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Vikings and Pilgrims in Galicia
Sist oppdatert 30.08.2005 14:18
During the Middle Ages the Vikings tried to gain full control of the Atlantic seaways by creating a second Normandy in the Iberian peninsula

What and where is Galicia?

Galicia was reputedly the first kingdom of western Europe to be established after the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 409. Today, the lands of that ancient Kingdom of Galicia are split between two countries: on one side the region of Galicia, which belongs to Spain, and on the other side the current region of North Portugal, which belongs to Portugal.

The Kingdom of Galicia was historically a prosperous and strategic land for trading and navigation between the north Atlantic and the Mediterranean sea. When the Scandinavians started expanding along the Atlantic seaways they first secured stable colonies on the British Isles and Ireland, then followed by creating a base in mainland Europe called Normandy, and finally they set their sights on completing their Atlantic conquest with further territories in southern Europe.

The Vestvegr and the Scandinavian expansion across the Atlantic

Western Europe had been connected both economically and culturally since the Neolithic Age by a long Atlantic seaway which the Scandinavians called Vestvegr or West Way. The Kingdom of Galicia enjoyed a high strategic location by standing half way between the north Atlantic and the Mediterranean sea, for all trade between those two regions needed to pass in front of her waters.

For almost four centuries, Atlantic Europe was to be dominated by the naval supremacy of the Scandinavians. The key for the Viking success was mainly logistic: their ships were fast, reliable and had a high transporting capacity. When the Norse realised that monasteries in Atlantic Europe were very wealthy but very poorly defended they started plundering as many as they could along the Vestvegr of Britain, Ireland, Gaul and Galicia. The monastery of Lindisfarne was their first victim, in AD 793, and started officially the Viking Age in Europe.

Many of those monasteries suffered such a destruction that they were left abandoned and never rebuilt, as happened with the Galician monasteries of Curtis and Cova do Ulla. In some other cases many of those Viking raids did actually result in greater devastation than the actual destruction of the monastery itself: the Vikings were partly responsible for the decline of the Galician and Scottish Celtic Church after the plundering of the religious centres of Britonia in Galicia and Iona in Scotland caused the transfer of their monks to the cities of Mondoñedo and St Andrews, respectively.

When Galicia almost became a second Normandy

After several years pillaging monasteries the Scandinavians realised that they might as well stay and take control of some of those Atlantic territories. A Norwegian army invaded and conquered Ireland in AD 840 and four years later another army composed by 150 Viking ships set sail to Galicia. The invading Norse were defeated by King Ramiro at Corunna bay but on the meanwhile, in neighbouring Gaul, other Vikings were finding no major difficulty in settling on a territory that would become Normandy in AD 911. The Atlantic seaway was now mostly under Scandinavian control, yet the Vikings were still missing a base at the southern part of the Vestvegr.

In AD 968 the Norse organised a second and larger attempt to gain land in Galicia. A massive naval invasion entered this time through Arousa bay defeating the Galicians at the Battle of Fornelos. After their victory the Vikings roamed and pillaged at will for two years and tried to obtain control of any area. Eventually the Gallegans managed to chase out the Vikings and break their attempt to create a southern Normandy in Galicia. The Scandinavians did not give up though, and subsequent attacks were organised over the next years. The most devastating was the AD 1015 expedition, lead by the future King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway, who destroyed four major Galician towns: Castropol, Betanzos, Rivas de Sil and the former royal capital, Tui.

As the Viking Age was coming to an end Scandinavians and Galicians turned their past conflicting encounters into a more cooperative relationship. The Vikings now went to Galicia to fight as mercenaries in their internal wars, taking the side of whoever payed them best. The Orkneyinga Saga devotes a long chapter to account how Earl Rögnvald of Orkney joined the locals in AD 1151 and ousted a rival nobleman. Futher relations among the Nordic and Galician nobilities happened through marriage after the the ruling house of Burgundy split Galicia in two territories; a northern half, which retained the name of Galicia, and a southern half which was called PortuGal or 'Port of Galicia'. While King Afonso of Galicia married princess Agatha of Normandy, princess Berengaria of Portugal married King Waldemar II of Denmark and his son Waldemar III of Denmark married princess Eleonor of Portugal.

Scandinavian pilgrimage to Jakobsland

The Kingdom of Galicia was a major centre of Christian pilgrimage during the Middle Ages as it was believed that the remains of the apostle St James were buried in the city of Sant-Iago de Compostela. For that reason the Scandinavians called Galicia with the name of Jakobsland. The Norse knew Jakobsland very well, after all, it was them who completely destroyed the city of Iria, residency of the Bishop of St James, in AD 858. As a result of that Viking attack Pope Nicholas I ordered the bishopric to move permanently to the city of Sant-Iago, where it remained for good. Years later, Norman architects would be called in to build Sant-Iago cathedral.

According to the Saga of Sigurd the Crusader, King Sigurd of Norway became the first Scandinavian royal to pilgrim to Sant-Iago, in AD 1108. Other well known Nordic celebrities to have pilgrimed to Galicia were Saint Anders of Slagelse, Denmark, and the very famous Saint Birgitta of Sweden.

The Scandinavians had now definitely changed sword and theft for Christian crosses and pilgrimage but they still were using the Vestvegr to travel to Galicia. Thousands of pilgrims from Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden flocked every year to Sant-Iago until the Protestant Reformation break up in the 16th century. As a consecuence of their visit to Galicia many pilgrims brought back home the famous 'Shell of St James', which became a frequent feature in medieval Scandinavian heraldry and guilds. The most important presence of St James in Scandinavian heraldry is undoubtely the naval ensign of the Union of Kalmar, flown in 1427 in a battle against the Hanseatic League, which consisted on a white Dannebrog with the coat of arms of Erik VII of Pomerania and a large image of St James holding a shell.

© February 2005 Birgitta Olsen


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