The three times the Vikings came to Spain to plunder and ended up defeated

The romantic vision of the Vikings has imposed a figure in which his libertarian and heretical side predominates over the fate of the medieval terrorist reflected in the Christian chronicles. His eternal search for loot led these Scandinavians to almost implausible ventures. They and their Norman heirs went so far as to found a kingdom in Sicily or to besiege Byzantium. Not surprisingly, the Eastern Roman Emperors’ guard was made up of these elite soldiers. What is now Spain and Portugal was also the focus of their animosity. Both Christians and Arabs suffered and massacred them in equal measure.

Tower against Vikings in Catoira

Tower against Vikings in Catoira. | Shutterstock

Scandinavian terror reaches Galicia

In the year 844 the first large fleet that would face the Iberian Peninsula arrived in the Cantabrian Sea. The rumours coming from the British Isles and France were terrifying. Entire populations were put to the sword, slaves everywhere, rapes regardless of age or condition… But, above all, a total disdain for Christian symbols. If one is not told why one should be afraid of something that is not seen, it is difficult to be terrified of it. Thus, the sight of the knarrs and drakkars, Nordic ships, was not something that the incipient kingdom of Asturias liked. Gijón was spared when the expedition was only passing through.

The chronicles that tell of this first invasion are mainly the French Annales Bertiniani and that of Alfonso III. They indicate that the area around Brigantium, in the Tower of Hercules in what is now A Coruña, was the place where they landed. The sacking of Galicia would become the favorite activity of the Vikings in Spain. The tactic used was the strandhögg or surprise assault. A tactic comparable to modern warfare, which consisted of mild attempts to find information followed by a savage assault.

Imagen idealizada del siglo XIX de Ramiro I

Idealized 19th century image of Ramiro I. | Wikimedia

Their joy was short-lived, since to their dismay the Gallic and Asturian nobility knew quite well what it was like to be invaded. From Oviedo, Ramiro I mounted an army and inflicted a resounding defeat on the Scandinavians. The balance of the contest is unknown, but it seems that the invaders lost a good number of ships. Likewise, there are theories that suggest that the raid took place in Gijón. Be that as it may, the expedition continued south. It was time to leave for al-Andalus.

The Seville Massacre and the Revenge of the Emir

Abd ar-Rahmān did not see the Viking attack coming. Muslim historians have recorded attacks on Cádiz and its Isla Menor. Following the Guadalquivir, they carried out a tremendous massacre in Coria del Río, with the aim of avoiding any warning to Seville. This was their next target. They managed to plunder the suburbs surrounding the citadel, which nevertheless managed to resist the Scandinavian attack. Again, great massacres and captures of slaves followed the takeover.

Such was the offense that the peninsular Arabs joined forces. Abd ar-Rahman II mounted a powerful army which was joined by the men of Musa ibn Musa al-Qasi. The leader of Banu Qasi, who controlled the lands of Arnedo and Tudela and was a fierce political enemy of the emir, did not hesitate to go south. Revenge would be terrible. The Vikings’ surprise tactics were successful in a first round. However, once the situation stabilised, the Moorish horses would be his undoing.

Recreation of a Viking ship in Catoira

Recreation of a Viking ship in Catoira. | Shutterstock

Just as Marcus Crassus, part of the first Roman triumvirate together with Caesar and Pompey the Great, fell in the lands of part of Turkey, the Scandinavians would perish in Andalusia. The mistake in both cases was the same. The foreign forces were infantry, while the locals made great use of cavalry. After taking up positions in Córdoba, the Muslims advanced to Seville. The Vikings had split their forces to maximise damage. In this way, the Arab avant-garde met the fierce warriors of the north several times.

The ultimate blow came near Santiponce. The great army of the emir and his now ally Musa ibn Musa, of thousands of men, swept the Scandinavians away efficiently. Hundreds died and hundreds more were taken prisoner. Dozens of ships were burned and captives recovered. This desperate situation led the defeated to negotiate. So they abandoned their adventure, under the watchful eye of the Umayyad fleet that escorted them in case they changed their minds. Apparently, a few decided to abandon life at sea and stay as citizens of Cordoba, converted to Islam.

The Guadalquivir river

The Guadalquivir was the entry way of the Vikings in Seville. | Shutterstock

Ragnar Lodbrock’s son and the Compostela resistance against Vikings

The second great campaign against the peninsula came in 858. It was led by Viking myths: Bjorn Ragnarsson and Hastein. The first was King of Sweden and an offspring of Ragnar Lodbrok. After running out of things to do in Normandy, the Vikings decided to star in a Mediterranean epic. So they set off for the Galician coast. Their great goal was Santiago de Compostela and the cathedral of Iria Flavia. Estuaries like Arousa’s made access easy. Again, the beginnings were promising. Great destruction around the final stage of the Way to Santiago was followed by a siege. The solution found was to pay tribute to the invaders.

Ría de Arousa

Arousa Estuary. | Shutterstock

However, again the rescue would come from the east. Pedro Theon de Pravía was the hero of the hour. At the command of a great Asturian force he planted himself in Santiago by order of the monarch Ordoño I. The chronicles narrate a total defeat of the invaders, calculated in the loss of 38 ships. With a third of the expedition under land or water, Bjorn and Hastein embarked and left Galicia. After small disagreements in Portugal that cost them more ships, the Vikings attacked Algeciras, Seville and Orihuela. They continued to enjoy themselves in Morocco, the Balearic Islands and Italy before returning to the peninsula.

One of the greatest victories of the expedition was in Pamplona. Garcia Iñiguez, its monarch, fell just like the capital of the kingdom that would end up being Navarre. The payment of the ransom was adequate. So much so that legend has it that the ships overturned under the weight of the wealth received. The end of the voyage of Bjorn Ragnarsson and Hastein was similar to that of their predecessors. Once they reached the waters of the emirate, the joint fleets of Cordoba gave them theirs again. The Viking navy stayed on 20 ships and had to sail home. What was left, however, arrived home full of gold.

The square of the Santiago Cathedral

The current Santiago was a very wanted piece by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th century. | Shutterstock

The last great attempt, the duel between the bishops and the Viking warlord

After the failure of the previous assaults, at the end of the tenth century there was a final and more widespread attempt of incursion. It should be noted that isolated clashes were common, such as the one that occurred on the Portuguese coast in 966, with the Muslims winning. In Galicia, Mondoñedo or Iria Flavia were enclaves used to the Nordic barbarism. However, when 968 arrived there was an invasion that reminded the two previous ones because of the magnitude of the forces used.

Statue of San Rosendo, warrior bishop against the Vikings

St. Rosendo, warrior bishop against the Vikings. | Wikimedia

Gunderedo, a Scandinavian military leader, arrived in Santiago’s surroundings with his armies and caused chaos for years. Again, the surroundings of the holy city were the most affected, but it managed to hold out. Between attacks, this type of favorite target increased its social importance and became stronger. For example, this happened with Seville on the other side of the peninsula. The mitre of Iria/Santiago supposed at that time to be a powerful man. Sisnando was the one who wore it and, as it was his duty in these medieval years, besides being a bishop he was a general of his forces. He fortified Santiago after the scuffles seen in Portugal in 866 and set out to fight against the northerners. Unfortunately, he perished in the fight and Compostela had to pay tribute to the assailants.

However, the Scandinavians did not learn from the past. They were at their ease in Galicia until the new bishop took action. It was Rudesindo or Rosendo. Curiously, he had great struggles with Sisnando. He was his replacement until his colleague entered Santiago in command of an army and threw him out of his chair. Ironically, it was now his turn to save the honor of the diocese in battle.

San Saduniño Tower, another Galician anti-Viking building

San Saduniño Tower, another Galician anti-Viking building. | Shutterstock

He led a force together with a Galician nobleman, Gonzalo Sánchez. It seems that the battle took place near Ferrol. Gunderedo was heading for his fleet to load it with the fruits of the looting, and the Astur-Galicians were on top of them. It was 971 and they had been in mischief for three years. However, their luck ended there. All their strength was defeated. Those captured did not suffer better luck than their fallen comrades. The bishop and the nobleman decided that they should be put to the sword. Thus ended the saga of a Viking who became known as king of the sea, with his throat cut, all his men dead and the entire fleet burned.

This was the Viking decline in Spain. However, attacks continued until the 11th century. This generated events like the defeat of Olaf El Santo in Catoira or the legend of the Bispo Santo of Foz. The place where he acted was the cathedral of San Martiño de Mondoñedo, which moved to the interior due to the Scandinavian pressure. Fear and terror, however, served to bring Galicia closer to León and Asturias. It also calmed the internal waters of the emirate and later Caliphate of Córdoba. Almanzor, thanks to its advanced base in Gormaz, would have a similar effect on the Christians in 977, when they conquered Santiago and razed it to the ground. This motivated the frayed enemy side to join elbows to avoid disappearing. A decisive terror only at the level of that generated by the Norse.

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