Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

The Raids of the Sea Rovers

While Central and Southern Europe was actively engaged in wars by land, Scandinavia, that nest of pirates, was as actively engaged in wars by sea, sending its armed galleys far to the south, to plunder and burn wherever they could find footing on shore. Not content with plundering the coasts, they made their way up the streams, and often suddenly appeared far inland before an alarm could be given. Wherever they went, heaps of the dead and the smoking ruins of habitations marked their ruthless course. They did not hesitate to attack fortified cities, several of which fell into their hands and were destroyed. They always fought on foot, but such was their strength, boldness, and activity that the heavy-armed cavalry of France and Germany seemed unable to endure their assault, and was frequently put to flight. If defeated, or in danger of defeat, they hastened back to their ships, from which they rarely ventured far and rowed away with such speed that pursuit was in vain. For a long period they kept the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe in such terror that prayers were publicly read in the churches for deliverance from them, and the sight of their dragon beaked ships filled the land with terror.

In 845 a party of them assailed and took Paris, from which they were bought off by the cowardly and ineffective method of ransom, seven thousand pounds of silver being paid them. In 853 another expedition, led by a leader named Hasting, one of the most dreaded of the Norsemen, again took Paris, marched into Burgundy, laying waste the country as he advanced, and finally took Tours, to which city much treasure had been carried for safe-keeping. Charles the Bald, who had bought off the former expedition with silver, bought off this one with gold, offering the bold adventurer a bribe of six hundred and eighty-five pounds of the precious metal, to which he added a ton and a half of silver, to leave the country.

From France, Hasting set sail for Italy, where his ferocity was aided by a cunning which gives us a deeper insight into his character. Rome, a famous but mystical city to the northern pagans, whose imaginations invested it with untold wealth and splendor, was the proposed goal of the enterprising Norseman, who hoped to make himself fabulously wealthy from its plunder. With a hundred ships, filled with hardy Norse pirates, he swept through the Strait of Gibraltar and along the coasts of Spain and France, plundering as he went till he reached the harbor of Lucca, Italy.

As to where and what Rome was, the unlettered heathen had but the dimmest conception. Here before him lay what seemed a great and rich city, strongly fortified and thickly peopled. This must be Rome, he told himself; behind those lofty walls lay the wealth which he so earnestly craved; but how could it be obtained? Assault on those strong fortifications would waste time, and perhaps end in defeat. If the city could be won by stratagem, so much the better for himself and his men.

The shrewd Norseman quickly devised a promising plan within the depths of his astute brain. It was the Christmas season, and the inhabitants were engaged in the celebration of the Christmas festival, though, doubtless, sorely troubled in mind by that swarm of strange-shaped vessels in their harbor, with their stalwart crews of blue-eyed plunderers.

Word was sent to the authorities of the city that the fleet had come thither from no hostile intent, and that all the mariners wished was to obtain the favor of an honorable burial-place for their chieftain, who had just died. If the citizens would grant them this, they would engage to depart after the funeral without injury to their courteous and benevolent friends. The message—probably not expressed in quite the above phrase—was received in good faith by the unsuspecting Lombards, who were glad enough to get rid of their dangerous visitors on such cheap terms, and gratified to learn that these fierce pagans wished Christian burial for their chief. Word was accordingly sent to the ships that the authorities granted their request, and were pleased with the opportunity to oblige the mourning crews.

Not long afterwards a solemn procession left the fleet, a coffin, draped in solemn black, at its head, borne by strong carriers. As mourners there followed a large deputation of stalwart Norsemen, seemingly unarmed, and to all appearance lost in grief. With slow steps they entered the gates and moved through the streets of the city, chanting the death-song of the great Hasting, until the church was reached, and they had advanced along its crowded aisle to the altar, where stood the priests ready to officiate at the obsequies of the expired freebooter.

The coffin was set upon the floor, and the priests were about to break into the solemn chant for the dead, when suddenly, to the surprise and horror of the worshippers, the supposed corpse sprang to life, leaped up sword in hand, and with a fierce and deadly blow struck the officiating bishop to the heart. Instantly the seeming mourners, who had been chosen from the best warriors of the fleet, flung aside their cloaks and grasped their arms, and a carnival of death began in that crowded church.

It was not slaughter, however, that Hasting wanted, but plunder. Rushing from the church, the Norsemen assailed the city, looting with free hand, and cutting down all who came in their way. No long time was needed by the skilful freebooters for this task, and before the citizens could recover from the mortal terror into which they had been thrown, the pagan plunderers were off again for their ships, laden with spoil, and taking with them as captives a throng of women and maidens, the most beautiful they could find.

This daring affair had a barbarous sequel. A storm arising which threatened the loss of his ships, the brutal Hasting gave orders that the vessels should be lightened by throwing overboard plunder and captives alike. Saved by this radical method, the sea-rovers quickly repaid themselves for their losses by sailing up the Rhone, and laying the country waste through many miles of Southern France.

The end of this phase of Hasting's career was a singular one. In the year 860 he consented to be baptized as a Christian, and to swear allegiance to Charles the Bald of France, on condition of receiving the title of Count of Chartres, with a suitable domain. It was a wiser method of disarming a redoubtable enemy than that of ransoming the land, which Charles had practised with Hasting on a previous occasion. He had converted a foe into a subject, upon whom he might count for defence against those fierce heathen whom he had so often led to battle.

While France, England, and the Mediterranean regions formed the favorite visiting ground of the Norsemen, they did not fail to pay their respects in some measure to Germany, and during the ninth century, their period of most destructive activity, the latter country suffered considerably from their piratical ravages. Two German warriors who undertook to guard the coasts against their incursions are worthy of mention. One of these, Baldwin of the Iron Arm, Count of Flanders, distinguished himself by seducing Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald of France, who, young as she was, was already the widow of two English kings, Ethelwolf and his son Ethelbold. Charles was at first greatly enraged, but afterwards accepted Baldwin as his son-in-law, and made him lord of the district. The second was Robert the Strong, Count of Maine, a valiant defender of the country against the sea-kings. He was slain in a bloody battle with them, near Anvers, in 866. This distinguished warrior was the ancestor of Hugh Capet, afterwards king of France.

For some time after his death the Norsemen avoided Germany, paying their attentions to England, where Alfred the Great was on the throne. About 880 their incursions began again, and though they were several times defeated with severe slaughter, new swarms followed the old ones, and year by year fresh fleets invaded the land, leaving ruin in their paths.

Up the rivers they sailed, as in France, taking cities, devastating the country, doing more damage each year than could be repaired in a decade. Aix-la-Chapelle, the imperial city of the mighty Charlemagne, fell into their hands, and the palace of the great Charles, in little more than half a century after his death, was converted by these marauders into a stable. Well might the far-seeing emperor have predicted sorrow and trouble for the land from these sea-rovers, as he is said to have done, on seeing their many-oared ships from a distance. Yet even his foresight could scarcely have imagined that, before he was seventy years in the grave, the vikings of the north would be stabling their horses in the most splendid of his palaces.

The rovers attacked Metz, and Bishop Wala fell while bravely fighting them before its gates. City after city on the Rhine was taken and burned to the ground. The whole country between Liege, Cologne, and Mayence was so ravaged as to be almost converted into a desert. The besom of destruction, in the hands of the sea-kings, threatened to sweep Germany from end to end, as it had swept the greater part of France.

The impunity with which they raided the country was due in great part to the indolent character of the monarch. Charles the Fat, as he was entitled, who had the ambitious project of restoring the empire of Charlemagne, and succeeded in combining France and Germany under his sceptre, proved unable to protect his realm from the pirate rovers. Like his predecessor, Charles the Bald of France, he tried the magic power of gold and silver, as a more effective argument than sharpened steel, to rid him of these marauders. Siegfried, their principal leader, was bought off with two thousand pounds of gold and twelve thousand pounds of silver, to raise which sum Charles seized all the treasures of the churches. In consideration of this great bribe the sea-rover consented to a truce for twelve years. His brother Gottfried was bought off in a different method, being made Duke of Friesland and vassal of the emperor.

These concessions, however, did not put an end to the depredations of the Norsemen. There were other leaders than the two formidable brothers, and other pirates than those under their control, and the country was soon again invaded, a strong party advancing as far as the Moselle, where they took and destroyed the city of Treves. This marauding band, however, dearly paid for its depredations. While advancing through the forest of Ardennes, it was ambushed and assailed by a furious multitude of peasants and charcoal-burners, before whose weapons ten thousand of the Norsemen fell in death.

This revengeful act of the peasantry was followed by a treacherous deed of the emperor, which brought renewed trouble upon the land. Eager to rid himself of his powerful and troublesome vassal in Friesland, Charles invited Gottfried to a meeting, at which he had the Norsemen treacherously murdered, while his brother-in-law Hugo was deprived of his sight. It was an act sure to bring a bloody reprisal. No sooner had news of it reached the Scandinavian north than a fire of revengeful rage swept through the land, and from every port a throng of oared galleys put to sea, bent upon bloody retribution. Soon in immense hordes they fell upon the imperial realm, forcing their way in mighty hosts up the Rhine, the Maese, and the Seine, and washing out the memory of Gottfried's murder in torrents of blood, while the brand spread ruin far and wide.

The chief attack was made on Paris, which the Norsemen invested and besieged for a year and a half. The march upon Paris was made by sea and land, the marauders making Rouen their place of rendezvous. From this centre of operations Rollo—the future conqueror and Duke of Normandy, now a formidable sea-king—led an overland force towards the French capital, and on his way was met by an envoy from the emperor, no less a personage than the Count of Chartres, the once redoubtable Hasting, now a noble of the empire.

"Valiant sirs," he said to Rollo and his chiefs, "who are you that come hither, and why have you come?"

"We are Danes," answered Rollo, proudly; "all of us equals, no man the lord of any other, but lords of all besides. We are come to punish these people and take their lands. And you, by what name are you called?"

"Have you not heard of a certain Hasting," was the reply, "a sea-king who left your land with a multitude of ships, and turned into a desert a great part of this fair land of France?"

"We have heard of him," said Rollo, curtly. "He began well and ended badly."

"Will you submit to King Charles?" asked the envoy, deeming it wise, perhaps, to change the subject.

"We will submit to no one, king or chieftain. All that we gain by the sword we are masters and lords of. This you may tell to the king who has sent you. The lords of the sea know no masters on land."

Hasting left with his message, and Rollo continued his advance to the Seine. Not finding here the ships of the maritime division of the expedition, which he had expected to meet, he seized on the boats of the French fishermen and pursued his course. Soon afterwards a French force was met and put to flight, its leader, Duke Ragnold, being killed. This event, as we are told, gave rise to a new change in the career of the famous Hasting. A certain Tetbold or Thibaud, of Northman birth, came to him and told him that he was suspected of treason, the defeat of the French having been ascribed to secret information furnished by him. Whether this were true, or a mere stratagem on the part of his informant, it had the desired effect of alarming Hasting, who quickly determined to save himself from peril by joining his old countrymen and becoming again a viking chief. He thereupon sold his countship to Tetbold, and hastened to join the army of Norsemen then besieging Paris. As for the cunning trickster, he settled down into his cheaply bought countship, and became the founder of the subsequent house of the Counts of Chartres.

The siege of Paris ended in the usual manner of the Norseman invasions of France,—that of ransom. Charles marched to its relief with a strong army, but, instead of venturing to meet his foes in battle, he bought them off as so often before, paying them a large sum of money, granting them free navigation of the Seine and entrance to Paris, and confirming them in the possession of Friesland. This occurred in 887. A year afterwards he lost his crown, through the indignation of the nobles at his cowardice, and France and Germany again fell asunder.

The plundering incursions continued, and soon afterwards the new emperor, Arnulf, nephew of Charles the Fat, a man of far superior energy to his deposed uncle, attacked a powerful force of the piratical invaders near Louvain, where they had encamped after a victory over the Archbishop of Mayence. In the heat of the battle that followed, the vigilant Arnulf perceived that the German cavalry fought at a disadvantage with their stalwart foes, whose dexterity as foot-soldiers was remarkable. Springing from his horse, he called upon his followers to do the same. They obeyed, the nobles and their men-at-arms leaping to the ground and rushing furiously on foot upon their opponents. The assault was so fierce and sudden that the Norsemen gave way, and were cut down in thousands, Siegfried and Gottfried—a new Gottfried apparently—falling on the field, while the channel of the Dyle, across which the defeated invaders sought to fly, was choked with their corpses.

This bloody defeat put an end to the incursions of the Norsemen by way of the Rhine. Thenceforward they paid their attention to the coast of France, which they continued to invade until one of their great leaders, Rollo, settled in Normandy as a vassal of the French monarch, and served as an efficient barrier against the inroads of his countrymen.

As to Hasting, he appears to have returned to his old trade of sea-rover, and we hear of him again as one of the Norse invaders of England, during the latter part of the reign of Alfred the Great.

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