IN HIS new series, historian Neil Oliver says that though Vikings could be violent, they were also explorers and traders, driven by the same urge to dominate as their Christian neighbours.
When he was a schoolboy, one of Neil Oliver’s favourite films was The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas as Einar, a cruel warrior with a face badly scarred by the talons of an eagle but a keen eye for hair styling and the ability to trim the braided locks of a local wench by use of a well-hurled axe. During the 1970s the movie, made in 1958 in glorious Technicolor, was a perennial favourite on BBC1 where it frequently brightened up a dreich Saturday afternoon in Ayr, and included a scene that young Oliver was later keen to emulate in the playground.
“There was a great scene where Kirk Douglas runs across the oars of the Viking longship – and the actor did it himself – and I wanted to recreate it by running across the bike rack on a rainy day and I can remember getting to the second last place where you parked your bike and then my legs went out from under me. I can remember seeing my legs go above my head and I landed flat on my back on the tarmac playground. I thought I was dead.”
Thankfully Odin’s hand cradled him at the last second so that he could survive and grow up to fulfil his destiny – to become one of Britain’s most popular history presenters and so right the historical wrongs that have so long besmirched the hairy sons of Thor. Or, to be slightly less poetic, make a riveting new three-part series for the BBC that carefully treads a middle ground between the medieval world’s portrayal of the Scandinavians as blood-drenched psychopaths and the recent revisionists who view them simply as motivated entrepreneurs.
Over a coffee in the café of a museum in Stirling, a short walk from where he lives with his wife, Trudi and their three children, Oliver explains his own views on the Vikings.
“They were violent, but what most people overlook is that they were no more violent than anyone else. They lived in an extremely violent medieval world. The Christian Franks under Charlemagne were every bit as bloody, belligerent and oppressive as the Vikings ever were. The problem for them, in the way they were portrayed, is that they were the last people in Europe to take Christianity. They did not write themselves, they were pre-literate, so the only people who were writing about them were Christians, for whom the activities of heathens, infidels and pagans was just unclean. So they have ended up with this completely skewed reputation as if they were the only ones running about raping and killing, which they absolutely were not. They were extremely ambitious and politically astute.”
The Vikings first sailed into British history on 8 June AD793 when their longships arrived, rather unexpectedly, at Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast, where they sacked and pillaged the abbey founded by St Aidan which, over the past 150 years, had become one of the most important sites in early Christianity.
As Oliver explains in the new book that accompanies the series, Alcuin of York, a local boy who was then studying in Aachen – a religious academy founded by Charlemagne – wrote back to the survivors. “The pagans have contaminated God’s shrines and spilt the blood of saints in the passage around the altar. They have laid waste the house of our consolation and in the temple of God they have trampled underfoot the bodies of the saints like shit in the street.”
What Oliver teases out in the series is that Christians viewed the Vikings in apocalyptic terms, as harbingers of the End of Days that they believed to be imminent. As pagans who still worshipped gods including Odin and Thor, their violence took on a more horrific Satanic hue. Christians slaughtering Christians was common across Europe but what the Vikings brought was something much darker, or so their victims believed. A common prayer across the continent was: “Deliver us, O Lord, from the fury of the Norsemen. They ravage our lands, they kill our women and children.”
Yet, far from bloodthirsty psychopaths intent on slaughter, the Vikings were pragmatists, who if they could avoid a pitched battle were keen to do so. Often they let their reputation secure a victory and accepted a community’s compliant surrender without ever wielding an axe. While unlike Christian conquerors who believed in converting their new subjects, even if by the point of a sword, the Vikings wove other beliefs into their own.
The Vikings who conquered chunks of southern Britain and parts of north and west Europe were predominantly Danish, while those who sailed to Scotland and Ireland were Norwegian. After colonising the Western Isles of Scotland, they embraced Gaelic culture and so, as Oliver explains: “what evolved was a hybrid Hiberno-Norse culture, and the MacDonald clan that eventually rose to dominance and led the Lordship of the Isles claimed descent from a Viking called Somerled.”
The reality is that the Vikings had ambitions to become a world power and knew that gold and treasure was the means by which this could best be achieved. “Far from being mindless barbarians, the peoples of Denmark, Norway and Sweden set out to make themselves rich, to win new lands, and, in time, to take their place at the top table of European royalty. They fought intelligently, when they had to, and made territorial and commercial gains at every opportunity. They were pioneers and adventurers without equal. That one of their number – Leif Eiriksson son of Erik the Red – set foot on America 500 years before Christopher Columbus is the least of it.”
While frequently the perpetrators of violence they were also its victims. On 13 November, 1002, King Ethelred the Unready issued a command that every “Danish” man in England should be executed. What became known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre resulted in the bloody slaughter of thousands.
In the new TV series we see Oliver examining the bones of the victims, with slash marks still visible on the backs of leg bones, torsos and skulls.
“They wanted money. The analogy that I use is like an American presidential candidate - if you don’t have money you cannot get off square one. If you want power you buy it, and the Vikings realised that, just like Democrat and Republican candidates today. The way they could get it was to go into the rich Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England or the French kingdoms and take it by force, which they did quite happily, or they would go east and trade for it.
“Within 100-150 years of their first appearance in places like Lindisfarne, the Scandinavian peoples were becoming Christians and the reason that they seem to disappear is they became the people that they once envied. Their leaders became Christian kings, and at that point the other Christians stopped writing about them because they were no longer these heathen barbarians but Christians just like them. It was no longer possible to criticise them because they were just doing what everybody else did.”
Among the many documentaries Oliver has made over the past 15 years since he first popped up as one half of a successful archeological series Two Men in a Trench was the landmark BBC 1 series A History of Scotland, which charted the last 2,000 years of our nation’s story.
Yet while there may be political tremors underfoot with the forthcoming referendum on independence, Oliver is not one to welcome the collapse of the union. Although he says he is wary about television personalities expressing their opinions on political matters, he answers the question with eloquence and passion.
“I don’t like change in my personal life. I don’t like moving house. I don’t like upheaval, so I am naturally inclined towards the status quo. When people talk about the concept of breaking up the union it immediately makes me uncomfortable beyond the politics, beyond the nationalism, it just makes me feel physically uncomfortable. I don’t want to go through that kind of change, especially when people are not explaining to me what that actually means.
“What would be the coin in my pocket? What would the armed forces be like? What would be the nature of our relationships with Europe and Nato? There is a whole raft of things that people don’t seem to be talking about, beyond this vague notion of becoming an independent country. I also wonder what the particular advantage of independence is when Europe is striving in so many ways for greater connectedness and a greater sense of oneness.
“I am all in favour of people having national identity. I have never been in any doubt about my national identity. I am Scottish but I am also British and frankly that is the way I would like things to stay. I am also naturally suspicious of politicians. Be they from the left or the right, nationalist or unionist. The question I always want answered more than anything else is ‘What is in it for you?’”
And so we came to his lustrous long locks which have become almost a character in themselves with numerous internet or comedy spoofs of impersonators hurling their hair to and fro and pulling it back behind their ears and which would not, if blond, have been out of place on a Viking longboat. Oliver just laughs: “Noel Gallagher was talking about watching Coast and his girlfriend standing in front of the TV and demanding to know when they would get married, and he said, ‘It was that guy with the long hair.’ And I quite like the fact that I was in some small way involved in Noel Gallagher’s proposal.”
• Vikings, a three-part series on BBC2 starts tonight at 9 pm. Neil Oliver’s book Vikings is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.