Though the Vikings had been raiding throughout West Francia and the other Frankish Kingdoms for more than four decades, the plunder and occupation of Paris were seen as a sign that these Norsemen were more than just mere pirates: they were a fierce new political entity hell-bent on conquest and rule.
The Kingdom of the West Franks / West Francia
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 4th century CE, Western Europe was plunged into an era of political insecurity and uncertainty. The Franks were a group of Germanic peoples who established the Frankish Empire in the late 5th century CE, encompassing, at its greatest extent, huge areas of modern-day Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, and Spain.
Clovis I was first crowned "King of the Franks" in 496 CE and founded the "Merovingian Dynasty," which lasted until a conspiracy, with the consent of the Papacy and Frankish aristocracy, which saw Pepin the Short (son of the famous "Hammer," Charles Martel) establish the Carolingian Dynasty. Pepin’s son, which history remembers as "Charlemagne" (Charles the Great), had consolidated so much power he was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE. Charlemagne was thus the first Emperor of Rome, crowned in the West, since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in more than three centuries.
Charlemagne’s conquests would see the Frankish Empire reach its zenith by his death, in 814CE, stretching from the Pyrenees to the North Sea to Rome. Following Charlemagne's death, the Empire was fractured and divided by the Treaty of Verdun. This saw the Western rump (centered around Western France) become West Francia (Francia occidentalis), the Kingdom of the West Franks.
Viking raids since the late 8th century
The so-called "Viking Age" is said to have begun with a raid on Lindisfarne monastery in England in 793 CE. This raid marked a definitive turning point in Western European history following centuries of political insecurity, turmoil, and the vast migrations of peoples following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. By the late 8th century, Norsemen (known as Vikingr – "Vikings") set about large-scale raiding, conquests, and colonization, from the Volga to "Vinland" (North America) and the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
The realms and kingdoms of the Frankish people were situated at a crossroads in Europe – a short distance for the Viking longboats to sail from Scandinavia and on the journey to the Mediterranean Sea – the gateway to the riches of the Byzantine Empire spread throughout south-eastern Europe. The first instance of a Viking raid in the Frankish realms was in 799 CE. This led Charlemagne to tighten defenses along his northern perimeters, which were accessible by both the English Channel and the North Sea.
The first Viking raid up the Seine River took place in 810, but the defenses held, and the marauders were repelled easily. Throughout the next two decades, the Frankish Kingdom was rocked by the political instability and fracturing caused by the death of the unifying presence of Charlemagne. The Vikings that raided Frankish realms were mostly from Denmark – this not only meant shorter journeys to raid, but they were more privy to the inner machinations of their Frankish neighbors due to their geographical proximity.
The dynastic battles that followed Charlemagne’s death presented a situation that the Vikings exploited. Their raids became more frequent and pushed further into modern-day France. Significant raids took place at Antwerp (836 CE), Rouen (841 CE), and finally Nantes (842).
Their next target was to be a small city that was flourishing on the Ile de Cite on the Seine. The locals called it "Paris."
The Vikings arrived in Paris on March 29, 845 CE. Photo: The Viking Herald
Huge flotilla led by a mythical Viking warrior
Sometime in the early 840s CE, a Viking chieftain called "Reginherus" (or Ragnar) was awarded land in Flanders by the Frankish king, Charles the Bald. This was used as a forward post to then launch more raids by the Vikings, utilizing the Seine river. The Vikings raided as far as Rouen, but Charles the Bald was determined that the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis (the patron saint of the Frankish monarchy) would come under no harm.
A huge Frankish army was assembled on either side of the Seine in order to stop the Vikings from raiding any further up the Seine. However, dividing one’s army with a natural barrier, like a river, between the two halves is perhaps not the best tactical battlefield ploy. One half of the Frankish army was destroyed, and many prisoners hung as a warning to strike terror into the Frankish population. This last bastion of defense thwarted, Paris was essentially an open city.
According to the Norse sagas, the "Ragnar" who then led a huge flotilla of ships up the Seine to lay siege to Paris is Ragnar Lothbrok. However, many historians disagree on whether there is actually any historical accuracy to this.
The plunder and pillage of Paris
With the Frankish defense and army in tatters, the Vikings arrived in Paris on Easter Sunday, March 29, 845 CE. According to the Norse sagas, a huge flotilla of more than 120 ships carrying 5,000 warriors sailed up the Seine to the Île de la Cité. The Vikings then laid siege to the city before quickly overpowering Frankish defenses and plundering it.
According to Frankish legend, the Norsemen had prayed for success to Norse gods but were exposed to a new religion, Christianity. One of their Christian prisoners apparently convinced the Vikings to undergo a fast when the first signs of plague emerged. This act is supposed to have stopped the plague from further spreading among the pillaging and plundering Vikings.
With Charles the Bald facing pressure from abroad, civil disobedience, a conspiratorial nobility, and internal pressure, he eventually paid off the Vikings to stop their plunder. The amount has been historically recorded as 7,000 livres – which is just over 2.500 kilograms.
Viking withdrawal and aftermath
The ransom paid by Charles the Bald did lead to the Vikings stopping their rape of Paris. Charles had wanted them to withdraw to their lands in the northern Frankish realms, but the Vikings had other ideas. On their way back north, they pillaged and plundered several other Frankish cities, towns, villages, and abbeys.
This Viking siege of Paris was seen as a turning point in French history. Defenses against the Norsemen, including huge walls built around Paris, were stiffened and constructed over the next few years. The Vikings returned to raid in the 860s CE and launched their next large siege in 885 CE.
This siege lasted more than a year, but the defenses of Paris stood firm, and the siege was eventually lifted by the arrival of Frankish Emperor Charles the Fat and his army. The Vikings were paid off with more gold, but the defense of Paris was a turning point in Frankish, and later French history. Odo, Count of Paris, who could only muster a few hundred men to defend Paris against thousands of Vikings, would eventually be elected as the King of West Francia following the overthrow of Emperor Charles the Fat.
So on your next visit to Paris, as you are strolling around the Ile de la Cite, just remember that Vikings trod in your path more than a thousand years ago.
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