Greatest of all merchant communities – and in 950 the largest town in the Baltic world – was Danish Hedeby (now Haithabu in Germany, east of the E45 autobahn, a few kilometres south of the town of Schleswig). There was a settlement at Hedeby many years before the Viking raids began, for it stood at a key geographical position, astride the main artery from the south in north-western Europe and at the centre of the narrowest isthmus between the Baltic and the North Sea. Hedeby faced north-east, down the winding Schlei fjord and about 38 kilometres from the open sea, a port far enough inland to receive warning of approach by pirates or enemies. West of Hedeby a mere 16 kilometres of moorland provided easy portage to the Eider, a short river that flows into the North Sea at Tonning, with an upstream quay at Hollingstedt. A ditch-and-embankment rampart, known as the ‘Danewirke’ and built in the eighth century, afforded Hedeby protection from Frankish incursions. The Danish King Godfred extended the rampart and encouraged merchants to settle in Hedeby in 808, after the raid in which his warriors sacked the Abotrite port of Reric, some 190 kilometres along the Mecklenburg coast. Yet, though ninth century Hedeby had the makings of a commercial port, it also served as a hideout for raiders who returned home with booty and slaves from Frisia, the Netherlands and England. The growing trade with the East transformed the town: Hedeby’s greatest prosperity came at the middle of the tenth century, the years of Varangian commercial ascendancy at Constantinople.
A Moorish merchant from Cordoba, visiting Hedeby about 975, was far from impressed. The town was too big, he thought; it was not, by his reckoning, rich; a high birth rate prompted families to throw unwanted babies into the Schlei; the main food was fish, because there was so much of it; and Viking singing was dreadful. It was a growling from the throat, ‘worse even than the barking of dogs’, he grumbled. There must have been a touch of the Wild North about Viking Hedeby. Yet archaeological evidence, from three major digs in the last seventy years, suggests that life in the port at its prime anticipated the commercial bustle of Thames-side London nine centuries later: ship repairing workshops; craftsmen tapping away at silver, bone or amber jewellery; potters, weavers, carpenters and leather-workers; and all the banter of barter in markets where bargains were struck for furs from the Lapps, soapstone from the Swedes, and wax, silk, spices and honey from the East.
Ironically Hedeby, the port that prospered most from the luxury trade with Novgorod and Kiev, was razed to the ground by the one Viking warrior known to have amassed a fortune in the East. For, in his attempt to add Denmark to his Norwegian kingdom, Harald Hardrada led a fleet up Schlei fjord in the summer of 1049 to destroy his enemy’s commercial capital. Nine hundred years later underwater exploration by divers and frogmen revealed that he had employed a tactic favoured by the Byzantines. Harald might not possess the secret of ‘Greek fire’, but he knew the panic a floating inferno would cause among the Danish defenders. At least one fireship – probably more – bore down on a wooden barrier outside Hedeby’s harbour. Soon the whole town was ablaze. The stock of goods in the warehouses must have fed the flames.