T he story is told that while Charlemagne was sitting one day at dinner, a fleet of long, narrow boats came swiftly toward the land. "Those must have come from Brittany," some one declared; and another said, "No, they are surely Jewish merchantmen." But Charlemagne had noted the vessels, that they had only one sail, that bow and stern were shaped alike and were gilded and carved to represent the head or tail of a dragon, and that a row of shields was ranged along the gunwale. "Those bring nothing to sell," he said. "They are most cruel foes, they are Northmen." Then there was a hurrying and scurrying to put on armour, snatch up swords and spears, and hasten to the shore to drive away the pirates. But the Northmen had heard of the prowess of Charlemagne, and as soon as they knew he was there they rowed away as fast as their boats could be made to carry them. The Franks had much to say about these enemies, but Charlemagne stood silent, gazing at the sea. At length he turned toward his friends. His eyes were full of tears, and he said, "I am not afraid that the Northmen will harm me, but I weep to see that they have ventured so near our shore, and to think of the evils that they will bring upon my children and their people."
Charlemagne was right, for it was not many years after his death before one hundred and twenty pirate vessels were rowed swiftly up the River Seine, and a horde of Northmen, or Vikings, poured into the little city of Paris, ready to kill, burn, and steal, as usual. But suddenly a heavy fog hid them from one another. There was some enchantment about it, they thought, and they made their way back to their ships as best they might. They came again and again, however. Sometimes they were met with arms, sometimes with tribute. Still they came. "Did not we promise you twelve thousand pounds of silver if you would leave us in peace?" demanded the Franks in despair. "The king promised it," replied the Northmen insolently, "and we left him in peace. He is dead now, and what we do will not disturb him."
The following year the famous leader Rollo led the Vikings in an attack upon Paris. They hammered at the walls of the city with battering-rams. With great slings they hurled stones and leaden balls. They dug a mine under one of the walls, leaving wooden props. Then they set fire to these and scrambled out of the narrow passage as fast as they could. The beams burned and the earth fell in, but the walls did not crumble as the Vikings had hoped. Then they built a fire close to the wooden walls, but a sudden rain put it out. There were thirty or forty thousand of the Vikings, and only two hundred of the Franks in the besieged city; but the Franks had wise leaders, and all this time they were boiling oil and pitch and pouring them down upon the besiegers. The blazing Northmen leaped into the river to extinguish the flames, but they never thought of giving up. They collected food and encamped near the city. Month after month the siege went on, and still the king did not come to help his brave people.
Routes of the Viking Expeditions
At last the valiant Eudes, or Odo, one of the chief leaders of the Parisians, determined to go in search of aid, and one stormy night he managed to slip through the gate of the city and the lines of the Northmen, and gallop off to the king. Soon the king came with his army—and went into camp! After he had dawdled a month away, news came that more Vikings were at hand. The king was so frightened that he offered the Northmen seven hundred pounds of silver if they would depart, and told them they might go farther up the river and plunder Burgundy as much as they chose. The brave defenders of Paris were indignant. They rushed out of the city and struck one fierce blow at their departing foes. The following year the cowardly king was deposed, and at his death they chose the valiant Eudes for their ruler.
The Northmen were bright, shrewd people; and, wild as they were, they could not help seeing that the Frankish way of living was better than theirs, and that the worship of the Christian God was better than that of Odin and Thor. Rollo led them again to France some years later, and this time the Vikings ranged themselves on one side of a little river, and the king with his Franks stood on the other side, to talk about peace. Rollo was willing to give up his pirate life, be baptized, and live in the Frankish country if the king would give him land. "I will give you Flanders," said the king; but Rollo replied, "No, that is too swampy." "Then you may have the parts of Neustria nearest to the shore." "No," declared Rollo, "that is nothing but forest land." At length it was agreed that he and his followers should have the land which afterward took its name from them and to this day is called Normandy. They were to hold it by what is known as a feudal tenure, that is, it was to be theirs so long as they were faithful to the king and gave him loyal military service.
Ruins of an Ancient Castle in Normandy
(At Dieppe, France. This view shows typical Normandy scenery)
There is a story that the bishops told Rollo he must kiss the king's foot in token of his having received this great gift and having become the king's vassal. The haughty Northman had no idea of doing any such thing; but when the bishops insisted, he motioned to one of his warriors to do it for him. The warrior was as proud as his lord. The old account says that he would not kneel, but lifted the royal foot so high that the king fell backward. The Franks were angry, but the Northmen roared with laughter.
The Northmen, or Normans, as they were afterwards called, went into their new domain. Rollo ruled them strictly, for he was as anxious to be a successful ruler as he had been to be a successful pirate. The same story is told of him that is related of Alfred the Great and several other kings, that one might leave a golden bracelet hanging on a tree in perfect safety anywhere in his possessions. Whether that is true or not, it is true that any robber who fell into the hands of Rollo was promptly hanged. It is also true that it was exceedingly difficult for a criminal to escape, because Rollo made the whole land responsible for him. Whenever anyone committed a trespass, the first man who found it out must cry "Haro!" and the cry must go through the whole kingdom until the man was captured.
So it was that the Vikings who had come to France to plunder, gave up their wild, savage life and became permanent dwellers in that country.