territory of denmark

Lesson 22a - Vikings in France, Part 1: Messy Politics.

Note: [If you have not done so already, check out last week’s lesson. Visit “Viking History” on my blog to view all of the lessons.]

Komiði sæl og blessuð, vinir, 

If you think this year’s U.S. election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is bad, let’s just talk about the messy politics of post-Charlemagne Francia (France) for a moment.

I. Charlemagne
II. A Divided Kingdom
III. The Great Army
IV. Impact


Francia was, during this period, at its height during the reign of Charlemagne (768-814 CE). Under his reign, Francia experienced a great deal of expansion, particularly in Frisia and Saxony. Both of these territories were near Denmark, which lies just northeast of these regions. Denmark soon felt these pressures welling up from the southwest. The most influential ruler in Denmark at this time was King Godfred (anglicized version).

In the year 804, Godfred cause problems for the Franks as they campaigned just south of Denmark in Saxony. Here it is told in the Royal Frankish Annals:

“…King Godfred, king of the Danes, came with his fleet and entire cavalry of his kingdom to Schleswig on the border of his kingdom and Saxony.” [1]

Although Godfred made such a daring and impressive stance, he was killed by his own men before he actually took to serious action against the Franks. Twas’ the nature of politics in many early medieval realms. There was, however, still plenty of raiding taking place near their borders. Nonetheless, tension between the “Vikings” and the Franks went back to this time. Charlemagne and his kingdom, however, were far too powerful for any real threats to be poised. Yet, this all changed when Charlemagne died in 814.


Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) succeeded Charlemagne and managed to maintain effective coastal defenses, at least for some time [2]. Still, the Frankish empire was passive and defensive during his reign, rather than active and aggressive as it was before. Beginning in the 830′s, near the end of his reign, Francia faced a terrible decline, particularly due to internal issues and complications [3]. With Louis the Pious’ death, the kingdom divided between his heirs, who were very eager to fight among themselves.

In the year 840, Francia was divided into three separate kingdoms. The successors were Charles the Bald, Lothar, and Louis the German. These men truly gave no Franks about the empire, and immediately contended with one another in a messy civil war. The Danes quickly took note of this and, without much surprise, flooded into their territories like frolicking children.

This went really, really badly for the Franks. Charles the Bald’s territory was especially hit hard [4]. In 843, the Vikings form their first raiding base near Nantes at Noirmoutier, where they immediately began to extort and ransom money by kidnapping influential figures, such as the Abbot of St. Denis.

That’s not even that bad, to be honest. Some monasteries were attacked so often that they actually had planned evacuations in order to protect their relics. Yes, they planned and even practiced for this raids. They began to expect these raids, if that says anything about how often they occurred. Now, this does not mean that Francia was in complete chaos. Most people did not see nor were directly a victim of Viking raids.

Though, some credit ought to be given to Charles the Bald. He faced the worst of the Viking raids in Francia, but also managed to put up a bit of a fight.


The worst part (for the Franks), was that the past forty years (840-80) was only just the beginning of their Viking problems. In other words, it took awhile before things got better for Francia. To make matters worse, this “Great Army” was only a portion of a larger force (although arguably not a cohesive entity). The rest was in England. Regardless, this “Great Army” wrecked Francia in the 880′s with heavy raids.

During this time, Charles the Fat was king. Despite his name, he actually managed to somewhat reinvigorate the memory and spirit of Charlemagne. Yet, his efforts never fully culminated. The Vikings besieged Paris in 885 and Charles simply paid them off without fighting and fled back to a city called Alsace the following month [5]. This was a terrible practice, because it encouraged the Vikings to continue returning, since they clearly knew where the easy money was now.

Count Odo was the true hero for Paris, whom the Western Franks then nominated as their new king after the death of Charles the Fat. He held out the Vikings for almost a year before Charles finally came to pay them off [6]. In 891, Arnulf, who was chosen to be the king of East Francia, finally drove out this “Great Army.” He was much like Odo, in that he gave the Vikings much more physical resistance. 

Yet, it was still not exactly military pressure that finally made the Vikings leave Francia. Between the years 891-2, there was a sever famine which affected Francia [7]. This alone would have forced this “Great Army” to return to England, where opportunities were better. This, of course, was not the end of Viking activity in Francia, but the worst was definitely now over.


So, why did the Vikings wreak such havoc on the Franks?

Their kingdom slowly fell into civil war, mainly due to internal politics as competition increased between successors and other powerful figures. The concept of a unified “Francia” dwindled into a distant memory. This left Francia very vulnerable, because leadership was neatly nonexistent, therefore making resistance much more difficult.

What kept them coming back?

Money. Around 40,000 pounds of silver was given to the Vikings to pay them off, either for ransoms or just to make them go away. This number does not include their loot. This was a very bad idea. England did this as well. Paying them off only encouraged them to return, because they knew they had the upper hand.

What did they do with the money?

They either recirculated it into the Frankish economy by trading in local markets, or they took it home to secure themselves a better position or living in Scandinavia. Some aspects of this were not actually half bad for the Franks.

What did it do to Francia?

Honestly, it was evident that the Franks were headed into troubled times. With or without the Vikings, they would have faced the same internal strife that invited the Vikings to come there in the first place. The Vikings, of course, did not necessarily speed up their unification process, but their impact was truly just heaping more mess on an already messy situation. The Vikings also did not settle much in Francia overall. The major exception to this is Normandy, but that will be discussed with more detail next week.


So, in the end, things could be worse. We could have a country that is split into three parts, all of which are struggling to devour the other, whilst being raided by buff men from the north. On a more serious note, though, this was a very brief break-down of what happened over a hundred year period in Francia. I decided not to go into too much detail because, let’s be honest, it can get pretty boring for my more casual readers. 

Nonetheless, if you are particularly interested in Vikings in France, feel free to send me an email (fjorntheskald@gmail.com) or even an ask. I know of a few books and sources that can fill in the gaps. I would also not be against doing additional posts about this subject.

Next week:
Lesson 22b – Vikings in France, Part 2: Rollo and Normandy.

Skál og ferð vel.


[Gen.] Dr. Jennifer Dukes-Knight, “Vikings in France,” Lecture, Viking History, University of South Florida, 2015.

[1] Angus A. Sommerville and R. Andrew McDonald ed., The Viking Age: A Reader, 2nd ed. (University of Toronto Press, 2014), 202.

[2] Richard Collins, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, 3rd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 318.

[3] Ibid., 324-30.

[Fig.1] John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 57.

[4] Ibid., 56.

[Fig.2] Ibid., 65.

[5] Collins, 338.

[6] Haywood, 64.

[7] Ibid.