I am watching the Vikings series, and although I don't consider it a historically accurate series, I noticed somethings that I am curious about.

The series takes place in the late 8th century, documenting the first Viking raids against England. What I noticed was that, the raiding parties were so small, mostly one or two longships carrying 100 men at most. Yet, their raids were successful and they didn't encounter a strong enough forces to fight them off.

Now my question is, what happened in reality ? How large were the raiding parties in that time and why the entire England couldn't raise an army large enough to fight them ?

Any figures for the population of Scandinavians during this time would also help.

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    Well, the entire England was hardly likely to send forces across the country to help fight a 100 man raiding party. Also England was divided into several petty kingdoms with little love lost. But after a while the Anglo-Saxons built up their military readiness and the Vikings soon had less of a free run.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 1:04
  • 2
    As you see, nobody answered the specific question just "how large could these raiding parties be". The simple answer is "nobody knows".
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 22:31
  • Wikipedia, in the "Demographics of Norway article", lists a population figure of 450 000 for Norway in 1000 CE , just before Christianity really took hold there, so towards the end of the Viking (raiding) era. I tried to check the sources cited, couldn't find the source for that figure - in any case, it's obviously an estimate. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_demography has Norway at 200 000, Sweden at 500 000 and Denmark at 400 000 in 1000 CE. AFAIK the Swedish Norse raided more along the coasts of the Baltic Sea and Russian rivers, though.
    – Rundil
    Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 10:56

6 Answers 6


You might want to find a copy of the 1990 translation of Hans Delbrück, The History of the Art of War - v.II IIRC, if not III. He discusses the size of Viking forces beseiging Paris, and how small they must have been to have been bought off at the price they were.

What you must remember is that communications didn't exist, other than someone on a horse getting away. There was no swift way to summon a bunch of feudal warriors together, then ride out there, only to find the Norse set sail hours before. They didn't hang around. Catching them was almighty difficult.

Delbrück argues that one reason for the change to feudalism was to have a quicker local response to raiders.

The entire England couldn't raise a force to fight them because they could not predict where they would strike, and it would take weeks to march men of Kent up to Yorkshire.


Initially, raids were sporadic and for the wealth of monasteries and slaves. They were quick, and would get away once finished with their err... business. So the English could not effectively put up a challenge.

After the death of Ragnar Lothbrook , the protagonist of the series you are watching, the Norsemen invaded England. They came in really large numbers, a few thousands, and their purpose was not to loot but to conquer the four kingdoms which constituted England at the time. Estimates of number vary. It was known as hæþen here or The Great Heathen Army and was commanded by one of Ragnar's sons Ivar the Boneless. It succeeded in conquering three quarters of England, until defeated by Alfred the Great from Wessex.


The numbers involved in Viking raids on 9th and 10th century England are not easy to gauge, but it is possible to come up with some estimates. First though, it is useful to get a clearer overall picture of the raids.


According M & H. Whittock in ‘The Viking Blitzkrieg AD 789 – 1098’ (referring to England):

there were a number of discernible phases: from c. 790 until 866, raids escalated in their frequency and ferocity; from 866 until 896, these raids gave way to a conquest and settlement which involved the overthrow of every Anglo-Saxon kingdom except Wessex

Concerning the frequency of attacks, Eric Christiansen in ‘The Norsemen in the Viking Age’ notes that:

From 834 to 884, the Frankish annals record the coming of 26 or 27 separate fleets; fewer reached England, but enough.

This may not seem like very many, but these were just fleets. Not every raid would have been recorded. Many were small raids, a warlord with a few ships, but others involved 200+ ships. Viking ships of the time are estimated to have carried between 30 and 40 men (though some ships may have been larger) so we can arrive at some tentative estimates for the sizes of raiding parties and armies when we know how many ships were involved.


Terrifying and brutal though these raids must have been, Asa Briggs writes in ‘A Social History of England’ that

It has been pointed out recently that since many of the accounts of Viking attacks were written by monks or priests, they may have exaggerated the size of the attacking fleets and the violence of their assaults

On the size of Viking forces, M & H Whittock point out that

Viking armies ....were made up of separate groups of adventurers which coalesced in loose alliances .... Being opportunistic raiders – at least in the period up to 866 – they would also dissolve and scatter when opposition was too great. This made it hard to know exactly what constituted the enemy force, since its size and form was prone to fluctuation.


Viking raids on England started in the late 8th century. When referring to these groups of Vikings, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles usually used the word ‘here’ meaning a ‘raid’. A ‘here’ meant more than 35 people. Raiding parties varied in size, depending on the resources of the warlord leading the raid. If the aim was just to grab some loot, this would be more easily accomplished by a small raiding party of not more than a few hundred.

Here are a few specific examples:

The first recorded incident was in 789 in Dorset and involved 3 ships. From this we can tentatively arrive at a party numbering between 90 and 120. However, this does not appear to have been a real raid and it seems that these Vikings may just have been overly aggressive traders. In the event, the only recorded fatality was the King of Wessex’s reeve.

The far more infamous attack on Lindisfarne in 793 was a much bloodier affair and also involved 3 ships, according to Kenneth Harl in ‘The Vikings’ lecture series. This number is also given on http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/dark-ages/viking-raid/

In 836, either 25 or 35 ships landed in Somerset and defeated the Wessex King Egbert. A similar size force may have also landed there in 843. M & H Whittock, citing other sources, quote estimates of between 1,000 and 2,000 with the true number most likely being 1,000 to 1,100.

In the early 850s, attacks on Canterbury and London reportedly involved 350 ships, larger than anything previously recorded. If this figure is to be believed, the Viking army may have been at least 10,000 thousand strong, a considerable force for the period.

[I’ll skip the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of 865 and its immediate successors (after which there was a relatively calm period until 980) as these are well covered by Wikipedia.]

In 991, according to Eric Christiansen

93 ships ravaged the Kent coast, then appeared at Ipswich….then at Maldon

Assuming the estimate of 30 to 40 men per ship still held true, this meant a force in the region of 2,800 to 3,700

Not all Viking ships carried raiders, though. Increasingly, they brought settlers who were much more interested in farming than raiding. Harl estimates that around 20,000 Norsemen, mostly Danes, settled in the Danelaw area during the 9th and 10th centuries.


Why were the Anglo-Saxons unable to defend themselves well?

  • There was rarely any advance warning; the raiders were usually gone by the time local forces could mobilize.
  • England has a lot of coastline, far more than could be defended.
  • England has a lot of rivers which Viking ships could sail up, reaching far inland and greatly increasing the number of communities at risk – it was simply not possible to defend them all against a possible attack.

In short, dealing with Viking raiders was a bit like guerilla warfare – armies are poorly equipped for it.

However, the Anglo-Saxons were not always helpless in the face of Viking raids. The chronicles recorded several instances where local ealdormen led attacks on Viking raiders who hung around longer than was wise. Later, Alfred the Great greatly improved the defensive capabilities of many communities which were vulnerable to raids from the neighbouring Danelaw area.


Your question implies population as a reason for the raids.Population was only one of several factors explaining why the Vikings attacked England (and other areas). At least equally important was the growth in power of Norwegian and Danish elites at home; they rewarded their supporters with land which meant that lesser chieftains and warriors had to seek glory and wealth outside their own lands.


Firstly, the word viking does not refer to a culture, it particularly means raider. Scandinavians 'went viking'. When it comes to raping, pillaging and burning; "the less, the merrier". One lord with his small band of warriors (no one keeps a large army on the payroll) leisurely loots a place and shares it. The Saxons don't have a fearsome force of professional soldiers nearby and they have an easy time. The Danes weren't all that unified either. A lot of earls behaved as kings in their own right. They came first to raid (as 'Vikings'), and then to take land. It was for personal gain most of the time, they rarely had an actual king ordering them around in this case. The Danes only came together in truly unified strength under a leader when campaigning. Even then, you'd only see a large army around the time of a battle. Of course, like the Saxons, they became more organized later when their enemy became a real threat and they had to hold onto the land tighter. This was done on the most part by occupying burhs. The burh was Alfred's brilliant strategy to keeping the Danes at bay. Danes occupied them too, and they were where the strength of each side was.

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    This answer would be improved with addition of sources / citations. Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 0:38

100 men would be normal. You also have to remember many were killed. Numbers get exaggerated. The Angles themselves were scandinavians in a cultural sense they varied from Saxons but all Germanic groups shared stories. Modern Historians tend to apply modern ideas to ancient people in large numbers of invaders when in fact around 30-100 Vikings per raid was normal. Danes Swedes Geats and Wends were amongst Anglo Saxons so saying Scandinavians and English were different is plainly silly. Vikings had no intention of destroying English culture or mass replacement it would make no sense logically. It was all power. Soldiers were loyal to local lords the rest of the population didnt fight

The reality is Vikings and Normans were small in number. England had a population of 2 million even a great army of 2,000 would be unusual so its probably why its a great army. People also forget Beowulf from the Old English period is set in Scandinavia most stories were. Its not as though the English had no idea of Scandinavia. Normans too were not unknown. Their numbers even at 10,000 would be dwarfed by the English population. There's no evidence Viking thought of themselves as a people rather loyalty to a local leader. They lost identity pretty quick. Modern historians tend to assume these all have separate cultures in reality they arent and adopted local culture and language rapidly

  • 1
    Welcome to History.SE. Please take the tour to see how a question and answer site is a bit different from discussion forums. The general requirement for an answer is support from sources. Please add some notes/sources to help improve your answer. Once again, welcome. Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 0:32
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    @KorvinStarmast - I'm not sure I'd call it a "requirement". However, if you don't support non-trivial assertions with any backing link whatsoever, you are quite likely to get downvoted. If you get downvoted far enough, a moderator is quite likely to delete your answer, as having a lot of bad (as judged by the users) answers sitting around makes the site itself look bad. I've seen unsupported answers get upvoted, but as a person writing an answer, that's not the way I'd bet. Particularly if I was a new user that our regulars don't trust yet.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 14:27
  • @T.E.D. Would it be more accurate to say "general methodology" as requirement has a particular connotation? Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 16:34

If you talk about raiding band , 100 men was a good number to attack and raid a village, but if you talk about an invading viking army , it had a strength about 2000-2500 warriors. A good number of brave fighters I think.

  • 3
    Welcome to the site! Sources would help flesh out and support this answer.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 18:56

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