The Siege of Paris: City Under Fire

The Siege of Paris in 845 AD

In 845, the Viking invasion of West Francia culminated in the Siege of Paris, a key moment in medieval history.

The Viking Forces were led by a Norse chieftain named Reginherus, or Ragnar, the Viking forces numbered in the thousands and arrived in the Seine on 120 ships. In response to the Viking invasion, Frankish king Charles the Bald assembled a smaller army, but they were no match for the seasoned Viking warriors.

The Vikings defeated half of the Frankish army and reached Paris in March of 845, during Easter. The city was plundered and occupied by the Viking forces. Charles the Bald ultimately paid a ransom of 7,000 French livres in gold and silver to the Vikings, who then withdrew from the city.

Overall, the Siege of Paris in 845 was a pivotal moment in medieval history, marking the brutal clash of two cultures and the triumph of the Vikings over the Franks. While the Viking invasion ultimately failed, it left an enduring legacy that can still be felt in modern-day France and beyond.

Viking Raids on the Frankish Empire

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Viking Siege of Paris The Longships raid the Seine, AD 885–86 by Si Sheppard
Viking Siege of Paris The Longships raid the Seine, AD 885–86 by Si Sheppard
Viking Warrior vs Frankish Warrior Francia 799–911 by Noah Tetzner
Viking Warrior vs Frankish Warrior Francia 799–911 by Noah Tetzner
The Defence System’s Success and Failure

The Frankish Empire’s first encounter with Viking raiders in 799 marked the beginning of a long and tumultuous period of Viking raids on the continent. While the exact details of this first attack are unclear, it is known that the Vikings targeted the island of Noirmoutier off the coast of modern-day France.

Ten years later, in 810, Charlemagne, the Emperor of the Frankish Empire, created a defence system along the northern coast in response to the threat posed by Viking raids. The defence system included the construction of coastal forts and watchtowers, as well as the establishment of a naval fleet to patrol the coastline.

Despite these measures, the Viking raids on the Frankish Empire continued, and in 820, a fleet of Viking raiders attempted an attack at the mouth of the Seine. However, the Frankish defence system proved successful in repulsing the attack, although it is worth noting that this was after Charlemagne’s death.

Despite this initial success, the Frankish defence system was ultimately unable to withstand the renewed attacks of Danish Vikings in Frisia and Dorestad in 834. This failure marked a significant turning point in the Viking raids on the continent, as it signaled the beginning of systematic raiding in the region.

The failure of the Frankish defence system can be attributed to a number of factors, including the relative novelty of Viking tactics and the limited resources available to the Frankish Empire. In addition, the Viking raiders were able to exploit weaknesses in the Frankish defence system, such as gaps in the coastal forts and the lack of coordination between different regions.

Systematic Raiding and Political Motivations

The Viking raids on the Frankish Empire were not only characterized by sporadic attacks, but they also involved a phase of systematic raiding that started in the mid-830s. This shift in strategy was accompanied by political motivations that are worth examining.

Systematic Raiding: What it Entails

Systematic raiding was a shift in the Viking modus operandi. Instead of sporadic raids, Viking raiders began to plan and coordinate their attacks. This approach allowed them to achieve more significant gains while minimizing losses. Systematic raiding also involved setting up permanent bases in areas they conquered, which led to the creation of Viking settlements.

Political Motivations: The Role of Scandinavian Nobility

The Viking raids on the Frankish Empire were often part of struggles among Scandinavian nobility for power and status. The Viking leaders were motivated by a desire to expand their territories and establish dominance over rival Viking groups.

Additionally, Viking raids provided an opportunity for ambitious Viking chieftains to accumulate wealth and prestige. The spoils of successful raids were often distributed among the raiders, with the most successful raiders receiving the largest shares. This system created competition among Viking leaders to carry out more successful raids, which led to more aggressive and organized raiding.

The Impact of Systematic Raiding and Political Motivations

The shift towards systematic raiding and political motivations had a significant impact on the Frankish Empire. The Viking raids became more frequent and more destructive, causing widespread panic among the Frankish population. The creation of Viking settlements also posed a threat to the stability of the Frankish Empire, as these settlements could serve as a base for further Viking attacks.

The Danes’ Advantage and Large-Scale Raids

Like other nations adjacent to the Franks, the Danes were well-informed about the political situation in France. In the 830s and early 840s, they took advantage of the Frankish civil wars. Large raids took place in Antwerp and Noirmoutier in 836, in Rouen (on the Seine) in 841, and in Quentovic and Nantes in 842.

The Danes' Advantage and Large-Scale Raids

The Danes’ Strategic Advantage

Like other nations neighboring the Franks, the Danes had a good understanding of the political situation in France. This understanding gave them a strategic advantage in determining when to launch their attacks. In the 830s and early 840s, the Frankish Empire was undergoing a series of civil wars that weakened its ability to defend against external threats. The Danes took advantage of this situation to launch their raids.

Large-Scale Raids

The Viking raids that occurred in the mid to late 830s were different from the earlier, smaller-scale raids. The Vikings began to launch large-scale attacks that targeted major Frankish cities and ports. These raids were meant to weaken the Frankish Empire by disrupting its economy and trade routes, as well as by sacking its cities and towns.

Antwerp Raid (836)

In 836, the Vikings launched a major raid on the city of Antwerp, which was an important trading hub for the Frankish Empire. The Viking raiders sacked the city, looting its wealth and burning its buildings. The raid on Antwerp had a significant impact on the Frankish economy, as it disrupted trade and commerce in the region.

Noirmoutier Raid (836)

Later that same year, the Vikings launched another major raid on the island of Noirmoutier, located off the coast of modern-day France. The Vikings attacked the island’s monastery and town, killing many of its inhabitants and taking others as slaves. The raid on Noirmoutier was another blow to the Frankish Empire, as the island was an important religious and cultural center.

Rouen Raid (841)

In 841, the Vikings launched a raid on the city of Rouen, located on the Seine River. The Viking raiders sacked the city, destroying its buildings and looting its wealth. The raid on Rouen was particularly significant because it showed the Vikings’ ability to penetrate deep into the heart of the Frankish Empire.

Quentovic and Nantes Raids (842)

In 842, the Vikings launched raids on the cities of Quentovic and Nantes. These raids were part of a larger Viking campaign that targeted Frankish cities and towns along the Atlantic coast. The raids were successful, and the Vikings were able to capture a significant amount of wealth and resources.

The Viking Invasion of the Seine

Reginherus and Charles the Bald

In March 845, a fleet of 120 Viking ships led by the chieftain Reginherus, or Ragnar Lodbrok, entered the Seine. The fleet carried more than 5,000 men, ready to plunder and conquer. Before his invasion of the Seine, Reginherus had been awarded land in Turholt, Flanders, by Charles the Bald. However, he lost both the land and the king’s favor. The Viking raid on Rouen in 845 was in response to Charles’s betrayal.

West façade of Saint-Denis

West façade of Saint-Denis

Charles the Bald’s Response

In response to the Viking invasion of the Seine in 845, Charles the Bald, king of the Franks, took decisive action to protect the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris. The royal Abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris was a significant symbol of the Frankish empire. It was the burial place of many of the Frankish kings and was considered a place of great spiritual importance. Charles knew that if the Vikings were able to destroy the abbey, it would be a devastating blow to the Frankish empire and would undermine his authority as king.

The Effectiveness of Charles’s Strategy

After assembling his army, Charles the Bald positioned them on either side of the Seine River to defend against the Viking invasion. The Vikings, however, were not intimidated by the Frankish army and launched an attack.

The battle was fierce, and one of the divisions of the smaller Frankish army was defeated. The Vikings were able to take 111 men as prisoners, and it is said that they were selected because they were the bravest among the Frankish soldiers.

The Viking Ritual

The Vikings did not simply kill their prisoners. Instead, they hung them on an island in the Seine as a form of ritual sacrifice to Odin, the Norse god of war and death. This was a common practice among the Vikings, who believed that the sacrifice of brave warriors would honor their god and ensure victory in future battles.

The hanging of the prisoners also served as a warning to the remaining Frankish forces. The Vikings wanted to instill fear in their enemies and send a message that they were not to be underestimated. The hanging of the prisoners on the island in the Seine was a brutal and graphic display of Viking power. The remaining Frankish forces were terrified and demoralized, and it is said that some of them even fled in panic.

The Viking Siege of Paris

Count Odo defends Paris against the Norsemen, romantic painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz (1837), Galerie des Batailles

Count Odo defends Paris against the Norsemen, romantic painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz (1837), Galerie des Batailles

On Easter Sunday, 29 March, the Vikings arrived in Paris and launched an attack. They were able to enter the city and pillage it, causing great destruction and chaos. The Frankish defense was weak, and they were unable to stop the Viking invasion.

The Plague Outbreak

During the siege, a plague broke out in the Viking camp. The Norse warriors had been exposed to the Christian religion and were influenced by the teachings of one of their Christian prisoners. Acting on the advice of the prisoner, the Vikings prayed to their gods and also undertook a fast. Miraculously, the plague subsided, and the Vikings were able to continue their siege of Paris.

The Ransom Payment

After weeks of being unable to repel the Viking invasion, Charles the Bald decided to pay the Vikings a ransom of 7,000 livres of silver and gold to withdraw their forces. This amounted to approximately 2,570 kg (5,670 lb) of precious metals. The payment was seen as a substantial sum, and it may have been regarded as compensation for the earlier loss of land to Charles by the Vikings.

The Danegeld

The payment made by Charles the Bald was the first of a total of thirteen payments of Danegeld made to Viking raiders by the Franks. The term “Danegeld” was not expressly known to have been used at this point. The Franks saw the payment as a way to buy time and possibly peace from further Viking raids, at least in the near future.

Although Charles the Bald was heavily criticized for his decision to pay the Vikings, he had other pressing issues to deal with at the time. This included disputes with his brothers, regional revolts, and pressure from abroad. Given the difficulties he faced, paying off the Vikings was seen as a strategic move to buy time and avoid further conflict.

Despite agreeing to withdraw from Paris, the Vikings continued to pillage several sites along the coast during their return voyage, including the Abbey of Saint Bertin. The Viking invasion of Paris was a significant event in their history, marking their expansion into France and demonstrating their military prowess. For the Franks, it was a devastating defeat that exposed their vulnerability to Viking attacks.

The Aftermath

The Viking Attack on Hamburg

In the same year as the Viking siege of Paris, a Viking fleet also sacked Hamburg, which had been recently elevated to an archbishopric by Pope Gregory IV in 831. The city had been established by Louis the Pious to oversee the Saxon territory and to support the introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia. The Viking attack on Hamburg was another significant blow to the Frankish empire, and King Louis the German responded by sending a diplomatic mission to the court of Horik, the Danish king.

The Diplomatic Mission

King Louis the German’s diplomatic mission was headed by Count Cobbo, one of two court counts. The mission was sent to demand that Horik submits to Frankish overlordship and pay reparations for the invasion. Horik eventually agreed to the terms and requested a peace treaty with Louis, promising to return the treasure and captives from the raid. Horik’s agreement was likely motivated by a desire to secure the border with Saxony, as he faced a conflict with King Olof of Sweden and domestic struggles.

Ragnar’s Return and the Siege of Paris

Ragnar, one of the Viking chieftains who had attacked Paris, returned home to King Horik after the siege. He boasted about the ease with which he had conquered Paris and showed off the gold and silver he had acquired. However, according to a story originating from a member of Cobbo’s embassy, Ragnar collapsed crying while recounting that the only resistance he had met was from the long-deceased Saint Germain of Paris. Several of Ragnar’s men died shortly after, and King Horik ordered the execution of the survivors and the release of his Christian captives.

This event was significant, as it led to Horik receiving Archbishop Ansgar, “Apostle of the North”, on friendly terms in his own kingdom. The Vikings continued to attack Paris in the 860s, securing loot or ransom. However, the siege of Paris in 885-86 was a turning point in the history of France, as the city’s walls held against the Vikings’ greatest attacking force.

The Synod of Paris

The Viking siege of Paris also affected the Synod of Paris, which was forced to convene at Meaux due to the siege. The synod eventually relocated to Paris after the siege was lifted. The siege of Paris was a significant event in the history of France, marking the first successful defense against a Viking attack and demonstrating the strength of the city’s walls.

Documentary

Source: (HistoryMedieval, 2024)

Featured Image

The siege of Paris in 845

The siege of Paris in 845

The 19th century engraving of the Siege of Paris in 845 by the Vikings is a stunning and evocative work of art that captures the drama and chaos of this pivotal moment in history. The engraving depicts the Viking leader, Ragnar Lodbrok, at the head of his fierce warriors as they lay siege to the city, with the iconic towers of Notre-Dame looming in the background.

The attention to detail in the engraving is remarkable, with every figure, weapon, and building rendered with precision and skill. The artist uses a range of shading and cross-hatching techniques to create depth and texture, lending the image a sense of realism and urgency.

At the same time, the engraving also has a certain romantic quality, with the Vikings depicted as noble and heroic figures despite their brutal tactics. This tension between the beauty and violence of the scene is part of what makes the engraving so compelling and enduring.

Overall, the 19th century engraving of the Siege of Paris in 845 by the Vikings is a remarkable work of art that captures the drama and complexity of this pivotal moment in history. Its striking imagery and meticulous detail make it a must-see for anyone interested in the art and history of the period.

Sources

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, February 19). Siege of Paris (845). Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Paris_(845)

  • “ALAS, NAKED THEY UNDERWENT THE SAVAGE FOLK’S SWORD!” HEROISM IN ABBO OF SAINT-GERMAIN’S WARS OF THE CITY OF PARIS. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2023, from https://trivent-publishing.eu/img/cms/3-%20PART%203-%20Heroism%20in%20Abbo%20of%20Saint-Germain%E2%80%99s%20Wars%20of%20the%20City%20of%20Paris.pdf

  • Bivans, S. (2017, May 12). The Viking Historian: the Siege of Paris and Abbo the Monk. Medium; Medium. https://stevebivans.medium.com/the-viking-historian-the-siege-of-paris-and-abbo-the-monk-7d2d393ba72a‌

  • A source book of mediæval history : documents illustrative of European life and institutions from the German invasion to the renaissance : Ogg, Frederic Austin, 1878-1951 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. (2014). Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/sourcebookofmedi00oggfrich/page/n3/mode/2up?view=theater

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