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Vikings charging through water

The Viking Influence: Tracing the remarkable history of Vikings in France


As Vikings pushed their boats further afield in search of greater riches, it was only a matter of time before they turned their sites on the Frankish Empire. But unlike the Viking expansion into Britain, gaining a foothold in France wasn’t quite as straightforward for the invading raiders as they might have originally hoped.

From the defensive powers of the Holy Roman Emperor to dragging their boats across the French countryside, the Viking invasions seemed to be rebuffed all too easily at the start. How, then, did the Vikings go from failed raids to owning a thriving colony in Normandy?

When was the first Viking raid on France?

While it’s highly likely that Viking raids had been taking place along the English Channel for some considerable time, the first recorded event of them landing on French shores dates back to 799.

It’s not known for certain why the Vikings started to target France in their raids, but it’s most likely because of their growing power within the continent. With Charlemagne’s rule uniting most of Western and Central Europe, it was no surprise that the Frankish Empire was starting to monopolise trade routes. While France had previously been known to the Danes through trade, the Frankish Empire was now imposing a much more intimidating figure with a wealth that was too hard to resist.

How did Charlemagne stop the Viking raids?

Seeing the Viking’s growing interest in Frankish wealth, Charlemagne set about a plan to slow the Viking's progress. Coastal defences were put in place along France’s shorelines that held the Vikings off any major raids for the next few decades. While small-scale raids continued here and there over the decades, it took more than 25 years after the death of Charlemagne for the Danes to attempt any large-scale landing on French beaches.

What happened with the siege of Paris?

In March 845, a fleet of more than 4,000 Vikings sailed up the Seine and into Paris. With 120 boats, the Vikings arrived in Paris on Easter Sunday, raiding and plundering the city and holding it to ransom. Despite their camp falling victim to the plague, the invading Vikings (believed to have been led by the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok) were still victorious in their campaign. In fact, they only withdrew once King Charles the Bald paid them a handsome sum of 7,000 French Livres (more than 2,500kg in gold and silver).

Although Ragnar lost many of his men to the plague following the siege, it was still considered a great success, and Vikings continued to attack the city three more times throughout the 860s, getting paid to leave with bribes each time.

When the Vikings returned in November 885, led by infamous Viking leader Rollo, they found that they were unable to breach the city limits. Two new bridges across the Seine had been built to hinder progress along the river (each with its own defensive tower), and the city had been heavily fortified. For nearly a year, the Vikings laid siege to Paris, repeatedly trying and failing to make it past the fortified walls. However, Parisiens had managed to make it out and get help. By the summer of 886, the Vikings were surrounded by the French army led by Charles the Fat.

What did the Frankish Kings do to end Viking attacks?

Rather than battle with the Vikings, Charles employed them to go and raid Burgundy, which revolted against the Frankish King. Promising to pay the Vikings on their return from the sacking of Burgundy, Charles parted with the hefty sum of 700 pounds of silver, and the siege of Paris was ended.

The Vikings exited, but it wasn’t easy for them. The people of Paris, belligerent that the Vikings had won despite never breaching the city walls, refused the Vikings' passage across the river, forcing them to drag their longships thousands of feet across the French countryside to the Marne River before they could continue to Burgundy.

As time went on, however, it became clear that the Vikings were not going to leave the French alone, no matter how many bribes and payments were made. In a last-ditch attempt to curtail the Viking raiding decimating the French countryside, King Charles the Simple devised a radical plan.

Offering Rollo an alternate solution to the systemic raids, Charles proposed that a treaty be agreed upon instead. As well as providing Rollo with his daughter’s hand in marriage, Charles bequeathed a swathe of otherwise empty land to the Vikings to settle on. The area, which later became Normandy, was successfully ruled by Rollo and Charles’ descendants, who turned the desolate landscape into one of the most prosperous French provinces.