Why were the Vikings such fierce warriors?

The Vikings were famous for being skilled and ferocious warriors. Find out more about how they fought and also why they fought.

The Vikings were ferocious fighters who used weapons and tactics to their advantage.

Why did the Vikings go to war?

Fighting was very important for the Vikings. They attacked and raided settlements to find treasure and slaves. They fought wars as a way of taking control of more land.

When Vikings first came to Scotland, they only attacked in quick hit-and-run raids, such as attacking the monastery on Iona. Later, though, they stayed and settled on the islands and coastal areas of the country. These became Viking land. Orkney became an important base for Vikings.

For hundreds of years, many Scottish islands belonged to Norway - until the Battle of Largs.

In 1263 AD, King Haakon of Norway sent a fleet of Viking longships to Largs, Ayrshire. When the Vikings landed on the beach, Scottish soldiers fought them off. Haakon sailed away to Orkney where he died soon after. Three years later, the Norwegians signed a treaty that made the most of the Scottish islands they controlled truly Scottish. Orkney and Shetland stayed under the control of Norway until 1468 AD.

What weapons did Vikings use?

Viking warriors fought using longbows and arrows, spears, long swords and axes. Metal swords were expensive and so would be used by richer warriors. A good sword was handed down from father to son, but Vikings also buried weapons with their owner when he died.

Axes and spears made of wood and metal were cheaper and used by more Vikings.

Vikings did not wear much armour. Some chieftains had iron helmets and wore chain mail coats. Poorer Vikings might have a leather helmet and padded leather clothing to protect them. All Vikings would carry a round wooden shield for protection.

Berserkers

'Berserkr' is an Old Norse word meaning 'bear skin' and berserkers were Viking warriors who went into battle wearing wolf or bear skins. Berserkers believed that Odin, the god of war, gave them superhuman powers and that they didn't need to wear battle armour for protection. They would get very worked up and charge fearlessly into battle. If someone says you have gone berserk they mean that you have gone wild and out of control, just like a berserker.

What tactics did Vikings use?

When going into battle, Vikings would first fire arrows, to try and injure or kill as many of their enemies as possible from a distance. When they got closer they would throw spears to do more damage. Once they were close to their enemies, they would attack with their swords and axes, while defending themselves with shields.

Viking armor and weapons at a historical reenactment.

Click on the labels below to find out more about a Viking warrior’s weapons and armour.

What were Viking warships like?

The Vikings built fast 'dragonships' and 'longships' for raiding and war. A ship carried everything needed at sea - drinking water, dried meat to eat, tools, weapons, and furs to keep warm.

Viking longships could sail in shallow water so they could travel up rivers as well as across the sea. In a raid, a ship could be hauled up on a beach. The Vikings could jump out and start fighting, and then make a quick getaway if they were chased.

Click on the labels below to find out more about the parts of the a Viking long ship.