When we think of Vikings and how they used their longships then most of us imagine Viking raiders sailing along the coastline or up rivers. And yes, one of the major benefits of the Viking Longships was their ability to sail both oceans and rivers but to also be able to land on shallow beached.
However, there was one more, often overseen way Viking ships were used.
The highly versatile Viking longships were used to transport warriors (and sometimes even horses) across oceans and upstream rivers. But longships were also used as fighting platforms in naval battles on which warriors fought each other as they would have in a conventional land-based battle.
Let`s take a closer look at both ways a longship could be used.
Viking ships as a way of transportation
Let`s start with the usage that most of us imagine when hearing the term longship.
The unique way Viking longships were constructed allowed them to be sailed on both oceans and rivers. The shallow keel made it possible to maneuver even in extremely shallow waters and allowed for effortless and fast landings on beaches. (Something that most types of Greek and Roman warships had trouble with)
That kind of versatility made the longships crucial in the Vikings’ successes as raiders and explorers since being able to sail oceans, rivers, and even extremely shallow water with only one type of boat drastically increased the radius of action and added an element of surprise to Viking attacks.
That element of surprise which was the result of the versatility of the Viking longships can be found in many sources like the Annals of St-Bertin. There a Viking attack on a village is described with the words „with their usual surprise attack“.
So being able to sail along the coastline but also sail hundreds of miles upstream of rivers drastically increased the reach of the Viking fleets. Here you can find out more about the number of longships within a Viking fleet and how many warriors were on one longship.
By the way, these raids were not just about grabbing as many of the treasures as one could find. Viking raiders were also highly interested in taking prisoners. Penniless captives (oftentimes children) were sold into slavery while magnates (for example abbots) could be traded in for a hefty ransom money.
But apart from acting as a versatile way to quickly transport warriors the Longships also served another purpose.
And that purpose had to do with a less-known way of Viking warfare.
Viking ships as fighting platforms in naval warfare
When most of us think of Viking warfare then we usually imagine raiders landing on beaches or fighting pitched battles in shield walls (although Vikings usually tried to avoid pitched battles).
And yet there was another way Longships were commonly used. A way that is at least loosely portrayed in the series Vikings. And that is the usage of Longships as fighting platforms in naval battles.
Unlike Greek and Roman warships the Viking longships did not have a ram that could be used to ram hostile ships during a naval battle. So that made it impossible for Longships to sink each other by ramming. Instead, the longships served as fighting platforms on which the warriors could fight almost like they would have done on land.
By the way, these warriors onboard a Viking ship weren`t built like bodybuilders and were also not giants. For more information on the height and stature of the average Viking, I would like to recommend you my article here.
These naval battles in which the longships were used as fighting platforms for conventional fighting were quite common and were often waged between different groups of Vikings.
One example of such a naval battle in which the longships were used as fighting platforms can be found in the year 852 AD when a Norwegian Viking fleet of around 160 ships fought a Danish Viking fleet of similar size for 3 days and nights.
Now the mentioned size of both fleets might sound large, but the numbers are quite realistic and not unusual. However, there were also much smaller fleets. For more information (and examples) on the size of Viking fleets and the number of warriors onboard such a Longship I would like to recommend you my article here.
Do you want to find out more about how medieval battles worked? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Maurice Keen: Medieval Warfare. A History (1999 Oxford).