The Viking Onslaught

The reign of Charlemagne, however, would witness the beginnings of the Viking Age, aiding in the deterioration of centralized government in the Frankish realms and the rise of what is often defined as Feudalism in Europe.

The Anglo-Saxons commonly called them ‘Danes’ or ‘heathens’. To the Franks, they were simply ‘the Northmen’. But history knows them as the Vikings, possibly derived from the West Norse word vikingr, meaning ‘one who fights at sea’ or viking, ‘warfare at sea’. Perhaps it was merely because many of the original Norse raiders of the British Isles came from Viken, the region west of Oslo Fjord. And no one knows for sure why they began their onslaught. There is, of course, no shortage of theories. Some postulate that the cause was population pressure in the rugged north country of Scandinavia, where arable land was at a premium (about 3 per cent in Norway). Others hypothesize that it was political consolidation that pushed the men from the north to seek their fortune in the south. Then again, perhaps it was simply the lure of portable wealth generated by the increased commerce of the more settled south which motivated these seaborne marauders to come. But, whatever the reason, come they did. In the last years of the eighth century Scandinavian men in their longships, driven by the boreal winds, began raiding the British Isles and the west coast of the Carolingian Empire.

At the start they targeted the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – ill-defended and isolated monasteries near waterways. The first recorded attack was in 793 on St Cuthbert’s revered priory at Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the coast of Northumbria. The Peterborough manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, like the Canterbury version, notes the event in near-apocalyptic tones:

Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: there were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January [actually 8 June] the raiding of the heathen men miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter.

Nor was the Northumbrian monastery which once served as home to the Venerable Bede spared. St Paul’s Priory in Jarrow on the Tyne river was plundered the very next year. The year after that St Columba’s monastery on the Isle of Iona in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland was sacked. The first known raid on Frankia came four years later in 799. The prey was St Philibert’s monastery on Noirmoutier, an island off Aquitaine at the mouth of the Loire. These attacks would win the attention of Charlemagne, but that would matter little in the long run. The raids would increase in frequency and magnitude as the men from the north grew bolder and more confident in their seamanship and fighting skills.

Their quick-strike capability stemmed from ships built svelte and swift. The best preserved examples of these are the Oseberg and the Gokstad ships currently in the Viking Ship Museum of Oslo, which were discovered in burial mounds in the Vestfold of Norway around the turn of the last century. Dating from about 820, the elegant Oseberg ship, at 21.5m (70ft 6in) long by 5.1m (16ft 9in) wide and 1.4m (4ft 7in) deep amidships, was more delicately built and thus suitable only for coastal navigation. But the Gokstad ship from around 900 was of sturdier construction with a higher freeboard (23m/75ft 6in in length by 5.2m/17ft in beam, and 1.8m/6ft in depth). It was clearly capable of seagoing voyages.  The eleventh-century Skuldelev 2 at the Viking Ship Museum of Roskilde in Denmark, however, is more representative of the warships of the era. Built in Dublin around 1060, it measured 30m (98ft 5in) long and 3.8m (12ft 6in) wide, boasting a length-to-beam ratio of almost 8:1. Propelled by up to sixty oarsmen and augmented by a single square sail, it could achieve speeds of 15 to 20 knots and its shallow draught (less than a metre) enabled it to be easily beached or rowed up-river deep inland. Clinker-built of oak with iron rivets, these vessels were also strong and durable enough to endure transoceanic voyages in all kinds of weather. Before all was said and done, the relentlessly acquisitive and inquisitive adventurers from Scandinavia would use these longships to make their mark from L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of modern Newfoundland to the Varangian Guard of Constantinople. Their descendants would dominate huge swathes of continental Europe and conquer England.

The Nature of the Onslaught from a Naval Perspective

The Viking onslaught was not a single monolithic invasion of the western world by a solitary and homogenous Scandinavian people intent on establishing their own empire. It began as indiscriminate raiding of the richer south by disparate groups of Norwegians, Danes and Svear (Swedes), operating mostly independently of one another, and it only gradually evolved into large-scale incursions which eventually became conquest and settlement. It was mercantile as well as military. The Svear who ventured down the great rivers of the continent such as the Dnieper and the Volga into European Russia and Byzantium were drawn chiefly by the allure of trade, not conquest. And the Norwegians who dared the giant swells of the North Atlantic to reach Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland did so not to pillage and plunder, but to find new lands upon which to farm and hunt. It was generally only the northern reaches of continental Europe and the British Isles which suffered the brunt of Viking violence. Moreover, what territories the men from the north claimed were won not by battle at sea but by martial means on land. The Scandinavians, famed as seafarers, used their ships principally to transport their warriors for terrestrial combat, not maritime warfare. They faced little opposition at sea. The Vikings were the greatest naval power in the north because they were virtually the only naval power in the north. Neither the Anglo-Saxons nor the Franks could muster fleets to engage them and, in fact, they hardly ever did. There were very few pitched naval battles, and those that did take place were fought almost exclusively between opposing Norse fleets much later in the era. The chief tactical advantages that the Vikings derived from their longships were surprise and mobility.

The Assault on Frankia (799–864)

Charlemagne, of course, must have been aware of and deeply concerned about the attacks on the coasts of his Carolingian Empire. After all, his court at Aachen was home to one of the great scholars of the era, Alcuin of York, who was even more melodramatic than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle about the sacking of Lindisfarne. In a letter to King Æthelred of Northumbria, he wrote:

We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly 350 years, and never before has such an atrocity been seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of a pagan people. Such a [sea] voyage was not thought possible. The church of Saint Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans – a place more sacred than any in Britain.

Charlemagne apparently got the message. ‘Charles’ final war was the one taken up against the Northmen who are called Danes,’ wrote the Carolingian court scholar Einhard. ‘First they operated as pirates, but then they raided the coasts of Gaul and Germany with larger fleets.’ In 800, the year after the attack on Noirmoutier, Charlemagne ordered the creation of a Channel fleet (probably based at Boulogne) and personally oversaw the start of its construction. He followed up that action with capitularies in 802 and 808 which added more ships.

A large assault on Frisia in 810 by more than 200 ships at the behest of Godfrid, king of the Danes, convinced Charlemagne that there was still more to be done. The ‘heathens’ had even begun to ride the rivers into the heartland. So he issued a third capitulary that year which not only called for the construction of still more vessels, but also commanded that they be stationed at the mouths of major rivers like the Rhine, the Loire, the Seine, the Scheldt and the Garonne. In addition, fortifications were built at key ports and a chain of warning beacons was strung along the north shores of the empire. Einhard summed up the system nicely in the Vita Karoli Magni (‘Life of Charles the Great’):

He constructed a fleet for use against the Northmen. Ships were built for this purpose near the rivers that flow from Gaul and Germany into the North Sea. Since the Northmen were constantly raiding and ravaging the coasts of Gaul and Germany, fortifications and guards were set up at all the ports and at the mouth of every river that seemed large enough to accommodate ships. With such fortifications he stopped the enemy from being able to come and go freely.

By and large these precautions worked. The Carolingian coastal fleet never actually engaged the raiders, but it was not necessary. ‘Charlemagne’s decision to concentrate the defences on the river mouths shows complete mastery of the strategic and tactical situation,’ adjudged Haywood. It enabled the Franks to effectively discourage access to their hinterlands and hinder escape when penetration was successful. The primary limitation was the difficulty of manning such a system without a large standing army. Recruiting men for tedious guard and garrison duty without the lure of plunder must have been a prodigious challenge, even for Charlemagne. That said, his coastal defence scheme provided enough deterrence to persuade the Northmen to go elsewhere – and go elsewhere they did. They attacked Britain and Ireland instead, leaving the Frankish Empire alone for the most part. There were almost no recorded raids for the remainder of Charlemagne’s reign. It was only after his death in 814 that the seaborne marauders from Scandinavia chose to try the Carolingian coast again. A Viking flotilla of thirteen vessels attempted to breach the defences of Frisia in 820 but was rebuffed. It then moved down the coast to the Seine estuary but enjoyed no greater success. It was not until it reached the shores of Aquitaine that it was able to win any booty.

As time wore on, the difficulty of motivating men to maintain the coastal watch system increased. Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious, did his best to hold the line, but inevitably it began to break down. Breaches became more frequent and more troubling. Louis’ sons (Lothar, Louis the German and Charles the Bald) revolted and briefly deposed him in 833, providing Danish raiders with a golden opportunity. In 834 they rowed up the Rhine and sacked the prosperous Frisian trading town of Dorestad. Louis the Pious regained his throne that same year, but the Danes kept coming. They despoiled Dorestad annually until 837. Louis did not sit idle while all this was happening. He ordered the coastal defences strengthened in 835 and 837, inspecting them himself and ordering a fleet equipped. But the floodgates were finally flung wide open when Louis died in 840. Lothar, Louis the German and Charles the Bald were too distracted by their nasty succession dispute to counter the Viking assault.

In fact, the internecine conflict among the royal brethren encouraged a renewed round of incursions, some abetted by one brother against the others. In 841 Lothar granted the Danish pirate chieftain Harold Klak the island of Welcheren at the mouth of the Scheldt, Rhine and Maas rivers, in effect handing Frisia over to Viking control. Another group of Norse marauders ravaged Rouen and the nearby Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontenelle that same year. The port of Quentovic, just south of Boulogne, was next in 842 and the following year it was the turn of Nantes on the Loire. In each case the raiders spared only those structures they were paid in silver to spare. In the case of Nantes, the attack was timed to coincide with the feast of St John on 24 June so that there would be plenty of rich merchants for ransom. The three warring siblings formally reconciled to a partitioning of the empire a month later in July 843 at Verdun: Louis the German was allotted East Frankia, Lothar the Middle and Charles the Bald the West. But the agreement did little to allay Viking attacks on the empire.

The lands in the West controlled by Charles the Bald bore the brunt of these incursions, which began to take on an ominous permanence. According to the contemporary Annals of St-Bertin, the Northmen who looted the Loire in 843 ‘landed on a certain island [Noirmoutier, no doubt], brought their households over from the mainland, and decided to winter there in something like a permanent settlement’. Viking tactics had obviously evolved from hit-and-run raiding to establishing bases on river islands and wintering over. ‘There would be Northmen on the lower Loire until the close of the century and beyond,’ observed noted Carolingian scholar Janet Nelson. Moreover, it was no longer primarily just Danes who despoiled Frankia, but Vikings of various Scandinavian origins. Aquitainian sources describe the Northmen who sacked Nantes as Westfaldingi, i.e., from west of Oslo Fjord and thus of Norwegian extraction.

It was the Seine, however, which suffered the most serious infestation of Scandinavian invaders. In March 845 a Viking chieftain by the name of Ragnar (believed to be the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok of the Norse sagas and a king of the Danes) led a 120-ship fleet up the Seine all the way to Paris and on Easter Sunday plundered the Ile de la Cité itself. Only the payment of 7,000 pounds of silver from the coffers of Charles the Bald induced the Vikings to withdraw. But eventually not even extorted largesse could get them to leave. By the mid-850s they had set up bases on the islands of Jeufosse and Oissel (between Rouen and Paris) from which they raided even further up the Seine. Paris was sacked in 856 and 857 from Jeufosse, for example. Nor were the Garonne and Dordogne immune from their attentions. In 844 a particularly audacious Viking expedition of around 150 ships sailed up the Garonne all the way to Toulouse. It then backed down the river to attack Asturias (northwestern Spain), before rounding Cape Finisterre to loot the locality of Lisbon. These raiders even had the temerity to row up the Guadalquivir river and ravage the environs of Seville before Abd al-Rahman II, the Umayyad emir of Cordoba, employed a form of ‘Greek fire’ to crush them in a naval battle at Talayata (adjacent to the city), costing them thirty ships and over a thousand men. Another group besieged Bordeaux in 848 until Charles chased them off and in the same year wasted the township of Melle, home to an imperial mint. Périgueux was pillaged next.

Even the Rhône was raided. ‘Danish pirates made a long sea voyage, sailed through the straits between Spain and Africa and then up the Rhône,’ reported the Annals of St-Bertin for the year 859. ‘They ravaged some civitates [‘towns’] and monasteries and made their base on an island called the Camargue.’ This same Viking fleet, consisting of sixty-two ships led by Hasting and Björn Ironside (purportedly the sons of the fabled Ragnar Lodbrok), attacked Arles and ravaged the Rhône as far as Valence the following year. They were even reported to have plundered Pisa and Luna on the Tuscan coast. The entire adventure, extolled in several contemporary accounts – some quite fantastic – was said to have lasted over three years and included attacks on Seville and Algeciras in Andalusia, Cabo de Tres Forcas in Moorish North Africa, Narbonne in Roussillon and Pamplona in Navarre. A monk of Noirmoutier named Ermentarius gave a fairly full account of the calamity inflicted upon the continent up until that time:

The number of ships grows: the endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase. Everywhere the Christians are victims of massacres, burnings, plunderings: the Vikings conquer all in their path, and no one resists them: they seize Bordeaux, Périgueux, Limoges, Angoulême and Toulouse. Angers, Tours and Orléans are annihilated and an innumerable fleet sails up the Seine and the evil grows in the whole region. Rouen is laid waste, plundered and burned: Paris, Beauvais and Meaux taken, Melun’s strong fortress levelled to the ground, Chartres occupied, Evreux and Bayeux plundered, and every town besieged.

Besides basing themselves on river islands, the Vikings employed a number of artifices to achieve their ends. They attacked when least expected: Quentovic was surprised with a dawn raid; Bordeaux was overrun at night; and Tours, like Nantes, was taken during a holy festival. They increased their range and enhanced surprise by using horses: they rode through the night to stun the Abbey of St Denis at dawn on Easter Sunday, 857. They also destroyed bridges and Frankish ships to stymie pursuit. Finally, they intrigued with Viking chieftains supposedly allied with Carolingians in order to have their way in border regions like Frisia. A huge fleet of reportedly some 600 ships sacked Hamburg in 845. Dorestad was devastated in 846, 847, 857 and again in 863.

For his part, Charles the Bald attempted every available stratagem to stem the flow. First of all, he tried to buy them off. In addition to ransoming Paris in 845, he paid the exorbitant sum of 686 pounds of gold and 3,250 pounds of silver to liberate Abbot Louis of St Denis in 858, for instance. Tribute, of course, bought only a temporary respite and only with specific bands of Vikings – other groups of Scandinavian raiders demanded their share as well. So Charles also attempted to employ the sword. In 858 or 859 he besieged a large troop of Danes on Oissel Island in the Seine. When that effort failed, Charles even resorted in 861 to hiring another Viking leader, a certain Weland, who had been operating in the Somme with 200 ships, to renew the siege of the Oissel Island Vikings for 5,000 pounds of silver. After an additional sixty Viking ships joined the siege, the Oissel Danes finally paid 6,000 pounds in gold and silver, so that they would be permitted to sail out to sea. Perhaps his most effective tactic was the fortification of key bridges. When yet another Norse fleet marauded up the Marne in 862, Charles fortified the bridge at Trilbardou (on the Marne east of Paris), trapping the Vikings, and deployed his troops along the banks to prevent them from foraging. The leaders sued for terms and agreed to withdraw. Shortly afterwards, he began the construction of an additional fortified bridge at Pont-de-l’Arch, on the Seine upstream from Rouen, not far from Pîtres. And in July 864 he issued the royal Edict of Pîtres which called for the fortification of bridges over rivers throughout the realm and prohibited the sale of horses to the Northmen under penalty of death. But still the longships and their Viking masters kept coming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.