It has been nearly 1,000 years since the last Viking longship made its way up the River Tyne. In those days the sight of the dreaded Norse was enough to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who witnessed them, their arrival the sure prelude to another bout of rape, pillage and fire.
Yesterday, however, the Millennium Bridge crossing the river between Newcastle and Gateshead was raised to welcome the old enemy on a mission of an altogether more peaceable nature – to thank the people of Northumbria for sending them the missionaries who brought Christianity to Norway.
Thirty-two days after setting off from a port near Oslo, the 24-metre Asa – a reproduction of an original warship dating back to the Viking raids – docked in the centre of Newcastle where those on board were given a civic reception from church and political leaders.
The Asa was built in Norway in 1990 and is a replica of a longship excavated at Gokstad in 1880. Made out of solid oak, it is capable of speeds of up to 10 knots and can make long voyages in difficult conditions – including crossing the Atlantic, which it did during a voyage in 1991 to mark the anniversary of Leif Ericson's passage to North America.
In total, 300 Christians aged between 15 and 70 made the journey to the Tyne, first heading south to Brest in France before crossing the Channel and tracking their way up the east coast.
"It has been excellent sailing. We had sunny weather and good winds," said Kay Aarskog, a youth worker from Alesund who organised the volunteers. "We are as a people a little bit ashamed of the past. Our Prime Minister has apologised to Lindisfarne at the beginning of the 1990s so we thought we should come and say thank you for bringing the gospel 1,000 years ago," he said.
The brutal destruction of Lindisfarne in 793 heralded the beginning of the Viking expansion into Britain. Later raids saw the monks forced to flee Holy Island for their lives, taking the sacred bones of St Cuthbert with them. But while some theories suggest the Vikings might have been provoked to attack because of a fear that the Christian missionaries already at work in Scandinavia at the time were undermining their culture, today the religion which began with King Olav is regarded as reshaping the Viking world view and forming the basis for modern Nordic culture.
Robert Ward, vicar of St Luke's in Newcastle, helped arrange the visit, and said Christians in Britain had long forgiven the Vikings for their notorious raiding parties which brought terror to north-western Europe between the 8th and 11th centuries.
"They feel extremely grateful. They feel they owe a debt to their Christian forebears of Northumbria who sent missionaries 1,000 years ago to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is an act of thanksgiving," he said.
The Viking expansion coincided with a period of significant climactic change and warming in Europe as well as an expanding population in Scandinavia. It also occurred around the time of Charlemagne's Saxon wars in which thousands of "pagans" were killed or forcibly baptised.
In Britain the Anglo Saxon Chronicles record a series of omens presaging the arrival of the invaders including lights in the sky, whirlwinds and "fiery dragons flying across the firmament".
A world at war
772 AD Charlemagne's Saxon wars begin; these are often cited as the cause of Viking expansion by peoples inhabiting areas of Scandanavia that now cover Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
793 A raid on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne leads to monks being killed and the sacking of the monastery. Northumbrian scholar Alcuin wrote: "The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets."
866 Vikings from Denmark launch their invasion of England.
986 Leif Ericson reaches Greenland, becoming the first European to colonise North America. Other Viking leaders conquered parts of France and Russia, as well as trading in Spain and Turkey.
1030 Battle of Stikestad signifies end of the Viking Age in Norway with the death of King Olaf II, who was later made a Saint by Pope Alexander III.
1066 Vikings led by Harald Hardrada defeated at Stamford Bridge in East Yorkshire.