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Prologue: The Viking Age


Nostra conservando corpora et cutodita, de gente fera Normannica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna

(Preserve us and ours, O God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms)

Antiphony of St Vaast or St Medard (ca 870)


In the year 793 the monks of Lindisfarne priory were interrupted from their evening meditations by an astonishing sight. Fiery dragons appeared in the night sky, wheeling menacingly above the island monastery before vanishing into the darkness. Sheets of lightning followed, spreading out in vast arcs above the priory roof, outlining the building with an unearthly flame. A few weeks later the dragons returned, but this time they were carved into the prows of ships. When they beached, wild men carrying strange rune-covered swords came swarming out, overtaking the monks before they could flee to safety. Neither the old nor the infirm were spared as the cloister was ravaged. Gold and silver plate was seized, precious vestments were torn from their hangings, and even the ossuaries were smashed open in search of valuables. When there was nothing left to plunder, the invaders loaded everything into their ships and departed as quickly as they had come, leaving behind the corpses scattered as a cleric later wrote like so much dung in the streets.  

It was only a taste of the storm to come. For the better part of the next two centuries the Viking onslaught broke on northern Europe, ripping apart kingdoms and leaving coastal cities almost deserted. The brutal assault was made worse by the thoroughly alien nature of these Norse warriors from Scandinavia. Unlike the majority of people in Western Europe they weren’t Christianized; they recognized no church sanctuary and showed no mercy. Worshiping their terrible berserker3 god Odin, the one-eyed, raven deity that inspired divine madness, these hulking warriors didn’t seem to feel pain and would attack with teeth and nails when their weapons were gone. Clothed in the skins of wolves or bears, they appeared like some bestial scourge from the frozen north.  

These cunning warriors were no mere brutes though, and were capable of remarkable sophistication. Thanks to a clever Viking innovation in shipbuilding that eliminated the need for a keel, they could sail up even the shallowest rivers, and it was this mobility that made them truly lethal. Even inland cities, long thought to be safe from seafaring raids, were now in range. 

There seemed to be no limit to their wanderlust. Sailing to the west, Norse adventurers colonized Iceland, Greenland, and eventually, as is now generally recognized, the New World. In Ireland they founded the city of Dublin, in Muslim Spain4 they seized the city of Seville, and in Africa they raided the Moroccan coast. Cruising up the coast of Italy they sacked the largest city they could find, and returned to Scandinavia boasting that they had conquered Rome. The fact that it was actually Luna, center of the Italian marble trade, was beside the point. No city was safe. 

The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England was among the first to be buffeted by the storm. Viking raiders overran York, captured London, and butchered at least two English kings5 as a sacrifice to Odin. Other Vikings sailed east, and found their way to the Black Sea, where they were daring enough to try an attack on mighty Constantinople. Called the ‘Rus’ by the Byzantines, these Vikings carved out settlements among the Slavic populations of northeastern Europe, and gave their name to the land of Russia. 

A major target of Viking activity was what today is northern France. The Norsemen were interested in loot, and there was no more tempting target than the Frankish Empire. 

By the year 800, it looked as if the great western dream of restarting the Roman Empire had become a reality. The Frankish king, Charlemagne, had hammered together the lands of France, Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy into a single state, and the pope had crowned him emperor of this new Roman Empire.6 Trade flourished, learning was revived, and wealth poured into Frankish treasuries. Charlemagne built a magnificent palace at his capital of Aachen, dazzled his subjects with a court that seemed to drip with gold, and even toyed with the idea of marrying the Byzantine Empress in a bid to unite the lands of the old Roman Empire. At his death in 814 it looked as if the Mediterranean-spanning Pax Romana would dawn again under Frankish leadership.   

Unfortunately for the Franks, none of Charlemagne’s successors ever quite measured up to him, a fact made painfully obvious by the nicknames their depressed subjects gave them. Charlemagne’s first son got the best of the lot as Louis the Pious, but it went downhill from there. After Louis came Charles the Bald, Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat, Louis the Blind, and so on.  

Guided by these feeble rulers after the death of Charlemagne and hopelessly divided, the Frankish lands were both wealthy and weak, a lethal combination which quickly attracted the attention of the predatory Vikings. By the end of the century the attacks had become so frequent that many coastal towns had to be abandoned, and even Paris was briefly occupied. The helpless Frankish kings, unable to match Viking speed, resorted to a disastrous policy of bribing the invaders to leave, but this only bankrupted the treasury and convinced the Vikings that the Franks were indeed weak. In 880 the ultimate humiliation occurred when Charlemagne’s old capital of Aachen fell to the invaders, and its citizens were forced to watch as Viking horses were stabled in the magnificent palace chapel. The Frankish king responded to the crisis (as he did to most others) by sending a massive payment of gold and silver, and the now fabulously wealthy Vikings lumbered off, struggling to carry all their loot.  

This victory marked a subtle change in Viking tactics. By now their thoughts had turned from plunder to settlement, and the northern seacoast looked particularly inviting. There was little to fear from the Frankish military; Vikings could besiege even major cities with virtual impunity. The difficulty lay in choosing an appropriate spot at which to settle. The Norse were men of the sea they were often called ‘sea wolves’ by their victims so any permanent location had to have easy access to water. Paris and Aachen may have been rich targets, but they were too far from the coast to make suitable bases. Ironically, it was a Viking defeat, not a victory, which provided the perfect location. 

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