The Vikings were Norse seafarers who originated from Scandinavia and launched a series of sea-borne raids from the late 8th century onwards. Their reputation as fearsome warriors preceded them, but in most cases their initial raids were followed by periods of peaceful settlement and trade.
The Assault on Paris
Vikings began to raid what would become Normandy in the 790s and began to establish permanent coastal settlements there. In 845 120 Danish long-ships carrying over 5,000 men and led by a chieftain named Ragnar, sailed up the River Seine to Paris, where they plundered and occupied the city, only withdrawing after Charles the Bald paid a ransom of 7,000 French livres.
In 885 the Vikings again entered the kingdom of the West Franks and laid siege to the Seine, in the Paris basin. They sailed hundreds of ships, carrying thousands of Viking warriors to the fortifications around Paris. Duke Odo of Francia, who controlled the city, refused to pay tribute to the Vikings, who then besieged the city. Duke Odo, with only 200 men, managed to repel Viking attempts to scale the city walls by using hot wax and pitch. The Vikings assailed the city walls for a year, using catapults, battering rams and fire. Finally, they destroyed a tower and were given permission to sail through the city and raid the Marne Valley region. In 889, a further attack on Paris failed and the Vikings left Paris after the West Franks paid them a large sum of money.
The Viking chieftain Rollo, one of the leaders at the Siege of Paris, had seized Rouen in 876 and was based there. He took Bayeux by force, captured the daughter of Berenger, Count of Rennes, and married her. She subsequently gave birth to Rollo’s heir, William. In a pragmatic move, the French king, Charles the Simple, recognized Rollo’s title to the lands between the River Epte and the sea (corresponding to today’s Upper Normandy) at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in 911. In return, Rollo converted to Christianity and became the Frankish ruler’s vassal, shielding him against further Viking incursions. With his de facto capital in Rouen, Rollo is sometimes (incorrectly) called the First Duke of Normandy.
After Charles III was deposed in 923, the newly elected King Rudolph of western Francia granted the Normans further territory in Bessin in 924, and again in Cotentin (Lower Normandy) in 933 when Rollo’s son William Longsword pledged allegiance to Rudolph, who was now engaged in a power struggle. Within a generation the Vikings had extended their rule westward to the districts of Lower Normandy. From this point the Normans consolidated their power and adopted Catholicism along with other Frankish customs.
The Final Assimilation
By 990, the Vikings, through intermarriage and assimilation with the Franks, had become French-speaking Christians. Normandy was no longer a Viking colony, but had become a region of France, with the Norse language extinguished. While the Normans recognized the superiority of the king of France, their territory owed only nominal allegiance to the king: they had more authority over their land than the other regions within France.
France, destabilized by several centuries of Viking invasions, had become decentralized, fragmenting into separate fiefdoms. The Normans still retained their Viking ancestors’ love of fighting, restlessness, ruthlessness and courage, embarking on a number of daring and violent exploits in foreign lands. From 1027–35, the Norman dukedom was run by Robert I. His illegitimate son, William, was to become William the Conqueror of England in 1066.
The Normans arrived in southern Italy around the millennium, and plunged into the political turmoil existing there. The Byzantines were the colonial power, pitted against various princedoms and city-states. The Normans began as mercenaries, often fighting on both sides in battles, but soon started to accumulate fiefdoms as reward for their service, thereby emerging as powerful independent players. They defeated the Byzantines in five successive battles in 1041 (receiving twelve baronies from the Prince of Salerno as reward), and in 1053 Humphrey of Hauteville destroyed the combined armies of the papacy and Holy Roman Empire at the Battle of Civitate, imprisoning Pope Leo IX. Now in command, they picked off Taranto (1064) and Bari (1071) in Apulia, and old an ally, Salerno (1076). The Byzantines were left with just a toehold in Naples. Turning to Fatimid-controlled Sicily, an early invasion was repulsed by an ‘infestation of tarantulas’, but they completed their conquest in 1091.