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The wild life of the Vikings..........

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The Vikings and the Franks

The Franks commanded south of the British Channel. The core of their empire was the original Frankish land at the lower reach of the Rhine, and the north- eastern part of present day France. From there the Carolingian rulers extended their might towards the west as far as the sea, towards the south as far as the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, towards the east far into southern Germany.


Emperor Charles the Great

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Charles the Great (Charlemagne) ruled from 768 – 814. The power of the Franks peaked during his rule. He extended his empire in all directions. He crossed the Pyrenees, took most of Italy, and subjugated all the Germanic tribes, including the up to then independent Saxons. No ruler in Christian Western Europe had ever achieved such power since the days of the Roman Empire. With some right he could demand to be considered the heir of the Roman emperor, and on Christmas Day in the year 800 the Pope placed the Imperial Crown on his head in St. Peter’s Church.


Things declined after the death of Charlemagne. His son Louis the Pious was not up to keeping the peace. Then Louis’s three sons fought each other and ended up dividing the Empire into three parts: France, Italy, and Germany (which at first was called East Franken). Disintegration continued, especially in France. The counts that until then had been the provosts of the King, usurped the royal power and each took his own county. The only thing that united the country was the oath the mightiest nobles had sworn to the King when they became his vassals.

These vassals were now the true rulers, each of their estates a kingdom. To defend themselves they had cavalries. The coasts lay open, and nobody thought that the sea could pave the way for enemies, and that the rivers could be the roads that led the enemy far into the bowels of the countries.

Charlemagne had already clashed with the Danes. When he subdued the Saxon peasants in bloody battles at the Weser and the Elbe by means of swords, axes, and forced christenings, the Saxon chiefs sought shelter and help with the Danes. When he had finished his subjugation and had reached as far as the border of Holstein, he became the neighbour of the Danish King Godfred, who took his precautions. He built a defensive earthwork, probably where the Danevirke is situated and made ready for war. But Godfred was killed before it all started.

Peace was established, and the boundaries between the kingdoms of the Franks and the Danes were established along the banks of the Eider.

Earlier on Scandinavian merchants and warriors had had some connection with Friesland and the Frankish Empire. But now the floodgates seemed to open. Throughout the 10th century the rivers were teeming with dragon ships heading for the Frankish coasts and they plundered churches and monasteries on their way. They soon learned when strife made a country weak, and they fared particularly well when thaws raised the water level of rivers and estuaries.

In 845 the Danish King Horik I, son of Godfred, sent a fleet of 600 ships up the Elbe. They conquered Hamburg, ravaged the town and burned down its church, the relics of which Ansgar just managed to save. In March of the same year the Vikings of Ragnar Lodbrog sailed up the Seine and plundered Paris. A few years later – in 851 - the Vikings wintered in the area around the Seine and also at Thanet. Along the estuaries of the Rhine, the Seine, the Loire, and the Garonne Viking settlements were established.

Several times the Normans attacked and ravaged Paris. Their most renowned attack, however, was the one they failed in 885. Some episodes from these fights have taught us a lot about Norman warfare.

Paris was situated on an island in the Seine. Footbridges to the northern and southern side of the river connected the island to the mainland where two fortification towers protected the inhabitants from enemy attacks. Only insignificant communities could be found on the mainland, and they would be given up in case of attacks. The Vikings arrived late in 885 and demanded a free passage to the interior parts of the country, but they were refused, and had to fight their way through.

The Seine was full of ships as far as two miles from the city, 700 large boats beside innumerable small ones. Contemporary sources estimated that as many as 30-40.000 Vikings had gathered. King Sigfred was their leader. When their first assault had been repulsed, they built a permanent camp on the eastern bank of the Seine with entrenchments of earth and rocks. From here they roamed on horse and foot, killed wives in front of husbands, and children in front of parents while laying up stores of food for the winter. At the same time they got hold of better tools. They began building large carriages, each with 16 wheels, and supplied them with roofs resting on heavy oak beams. Each carriage could hold 60 Vikings in coats of mail. Battering rams for the walls could then be used under cover of the roofs. But the Franks prevented this by shooting down the craftsmen building the carriages. Instead they manufactured about 4000 covers made of ox-hides that had been stretched. Each cover could hold between 4-6 men. And in this way protected as if by an enormous roof of shields the army advanced against the northern tower and rammed its walls, while the Franks let heavy beams spiked with iron rain upon them, and the catapults slung rocks so large that the covers were wrecked, and so were the giants beneath them. Then the Vikings loaded three ships with tree trunks, set them afire, and guided them with the current towards the bridge. In Paris the sight of these burning ships caused terrible despair, whereas the Normans shouted with joy. However, the low-lying footbridge stopped the ships, and the Franks succeeded in sinking them.

Later on the swollen river caused the southern bridge to disappear one night. The Vikings overpowered the people manning the tower, but they did not succeed in taking the city for an East Frankish army came to the rescue. When the Vikings were in difficulties, they avoided open battle and returned to their entrenched camp waiting for the relieving force to retire.

Later on another army came to attack them. During the fight the Vikings baited a trap for their leader, Count Henry, and got him to advance on land across some trenches they had built and then hidden by means of straw and branches. The Count’s horse had a fall, and the Vikings cut him down. In this way the fighting went on for many months. When at last the Vikings attempted a decisive assault on the walls of Paris, an auxiliary force so immense arrived that the Vikings had to yield their ground.

Finally Emperor Charles the Fat arrived with his large army and entered the city. The Emperor now granted the impaired Norman army what the Parisians had refused them: they were allowed to winter in Burgundy, far north of Paris, and were to be granted 770 pounds of silver in ransom money from the city. The Parisians felt indignant at this ignominious peace and would not allow the Vikings to sail past their city, so they had to pull their ships 2000 feet over land before putting them back into the river north of Paris.

In the following years they plundered various counties in France with varying success.

Some of the most fabled expeditions reached as far south as the Mediterranean. The first attested expedition to Spain took place in 844. Here Seville was conquered amongst other places, but the Moors soon drove the Vikings off. The chiefs Björn Ironside and Hastein led the most famous expedition. They set out from Loire in 859 with 62 ships and returned three years later after having visited many places, among them Spain, North Africa, the Rhone valley, and Italy. They had lost much of their loot and many prisoners on their way back, but the rumours of their feats reached far and wide. They figure in St Bertin’s contemporary annals, in Arabic sources, and in late Norman and Scandinavian legends.

In his book on the Norman emperors Dudo writes that with great cunning two chiefs captured the small town of Luna in northern Italy believing that it was Rome. The story is amusing, but it is not likely that such skilled Vikings could be so mistaken. However, it is known that they had wintered in La Camargue in the Rhone valley and from there they had ravaged and plundered the surrounding countries, and in Italy they had sacked both Pisa and other towns, among them perhaps Luna, which is situated only 60 kilometres south of Pisa.      Privacy. ©   2017-21