The Viking trading empire, 8th to 11th Century

Conquered and conquerors

England during the Middle Ages was one of the most prosperous nations in Europe. English merchants could be found in many major European cities selling a range of goods, especially wool. England’s prosperity made it a target for the Vikings.

The Vikings were, however, more than just raiders.

  • Viking traders were remarkable travellers. Merchants journeyed as far south as Constantinople in modern-day Turkey, while other traders made long journeys overland through Russia.
  • When they finally conquered England, under King Cnut, England became the centre of a North Sea trading empire. This included Cnut’s territories in Norway, Denmark and parts of Sweden.
  • The Norman Conquest shifted trade and commerce back to continental Europe as England and France remained strongly connected until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453.

The Vikings and Cnut’s North Sea Empire

The Vikings had been raiding England as far back as 793 when they looted a monastery in Lindisfarne, Northumbria. In 865 a large group of Norwegians, Swedes and Danes invaded England with the aim of conquering the whole country. This ‘Great Heathen Army’ did not succeed in conquering all of England but did gain large territories, with York as their capital. Key territories captured included the Orkneys and other small isles off Scotland, the north-east coast of England and Dublin in Ireland.

Photo of a silver penny of King Cnut (990-1035)
A silver penny of King Cnut (990-1035)

Many migrated from Scandinavia to these territories and turned York into the major trading centre in the north of England. Goods from all over the world were traded in Viking York (Jorvik) and the success of these Viking settlements encouraged increased migration from Scandinavia, especially Denmark.

In 1016 the Danish King Cnut managed to conquer all of England. This had a major impact on the country:

  • England was now part of a North Sea Empire; the English King Cnut was also King of Norway and Denmark. Coins with Cnut’s image were used across these kingdoms.
  • Trade between these countries increased and many economic migrants from Scandinavia decided to settle in England as farmers or craftsmen. This continued from 851 to around 1050.