Find out about six remarkable Viking Age figures, from Erik the Red, who founded Greenland’s first Norse settlement, to Cnut the Great, who ruled a massive empire in northern Europe.
Rollo: First ruler of Normandy
In the 9th century, this Viking commander, whose ancestors were probably Danish or Norwegian, began raiding France. Under the Treaty of St. Claire-sur-Epte, Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, handed Rollo a portion of what is now Normandy (in the Northmen’s territory) in exchange for his protection against future Viking raiders in 911. Rollo later strengthened his grip over the region, and his son, William Longsword, succeeded him around the time he died in 928.
In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, a descendant of Rollo, conducted a victorious invasion of England. William the Conqueror, as people knew him, reigned as King of England from 1066 until 1087. Allied troops arrived on the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944, more than a thousand years after Rollo’s demise, initiating the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s domination.
Erik the Red: Founded Greenland’s First Norse Settlement
Erik the Red was born Erik Thorvaldsson in Norway and had the nickname Erik the Red because of his red hair and probably his fierce temper. Erik’s father went to Iceland with his family after people expelled him from Norway for killing someone. People accused Erik of manslaughter there, which led to his exile from Iceland in 982. He sailed west after leaving home, eventually naming the enormous, unknown island Greenland to entice future immigrants.
Erik returned to Iceland some years later and arranged a fleet of more than 20 ships to transport colonists back to Greenland, only fourteen ships survived the voyage, where they established two major colonies in 986. The Greenland colony had a population of over 4500 people at its peak. Greenland’s Norse villages survived after Erik’s death until they were abandoned in the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s unclear why the Norse Greenlanders vanished, but a number of reasons, including a cooling environment and dwindling trading prospects, could have played a part.
Olaf Tryggvason: Brought Christianity to Norway
Olaf was born in 968, the grandson of Harald Fairhair, the first king to unite Norway, and people assume that he was raised in Russia after his father died. Olaf led the Viking invasion of England in 991. Following that, the English paid the Vikings a ransom to deter future invasions, at least temporarily. Danegeld was the name of this sort of payment. In 994, Olaf and his friend, Denmark’s King Svein Forkbeard, mounted another invasion of England, netting an additional Danegeld.
The following year, Olaf invaded Norway with his loot and became king after Norway’s ruler, Hakon the Great, died by assassination. Olaf ordered his subjects to convert to Christianity during his reign as king. Prior to that, and previously, most Scandinavians were pagans who worshipped a variety of deities.
Olaf’s efforts earned him adversaries, including Svein Forkbeard, a former ally who wished to restore Danish rule in Norway, and Erik of Hladir, Hakon’s son. In a fight at sea in the year 1000, Olaf’s opponents ambushed him. Instead, instead of surrendering, he allegedly went over the side of his ship, never to be seen again.
Leif Eriksson: Beat Columbus to the New World by 500 years
Leif is regarded as the first European to set foot in North America, arriving approximately 5 centuries before Christopher Columbus. Believed to have been born in Iceland in 970, Leif eventually migrated to Greenland, where his father, Erik the Red, founded the first Norse settlement. Around the year 1000, Leif Eriksson set off in quest of land that an Icelander known as Bjarni Herjolfsson had discovered years before when his ship blew off course on its trip to Greenland.
During his trip, Leif visited Helluland (flat stone land), which historians believe to be Baffin Island, before heading south to Markland (forestland), which historians believe to be Labrador. The Vikings then established a camp in what may have been Newfoundland and explored the surrounding area, which Leif dubbed Vinland (wineland) because grapes or berries were said to be present.Other Norsemen opted to travel to Vinland after Leif returned to Greenland with a wealthy timber shipment.
The Viking presence in North America, on the other hand, was short-lived, presumably due to confrontations with unfriendly or hostile Indians. The only authenticated Norse settlement in North America was discovered in the early 1960s at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland; items unearthed there date to around 1000.
Cnut the Great: England’s Viking King
Cnut or Canute, the son of Denmark’s King Svein Forkbeard, helped his father to conquer England in 1013. When Svein lost his life the next year, the exiled Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelred the Unready, reclaimed power. Aethelred died in 1016, and his son, Edmund Ironside, succeeded him. Later that year, after Cnut beat him at the Battle of Ashingdon, Edmund signed a pact giving Cnut control of a portion of England. Edmund died just a few weeks later, and all of England came under Cnut’s power. His rule restored stability after years of wars and raids.
Denmark, Norway, and probably parts of Sweden eventually fell under Cnut’s sway, resulting in a large kingdom. When he died in 1035, his son, Harold Harefoot, ascended to the throne of England and ruled until his death in 1040. Cnut’s other son ascended to the throne, but his death in 1042 effectively ended Danish authority in England.
According to history, Harald Hardrada is said to be the last great Viking leader to have ever lived.