By Danielle Turner
Ninth-century France proved very lucrative for the Vikings. It was a land marred by civil war and bad harvests, and the Norsemen took advantage of this through raiding and mercenary acts. France’s riverine system and innovations in the Viking longship allowed the Danes to penetrate deep into the continent and make a fortune in plunder from monasteries. Paris would be the ultimate target, and the Vikings besieged the city twice and received tribute payment in both cases. Why were the Vikings able to continuously successfully pillage France? Were the Frankish rulers inept, cowardly, or just practical in their handling of Norse incursions?
The Viking Age roughly spanned from AD 800 to 1100, starting with the raid on the Lindisfarne Monastery in England and ending with the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Battle at Stamford Bridge. The Vikings, Danes, Scandinavians, and Norse are considered to be the same people even though they have vastly different etymological, cultural, and historical meanings in certain respects. Likewise, France and Francia appear interchangeably here. Modern studies show that it was mainly the Danes – not the Norwegians or Swedes – who were responsible for the key attacks in France. Regional Frankish annals and the epic poem of Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés serve as the main sources for this period, as they offer great insight into the two main Viking sieges of Paris, which took place in the years 845 and 885.
Any complete Viking or Frankish history includes a section for each of the major Norse sieges of Paris. However, few have thoroughly investigated why the sieges were successful each time. A study in that vein actually proves quite revealing. The Frankish kingdom of 845 was one fractured by civil warfare between Charlemagne’s three grandsons. The previously strong empire endured great turmoil and frequent Norse incursions. However, by 885, Charles the Fat emerged from this scenario as the undisputed Carolingian ruler. Nevertheless, even though Francia achieved political and military cohesion, no significant defense of the kingdom emerged. In the end, the Vikings would gain much from both of their sieges of Paris due to the pragmatic reactions of the Frankish rulers.
A Divided Land
Francia in the ninth century suffered from deep political fragmentation and civil war. After Charlemagne’s death in 815, his son Louis the Pious tried to maintain defenses across the vast empire. Ultimately, these fortifications weakened because of internal conflict, and the stress eventually reached a boiling point after Louis the Pious’ own death in 840. The country erupted into civil war as Louis the Pious’ sons Lothar, Louis, and Charles all fought for land they considered their Carolingian birth right. The Annals of Fulda detail a bloody battle between the contending rulers in 841 and state that “there was such a slaughter of both sides that no one can recall a greater loss among the Frankish people in the present age.” This helps to account for the lack of defensive resources when the Vikings came to raid and lay siege to Paris in 845.
In 843, the three rulers of the Frankish kingdom met to sign a peace treaty at Verdun and divided the land into three kingdoms. Lothar took the middle realm, Louis was the king of the East Franks, and Charles the Bald ruled the western part of the empire. However, the signing of this treaty did not entirely end the brotherly bloodshed. Contemporary writings suggest that military conflict between the brothers continued during the lead-up to and aftermath of the first siege of Paris.
The Scandinavians remained well-apprised of events on the continent and used that knowledge to attack the Franks at especially vulnerable points; many of them also fought as mercenaries in the Frankish Civil War during the same period. In 845, the same year that one Viking band was laying siege to Paris, another group, this one led by King Horic of Denmark, was sending 600 ships up the Elbe River to attack Louis’ lands. Meanwhile, Lothar was encouraging yet another Norse leader to raid Frisia, thereby adding to Louis’ troubles. The Vikings knew very well that the Carolingian rulers were more focused on fighting each other than stopping foreign raiders.
It is not surprising that the people of Francia did not have much to offer defensively when legendary Viking Chieftain Ragnar Lodbrok led the Norse in the first siege of Paris. This comes across clearly in the entry in the Annals of St-Bertin:
A very hard winter. In March, 120 ships of the Northmen sailed up the Seine to Paris, laying waste everything on either side and meeting not the least bit of opposition. Charles made efforts to offer some resistance, but realised that his men could not possibly win. So he made a deal with them: by handing over 7,000lb [of silver] as a bribe, he restrained them from advancing further and persuaded them to go away.
The bad winter seems especially noteworthy because it further weakened France and the people were ill-equipped to endure a siege. Substantial scholarly debate rages concerning the precise numbers of ships, but the fact remains that the French were simply unable to offer any real defense for the island town of Paris.
Taking advantage of the significant reduction in available French soldiers – a product of the internal struggles – the Vikings also broke the Franks during the siege with psychological warfare. The West Frankish ruler sent men to stop the Vikings. The Frankish army stood on both sides of the river, hoping to stop the Vikings from landing on either edge. Ragnar Lodbrok simply chose to attack the weaker side. The larger Frankish army could not geographically reach the other edge of the river to help their fellow soldiers and the Vikings triumphed. After this decisive victory over the Franks, Ragnar hung 111 prisoners on an island in the Seine River in plain view of those on the remaining side. This intimidating act further broke resistance and the Vikings continued plundering the territories around Paris until receiving payment from Charles the Bald.
The Frankish ruler Charles would receive most of the blame for the Vikings’ success in 845. The author of the Annals of Xanten did not hide his disdain when he writes: “Owing to his indolence, Charles (the Bald) agreed to give (the Danes) many thousands of pounds of gold and silver if they would leave Gaul, and this they did. Nevertheless the cloisters of most of the saints were destroyed, and many of the Christians were led away captive.”
The Second Siege of Paris
The Carolingians continued their civil war for decades, until a combination of luck and politics led to the reuniting of the Frankish empire under Charles the Fat, who was crowned emperor by the Pope in 881. Francia finally experienced a modicum of political cohesion, but Charles still ruled over a problematically vast expanse of land. Constant raids from the Vikings thus called for more localized leadership. Charles the Fat appointed “govoners” or “missi dominici” for each region “and a count or duke for each important city.” This included “Count Odo, who resided permanently in the royal palace on the Île-de-la-Cité and was known as the “Count of Paris and Duke of France” according to Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Like his father before him, Odo was in charge of the land between the Seine and the Loire. Indeed, it was Count Odo who offered the noteworthy defense against the Vikings who besieged Paris from 885-6. Much of this was thanks to defenses built by Odo and his father to defend their territory. This system allowed for less internal discord and promoted cohesion in Francia towards the end of the ninth century.
Meanwhile, the Vikings had spent decades gaining increasingly better results from their raiding campaigns in France. The Norsemen were not necessarily more violent than others engaged in battle in ninth-century France. Indeed, Charlemagne executed 4,500 Saxon rebels at Verdun in 782, proving that Christians could do just as much or even more damage. The Vikings and the French almost matched each other in terms of weapons. The Vikings favored battle axes, spears, and arrows, whereas the quality of French swords was famous in the contemporaneous world and the Vikings no doubt acquired them through trade and battle. Beyond technology, the ability to function as both smaller raiding bands and larger combined armies represented the main factor behind Viking success. The raiding bands proved fast, versatile, and ingeniously opportunistic.
France’s waterways proved critical in Viking raids, as they posed great difficulties for the defense of French towns. The Viking success seems even less surprising given the iconic longship that could travel through both deep and shallow water and even portaged. With the innovation of this ship, the Vikings sailed down rivers and raided places previously thought untouchable. The Vikings also exhibited great skill in supplying themselves while raiding. After the first siege of Paris, Charles the Bald built and fortified bridges, towns, and monasteries. According to the 864 Edict of Pistres, two bridges were built across the Seine at Pîtres and Paris, one on each side of the Île de la Cité. These protected Paris and disrupted the Vikings’ passage up the river. Both Count Odo and his father foresaw the continued threat from the Northmen and worked tirelessly to build defenses against the Vikings.
After all this fortification, how did the Vikings still manage to successfully besiege Paris in 885? The answer relates to both technology and strategy. The best depiction of this year-long siege comes from the eyewitness account of Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in his epic poem the Bella Parisiacae Urbis. He reported 700 attacking vessels of various sizes and about forty thousand men. The Danes set fire to the main gate while the defending Franks threw a large wheel on top of them in hopes of deterring further penetration into the city. The Danes managed to destroy the tower but soon succumbed to the billows of smoke that “enveloped the warriors” and the arrows could be seen from both sides once the air was clear. The Franks thought that the Vikings might retreat, but
the Danes began to construct
Sixteen monstrous wheels, as never before seen, grouped into threes:
Made of sturdy oak, each wheel had a battering ram, shielded
By a roof. Now, it was within the secret hiding places,
Found all along the sides of these huge wheels, that men were concealed.
Abbo’s description seems likely to be accurate since other contemporary authors report that Vikings used battering rams against fortified cities. Sixteen wheels function in sequences of threes to support the ram. The French dug defensive trenches before the walls of Paris, but the Vikings filled the trenches with dirt and plants. Abbo writes, “Then (the Danes) pushed in all the old oxen, and even lovely cows and calves; and lastly, alas, they slaughtered the luckless captives they held; All this they took and piled into the trenches to fill them in.” This proved especially devastating as it took away provisions from the Parisians and precipitated the spread of disease from the animals’ shallow graves. In 886, after a year-long standoff, one of the protecting bridges broke and the Danes quickly capitalized by capturing a tower.
With bravery and a little luck, Count Odo escaped from the city and forwarded word to Charles, Emperor of the Franks. Charles sent soldiers – but not to defend the city, only to pay off the Vikings. In fact, he gave them permission to keep plundering up the Seine. This apparent betrayal incensed the Parisians, who had just endured a year-long siege.
A Pragmatic Decision Backfires
A long tradition exists of people paying off others to avoid violence, but a popular frustration emerged in the wake of the rulers’ decision to pay off the Vikings once again in 886. Parisians fought hard and endured untold horrors while holding off attacks of the Vikings for over a year. Abbo recorded many great heroic stories of Count Odo bravely defending the city through extraordinary measures. After a year under the siege, Count Odo slipped out of the city in hopes of reaching Charles the Fat to acquire reinforcements. As recorded in the Annals of Fulda, “After Easter the emperor held a general assembly at Pavia and went through Burgundy to Gaul against the Northmen who were at Paris.” The Parisians were understandably relieved to see royal troops coming to their aid. It seemed that the Norse would not take Paris this time. Charles’s forces arrived in a big entrance, but, as Abbo records with much annoyance:
the heathens were permitted to make their way to Sens
And were given seven hundred silver pounds on the promise
That come March, they would all return to their accursed kingdoms.
His frustration and disgust at this decision is clear in the way he constructs this section of his poem. The bulk of the work flows with vivid imagery, but this passage appears comparatively abrupt and blunt. For Parisians, the implications were not pleasant: not only were the Vikings getting regular payments, but they were also allowed to sail further up the Seine and cause more destruction.
These events help to explain why Charles did not last much longer as emperor of the Frankish kingdom. His power would fall apart at the end of the year 887 – even his wife would leave him after he accused her of having an affair with his chief minister. As rebellions emerged and his supporters declined to offer their continued backing, Charles accepted his deposition and agreed to a kind of retirement. That would not last long, either – six weeks later Charles was dead.
As the Carolingian Empire crumbled, Odo would be elected king of the West Franks by the Frankish nobility in February of 888. The people wanted a ruler who would fight for them and protect their safety, and this would be best served by someone from outside the Carolingian dynasty. Among those who were pleased at the choice of a new monarch was the author of the Bella Parisiacae Urbi. Abbo states:
Gladly Odo took the title and authority of king;
He was happily supported by all the Frankish people.
The Failure to Defend
When looking at the two Viking sieges of Paris through a political and military lens, the payment of the Vikings in 845 seems entirely reasonable, but the Frankish Emperor could surely have offered more significant opposition in 885. But as it happened, the rulers chose the option that seemed to fit better within their larger range of problems and concerns. Between the two sieges of Paris, the Frankish kingdom saw the uniting of territories and emerged from a bloody civil war. The advancement of warfare technology also factored into the situation as Paris underwent significant defensive modifications during this time. As a result, Parisians managed to resist the Vikings for a whole year during the second siege and therefore expressed outrage at the emperor’s decision to pay the Vikings and allow them to attack their fellow countrymen up the Seine.
Even though Francia grew stronger politically and militarily, the leaders in both 845 and 885 thought that paying off the Vikings represented the best strategy to deal with their incursions, choices that did not sit well with ordinary Franks. In this vein, the Paris raids remain significant because they demonstrate the inability of later Carolingian rulers to protect their lands. Indeed, without the second siege of Paris, Odo might not have been elected and the Carolingian dynasty would have continued. But such possibilities must remain in the realm of speculation and fiction.
Danielle Turner did her undergraduate and graduate studies in history at California State University, Fullerton. She studies the Viking Age, focusing specifically on philology, warfare, weather, and medicine. Danielle is internationally published and has worked as a special features presenter on the History Channel Show, VIKINGS.
Top Image: A Viking invasion of the French coast witnessed by Saint Aubin, who became the ninth-century Bishop of Angers, appearing in the Life of Saint Aubin. Manuscript, c. 1100 – Wikimedia Commons