The Sea Stallion: The World’s Largest Reconstruction of a Once-Dreaded Ship.

“A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying over the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine…”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle To zealous Christian monks, these phenomena foreboded the tragedy that was to strike a remote monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England. Later to be called the Holy Island, it was the most important religious centre in the region, and one of the wealthiest institutions in Northumbria. There were a number of autonomous monasteries in Anglo-Saxon England, sacred sanctuaries who posed no threat to and faced none in a civilized world.

However the civilized world, as the monks understood it, ended on the northern coasts of mainland Europe. Across the North and Baltic Seas, lay the lands of the Norsemen, whose collective conscience was not tempered by any ecclesiology. These people were just setting out to explore the wider world and seek their fortune. In the year 793, some of them sailed across the North Sea to England.

With a long view of the sea, some monks of the Holy Island sighted the ships on the horizon. As they watched uneasily, the ships loomed larger and their square sails and dragon-headed prows came into view. The ships looked imposing; of a type the ascetics had never seen before. As the vessels beached on the shore, bewilderment turned into alarm, then into outright panic as hordes of barbarians, yelling fiercely, jumped off with brandished weapons and rushed towards them.

Like lightning, the marauders swooped down on the monastery, killing wantonly and destroying everything in their path. They plundered the treasures of the church and looted the granary. Young apprentices studying the Holy Scriptures were raped. Once they were done, the attackers set fire to the wooden building, partially gutting it. They came out of nowhere and mysteriously disappeared.

According to the monk Simeon, “…they trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars…Some of the brethren they slew, some they carried off with them in chains, the greater number they stripped naked, insulted, and cast out of doors, and some they drowned in the sea.”

The sheer savagery and brutality of the assault, especially on a Christian institution, stunned all of Europe. The venerable Alcuin, employed as a royal tutor by Charlemagne, wrote to bishop Higbald of Lindisferne, “Either this is the beginning of greater tribulation, or else the sins of the inhabitants have called it upon them. Truly, it had not happened by chance, but it is a sign that it was well merited by someone. But now, you who are left, stand manfully, fight bravely, defend the camp of God.”

Alcuin was prophetic too. The raid on the Holy Island was the just the beginning of violent incursions by the Norsemen, who would repeatedly ravage the coastlines and river routes of Europe for the next three centuries. Of course, the attack on wealthy Lindisferne was not a random occurrence; it was a deliberate, planned maneuver by a class of men whose careers were built on other people’s wealth, sweat, and blood. The Age of Vikings had begun.

History of the Vikings

The Vikings originated from the Scandinavian lands of modern Norway, Denmark and Sweden; they were descendants of pirates who targeted merchant ships in the Baltic Sea. The Norsemen (men from the north), were initially known as traders; furs from the northern regions were especially valued by continental Europeans. The Vikings had glimpsed the growing wealth of the southerners and learned about the conflicts between various kingdoms. Seafaring people themselves, they studied the new sailing techniques of the continent and improved upon them.

Young Norsemen were encouraged to take to the sea in search of loot and prestige. For the Vikings, the two were synonymous; indeed the Vikings looked down on robbery by stealth; the gods only approved of wealth acquired by killing. So generation after generation of Norsemen terrorized common citizens and kings alike, leading to the fervent prayer, “From the wrath of the Northmen, O Lord, deliver us.”

The Vikings were not a homogenous group or a distinct race of people; they even raided other Viking settlements. The Norwegians set out west and besieged Ireland, Scotland and England. Later, they settled in these countries by overthrowing their Celtic and Anglo-Saxon rulers. They established the first trading centres in present-day Ireland. Towards the end of the ninth century, Norsemen controlled most of present-day Britain except Wessex in the south, where they were soundly defeated by King Alfred the Great.

Norwegian Vikings also penetrated France and pushed south to the Mediterranean Sea, targeting trading centres. Later, they explored the Arctic, colonising Iceland between 870 and 930. Eric the Red explored further and founded settlements on Greenland around 985; his son Leif Ericsson would sail further west and establish a temporary outpost in Newfoundland, Canada.

Vikings from Denmark concentrated on continental Europe, especially the Frankish kingdoms (in present-day France and Germany). They plundered Paris in 845 and returned in the 860s. Emperors of Frankia (modern France and Germany) paid the raiders hefty ransoms to leave their subjects alone, even offering them fiefdoms. The Danes also sailed through the straits of Gibraltar and reached Moorish Spain, where the Arabs battered their fleet as they returned northwards after sacking Pisa.

In 911 A.D., a Frankish king granted Rouen and the surrounding lands to a Viking chief named Rollo in return for closing the River Seine to other Viking invaders. The region became Normandy, ‘or land of the Northmen’, from where William the Conqueror, a descendent of the Vikings, would conquer England in 1066 and lay the foundations of modern Britain.

Swedish Vikings ventured north and east and alternately plundered, traded with, and colonised regions around the Baltic Sea. By 859, they were extracting tributes from Finns, Slavs and semi-nomadic Turks. All three groups together ultimately overthrew the Swedes, but invited them back to rule because they couldn’t stop fighting each other. The Varangians, as they were known, probably established Kievan Rus, the cultural and political predecessor of modern Ukraine (its capital is Kiev), Belarus and Russia. However, it is disputed whether the first rulers of Kievan Rus were Varangians or eastern Slavs.

The Swedes also left their mark in the Byzantine Empire. The Varangian Guard was an elite body of the Byzantine army from the 10th to 14th centuries and comprised the personal guard of the emperors.

By the 11th century, all Scandinavian kingdoms had embraced Christianity. Today, the Vikings are known for their sailing expertise. The ship was the ‘soul’ of Scandinavian culture and had both practical and spiritual purposes. Scandinavia is a region of high mountains and dense forests, but offers easy access to the sea and is dotted with natural harbors. As a result, trade routes were opened over the North and Baltic seas; inland travel was more cumbersome and hazardous. Important Vikings were put to rest in ships, which were then buried in large earthen mounds; ships were even sacrificed to pagan gods.

Control of the sea lanes mandated ships of very high quality. The Vikings designed and constructed the most advanced and powerful naval vessels of their age. They had two types of ships: The drekar or longship was an open military vessel, which could be rowed across oceans and was built for speed and maneuverability. The long, narrow and shallow longships could be rowed close to land and in rivers for swift attacks. Trade cargo was transported in the knar, a long-range sailing vessel, similar to drekar, but higher, wider, longer and made to carry less oarsmen.

Viking ships were comparatively light and constructed with a unique technology. The naval architects split oak tree trunks into long planks with a broad axe. They nailed the boards overlapping one another, and to the keel, the spine of the ship at the base of the hull. They erected the hull around this foundation, reversing the conventional technique. The boat builders nailed the floorboards directly to the keel (not to the hull) for better flexibility and resilience in stormy seas. Crossbeams made up the deck and a massive beam parallel to the keel supported the sail mast.

The Sea Stallion

Viking ships have been the subject of study since the beginning of the nineteenth century with separate discoveries of two burial ships, complete with skeletons and grave goods. Between 1957 and 1962, five Viking vessels were excavated from Skuldelev in the Roskilde fjord of Denmark. These were ships that the Danes had sunk deliberately to barricade the passage against invasions from Norway. Tree-ring analysis of the oak timbers revealed that they were cut between 1040 and 1070 A.D.

The most ambitious and celebrated reconstruction of a Viking ship was the Sea Stallion, or Havhingsten, christened by Queen Margrethe II: an exact reproduction of a longship from Skuldelev. In 2007, the ship set sail on a historic voyage from Roskilde to Dublin, Ireland where the original ship had been constructed 965 years earlier. The aim of the journey was to get a first-hand experience of how the Vikings sailed under similar conditions. The voyage was widely covered by the Danish press and broadcast to channels around the world and National Danish Television produced several programs related to the journey. The National Bank of Denmark got in on the celebrations by issuing a commemorative 20-kroner coin.

By the 11th century, all Scandinavian kingdoms had embraced Christianity. Today, the Vikings are known for their sailing expertise. The ship was the ‘soul’ of Scandinavian culture and had both practical and spiritual purposes. Scandinavia is a region of high mountains and dense forests, but offers easy access to the sea and is dotted with natural harbors. As a result, trade routes were opened over the North and Baltic seas; inland travel was more cumbersome and hazardous. Important Vikings were put to rest in ships, which were then buried in large earthen mounds; ships were even sacrificed to pagan gods.

Control of the sea lanes mandated ships of very high quality. The Vikings designed and constructed the most advanced and powerful naval vessels of their age. They had two types of ships: The drekar or longship was an open military vessel, which could be rowed across oceans and was built for speed and maneuverability. The long, narrow The 1700 km-long sojourn was made by a crew of 65 persons from 11 countries and lasted for about 50 days. Extreme vulnerability to the weather was just the initial eye-opener. Helped by strong winds, it took the crew two days to cross 250 miles (400 km) of the first stretch. In Norway, they got stuck for 10 days with winds blowing in the wrong directions, if at all; Viking ships were ill-equipped to sail into the wind. Rowing was for short distances, but not for the long haul to Orkney Island, north of Scotland, the next stopover.
The original Vikings faced additional problems. Having exhausted their own rations, they turned to the local population for supplies, with or without their permission. Once in the North Sea, the captain of the Sea Stallion got warning of a gale; the Vikings did not have the benefit of satellite weather forecasts. Besides, unlike a Viking longship, the Sea Stallion had an appointment in Ireland: for a while, a second towing vessel was preferred to being blown back to port.

As the Sea Stallion entered open waters of the North Sea, the winds got stronger and the waves larger. Soon, water gushed over the sides and the crew was ordered into survival suits. Suddenly, the sail was being lowered to stop the ship. The surge of water over the hull rendered the longship unstable. The strap holding the rudder in place had snapped and needed to be replaced. When life rafts started being prepared, there seemed a real possibility the Sea Stallion may not survive.

At Dublin harbour, a carnival awaited the Sea Stallion, including an army band, thousands of spectators and elected officials. There were special displays with people in Viking costumes showcasing Nordic crafts and cuisine. The captain said later, “We’ve learned how to handle the ship in different conditions. The ship is so narrow and so long you have to sail it in its own way compared to other ships. For instance in hard weather, we have to reef down earlier than we’re used to, because of the very long keel.”

The Sea Stallion was displayed at the National Museum for a year, before it returned to Denmark, this time round the English coast. The Sea Stallion is a permanent exhibit at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

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