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VIKING - 26: RAIDS ON FRANKIA Before Normandy's Rise to a Dukedom

Updated on July 23, 2017

"Feast-giver, your guest is here! Where shall he sit? Tempers will shorten if he is put in a far corner. Do not make him test your mettle".


Burn, burn! The prize is there for the taking - no king can guard every river or creek, no army spread itself out so thin...

The Vikings probably invented the barbecue, they would have developed a taste for charred meat over the years of raiding in Frankia
The Vikings probably invented the barbecue, they would have developed a taste for charred meat over the years of raiding in Frankia
Viking fleets signalled disaster between the Low Countries and the Loire on the coast of Western Europe between the 9th-11th Centuries
Viking fleets signalled disaster between the Low Countries and the Loire on the coast of Western Europe between the 9th-11th Centuries
The Low Countries, open waterways, easy access to trade routes for merchants... And Vikings
The Low Countries, open waterways, easy access to trade routes for merchants... And Vikings
Paris in the early middle ages. The city was raided several times (the map was created by the Danes)
Paris in the early middle ages. The city was raided several times (the map was created by the Danes)
Frankish riverways in the west
Frankish riverways in the west
Frankia and its dependencies in Carolingian times
Frankia and its dependencies in Carolingian times
Modern France and her neighbours
Modern France and her neighbours

The lands of the Franks relate roughly to modern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany west of the Rhine.

Frankia was raided initially at the very end of the 8th Century. In response Charles the Great (Charlemagne) created coastal watches and posted fleets on major river-mouths.

Aside from more exposed coastal regions like Frisia, there were no serious Viking incursions until after the first quarter of the 9th Century, when internecine struggles between the emperor Louis 'the Pious' and his sons undermined imperial authority. With it went the earlier Carolingian coastal watch strength. In AD842 the Norsemen had a permanent fortress on the island of Noirmoutier near the mouth of the Loire. Thereafter they presented a serious threat to Frankish security for the next seventy years.

Chief among the areas of central Frankia were the valleys of the Seine and Loire. Further north Flanders, Frisia and the Rhine delta were under threat due to the navigability of the waterways, allowing the Norsemen unlimited access to trade routes. Sidelined by their petty dynastic squabbles, Frankia's Carolingian magnates were seldom able to concentrate on Viking activities, often being forced to buy them off. Towns were left open to the raiders because the likes of Charles 'the Bald' refused them permission to build effective defences lest they be turned into centres of rebellion by his vassals. Some of these vassals, like Pepin of Aquitaine for instance, welcomed the Norsemen as allies. Viking raiding reached a peak between AD879-892, when the Rhineland, the Ardennes mountains, Flanders and the Seine valley were regularly ravaged.

Nevertheless the Franks were gaining in experience against Norse attacks from both Danish and West Norse (Norwegian) Viking armies. Odo of West Frankia (modern France) and Arnulf of Carinthia who ruled over East Frankia (Rhineland, Saarland, Alsace and Lorraine) and actively sought to bring the raiders to pitched battles. They built fortresses and town walls across the region between the Seine and the Rhine.

Regularly coming across these obstacles wherever they raided - and following harsh famine over the winter of AD891-2 - the main Viking army withdrew to Aengla Land (England) in AD892 where they fared no better. The worst phase of Viking attacks on Frankia were over, although armies were still based at the mouths of the Seine and the Loire.

Integration of the Seine Vikings was embarked upon when their leader, the West Norse Hrolf 'the Ganger' (also known as Rollo and Goengu Hrolf) was given the title of Count of Rouen by Charles 'the Simple' (who belied his nickname) in AD911. Normandy/Normande raised problems of its own, but were limited to dynastic family rucks already known to the Frankish kings. The threat of the Vikings on the Loire was raised by the Bretons' capture of their base at Nantes in AD937. Viking raids in Frankish territory petered out in the early 11th Century.

The Norsemen were thought to have caused the break-up of the Carolingian Empire, but the root was already there, leading to dynastic disasters after the death of Charles 'the Great'. The Vikings certainly gained from their weaknesses, but they were not answerable for them. Likewise the Carolingian dynastic branches did not see the Northmen as anywhere near the threat they faced from their cousins or brothers. The Franks themselves did not see their rulers' petty squabbles as important, realising instead that the counter-measures they came up with were useless - at best craven. Effectively, by exposing the weakness of royal power the Vikings brought on its fall. The single most important issue of Viking involvement in Frankia was the founding of a duchy, as Normandy eventually became.

Like other regions of Western Europe, Frankish monasteries and the people within them were hard-hit by Viking raiding. Many - near the coast and main rivers - were abandoned. The monasteries were the main cultural hubs of Mediaeval Europe. A renewal of learning fostered by Charles 'the Great', the Carolingian Renaissance - faltered before the end of the 9th Century. Great economic damage would also have been suffered from plundering both in town and country. Wooden buildings could easily be replaced, the fertility of soil would not be harmed but livestock losses, agricultural produce and the shift away from the land to the safety of the towns made for decades of hardship for those whose livelihoods depended on the land.

Equally, trading centres such as Quentovic and Dorestad were left to the elements, but part of the problem here was in the river courses changing and the silting-up of coastal ports. Some Frankish merchants saw opportunity in trading with the Vikings, although there was risk in this if the Vikings themselves turned on their trading 'partners'. Franks who had come into a Viking haven in Flanders in AD882 were seized and ransomed. Trade did not enjoy the same stimulus in Frankia due to Viking presence as it had in Britain. There was no cultural input into Frankish civilisation, if anything the Vikings in Normandy became more like the Franks. Aside from ship-building around the time of Duke William's invasion, there was little in common the Normans had with the Scandinavian motherlands.

From raiders to rulers. Hrolf's dynasty began with petty chieftains in Norway, were made counts and then dukes before William grasped the kingship left open by the childless Eadward, his cousin. A saga to thrill or chill the heart that came to a halt in the later Middle Ages.

Christianisation and adopting the Frankish style of warfare and customs changed the character of the duchy from the original Viking to a new formality by 1066, when William sought to fulfil his ambition to rise to the kingship of England.

The Normans From Raiders To Kings

Carrying on the line - down from Louis 'the Pious'
Carrying on the line - down from Louis 'the Pious' | Source
Frankish monarch, retainer and minstrel
Frankish monarch, retainer and minstrel | Source

What was the Carolingian Empire, who were the Franks and from whence did they stem?

The Carolingian Empire:

The Frankish empire founded by Charles 'the Great' (or Charlemagne who reigned as king of the Franks between AD768-814 and as Holy Roman Emperor between AD800-814) comprised most of modern-day Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, the Low Countries, south of the Alps and parts of Iberia and Hungary. The empire passed in its complete state to his sole surviving heir Louis 'the Pious', After Louis' death the empire was divided according to Frankish custom between his three sons according to the Treaty of Verdun in AD843. The empire went through a succession of divisions until being brought back together again under one ruler by Charles 'the Fat' (reigned AD881-7). On his death the empire was broken up forever.

The Franks:

The most successful of the Germanic barbarian tribes that had breached Roman defences in the 4th and 5th Centuries. They were a confederation of warlike and opportunistic peoples that surfaced west of the Rhine in the early 3rd Century from the Chamavi, Chattuari, Salians, Tencteri and other tribes on the eastern bank of the Lower Rhine. The Franks began to settle in roman territory in the late 4th Century but thir growth was not especially noticeable until the reign of Clovis (reigned AD482-511), who made them masters of most of Gaul and much of Germania. Under Charles 'the Great' ('Charlemagne', reigned AD768-814) the Franks took most of Christian Western Europe. With the break-up of the Carolingian Empire in the late 9th Century emerged the newer kingdoms that eventually became France and Germany.

Principalities of the Low Countries and Luxemburg west of the Rhine

Flanders and her neighbours - Flanders and Frisia (Flanderen, Friesland) were prone to raiding as much as, if not more than further south in Paris and the rivers that emptied into the North Sea, English Channel and Atlantic
Flanders and her neighbours - Flanders and Frisia (Flanderen, Friesland) were prone to raiding as much as, if not more than further south in Paris and the rivers that emptied into the North Sea, English Channel and Atlantic | Source

Having broached the sensitive matter of the weakness of the Frankish kings and emperors at the time of the Vikings, perhaps I should explain how each figured in

Arnulf (d.899) formerly duke of Carinthia in the southern Ostmark (Austria). He was elected king of the East Franks at Frankfurt in November AD 887 after 'nudging' his uncle, the discredited emperor 'Charles the Fat' into abdication. The West Franks and the kingdoms of Burgundy and Italy tried to deny Arnulf's succession and after Charles' death in January, AD 888 they selected new candidates of their own. This brought about the final break-up of the Carolingian Empire.

A dynamic ruler, Arnulf organised effective resistance to Vikings raiding from the Low Countries. He won a crushing victory over them at the River Dyle, (AD 891), fought near Louvain, now Belgium. The East Franks under Arnulf inflicted a heavy defeat on a Danish Viking army that had come into Flanders from the Seine in AD 890. THe Danes took up a fortified camp in a strong situation in marshland. Frankish cavalry dismounted and stormed the camp on foot. As the Franks broke into the camp the Danes fled to the river, where hundreds drowned trying to get away. Two otherwise unknown Danish kings, Sigfred and Godred lay among the dead. Survivors and their kindred withdrew to Boulogne and from there to Aengla Land in AD 892. According to the Annals of Fulda only one of Arnulf's men was killed in the engagement.

Arnulf's authority was limited to East Frankia (modern Germany east of the Rhine and the Low Countries), but in AD 894 he launched an invasion over the Alps at the request of the Pontiff Formosus. Successful at first, he was crowned emperor for a short time but illness made him withdraw in AD 896. His last years were plagued by illness as well as incursions into the empire by the Magyars and Western Slavs.

Charles the Great (Charlemagne, 742-814, king of the Franks from AD 768-814, emperor AD 800-814), founder of the Carolingian Empire. In a reign of perpetual campaigning Charles the Great brought together most of Western Europe. The Saxons and Lombards were defeated, and further conquests were made over the Western Slavs, Avars, Byzantium and Muslim Iberia. As a devout Christian he brought under his heel Saxon paganism, promoted Church reform and encouraged the revival of learning and culture in the Carolingian Renaissance. He was also an active lawmaker.

The real reason for his coronation in Rome is unknown, but it is thought he had an idea of re-founding the Western Roman Empire. He organised the coastal defences of Frankia with coast guards, fortresses and fleets stationed at strategic river-mouths. Aside from a serious raid of Frisia by the Danish king Godred, the defences were well thought out and held off further Viking attacks on his empire until well after his death.

Plainly Charles fully understood the severity of the Viking threat, but the defensive system he established relied heavily on centralised control. When this began to crumble in the internecine Frankish dynastic wars during the reign of his successor Louis 'the Pious' the coastal defences went with it.

*In a documentary titled 'MEDIAEVAL DEAD' I watched on the Yesterday Channel (UKTV Freeview Channel 19) I learned that Charles himself was not Frankish but Swabian. At that time Swabia (SW Germany, bordering on Switzerland and France) included what later became the kingdom of Bavaria, and was at the heart of.the Holy Roman Empire - little to do with Rome aside from the emperors being crowned there.

Charles 'the Bald' (AD 823-77 king of the West Franks, emperor AD 875-77), youngest son of Louis 'the Pious' by his second queen, Charles was resented by his three older half-brothers whose inheritance rights he threatened. By the Treaty of Verdun in AD 843 the civil war that had begun on the death of Louis ended and Charles was acknowledged king of the West Franks by his surviving brothers Lothar (after whom Lotharingia = Lorraine was named) and Louis 'the German'.

During his reign Charles had to put up with his brothers' rivalries, rebellious vassals and one of the worst episodes of Viking raids. He dealt with each of these threats in the order he thought most important and the internecine strife took precedence in his eyes. His main priority was the defence of his rule itself. Seen from this angle his treatment of the Viking threat was understandable. However much damage the Norsemen inflicted on Western Frankia, his rule would be over if he allowed his brothers or vassals to either dethrone or imprison him.

By his payments to the Norsemen from AD 845 he licensed more raids but in the long run he bought time to deal with the insurgents. In refusing the towns the right to build walls and defences to ward off Viking attacks he prevented his vassals using them to their own ends against him. Even when Charles made the Vikings a priority his actions were undermined by rebellion. In AD 858 Charles was obliged to lift a Viking siege on Oissel on the Seine when rebel vassals asked his brother Louis to invade and dethrone him. His vassals' perfidy meant Charles could not rely on his army. More often than once it fled from the Vikings. Sometimes the invaders could be more help than hindrance. When the rebellious Pepin II of Aquitaine was unable to hold back the Vikings from Bordeaux in AD848 his underlings expelled him and turned to Charles.

By the 860s Charles had outlived his worst crises and he devoted more of his energies to defending the Isle de France - where his own wealth was concentrated - against the Norse threat. In AD 862 he ordered the building of fortified bridges over the Seine at Pont de l'Arche and on other nearby rivers. The construction was held back for a short time, but they brought a respite from attacks. In AD 873 Charles won in a major confrontation over the Loire Vikings. By this time he had other priorities and failed to follow up his success. Charles had acquired Lotharingia in AD 870 and there was every reason to suppose he could bring together the whole empire under his own rule. He was crowned emperor in Rome in AD 875 but any attempt to seize the kingdom of his brother Louis after his death in AD 876 met with failure. Charles died the year after amid another rebellion, to be succeeded by his son Louis 'the Stammerer'.

Charles 'the Fat'(king AD 839-88, emperor AD 881-87), youngest son of Louis 'the German', grandson of Charles 'the Great'. Charles became king of Swabia on his father's death in AD 876. When his brother Carloman stepped down in AD 879 Charles also became king south of the Alps. Despite failing to withstand Saracen raids in the south he was crowned emperor by the Pontiff in AD 881. Acquisition by inheritance of Saxony (AD 882) and the west Frankish kingdom (AD 884-5) briefly brought back together the fragmented Carolingian Empire aside from the Provence (held by a usurper).

However he proved unable to combat the Viking threat, failed to press home an attack on a Danish camp at Asselt on the Maas/Meuse in AD 882, and granting Frisia to the Danish chieftain Godafrid (AD 882-5). After raising their year-long siege of Paris in AD 886, Charles paid off the Vikings and allowed them to ravage through Burgundy, apparently to punish the Burgundians for treachery. For the Frankish nobles it was the final humiliation. Charles was deposed by his forthright nephew Arnulf in November, AD 887. The break-up of the Carolingian Empire was now inevitable, and Charles died soon after the end of the year - possibly murdered.

Charles 'the Simple' (Charles III, AD 879-929, king of the West Franks AD 898-922). His reign saw the final phase of Viking raiding on Frankia. Grandson of Charles 'the Bald', he was crowned king in AD 893 in opposition to Odo (r.888-898) but withdrew his claim in AD 897 after being defeated in the Franks' internecine wars. He came unchallenged to the throne after Odo's death the year after. After being defeated by the Seine Vikings at Chartres in AD 911, Charles granted the county of Rouen to their leader Hrolf 'the Ganger'. In doing this he ensured that no further attacks would be made up the river - 'putting the poacher in charge of the game'. In trying to extend royal power he was deposed in AD 922. Imprisonment, and murder in AD 929 saw the end of a more wily member of the Carolingian dynasty. Charles' nickname 'the Simple' certainly did not indicate his state of mind.

Louis 'the Pious' (AD 778-840, Frankish emperor AD 814-40) saw the first serious inroads of the Vikings into Frankish territory during his reign. Although Charles 'the Great' had foreseen the division of the empire amongst his sons he was effectively survived only by Louis, who was left an intact empire in AD 814. Aside from Viking raids in the north and Saracen incursions in the south, Louis was not threatened externally. His life might have passed uneventfully had he not re-married in AD 819.

In AD 817 Louis had appointed his eldest son Lothar as co-emperor and heir. His younger sons Pepin and Louis 'the German' were given sub-kingdoms. The settlement collapsed as a result of Louis' marriage to Judith of Bavaria in AD 819, four months after the death of his first wife. The son Judith bore him in AD 823, Charles (later known as 'the Bald'). This new son would only be heir to Louis' lands at the expense of his elder half-brothers. When Louis granted Alemannia to Charles in AD 829 Lothar rebelled and deposed Louis with the aid of his brothers.

Louis was restored at the Assembly of Nijmegen in AD 830 but the problem of the empire's division festered over the rest of his reign. War broke out when Louis granted Aquitaine to Charles and he was deposed once more. Restored again in AD 834, Louis dotage would be marked by rebellion and on his death in AD 840 internecine war broke out between his sons Lothar, Louis 'the German' and Charles, ending only by the three-way division of the empire at Verdun in AD 843.

Throughout his reign Louis never lost sight of the need to maintain defences against the Norsemen, nor did he fail in this respect. One raid only was chronicled before AD 829, in which a fleet of thirteen ships entered Frankish waters in AD 820, was driven back twice by Frankish coastal fleets before its leaders discovered a gap in the defences and plundered a settlement in Aquitaine. The internal wars of the early 830's sapped the Frankish defences and by AD 834 the Vikings pushed inland for the first time, sacking the Rhenish haven of Dorestad. Being constantly under attack, Louis ordered fortifications built to guard the Rhine Delta in AD 835 and AD 837. Frankish ring-forts were built, (much like the Danish ones to the north built in the reign of Godred and Gorm), one at Walcheren being taken by the Danes in AD837 with such heavy losses suffered by Louis he postponed a journey to Rome.

He pursued a worthwhile diplomatic campaign with the Danes, supported by the oft-banished Harald Klak against his rivals, the sons of Godred up to AD 828. Christian missions to Denmark were promoted in AD 836 and in AD 838 Louis talked the Danes' king Horik to catch and punish Danish freebooters. This may have been more effective than warfare against the Vikings, as there were no chronicled raids on the Carolingian lands between AD 838 until civil war resumed in AD 841.

Pepin II of Aquitaine (AD 823-864), grandson of Louis 'the Pious', son of Pepin I, king of Aquitaine. On his father's death in AD 839 Pepin was disowned by Louis, who made his own son Charles 'the Bald' king of Aquitaine. Pepin ruled the region briefly in the 840's, but in failing to defend against a Viking attack led his underlings to banish him in AD 848 and Charles forced him to take holy orders. Escaping in AD 857 he allied with the Loire Vikings, hoping to regain his inheritance. With them he raided Poitiers, and it is said he adopted the Norsemen's way of life, even to the extent of being accused of adopting their pagan beliefs. On being taken prisoner in AD 864 Pepin was sentenced to death for treason by Charles and executed accordingly.

Alan 'Barbetorte' ('Twist-beard', d.AD 952, Duke of Brittany AD 937-52). Exiled in Aengla Land after the Norse conquest of Brittany, he won support from King Aethelstan in the form of a fleet. He launched a re-conquest in AD 936, landing near Dol and taking the Vikings by surprise at a wedding feast. In AD 937 he captured a Viking stronghold at Nantes. After a stiff fight, therewith banishing the Vikings from the county, he captured their camp at Trans near Dol. However Alan was never able to establish his authority over the Breton nobility and civil war broke out after his death.

Louis 'the Pious', AD 778-840 -  not quite the forerunner of a dynasty, but it was in his reign that Viking incursions began into Frankish territory
Louis 'the Pious', AD 778-840 - not quite the forerunner of a dynasty, but it was in his reign that Viking incursions began into Frankish territory | Source
'Charles 'the Simple', AD 879-929-  not so simple as he's made out to be, yet still underestimated Hrolf 'the Ganger'
'Charles 'the Simple', AD 879-929- not so simple as he's made out to be, yet still underestimated Hrolf 'the Ganger' | Source


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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      It all got a bit complicated after the 'tanner's grandson' (William), when Normandy was claimed by kings of both Normandy and England, and it got completely out of hand with Henry II claiming Ireland, Wales, Anjou, Aquitaine AND England. Richard went and got himself incarcerated in Austria and then skewered in France, John lost the crown jewels in the Wash (should have emptied his pockets before taking his breeches to the dry cleaner) and got the whole kingdom and himself excommunicated - twice! - His great grandson Edward I went on to claim Scotland with his outsize mallet.

      When you think of it, Harold didn't even want anything to do with Wales or Scotland, let alone anywhere else.

    • John Brunlees profile image

      John Brunlees 2 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      It was mic and quiet grew, old before my time maybe!

      When you look down through I don't know who's dynasty got the better deal Rollo's or Charles. In the long run I may have to side with Rollo's.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello John, had a riotous New Year's Eve (did you push the boat out in Brum)?

      Glad you liked reading this. The Norsemen raided the coast between the Scheldt and the Loire at the time the Frankish Empire started to disintegrate. They hit back, and successfully sometimes, but Charles 'the Simple' didn't live up to his name, did he? He was smarter than the average Frank and gave Hrolf the mouth of the Seine to watch over, keep his fellow countrymen away. That's man management for you!

    • John Brunlees profile image

      John Brunlees 2 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Very interesting I have been reading a lot recently about the Merovingians and Salian Franks, a little earlier but still very topical

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      'Ello, 'Ello! What do we 'ave 'ere? The 'Brits' didn't invade Normandy, the English did, going through Picardy, Paris and the rest in the Hundred Years' War. That little 'show' didn't finish until the time of Henry V. Divers splutterings later and we 'lost' Normandy to France finally by the time of Henry VIII. ('Bloody')Mary Tudor lost the last English holding on the French mainland, Calais, to the French but we kept the Channel Islands. During the time of Edward III's campaigns in France King David of Scotland invaded (thinking he could creep in through the back door) but was stopped at Neville's Cross outside Durham.

      We all 'barged in' together in 1944, Brits, Yanks, Free French, Canadians and Free Poles.

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      That was quite an adventure! Then, later, the Brits invaded Normandy, right?