The Viking Longship

A typical Viking longship /

A typical Viking longship /

The Vikings (q.v.) were seafarers, leaving the majestic beauty of their fjords to navigate the freezing waters of the North Sea to assault the northern coasts of Britain and Ireland, sparing no-one. They did the same up and down the Atlantic coast of France and Portugal, penetrating deep into the Mediterranean, or heading west to form colonies in Newfoundland and Iceland. They came from what is now Denmark and Norway, with Sweden invariably looking east towards Russia, while other Scandinavians invaded Britain and Normandy and even settled there. They could not have done any of this without their extraordinary ship, known as ‘the longship’ for good reasons.

These were boats built for war, made of fir planks, with a huge vertical keel made of oak, which made it easier to implant a stout mast and employ a great sail and a deep rudder with a tiller that needed two men to control it. The ships could sail against the wind, but could race before it at fifteen knots. They had no compass, and navigated by the stars, the sun and dead reckoning.

The clinker-built construction of overlapping fir planks secured by clenching nails gave the longship great strength and flexibility. The hulls were sometimes over one hundred and fifty feet long, caulked against leakage with wool and hair. Every warrior aboard was a rower too, and it is not exaggerating to say (there is proof in nautical museums) that some Viking ships carried a hundred or more of these savage fighters, who took it in turns to operate the long sweeps.

The ships were indeed seaworthy, as they needed to be while sailing round the supremely dangerous rocks and inlets of Scotland and Northumbria. Using their vast sail, the Vikings even crossed the Atlantic, and it is very likely they entered the mouth of the St. Laurence river in Canada, and set foot on the coast of what is now New England.

Their traditions were violent, and their methods despicable to modern eyes, but they populated Normandy, and occupied a very large area of eastern England for centuries. This land was called ‘the Danelaw’, and some of the early kings of England, such as Harold, were themselves of Viking stock. Kings of Mercia and Wesses used to pay ‘Danegld’, a kind of protection money to the Vikings who had made their home in Eastern England. If they got their gold, they would (mostly) leave the Anglo-Saxons alone. A kind of nervous, distrusting peace existed during most of the Dark Ages until an English king called Alfred summoned armies and finally drove the Vikings back to their fjords.

I can recommend very few Hollywood-type films with historical themes, but I will recommend without remorse an extraordinary beautiful, if violent film made by Kirk Douglas’s company in 1958 called simply The Vikings. The longships used in the making of this film were specially made, to original plans; they are as near as possible to the real thing. When these dragon-prowed longships neared the English coast, crammed full of shouting, swearing, Godless fighting men with horned helmets, the English rightly trembled, and fires were lit on hills along the coast, which warned that the dreaded Norsemen were coming.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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