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18 September 2014
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Loot: Why the Vikings Came to Britain

Who were the Vikings?

Image of the Ardagh Chalice
The Ardagh Chalice - jewel of Celtic culture ©
We tend to think of the Vikings as a single phenomenal race of Scandinavian warriors, but the reality is more complex. Raids on the British Isles and the coasts of France and Spain were the work of Vikings from Norway and Denmark (Swedish Vikings set out across the Baltic Sea into Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Russia). The word Viking means one who lurks in a 'vik' or bay, in effect, a pirate.

The word 'Viking' has come to describe a whole new age in Europe between about 800 and 1150. This is despite the fact that Vikings were not just pirates and warriors but also traders and colonists. But at the start of the Viking Age in the last decade of the eighth century, loot and adventure were the main goals of the Norwegians who raided in Scotland and Ireland, and of the Danes who attacked England.

Gold and silver treasures accumulated by the great monasteries could be converted into personal wealth, and thus power, and captives could be sold as slaves. What better way for the young sons of good families to earn their way and see the world?

'... examples of ... the 'work of angels' were looted and taken home by Vikings.'

The monks who recorded these activities could not know the origins of their tormentors, but discoveries of precious metalwork from Britain in Norway and Denmark are clues to where the Vikings came from. Decorative mounts from church plate such as the Ardagh Chalice could be removed and made into brooches, the rest of the chalice melted down and the silver re-used. Such pieces have been found in pagan graves of around 800 in Scandinavia.

The Ardagh Chalice escaped this fate, but many other beautiful examples of what has been called the 'work of angels' were looted and taken home by Vikings. One exquisite reliquary box, made in the eighth century to hold a saint's relic, became a Norwegian lady's jewellery casket in the tenth century, when an inscription in runes was carved on its base - 'Ranvaik owns this casket'.

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