Sometime in the autumn of 885 `seven hundred high-prowed ships and very many smaller ones’ snaked up the Seine in a column that `extended for more than two leagues [10km or 6 miles] down river’, according to Abbo of the nearby Abbey of St-Germain-des-Pre’s, an eyewitness to the event. The young Benedictine monk also insisted that `the grim ones’ who manned those vessels numbered 40,000. And so began what was, perhaps, the most ambitious amphibious assault of the Viking onslaught: the 885-6 siege of Paris.
The Viking force which made its way up the Seine was composed of various elements of the so-called great army forced from England by Alfred’s defensive measures, plus other groups of raiders who had been operating in Flanders. The numbers conveyed by the awed Abbo in his epic Latin poem, Bella parisiacae Urbis (`Wars of the City of Paris’) were clearly literary embroidery to enhance the `divinely inspired’ deeds of the 200 or so defenders. Respected medieval military historian Carroll Gillmor has convincingly shown through quantitative methodology that the Viking fleet could have consisted of no more than 200 to 300 ships, probably the size of the Skuldelev 5 vessel (17.3m/57ft long by 2.5m/8ft wide by 0.5m/1ft 8in deep), each carrying a crew of about twenty-six – meaning the whole host was about 5,000 to 8,000 men at most. Actual totals were probably even smaller. That said, this incursion was the largest, most sustained Viking thrust into the heart of West Frankia of the era.
Ironically, the objective of this great Viking armada was not originally Paris itself but the rich upper Seine basin and Burgundy with its as yet unscathed monasteries and towns. When the Northmen rowed up the Seine in November 885 they managed to make it past the fortified bridge built by Charles the Bald at Pont-de-l’Arch, probably because it was inadequately guarded. After all, there was no major population centre in the vicinity. Paris, on the other hand, was a city of perhaps 5,000 inhabitants, located on the Île de la Cité which controlled two fortified bridges blocking the Seine: the Grand Pont extending to the right bank (north side) and the Petit Pont stretching across to the left bank (south side). This was why, according to Abbo, when the Vikings reached Paris in late November, their principal chieftain, Sigfrid, merely asked for passage. Hostilities were precipitated only when the city’s leading luminary, Bishop Gozlin, denied permission.
The Vikings concentrated their initial assault of 26 November on the Grand Pont on the right bank, probably because the tower guarding it remained un- finished. Abbo indicated that the Danes attacked the tower from their ships, but, unfinished or not, its foundation was stoutly constructed of stone and they were repulsed. During the night the defenders topped the tower with a wooden tier half as high again as the original structure. Undeterred, the besiegers battered the bastion the next day with the usual blizzard of `darts, stones, and javelins . . . hurled by ballistae and slingshots’. They even went at the base of the tower with `iron picks’, but Bishop Gozlin and Odo, count of Paris, had organized an effective resistance. The defenders showered their attackers with a scalding mixture of oil, wax and pitch `which burned the hair of the Danes; and made their skulls split open’.
Next, the Danes attempted to set the tower’s gate ablaze, but a sortie from the city led by two standard-bearers with banners `tinted golden with saffron’ like some early version of the Oriflamme (the royal battle standard of France) drove the attackers off. Odo’s brother, Robert the Strong, fell in the course of the battle, but the citizenry remained resolute. The tower was again repaired during the night. Realizing the siege would not be a swift one, the Scandinavians retired to the right bank where they constructed a fortified encampment of stone and earthworks not far from St-German-l’Auxerrois. From there they raided all around in an apparent effort to build up their supplies. Once this was done, they renewed the assault with vigour. For the next several weeks the Vikings tried every imaginable stratagem. They built several `roofed’ battering rams with `monstrous wheels’. They made `a thousand tents, held aloft by upright poles’ for deflecting arrows and scorching liquids while attacking the walls. They even fashioned grenades – `a thousand pots of molten lead’ – which they hurled over the city’s Roman walls with catapults. At one point the Danes formed three corps, one of which made a diversionary assault on the tower while the other two evidently attempted to ram the bridge in `painted ships’. None of it worked. The bridge and the tower held fast. Part of the problem was a dyke that the defenders had dug around the tower, preventing the Vikings from moving siege towers into position. Advancing as a testudo (a unit of warriors marching in close-order formation using their shields to protect them all around like `a tortoise’), the Vikings attempted to fill in the ditch with earth and whatever debris they could find, including livestock and the cadavers of dead captives.
The results were mixed and ultimately unsuccessful. According to another contemporary source, Regino of Prüm, the Vikings grew so frustrated that sometime before the end of the year they even considered abandoning the siege altogether. To bypass the fortified bridges, they attempted a complicated portage operation in which they either carried or dragged vessels on rollers (probably logs) from the area of today’s Pont d’Ie’na through the grounds of St-Germain-des-Pre’s to a point just east of the Île Saint-Louis – a distance of around 3km (2 miles). The Vikings might have been able to get some of their smaller vessels past the blockage in this manner so that their crews could forage the virginal upper Seine valley, but this solution was clearly impracticable for a fleet of 200 to 300 ships, many the size of the Skuldelev 5 or larger. Consequently, they must have realized that they had no choice but to remove the blockage.
In desperation, the Vikings culled out `three rowing vessels’, dragged them overland on the right bank and refloated them upstream of the city. Once these ships were `loaded full with forests of branches and mounds of leaves’ and set ablaze, the Danes then guided them by rope from the river bank to a position from where the westbound current would carry them into the Grand Pont. The venture failed spectacularly. The fireships hung up harmlessly on the stone bridgeheads, so that the defenders were able to douse the flames and appropriate the vessels intact. Ironically, nature did to the Petit Pont what the Vikings had repeatedly failed to accomplish on the Grand Pont. On the night of 6 February 886 the Seine, apparently swollen by rain, over? owed its banks, carrying away `the mid-section’ of the span. This, of course, isolated the wooden guard tower on the left bank so that those in the city could no longer reinforce their com- patriots in the tower, of whom there were only twelve. In the morning the Vikings were able to complete the encirclement of the wooden tower with their ships. `And then the Danes brought forward a wagon, piled high with dry hay,’ recounted Abbo. `They set it alight, and pushed it against the wretched tower.’ Forced out onto what was left of the bridge, the twelve defenders surrendered, only to be butchered.
The Vikings had evidently invested too much by this time to simply continue up river, so the siege of the city staggered miserably on. The besiegers persevered at the gates with their battering rams while the besieged fended them off with `hefty shafts of hard wood, each one pierced at the far end with a keen tooth of iron’ and mangonels which launched `massive stones’. In the spring Charles the Fat (the Carolingian Emperor and king of West Frankia) finally sent help in the form of Heinrich of Saxony, but the latter did little to lift the siege. He was killed when he rode heedlessly into a 3ft-deep stake-filled trench excavated around the Viking encampment. On 16 April plague which had broken out in the city claimed the life of Bishop Gozlin. Sigfrid had also apparently grown sick of the enterprise. It took a mere 60 pounds of silver from the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Pre’s to convince him and his contingent to depart. Others persisted in the assault, however, so Odo slipped past the Scandinavians to seek succour from the emperor.
That summer the Vikings made one last furious assault. `The mortal enemies of the city encircled its walls, so that it had to face constant attacks from all directions,’ testified Abbo, meaning the Vikings must have surrounded the city with their ships, given that it was located on an island in the middle of the Seine. In any event the effort fell short. Charles the Fat arrived, at long last, in October to relieve the city. His remedy was to ransom it from the Vikings for 700 pounds of silver and free passage to Burgundy, which the remaining Norse raiders then ravaged for the next three years – precisely what the fortified bridges of Paris had been designed to prevent. Such a resolution was widely regarded as spineless and caused Charles to be deposed the following autumn in favour of Count Odo of Paris, an ancestor to the Capetian kings of France.