Vikings in the Low Countries
Written for The Viking Network by Reinard Maarleveld
During the last years of the reign of Charles the Great (768-814) the emperor took measures against the danger of Viking raids. He stationed fleets in the major rivers and organised coastal defense. After 820 the defense system in the northern part of the Carolingian state collapsed Between 834 and 837 the city of Dorestad (near the present Wijk bij Duurstede) was destroyed four times. Without much resistance Walcheren in Zeeland was taken in 837.
Even before 840 the Danish Vikings Harald and Rorik became vassals of Lothar (grandson of Charles the Great) and received Walcheren and Dorestad as a fief. This tactical move brought no peace.
Until 873 there are regular reports of Viking raids and Dorestad was again destructed in 863. This time the city was not rebuild, also because the river became sandy. Bishop Hunger of Utrecht fled in 858 to Roermond and later to Deventer. In 873 the Normans were defeated in Oostergoo, Frisia (Friesland) by an army led by an immigrant Viking.
In Flanders from 851 until 864 the Vikings regularly sailed up the river Schelde and attacked the cities of Gent and the districts of Mempiscus and Terwaan.After 864 the low countries were relatively spared from Viking raids, probably because the Danes (most Vikings raiding the low countries came from Danmark) shifted their attention to England.
The impact of the raids on daily life must have been great. But perphaps not as great as clerical sources suggest. Churches and monasteries were nearly always visited, for the simple reason they had valuable properties. Naturally the clergy described the Vikings as savage heathens who transformed the coastal areas into ruins. Politically the Vikings stimulated the further disintegration of the Carolingian empire. As they met with little resistance they preferred to be raiders rather than traders. As vassals they played their part in the conflicts between Lothar and Charles the Bald (ca. 840) and later (ca. 870) between Charles the Bold and Louis the German.
After the victory of Alfred the Great of Wessex (878) the Vikings returned to the low countries. This time they fought also as landsoldiers and were equipped with horses. Especially Flanders took heavy blows (Gent, Terwaan, Atrecht, Kamerijk). Louis III defeated the Vikings in 881 near Saucourt at the river Somme. This battle was described in the Song of Ludwig (Ludwigslied). According to the Fulda Annals Louis' army killed 9.000 Danes. Consequence of this was that the Vikings returned to Flanders and Dutch Limburg. From Asselt (north of Roermond) they raided towns in Germany (Cologne, Bonn) and Limburg (Liége, Tongeren). In their attack on Trier they were resisted by the bishops Wala and Bertulf of Trier and by count Adelhard of Metz. Following the Trier example other cities began to defend themselves effectively.
The new emperor Charles the Fat sent an army to Asselt. The two Viking leaders, Godfried and Siegfried were forced to negotiate. Godfried choose to stay. He became a vassal of the emperor and, after being baptized, married Gisela, daughter of Lothar II, the first king of Lorraine. Siegfried was paid off with 2.000 punds silver and gold and took off to the north with 200 ships. The emperor Charles felt threatened by Godfried and his (Godfried's) brother in law Hugo (who was Gisela's brother). In June 885 Godfried was invited for talks in Spijk, near Lobith. This turned out to be a conspiracy and Godfried was murdered. Hugo was made blind and transferred for the rest of his life to the monastery of Prüm. Here the monk Regino wrote the story of his downfall.
In September 891 the Vikings lost a battle at the river Dijle, near Leuven against king Arnulf of Carinthia. The Fulda Annals tell us that the bodies of dead Vikings blocked the run of the river. The bad harvest of 892 and the threat of famine made the Vikings turn north again. After 892 their role in the low countries was limited to occasional raids (notably on Nijmegen, Groningen, Stavoren, Tiel and Utrecht). After 1010 the raids came to an end.