All political entities, from the various Frankish kingdoms to the later medieval Kingdom of France, had to deal with the Vikings, which led to a mix of resistance, cooperation, and subjugation.

The Franco-Iberian world following Rome

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History is one of the more brilliant historical podcasts out there. In one epic episode, Dan traces the post-Roman events in what is now France. Titled "Thor's Angels," he explains how the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was partly caused by the migration of Germanic peoples westward, including the Franks. 

Picking up where the Romans left off, the Franks, who inhabited vast swathes of what the Romans had called "Gaul," set about establishing smaller kingdoms from the 5th century CE.

The adoption of Christianity by the Frankish leader Clovis I in 496 CE was seen as a turning point.

Not only did he make Paris his capital (establishing "The City of Lights" as a prominent political city for more than 1500 years), but he also founded the Merovingian Dynasty, which ruled over areas of Francia until 751 CE.

With the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 710 CE, Charles Martel, the Mayor of the Palace and the real power behind the ailing Merovingian throne, defeated a Muslim expeditionary force at Tours in 721 CE.

His son, Pepin the Short, accepted the crown as "King of the Franks" and established a new dynasty, the Carolingians. 

Pepin himself embarked on a campaign to reclaim lost parts of Roman Gaul, extending his conquests to areas of northern Italy, northwest Germany (reaching close to Denmark), and as far west as Barcelona.

However, it was the Franks' battle in Saxony (c. 722 – 804 CE) that introduced new northern peoples into the Classical world.

Statue of Charlemagne, the Frankish king who aggressively expanded his realm and battled the Saxons during the Viking Age. Photo: raymond tercafs / Shutterstock

Battle with the Saxons

By the early 8th century CE, the Franks had initiated their bloody expansionist campaign well into what is now northern Germany. It was during this time that they encountered a fellow Germanic people, the Saxons.

The Frankish campaign against the Saxons was said to be as bloody as it was protracted, lasting three generations and roughly eight decades (c. 722 – 804 CE).

The Saxons occupied an area of northern Germany and southern Denmark bordered to the north by what contemporary historians referred to as Danes.

Historians frequently regarded Scandinavia as a "birthplace of nations" during the Roman era, as it seemed that a new people emerged from "the north" to wreak havoc on the civilizations bordering Rome every few years.

Since the early Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE to 500 CE), Germanic peoples had been migrating from the Scandinavian peninsula, pushing southward to settle in what is now Denmark and northern Germany.

In this region, they would encounter the Saxons (another Germanic people) who were in the firing line by the time of Charlemagne.

Charlemagne aimed to reforge the European part of the shattered Western Roman Empire and pursued the ruthless expansion of the Frankish realms. While he initiated campaigns against the Saxons, he ultimately brought them to an end in 804 CE.

Charlemagne sought the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity, and if they refused, he would claim their bloody heads.

One of the most extreme instances of this approach was the massacre at Verdun, where over 4,500 Saxons who refused to convert from their pagan beliefs were said to have been killed.

As Charlemagne continued to expand his territories, the Danes grew increasingly anxious about their southern border.

The prevailing violent and politically insecure environment prompted the Danes to construct the Danevirke. This vast series of fortifications was continuously strengthened and refortified over the following centuries, spanning across the neck of the Cimbrian peninsula in what is now northern Germany.

Saxon refugees had fled to the land of the Danes seeking refuge and telling horrible tales of this Frankish warrior, Charlemagne, who was hellbent on subjugating all peoples. 

However, it was only a short time before Charlemagne would be on the defensive.

Death of Charles and upcoming Viking raids 

Whilst Charlemagne's remarkable achievements in expanding the Frankish realms are undeniable (he truly lived up to his moniker, but it was probably best to avoid getting on his bad side), the kingdom he created, forged through conquest and sheer determination, could not withstand the test of time beyond his death.

The latter years of his reign were marked by notable events, including his coronation by the Pope as Holy Roman Emperor and the conclusion of the Saxon Wars in 804 CE.

Yet, all was not well in the latter years of his reign.

Viking raids had been targeting coastal communities in the Frankish realms since the mid-8th century CE. However, after Charlemagne's death in 814 CE, the kingdom experienced an implosion and fragmentation akin to that of the Western Roman Empire, which acted as a catalyst for even more frequent Viking attacks and raids.

The first significant Viking raids that struck at the heart of the new Carolingian realm occurred less than six years after the death of its founder. In 820 CE, thirteen Viking ships sailed up the Seine, but they were fortunately defeated by local militia.

However, this was a shot across the bow (pardon the nautical pun) for the Franks: the Vikings were coming. 

Subsequently, more Viking raids took place, and it was mainly through bribes by Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious (r. 814 – 840 CE), that these raids were somewhat kept at bay.

While the short-term effect of these bribes did achieve the desired outcome, their strategic impact proved disastrous. 

After Louis's death, his realm was divided among his sons, following Frankish customs long before primogeniture came into fashion. However, the initial brotherly love soon turned to bitterness, leading the region into civil war.

This internal conflict played directly into the hands of the Vikings, and in 841 CE, the Viking leader Asgeir sacked and burned Rouen, including its important chapel of Saint-Denis, the patron saint of the Franks.

The famed Notre Dame Cathedral, a later testament to Paris' strength and resolve, stands along the route of the Viking siege in the 9th century. Photo: Tomas Marek / Shutterstock

Treaty of Verdun and sacking of Paris

The three sons of Louis I eventually laid down their arms, mainly due to the constant Viking attacks on coastal communities, and sought peace through the Treaty of Verdun in 845 CE. Here, the three sons would each receive a piece of the Carolingian Empire to rule in peace.

Louis the German received East Francia, which would eventually become the modern state of Germany. Middle Francia, encompassing much of today's Low Countries, was given to Lothair, while Charles the Bald would rule West Francia, comprising roughly the borders of modern-day France. 

The peace came just in time, as Viking raids were progressively extending further down the river systems of the Frankish realms.

Perhaps the most famous of these early Viking raids was the Siege of Paris which took place in the same year as the Treaty of Verdun. 

The event was recorded in the Annals of Saint-Bertin whilst it was also added (later in the 12th century CE) to the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. Accounts differ over who the Viking leader was, with Bertin recording Reinfred whilst later Scandinavian chroniclers have put it down as the legendary Viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok.

Regardless of whoever led this Viking raid, it was anything but short.

Sailing up the Seine to Paris - a small village by today's standards but still politically and economically significant at the time - Ragnar was said to have commanded more than 120 ships and 5,000 men to lay siege.

The Parisians, not for the first time in their history, were up for a fight and managed to keep the Viking invaders at bay for an extended period.

As was always the case with Viking sieges, a weak point was eventually found, and Paris was laid to the sword with days of pillaging, plundering, and rape. They were only convinced to cease by the payment, by Charles the Bald, of more than 2.500 kilograms (5.700 pounds) of silver.

If Charles and his Franks were thinking that a nadir had been reached, they were severely wrong.

To be continued...

For more information on how a 12th-century French monk wanted Denmark to pay compensation for Viking raids committed three centuries earlier, visit The Conversation here.

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