The weapons that hacked out an empire for a warrior race

Viking swords, just as any other swords used during the dark ages in Europe held an almost mythical position in society. They were revered, named and passed down the generations. They were buried with warriors and given by kings to their most senior and trusted aristocratic followers. Swords were expensive and the best quality examples cost a fortune. They were as much a status symbol as a weapon of war and were an outward display of wealth and position.

These swords can be found wherever the Vikings were present and not only in their ancestral homelands in Scandinavia. Many examples have been found in the British Isles, especially in the area around Dublin in Ireland and the old Danelaw in England. Yet more have been discovered in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. They would have been traded and taken in battle and would not only have been used by Vikings, but may even have been wielded by their enemies against them.

Viking swords were not only manufactured in Scandinavia, there have been examples discovered that have been made in the Viking controlled areas of the British Isles. As the centuries passed and the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes and Norse Vikings became one nation, their swords were taken into battle by the new people of that vigorous new nation, England. 

It should be remembered that one of the most famous kings of England, Harold II, who died fighting at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was half Danish. His mother was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir the daughter of Torkel Styrbjörnsson, whose grandson was to become king of Denmark.


The last resting place of Harold II at Waltham Abbey, Essex, England

Harold also had Danish warriors with him at the battle, sent by the king of Denmark to serve him. It is believed by many historians that they formed his 'housecarls', the fierce personal bodyguard of the king. They all died to the man protecting him with their fearsome and deadly Dane-axes, as the last stand was made and the kings life ebbed away.

Finest Blades

Interestingly, the finest sword blades were produced in the Rhineland and southern Bavaria where the best iron was to be found. The Celtic peoples of the Iron Age and the Romans both sourced their best sword metal and swords from these areas. Fashionable pommels and cross guards could be fitted in the Viking homelands, but the blades, the most vital component of any sword, would come from what is now modern Germany.  

Swords can last a very long time if looked after. It was not unusual for a warrior to go into battle with a sword that was a couple of centuries old, handed down from generation to generation. The hilts and pommels would have been altered as fashions changed, but the blade, the most important part of the weapon would have remained as it always was. There is one example in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, Switzerland that has a 16th century hilt and a 7th century blade. That represents countless generations of warfare, and the likelihood is the blade would have been well blooded and taken many souls during its existence.

The Way of War

As part of my own personal collection I own a high quality replica Viking sword of the 9th century. It weighs around 3kg, is 95cm from pommel to tip and the fullered blade is very sharp. A fuller is a broad shallow groove running along the length of the sword that lightens the weight with minimal loss of strength. This groove is also known as a 'blood channel', which is both descriptive and horrific at one and the same time. 

A good quality sword brandished by a strong warrior would easily be capable of being thrust into a body through chain mail, its pointed tip separating the links as it passed through. These were highly efficient killing devices whose sole reason for existence was to bring injury, pain and death.

To hold a Viking sword is to gain an instant respect for its design, manufacture, technical efficiency and single minded purpose. When drawing the sword from the scabbard with a scraping metallic rasp, there comes a little shiver of fear, a mere hint of what those brave fighting men of old must have felt as armies clashed in a melee of hacking, slashing conflict. It was hideous up close and personal kind of conflict that left the field of battle looking like a macabre butchers shop. The field of battle would have been awash with blood and gore and the writhing bodies of the wounded and dying.

During the centuries long conflicts between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons battles were attritional affairs. Armies would form up in tight shield wall formations and advance until they clashed shields with the opposing force. That initial crashing impact would be followed by the hacking, slashing and stabbing of swords, the thrusting of spears and the devastating battering of axes. 

The bow was rarely used in warfare at this time, it was considered a contemptuous weapon of poachers and not warriors. Men proved their bravery in battle by hand to hand combat. This was a martial society where bravery and courage brought status and respect and where cowardice would bring shame and dishonour.

Shield formations could be so tight, and the weight of numbers so great, that the dead could not fall but were held upright by their living comrades. Most casualties occurred when a shield wall was broken and an army put to flight. Fleeing men were pursued and ruthlessly hacked down by the victorious army. Possession of the battlefield was the deciding factor of who won the battle and/or the death of an opposing leader.

Dark Age warfare was only romantic and heroic in the poems of the bards. In reality, it was a dreadful adrenaline soaked hand-to-hand slaughter, with the razor-sharp swords ‘singing’ of death as they slashed through the air and sliced into flesh and bone, or parted limb from torso. Blood would have been everywhere and flowing freely and its sweet metallic aroma would have hung heavy in the air, like some demonic cloying perfume.

The pommel and cross guard of my replica Viking sword


The replica sword I own is not a direct copy of any one particular sword held in a museum, but is a faithful example of a certain style current in the mid Viking period. One beautifully fine example of a genuine original sword of this type is held at the Universitetets Oldsaksamling in Oslo, Norway. It was discovered at Skoven near Molmen, Lesjeskogen, Norway. The sword is catalogued as a Petersen type T, which is a design differentiation for the kind of hilt and pommel fitted. This design, with a drilled cross guard and pommel effect, was extremely popular in northern Norway during the Viking era.

Below is a video of the Viking sword in action. This is how combat would have taken place, with none of those visually dramatic but suicidal moves one tends to see all too often in Hollywood movies. The main aim of a Viking warrior was to fight and kill, not to look heroic and dramatic in a Kirk Douglas kind of way.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr