In the year 845, a large Viking fleet appeared at the mouth of the Seine river and began attacking the cities upstream. At the time, the citizens of the then kingdom of Francia thought the end-times were upon them, but the attacks were a mere prelude for the true target: Paris.
Paris in the IX century
The Siege of Paris was one of the most significant events in the history of the Vikings, arguably as important as the very first raid in Lindisfarne, in 793. Paris was the first time the Vikings attempted – and managed – to capture a major city, marking the beginning of the Viking expansion into western Europe.
The history of the siege began four years before, around the year 841. The great hero Ragnar Lothbrok has been previously awarded land in Turholt, Flanders, by Charles II “the Bald” (king from 823 to 877), in exchange for the cessation of raids in the kingdom of Francia. The king soon decided to break this oath – the most dishonorable act one could commit on Norse culture – and remove the land from Ragnar and his followers. Charles II had just invited the wrath and vengeance of the Northmen upon his kingdom.
In March 845, a fleet of 120 Viking ships, containing more than 5,000 men, entered the Seine under the command of a chieftain named “Reginherus”, also known as the legendary hero Ragnar Lothbrok and headed to Paris.
Perhaps “siege” is not the best word to describe the plunder of Paris in 845. The Vikings did not bring with them siege equipment: the city had no defenses and therefore no siege was needed. Paris had only one natural defense, the river Seine, but that amounts to almost nothing against the best navigators of the world at the time, and the Frankish defenders were completely ill-prepared for the Viking onslaught.
Ragnar and his followers began their journey up the river Seine raiding Rouen in the year 845. King Charles II “the bald” was determined not to let the royal Abbey of Saint-Denis (near Paris) be destroyed, and in response to the invasion assembled a great army, which he divided into two parts, one for each side of the river.
That was great news for the Vikings, who now only had to fight half an army at a time. The Vikings attacked and defeated one of the divisions of the smaller Frankish army, took 111 of their men as prisoners and hanged them on an island on the Seine in honor of Odin. Understandably this caused a great deal of distress and dread to the remaining Frankish forces.
Odin statue in Hannover, Germany
The Vikings arrived in Paris on Easter Sunday, 29 March, entered the city and plundered it. The Franks could not assemble an effective defense, and the Vikings withdrew only after being paid a ransom of 7,000 livres (French pounds) of silver and gold by King Charles II “the Bald”. In modern terms, this amounts to approximately 2,570 kg (5,670 lb) of silver and gold, a humongous amount of money for the time. Yet only the first of a total of thirteen such payments made to the Vikings.
While some sources claim that the Vikings could likely hold onto the city indefinitely were circumstances different, historical accounts claim that a plague broke out in the Viking camp, which would greatly hinder their fighting ability. As a matter of fact, during this first raid of Paris, more Vikings perished from dysentery than from actual combat.
Regardless of the reasons, Ragnar and his men left Paris carrying hefty bags of silver and gold, and that is a good day for any Viking.
The impact of the Viking Siege of Paris was far-reaching and had lasting consequences for both the Vikings and the Franks. For the Vikings, the siege was a turning point, as it demonstrated their power and capability as a military force, paving the way for their further expansion into western Europe. For the Franks, the siege was a wake-up call, as it revealed the vulnerability of their cities and the need for stronger defenses and military preparedness.
Next week we will talk about the Second Siege of Paris, which was led by, amongst others, Rollo the Walker, whose descendants became kings of both France and England.
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