On 28th March 845 ths Vikings sacked the city of Paris.
In January 2010 I visited the very spot that they probably set off from on their marauding mission.
It was a depressing morning, the Norwegian city of Haugesund crippled under the weight of a leaden grey sky, as we set out in a northerly direction along the black granite coast towards Haugesund’s most famous visitor attraction, the Haroldshaugen Norges Riksmonument a couple of kilometres outside of the city. We joined a handful of local people in brightly coloured ‘North Face’ kagools and stout hiking boots who were wandering along the coast line cinder path stopping occasionally for no apparent reason to stop and stare out into the cold grey nothingness of the North Sea.
We found the monument and it struck me as a bit strange for an Anglo-Saxon to be visiting a monument that commemorates the Viking Age and a starting off point for longships full of heathen bullies on their way across the North Sea to rape and pillage a part of England where I now live.
The Vikings were Norse explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe and the North Atlantic from the late 8th to the mid 11th century. These Norsemen used their famous longships to travel as far east as Russia, and as far west as Newfoundland, and as far south as modern Spain in a period known as the Viking Age.
Whilst we tend to retain the school boy image of them as beasts in horned helmets it actually becomes increasingly evident that Viking society was quite complex and popular conceptions of them are often in conflict with the truth that emerges from archaeology and modern research. A romanticized picture of Vikings as noble savages began to take root in the eighteenth century, and this developed and became widely propagated for over a hundred years. The traditional view of the Vikings as violent brutes and intrepid adventurers are part true, part fable but no one can be absolutely sure of the accurate ratio and popular representations of these men in animal skins with deadly weapons remain, for now, highly clichéd.
Haraldshaugen was erected during the millennial celebration of Norway’s unification into one kingdom under the rule of King Harald I and was unveiled on July 18th 1872 by Crown Prince Oscar to commemorate the one thousand year anniversary of the Battle of Hafrsfjord. Truthfully I found it a bit disappointing I have to say, a seventeen metre high granite main obelisk surrounded by a memorial stones next to an empty car park, a closed visitor centre and an empty vending machine but I’m sure I am being unfair because places such as these are not really meant to be visited in January.
We walked back along the same route and into the suburbs of the city which felt rather like a deciduous tree coping in its own way with winter; barely existing, hibernating, waiting, watching for the first signs of spring. The people with pale complexions, weary streets, grass burned brown by frost and houses battered and besieged and firmly closed to the outside world, a city beaten to the edge of submission by a winter that was still only part way through.