in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, although towns were often protected by a series of ditches with a bank and palisade.  These palisades often were found with interval fortified towers.  As can be seen at Birka where the site was dominated by a fortified outcrop, the strongpoint of the town.  The town is protected by a large stone and earth bank and on the seaward side formidable cliffs.  This earthen bank had three cuts in it for gates and was capped by wooden walkways with evidence of at least six towers.  This fortress eventually necessitated the need for a regular garrison, which was rare at this time.

Although it was rare in Scandinavia to have military fortresses, in times of  an emergency the local populations needed a sanctuary, sometimes this was possible in the local woods but in other places the terrain did not offer hiding places. This established the need for fortresses, the largest fortress in Scandinavia was at Totsburg, which is on the east coast of Gotland, which is an island off the coast of Sweden.  It is on rocky highground with fortified stone walls, but it shows no evidence of permanent occupation.  This particular fortress was constructed during the Roman period, but had been maintained ever since.  This bastion was capable of holding the entire population of Gotland, and with its central location this seems very possible.

          One of the most magnificent fortresses in Scandinavia is the fortress of Elketrop, which is located on the Baltic island of Oland, to the south-west of Gotland.  This fortress also dates back to the Roman period with the construction ending around 400 and was the continuously inhabited for the following three hundred years.  For approximately three hundred years it was uninhabited until approximately 1000, when it was once again in use.  During the third phase of the fortresses history it's primary use was a military garrison, this was needed due to the ever growing militaristic attitudes of the surrounding peoples.

It is rare to encounter such defensive positions in smaller towns, but the one at Eketrop, which is also on the island of Oland, has evidence of a ring of stone  which may have been six meters tall.  This rampart was circular in fashion approximately eighty meters in diameter and enclosed by an outer palisade of timber.  This inner wall was lined with densely packed buildings for people and animal's that came off into the interior courtyard.   The main entrance to this town was located to the south and was capped with a wooden tower.  About 1200 Eketrop was besieged and sacked by the Wends and remained uninhabited, except in emergencies.

There is another large fortress on Gotland at Bulverket, which is located in the middle of the largest lake on the island, Tingstade Trask.  This fortress is made of lumber and was made during the Viking Age.  Through archaeological record of the objects found at the fort it seems to indicate that this fortress was inhabited by foreigners, who possibly came from the eastern side of the Baltic.  Another indication that the builders of this fortress were foreigners is the uniqueness of this stronghold to Scandinavia.

The defensive fortifications at Bulverket, which is known as the bulwark, with the complicated wooden foundations of this lake dwelling could only have been used during times of trouble. This defensive position was a square platform, which each side measuring seventy meters.  The southern side enclosed a harbor for protection of the ships.  On the platform there was room for the construction of light houses.  It is estimated that it required over 10,000 tree trunks to build this fort, which shows the great communal effort that went into building this place.

          It was the military camps that provided the most impressive fortifications of these times.  By far the Danish military camps at Trelleborg on Sjaelland, Nonnebakken in Odense, and Aggersborg and Frykat Molle in Jutland are the best example of Viking fortresses.  These encampments were permanent and of the same basic design.  They consisted of a barracks building surrounded by a bank and ditch which made a circle.  The bank was made of turf laced with timbers up to seven meters tall.  It also had a timbered face which extended upward to form a breastwork. There were four gateways which were covered with a tower, which were situated to mark the four points of the compass.  The four gate's were connected in the interior of the camps by two roads paved with wooden planks.  There were further ditches and in combination with the imposing surroundings it created a formidable position.  The fortresses varied in size from 120 to 240 meters in diameter, the widths of the ramparts were approximately fifteen meters wide, the width of the berm being eight meters, and the width of the ditch being between eighteen and four meters. They all had bow shaped buildings divided into three rooms, these buildings were arranged in a square and in each of the quarters courtyards were a smaller building.  These fortresses were all built in the late tenth Century and were soon abandoned, this and the similarities in layout, dating and, design, prove that these fortresses were all built at the command of a central authority.

The largest of these camps, Aggersborg, had forty-eight houses split into four quadrants with each having twelve. Nonnebakken, Trelleborg and Frykat each had sixteen houses, all of the houses were laid out in groups of four surrounding a courtyard, but at Trelleborg there was a group of fifteen houses which were separate from the main group providing a first line of protection.

          Aggersborg with its location on Limford explains why it was so large, Limford is the most important waterway between the Baltic and the North Sea, and the fortress at Aggersborg would control north and south travel and would be paid duties and tolls for passage.  Also at this point there was extensive trade going on with Norway, where Harald Bluetooth was in power, and with Norway being a days sail away it was always possible to go and interfere in Norwegian affairs if it deemed necessary.

The appearance and the construction of the buildings and ramparts was different at Trelleborg than anywhere else, these buildings were about thirty meters long and had curved walls and straight gables, with two gable rooms at each end.  In the middle of each of the oak houses there was a hearth with surrounding benches.  The entire building was surrounded by support beams from the roof.  In these buildings it is believed that 80 men could have fit.  In some of these houses, especially at Frykat, women, children and craftsmen resided.  It was along the east-west road that the non military dwellings were situated, the west gate was the main gate.  There is also evidence in the cemeteries where there has been excavations of both female's and children's graves.

          These forts, through analysis of architecture and archaeological finds, were closely associated with the upper class of the region.  There is also evidence of this being a place where the king collected taxes and stored revenues and possessions to be protected.  These fortresses could also have provided law and order and for providing a military command center to organize further offenses.  There were also a great many craftsmen who produced royal jewelry, armor and weapons.  These fortresses each controlling a certain area was new to Denmark but it was common in Slav held areas.

These camps seems to be dated to the late tenth early eleventh century.  Through the analysis of the post molds it can ascertained that these camps were not around very long. But by being situated on the main communication routes they might have served as gathering points for troops.  These bases were once believed to have' be' en the launching point for Svein Forkbeard and Knut the Great when they were invading and trying to conquer England, but they are signs of an organized society capable of garrisoning strategic places for the purpose of defense and toll-collecting. 'This organized society bred the army that went with Svein and ',Cnut and their military commanders conquer England.    And, when considering the geographic locations of all the fortresses except Aggersborg, all were  located on major roadways and were in excellent strategic position to control the surrounding areas.  Frykat which located on the river Onsild was about 3 km from its mouth the fjord Manager.  It is unknown whether the river was navigable to Frykat and the river is very narrow at its mouth and with strong currents it made a very unlikely spot for a naval base.  Trelleborg was unattainable from the water, and Nonnebakken was also located on a winding river at the head of a narrow fjord.  The placement of the fortresses made it impractical for gathering. naval forces, for training camps and to control the waterways.  They appear to have been built towns in control the interior of the kingdom and the major roadways.  

It is known that these fortresses were built near the end of Harald Bluetooth's reign, being killed between 985 and 987. King Harald is responsible for these fortresses, Jelling monuments, Roskilde Cathedral:, the bridge at Ravning Enge, the ramparts at Hedeby and Arhus 'and the Danevirkes Great Wall. It is probably true that Harald used these fortresses to keep the areas under control, and to further exert his own control. It is possible that troops positioned at Trelleborg were used in the recapture of Hedeby, and the burning and plundering of no,rthern Germany, with Aggers'borg to be used in his future recapture of Norway.  These forts could have been Harald's last gallant attempt to hold together his ever crumbling kingdom that was riddled by internal 'conflict.  At Trelleborg there is evidence of a battle, this battle could have been between Harald and Svein in 986, and it could have been that these fortressess were the symbol of Harald, so Svein, upon conquering his father, chose to let his father forts go uninhabited.

          The' Vikings that emerged in the late eight century, were they men driven by an ever increasing population or maybe they were just moving to expand their authority over mainland Europe. But by the time these men were done they would have helped spread their people into three large empires, and along with these empires came a wealth of enemies who wanted to destroy these kingdoms.  So it was inevitable that the Norsemen would have to fight cities conquer a grinding fortresses to look at

building fortifications to protect all that they for.  These people needed to protect their towns from the next wave of men who would try to come and  conquer their cities.  By the 1066, the Vikings overseas dominance came to halt, leaving behind these great examples of their and defensive positions for the future generations and wonder.

 

VIKING BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

 

Cohat, Yves. The Vikings: Lords of the Seas. New York: Harry

          N.  Abrams, 1987.           Minor amounts of material

Foote, Peter, and Wilson, David M.. The Viking Achievement.

London: Book Club Associates, 1970. Lots of material on military organization, the Danevirke, small amount about fortresses and military camps

Logan, F. Donald. The Vikings in History. London: Routledge, 1983. Lots of information on the Danevirke, Military

camps/fortresses, fortifications of Hedeby

Magnusson, Magnus, and Palsson, Hermann. Laxdaela Saga. London:

Penguin Books, 1969.' Intd the personal account of the weapons and warfare

Magnusson, Magnus, and Paisson, Hermann. Nial's Saga. London:

Penguin Books, 1960.' Personal accounts about the weapons and warfare

Oxenstierna, Eric. The Norsemen. Greenwich, Conn.. New York Graphic Society publishers, Ltd,, 1965. Minor material

Roesdahl, Else. Th'e Vikings. tondon: Penguin Books, 1992. Great amount of good d6tails

Roesdahl, Else, and Wi'lson, David M.. From Viking to Crusader. New York: Rizzoli, 19S2.

Roesdahl, Else. Viking Age Der~mark. London: British Museum Publications'Limited, 1982. Great information on the fortresses, the Danevirke', and the fortifications at Hedeby

and Arhus

Sawyer, P.H.. Kings and Vikings. London: Rbutledge, 1982. Great Danevirke material

 

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