Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Viking Ships

Last week I was in Iceland and whilst there took the opportunity to collect information about Viking ships for my third novel in The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy, The Betrothed Sister. It is my work in progress. The Swan-Daughter will be published this summer by Accent Press. By studying Viking ships and early medieval Iceland I was, in a general way, gathering information relevant to the early medieval world in coastal Northern Europe and beyond. In this novel King Harold's daughter Gytha and her grandmother of the same name travel into exile and Gytha (Thea) is betrothed to Vladimir of Kiev. The Vikings famously navigated European rivers especially in Russia where the Scandinavian countries had many links at the close of the Viking period in the late 11thC.

Viking ships are larger than you would think

View towards the stern
Effective means of transport and established routes fostered social and economic growth in Scandinavia and were essential for expansion overseas, for example Iceland, Greenland, Vinland briefly, and Russia. There was also the expansion into England and Normandy. We are inclined to forget that the two kings and the Duke who fought in September and October 1066 for the throne of England were of Scandinavian descent.

In battle

Adam of Bremen writing in 1075 points out that sailing routes around Scandinavia were the most efficient ways to travel from Denmark to Norway and Sweden, and through Russia via its rivers as far as the Black Sea. Ships are the symbol of the Viking Age. These ships have been found in England and in Slav regions south of the Baltic with relevant modifications. The ships which William the Conqueror, a Viking descendent ,himself, commanded to be built for his invasion of England in 1066 were of the same type.

View of the ship
War and travel ships were low and narrow relative to their length. Mostly they seem to have been constructed from oak or pine. Oar ports were distributed evenly along the ship's length with two to each space between the frames. It is possible therefore to estimate the numbers in a crew. When not in use the oar ports could be closed with flaps.  Along the length of the ship was a deck. The mast could easily be lowered and raised because of the design of the mast fish and the mast step. The first supported the mast at deck level and the second was fitted to the top of the keel, fastened to the frames by 'knees'. Thus the ship could be a combination of a sailing and rowing vessel and it could pass under low bridges, could move quickly if attacked and make speed with a wind over the ocean. This combination gave the ship greater manoeuvrability. And of course on the outside of the ship there was the shield-batten.

The shield-batten

Hull construction detail
Scandinavian poetry contains evocative descriptions of ships and fleets. When the king lets the ships run across the sea, says the skald/ poet Arnor, it is just as if the Heaven-Lord's crowd of angels were floating together across the waves.

Raven-Flokki, the second Norseman to arrive in Iceland

When I visited Vikingaheimar in Iceland a museum south of Reykjavik, I was able to walk on the replica of the ship that Leifr Ericsson reputedly used to cross the Atlantic in the 10th century and which was taken on a similar successful voyage in this century. There is no doubt , as the exhibitions in this museum tell us, that the Vikings were indeed the first Europeans to reach America. As for the ship it was marvellous. It was enormous and beautifully constructed. It also interestingly had a hold / crawl-space under the deck. That was a feature I had wondered about. After all, how did William of Normandy transport so much equipment including his ingenious pre-IKEA flatpack concept wooden fortifications which he quickly erected at Pevensey and Hastings? When one looks at the Tapestry it is easy to think that the ships were not so large. In truth they were actually huge!

Here are a few poetic lines from Egil's Saga, an Icelandic Saga, using ship imagery:

I have travelled on the sea-god's steed
a long and turbulent wave-path
to visit the one who sits
in command of the English land.
In great boldness, the shaker
of the wound-flaming sword
has met the mainstay
of King Harald's line.

sea-god's steed=ship
shaker of wound-flaming sword=warrior

Snorri as portrayed at the Saga Museum

Egil's Saga dates in manuscript form from 13thC but is attributed on stylistic grounds to Iceland's greatest medieval historian, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) who was a descendent of Egil.

Detail of the rigging

The Mast Fish 


The Vikings by Else Roesdahl

The Sagas of Icelanders published by Penguin Classics
The World of the Vikings at Vikingaheimar
The Saga Museum, Reykjavik.

The landmark statue of Leifr Ericsson in Reykjavik
A lot of bodies in one ship...


  1. Thanks Carol for the very detailed images of the ships. They show the magnificent craftsmanship and skill of the boat constructors to make such a craft with the materials and resources available to them in the Dark Ages. Great stuff.

  2. I had read Beowulf in college and I knew "Normans" was a corruption of "Northmen" but thanks for putting it all in perspective. It was a courageous feat to travel in such a ship across the "swan-road" without computerized navigation equipment. Those men were truly brave in more ways than one.

  3. Carol, a fascinating post. Thanks. Are your Viking stories historical romance?

  4. They are not Viking really but about the noble women of 1066. Biographical fiction with romance. Take a peep on amazon.

  5. Thank you, all for your comments.

  6. Eozen, the father of Alan Rufus, a protagonist in Carol's second novel "The Swan-Daughter", was a maternal nephew of Emma of Normandy, Edward the Confessor's Queen, and thus a first cousin of King Edward and Alfred Aetheling (sons of Emma's first husband Æthelred the Unready), and of Emma's children by King Cnut: Harthacnut, Goda of England, and ... Gunhilda of Denmark (c. 1020 – 18 July 1038), the first wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III.

    When Emma married Æthelred, she took the English name Ælfgifu. Since King Cnut's first wife was Ælfgifu of Northampton (c. 990 – after 1040), both his wives were Ælfgifu.

    Now, as Carol covers in detail in her first book "The Handfasted Wife", King Harold's first wife was Ælfgifu the Fair and they had several sons and two daughters, one named Gunhilda who came under the protection of Alan Rufus and his family. (Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote twice to Gunhilda, accusing her of having an affair with Alan, but later removed the letters from his archive: we know them by surviving copies.)

    Ælfgifu the Fair married Harold around the time he became Earl of East Anglia. She was already a very wealthy landowner, and although her parents must have been prominent aristocrats, their identity is a mystery.

    As one quickly discovers, "Ælfgifu" and "Gunhilda" were very popular names among the nobility of 10th and 11th century England, so there's not necessarily any family connection between Cnut's wife (either one) and daughter and Harold's.

    Alan acquired 109 of Ælfgifu's properties shortly after the Battle of Hastings, so the usual explanation for his attraction to Gunhilda, Harold's daughter, is a legitimisation of his land titles.

    However, Alan was a sentimental Breton, after all, so was he drawn to Gunhilda because she bore the same name as his father's cousin?

    1. Oh dear, I don't suggest it was entirely to do with land and connection but the need for a son too. We shall never really know. It is impossible to read what was in his heart alas but I doubt very much a similar name ever had anything to do with such a decision. Still I have given him a rounded personality and much credit too. The Swan-Daughter does not see its characters as flat or as one dimensional . Like many today they are a mix of good and bad though who can judge from such a distance of time, people who lived in different circumstances and circumstances that were harsh to our minds and indeed harsh in any situation visited by Conquest.