Vikings must have developed considerable skill at gathering intelligence

How did that raiding party figure out where to land? Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

For a while now I’ve been pondering how the Vikings knew where and when to raid. How did they figure out where to find the large collections of gold and silver?

As the Vikings approached the shore of England or Ireland, they would not have been able to send ahead their camera-laden remote-controlled drones to locate monasteries in the region.

They would not have been able to look at the photos from a recon jet or check out the area with an L-5 observation plane.

The Vikings landing at Lindisfarne in 793 probably didn’t make a random landing, walk around for an hour or two, and just happen to stumble on a monastery laden with gold and silver. They must’ve had some idea it was there.

Likewise, while on a looting spree through Frankia, they would not have been able to enter “monastery” or “silver storage” on their GPS to get the distance and direction to the nearest loot. While traffic on the river might give away there is a prosperous city somewhere upstream, it would not have been visible from the water that there was a monastery a day’s walk to the northwest of the bend in the river.

Even finding the major rivers would have taken some time since each recess in the coastline would need to be explored to see if it was just a break in the shoreline, a large harbor, or the entrance to a major river.

Add to that the language barrier and they must’ve been very skillful at gathering intelligence. Of course by gathering I mean the application of torture to people they encountered, but the point stands.

The Vikings – A History, by Robert Ferguson, explains (page 73) the Vikings somehow figured out that Christians had a custom of burying some religious leaders with lots of gold and silver. Often times those burial spots were inside a church. Somehow (the author suggests either treachery or torture) the Vikings figured that out.

While Vikings sometimes buried their dead and sometimes did so with a few weapons and a small amount of wealth, it would not have naturally occurred to a Viking there would be pounds of precious metal and handfuls of precious jewels in a grave. Nor would it have been obvious that a six-foot by three-foot patch of different aged stone near an altar meant there was a grave underneath.

Vikings also quickly learned that senior religious leaders could be ransomed for a huge amount of money. They learned it was sometimes possible to ransom commoners, but that was less lucrative.

Somehow they learned that those silly thick books with strange writing in them (i.e. a hand-written bible) could be ransomed for silver worth far more than the precious stones embedded in the leather cover.

The book also points out that Vikings quickly learned the church calendar and that certain days were particularly important. They also learned people would gather at churches and monasteries on those special days for feasts. Those would be the times when lots of people would be gathered with lots of money at the altar.

Somehow, they learned when those feasts were held and figured out those would be ideal times for a raid.

Later, on page 95, the book says the Norwegians raiding Charlemagne’s territory in 843 knew to attack one particular city on the feast of St. John the Baptist.

In a strange terrible way, the Vikings must have been quite good at gathering intelligence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *