Charles the Fat and the Viking Great Army : The Military Explanation for the End of the Carolingian Empire
By Simon MacLean
War Studies Journal, Vol.3:2 (1998)
Introduction: In late July 885 a large Viking fleet gathered at the mouth of the River Seine and began to move upstream in the direction of Paris. After overcoming resistance at Rouen and Pontoise, in November the invaders stopped before the towers and bridges of Paris and, having been refused free passage by the inhabitants, dug in to lay siege to the town. Archbishop Fulk of Rheims, alarmed at the situation, sent an anxious letter across the Rhine to the king and emperor of the Franks Charles III (known today as ‘the Fat’) urging him to take action. The letter recalled the sterling job of defence which had been done by Charles’ predecessors in the west Frankish kingdom (he himself had assumed control in this part of the empire only in May) and pointed out the whole empire was in his custody.
Furthermore, Fulk ‘reminded him that the city of Paris, which defends the chief palace and entrance to the lands of Neustria and Burgundy, was surrounded by a barbarian siege, and would quickly fall unless it was relieved by the mercy of God; if it was captured, it would be at the cost of the suffering of the whole kingdom.
Fulk’s gloomy analysis of the situation was in part motivated by self interest. Rheims knew what it was like to be at the sharp end of a Danish raid – in 882 the previous archbishop had been forced to flee with the relics and treasures of the church and had died on the run – and access to the Marne via Paris would again bring the aggressors much too close for comfort. On the other hand his fears may have found favour with a wider audience; the Vikings, who had played a prominent role in Carolingian politics for the entire ninth century, at this point posed a greater threat to the wellbeing of the Frankish empire than even before.
After being tempted away from the mainland of Europe to concentrate on the British Isles in the mid-860s, they had returned to Francia in 879, partly driven by the defeat inflicted on them by Alfred of Wessex at the Battle of Edgington in 878, partly drawn by the internal political conflict which had flared up among the Franks over the succession to king Louis II the Stammerer. The Viking forces which came from England in that year and stayed until 892 are known collectively as the Great Army (the term is contemporary), and four main factors distinguish the scale of their activities from those of previous decades.