The world has been fascinated with stories of Vikings and shieldmaidens for centuries. One of the most recent hits to capitalize on this interest is Vikings, a History channel TV show that focuses on the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok and his chiefdom. Perhaps no arc of the show was more exciting than Ragnar's attack on medieval Paris and the hard-fought exchange that finally resulted in a Viking victory.
The true story behind the Siege of Paris is at least as exciting as the one the show told. Like many parts of the show, the portrayal of the siege is rife with inaccuracies. However, decades of anger and conflict between the Vikings and the Franks created some remarkable action both on screen and in real life. Between broken treaties, burning ships, and raging plagues, the Siege of Paris is a classic story of Vikings in the Middle Ages.
Amid civil war, political strife, and constant Viking attacks, Charles the Bald, King of West Francia, paid tribute to Viking raiders to lessen their attacks on the Frankish kingdom. However, the unpopular tributes did not discourage Viking attacks on Frankish settlements. In fact, they only encouraged them to plunder more. According to some sources, Charles granted a Viking named Raginarius (sometimes interpreted as the same Ragnar who besieged Paris) a portion of his lands in modern-day Netherlands and Germany in 841 AD before later revoking the territory.
Regardless of whether or not Charles provided land to the Vikings, they remained in Francia and raided settlements along the Loire and Seine rivers and temporarily settled in Noirmoutier near the Loire. Evidence shows that the Viking raiders brought their families, suggesting they planned to stay in the region.
On the Vikings TV show, the attack on Paris is depicted as more of a product of Ragnar's ambition. There is no discussion of the lands being revoked; instead, Ragnar seeks to attack the Franks for glory and money alone.
The Vikings descended on Paris with a fleet of 120 ships and were met by two of King Charles's garrisons who were defending the shores of the River Seine. Unfortunately for the Franks, these defenses were easily crushed, and the Vikings captured Paris in a matter of two days. The helpless people of Paris found themselves completely at the mercy of the Vikings, who sacrificed 111 prisoners to Odin following the success of the siege.
In comparison, the Vikings show depicts the Siege of Paris as a much more even exchange. The events are more drawn-out and dramatic, and the Vikings are only able to get inside the walls through a final act of trickery.
Fearing further bloodshed and perhaps the loss of his own life, King Charles the Bald agreed to pay ransom to the Vikings. After he paid them 7,000 livres in gold and silver, the Vikings left Paris and raided several other Frankish cities on their return home.
On television, most of the Vikings left after capturing the city and gathering their loot, but a small group stayed behind and kept the city under occupation.
In 885 AD, the Vikings demanded protection money from the new overseer of Paris, Count Odo. When Odo refused to pay, Danish Vikings prepared an attack, but they were unaware that the Franks had learned from the first Siege of Paris.
Odo and his predecessors had built two low bridges on either side of the island of Paris, preventing the Vikings from passing through with their ships while providing better access for Frankish reinforcements. Each bridge was further protected by a defensive keep.
When the Vikings attacked the bridges, the Parisians poured boiling oil and wax from the towers.