They used to strike fear – Viking Long Boats at Roskilde

Violent, vicious, virile.


Those are words that are usually used to describe the Vikings, ancestors of modern day Scandinavians. It was the Vikings from present day Denmark and Norway that descended like the plague on the monks of Lindisfarne and Iona, and pillaged these ancient monasteries of their scholarly learning during Europe’s Dark Age. It was these same Viking people that went all around Europe, from East to West, to rape and pillage.

Or at least thats how the story goes.

But there is more to the Vikings that that. Modern archaeological research indicates that the vikings were a lot more than raiders, they were traders and farmers and went as far as present day Baghdad to trade. It is those Vikings, the trader Vikings, whose heritage lives on in the Danish city of Roskilde.

When you go to a museum and look at inanimate objects you sometimes miss the significance of things. That was me when I first spied the salvaged Viking long boats at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

The ships were clearly marvels of architecture, strong sea worthy vessels and these vessels were made perhaps around a millenia ago, although all that was left was the bases of these boats, they were still impressive sights. Some of them were trade ships, others fishing boats… But to many people in Europe in the dark ages, these were something else – they represented death and destruction.

It dawns on you are you walk, that there used to be a time when these boats struck fear in people. These Viking long boats especially the long seaworthy ones, were the same Longboats that sailed the seas and made the Vikings a widely feared race. And the Viking Ship Museum displays five real former Viking Ships.

But how did they get discovered, and why were they sunk?

The year was 1035, Viking Danish territory stretched from Denmark to Norway and included the whole of England. King Cnut the Great, who united these three crowns was on his deathbed and as he closed his eyes on a triumphal reign, the sinews of conflict were already springing into life. The question at the core was that of succession, just because Cnut was great did not mean his successor was. The control that Cnut deftly brought the three nations of the realm fractured after his death by 1040, three different kings sat on the throne of each kingdom. Then in 1066, the English king Edward the Confessor, a half brother to the previous king died, and an unrelated Earl, the Earl of Wessex Harold Godwinson was elected to the throne. This election was not unanimously accepted by the other warlords of the time, even if the English people accepted it and invasions took place from Norway (Harald Hadrada) and Normandy (William I). A longboat depending on size, could hold anywhere between 25 to 100 people, Harald Hadrada sailed to England from the north with over 1000 boats, and 14000 warriors; William, whose Norman people have themselvez viking blood sailed to south England with another 1000 boats.

Years of war meant that everyone began to take sides and in 1066, William of Normandy emerged as the victor.

William may have won the battle for England, now he had to win the war of hearts and Northern England with its Anglo-Danish links was a tinderbox for rebellion. The Danes send troops to aid the rebellion in 1069, however the troops were caught in a bad winter and were unable to assist the Anglo-Danish tribes.

To secure the lives off their Danish people, a fleet of reinforcements was sent from Roskilde in 1070 (the mission was a failure and England became a Norman country). Having emptied the country of soliders and at risk of invasion, five Viking longboats were deliberately sunk at a place called Skuldelev at the entry way to the Roskilde Fjord to block entry into Roskilde. The ships that were sunk were not just war ships but a good range of other ships such as trading ships, fishing vessels and cargo ships.

They were only discovered in 1962, almost a millennia later and not because people were looking for it. In 1924, fisherman in the area had cut a path out of Skuldelev to make the channel deeper so larger vessels could pass through. During the process they discovered parts of what used to be boats. This finding did not really lead to any immediate action, until 1962 when a full excavation was performed of the site and the five ships were discovered.

These five ships are the centre piece of Viking Ship Museum which overlooks the entryway to the Roskilde Fjords. The five ships are left in very different conditions, but across the board, their hulls remain, larger hulls than many small boats today. A feat all the more impressive when you consider that this was workmanship from more than 1000 years ago.

The museum at Roskilde does not just house these five longboats but uses the knowledge gleamed from these discoveries to build longboats using the techniques that archaeology discoveries reveal. In fact using what they have discovered and then built, they offer Viking Ship Tours in the Summer up the fjords for people to relive the sea journey the Vikings would have taken in the past.

A journey that would have struck fear in the hearts of those who saw them from a distance.



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