History Of The Vikings - Chapter 5

By Erik Solbakk 0 comments

History Of The Vikings - Chapter 5

Viking Women

Technically, the term Viking is used only to describe men. Derived from the Norse word "vikingar" referring to men who ventured out of their villages to try their luck in trade and adventure. As it did not extend to women, women in the Viking era were often referred to as shield-maidens.

Like many traditional civilizations, men did the hunting and the trading. As the average lifespan of men was between 40-45 years of age, men often started their families early to ensure succession of bloodline. The responsibility of managing the household and the raising of the children and the elderly fell on the women. Beyond that, they were also responsible for their farms which included securing the harvest and taking care of the animals. This came in handy when their men set out to sea for long periods of time. A large of part of their time was also taken up by working on crafts and the production of textiles. Other activities included spinning of yarn, sewing, working on wool and weaving. Much of which the finished products could be used by their men for trade. 

Studies have shown that the Viking community had a more advanced mindset when it came to gender equality. While in other civilizations women often had to fight to be regarded as equals, women of the Viking period were said to have been given more freedom. They were free to express their opinions and often had active roles in managing their household alongside their husbands. Women even had a say on who they wanted to marry. While arranged marriages were often negotiated by their families, women still had a right to choose who it was that they would end up with. Should the marriage not work, women could demand for divorce unlike other civilizations of the past. When their husbands died, women could take on their husband's roles and with this singlehandedly running the family farm or trading business. And while it was previously believed that Vikings roamed the seas in male only groups, it has been recently discovered in 2014 that some Scandinavian women accompanied their men during these trips to sea. While this is mainly my opinion, it could well be that their men wanted their women to be independent and capable of taking care of themselves and their families while they were away.

But while their women had more freedom than their counterparts in other civilizations, they also had their limits. Because while women had relatively stronger positions in the Viking civilization, they were still considered inferior to men. Such limitations included not being able to appear in court or hold political power. Women also did not receive their share in their men's inheritance.

As is the case in any civilization, social classes were easily distinguished through what the women wore. As an example, slaves wore thick, old fashioned clothes. Middle class women wore caps and blouses. They also wore brooches around their shoulders and kerchiefs around their necks. Noble women wore blouses of smooth linen and skirts with silk bodice and several outlandish jewelries. As evidence by the many burial sites discovered in search of more information about the women during the Viking period. 


A legendary shieldmaiden (female Viking), Lathgertha was Ragnar Lothbrok's first wife. Many sagas credit him as the father of the “Great Heathen Army”.

Their story began when the Swedish King Frø killed Ragnar's grandfather and Norwegian King, Siward. To add insult to injury, female members of their family were sold to brothels to work as bar maids. Having just inherited the throne of Jutland in Denmark from his father, Siward Ring, Ragnar was angered by the stories he heard. Gathering his troops, theytraveled to Norway intending to seek revenge for his family and their honor. Along the way, they were surprised to meet a group of scorned women who dressed up in male battle attire asking to join them in their war against the Swedish king. It was during the battle that Lathgertha stood out the most. So much so that he credits his win to Lathgertha's spirit, bravery and battle skills. He sang her praises; "…a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman."  


To add to her superior fighting skills, Lathgertha was also of noble blood which furthers his resolve to win her hand in marriage. Even after his return to Jutland, Ragnar continued with his pursuit by sending messages despite the distance. While she did not immediately refuse his proposals, Lathgertha was not as interested. She, however, continued to lead him on all the while preparing her defenses should she need to keep him away. She put up a bear and a dog to guard her home making sure they were ready to tear apart anyone who dared trespass. However, they were no match for Ragnar's skills. He was easily able to subdue both animals and killed them. One speared and one strangled to its death. Ragnar's prize was her hand in marriage to which she bore him a son, Fridleif, and two daughters. 

They spent three peaceful years together until Ragnar's duties once again called him away. Enter King Herodd of Sweden, father to Thora who raised snakes and let them loose after she could no longer keep them under control. It was Herodd who offered his daughter's hand in marriage to anyone who could help rid them of the snakes that roamed their city. Reminded of Lathgertha's previous attempt to kill him, he decided to divorce Lathgertha and marry Thora. Thankfully, this did not mark the end of her married life as she was able to remarry soon after.

While her life with Ragnar did not end well, she is credited to be one of the best female warriors of her time. Besting even the best of male warriors and if not for that alone, she is one for the books!

She Who Took Down the Vikings

While women are celebrated in today's society, it was an entirely different story in the olden times. In the past, women had to fight for equality and had to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as their male counter parts.

One such woman Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, played a vital role in the conversion of many Viking warlords to English governance. She was born the oldest child of King Alfred the Great and his Mercian wife, Ealhswith in year 870. Her grandmother, Æthelred Muce, was a member of the Mercian royal house and was a descendant of King Coenwulf. The year 870, was the height of the Viking invasion against England. By 878, East Angalia and Northumbria, along with most of England, was under Danish rule. Mercia was partitioned between the English and the Vikings. But during the Battle of Edington, King Alfred's victory turned things around for the English. Shortly after, Mercia came under the rule of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, who swore his allegiance to King Alfred. As a strategic alliance, King Alfred married his oldest daughter, Æthelflæd to Æthelred. Dating back to the 880s, as mentioned on Alfred's will, Æthelflæd received an estate and 100 mancuses while Æthelred received a sword worth 100 mancuses. Their union brought to life their daughter, Ælfwynn.

Mercia was a dominant kingdom in Southern England in the 8th century and only lost its prestige upon its defeat to the Wessex in 825 during the Battle of Ellandun. Their defeat resulted in an alliance between the two nations which, in time, was to be an important factor in the English resistance to the Viking invasion. It was in 865 when the Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia, the starting point of their invasion. As the people of East Anglia were not accustomed to war, they were forced to surrender. In 866, the Vikings invaded and conquered Northumbria. Between 867-868, the Vikings advanced to Mercia. King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother, the future King Alfred joined forces against the Viking invastion and in the end, the Mercians bought peace with them. In 874, the Vikings expelled King Burgred and Ceolwulf became the last King of Mercia with their support. It was only in 877 that the Vikings partitioned Mercia taking the eastern regions and allowing Ceolwulf to keep the western region. While many claimed, Ceolwulf was only a puppet king to the Vikings, historian Ann Williams disagreed and regards this view as partial and distorted. Ceolwulf, she defends, was the accepted king of Mercia and was honored as such by King Alfred. Everything changed the year after when King Alfred won the Battle of Edington. Upon his death, Ceolwulf was succeeded by Æthelred. After which in 881, Æthelred led a Mercian invasion to the Kingdom of Gwynedd, however, he was unsuccessful in this quest. In 883, he swore allegiance to King Alfred and helped rid London of Viking rule. It was then that Alfred handed Æthelred control of London. 

In the year 890, Æthelred played a vital role in fighting off renewed attacks from the Vikings. He had a strong alliance with Æthelflæd's brother, the future King Edward the Elder. Together, Æthelred and Æthelflæd fortified Worcester, gave generous donations to Mercian churches and built a new minster in Gloucester. Unfortunately, Æthelred's health declined which led to Æthelflæd being responsible for the governance of Mercia. In 909, King Edward, now the crowned king of England after his father King Alfred, sent a combined force of West Saxon and Mercian army to the North. Their success resulted in the return of the remains of Oswald, the royal Northumbrian saint, which were translated to the new Gloucester minster. In the year 911, Æthelred passed away, leaving Æthelflæd the sole ruler or Mercia. She was then referred to as Lady of the Mercians to which Ian Walker described as "one of the most unique events in early medieval history".

Æthelflæd's succession to the crown was in most ways unprecedented. In Wessex governance, women were not allowed to play a role in politics. As an example, Alfred's wife and Æthelflæd's mother was never granted the title queen nor was she ever a witness to charters. The exact opposite was the case in Mercia. Æthelswith, Alfred's sister, had been the wife of King Burgred of Mercia; during the time she was his wife, she was given the title of queen and had witnessed several charters. She also made grants together with her husband and in her own name. Æthelflæd benefited from the freedom Mercia gave the women in their community. Although in an effort to be recognized by her brother, King Edward, as rightful ruler of Mercia, she allowed Edward to take control of the Mercian towns of London and Oxford.

During his reign, Alfred constructed a network of fortified burhs in Wessex. Brother and sister worked on extending that network to build a stronger defense against future Viking attacks. Æthelflæd also led her Mercian army on several expeditions that paved the way for her brother's forward movement against the southern Danes and thus extending the scope of his reign. To quote Frank Stenton, a 20th century historian, "It was through reliance on her (Æthelflæd) guardianship of Mercia that her brother was enabled to begin the forward movement against the southern Danes which is the outstanding feature of his reign".

in 910, Æthelflæd fortified Bremesburh and in 912 built defenses at Bridgnorth to cover a crossing of the River Severn. In 913, she built forts at Tamworth to guard against attacks in Leicester, and in Stafford to cover access from the Trent Valley.  In 914 a Mercian army drawn from Gloucester and Hereford repelled a Viking invasion from Brittany. The Iron Age Eddisbury hill fort was repaired to protect against invasion from Northumbria or Cheshire, while Warwick was fortified as further protection against the Leicester Danes. In 915 Chirbury was fortified to guard a route from Wales and Runcorn on the River Mersey. In 917, Æthelflæd continued to defeat the Viking army. She sent her Mercian army to capture back Derby. Derby was one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw along with Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. Historian Tim Clarkson regards her victory at Derby as "her greatest triumph" and describes Æthelflæd as "renowned as a competent war-leader". Not long after in early 918, Æthelflæd Leicester. Unfortunately, she passed away on June 12, 918 before she could do more.

Her body was carried 121 km to Gloucester where she was laid together with her husband at St Oswald's Minster. Her daughter Ælfwynn took over after her death as Lady of the Mercians.

Sigrid the Proud

Sigrid was born between 960 and 972 AD. She was daughter to Mieszko I of Poland and Doubravka of Bohemia and was born in the capital city of Poland, Gniezno. Her brother was Bolesław I Chrobry, the first king of Poland. In 966 AD, her father converted to Christianity along with Poland to help improve their position in Europe. However, even then, their roots were in the pre-Christian tribe called Polanie and despite the move to Christianity, their old ways still dominated their political and warfare culture.

Sigrid the Proud

Sigrid was first married to Eric the Victorious. Her second husband was Sweyn Forkbeard to whom she bore two sons: Cnut the Great and Harold II of Denmark. Because of her intelligence as a mother and vibrant character, her sons grew up to be great leaders of men.

Aside from being smart, Sigrid was also very beautiful. After the death of her husband, Eric, her beauty captivated many suitors near and far. It was said that Harald Grenske, a king in Vestfold, and Vissavald of Gardarik sought her hand in marriage. She had both suitors burned to death in a hall following a feast to discourage any more suitors. This is how she got her nickname Sigrid the Proud.

Olaf Tryggvasson, the king of Norway, also sought her hand in marriage. However, he required her to leave her pagan ways behind and convert to Christianity. Her answer, "I will not part from the faith which my forefathers have kept before me" angered Olaf and he struck her face with a glove. To this, Sigrid calmly told him, "This may someday be thy death". Over the years, Sigrid made it her mission to rally behind Olaf's enemies in the hopes of bringing him to his knees. It was because of this that she married her second husband, widow Sweyn Forkbeard, who at the time was already feuding with Olaf. Sweyn sent his sister Tyri to marry the Wendish king Burislav, however, she fled the arranged marriage and married Olaf instead adding more fuel to the fire. The following sequence of events led to the fall of Olaf in the Battle of Swold.

Sigrid's marriage to Sweyn in 996 was brief and unhappy. She was banished in 1002 where she escaped to Poland to live with her brother Bolesław I Chrobry for several years. In 1013, upon the death of Sweyn, her son took over the thrown and she was asked to return to Denmark where she proved to be of great help to her sons. In 1016, Cnut conquered England and she went with him to new land. It is said that she died in England, however, to this day her remains have yet to be found.  Several attempts have been made requesting to explore the halls of Westminster Cathedral, however, due to insufficient evidence the requests have been denied.

The story of Sigrid is a tale of a queen who was wise beyond her years, to which a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was written: 

''Queen Sigrid the Haughty sat proud and aloft

In her chamber, that looked over meadow and croft.

Heart's dearest,

Why dost thou sorrow so?''

Aud the Deep-Minded

Aud (also known as Unn) was the second daughter of Ketill Flatnose and Yngvid Ketilsdóttir. Her father, Ketill, had fled Norway with his kinsman fleeing the injustice inflicted by Norway's new king. Ketill settled their family in Hebrides where he raided parts of Ireland and the British Isles.

Aud was then married to Olaf the White, son of King Ingjald who had named himself the King of Dublin. Aud bore him a son, named Thorstein the Red. Their marriage did not last long as Olaf was killed in battle in Ireland. After the loss of her husband, mother and son travelled back to Hebrides. It was then that they found out her father and mother had both passed away. Thorstein married and had six daughters and one son. With the help of his mother, Thorstein became a great warrior conquering northern Scotland. In the end, Thorstein died in battle after being betrayed by his people.

Aud the Deep-Minded

Aud was in Caithness when she heard the news of her son's death. Without her husband and her son, Aud felt that she was in a vulnerable position. To remedy this, she approached Koll who was the leader of the slaves. She asked his help in building a ship to help her escape Scotland. In return, she would allow them free passage and give them their freedom. They agreed and together they secretly built a knarr(old Norse term for a type of ship built for long sea voyages used during the Viking expansion) in the forest. After it's completion, they sailed for Orkney. The long journey required that they make port on Faroe Islands so they could replenish their stock and give the men time to rest. To sustain their connections to Faroe, she married off one of her granddaughters. She did the same thing when they arrived in Orkney to continue her ties with the Jarl of Orkney.

Onboard the knarr, Aud commanded twenty men along with other men that they picked up along the way. This said a lot about her leadership as ships were often captained by men during her time. They were prisoners and slaves from nearby Vikings raids around the British Isles. Upon their arrival in Ireland, Aud gave these men their freedom which made them freed-men. Freed-men was a different social class caught between a slave and the free. Although they were not slaves and thus did not recognize any master, they did not enjoy the same rights of one born as a free man. Aud was known to be a kind and just leader, this is evident when she gave the men land to farm giving them a means to survive and earn a living.

Aud finally settled in Breidafjord and to continue their ties with Iceland, married off one of her granddaughters to Koll Laxardale. Before her death, she made sure that all of her grandchildren were settled with good family ties. As a result of this, her descendants are often mentioned in several sagas as great men and women.

Freydís Eiríksdóttir - Shield Maiden or Ruthless Murderer?

Born in 970, Freydís Eiríksdóttir was the daughter of the infamous Viking, Erik the Red. Erik the Red is a familiar figure in several Norse sagas and was credited for the discovery of "The Green Land" now better known as Greenland. Originally from Norway, Erik's family was banished after his father committed crimes of murder. Fleeing from their home, they settled in Iceland where he met his wife, Thjodhild. From their union came their most famous son, Leif Eiriksson. Years later, like his father, Erik committed murder and was banished from Iceland. He uprooted his family and upon its discovery settled in Greenland. Three years later, after his banishment had ended, he journeyed back to Iceland and brought home with him 500 men.

Freydís Eiríksdóttir

While there are several stories of her father, Erik the Red, nothing is known of her mother which leads to the assumption that she was an illegitimate child. She grew up with her father and was said to foster good relationships with her brothers Thorvald, Thorstein, and Leif Erikson. She later married Torvald, however, in many sagas her husband is depicted as a weakling.

While there are conflicting stories of her in the Greenland Saga and the Saga of Erik the Red, her temper is a constant in both versions. Aside from inheriting her father's temper, Freydís was just as ambitious and adventurous as her brother, Leif. In 1001 AD, Leif discovered Newfoundland in Canada. He called it Vinland because of the grapes that grew in the land. It was in 1004 AD that Freydís joined the expedition of Thorfinn Karlsefni and followed her brother to the new land. However, unlike her brother, her settlement did not come as easily. Prior to their arrival, the island was already inhabited by locals called Skraelings. Freydís and her group were in the process of trading with the locals when trouble arose. While unproven, chances are it could be because of Freydís' explosive temper.

On the night of their failed attempt at trading with Freydís' group, the locals attacked their camp. The locals used a catapult, a weapon unfamiliar to the Vikings. In fear, most of them fled while others went into hiding. The sagas claim that it was only Freydís who had the courage to stand up to the locals. Because she did not have a weapon handy, she took one out of a corpse and started beating her bare chest all the while screaming incoherently. Terrified by the sight of her and fearing she was mad, the locals retreated and let them be. Oh, and did I mention she was eight months pregnant at the time? That must have added to the local's belief that she had lost her mind for what pregnant woman would risk her life and the life of her unborn child to fight in battle.

Frustrated that she did not have the same success as her father and brother, Freydís decided to strike out on her own. She rallied for the support of two Icelandic brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi, and convinced them to go exploring with her. They each agreed to gather the same number of men, seek treasures at sea together and divide their wins in equal shares. To sweeten the deal, she even let them use her brother, Leif's home in Vinland.

But from the very start, Freydís already set herself up for failure. She cheated the brothers by bringing more men than the brothers hoping to gain the upper hand. She also contradicted herself when she offered the brothers Leif's home by muscling her way to their settlement claiming it was her right being Leif's sister. Despite this, the brothers still made true to their promise and shared everything that they earned during their time at sea. Freydís greed continued to get the best of her. She decided she wanted it all. She beat herself to a pulp and went to her husband claiming she had been beaten and robbed by the two brothers. She asked her husband to avenge her and threatened to divorce him if he did nothing. Torvald led his army and killed all the men in Helgi and Finnbogi's party thinking he was in the right. Thankfully, he spared the women. However, not wanting any witnesses, Freydis killed the women and threatened her men to silence.

Upon their arrival back in Greenland, Leif knowing her sister's disposition, questioned the men to find out the truth behind the accusations. Out of love for his sister, he did nothing to her but predicted that nothing good would befall her descendants as punishment for all the deaths she had caused. True enough, little is known of what happened to her child and those who came after.  

Olga – the Reformed Warrior

Born in Pskvov, a city in northwestern Russia, Olga of Kiev was born into a royal family. She was of both Viking and Russian descent. Because Pskov was a trade nexus between Russia and Scandinavia, many Scandinavians settled there and grew to become wealthy trades men. These Scandinavians became known as Varyags or Varangians. Evidence of their graves have been excavated along with nobility and those of high status in Pskov's society. Sadly, very little is known of her life during her youth prior to her marriage. 

Olga – the Reformed Warrior

In 912, Olga married, Igor. Igor was the son of Rurik and heir to the throne of Kiev. Igor's father was a Varangian chieftain who moved to the east and gained power at Novgorod on the Volkhov River. His son Igor was still too young to rule upon his death in 879. Guardianship of both his land and his son was left to his dear friend, Oleg. It was after Rurik's death that Oleg and Igor moved to Rus, then the capital of Kiev, and founded the Kingdom of Kievan Rus. Kievan Rus now covers parts of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. From their union came the birth of their son, Svyatoslav. 

The Kingdom of Kievan Rus had a neighboring tribe called the Drevlians. They had previously pledged loyalty to the Kievan Rus and fought alongside them against the Byzantine Empire. When Igor reached the right age to rule, he took over for Oleg in 913. This is when the Drevlians decided to cut ties with them and instead form an alliance with a local warlord. In 945, Igor had had enough, and he set out to Iskorosten, Drevlians' capital, to force them to pay tribute to the Kievan Rus. Igor brought with him a large army which intimidated the Drevlians forcing them to pay tribute. While in the middle of his travel back home, Igor suddenly turned back with the intent of demanding for a much bigger tribute. This time, however, he brought only a small envoy along with him. Seeing as he did not have as many armed men to protect him as he did previously, the Drevlians fought back and killed Igor. Stories say that Igor died a gruesome death where he was captured, tied to a tree trunk and torn in two.

It seemed that Igor's son was meant to relive his fate. Svyatoslav was only three years old when he lost his father forcing Olga to assume the throne. What followed next was a series of events that would forever catapult Olga's name as a cunning and ruthless leader.

Because of their success in their murder of Igor, the Drevlians grew bold and sent their messenger with a proposal that Olga marry their prince. Prince Mal was the man who ordered the death of her husband. To accompany the messenger and to force her to comply, the Drevlians sent twenty of their best negotiators. To their proposal, Olga replied, "Your proposal is pleasing to me’ indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honor you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return now to your boat and remain there with an aspect of arrogance. I shall send for you on the morrow, and you shall say, ‘We will not ride on horses nor go on foot’ carry us in our boat.’ And you shall be carried in your boat".

Arriving the next day, the Drevlians waited outside Olga's court anticipating the honor they would receive. After repeating what she had told them the other day, the people of Kiev rose up and carried them to their boats. It was then that the people of Kiev dropped them into the trench that Olga has ordered dug and buried them alive. She then bent down to watch and asked them what honor tasted like.

Next, she sent a message to the Drevlians asking that they send their most distinguished men to meet her in Kiev so she may present herself to the prince. Upon their arrival, she commanded her people to draw them a bath and invited the men to appear before her before they bathed. Upon entering the bathhouse, Olga locked the doors and set the house on fire burning everyone in it.

Still her thirst for vengeance remained unquenched, she sent another message ordering them to prepare great quantities of mead so as she may visit the city where her husband died and weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast in his honor. She indeed wept and held a funeral feast at Igor's tomb. The Drevlians joined them and began drinking heavily. When they had consumed too much mead and were drunk, she ordered her followers to kill them. This resulted in the death of several men.

Olga than led her army to conquer Iskorosten, the city of Igor's death. A year passed and the city still would not fall. Frustrated, Olga sent them a message; "Why do you persist in holding out? All your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute, so that the inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. But you had rather tide of hunger, without submitting to tribute." The Drevlians responded that they were willing to pay tribute but feared that her wrath would lead to their massacre. Olga responded that she was no longer interested in seeking revenge and asked that they give her three pigeons and three sparrows from each house. Grateful that she asked only for three pigeons and three sparrows from each house they gladly obliged. Olga's next instructions to her army was to attach a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth to each bird. At nightfall, her soldiers were to set the pieces aflame and release the birds. The birds returned to their nests and as a result the city burned. Those who were able to flee were hunted down and killed, some sold as slaves.

She continued to hold the throne until her son came of age. During her time, she continued to refuse several proposals and even defended Kiev in 968 during the Siege of Kiev. As queen, Olga implemented several changes one being the change in the system of tribute gathering. She also established several trading posts and hunting reserves that are, even now, still in existence.

It was in the 950s, during her visit to Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine Empire, that she converted to Christianity under the influence of Emperor Constantine. 

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