However, the Viking presence in Germany is much less known and popularized than in those countries further westward. Why is this, and how deep is the Viking history of Germany?

Rhine Time

Skipping over millennia of German history, it was really under the reign of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, that a Roman conquest of territory beyond the Danube and Rhine rivers into what is now Germany was seriously considered. 

The Romans had, for decades, been dealing with Germanic tribes that had incurred into the ever-expanding Roman territory that was, under Augustus, transformed into an empire.

By 100 CE, a series of fortifications – the Limes Germanicus – was established that separated the Roman acquisitions from the "barbarians" beyond. The two provinces of Germania Superior (with its capital at modern-day Mainz) and Germania Inferior (with its capital at Cologne) were absorbed into the Roman Empire. 

Christianity soon flowed into first the Roman provinces and the beyond the Rhine during the first century CE.

This was the status quo up until the 3rd century CE. The Roman Empire had absorbed Germanic provinces whilst keeping Germanic tribes at bay with a series of fortifications mostly based upon the natural frontiers of the Rhine and Danube rivers.

Crisis after crisis...

The Roman Empire almost collapsed during what modern historians have dubbed "The Third Century Crisis," in part due to the proliferation of Germanic tribes into Roman territory. 

These tribes included – the Franks, Alamanni, Saxons, Frisi, and Thuringii, to name but a few. Rome recovered, but the damage caused by the migration of Germanic tribes into its borders appeared to be, in the long term, fatal.

From the 4th century onwards, a series of larger Germanic tribes (the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards, as well as those pesky Saxons and Franks) crossed across the Roman frontiers in Germany and migrated westward throughout the other Roman provinces, in such large numbers that they fatally wounded the now insecure Roman Empire. 

What appears to have been the death knell was the weak response by Rome, in part due to the political insecurity of the previous Germanic tribes migrating to the Huns' devastating westward push in the late 4th century CE.

In 406 CE, the Rhine River was crossed by a series of Germanic tribes that settled in what was once the Roman Empire and forged new smaller political entities destroying the larger Roman economic, political, social, and cultural network that had ruled Western Europe for centuries.

Following the death of Pepin the Short in 758 CE, the Frankish realms would be ruled by his son, Charles. Pictured is a statue of Pepin in Wurzburg, Germany. Photo: JohannesS / Shutterstock

The Frankish Empire

As the first Viking raids were taking place throughout the British Isles and the Baltics in the late 8th century CE, a new epoch was dawning further south in what is now France and Germany. 

Following the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the former Roman provinces in Germany had seen centuries of political fighting and machinations result in a Frankish kingdom ruled by Pepin the Short. 

Following his death in 758 CE, the Frankish realms would be ruled by his son, Charles, who would go on to expand the empire and become Charlemagne (Charles the Great).

Charlemagne would not only subdue other Germanic and Non-Germanic tribes (including the Saxons and the Avars) in what is now Germany but would also oversee the conversion of these recently conquered peoples to Christianity. 

In fact, it was during Charlemagne's reign that the first missionaries were sent northward to the Viking societies in the Scandinavian peninsula. 

On Christmas Day 800 CE, Charlemagne had conquered such a significant portion of the old (Western) Roman Empire that Pope Leo III crowned him Imperator Romanorum, the first Holy Roman Emperor.

The Rhineland

People from Viking societies certainly did not live in a historical bubble despite not ever being a part of the Roman Empire. 

The construction of the Danevirke – believed to have started sometime during the 7th century CE but was later heavily fortified later in the latter stages of the so-called "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE) was a series of fortifications that were meant to keep Germanic tribes, especially the Saxons, out of proto-Viking societies in what is now Denmark.

The heart of this new Frankish Empire (dubbed by later historians as the "Carolingian Empire" after Charles the great man himself) lay in the area surrounding the Rhine river. 

This area constitutes a huge swathe of modern-day Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland, from the mountain ranges of the Siebenberg to the present-day borders of the Netherlands, from the delta of the Rhine, Lek, and Waal rivers to the convergence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers further south. 

The capital of Charles' Empire lay in the ancient city of Aachen, where the imperial palace was built, and the old Roman cities of Bonn, Cologne, and Xanten were transformed into religious and trading entrepots.

The Rhineland (as later historians have called this area) was the economic, political, and cultural heart of the Frankish Empire. The Rhine was used to establish trade networks that soon saw old Roman cities become new bustling centers of early medieval trade and commerce. It was only a matter of time before the Vikings would arrive.

The first Viking raids

Following Charlemagne's defeat of the Saxons, the new Carolingian Empire had its northern boundary in what is now Denmark. This put a Frankish society just a stone's throw (or perhaps that should be "just a battle-axe's throw") from a Viking one.

As was magnificently explained in her book, River Kings - A New History of Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads, Dr. Cat Jarman describes how people from Viking societies were masters of river navigation. The Rhine, one of Europe's longest and most important rivers, soon became an early medieval period superhighway for Vikings wanting to raid, trade, and settle parts of the then-Carolingian Empire. 

They sailed their larger Viking longboats, from the harsh North Sea, up the river systems that dotted the Carolingian Empire, most especially the Rhine River.

The first recorded Viking raid on the Frankish realms was in 820 CE when Viking raiders sailed to the mouth of the Seine. More than two decades later, in 845 CE, the Vikings returned in such large numbers (more than 700 longships if we are to believe contemporary historians) and besieged Paris for the first (but not the last) time.

Other areas of the Carolingian Empire, especially towns along the river Elbe and, in particular, Hamburg, were besieged by Viking raiders throughout the early to mid-9th century CE. 

However, events further afield in England.

Scandinavian "tourists" crossing the Channel

When the "Great Heathen Army," a series of Viking military invaders, suffered defeat at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons at Edington in 878 CE, their first (literal) port of call was across the English Channel in the coastal regions of the northwest Carolingian Empire. 

The Viking armies again tasted defeat when the West Frankish ruler, Louis III, routed a Viking army in central France. The Vikings then retreated eastward, slowly towards the heartland of the Carolingian Empire, to vent their collective rage and fury.

Unlike areas further west, the eastern region of the Rhineland had seen few fortifications built in the centuries since the Western Roman Empire's collapse. Added to this was the fact that the ruler Charles III was away in Rome being coronated along with many of his finest knights. The Vikings then were able to effortlessly sail along the Rhine and capture cities, towns, villages, and even some monasteries with almost little defensive pushback.

By 881 CE, the Vikings, who often overwintered in the Low Countries (especially around the Flanders region), had sailed down the Rhine to lay siege to the cities of Cologne, Bonn, and Neuss. 

Cologne was the target of some Viking "dirty tricks" as having first demanded a huge sum of silver from the inhabitants, the Vikings, upon their return up the Rhine, demanded the same amount again. 

The beleaguered citizens could not afford such a hefty sum, and the city was burned to the ground. Their next target was the imperial grandeur of Aachen.

Aachen Cathedral, a vintage rendering completed in 1869. Photo: Morphart Creation / Shutterstock

Sacking Aachen and later raids

With the imperial capital soon in their targets, a series of Viking raids took place in the very epicenter of Frankish political power. 

The city walls surrounding Aachen were breached, and the tomb of Charlemagne and the religiously significant St. Mary's Church were desecrated. The imperial abbey, in nearby Kornelimünster, was plundered while upon return to Aachen, the Viking warriors set the imperial palace and baths ablaze. Yet the Vikings did not stop there.

Not only the brick and mortar of the Frankish realm was under attack but their culture too. The largest Frankish abbey, at Prüm, which not only educated the cream of the Frankish nobility but had an important hospital and library (making it one of the cultural gems of the Franks), was razed. 

Apparently, the sandals of Jesus Christ, the most important relics in the Frankish realms, were whisked away to safety at the last moment. By February 882 CE, the Vikings had raided as far south as Trier (in Germany) and Metz (in France).

By mid-882 CE, Charles III had had enough and raised a huge army, including some members of Germanic tribes defeated by the Franks (especially Saxons, Lombards, and Frisians). The army managed to lay siege to a Viking encampment, and, after twelve days, negotiations began.

The peace settlement saw the Viking leader, Godfrid, baptized, married off to a Frankish princess, and given the whole region of Frisia as a sweetener. Viking raids into the Rhineland soon discontinued after this. 

In the space of just a few years, the Vikings had raided, laid siege, or plundered a series of towns, down the Rhine, from Dorestad, in the north, all the way down to Nemich as well as the imperial capital of Aachen and several important cities like Bonn, Maastricht, Cologne, and Prüm.

Rewriting the Viking history of Germany?

Whilst much attention may be given to the Viking raids of the British Isles or even more westerly parts of the Frankish realms (particularly what would become Normandy), the Viking raids of the Rhineland presented an existential threat to the burgeoning Holy Roman Empire. 

Here, under Carolingian stewardship, an enemy was not only at the gates but burning down the imperial palace! Towards the end of the 9th century CE, the Carolingians started to better organize their military and fortify their towns more securely. The Viking threat would linger on with further raids in 883 and 884 CE; however, these were on a much smaller scale.

In 919 CE, the spiritual homelands of the Bavarians, Franks, Saxons, and Swabians - as well as large parts of the Frankish realms that Charlemagne had won were united, as a federation, under the first non-Frankish ruler, Henry the Fowler. 

He is credited by historians as being the founder of the medieval Kingdom of the Germans, which was an integral part of the larger Holy Roman Empire. 

It was during his reign that Otto I was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and helped reestablish an empire that would last up until the Napoleonic Age, centuries after the last Viking ever raided the Rhine River.

For more on the Viking presence in Germany, National Geographic has an article on a recent archaeological find in Northern Germany available to read here.

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