Main source: «Vikinger i krig» – Kim Hjardar & Vegard Vike, Spartacus, Oslo

In the very enjoyable tv-series Vikings, we are presented with a largely fictionalized version of the beginning of the Viking raids in Europe, led by characters that are known both from myth and history, such as Ragnar, Hárek, “Rollo” . I have, earlier, criticized the series for its extremely easy dealings with known history, especially if seen from the perspective of the Norse (they are not that bad at describing this era from an English point of view). Leaving sour criticism aside, the series is enjoyable in many ways, but makes a historian want to rectify some of the information. I have gone through and summarized parts of a chapter on the Vikings in Francia from Hjardar & Vike´s book “Vikinger I krig” (Vikings at War) which offers a far more historically correct background to what is now about to happen in season 3; the attacks on Francia.


The English monk Alkuin of York, one of his time´s foremost intellectuals, was also the main advisor for the Frankish king Charlemagne. After the Viking attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne in 792, he had tried to discuss the “viking problem” with the king. But when the first great attack on Francia happened at St. Philbert´s monastery on the island Noirmoutier at the Loire river in 799, Charlemagne had not yet presented a military solution to the problem.

After the attack on Noirmoutier, Charlemagne was forced to take the threat from the Vikings more seriously. One of the most important measures was to build coastal forts by the important river estuaries.

But the conflict between the Heathen “Danes” (all Scandinavians were, by definition, “Danes” to the 8th century Christian nations, who knew nothing of Norway and Sweden) and the Christian Franks was not new. When the Franks invaded Heathen Sachsen/Saxony (in north-Germany) towards the end of the 8th century, parts of the Saxon nobility sought refuge in Denmark and continued the resistance from there. The already tense relationship between the Danish king, Sigurd Ring, and Charlemagne, was steadily tenser during this era, particularly so because Sigurd Ring protected the Saxon leaders. The most important Saxon chief, Widukind, was Sigurd´s brother-in-law, and they were by that relation oath-bound to help each other, something Charlemagne disliked.

Sigurd´s emissaries partook in a great conference between Charlemagne and the Saxons in Sachsen in 782 (a few years before the first Viking attack on Lindisfarne), and the Danish support of the Saxons was one of the main points of discussion. One of the results was a peace treaty between Widukind and Charlemagne. That Charlemagne executed 4500 Saxons and systematically destroyed Saxon Heathen sanctuaries may have forced Widukind to fully surrender the same year. Sachsen was left standing as a partly independent nation for some time after his surrender.  

But the news about the mass murder on Saxons, fellow Heathens, and the violent destruction of their sanctuaries, spread throughout the whole of Scandinavia and led, on a short term, to a Scandinavian unwillingness to beget conflict with the Franks. Sigurd Ring was cautious and did not want to provoke such a formidable enemy, and agreed to a contract where he promised not to interfere in the conflicts between Francia and Sachsen.

Yet in the long term, the bitter story of religious humiliation and mass murder also led to Scandinavian bitterness and vengefulness against the Christian world and may have played an important reason for many of the first Viking attacks (that targeted Christian sanctuaries and monasteries, and the high-profile sanctuaries in particular). Sigurd Ring´s own sons (among them the famous Ragnarr Lodbrok) were among the more zealous in their vengeance against the Christian world, and many Danes had powerful ties of kinship to the Saxons. They had grown up with the memories of the massacre at Verden, and the hatred against the Franks was well-nourished among the Danish warrior elite.

It took some twenty years after 782 before the Scandinavian countries really became a threat to the Franks (time for these young men to grow up). When Charlemagne decided to continue the invasion of Sachsen in 798, Viking attacks increased – firstly in England, which was less protected and with whom there was no known treaty of peace, but when Sigurd Ring died in 799 came the first attack on Frankish shores, and the new king, Godfred (Guðröð), Sigurd´s son, refused the Frankish demand that he should not receive Saxon refugees, what created further seeds for conflict between Denmark and Francia.

When the Saxons had been fully defeated (and nearly exterminated) in 804, Sachsen became a buffer zone between the two lands, a no-man´s land, a borderland, hardly populated at all. Charlemagne left it to the Vendian Abodrites to defend the area.

Another area of much discussion was the rich and thickly populated Friesland (by the west-coast of Germany). The Danes had been demanding taxes from Friesland ever since the early 700ds, and Charlemagne did not want Friesland to be controlled by the Danes. He invited king Guðröð to a meeting where he demanded the extradition of Saxon refugees as well as Christian slaves who had been taken on raids. Rather than such stern demands, Guðröð had expected a discussion of borders and possible equal friend relationships between the countries and had mustered an army and dressed fashionably, in order to appear on an equal standing with the emperor, and left the meeting feeling shamed.

The conflict with the emperor caused disagreements within the Danish power elite; there was a fraction that supported Guðröð and his aggressive, confrontational style, and another fraction that supported old Sigurd Ring´s desire for peaceful solutions. The conflict culminated in the massive departure of Danish noblemen from Denmark. Some of them traveled to Francia and were received well by Charlemagne. Others went to England and Friesland, where they began raiding.


The Abodrites and other Vendian peoples now lived between two opposing and quite hostile forces. If they allied themselves with the Danes, they risked Frankish expeditions of punishment into their lands. If they supported the Franks, they risked Danish attacks. Between two evils, they chose the Christian emperor.

According to old semi-democratic Scandinavian laws, the kings could only muster the people´s army every fourth year, so after having brought the army to the meeting in Friesland in 804, Guðröð had to wait until 808 before he could become offensive again. He then led a massive punishment campaign against the Abodrites in Mecklenburg and their allies. Guðröð brought all the surviving traders, craftsmen and their families to Denmark and placed them in Hedeby, close to the Frankish border, where he also began working on strengthening the great defensive wall, Danevirke, and other defensive measures.


In 810, there was no more trust between the Danes and the Franks. It appears that the Danes already considered themselves at war with the Franks over border issues, Friesland and Sachsen. Guðröð had so much support that he managed to raise an army even if there had not yet been four years since the last time, and began by attacking Friesland, which had been considered Frankish territory (by the Franks) since the 770s, and the attack taxed the Frankish income from Frisian trade as well as their status as protectors of the Frisian realm.

Charlemagne sat in Aachen, busy planning the attack against Denmark, when he received the shocking news of the Danish attack. The Frankish annals explain that a fleet of 200 Danish ships had been plundering all the coastal islands, disembarked and beaten the Frisians in three battles, and that the Danish army now was very close to Aachen (the Frankish capital at the time). The Franks panicked and raised local armies, but then heard that Guðröð was dead, which confused them.

The truth was that Guðröð was in fact dead, murdered by one of his own men. His nephew Hemming, who belonged to the opposing “peace party” (still one of the two fractions within Denmark since Sigurd Ring – the “war party” was known as “the Hawks”), surprisingly assumed power.

The first thing that happened was that Heming made peace with Charlemagne. Guðröð´s son fled with the Hawks to Scania (south-west Sweden). In 811 a treaty agreed on the border between Denmark and Francia, which meant that Danish chiefs and kings no longer could expect tax income from Friesland, Sachsen and the Vendian tribes in the east. These were not popular news among the Danish chiefs, and Heming was only allowed two years of reign before he was dethroned and replaced by the brothers Harald Klak and Reginfred, supported by the Franks who did not wish the sons of Sigurd Ring to sit on the Danish throne.

The coup led to a series of rebellions around the Danish kingdom. In 812, Harald Klak and Reginfred had to travel to Norway and quench a rebellion in Vestfold (the Danes ruled most of the tribes of southern Sweden and Norway during this era), returning victorious in 813. But in the absence of the two kings, one of Guðröð´s sons, Hárek, took power in Denmark! This is the Hárek that appears in the TV series “Vikings”, although the historical background to his person has been erased in the series.

As Hárek took power in Denmark, Reginfred was killed and Harald Klak had to flee to Francia.

Charlemagne died in 814, and it was his son Louis the Pious who received Harald Klak. Louis planned to make Harald into a vassal king in a conquered Denmark. He planned to conquer Denmark with the help of Abodrites and Saxons. But the invasion failed miserably due to weak ice on the Elbe, giving the Danes more than enough time to get out of their reach and into more favorable positions.

In 819, Hárek invited Harald Klak home to rule jointly, apparently favorable to the Franks. There was never any direct military conflict between the Franks and the perpetually evading Danes. What appeared to begin as a new Frankish expansion, however, drowned in the internal conflicts within Francia – and a desperate battle to prevent increasingly numerous Viking raids from all over Scandinavia.


The attacks on Frankish coast sites had begun in 799 and repeated themselves until 810, when there was a ten year break due to the political situations described above.

In the 820s, one of the first large Viking fleets entered Francia. These fleets represented a new, serious threat to the stability of Francia. Between 820 and 830, the fleets reached far into the country, as deep as Orleans and Paris. By the 830s, Vikings began to establish themselves within Francia, building fortresses.  By the 840s, Viking towns were created, such as the famous one in Rouen in what came to be known as Normandie. Between 880 and 895, there was a renewed interest in attacking monasteries.

Among the most famous Vikings who kept attacking in Francia was Ragnarr, possibly the same as Ragnarr Lodbrok (or a son of his), who was sent by king Hárek and began attacking Francia with a large fleet in 845. Scandinavian legends tell us that Ragnarr was a son or descendant of Sigurd Ring, half-brother to king Hárek. These were the first Vikings to reach Paris. I believe this is the background to the season 3 of “Vikings” description of the attacks on Francia, although the creators of the series have largely ignored most of the historical details (such as those described in this article). We also get to hear about Rollo, the Viking leader who established the realm of Normandie. However, this did not happen until after the year 900, when Hárek and Ragnar were long dead. Rollo was the Frankish way of saying the Norse “Hrolf” (the tv-series have largely ignored the Norse names and opted for the Frankish and English versions).






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