On this day in the year 845, Paris was sacked by Vikings.
Ragnar Lodbrok (meaning Ragnar “Hairy Breeches”) is one of the most notorious of all the Viking heroes and a tricky-to-unravel mix of the real and the mythical. Although his actual life may not live up to all the Norse mythology around him—such as the story that he won the heart of the Swedish princess Thora by travelling to her homeland and battling an army of dangerous snakes while wearing hairy breeches; or that he was eventually executed by the Anglian King Aella of Northumbria by being thrown into a pit of deadly vipers—there certainly was a real Ragnar Lodbrok who commanded the Viking army that took Paris in 845.
Ragnar claimed that he was directly descended from the North Germanic god Odin, and endlessly chased after the throne of Denmark. He was a constant thorn in the side of present-day England and France. Alongside his army, he raided the territories of what was called West Francia with an army of 120 long ships and 5,000 fierce Viking warriors, travelling up and down its wide rivers at incredible speeds and striking wherever it wished. Because his forces were so fast-moving, and their movements so difficult to predict, they were able to attack without ever facing the large armies of heavy Frankish cavalry that could have destroyed them in open combat.
In 845, Ragnar and his army sailed southwards from Denmark across the sea, and then up the Seine and into France. They pillaged Rouen and Carolivenna and, on 28 March, attacked Paris itself. As the Vikings besieged the great city, a plague erupted among the soldiers in their camps. At first they prayed to the Norse Gods, but found themselves ignored. Then, on the advice of one of their French Christian prisoners, they undertook a Christian fast, and soon their symptoms subsided. Afterwards the Vikings took the French capital, and only refrained from burning it to the ground after King Charles the Bald paid them an enormous ransom of 7,000 pounds of silver to leave.
After achieving such impressive victories in France, Ragnar Lodbrok lost his life in England when he was shipwrecked off the Northumbrian shore and captured by King Aella. The exact circumstances of his death are unclear, but a poetic version of his Death Song had passed into popular legend, and it’s a wonderful piece of Nordic verse. It ends:
“The Disir summon me home, those whom Odin sends for me from the halls of the Lord of Hosts. Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with the Aesir. The days of my life are ended. I laugh as I die.”