Defeating the Vikings in Battle
France was often a victim of the Vikings, with their cities and lands being frequently raided. French rulers often had to bribe the Northmen to convince them to leave. They were sometimes able to defeat the invaders in battle, however. There was that time in 943...
The tenth-century historian Richer of Saint-Remi is our best source for the battle of 943, which took place near Rouen. Normandy had been ruled for over the last thirty years by Vikings who had converted to Christianity under Rollo. Rollo’s son William Longsword had reigned from 927 to 942 before being murdered at a peace conference. His only heir was Richard, a ten-year old son he had with a concubine.
King Louis IV of France took advantage of young Richard and placed him in his custody. However, according to Richer an army of Vikings also arrived in Normandy, hoping to take control of the territory. These Vikings had two leaders - the first was a “pirate king Sihtric” who may have been Sihtric Sihtricsson, brother of King Olaf, the ruler of York at this time. The other was a naval captain named Turmod. Richer writes that “their intention was to take over the whole area without a grant from the king, to convert the son of Duke William to the worship of idols, and to bring back pagan rites.”
Hearing that these Viking invaders had entered the Seine River with a large fleet, Louis IV took an army of 800 men to go meet them in battle. Richer writes:
Because he had so few troops, he was unable to extend his lines widely enough to envelope the enemy. So he marched into battle surrounded by his men, with the standards raised and the army packed tightly together. The pagans likewise marched forward in a line of infantry. As they approached, they hurled their swords at the outset of the battle, in accordance with their native custom. Then, reckoning that the king’s knights had been frightened and injured by the dense fire, they pressed the attack with shields and spears.
The Vikings, however, were mistaken in thinking their attack had damaged the French. Richer explains that they used their shields to defend themselves against the ‘swords’ and held their line. The battle proceeded with both sides fighting in close quarters:
Crowding together, they charged forward into their ranks, slaughtering and killing, and emerging in an unbroken formation. Then they turned around and drove through them once more, shattering their lines. The ferocity of the fighting drove King Sihtric to take flight, but he was discovered hiding in a thicket by some men ranging over the battlefield and run through with three spears.
Richer now turns his account towards to what was happening between Louis and Turmod. He describes how the French king rode his horse and charged into the midst of the Vikings, knocking Turmod down. Louis continued past, and was set upon by other enemies. While he fought them off, the remaining Viking leader got back to his feet and prepared to again attack the king:
Turmod, surrounded by his men, came up from behind him, flanked him on the right side, and struck him with his spear through the armhole of his hauberk, delivering a blow that reached almost as far as his left lung. The king, whose attention had been briefly diverted from this attack by the slaughter around him, turned to look at the man who had just wounded him. Then he struck a blow crosswise to his right and cut off the head and left arm of his attacker.
According to Richer, 9000 of the Vikings were killed in the battle, and only a few of them were able to escape to their ships. Meanwhile, on the Louis’ side “a few of his men had been struck down and some wounded.” With his victory accomplished, the king departed from Normandy, leaving behind the Count of Montreuil to rule from Rouen.
Another chronicler Flodoard of Reims, also noted the battle, but offered fewer details. After explaining the struggles within Normandy and fighting between Christians and pagans, Flodoard writes that “King Louis set out again for Rouen and killed the Northman Turmoldus, who had returned to idolatry and to heathen rites. Turmoldus had forced Richard, the son of William Longsword, and other to join him in this and be plotted against the king. Turmoldus joined with the pagan king Setricus and King Louis killed them in battle.”
The Histories of Richer of Saint-Remi has been edited and translated by Justin Lake and is part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. You can read more about the Vikings and their wars in France in the latest issue of Medieval Warfare.