Inspired by the success of the 845 Siege of Paris, the vigor of Scandinavia became increasingly focused outward. Raids on the Carolingian Empire (in modern day France) continued; but the big story of the middle ninth century occurred in England. There the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok avenged their father’s death by invading with an unprecedented host of Vikings. This “Great Heathen Army” forcibly took the lion’s share of England’s several kingdoms, leaving only Wessex intact. Had it not been for the arrival of a visionary leader of extraordinary ability – who would be known to history as Alfred the Great – all of Britain might have fallen. But Alfred and his Saxons eventually prevailed in both battle and diplomacy.
As the ninth century waned, the Vikings found it expedient to observe the peace of their new Danelaw and again turn their full attention east. 1 However, the toils of Charles the Bald had made the Carolingian domain more secure in the last 40 years; and if the Vikings were going to harvest the wealth of that land, they would have to go through Paris. The very virtues of geography and politics that had made Paris so prosperous (even after the disaster of 845) now made it essential to any meaningful Norse campaign on the continent. So, in 885 a new fleet – exponentially larger at up to 40,000 men – sailed up the River Seine. 1
This great host recruited from all over the Norse world was under brave new leadership: a great warlord named Siegfried, and his second who would eclipse him thoroughly in the eyes of history – a man named Rolf or Rollo the Ganger (that is “the Walker”, as he was supposedly so big it was hard for him to find a suitable horse). The rich, green lands these men now entered had already mourned the death of Charles the Bald about eight years before, and were now under the rule of Charles the Fat. Charles the Fat cared not for war, but he was wise enough to appoint men who did; and so as the Viking horde sailed upriver they soon came across the cunning defenses of Count Odo. 2
The city Rollo and Siegfried now surrounded was different from Ragnar’s Paris of only forty years before. It was well-garrisoned and fortified specifically to deal with the Vikings. These fortifications – drawn from this region’s thousand years’ experience with siege warfare – had one particularly notable feature: bridges. These were not ordinary bridges, but castled structures of stone and heavy timber, with battlements, arrow slits, guardhouses, and traps. Paris is still known for its bridges today, but in 885 the bridges meant one thing to the Vikings: they could go no further unless they took the city. The Franks had chosen their ground.
Paris had changed, but the Vikings had also changed. The Norsemen had learned siege craft during their campaigns in England; and they now approached the walls of Paris not merely with axes and shields, but with covered rams and massive ballista crossbows, with rolling towers and mangonels. 3 So as autumn was waning in the year 885, the people of Paris looked out over the largest horde of Norsemen ever assembled, and saw to their horror that it was an army that had evolved.
Yet in terms of character, the Vikings were the same as they always had been – terrifying, relentless, single-minded, and ferocious. A monk who was eye-witness to the events gives us this dazzled description of what the men, women, and children of Paris beheld:
… a frenzy beyond compare. They were an evil cohort, a deadly phalanx, a grim horde … a thousand stood shoulder to shoulder in the fight, all bare-armed and bare-backed. With mocking laughter they banged their shields loud with open hands; their throats swelled and strained with odious cries … Fear seized the city. People screamed and battle horns resounded. 4
So the battle for Paris commenced, with the Vikings fighting for treasures beyond their dreams and the defenders fighting for their very survival. Yet there was more than that – what was at stake in this clash of cultures for the Vikings was whether they would go forward or backwards as a people; and what was at stake for Paris was whether the shining city could protect its identity, law, learning, and refinement, or whether it would be just another of history’s victims.
Siege warfare is one of the most brutal, cruel, and demanding forms that war can take. Death is indiscriminate. A valiant hero with a dozen victories can be slain by a housewife chucking a rock from a palisade. It is a diabolical chess match of siege engines against fortifications, where men die until their massed bodies form barriers against their brothers’ advance. At the walls of Paris, both sides assailed each other with arrows, bolts, stones, and other projectiles. Vikings scaling the walls with ladders were met with showers of boiling oil or red-hot sand. For the Vikings, the Norns (the three spinners of fate) would decide if the wounded died a slow death or lived a pain-stricken life. For the defenders, their only hope was in God, or that their king would send an army to their aid. It was this type of battle that gripped Paris as the icy rains gave way to snow.
Both the Vikings and the defenders had largely spent their energy after a few weeks of relentless death. Now winter had fully set in, and retreat was impossible. Maneuvers continued, but mining and blockading largely took the place of reckless frontal assault. 2 At this stage of the siege, the greatest enemies became starvation and disease. The Vikings increased the radius of their foraging parties (a murderous staple of medieval warfare which serves to feed the army; break the will of the people; and to deplete the resources of the defending nobility). All the while, the soldiers and citizens of Paris remained resolute. 5
Spring finally came, and with it came the promise of a relief force; but Charles the Fat’s army had to come all the way from Italy. It was slow in forming, and when it did it was impeded by floods and misfortunes. 2 Meanwhile Siegfried tried to double-cross Rollo, and so the Vikings army began to fracture. 6 In the late summer, even as the relief force was nearing Paris, Rollo’s Vikings finally breached the walls and poured into parts of the city. Encountering resistance in street-to-street fighting, and fearing the approach of the Frankish army, the Vikings only looted for a short time before anticlimactically returning to the safety of their camp. 2
The Vikings had surrounded Paris; but by early autumn, 886, the Vikings found themselves surrounded. But as Charles beheld the Norse in their battle array, their bright-painted shields locked together, and he sensed their indomitable fighting spirit, he lost his nerve. He chose diplomacy. After a series of talks, the Vikings agreed to an arrangement King Charles borrowed from the ancient Romans – the Norsemen accepted gold to transfer their war to Charles’s enemies, the rebellious Burgundians. The Siege of Paris was finally lifted. 6 But as a testimony to their character and their outrage at their king’s cowardly fecklessness, the Parisians still refused to let the Vikings pass. Instead, Rollo and Siegfried had to move their dragon ships overland (probably on log rollers) to get past the exhausted but incensed defenders. 5
In many ways, the 885-886 siege of Paris was a draw. The Vikings entered parts of the city after almost a year of fighting, but never really held it. The people of Paris suffered greatly, but their city endured (it would be almost a thousand years before another foreign army took the city). Count Odo became a national hero, while Charles’ slow response and failure to fight the Vikings ultimately cost his throne. Odo replaced him as king, thus breaking the Carolingian dynasty in Francia. 2 Siegfried died fighting far-off battles; but Rollo continued to be active in Francia. When he came again to Paris years later, a new king (Charles the Simple) preempted another siege by giving him choice lands in Normandy in return for allegiance to the crown. 5 Thus Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy; and in these fertile fields and long coastlines, his Vikings would further evolve by melding the French ways of war (armored cavalry and castles) with the Viking spirit of restless daring. This new breed of Norseman – the Norman – would soon set out to conquer, and to leave their mark on all of Europe and beyond.
The first siege of Paris proved that the Vikings were not merely raiders or small-time colonists, but were capable of launching armies to achieve their goals. Arguably, this gave them the confidence and experience to attempt a large-scale invasion of the English kingdoms. Success there led to a gambit to achieve something similar on the continent. The second siege of Paris – while not a success in and of itself – led to a permanent Norse presence in Francia. Because of the sieges of Paris, the Vikings had gone from a menace to a legitimate political power working as a catalyst within emerging nations. It was because of these grim but intrepid events that the Vikings’ mark was made so indelibly on history.
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 The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
1. Churchill, W. S. (1956). The History of the English Speaking Peoples: Volume 1, the Birth of Britain. Barnes and Noble Books, USA.
2. Abernathy, S. (2015). The Siege of Paris 885-886. The Freelance History Writer. Retrieved from https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2015/04/17/the-siege-of-paris-of-885-886/
3. Atkins, X. (2015). The Viking Siege of Paris. The Manchester Historian. Retrieved from http://manchesterhistorian.com/2015/the-viking-siege-of-paris/
4. 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.
5. Brownworth, L. (2014). The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. Crux Publishing, Ltd. United Kingdom.
6. Dzahk, Y. (2016). The Viking Siege of Paris. War History Online. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/medieval/vikings-sieges-paris.html