Viking Invaders Struck Deep into the West of England – and May have Stuck Around

Viking Invaders Struck Deep into the West of England – and May have Stuck Around

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It’s well chronicled that wave after wave of Vikings from Scandinavia terrorised western Europe for 250 years from the end of the eighth century AD and wreaked particular havoc across vast areas of northern England. There’s no shortage of evidence of Viking raids from the Church historians of the time. But researchers are now uncovering evidence that the Vikings conquered more of the British Isles than was previously thought.

At the time England consisted of four independent kingdoms: Wessex, to the south of the River Thames, and Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria to the north of it. The latter three were all conquered by Scandinavian armies in the late ninth century and their kings killed or deposed – which allowed expansive Scandinavian settlement in eastern and northern England. However the kings of Wessex successfully defended their territory from the Viking intruders (and eventually went on to conquer the North, creating the unified kingdom of England ).

Un-united Kingdoms, Mike Christie

But precisely because Wessex remained independent, there has never been much examination of Scandinavian influence in that part of the United Kingdom. But we’re beginning to get a different picture suggesting that Viking leaders such as Svein and his son Knut were active as far south as Devon and Cornwall in the West Country.

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In 838AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a battle fought at Hingston Down in east Cornwall in which the local Britons joined forces with the Vikings against King Egbert of Wessex and his attempts to expand his kingdom. The fiercely independent Cornish appear to have held out against West Saxon control and presumably cast around for a strong ally in their fight. But why were Viking leaders interested in aiding the Cornish? Perhaps it was a political move, made in the hope of gaining a foothold in the peninsula in order to use it as a strategic base against Wessex. If so, it was thwarted, as the allied army was soundly defeated.

There are also records of raids for plunder in the West Country. A Viking fleet sailed up the river Tamar in 997, attacked the abbey at Tavistock and brought back treasure to their ships.

Cardinham churchyard. Len Williams, ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

There is further evidence indicating Scandinavians in the West Country in a close examination of stone sculptures in Devon and Cornwall which has revealed Scandinavian art motifs and monument forms. A Norwegian Borre ring chain ornament decorates the cross in Cardinham churchyard in east Cornwall and a mounted warrior is in one of the panels of the Copplestone Cross near Crediton, mid Devon. Both are matched by examples in northern England in the Viking Age, but seem out of place in the West. Late versions of the “ hogback” memorial stones, which have a pronounced ridge and look like a small stone long house, are well known in Cornwall too – the best example is at Lanivet near Bodmin.

These sort of memorials were popular with the Norse settlers in Cumbria and Yorkshire and may be the work of itinerant sculptors bringing new ideas into the West, or patrons ordering forms and patterns which they had seen elsewhere. However, the possibility that the patrons may have been Scandinavian settlers cannot be excluded.

All in the name

People with Scandinavian names such as Carla, Thurgod, Cytel, Scula, Wicing, Farman are recorded as working in the mints in Exeter and at other Devon sites from the end of the tenth century – and, although such names became popular in the general population, there is an unusual concentration in these areas. Detectorists operating in the West Country are finding increasing numbers of metal objects from the period, many with Scandinavian connections. Scandinavian dress-fittings, lead weights, coins and silver ingots – and all manner of gear for horses have been identified in the past few years. A woman’s trefoil brooch, probably made in Scandinavia, was discovered where it had been dropped in Wiltshire . This is the only example of the type yet found in Wessex, whereas 15 have been discovered in northern England.

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Like these Viking artefacts, place names with Scandinavian links are well known in northern England – but we would not have previously expected them in the West Country. Yet the islands in the Bristol Channel: Lundy, Steepholm and Flatholme are hybrid names with Old Norse and Old English elements. Spaxton in Somerset was Spacheston in the Domesday Book , that is Spakr’s tun another hybrid. Knowstone in central Devon, recorded as Chenutdestana in Domesday Book, combines Scandinavian Knut with English stana to give Knut’s stone, perhaps named after the Danish king. More intriguing still are the 11 landholders in the Devon section of the Domesday Book with the personal name wichin which means “viking”. These names are rare in England and do not occur at all elsewhere in the West Country, so the cluster in Devon is significant.

A combination of sculptural, archaeological and word usage evidence therefore points to a new appreciation of how far the Vikings travelled within the UK – and the dramatic reach of their influence.

Featured image: Guests from Overseas, Nicholas Roerich (1899)

The article ‘ Viking invaders struck deep into the west of England – and may have stuck around ‘ by Derek Gore was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Aethelflaed: The warrior queen who broke the glass ceiling

How does a ruler defeat bloodthirsty invaders, secure a kingdom and lay the foundations for England - and then almost get written out of history? Be a woman, that's how. Exactly 1,100 years after her death Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, is emerging from the shadows.

Born into a tooth-and-nail war for survival against Viking invaders, Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, grew up in a realm teetering on the brink of disaster.

In 878 the royal family was forced to flee to the swamps of Somerset - just months before Alfred turned the tables and won a stunning victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington.

Married at 16 to Aethelred, Lord of Mercia, Aethelflaed's new lands were the front line as an uneasy and fitful peace came to a fiery end with Alfred's death in 899.

Dr Clare Downham, from the University of Liverpool, said: "She must have had quite a force of personality to overcome the assumptions of her time.

"It is a mark of her success in male-dominated times she was accepted as a ruler and achieved incredible - even unique - things."

All in the Name

People with Scandinavian names such as Carla, Thurgod, Cytel, Scula, Wicing, Farman are recorded as working in the mints in Exeter and at other Devon sites from the end of the tenth century—and, although such names became popular in the general population, there is an unusual concentration in these areas. Detectorists operating in the West Country are finding increasing numbers of metal objects from the period, many with Scandinavian connections. Scandinavian dress-fittings, lead weights, coins and silver ingots—and all manner of gear for horses have been identified in the past few years. A woman’s trefoil brooch, probably made in Scandinavia, was discovered where it had been dropped in Wiltshire. This is the only example of the type yet found in Wessex, whereas 15 have been discovered in northern England.

Like these Viking artefacts, place names with Scandinavian links are well known in northern England—but we would not have previously expected them in the West Country. Yet the islands in the Bristol Channel: Lundy, Steepholm and Flatholme are hybrid names with Old Norse and Old English elements. Spaxton in Somerset was Spacheston in the Domesday Book, that is Spakr’s tun another hybrid. Knowstone in central Devon, recorded as Chenutdestana in Domesday Book, combines Scandinavian Knut with English stana to give Knut’s stone, perhaps named after the Danish king. More intriguing still are the 11 landholders in the Devon section of the Domesday Book with the personal name wichin, which means “viking.” These names are rare in England and do not occur at all elsewhere in the West Country, so the cluster in Devon is significant.


Pictured left is Emma Thompson. Scottish names such as 'McIvor', 'MacAulay' and 'McLeod' are also more likely to have come from Vikings. Pictured right is Sir Ian McKellen

Scottish actor Ewan McGregor (pictured) may have inherited his blue eyes and fair hair from Viking settlers


The Shetland and Orkney islands have the highest proportion of Viking descendants in the UK

3. Caithness - 17.5 per cent

4. Isle of Man - 12.3 per cent

5. Western Isles - 11.3 per cent

6. North West Scotland and Inner Hebrides - 9.9 per cent

9. North East Scotland - 4.9 per cent

10. North England - 4 per cent

11. East England - 3.6 per cent

12. South West Scotland - 3.2 per cent

13. South East Scotland - 2.7 per cent

14. Central England - 2.6 per cent

15. Central Scotland - 2.2 per cent

16. South East England - 1.9 per cent

17. South West England - 1.6 per cent

18. Ireland (Ulster) - 1.4 per cent

19. Ireland (Munster) - 1.3 per cent

20. Ireland (Connacht) - 1.2 per cent

22. Ireland (Leinster) - 1 per cent

The Viking descendant population is much more prominent up in the northern parts of the British Isles

'The people of the Viking Age did not have family names, but instead used the system of patronymics, where the children were named after their father, or occasionally their mother.

'So, for example the son of Ivar would be given their own first name and then in addition "Ivar's son".

'A daughter would be Ivar's daughter.

Millions of Britons could be descendants of Vikings - especially if their surname ends in 'son', according to experts (stock image)

Musician Sir Paul McCartney (left) and TV personality Ferne McCann (right) may be able to trace their family back to the Viking era

A famous example from a 13th-century Icelandic saga, describing the Viking Age, is Egil Skallagrimsson, who was the son of a man named Skalla-Grim, she added.

She said: 'This naming pattern still remains in use in Iceland today but has been abandoned in Scandinavia in favour of family names, just like in the UK.

'People of the Viking Age would often have a descriptive nickname, for example two of the Earls of Orkney who were known as Sigurd the Stout and Thorfill Skullsplitter.'

Orkney and Shetland, where the Viking heritage is very strong, is home to many names which can be traced back to the period including 'Linklater', 'Flett', 'Scarth', 'Heddle' and 'Halcro'.

Names which refer to a personal characteristic were also common among Vikings, such as 'Long', 'Short', 'Wise', 'Lover' and 'Good.' Pictured is British comedian Josie Long

Made in Chelsea siblings Sam (left) and Louise (right) Thompson may be descendants of Scandinavian settlers

Scottish names such as 'McIvor', 'MacAulay' and 'McLeod' could also signal a Viking family history.

But the research found many Brits have no idea about key Viking facts, with one in five having no idea they originated from Scandinavia.

And almost one in ten believe the Viking Age was around the 15th - 18th century - despite this being the era of rulers such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

One in four were also unaware the Vikings raided the UK, with more than one in twenty believing they targeted south America instead.


In the mid-9th century, an invading Viking army coalesced in Anglo-Saxon England. The earliest version of the 9th- to 12th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle variously describes the invading host as "micel here", [10] an Old English term that can translate as "big army" [11] or "great army". Archaeological evidence and documentary sources suggest that this Great Army was not a single unified force, but more of a composite collection of warbands drawn from different regions. [12]

The exact origins of the Great Army are obscure. [13] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes identifies the Vikings as Danes. [14] The 10th-century Vita Alfredi seems to allege that the invaders came from Denmark. [15] A Scandinavian origin may be evinced by the 10th-century Chronicon Æthelweardi, which states that "the fleets of the tyrant Ívarr" arrived in Anglo-Saxon England from "the north". [16] By the mid-9th century, this Ívarr (died 869/870?) [17] was one of the foremost Viking leaders in Britain and Ireland. [18]

The Great Army may have included Vikings already active in Anglo-Saxon England, as well as men directly from Scandinavia, Ireland, the Irish Sea region, and the Continent. [19] There is reason to suspect that a proportion of the army specifically originated in Frisia. [20] For example, the 9th-century Annales Bertiniani reveals that Danish Vikings devastated Frisia in 850, [21] and the 12th-century Annales Lindisfarnenses et Dunelmenses states that a Viking force of Danes and Frisians made landfall on the Isle of Sheppey in 855. [22] The same source, and the 10th- or 11th-century Historia de sancto Cuthberto, describe Ubba as dux of the Frisians.

Whilst the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the Viking army micel here, the Latin Historia de sancto Cuthberto instead gives Scaldingi, [23] a term of uncertain meaning that is employed three times in reference to the leadership of the Viking forces. One possibility is that the word means "people from the River Scheldt". [24] This could indicate that Ubba was from Walcheren, an island in the mouth of the Scheldt. [25] Walcheren is known to have been occupied by Danish Vikings over two decades before. For example, the Annales Bertiniani reports that Lothair I, King of Middle Francia (died 855) granted the island to a Viking named Herioldus in 841. [26] Another possibility is that this term simply refers to Scyldings, an ancient lineage from which Danish monarchs of the time claimed descent.

According to the same source and the 9th-century Annales Fuldenses, another Viking named Roricus was granted a large part of Frisia as a benefice or fief from Lothair in 850. [27] As men who held military and judicial authority on behalf of the Franks, Herioldus and Roricus can also be regarded as Frisian duces. Although it is uncertain whether Ubba was a native Frisian or a Scandinavian expatriate, if he was indeed involved with a Frisian benefice his forces would have probably been partly composed of Frisians. If his troops were drawn from the Scandinavian settlement started by Herioldus over two decades before, many of Ubba's men might well have been born in Frisia. [28] In fact, the length of Scandinavian occupation suggests that some of the Vikings from Frisia would have been native Franks and Frisians. The considerable time that members of the Great Army appear to have spent in Ireland and on the Continent suggests that these men were well accustomed to Christian society, which in turn may partly explain their successes in Anglo-Saxon England.

In the autumn of 865, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that the Great Army invaded the Kingdom of East Anglia, where they afterwards made peace with the East Anglians and overwintered. [33] The terminology employed by this source suggests the Vikings attacked by sea. [34] The invaders evidently gained valuable intelligence during the stay, [35] as the Great Army is next stated to have left on horses gained from the subordinated population, striking deep into the Kingdom of Northumbria, a fractured realm in the midst of a bitter civil war between two competing kings: Ælla (died 867) and Osberht (died 867). [36]

Late in 866 the Vikings seized York [37] —one of only two archiepiscopal sees in Anglo-Saxon England, and one of the richest trading centres in Britain. [38] Although Ælla and Osberht responded to this attack by joining forces against the Vikings, the chronicle indicates that their assault on York was a disaster that resulted in both their deaths. [37] [note 3] According to Annales Lindisfarnenses et Dunelmenses, [46] and Historia de sancto Cuthberto, the Northumbrians and their kings were crushed by Ubba himself. [47] [note 4]

Also that year, Annales Bertiniani reports that Charles II, King of West Francia (died 877) paid off a Viking fleet stationed on the Seine. [52] After proceeding down the Seine towards the sea, where they repaired and rebuilt their fleet, [53] a portion of the force is reported to have left for the district of IJssel [54] (either Hollandse IJssel or Gelderse IJssel). [55] Although the destination of the rest of the fleet is unrecorded, one possibility is that it participated in the sack of York. The fact that the Great Army remained in East Anglia for about a year before it attacked Northumbria could mean that it had been reinforced from the Continent during the layover. [56] The part of the fleet that went to Frisia is later stated to have been unable to secure an alliance with Lothair. This statement seems to suggest that these Vikings had intended to acquire a grant of lands in the region, which could mean that they thereafter took part in the Great Army's campaigning across the Channel. [57] Furthermore, Annales Bertiniani notes that Roricus was forced from Frisia the following year. This ejection could also account for the evidence of a Frisian dimension to the Great Army, and for the attestations of Ubba himself. [58]

With the collapse of the Northumbrian kingdom, and the destruction of its regime, the twelfth-century Historia regum Anglorum, [59] and Libellus de exordio, reveal that a certain Ecgberht (died 873) was installed by the Vikings as client king over a northern region of Northumbria. [60] In the following year, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the Great Army attacked Mercia, after which the Vikings seized Nottingham and overwintered there. [61] Although the Mercian and West Saxon kings, Burgred (died 874?) and Æthelred (died 871), responded by joining forces and besieging the occupied town, both the chronicle [62] and Vita Alfredi report that this combined Anglo-Saxon force was unable to dislodge the army. [63] According to both sources, the Mercians made peace with the Vikings. [62] [63] It was probably on account of this seemingly purchased peace that the Great Army relocated to York, as reported by the chronicle, where it evidently renewed its strength for future forays. [64]

The earliest source to make specific note of Ubba is Passio sancti Eadmundi, which includes him in its account of the downfall of Edmund, King of East Anglia (died 869). [67] Almost nothing is known of this king's career, [68] and all that remains of his reign are a few coins. [69] The first [70] contemporary documentary source to cast any light upon his reign is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. [71] According to this account, the Great Army invaded East Anglia in the autumn of 869, before setting up winter quarters at Thetford. The chronicle relates that the kingdom was conquered and Edmund was amongst the slain. [72] [note 6]

Although the specific wording employed by most versions of the chronicle suggests that Edmund was killed in battle, [75] and Vita Alfredi certainly states as much [76] —with neither source making note of a martyrdom ordeal [77] —later hagiographical accounts portray the king in an idealised light, and depict his death in the context of a peace-loving Christian monarch, who willingly suffered martyrdom after refusing to shed blood in defence of himself. [78] [note 7]

One such account is Passio sancti Eadmundi, [90] a source that makes no mention of a battle. [91] Whilst this source's claim that Edmund was martyred after being captured is not implausible, [92] the fact that he came to regarded as a martyr does not negate the possibility that he was slain in battle (as suggested by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). [93] [note 9] The apparent contradictory accounts of Edmund's demise given by these sources may stem from the telescoping of events surrounding an East Anglian military defeat and the subsequent arrest and execution of the king. [96] In any case, surviving numismatic evidence of coins bearing Edmund's name—the so-called St Edmund memorial coinage—reveals that he was certainly regarded as a saint about twenty years after his death. [97] [note 10]

The reliability of Passio sancti Eadmundi is nevertheless uncertain. [103] Although this source was composed over a century after the event, [104] it may convey some credible material as the latest useful source. [105] [note 11] Nevertheless, there is also reason to suspect that the account is little more than a collection of well-known hagiographical elements, [108] and that the composer knew little to nothing of Edmund's demise and early cult. [109] The lurid depictions of Viking invaders presented by Passio sancti Eadmundi appears to owe much to the author's otherwise known association with Fleury, [110] and specifically to the account of the Viking invasion of the Loire Valley detailed by Miracula sancti Benedicti, a ninth-century work composed by the Fleurian monk Adrevaldus (fl. 860s). [111]

— excerpt from Passio sancti Eadmundi depicting Ívarr's invasion of East Anglia. [112] [note 12]

In specific regard to Ubba, Passio sancti Eadmundi states that Ívarr left him in Northumbria before launching his assault upon the East Angles in 869. [115] [note 13] If this source is to be believed, it could indicate that Ubba stayed behind to ensure the cooperation of the conquered Northumbrians. [118] Although Vita Alfredi and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle fail to note any Viking garrisons in the conquered Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, this may merely be a consequence of their otherwise perceptible West Saxon bias. [119] [note 14] In contrast to Passio sancti Eadmundi, the twelfth-century "F" version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle specifically identifies Ubba and Ívarr as the chiefs of the men who killed the king. [123] Whilst this identification could be derived from Passio sancti Eadmundi or the tenth-century Lives of the Saints, [124] it could merely be a mistake on the chronicler's part. In any case, later and less reliable literature covering the martyrdom associates both men with the event, revealing that this version of events was current as early as the twelfth century. [125] [note 15]

Ubba is associated with the martyrdom of Æbbe, an alleged abbess of Coldingham said to have been slain by Vikings in 870. [129] The historicity of this woman is nevertheless uncertain. [130] The earliest accounts of the alleged events at Coldingham date to the thirteenth century. They include Chronica majora, [131] and both the Wendover [132] and Paris versions of Flores historiarum. [133] According to these sources, Æbbe compelled the nuns of Coldingham to disfigure themselves to preserve their virginity from an incoming horde of Vikings. Leading by example, Æbbe is said to have cut off her nose and upper lip with a razor. When the Viking arrived the following morning, the sight of the mutilated and bloody women repelled the raiders. Nevertheless, Ívarr and Ubba are stated to have ordered the razing of the monastery, burning to death Æbbe and her faithful nuns. [134]

Despite many lurid twelfth-century tales of ecclesiastical devastation wrought by Vikings, the principal contemporary source for this period, the ninth- or tenth-century "A" version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, fails to note the destruction of a single Anglo-Saxon church by Scandinavians during the eighth- and ninth centuries. [137] Although Passio sancti Eadmundi presents the invasion of East Anglia by Ubba and Ívarr as a campaign of wanton rape and murder, the account does not depict the destruction of the kingdom's monasteries. [138] In fact, there is reason to suspect that most Anglo-Saxon monastic sites probably survived the Viking invasions of the era, [139] and that the East Anglian Church withstood the Viking invasions and occupation. [140] [note 17]

Whilst Viking depredations of monasteries tend not to feature in sources intended for royal audiences, religious desecrations appear in sources composed for ecclesiastical audiences. [143] There are several reasons why twelfth-century sources associate the Vikings with seemingly unhistorical atrocities against particular monasteries. For example, such depredations could explain changes in monastic observance, or the switch from monastic- to clerical observance. [144] Stories of Viking attacks could be used as evidence of the former possession of property claimed by religious houses centuries after the fact. [145] The ninth-century Viking onslaught may have also been a way in which twelfth-century commentators sought to explain what was regarded as monastic decay in tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England. [146] This imagined or exaggerated religious extirpation could well have been a convenient way of accounting for the scarcity of documentary evidence concerning early religious institutions. [147] Twelfth-century ecclesiastical historians availed themselves of sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [148] and Passio sancti Eadmundi. [149] The fact that the latter was particularly influential to mediaeval historians is evidenced by the frequent occurrences of Ívarr and Ubba in reports of religious atrocities. [150] To mediaeval hagiographers and historians, these two figures were archetypal Viking invaders [151] and emblematic opponents of Christianity. [152] [note 18]

The accounts of Æbbe could be an example of such a constructed tale. The story appears be ultimately derived from the account of Coldingham preserved by the eighth-century Historia ecclesiastica. [160] According to this source, Æthelthryth (died 679), wife of Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria (died 685), entered the monastery under the tutelage of an abbess named Æbbe (died 683?). At some point after Æthelthryth left Coldingham to found a monastery at Ely, Historia ecclesiastica reports that the monastery of Coldingham burned to the ground. [161] This account of Coldingham's burning was later incorporated into Liber Eliensis, a twelfth-century chronicle covering the history of Æthelthryth's establishment at Ely. [162] The account of the burning given by Historia ecclesiastica may well be the inspiration behind the tale of facial mutilation and fiery martyrdom first associated with Coldingham by the Wendover version of Flores historiarum. [148] [note 19] To twelfth-century ecclesiasts, invented tales of ninth-century violence—particularly violence inflicted by Ívarr and Ubba—may have been intended to validate the refoundation of certain religious communities. [164] [note 20]

The earliest Anglo-Saxon virgin-martyr is Osyth. [174] A now-lost twelfth-century vita of this woman associated Ívarr and Ubba with her seventh-century martyrdom. According to this source, Ívarr and Ubba commanded the pirates who beheaded her after she refused to worship their pagan idols. [175] This work may have been the inspiration behind the Anglo-Norman hagiography Vie seinte Osith, [176] a composition that also attributes Osyth's killing to Ívarr and Ubba and their followers. [177] [note 21]

The history of East Anglia immediately after Edmund's demise is extremely obscure. [209] The account of events presented by Passio sancti Eadmundi seems to show that Edmund was killed in the context of the Great Army attempting to impose authority over him and his realm. [210] Such an accommodation appears to have been gained by the Vikings in Northumbria [211] and Mercia. [212] In any case, numismatic evidence appears to indicate that two client kings—a certain Æthelred and Oswald—thereafter ruled over the East Angles on behalf of the Viking conquerors. [213]

It is at about this point that Ívarr disappears from English history. [214] According to Chronicon Æthelweardi, he died in the same year as Edmund. [215] However, this record may partly stem from the fact that he did not take part in the subsequent war against the Kingdom of Wessex, [216] beginning in the autumn or winter of 870. [2] [note 23] In any case, the leadership of the Great Army appears to have fallen to kings Bagsecg (died 871) and Hálfdan (died 877), [221] the first principal Viking leaders attested by all versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle after the army's recorded arrival. [222] [note 24]

For about a year, the Great Army campaigned against the West Saxons, before overwintering in London. [231] Late in 872, after spending nearly a year in London, the Vikings were drawn back to Northumbria, and afterwards to Mercia. [232] By the end of 874, the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria were finally broken. [233] At this point, the Great Army split. Whilst Hálfdan settled his followers in Northumbria, the army under Guthrum (died 890), Oscytel (fl. 875), and Anwend (fl. 875), struck out southwards, and based itself at Cambridge. [234] In 875, the Vikings invaded Wessex and seized Wareham. Although Alfred, King of Wessex (died 899) sued for peace in 876, the Vikings broke the truce the following year, seized Exeter, and were finally forced to withdraw back to Mercia. [235]

Although much of Guthrum's army started to settle in Mercia, [236] [note 26] the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [239] and Vita Alfredi reveal that Guthrum launched a surprise attack against the West Saxons in the winter of 877/878. Setting off from their base in Gloucester, the latter source specifies that the Vikings drove deep into Wessex, and sacked the royal vill of Chippenham. [240] [note 27] It is possible that this operation was coordinated with another Viking attack in Devon that culminated in the Battle of Arx Cynuit in 878. [243]

Most versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle locate the battle to Devon. [245] [note 28] Vita Alfredi specifies that it was fought at a fortress called Arx Cynuit, [247] a name which appears to equate to what is today Countisbury, in North Devon. [248] [note 29] This source also states that the Vikings made landfall in Devon from a base in Dyfed, where they had previously overwintered. [257] As such, the Viking army could have arrived in Dyfed from Ireland, and overwintered in Wales before striking forth into Devon. [258] [note 30]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not identify the army's commander by name. It merely describes him as a brother of Ívarr and Hálfdan, and observes that he was slain in the encounter. [260] [note 31] Although Ubba is identified as the slain commander by the twelfth-century Estoire des Engleis, [262] it is unknown whether this identification is merely an inference by its author, or if it is derived from an earlier source. [263] [note 32] For example, this identification could have been influenced by the earlier association of Ubba and Ívarr in the legends surrounding Edmund's martyrdom. [263] In any case, Estoire des Engleis further specifies that Ubba was slain at "bois de Pene" [266] —which may refer to Penselwood, near the Somerset–Wiltshire border [267] —and buried in Devon within a mound called "Ubbelawe". [268] [note 33]

The clash at Arx Cynuit culminated in a West Saxon victory. [281] Whilst Vita Alfredi attributes the outcome to unnamed thegns of Alfred, [282] Chronicon Æthelweardi identifies the victorious commander as Odda, Ealdorman of Devon (fl. 878). [283] Most versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle number the Viking fleet at twenty-three ships, [284] and most versions number the Viking casualties at eight hundred and forty dead. [285] [note 34] These numbers roughly give about thirty-six and a half men per ship, which is comparable to the thirty-two oared Gokstad ship, a ninth-century Viking ship unearthed in Norway. [292]

On one hand, it is possible that the Viking commander at Arx Cynuit seized upon Guthrum's simultaneous campaigning against the West Saxons to launch a Viking foray of his from Dyfed. [297] On the other hand, the location and timing of the engagement at Arx Cynuit may indicate that the slain commander was cooperating with Guthrum. As such, there is reason to suspect that the two Viking armies coordinated their efforts in an attempt to corner Alfred in a pincer movement after his defeat at Chippenham and subsequent withdrawal into the wetlands of Somerset. [243] If the Vikings at Arx Cynuit were indeed working in cooperation with those at Chippenham, the record of their presence in Dyfed could also have been related to Guthrum's campaign against Alfred. As such, they could have been campaigning against Hyfaidd ap Bleddri, King of Dyfed (died 892/893) before their attack at Arx Cynuit. [298] [note 35]

It is possible that the defeat at Arx Cynuit left Guthrum overextended in Wessex, allowing Alfred's forces to assail Guthrum's exposed lines of communication. [301] Although Alfred's position may have been still perilous in the aftermath, with his contracted kingdom close to collapse, [237] the victory at Arx Cynuit certainly foreshadowed a turn of events for the West Saxons. A few weeks later in May, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Alfred was able to assemble his troops, and launch a successful attack against Guthrum at Edington. [302] Following Guthrum's crushing defeat, the Vikings were forced to accept Alfred's terms for peace. Guthrum was baptised as a Christian, and led the remainder of his forces into East Anglia, where they dispersed and settled. [303] Guthrum thereafter kept peace with the West Saxons, and ruled as a Christian king for more than a decade, until his death in 890. [304] [note 36]

Although Ubba and Ívarr are associated with each other by Passio sancti Eadmundi, the men are not stated to be related in any way. [310] The earliest source claiming kinship between the two is the Annals of St Neots, [311] an eleventh- or twelfth-century account stating that they were brothers of three daughters of Loðbrók (Lodebrochus). [312] This source further states that these three sisters wove a magical banner named Reafan that was captured at the Arx Cynuit conflict. [313] Although certain versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also note the capture of a raven banner, named Hræfn ("Raven"), they do not mention any magical attributes, or refer to Loðbrók and his progeny. [314] [note 38]

Loðbrók appears to be an early reference to Ragnarr loðbrók, [328] a saga character of dubious historicity, who could be an amalgam of several historical ninth-century figures. [329] [note 39] According to Scandinavian sources, Ragnarr loðbrók was a Scandinavian of royal stock, whose death at the hands of Ælla in Northumbria was the catalyst of the invasion of Anglo-Saxon England—and Ælla's own destruction—by Ragnarr loðbrók's vengeful sons. [341] None of the saga-sources for the legend of Ragnarr loðbrók accord him a son that corresponds to Ubba. [342] The latter is only specifically attested by sources dealing with the East Scandinavian tradition. [343] One of these sources is the thirteenth-century Gesta Danorum. [344] According to this text, Ubba was the son of Ragnarr loðbrók and an unnamed daughter of a certain Hesbernus. [345] Gesta Danorum does not associate Ubba with Anglo-Saxon England in any way. [346] [note 40] According to the thirteenth- or fourteenth-century Ragnarssona þáttr, a source that forms part of the West Scandinavian tradition, Ívarr had two bastard brothers, Yngvarr and Hústó, who tortured Edmund on Ívarr's instructions. [356] No other source mentions these sons. [357] It is possible that these figures represent Ívarr and Ubba, [358] and that the composer of Ragnarssona þáttr failed to recognise the names of Ívarr [359] and Ubba in English sources concerned with the legend of Edmund's martyrdom. [360] [note 41]

Whilst Scandinavian sources—such as the thirteenth-century Ragnars saga loðbrókar—tend to locate the legend of Ragnarr loðbrók in a Northumbrian context, English sources tend to place them in an East Anglian setting. [369] The earliest source to specifically associate the legend with East Anglia is Liber de infantia sancti Eadmundi, [370] a twelfth-century account depicting the Viking invasion of East Anglia in the context of a dynastic dispute. [371] According to this source, Loðbrók (Lodebrok) was extremely envious of Edmund's fame. As such, it is Loðbrók's taunts that provoke his sons, Ívarr, Ubba, and Bjǫrn (Bern), to slay Edmund and destroy his kingdom. [372] [note 43] Although this text is heavily dependent upon Passio sancti Eadmundi for its depiction of Edmund's death, it appears to be the first source to meld the martyrdom with the legend of Ragnarr loðbrók. [371] [note 44]

By the thirteenth century an alternate rendition of the story appears in sources such as Chronica majora, [399] and both the Wendover [400] and Paris versions of Flores historiarum. [401] For example, the Wendover account states that Loðbrók (Lothbrocus) washed ashore in East Anglia, where he was honourably received by Edmund, but afterwards murdered by Bjǫrn (Berno), an envious huntsman. Although the latter is expelled from the realm, he convinces Loðbrók's sons, Ívarr and Ubba, that the killer of their father was Edmund. As such, East Anglia is invaded by these two sons, and Edmund is killed in a case of misplaced vengeance. [402] [note 46] A slightly different version of events is offered by Estoire des Engleis, which states that the Vikings invaded Northumbria on behalf of Bjǫrn (Buern Bucecarle), who sought vengeance for the rape of his wife by the Northumbrian king, Osberht. [406] [note 47] On one hand, it is possible that the theme of vengeance directed at Edmund is derived from the tradition of Ælla's demise in Northumbria at the hands of Ragnarr's progeny. [410] [note 48] On the other hand, the revenge motifs and miraculous maritime journeys presented in the accounts of Edmund are well-known elements commonly found in contemporaneous chivalric romances. [412]

There is reason to suspect that the legend of Ragnarr loðbrók originated from attempts to explain why the Vikings came to settle in Anglo-Saxon England. The core of the tradition may have been constructed as a way to rationalise their arrival without assigning blame to either side (as illustrated by the sympathetic Wendover account). [413] As such, the legend could have been intended to justify Edmund's violent demise. [414] The tales may have evolved at an early stage of Viking settlement, and may have functioned as an origin myth of the emerging Anglo-Scandinavian culture. [415] [note 49] The shared kinship assigned to Ívarr and Ubba within the legend of Ragnarr loðbrók may stem from their combined part in Edmund's downfall as opposed to any historical familial connection. [422]

Ubba appears as a character in modern historical fiction. For example, the unnamed Danish king that appears in Alfred: A Masque, a musical play with a libretto by James Thomson (died 1748) and David Mallet (died 1765)—first presented in 1740 [428] —may be a composite of Ubba, Guthrum, Ívarr, and Hálfdan. [429] Ubba certainly appears in Alfred the Great, Deliverer of His Country, [430] an anonymous play that first appears on record in 1753 [431] and The Magick Banner or, Two Wives in a House, [432] a play by John O'Keeffe (died 1833), first presented in 1796. [433] [note 51] He also appears in the Sketch of Alfred the Great: Or, the Danish Invasion, [435] a ballet by Mark Lonsdale, first performed in 1798 [436] and Alfred An Epic Poem, [437] a long piece of epic poetry by Henry James Pye (died 1813), published in 1801 [438] and the similarly named Alfred, an Epic Poem, by Joseph Cottle (died 1853) [439] —a poem almost twice as long as Pye's [440] —first published in 1800. [441]

Ubba later appears in Alfred the Great Or, The Enchanted Standard, a musical drama by Isaac Pocock (died 1835), [442] based upon O'Keeffe's play, [443] and first performed in 1827 [444] and Alfred the Great, a play by James Magnus, dating to 1838. [445] He further appears in Alfred of Wessex, an epic poem by Richard Kelsey, published in 1852 [446] and in the 1899 novel King Alfred's Viking, by Charles Whistler (died 1913) [447] and the 2004 novel The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell. [448] Ubba is also a character in Vikings, a television series first aired on the History network in 2013. His name was changed to Ubbe, and he was portrayed by Jordan Patrick Smith from season 4B through the end. [449]

In 2015, BBC Two released The Last Kingdom, [450] a fictional television series (based upon Cornwell's The Saxon Chronicles series of novels). [451] It was later aired on Netflix. Although the series and many of its characters were based on real events and people, the series also contains fictional events. [452] The character was portrayed a little differently than the real-life Ubba. [453] Ubbe is played by actor Rune Tempte. [454]

Ubba, Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless appear in the Ubisoft video game Assassin's Creed Valhalla as brothers, sharing significant roles in the story of Viking Conquests of England during the 9th century.

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A brief history of the Vikings

Invaders, predators, barbarians – the Vikings are often portrayed merely as one-dimensional warriors whose achievements include little more than plundering and raiding. But from where did the Vikings originate and were they really violent, godless pagans? Here, historian Philip Parker explains the real history of the Viking world…

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Published: April 20, 2020 at 11:30 am

In 793, terror descended on the coast of Northumbria as armed raiders attacked the defenceless monastery of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne. The terrified monks watched helplessly as the invaders made off with a haul of treasure and a clutch of captives. It was the first recorded raid by the Vikings, seaborne pirates from Scandinavia who would prey on coastal communities in north-western Europe for more than two centuries and create for themselves a reputation as fierce and pitiless warriors.

That image was magnified by those who wrote about the Viking attacks – in other words, their victims. The Anglo-Saxon cleric Alcuin of York wrote dramatically of the Lindisfarne raid that the “church was spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments… given as a prey to pagan peoples” and subsequent (mainly Christian) writers and chroniclers lost few opportunities to demonise the (mainly pagan) Vikings.

Yet, though they undeniably carried out very destructive and violent attacks, from small-scale raids against churches to major campaigns involving thousands of warriors, the Vikings formed part of a complex and often sophisticated Scandinavian culture. As well as raiders they were traders, reaching as far east as the rivers of Russia and the Caspian Sea explorers, sending ships far across the Atlantic to land on the coastline of North America five centuries before Columbus poets, composing verse and prose sagas of great power, and artists, creating works of astonishing beauty.

The reputation of the Vikings simply as raiders and plunderers has long been established. Restoring their fame as traders, storytellers, explorers, missionaries, artists and rulers is long overdue…

When and where did the Vikings come from?

The Vikings originated in what is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden (although centuries before they became unified countries). Their homeland was overwhelmingly rural, with almost no towns. The vast majority earned a meagre living through agriculture, or along the coast, by fishing. Advances in shipping technology in the 7th and 8th centuries meant that boats were powered by sails rather than solely by oars. These were then added to vessels made of overlapping planks (‘clinker-built’) to create longships, swift shallow-drafted boats that could navigate coastal and inland waters and land on beaches.

Exactly what first compelled bands of men to follow their local chieftain across the North Sea in these longships is unclear. It may have been localised overpopulation, as plots became subdivided to the point where families could barely eke out a living it may have been political instability, as chieftains fought for dominance or it may have been news brought home by merchants of the riches to be found in trading settlements further west. Probably it was a combination of all three. But in 793 that first raiding party hit Lindisfarne and within a few years further Viking bands had struck Scotland (794), Ireland (795) and France (799).

Their victims did not refer to them as Vikings. That name came later, becoming popularised by the 11th century and possibly deriving from the word vik, which in the Old Norse language the Vikings spoke means ‘bay’ or ‘inlet’. Instead they were called Dani (‘Danes’) – there was no sense at the time that this should refer only to the inhabitants of what we now call Denmark – pagani (‘pagans’) or simply Normanni (‘Northmen’).

When and where did the Viking begin to raid?

At first the raids were small-scale affairs, a matter of a few boatloads of men who would return home once they had collected sufficient plunder or if the resistance they encountered was too strong. But in the 850s they began to overwinter in southern England, in Ireland and along the Seine in France, establishing bases from which they began to dominate inland areas.

The raids reached a crescendo in the second half of the ninth century. In Ireland the Vikings established longphorts – fortified ports – including at Dublin, from which they dominated much of the eastern part of the island. In France they grew in strength as a divided Frankish kingdom fractured politically and in 885 a Viking army besieged and almost captured Paris.

In Scotland they established an earldom in the Orkneys and overran the Shetlands and the Hebrides. And in England an enormous Viking host, the micel here (‘great army’) arrived in 865. Led by a pair of warrior brothers, Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, they picked off the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England one by one. First Northumbria, with its capital at York, fell to them in 866, then East Anglia, followed by the central English kingdom of Mercia. Finally, only Wessex, ruled by King Alfred, remained. A pious bookworm, Alfred had only become king because his three more martial older brothers had sickened or died in battle in previous Viking invasions.

Thomas Williams explores the key events and legacies of the Viking era:

In early January 878 a section of the Great Army led by Guthrum crossed the frontier and caught Alfred by surprise at the royal estate at Chippenham. Alfred barely managed to escape and spent months skulking in the Somerset marshes at Athelney. It looked like the independence of Wessex – and that of England generally – might be at an end. But against the odds Alfred gathered a new army, defeated the Vikings at Edington and forced Guthrum to accept baptism as a Christian. For his achievement in saving his kingdom he became the only native English ruler to gain the nickname ‘the Great’.

Silver penny of King Alfred. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)For 80 years England was divided between the land controlled by the kings of Wessex in the south and south-west and a Viking-controlled area in the Midlands and the north. Viking kings ruled this region until the last of them, Erik Bloodaxe, was expelled and killed in 954 and the kings of Wessex became rulers of a united England. Even so, Viking (and especially Danish) customs long persisted there and traces of Scandinavian DNA can still be found in a region that for centuries was known as the Danelaw.

By the mid-11th century united kingdoms had appeared in Denmark, Norway and Sweden and the raids had finally begun to subside. There was a final burst of activity in the early 11th century when royal-sponsored expeditions succeeded in conquering England again and placing Danish kings on the throne there (including, most notably, Canute, who ruled an empire in England, Denmark and Norway, but who almost certainly did not command the tide to go out, as a folk tale alleges). Vikings remained in control of large parts of Scotland (especially Orkney), an area around Dublin and Normandy in France (where in 911 King Charles the Simple had granted land to a Norwegian chieftain, Rollo, the ancestor of William the Conqueror). They also controlled a large part of modern Ukraine and Russia, where Swedish Vikings had penetrated in the ninth century and established states based around Novgorod and Kiev.

Where did Vikings settle and live?

This was not the full extent of the Viking world, however. The same maritime aggression that had caused them to plunder (and ultimately conquer) settled lands also led them to venture in search of unknown shores on which to settle. Vikings probably arrived in the Faroes in the eighth century and they used this as a stepping-stone to sail further west across the Atlantic.

In the mid-ninth century a series of Viking voyages came across Iceland and in the year 872 colonists led by Ingólf Arnarson settled on the island. They established a unique society, fiercely independent and owing no formal allegiance to the kings of Norway. It was a republic whose supreme governing body was, from 930, the Althing, an assembly made up of Iceland’s chief men which met each summer in a plain beside a massive cleft in a ring of hills in the centre of the island. It has a strong claim to be the world’s oldest parliament.

From Iceland, too, we have other vital pieces of evidence of the inventiveness of Viking societies. These include the earliest pieces of history written by Vikings themselves in the form of a 12th-century history of Iceland, the Íslendingabók, and the Landnámabók, an account of the original settlement of the island (with the names of each of the first settlers and the land they took).

But more important – and surprising for those who view of the Vikings is as one-dimensional warriors – is the collection of sagas known as the Íslendingasögur or Icelandic Family Sagas. Their setting is the first 150 years of the Viking colony in Iceland and they tell of often-troubled relations between the main Icelandic families. Alliances, betrayals, feuds and murders play out against the backdrop of a landscape in which features can still often be identified today. At their best, in tales such as Njál’s Saga or Egil’s Saga, they are powerful pieces of literature in their own right, and among the most important writing to survive from any European country in the Middle Ages.

Levi Roach describes how the Norse people travelled, raided and settled far beyond their Scandinavian homeland:

Who was the most famous Viking?

Ivarr the Boneless – a famous warrior and one of the leaders of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ that landed in East Anglia in 865, and that went on to conquer the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia – was remembered as the founding father of the royal dynasty of the Viking kingdom of Dublin.

It is not known how Ivar came by the nickname ‘the Boneless’, although some have suggested it could have been due to an unnatural flexibility during combat or because he suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder, eventually resulting in him having to be carried everywhere. Unless his body is ever recovered – which would be difficult if he really was ‘boneless’ – we will never know.

Other famous Vikings include Aud the Deep-Minded, Eirik Bloodaxe and Einar Buttered-Bread. Click here to read about the 8 most famous Vikings

Vikings and religion: what gods did they believe in?

Iceland was the location of another drama that highlights the transition of Viking societies away from warrior chieftainships. Christianity came later to Scandinavian Viking societies than to many other parts of Europe. Whereas France’s kings had accepted Christianity by the early sixth century and the Anglo-Saxon kings of England largely in the seventh, Christian missionaries only appeared in southern Scandinavia in the ninth century and made little headway there until Harald Bluetooth of Denmark accepted baptism in around 960. Harald had become Christian after a typical piece of Viking theatre: a drunken argument around the feasting table as to which was more powerful – Odin and Thor, or the new Christian God and his son, Jesus.

Iceland remained resolutely pagan, loyal to old gods such as Odin the All Father a one-eyed god who had sacrificed the other eye in exchange for knowledge of runes and Thor, the thunder-god with his great hammer Mjölnir, who was also especially popular with warriors.

Iceland became Christian to avoid a civil war. Competing pagan and Christian factions threatened to tear the Althing apart and dissolve Iceland into separate, religiously hostile, states. At the Althing’s meeting in the year 1000 the rival factions appealed to Iceland’s most important official, the lawspeaker Thorgeir Thorkelsson. As a pagan he might have been expected to favour the old gods but, after an entire day spent agonising over the decision, he concluded that henceforth all Icelanders would be Christian. A few exceptions were made – for example the eating of horsemeat, a favoured delicacy that was also associated with pagan sacrifices, was to be permitted.

Acclaimed screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst talks about his work on Vikings and the secrets of making great history drama:

What was Valhalla and how did Vikings get there?

For a Viking, what two things would be desired the most in the afterlife of Valhalla, the hall of slain warriors? Feasting and fighting, of course.

If chosen to die by the mythical Valkyries, a Norse warrior longed to be welcomed by the god Odin into Valhalla, a magnificent hall with a roof thatched with golden shields, spears for rafters, and so large that 540 doors lined its walls, says BBC History Revealed magazine. The honoured dead, known as the Einherjar, spent all day honing their battle skills against each other in preparation for Ragnarök – the end of the world – then every night, their wounds magically healed and they partied like only Vikings could.

Their drinking horns never emptied thanks to Heidrun, a goat on the roof of Valhalla that ate from a special tree and produced the finest mead, and there was always enough meat as the boar named Sæhrímnir came back to life after each slaughter so it could be cooked over and over.

To join the Einherjar, a Viking had to die in battle – and even then, they only had a 50:50 chance. The half not chosen to go to Valhalla instead went to the field of the goddess Freya, so they could offer to the women who died as maidens their company.

As for the old or sick, they went to an underworld called Hel. It was largely not as bad as the name suggests, though there was a special place of misery reserved for murderers, adulterers and oath-breakers, where a giant dragon chewed on their corpses.

Where did the Vikings travel to?

Iceland, too, was the platform from which the Vikings launched their furthest-flung explorations. In 982 a fiery tempered chieftain, Erik the Red, who had already been exiled from Norway for his father’s part in a homicide, was then exiled from Iceland for involvement in another murder. He had heard rumours of land to the west and, with a small group of companions, sailed in search of it. What he found was beyond his wildest imaginings. Only 300 kilometres west of Iceland, Greenland is the world’s largest island, and its south and south-west tip had fjords [deep, narrow and elongated sea or lakedrain, with steep land on three sides] and lush pastures that must have reminded Erik of his Scandinavian homeland. He returned back to Iceland, gathered 25 ship-loads of settlers and established a new Viking colony in Greenland that survived into the 15th century.

Erik’s son, Leif, outdid his father. Having heard from another Viking Greenlander, Bjarni Herjolfsson, that he had sighted land even further west, Leif went to see for himself. In around 1002 he and his crew found themselves sailing somewhere along the coast of North America. They found a glacial, mountainous coast, then a wooded one, and finally a country of fertile pastures that they named Vinland. Although they resolved to start a new colony there, it was – unlike either Iceland or Greenland – already settled and hostility from native Americans and their own small numbers (Greenland at the time probably had about 3,000 Viking inhabitants) meant that it was soon abandoned. They had, though, become the first Europeans to land in (and settle in) the Americas, almost five centuries before Christopher Columbus.

For centuries Erik’s achievement lived on only in a pair of sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red’s Saga. The location of Vinland, despite attempts to work out where it lay from information contained in the sagas, remained elusive. It was even unclear if the Vikings really had reached North America. Then, in the early 1960s, a Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine, found the remains of ancient houses at L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland in Canada. Fragments of worked iron (many of them nails, probably from a ship), which the native population did not possess the technology to produce, meant that it was soon clear this was a Viking settlement. Although perhaps too small to be the main Vinland colony, it was still astonishing confirmation of what the sagas had said. Leif Erikson’s reputation as a great explorer and discoverer of new lands was confirmed without doubt.

This might well have pleased him, for a man’s reputation was everything to a Viking. Quick wit, bravery and action were among the key attributes for a Viking warrior, but to be remembered for great deeds was the most important of all. The Hávamál, a collection of Viking aphorisms, contains much apt advice such as “Never let a bad man know your own bad fortune”, but most famous of all is the saying “Cattle die, kindred die, we ourselves shall die, but I know one thing that never dies: the reputations of each one dead”.

Did Viking shield-maidens exist?

Apologies to fans of the hit series Vikings: historians just can’t agree on whether Norse warrior women like Lagertha actually existed, says BBC History Revealed magazine. While there are stories of shield-maidens, or skjaldmaer, in historical accounts, nearly all can be dismissed as unreliable, apocryphal, allegorical or more myth than reality.

Still, tantalising clues and mysterious finds – including artefacts showing women carrying swords, spears and shields – have boosted the idea that Viking women went into battle alongside men. In the 12th century, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote of women in Denmark who sought “so zealously to be skilled in warfare that they might have been thought to have unsexed themselves”. In 2017, meanwhile, archaeologists discovered that a 10th-century grave of a warrior, filled with weapons, actually belonged to a woman.

Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir explores what everyday life was like for women in Norse society, the opportunities available to them and the challenges they faced:

What was a Viking sunstone?

The Vikings were superb sailors who got as far afield as Russia and North America, but their navigational techniques haven’t always been completely understood, says BBC History Revealed magazine. A mysterious ‘sunstone’, mentioned in a medieval Icelandic saga, was considered mere legend until an opaque crystal, made from Iceland spar, was recently discovered among the navigation equipment of a sunken Tudor shipwreck.

Intriguingly, scientists have proven that Iceland spar, when held up to the sky, forms a solar compass that indicates the Sun’s location, through concentric rings of polarised light, even in thick cloud cover or after dusk. It’s now thought that this was the mysterious sunstone that helped guide Vikings such as ‘Lucky’ Leif Erikson to Newfoundland, and usage of it may have persisted until the end of the 16th century.

When did the Viking Age end?

It is traditionally said that the raiding, pillaging age of the Vikings, which began in Britain with the ransacking of Lindisfarne in AD 793, ended with the failure of Harald Hardrada’s invasion in 1066.

Yet the Viking influence spread from the Middle East to North America, and could not be undone by a single defeat in battle. At the same time that Hardrada was picking up his career-ending neck injury at Stamford Bridge, the Norman Conquest was being launched. Its leader, and future king of England, was William – the great-great-great-grandson of Rollo, a Viking.

Philip Parker is author of The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World (Vintage, 2015). For more information, visit

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016 and has since been updated to include information taken from BBC History Revealed magazine

Viking Invaders Struck Deep into the West of England – and May have Stuck Around - History

By Victor Kamenir

Well before the great Viking siege of Paris, more than 300 islands dotted the length of the Seine River, reduced over the centuries by human impact and natural changes to slightly more than 100. During the Iron Age, the Celtic tribe of the Parisii made their home around a cluster of islands at the spot four miles downstream from where the Marne River joins the Seine. After conquering Gaul, the Romans built the city of Lutetia atop the ruins of the old Parisii settlement. Due to its location at an important road nexus, Lutetia grew in importance, becoming the capital of the Roman Western Gaul province by the end of the 4th century.

For protection from barbarians migrating into Gaul, the Celts living along the banks of the Seine at Lutetia relocated to the two largest islands in the river, named the Ile de la Cité and the Ile de St-Louis. Using stones recovered from damaged buildings, the Romans built defensive walls on the 56-acre Ile de la Cité. The Ile de St-Louis, which was roughly half the size of the neighboring island, was used mainly as pastureland and left undefended.

The defensive walls largely followed the outline of the island. The builders attempted to place the walls as close as possible to the water’s edge, but the marshy and muddy banks of the Ile de la Cité permitted only approximately half of the island to be enclosed. Due to the uneven terrain, the actual height of the walls varied from 12 to 25 feet, placing the top of the wall at roughly uniform level. Eight feet thick at the base, the walls tapered to six feet at the top. The Seine River with its swift current acted as a natural moat over which two bridges anchored on the Ile de la Cité connected the two sides of the river.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the name of the town reverted to Civitas de Parisiis and was eventually shortened to Paris. During Charlemagne’s reign, Paris became one of the most important cities of the Frankish Empire. Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony in the late 8th century brought the borders of his empire into direct contact with Danish kingdoms. The collapse of centralized Danish monarchy around the beginning of the 9th century coincided with the explosion of Scandinavian expansion, which was spurred by the innovations in Scandinavian shipbuilding.

Raids by Scandinavian pirates against Western Europe began in the late 8th century, with the attack on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the northwestern coast of England in 793 ushering in the Viking Age. The term “Vikings” as we know it appears to have originated in the 18th century. Their Western contemporaries typically referred to Scandinavian pirates and raiders as the Norse or the Danes. In Eastern Europe, the Vikings were typically called the Rus in reflection of their Swedish origin. Lasting until the end of the 11th century, Viking raids took place over a vast territory from the Western European seaboard to the Black and Caspian Seas in the East and the Mediterranean Sea in the South. Sailing the inshore waters of the North and Celtic Seas and the English Channel, the Vikings were within easy striking distance of rich targets in the British Isles and Western Europe.

The Vikings built shallow-draft vessels known as longships. They used their longships not only at sea, but also to penetrate large land masses by rowing them upriver. The longships, which could pass through water just a few feet deep, were light enough to be portaged short distances when necessary. The symmetrical design of the Viking boats allowed them to reverse course without turning, a feature especially useful within the relatively narrow confines of a river. With emphasis on speed and maneuverability, the main source of propulsion was by oar, but a square sail was added when traveling on the open sea.

The Vikings initially raided in one to three ships however, as they grew in power and their raids became more ambitious, their fleets grew to as many as 200 longships. But these great fleets were the exception rather than the rule. Due to the shallow hull construction of their ships, the Vikings could land directly on the beaches or river banks. This allowed rapid egress and prepared the Norsemen to strike where they were least expected. After initially raiding coastal areas, the Vikings began penetrating deeper inland using rivers as highways.

The shallow hull construction of Viking ships enabled the Norsemen to penetrate deep into West Francia using its long rivers as highways.

Raiding was a young man’s business, a sort of rite of passage to earn reputation and wealth. Once having started a family, the majority of former Vikings settled down to farming, the primary means of earning a living in Scandinavia. The Icelander Egil’s Saga describes its Viking protagonist, Egil Skallagrimsson, as conducting both trading and raiding.

Virtually all Viking activities depended on exploration and navigation of seas and rivers. Shipbuilding was expensive, and only rich men like kings and earls could afford to build or buy and outfit a ship or fleet of ships. Those with lesser means could buy a share in a longship, while those without means served as warriors or crewmen.

During the heyday of the Viking Age, a typical force of Norse raiders consisted of approximately 400 men. Large fleets usually did not have central command, being a conglomeration of war bands with their own leaders. Operating in the manner of modern-day commandos, they avoided pitched battles with local forces in favor of quick, hard strikes against specific targets and fading away before local response could be organized. When forced to fight in an open field and with the battle going against them, a Viking war band would give way and scatter, avoiding crippling losses and reforming at a different location.

In 882 a relief force of Franks pursued the Vikings, who “betook themselves to a wood and scattered hither and yon, and finally returned to their ships with little loss,” according to the Annals of St. Vaast, a collection of historical records produced in the 10th century by the Abbey of St. Vaast in Arras.

When staying in one location for a period of time, the Vikings encamped on river islands or on easily defensible river banks. Since longships were not designed to carry horses, the Norsemen captured or bought horses from local residents. The horses allowed them to raid deep inland.

The main goal of a Viking raid was to carry off portable valuables and slaves. It was a common tactic for Vikings to demand tribute of gold, silver, or foodstuffs in exchange for sparing a town from looting. After gathering plunder in one place, the Vikings frequently sailed to another location. Here they would trade their loot with the locals and return to raiding farther down the line.

The Vikings regularly targeted churches and monasteries because they held considerable wealth. The well-known vulnerability of religious institutions made them attractive targets. In the course of plundering these ecclesiastical institutions, the Norsemen would indiscriminately slaughter monks and clerics. While Christian combatants, for the most part, left churches and holy sites unmolested, the pagan Norsemen harbored no such inhibitions.

The first Viking attack against Charlemagne’s empire came in 799. Charlemagne responded by establishing a defensive system the following year north of the Seine estuary. The Franks fortified key coastal locations and conducted regular ship patrols in river estuaries. This initially helped prevent Viking river raids.

After Charlemagne’s death in 814, his empire was divided among his three sons. The power struggle among his progeny prevented the Franks from bringing the full weight of their defensive resources against the Viking menace. By the middle of the 9th century, the Vikings had firm control of large parts of France’s northern coast and regularly raided along the Seine and Loire Rivers.

The Vikings eventually began colonizing large swaths of territory in the lands they regularly raided. They built settlements in England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland, and northern France beginning in the 9th century. Local rulers frequently made treaties with strong Viking chieftains, bestowing land grants and hiring Viking mercenaries. In some internecine clashes between Frankish domains, Viking war bands served on both sides.

Count Odo’s successful direction of the defense of Paris solidified his military reputation and ultimately led to his succession to the West Frankish throne.

The Vikings established a particularly strong presence in Neustria, the northwestern Frankish territory that extended from the Loire River to the south of modern Belgium. A powerful Viking chieftain named Rollo controlled the Seine estuary and territory as much as 50 miles inland. This put Paris within easy striking distance.

The first Viking attack on Paris came in 845 under the war chief Reginherus. After plundering the city, the Vikings withdrew after King Charles II the Bald of West Francia paid an exorbitant ransom of almost 5,200 pounds in gold and silver. The Vikings returned three more times in the 860s but withdrew after being bought off with sufficient bribes while looting the surrounding countryside and burning churches.

Charles eschewed battle with the Vikings instead, he channeled his resources toward the construction of fortifications along the Seine and other rivers that would prevent the passage of Viking longships. In his Edict of Pistres in 864, the King of West Francia detailed the need to strengthen key locations in France against the raids. He ordered fortified bridges constructed at all towns on major rivers to prevent Viking longships from passing beyond them.

In addition, Charles the Bald revamped the lantweri system under which all able-bodied men were required to report for service against the invaders. The king forbade his people from trading in arms and horses with the Norsemen. He made selling or trading horses with the Vikings a crime punishable by death.

The pattern of Viking raids changed by the time another large host of Norsemen arrived at Paris in 885. King Alfred’s last Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex in Great Britain withstood the Viking onslaught, while large parts of the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia were divided between powerful Viking leaders, forming an extensive swath of territory called the Danelaw. With no new profitable territory to conquer, those Viking war bands yet to gain their fortune turned their attention to the European continent.

A large coalition of Viking forces assembled in the territory controlled by Rollo in July 885 in preparation for a large-scale campaign against West Francia. The main forces belonged to Rollo and Earl Sigfred, another powerful chieftain, who were joined by several smaller bands. Neither Rollo nor Sigfred was in overall command of the assembled host. The combined Viking forces first sacked Rouen, after which they advanced against Pont-de-l’Arche, a fortified bridge on the Seine River 10 miles southeast of the city. A small body of Frankish troops under the command of Count Ragenold, Margrave of Neustria, assembled at the bridge to oppose the Vikings. The Vikings soundly defeated the Franks at Pont-de-l’Arche on July 25, 885. Ragenold was slain in the sharp clash.

On the move again in early November after solidifying their hold on Rouen, the Vikings advanced overland and by river to the fortified bridge where the Oise River joins the Seine. Easily capturing the bridge on the Oise, the Vikings continued to Paris. As they drew closer to Paris, the locals began fleeing their homes to safety deeper inland or taking shelter behind the walls of Paris on the Ile de la Cité, bringing their valuables and foodstuffs with them.

Among the refugees taking shelter in Paris was a young Benedictine monk named Abbo Cernuus. Abbo was a monk at the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés. He came from the region between the Seine and the Loire and was in Paris during the siege. A decade later Abbo wrote an extensive Latin poem called Bella Parisiacae Urbis describing the events that unfolded at Paris in 885-886. While the verse is at times exaggerated, flowery, and grandiloquent, Abbo nonetheless supplies many crucial details about events that could only have been provided by a witness.

Arriving before Paris on or about November 25, 885, the Vikings under Rollo and Sigfred found their way upriver barred by two low-slung fortified bridges. The shorter bridge, the Petit Pont, which linked the island to the south bank, was constructed of wood. Its bridgehead was fortified by the Petit Chatelet, a wooden tower. The longer, northern span, known as the Grand Pont, was made out of stone, with crenellations along its length. Its bridgehead was defended by the stone Grand Chatelet, which was only partially completed. Nevertheless, its foundations were solid and stood firmly grounded. Catapults and ballistae mounted on city walls could take under fire any ship attempting to reach the Ile de la Cité along either channel of the Seine River.

Count Odo of Paris and Bishop Gauzlin of St. Denis directed the defense of Paris on behalf of King Charles. Odo was an experienced warrior whose father, Robert the Strong, Count of Anjou, was killed on July 2, 866, in a clash with a force of Viking-Breton raiders at Brissarthe on the right bank of the Loire. Gauzlin had no love for the Vikings, having been captured in 858 with his younger brother Louis. The Norsemen released their captives upon payment of a substantial ransom.

The force defending Paris was a meager one. In addition to a handful of nobles, there were approximately 200 troops, according to Abbo. He was most likely only counting men-at-arms trained for war. With this in mind, there might also have been lightly armed spearmen and crossbowmen from the local militia. These men would have handled mundane tasks such as standing watch and hauling supplies.

The year-long attack by the Norsemen on Paris was the first time that the Vikings conducted a formal siege as opposed to a swift raid.

When it became apparent the Vikings were threatening Paris itself, preparations began in earnest. “For very hastily arrows were being sharpened, repaired, forged, and bucklers were all sorted out even old arms were restored,” wrote Abbo. “Seven hundred high-prowed ships and very many smaller ones, along with an enormous multitude of smaller vessels” sailed up the Seine carrying 40,000 Norsemen, according to Abbo. A more accurate estimate, though, is that the Viking army consisted of 12,000 men traveling in 300 ships.

Rather than demanding tribute from Paris, Rollo and Sigfred initially requested free passage up the Seine River. “Give us your consent that we might go our way, well beyond this city,” they purportedly said. “Nothing in it shall we touch, but shall preserve and safeguard.” To add weight to their request, the Vikings threatened to attack Paris if free passage was refused. Co-commanders Odo and Gauzlin, unfazed by the threats, flatly refused to accommodate the Vikings.

Having been refused passage, the Vikings attacked on November 26. They sought to overwhelm the defenders in a single, furious assault. Vikings armed with swords and axes assailed the towers guarding the two bridges. They were supported by Viking archers in the longships on the river who showered the defenders with arrows. Another large body of Vikings landed on the Ile de la Cité and attempted to scale the city walls.

Furious fighting erupted all around the city, especially at the towers. Braving Viking archers in the boats, defenders rushed reinforcements to the towers. Especially heavy fighting broke out at the Grand Chatelet. Unable to break down the gates, a group of Vikings attacked the base of the tower with picks. The defenders “served them up with oil and wax and pitch, which was all mixed up together and made into hot liquid on a furnace,” wrote Abbo. Engulfed in flames, Vikings struck by the fire writhed on the ground, while others jumped in the river to extinguish the flames. More Vikings joined the fight at the Grand Chatelet as defenders fired arrows and dropped stones on the crowd of attackers at the bottom of the tower.

After several hours of fighting in which they failed to gain a foothold in any place, the Vikings withdrew. They fell back, taking their dead with them. The Vikings had some female family members with them on the campaign, and the women began heckling their men for retreating. A number of Vikings renewed the attack against the Grand Chatelet and attempted to set its gate on fire, as their “[women’s] rude mouths drove them to make their own domed furnace near the bottom of the tower,” wrote Abbo. The attackers made a breach in the tower’s foundation but were not able to break in against the defenders’ determined resistance. Likewise, the Vikings attacking the walls on the Ile de la Cité boarded their ships and withdrew. The defenders completed the upper story of the Grand Chatelet during the night using wooden planks.

During the next several days, the Vikings cut down a large tree, which they fashioned into a battering ram mounted on a wheeled frame with overhead cover. Once the ram was completed, the Vikings advanced against the Grand Chatelet, taking cover under the ram frame’s overhead protection and behind its large wheels. At the same time, more Vikings landed from their ships on the island and attacked the city walls. Both Count Odo and Bishop Gauzlin were in the thick of the fighting. They shouted encouragement to their men. Their very presence prevented panic. Gauzlin, firing a bow from the city wall, was lightly wounded by a Viking arrow. Despite their best efforts, the second Viking attack against Paris failed as well.

Recognizing that Paris could not be taken by storm, the Vikings settled in for a protracted siege and began raiding deeper into the countryside for provisions. In early December, they established a permanent camp on the right side of the river in the area of the modern-day suburb of Saint-Denis. Their camp was protected by stone and earth ramparts and a deep ditch bristling with sharpened stakes.

After looting the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés, the Vikings turned it into a stable for their horses. They also established an outpost on the left side of the river to blockade the Petit Chatelet. Like a horde of locusts, the Vikings stripped the countryside. In the process, they indiscriminately killed local residents who had the misfortune of falling into their hands.

“The Danes ransacked and despoiled, massacred, and burned and ravaged,” wrote Abbo. “The men in arms, in their keenness to flee, sought out the woods. No one stayed to be found everyone fled.” Abbo lamented that the people of the countryside put up no opposition to the Vikings, allowing them to plunder at will. “The Danes took away on their ships all that was splendid in this good realm, all that was the pride of this famous region.”

As the Great Siege of Paris wore on, the Vikings constructed two additional rams and began building siege weapons that Abbo described as mangonels and catapults. They also removed a belfry from one of the churches and used it as a mobile tower, shooting arrows from its slits. Abbo says that the Franks attempted to interfere with these efforts by firing their own defensive weapons at the Vikings. “Then from the tower was launched a javelin, shot with great force and accuracy,” he wrote.

Whether the Vikings had siege engines is subject to debate. They likely had been exposed to siege engines in the course of their various campaigns against the Anglo-Saxons and Franks. Owing to the shallow draft of their longships and their initial intentions to raid farther upriver, it is highly unlikely that Rollo and Sigfred brought siege artillery with them. Instead, they would have detailed work parties to construct them on site. The siege weapons the Vikings built during the siege would have been of simple design and not the torsion-powered onagers or ballistas capable of knocking down stone walls. Such weapons did not arrive in northern Europe until the late 12th century.

Most fortifications in the early Medieval Era were made of earth and wood and would typically be brought down by fire and mining. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the skills of siege-engine building in Europe largely fell into disuse, and only the crudest forms existed. The siege engines known to the Vikings were most likely descendants of Roman field artillery pieces, basically slinging perrier engines and giant crossbows, for no engine in the medieval period depended upon torsion power. The term “mangonel” used by Abbo is derived from the Greek “magganon,” meaning “engine of war.” The term is frequently used interchangeably with any stone-throwing catapult, including the onager and ballista.

Once the Vikings had constructed a number of siege weapons, they launched another attack. “Into the city they hurled a thousand pots of molten lead, and the turrets on the bridges were knocked down by the catapults,” wrote Abbo. The new attack, both along the bank and from the river, was against the Grand Chatelet and the Grand Pont. The Vikings attacking the Grand Chatelet formed a testudo. “They advanced behind painted shields held up above to form a life-preserving vault,” Abbo wrote. “Not one of them dared lift his head out from under it. And yet underneath they felt constant blows.”

The defenders again rushed to the threatened areas, and defensive fire was taking a great toll on the attackers. Abbo says, “No path to the city was left unstained by the blood of men.” Numerous Frankish monks from the despoiled monasteries fought among the Paris defenders. Abbo described an incident during the attack when a Viking warrior was struck in the mouth by an arrow. A second man rushed to help him and was struck down in turn, and then a third man succumbed to the same fate before their comrades formed a wall of shields around them and pulled them to safety under the covering fire of their own archers. Abbo noted that the Viking arrows were poisoned. After several hours of fighting, this attack petered out as well.

Parisian defenders atop the Grand Chatelet tower rain down arrows and stones on the attacking Norsemen.

Periodic attacks continued through December and into January 886, primarily directed against the Grand Chatelet. In the lull between the assaults, the defenders dug ditches around the tower, reducing the usefulness of the Vikings’ rams by making it difficult to drag them into position. To ease the approach of the rams, one group of Vikings would attack the tower, while others began filling in ditches with debris, animal carcasses, and the corpses of captured Franks.

To further counteract the battering rams, the defenders constructed so-called ram-catchers that they used to immobilize the ram’s log. “[These] hefty shafts of hard wood, each one pierced at the far end with a keen tooth of iron, with which to strike rapidly at the siege engines of the Danes,” Abbo explained.

The Viking assaults also came under fire from Frankish heavy weapons. For their part, the Franks also constructed mangonels using thick planks. These instruments of death and destruction “shot forth great, massive stones that landed cruelly, smashing utterly the humble shelters of the vile Danes the brains of those wretches were battered out of their sculls,” Abbo wrote.

Failing to take the Grand Chatelet, the Vikings undertook a new tactic against the Grand Pont Bridge: They portaged three ships a short distance around the city on February 2, 886, and placed them back in the water upriver. The Vikings then loaded these ships with firewood and set them ablaze. “Spewing flames, these ships began to drift from east to west they were guided and pulled by taut ropes along the river bank,” wrote Abbo. “The enemy hoped either to burn the bridge or the tower.”

Count Odo conducts a sortie against the Vikings besieging Paris. The Franks often sallied forth at night to attack Viking outposts and bring back prisoners who were interrogated and then executed.

The fire ships rammed into “a high heap of stones, so that no harm came to the bridge,” wrote Abbo. The defenders put out the fires with water from the river and then kept the hulks to use as they saw fit. During the attack against the bridge, the Vikings left the rams unguarded, so the Franks sallied forth from the Grand Chatelet tower and captured and destroyed two of them.

The siege of Paris dragged on through the winter, with rains adding to the misery of the besiegers huddled in their camps. During the night of February 6, the rain-swollen Seine River overflowed its banks, and the bridge supports of the wooden Petit Pont failed, leaving the Petit Chatelet tower isolated on the left bank. The following morning, the Vikings launched a strong attack against the vulnerable wooden tower, which was defended by just a dozen Franks. Braving the defenders’ arrows, the Vikings pushed a wagon loaded with hay against the tower and set it ablaze. Despite the defenders’ attempts to suppress it, the fire spread, forcing the Franks to retreat to the remnants of the destroyed bridge. The defenders formed a small shield wall bristling with swords at the bridgehead and braced for a fight to the death.

The Vikings promised to spare them if the Franks surrendered to be held for ransom. Faced with certain death otherwise, the 12 defenders laid down their arms. Believing a Frank named Eriveus to be a person of some importance, the Vikings bound him with ropes with the intention of ransoming him. The others, not so fortunate, were put to the sword by their captors. Seeing his comrades being slaughtered, Eriveus demanded to share their fate. The Vikings obliged him by slaying him the following day. They then tore down the remains of the burned tower and flung the bodies of the slaughtered defenders into the river.

With the obstacle of the Petit Pont removed, restless Earl Sigfred took his men on a major operation up the Seine River, raiding over a wide swath of the Frankish interior south of Paris, from Troyes to Le Mans. Believing the Viking camp on the right bank abandoned, Abbot Ebolus from the St. Denis Monastery sallied across Grand Pont with a small troop of soldiers intending to destroy the camp and free his despoiled home. But Rollo and his men were still in the camp, and Ebolus had to beat a hasty retreat back to Paris.

With the numbers of besiegers reduced by Sigfred’s departure and the environs of Paris being sparsely patrolled, Count Odo was able to send several messengers through enemy lines with requests for relief. He appealed for help to Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fat, who was campaigning in Italy, and his senior military commander, Count Heinrich of Fulda. As the Margrave of Saxony, Heinrich was the senior Carolingian commander in East Francia and had led several successful campaigns against the Vikings in the recent past.

Responding to Odo’s call for relief, Count Heinrich arrived at the siege of Paris in March 886. He and his men were exhausted from having made a forced march in inclement weather. Heinrich led his Frankish troops in a surprise night attack against the Viking camp but was thrown back. After a few more days of desultory skirmishing, Heinrich withdrew to Saxony.

Shortly after Count Heinrich’s departure, Sigfred returned to Paris and added his men to the siege. Heinrich’s unsuccessful attempt to lift the siege and Sigfred’s return had an understandably adverse effect on the defenders’ morale. In late March, Odo and Gauzlin were forced to enter into negotiations with the Viking leaders however, the negotiations with Odo fell apart when the Vikings made an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap him during the talks. Despite this, Gauzlin continued negotiations and reached a separate agreement with Sigfred. The agreement stipulated that the church would pay Sigfred 60 pounds of silver to vacate the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés and quit the siege of Paris. Abbo seems to have differentiated in his account between the church’s ecclesiastical authority and Odo’s administrative authority.

Gauzlin’s tribute came at an opportune time, for the Vikings did not have the temperament for long sieges, and their morale had dipped considerably. After taking possession of the silver, Sigfred led his warriors farther inland in search of more plunder.

Rollo continued his siege of Paris because he wanted to establish a permanent presence on the Seine River. He undertook another assault against the Grand Chatelet, but it was repulsed. As the siege dragged on, the situation inside Paris became dire, with an outbreak of plague carrying away many Parisians. One of them was Gauzlin, who succumbed to the plague on April 16, 886.

In late May 886, Odo himself slipped out of Paris, leaving Abbot Ebolus in charge of the defenses. Under command of the fighting abbot, the defenders conducted frequent nighttime sallies against Viking sentries and outposts and sometimes brought back prisoners who were executed after being questioned.

Count Odo returned to Paris in June 866 with a small body of fresh troops and some supplies, coming up from the direction of Montmartre. The Danes attempted to block his approach, but, aided by a sally from the Grand Chatelet, Odo and his men were able to fight through to Paris.

West Frankish King Charles the Fat paid the Vikings 700 pounds of silver as tribute and sent them off to plunder the rebellious Burgundians.

The Vikings launched sporadic attacks against Paris throughout the summer and well into the autumn. King Charles the Fat arrived in October 886 with a large body of troops drawn from various lands. To the chagrin of the Paris defenders, the king did not attack the Vikings but established his own camp on the heights of Montmartre and entered into negotiations with Rollo. Charles the Fat promised Rollo 700 pounds in silver, to share with Sigfred, if he were to lift the siege and withdraw. Since the sum was significant, Charles requested until March of 887 to gather the money. In the meantime, Charles promised the Vikings free passage to pillage the Duchy of Burgundy, which was in revolt against his authority.

After campaigning for several months in Burgundy, during which time they unsuccessfully besieged Sens, Rollo and Sigfred returned to Paris in late 886. True to his word, King Charles paid the tribute, and the Vikings finally withdrew from Paris. Sigfred moved on to Friesland, where he was later killed in battle.

Rollo fared much better. In addition to the monetary tribute, Charles the Fat gave Rollo a land grant along the lower Seine River. Rollo made Rouen his base. While similar land grants to other Viking chieftains eventually reverted to the locals, Rollo’s land grant remained in effect. The territory under his control was known as the land of the Norsemen, who became known as Normans. This region soon became the Duchy of Normandy. Rollo’s progeny and followers became more French than Danish, and Rollo’s direct descendent William the Conqueror came to rule England in the 11th century.

King Charles the Fat, loathed by Frankish nobles and notables for the shameful capitulation to the Vikings, died on January 13, 888. Count Odo, whose reputation had been enormously enhanced by his role in the defense of Paris, was elected king shortly afterward by the nobles of the realm. Odo was crowned king of West Francia in February 888. When a Viking force threatened Paris that summer, Odo’s troops defeated it at Montfaucon Forest on June 24, 888. Over the course of the next quarter century, Viking war bands appeared in the vicinity of Paris several more times, but they never attacked the city.


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