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Did Vikings kidnap their wives?

The popular image of Vikings kidnapping women and carrying them off as unwilling brides is widespread in modern media and stories. But what does the historical evidence actually say about how Vikings found their spouses? Let’s examine the facts around Viking marriage practices.

What do we know about Viking marriages?

The Vikings valued family life highly. Marriage was the norm in Viking society, even for Vikings who went raiding and explored distant lands. Traditional Norse marriage customs gave women significant rights and privileges compared to other European societies at the time.

Viking men and women could generally choose their own spouses, based on affection or mutual agreement. There were exceptions in royal families where marriages were arranged for political reasons. But most Vikings had the freedom to marry for love if they desired.

Women had the right to divorce their husbands and own property. Marriages involved the exchange of a dowry from the bride’s family as well as a bride price given to the bride from the groom and his family. This suggests Viking unions were mutually beneficial partnerships.

Did Vikings raid and kidnap women?

One of the activities Vikings are best known for is raiding. They conducted raids throughout northern Europe from the 8th to 11th centuries, targeting wealthy monasteries, villages, and even cities.

During raids, Vikings did sometimes seize valuables like gold, silver, and livestock. Capturing people was also a goal, since enslaved people were a tradable commodity in the Viking world. Both men and women might be taken captive during raids.

There is some evidence from historical accounts that Vikings abducted women from British and Irish settlements. For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Vikings in Ireland in 821 AD taking away “a great prey of women” after a battle.

Likely a rare practice

However, historians generally agree that large-scale abduction of women was not a common Vikings raiding practice. Kidnapping during raids was likely opportunistic and not the norm.

Raiding parties were typically smaller groups of warriors, not entire Viking armies. Transporting many captives long distances by ship would have been impractical and hazardous.

Plus, polygyny was rare in Viking society – most Viking men had only one wife. There would not have been massive demand for abducted foreign women as enslaved brides.

Forms of marriage in Viking society

Within Norse society, there were three main forms of marriage:

  • Free marriages: The most common type, contracted by free choice and with exchanged property as binding.
  • Sword marriages: A rare ritual where the bride laid her naked sword in the lap of her groom on the wedding night as a symbol of consent.
  • Marriages by capture: When a man carried a woman off and wed her without the approval of her family, sometimes as an elopement.

Capturing a bride

“Marriage by capture” happened within Viking culture, but did not necessarily involve kidnapping a resistant woman. Sometimes it was closer to elopement, with the woman agreeing to go away with the man.

Other times, the “capture” was symbolic – part of a ritual acting out taking a bride. It demonstrated the man’s determination to wed the woman.

There are a few accounts in Norse sagas of men catching and marrying foreign women without their consent. But these instances are portrayed as transgressive acts, not everyday practice.


Despite the popular imagination of Vikings raiding and hauling off brides, the evidence suggests kidnapping women was rare. Within their own society, Vikings married for love or through family arrangements. Sometimes women were ceremonially “captured”, but not forcibly taken against their will.

Raiding and capturing slaves certainly occurred, but was motivated by values for wealth and commerce, not finding wives. Forced marriage would have been an affront to Norse customs. Overall, Vikings eagerly sought marriage, but largely through consenting means, not widespread abduction of women.