There were two Norse sieges of Paris. The first was in 845; and though a fairly minor affair in terms of battle, it had great symbolic significance. The second was roughly two generations later, in 885-886; was much larger (and deadlier); and had greater direct ramifications. Before the first siege, Viking raids were a new and growing problem for the peoples of Western Europe; but hitherto raids had been made by relatively small war bands bent on plunder. The Scandinavian adventurers might sack monasteries or villages, but would usually shun larger, better defended targets (Churchill, 1956). However, success was making the Norsemen bolder.
Aware of this growing threat, the aging emperor, Charlemagne, built a series of maritime defenses to protect his coasts and rivers from these new dragon ships. For the first few decades, the defenses worked; but the Vikings were growing in number, ability, and ambition and a new breed of leaders was coming to the fore. One of these leaders was a man the Frankish chroniclers call Reginheri; but who has since been widely equated with the semi-legendary figure Ragnar Lothbrok (Dzhak, 2016). Under Ragnar, Vikings were ready to step foot on the world stage. They were ready to capture the jewel of Western Europe, the city of Paris.
So, in Spring of 845, 120 dragon ships carrying about 5000 Scandinavian warriors, broke through the late emperor’s defenses and surrounded the walled city of Paris (Dzhak, 2016). In the ninth century, Paris was already more than a thousand years old. It was wealthy from its position as a trading center, and was the seat of one of Charlemagne’s three competing heirs, Charles the Bald. At this time, the heart of the city was confined to the islands in the center of the Seine, the Île de la Cité where the cathedral of Notre Dame stands today. This position made Paris eminently defensible in the eyes of the Frankish elite that ruled there; but it made it easily surrounded by the ship-born Vikings.
Scene from the Vikings TV series, Season 3, Episode 8 "To the Gates!".
Not a very good tactician at this time, Charles the Bald (Charlemagne’s grandson, who in all fairness, was only about 22 and new to his position as king) split his forces between the two banks of the Seine in order to better defend the nearby Abbey of Saint Denis. Ragnar’s Danes concentrated their attack on the forces on one bank of the Seine and easily defeated the Franks. They took 111 Frankish prisoners in the battle (this relatively small number further emphasizes the Frank’s level of surprise and unpreparedness). In full view of the city and the army on the opposite river bank, the Vikings further terrified their foes by hanging all 111 prisoners as a sacrifice to Odin. The Vikings then moved on Paris and captured it with equal efficiency (Dzhak, 2016).
Faced with these appalling developments, Charles took a course of action that was as practical as it was controversial (both at that time and ever after). He offered Ragnar 7000 livres (more than 5600 pounds) in gold and silver to take his men and leave (Dzhak, 2016). This cash pay-out became the first of many, many Danegelds (roughly translated, “gold to the Danes”) that the princes of Europe would offer Viking armies to leave them alone (Brown, 2015). To pay such a tremendous sum to “heathen savages” must have been a brutal humiliation for the grandson of the man who united most of Western Europe under his implacable will; but Charles was already facing rebellion in Aquitaine and Brittany, and had no wish to risk his troops, the citizens of Paris, or the religious and cultural treasures of the several nearby abbeys in a prolonged battle he would likely lose. His hands were tied, and so he paid.
Over the next few hundred years, many would follow his example. Historians (as well as many medieval critics) have called this policy foolish or worse, because it would likely only encourage the offenders to return for more and more gold. However, while it is true that the Vikings in general did raid perennially, and did demand larger and larger Danegelds, in a testimony to the peculiarities of the Viking ethical system, no Viking leader is known to have reneged on a Danegeld’s specific demands (Alvarez, 2014).
For Ragnar, the offer could not have come at a better time. The Vikings held Paris, but now they were suddenly under attack from the greatest bane of all armies – disease. Ragnar and his Danes were consummate fighters, but up to this time the Viking way of war was not usually one of siege craft. In their haste to defeat their foes they may have overlooked critical elements of sanitation in their encampments; or they had been tardy in burying the dead; or it could be that they entered a Paris that had already been festering from the Vikings’ blockade. Or perhaps it was, as the ninth century clerics contend, that the Norsemen were smitten by the wrath of Saint Germain and the other spiritual protectors of the ancient city of Paris (Dzahk, 2016). In any case, by the time King Charles was making his offer, Earl Ragnar’s mighty army was doubled-over with dysentery.
The Vikings took their fortune in gold and silver and the sailed back to Denmark, feeling well enough to attack a few more places along the way. It is here that the reliable part of the narrative ends. Medieval church writers, still reeling from the abomination of the defeat and the ignobility in which the situation was resolved, were quick to add an epilogue. They assert that when the Viking army returned to their king, Horik, it was as broken men; and that the king – in great fear of this Christian curse – executed all the survivors to extirpate it. Ragnar (or Regniheri) also died of illness, weeping of his sins (Dzahk, 2016).
Several details of this tale are openly ludicrous. First, even if the disease contracted by the raiders was especially virulent, it is unlikely that more than 50-60% could have died (and probably more like 10%); which means that we are to believe that Horik (the king of one of the most warlike cultures the world has ever known) executed about 2500 heroes who had just pulled off the greatest heist in Scandinavian history. Many of these men would have been nobility, and so it unlikely that any king in this time of unstable rule could have that kind of power, even if they had the inclination. It is also unlikely that churchmen in West Francia would even know reliably what occurred 770 miles away in pagan Denmark.
Finally, if Regniheri had been the Ragnar, his death under these circumstances would not have launched one of the most well-documented of all ninth century events, the invasion of England by the sons of Lothbrok. Despite these issues and the obvious propagandist quality of the tale, the story survives to this day and is taken for granted by a number of modern writers.
Whether the men who took Paris lived on as wealthy heroes or died as accursed pirates, the first Viking siege of Paris was a tremendous event symbolically. It made the statement to all the peoples of Europe that the Norsemen were no longer just a menace, a disparate and uncoordinated group of thugs who threatened settlements but made no political impact. With the first siege of Paris, the Norse people saw what they could accomplish; and so did their enemies. It is no coincidence that the next few generations witnessed major Viking armies seize large territories in England, France, Ireland, Russia, and elsewhere. It is no coincidence that Viking influence could soon be felt as far away as Constantinople and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Norse forces were organizing, consolidating, and spreading after the 845 siege of Paris, and the tributes they claimed were ever-growing. Yet, it was not just the Vikings that were learning, but the defenders too. After his humiliation at Paris, Charles the Bald spent the rest of his career preparing to fight the Vikings again. He built fortified bridges and ordered many other ingenious defenses, and reinvigorated what would become the most recognizable symbol of the Middle Ages – armored, mounted cavalry. Charles was not going to be unprepared again, because he knew that sooner or later the Vikings would be coming back to Paris.
Part 2 is available here.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including Sons of Vikings (what we feel is the best Viking history book) and The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
Alvarez, S. (2014). The Frankish Tribute Payments to the Vikings and their Consequences. De Rei Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History. Retrieved from http://deremilitari.org/2014/02/the-frankish-tribute-payments-to-the-vikings-and-their-consequences/
Atkins, X. (2015). The Viking Siege of Paris. The Manchester Historian. Retrieved from http://manchesterhistorian.com/2015/the-viking-siege-of-paris/
Brown, N. M. (2015). Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. St Martin’s Press. New York, NY.
Churchill, W. S. (1956). The History of the English Speaking Peoples: Volume 1, the Birth of Britain. Barnes and Noble Books, USA.
Dzahk, Y. (2016). The Viking Siege of Paris. War History Online. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/medieval/vikings-sieges-paris.html