Northmen: The Viking Saga 793-1241 AD

northmenMen and women of legend and tall tale, the Vikings were not one, but several peoples from different areas of northern Europe, whose exploration and devastating raids occurred over the course of centuries. In his new book Northmen: The Viking Saga, 793 – 1241 AD, John Haywood gives an overview of the age of the people we now call Vikings, their great achievements, and their impact on the medieval world.

Read an Excerpt from Northmen

The Swedish Crusades

Swedish involvement with the crusades was, if anything, an even more naked land-grab than was Denmark’s. Like the Danes, the Swedes had a pirate problem: in their case the pirates were Estonians from the island of Saaremaa (Ösel in Swedish), Finns from Karelia (eastern Finland), and Curonians from modern Latvia, all of them pagan peoples. The Swedes, in turn, raided their persecutors, plundering and gathering tribute Viking-style, much as they had been doing for centuries. The Swedes were also competing for influence in the region with Novgorod, which was the most important center for the lucrative fur trade. Swedes were as welcome as any other merchants to visit Novgorod to trade, but the city was powerful enough to prevent them raiding in Russia and gathering furs as tribute as they had done in the Viking Age. The Swedes now sought to profit from Novgorod’s fur trade by controlling the Gulf of Finland, which gave the city its ‘window on the west’, and by plundering Novgorodian ships, as happened in 1142 when a Swedish fleet captured three ships from Novgorod and killed 150 merchants. To secure its access to the Gulf, Novgorod began the conquest and conversion to Orthodox Christianity of the Karelian Finns, and retaliated against Swedish raids on its territory by raiding the shores of Lake Mälaren. After one raid they carried the church doors of the royal town of Sigtuna back to Novgorod. The Swedes countered Novgorod’s influence in Karelia with their own wars of conquest and conversion in Finland, which they justified by using the terminology of crusading. Because of its desire to limit the influence of the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church supported the Swedish expeditions, but they were never given papal sanction like the crusades to the Holy Land or the Wendish and Livonian Crusades, and the Swedish crusaders were never offered the same spiritual rewards.


Later tradition has it that the first Swedish crusade in Finland was led by King Erik IX (r. 1155–60), sometime around 1157. Erik is said to have brought the whole of the south-west of Finland under Swedish rule and to have converted the conquered Finns to Christianity. When Erik returned home he left behind a missionary bishop Henry of Uppsala who was later martyred by the Finns. Erik may well have campaigned in Finland, but the story of the crusade was probably invented as part of the cult that developed around his memory after he was murdered by rebel nobles as he left church after attending Mass on Ascension Day (18 May) 1160. Sweden was by that time the only Scandinavian kingdom without a royal saint, so it suited his successors to encourage his veneration as a martyr. The Swedish conquest of Finland was probably begun a long time before Erik’s reign, as place- name evidence suggests that Swedes had colonized the south-west coast around Turku (Swedish Åbo) as early as the mid-eleventh century, and was a slow process marked by frequent campaigns and many reverses. Even in the late twelfth century Sweden’s hold on south-west Finland was not secure. In a letter to a Swedish archbishop, Pope Alexander III (r. 1159–81) complained that: ‘the Finns always promise to obey the Christian faith whenever they are threatened by a hostile army… but when the army retires they deny the faith, despise the preachers and grievously persecute them.’

Because of their frequent backsliding, Pope Gregory IX called for a formal crusade against the Finns, but the Swedes ignored it and instead attacked Novgorod in 1240 only to be defeated by Alexander Nevsky at the Battle of the Neva. The Swedish conquest of Finland was finally secured by the so-called Second and Third Swedish Crusades. The Second Swedish Crusade (c. 1248–50), led by the mighty aristocrat Birger Jarl, brought the Tavastia region of central Finland under firm Swedish control, while the Third Swedish Crusade (1292–3), aimedunashamedly at Christian Novgorod, conquered Karelia, ended the activities of Orthodox missionaries there, and established a castle at Vyborg (now in Russia). The Swedes hoped this would be a base from which to extend their conquests to the mouth of the Neva and cut Novgorod off from the Gulf of Finland. Years of raid and counter-raid followed until the Treaty of Noteborg in 1323 established a frontier between Swedish Finland and Novgorod, which left Novgorod in control of the Neva. The Swedes did eventually achieve their ambition of winning control of the Neva and cutting Russia off from the Gulf of Finland in 1595, only to lose it in 1702 to Peter the Great, the founder of St Petersburg. Unlike the ephemeral Danish conquests in the Baltic, the Swedish conquest of Finland had long-lasting consequences. This was in large part because here conquest was followed by settlement. In the wake of the crusaders, large numbers of Swedish peasant farmers, fleeing the imposition of serfdom at home, settled in southern Finland. Even though Russia ended Swedish rule in 1809, Finland still has a Swedish-speaking minority and recognizes Swedish as one of its official languages.


Excerpted with permission from Northmen: The Viking Saga: 793-1241 AD by John Haywood. Published by Thomas Dunne Books. Copyright 2016.

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