In AD793 the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne on the North east coast of England suffered a devastating attack by seaborne raiders from Scandinavia. This was the first of many attacks that were carried out throughout Europe over the next 273 years until King Harald of Norway was beaten by Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.
A Longships shallow draught allowed the Vikings to navigate far up rivers that were totally inaccessible to other types of ship. The Vikings would arrive suddenly, ravage and plunder, and disappear just as quickly before any resistance could be organised.
The Viking Longship was the culmination of thousands of years experience of building seagoing ships peaking around the 8th and 9th centuries; it was what enabled the Vikings were able to terrorise, explore and trade across vast stretches of water.
20 - 60 depending on the size of the ship
2 knots under oar (4 knots max for limited periods)
Ash, Oak, Elm, Pine and others types of wood
The origins of the Viking Longship goes back 10,000 years to the stone age when, as the ice retreated after last period of glaciation, man was beginning to move north following the animals that he hunted. These early migrants settled on the coasts of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and found that using the sea was the easiest way to get from one place to another. It was the beginning of a culture based on seafaring traditions that continues to this day.
The earliest boats were little more than canoes made from dugout tree trunks or of waterproof seal hides laced around a wooden frame, but they served their purpose; the long slender lines cut through the water efficiently and allowed these pioneers to move freely from place to place to hunt and fish.
The Bronze Age, with new opportunities for trade, saw the development of these small fishing boats into strong and light sea going vessels constructed of overlapping wooden planks held together with metal fittings. By around 1500BC these vessels would be making journeys to places as far away as Britain and France. The boats still used paddles for propulsion; oars were not introduced until much later and it wasn't until around the eighth century that sails were fitted.
All ships were made chiefly from wood by very skilled people called shipwrights. The wood could be from most types of trees including oak, ash, pine, elm and other types; what was important was the natural shape of the wood rather than the type. For the rakes (planks) the trunk of a straight tree that hadn't twisted would be most suitable and for the beams it was best to find a part of the tree that had grown into that shape naturally - this made the wood strong because the shape went with the grain. It was the shipwrights who would go into the woods and select the trees.
A Longship was 'clinker-built', which means that it was constructed from long overlapping planks called strakes. The strakes were held together by iron rivets and sealed using a mixture of moss and hair coated in tar. The hull was given strength by the use of a vertical keel that ran down the middle of the whole length of the ship and by beams that ran across the ship that were secured to the strakes by nails or by being tied on to special cleats fixed to the hull. The tall fore and aft posts were attached to the keel at either end and were specially shaped to take the ends of the strakes.
The introduction of the sail made it possible for the Danes, as the Saxons referred to them, to travel vast distances across the Oceans to paces as far away as America and Africa. However, it wasn't as easy as it sounds, even for a seafaring people like the Vikings; the Longships were prone to capsizing if the wind was blowing from the beam (the side) and it is thought that almost half of those ships that set sail for Greenland and Iceland were lost due to bad weather.
The greatest advantage of these ships was their low draught, as little as 50 cm. It allowed the Vikings to travel far up rivers or to come ashore on any convenient beach where they weren't expected.
The dominance of the Longship continued up until around AD1100 when it was succeeded by another type of flat bottomed ship called a 'Cog'. The design persisted on for several centuries in the form of fishing boats and trading boats but the time of the Viking raids was over.