Between the 9th and 11th centuries, no one in Western Europe was safe from the Vikings’ barbarity. From Scandinavia to Scottish and English shores, Brittany, and even the Americas, the Vikings sailed the seas and invaded the land they came across. One particular warrior chief made a name for himself as a fierce and cunning fighter, spreading terror everywhere he landed: Ragnar Lodbrok.
Who Was the Legendary Ragnar Lodbrok?
One of the Vikings’ best-known kings is the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. He was known as a fearless and cunning warrior who conquered every land he set his eyes upon. In the Christian world, Ragnar was known as a bold warrior, devastating and plundering the northwest of France. Several documents also mention him as a great Swedish and Danish king, known for his military exploits in Britain and Western Europe. Ragnar and his sons terrorized Europe for decades. Yet, the reported facts are not unanimous. It is difficult to sort out where the story ends and the legend begins.
Despite his reputation as a merciless warrior, Lodbrok was also a tradesman. After looting extensive goods, he became a skilled tradesman to sell his treasures. Vikings sailed along two main trade routes to reach the Mediterranean sea and North Africa: one circumventing the British Isles and the other passing through the English Channel. They also sailed along rivers all over Europe. Vikings durably established trade in cities such as Dublin or Kyiv. They exchanged precious materials found in their homeland, such as amber, walrus ivory, and animal furs, for spices, metals, and every material they could not find at home. Vikings took advantage of these trips to capture men, women, and children in order to sell them on as slaves at eastern markets.
The Kingdom of the West Franks
At the beginning of the 9th century, the mighty Charlemagne ruled over the Carolingian Empire, which covered most of continental Europe. The empire’s territory was vast and well-guarded by Charlemagne’s armies, especially against the Vikings. It had been several decades since the population of West Francia was confronted with wars or invasions. After the death of Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious, several heirs quarreled over the crown. With the Treaty of Verdun, the empire was split into three territories headed by Charlemagne’s grandsons: Lothair became King of Middle Francia. Louis II, the German, took over the Kingdom of East Francia, and Charles the Bald was King of West Francia.
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West Francia stretched from northern Spain to the Flanders region in today’s Belgium. The kingdom preceded the kingdom of France. Though kings had already made Paris their capital in the past, the city had temporarily lost its role under Charlemagne and his successors’ reigns.
Charles the Bald, king of West Francia, focused all his military efforts on fighting against his brothers to maintain the integrity of his territory. He also fought against Brittany, which was not part of his realm. Yet, by doing so, he left the rest of his kingdom unguarded and helpless. Vikings were well aware of this fraternal quarrel and took full advantage of the situation by multiplying their raids against West Francia. Ragnar’s military genius came from his ability to choose good timing for his attacks.
Lodbrok’s Invasion of West Francia
Vikings made their first raids in West Francia around 820. Coastal armies quickly defeated them as the Vikings were not prepared enough. Approximately twenty years later, however, in 841, the Vikings and their chief Asgeir started to head up the Seine river, destroying and looting all the cities, villages, and abbeys they came across. As they met almost no resistance, the Vikings quickly spread inland.
The first casualties along the Vikings’ path were religious communities such as Saint-Ouen Abbey in Rouen and Jumièges Abbey. The surviving monks abandoned their monasteries. After the Viking raids, all the religious communities were left penniless, scattered across the kingdom.
As all medieval life was ruled by religion, the mere idea of attacking its representatives was inconceivable. It contributed to the Vikings’ terrifying reputation. As abbeys were not fortified and monks were not armed, religious communities possessing large amounts of wealth and goods were easy targets.
Why Were People so Afraid of Vikings?
If Vikings dominated Europe for so many years, it was because they possessed something other nations did not; the craftsmanship to build powerful ships. Carpenters skilfully crafted Viking ships. They did not go deep into the water, enabling them to sail through shallow waters as well as deep seas.
The Vikings also developed a very effective invasion technique. They usually knew the locals’ customs well and chose times when local populations least expected their assault. They swiftly raided villages and cities, looting what value they could find and setting fire to houses and buildings, bringing chaos and disorder among the populus.
Vikings were masters in the art of terrorizing their victims. Even their appearance scared the bravest of men. These tall and strong warriors with long hair and beard may have had tattoos and dark powder around their eyes, highlighting their icy gaze. They also used to make loud sounds, screaming and banging their weapons on their shield.
The Vikings had powerful weapons too, including swords made of iron and steel, as well as axes, and spears. These weapons were light and handy. Their soldiers could carry several of them at a time and walk long distances. Even if, in today’s collective imagination, Vikings wore horned helmets, there is no evidence that they wore them during combat. These inconvenient excrescences were maybe used on helmets for rituals or processions.
Berserkers and Viking Mythology
Ragnar could also count on his berserkers, literally meaning bear-shirt or bear-skin in Old Norse. These terrifying warriors, who wore almost nothing except animal skins over their heads and backs, stood on the frontline of battles. They were known to enter a bestial, sacred, almost trance-like fury, making them almost invincible. The English language assimilated the word berserk to mean a wave of anger that is out of control. They greatly contributed to the Vikings’ reputation as bloodthirsty fighters.
The greatest accomplishment for a Viking was not to gather an immense fortune or extensive land but to die in combat, sword in hand. According to Viking mythology, brave fighters who die in combat access Valhalla, in the realm of the god Odin. The Valkyries chose the most heroic on the battlefield to bring them to Odin. Valkyries, meaning “chooser of the killed,” were female characters who flew over the battlefield, identifying the bravest fighters to take them to Valhalla. This perspective gave Viking fighters a heartening prospect in the face of danger and the courage to fight well.
Ragnar Lodbrok and the Siege of Paris
In March 845, Ragnar sailed with 120 ships and an army of around 5,000 to 6,000 men to Paris. The Viking king was thirsty for conquests and wealth. When Paris’ inhabitants heard of Ragnar’s attack, they were shaking in their boots as Lodbrok’s terrible reputation preceded him. According to a legend, Ragnar and his Vikings relentlessly fought against Charles the Bald’s army. Ragnar threatened not only Paris but also the prominent Basilica of Saint-Denis, a few miles north of the city. The medieval abbey housed the graves of former Kings of France and great treasures.
As Lodbrok’s plan reached the king’s ears, the latter assembled an army and decided to wait for the Vikings upstream of Paris. The kings’ men were divided on both banks of the Seine River. Ragnar chose to focus on one of the king’s camps and slaughtered most of his opponents. The Vikings captured a dozen soldiers and ferociously murdered them in front of Charles the Bald, making him so scared that he and the surviving soldiers fled, abandoning Paris to the Vikings’ fury.
At the time, the only fortified part of Paris was the Île de la Cité, an island on the Seine river at the heart of Paris. The city’s old Roman wall had long since crumbled, and the Seine River itself was the only system of defense. Parisians did not stand a chance against Lodbrok and his army, so most Parisians fled the city, taking along what possessions they could carry.
On the 28th of March, 845, Ragnar Lodbrok and his men ransacked Paris. Unfortunately for the Vikings, Parisians had already fled with their most precious belongings. Furthermore, several of Ragnar’s men suffered and died from dysentery. Yet, Lodbrok had the ingenious idea of sending an emissary to Charles the Bald, asking for a prize in return for their departure.
Even if the king could have seized this opportunity to defeat the Vikings, he was desperate. Charles the Bald made the great mistake of offering the Vikings 7,000 livres in silver and gold, a considerable amount for the time. By doing so, the king opened the door to multiple other danegeld, or “Danish tax,” payments made to buy the Vikings’ mercy. Vikings successfully used this tactic to receive large sums of money in France but also in England. Ragnar accepted the king’s offer and departed for Denmark. On his way back home, he looted and destroyed further villages in the north of France.
The Vikings attacked Paris on several other occasions as well. In 911, King Charles the Simple gave the Viking Rollo land in the northwest of France in exchange for his protection against future Viking raids. Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy, meaning the “land of the Northmen,” literally. The Viking king kept his promise and protected Paris from Viking attacks.
Historical facts and fictional elements mix up to form Ragnar Lodbrok’s myth. Today, the Viking chief is one of the main characters in the famous Vikings TV series, contributing to Ragnar’s long-lasting fame.