Norway's first settlers arrived over 10,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. These early hunters and gatherers followed the glaciers as they retreated north, pursuing migratory reindeer herds. The country's greatest impact on history was during the Viking Age, a period thought to have begun with the plundering of England's Lindisfarne monastery by Nordic pirates in 793 AD. Over the next century, the Vikings made raids throughout Europe, establishing settlements along the way. Viking leader Harald Hårfagre (Fairhair) unified Norway around 900 and King Olaf, adopting the religion of the lands he had conquered, converted the people to Christianity a century later. The Vikings were great sailors and became the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Eric the Red, the son of a Norwegian exiled to Iceland, colonised Greenland in 982. In 1001, Eric's Icelandic son, Leif Eriksson, became possibly the first European to explore the coast of North America when he sailed off course on a voyage from Norway to Greenland. However, the Viking Age came to an end in 1066 when the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada was routed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England.
In the 13th century Oslo emerged as a centre of power. It continued to flourish until the mid-14th century when bubonic plague decimated its population. In 1397 Norway was absorbed into a union with Denmark which lasted over 400 years. Norway was ceded to Sweden in 1814. That same year a defiant Norway - fed up with forced unions - adopted its own constitution, but its struggle for independence was quelled by a Swedish invasion. In the end, Norwegians were allowed to keep their new constitution but were forced to accept the Swedish king. Growing nationalism eventually led to Norway's peaceful secession from Sweden in 1905. Norwegians subsequently voted in favour of a monarchy over a republic and selected Prince Carl of Denmark to be king. Upon acceptance, he took the title Håkon VII and named his infant son Olav, both prominent names in Norway's Viking past.
Norway stayed neutral during both world wars but was occupied by the Nazis in 1940. King Håkon set up a government in exile and placed most of Norway's huge merchant fleet under the command of the Allies. An active Resistance movement fought tenaciously against the Nazis, who responded by razing nearly every town and village in northern Norway during their retreat. The royal family returned at the end of the war.
In 1960 Norway joined the European Free Trade Association but has been reluctant to forge closer bonds with other nations, partly due to concerns about its ability to preserve small-scale farming and fishing. North Sea oil and natural gas finds brought prosperity to the country in the 1970s, and Norway has since achieved one of the highest standards of living in the world. A no-vote for application with the EU in a 1994 referendum sent shock waves through European governments who were attempting to 'sell' the Maastricht treaty to their citizens. EU membership is still a hot topic in Norway, but resistance is still strong across the nation's political spectrum.