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Paris – Vikings destroy what Attila spared

Posted in Historical articles, History, Invasions, Royalty on Tuesday, 26 July 2011

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This edited article about Paris originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 996 published on 11 April 1981.

Saint Genevieve, picture, image, illustration

Saint Genevieve saves Paris from Attila

When Paris escaped the Hunnish hordes in AD 451, St. Genevieve was given the credit. In fact, Attila’s terrifying army was defeated before it could attack Paris, although the city’s escape still seemed like a miracle. Some 40 years later, Paris really was under siege. The enemy was Clovis, the pagan king of the Germanic Franks who already dominated northern France, and Genevieve was in the thick of the battle.

Syagrius, self-styled “King of the Romans” and last Roman governor of Gaul, had been murdered, so Clovis decided to take control of the rest of the country. Genevieve, however, thought otherwise and the people of Paris fought hard under her inspired leadership. On one occasion she personally led a convoy of eleven barges through enemy territory to get desperately needed supplies. But, the Gallo-Romans could not withstand the rising power of the Franks.

Saint Genevieve survived the fall of the city and found a Christian ally in Clovis’ new wife Clotilde. Together these two women persuaded the Frankish king to become a Christian. He was converted just in time for him to crush the Visigoths, who dominated southern France. No one seemed able to stop the all-conquering Franks, and in AD 508, Clovis announced that Paris was to be his capital. Gaul had become France and the city on the Seine was destined for greatness.

Clovis was a Merovingian, a member of a dynasty which claimed divine descent. Some Merovingians followed the example of Clovis and chose Paris as their capital. Others did not. Meanwhile the city grew in importance.

The walled island in the river was small but not yet crowded. At its western end the building that had once been a Roman governor’s palace now served as a king’s palatinium. At the eastern end a small church stood just in front of the spot where the present-day Cathedral of Notre Dame stands. Two wooden bridges linked the island to the banks where scattered villages and numerous churches seemed to sprout from every surrounding hilltop.

Craftsmen soon came to supply the needs of an exotic and wealthy court. Eloi, a blacksmith from Limoges, was one new arrival and he became a goldsmith. He was not, however, particularly modest. “Eloi, master of masters, master of all,” was how he signed his work.

As an expert in gold and gems, Eloi was recruited as the King’s Treasurer. In fact, he reorganised the Kingdom’s entire financial system. This made Eloi very unpopular with the people, but history sometimes does strange things to a man’s reputation. While the goldsmith’s master was immortalised in a popular song as Good King Dagobert, Eloi became a bishop and ended up as a Saint!

Under its Merovingian kings Paris became, for a short while, the second most important city in Christendom after Constantinople. This sprang from its role as the capital of a vast Christian kingdom that sprawled from eastern Germany to the borders of Spain.

However, far beyond this Frankish Empire great events were taking place that would soon affect the destiny of Paris. The most important of these was the sudden expansion of Islam from its birthplace in Arabia. Within a century the warriors of the Prophet Muhammad were advancing deep into France.

Although they were halted at the battle of Poitiers in AD 732, barely 300 kilometres from Paris, these Arab warriors doomed the tottering Merovingian kingdom. The semi-divine kings of Paris were overthrown and a family of warriors, who had long been the real rulers of the land, seized the symbols of power as well as its reality.

At first this change seemed to be a disaster for Paris. Pepin and his more famous son Charlemagne, first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, were the first of these new Carolingian rulers and they were Eastern Franks – more German than French. Their new dynasty lasted many centuries but it chose as its capitals cities like Metz, Aachen, Reims and Cologne – not Paris. But the city on the Seine continued to thrive as a market-place under its own regional Count.

Its great annual Fair outside the church of St. Denis was called the Market of the Nations and merchants flocked there from Spain, Italy and beyond. Unfortunately this wealth was to prove disastrous when the pagan Vikings suddenly descended out of the unknown north looking for loot. Fortunately the Counts of Paris were prepared to defend the city.

The first Viking attack came in Easter, 845. Two other raids followed and the Emperor Charles II realised that Paris had to become a fortress once again. The suburbs were abandoned, the island’s Roman walls were rebuilt and two wooden towers were added to defend the bridges.

On 26th November, 885, 700 Viking ships sailed up the Seine. Paris stood alone, but its people decided that they would pay no ransom.

The siege that followed was long and cruel. Extra high tides and famine made the situation even worse until, at last, Count Eudes, who had been involved in the fortification of the city, broke out, cut his way through the Viking lines and rode to Germany. There he finally got the king’s army to move against the Vikings, who decided that enough was enough and retreated down the Seine to a region that they already controlled. People knew this area as Northmen’s Land, or Normandy. After many more battles its boundaries were set at 20 leagues from the walls of Paris.

The 10th century remained a troubled time for the city until, in 987, a descendant of Count Eudes named Hugues Capet was elected King of France. By ousting the Carolingians, as their ancestors had similarly ousted the last Merovingians, Hugues made France into a separate kingdom under its own Capetian dynasty. Paris was a capital once again.

The first guilds were formed, including a guild of boatmen, who traded up and down the Seine just as the Roman nautae had done in ancient times. Suburbs spread out to engulf various isolated villages. Monks drained marshes while the king’s men replaced the old wooden fortifications with towers of stone.

Some time around 1100 a handsome Breton monk named Abelard rode into this bustling city. He was neither craftsman nor soldier. Abelard was a scholar and his contribution was to help Paris become one of the main centres of a great revival of learning known as the 12th century Renaissance.

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