A Viking War.
Above picture: The Bayeux tapestry is the best source of information about the Normans. We think that William the Conqueror didn't invent anything, but applied a tactic that has been created by his Viking ancestors.
In France alleging that the Viking invasions were a full scale war is an act of heresy. Every student of History will explain that the Vikings were simple bandits or looters. But who would believe that those who defeated Charles the Bald, ravaged Friesland and Neustria, colonized Normandy, invaded Bretagne, depopulated Gascony and desolated Rhone valley between 840 and 930 managed to do that thanks to their ships, surprise and the mediocrity of the successors of Charles the Great ?
Can we believe that the most remarkable Frankish warlords didn’t do their best to stop a few bandits? Were Robert le Fort and Rannoux de Poitiers, the most efficient Frankish counts, such poor warriors that they met their deaths on the same day during a battle they couldn’t lose?
Since the very beginning the Franks were outclassed by the ‘bandits’. Not because of the mediocrity of their chiefs, but because of the superiority of their enemy. Those who believe that ignorant ruffians just debarked from their ships could so efficiently dominate the Franks do not have a very high opinion of our ancestors. To commit so much destruction, the Vikings applied a strategy well-planned by their leaders, rigorously applied by an army and remarkably led by unique warlords. Unlike the Franks the Vikings leaders gained their place through a meritocracy and not by simple birthright.
A clan of seakings.
Side Picture. This is a striking 19th century engraving. No Viking ship has yet been discovered. The artist drew what he was reading in the texts: a rowing boat, a dragon’s head, and a banner. The banner represented a raven. Each time a banner is mentioned in France, it has a raven on it. Some believed that the raven was a symbol very commonly used by all the Viking clans. But then, the banner is losing a large part of its interest. We believe that the reason why the raven’s banner is so common is because the same clan was fighting everywhere. The raven’s clan was the clan of Ragnar, the Ynglingar clan. Harald Fine-Hair, the king who unified Norway few decades after the invasions, was a member of this clan.
Among the elements that convinced French scholars that Vikings were divided, there is the “competition between the leaders.” Everywhere one can read that the chiefs who attacked France one after the other were competitors, rivals, making alliances from time to time, but quarrelling too. This is a strange conclusion.
The chiefs who ravaged France between 840 and 865 were calling Ragnar, Asgeir, Hastein, Björn, Godfrid, Sygtrygg and Veland. According to Duddo and Guillaume Calculus also known as Guillaume de Jumièges –a historian who lived during the 11th century-, Ragnar was the father of Björn Ironside and Hastein was his “governor”. These texts mean that Ragnar, Hastein and Björn belong to the same clan. Other texts confirm these links. Sygtrygg and Godfrid arrived in France by 851. In 852, Godfrid joined Hastein in Bretagne, and by 855, Björn joined Sygtrygg in Neustria. Obviously, they don’t behave like new competitors but like allies. As soon as the invasion paused in France, England was invaded in 867 by Ivar, Halfdan and Ubbe who are known as the sons of Ragnar. They belong to the clan of those who ravaged France from 840 to 866. The same clan attacked France and England. These elements suggest clearly that there was a staff at the head of the invasions.
On one occasion I asked a famous French specialist, recent author of a book on Ragnar and his clan, why he still considered the Vikings mere looters.
“All the texts you mention tell us that Ragnar, Björn, Hastein, Asgeir, Sygtrygg used to belong to the same clan.
Q: Why do you consider these chiefs were divided?
A:These texts are suspicious. We cannot consider them as telling the truth…
Q: Come on. Of course, these texts are suspicious, but at least they exist! Why do you reject them? When you pretend they were looters, you have no proof. It’s just a hypothesis. Why do you consider the looter hypothesis –-while you have no text proving it-- and never try to imagine they were united –-while texts exist? Why do you refuse to study the other possibility?”
He kept silent. He had no answer.
The Vikings obeying to chiefs of the same clan, it is logical to deduce that they belonged to an army. Now, an army needs a strategy. Very strangely, nobody seems to have ever tried to imagine what could be their strategy and their objectives.
The viking war fleet.
Side picture. Like William The Conqueror, the leaders of the invasions constructed the war fleet which was to defeat the frankish kingdom and to plunder British isles. Bayeux Tapestry.
Until now, Viking fleets have been regarded as the result of coalitions of local fleets, which leaders were anxious to have their share of the loot. It would have been the result of a kind of primitive Leidang organization. In the late Viking period, the Leidang obliged every province –or clan—to build ships and provide them with crews. When the Nation needed a war fleet, every clan sent their own fleet to join the main fleet. Such an organization supposed a political structure. Such a political organization didn’t exist when invasions began.
The fleets of the invaders could also be the result of another kind of effort. When William the Conqueror intended to invade Britain, he built a war fleet. Knut the Great did the same to invade England. This was the most efficient way to control a long term fleet. The clan that led the invasion could have proceeded this way.
Logical reasons go in this direction. First, organizing a fleet commanded by numerous local chiefs may create quickly a lot of problems. The invaders couldn’t take the risk of a messy situation in front of the Franks. Second, at the beginning of the invasions, these traders had mainly trading ships, kauskip,--Knörr and Byrding--. Warships –Langskip-- are expensive with their important crews and useless in peace time. Of course chiefs had war ships able to row up rivers, but they were certainly not numerous enough to hustle the Franks. Vikings had to build a war fleet important enough to defeat the Franks and to enter the Mediterranean Sea. Third, if you want your fleet to be efficient, ships must have the same size with standard crews so that you can organize their provisioning. The best way to get identical ships is to build them on a large scale.
Vikings needed very old oaks in large quantities to build this fleet. They didn’t build it in Scandinavia for oaks were rare and those who stayed home needed them to build boats and houses. The fleet of invasion had to be built abroad. The deserted coast of Aquitaine at that time covered by huge virgin oak forests could do. Several place names seem to refer to Scandinavian shipyards.
If we imagine that there is only one fleet. Obviously, this fleet operated under the control of different chiefs. The explanation being that each chief was in charge of a different territory. Björn in Gascony (Adour-Garonne), Asgeir in Aquitaine (Garonne-Charente), Hastein in Bretagne (Loire), Sygtrygg in Neustria (Seine), Godfrid in Friesland (Scheldt)… and later Ivar, Halfdan and Ubbe in England. Each chief used and commanded the fleet when he needed it. It was always the same fleet that was sailing in the English Channel, in the Bay of Biscay and Mediterranean Sea. The operations in France and England –but also in the Mediterranean sea- were ordered by Saekonnungar, or Sea Kings, from the same clan.
This analyze is explaining why we never see two fleets in action simultaneously. This fleet was serving a strategy which aimed targets important enough to justify decades of invasions.
The taboo of a war.
. , Histoire de France de François GuizotAlphonse-Marie-Adolphe de NeuvilleWe’ve seen that armies of invaders fought and defeated the Franks on the battlefield. The increasing size of the fleet sailing on the Seine River –-120 ships in 845, 252 in 851, 500 in 865, 700 in 885—suggest a long term military effort. There is a general refusal to see the obvious, the question is, why?
When you mean army, you mean chiefs, strategy, targets… You mean war. War has two ends: victory and defeat. The Franks couldn’t use the word victory. The only way to avoid the word defeat was to eliminate the word war. To admit that Viking invasions were a war, is admitting not only that the Franks were defeated, but also the Christian civilization was overwhelmed by a Pagan enemy. Such an ideological defeat could not occur. This is, in our mind, the reason why Viking invasions have always been underrated throughout history in continental Europe.