The Viking Age In Bretagne

During the late years of the VIII (8th) century, the Scandinavian raiders were already sailing throughout the seas of the known world. They have settled in many places, and raided even more. The first recorded attack in Brittany was when the Vikings pillaged the monastery of Saint Philbert on the island of Noirmoutier. After such an event, few were the incursions until the 830’s. Charlemagne at the time built defences along the coast, which provided ample protection for the rising western Frankish Empire. However, the defences briskly faded due to the poor leadership of Louis the Pious.

That region had a strong sense of Breton identity and frequently revolted against the Frankish Empire. By the early 9th Century, the Bretons had won their independence under the leadership of Nominoé. Unfortunately for the Bretons the timing could not have been worse for the Vikings were about to come into their recently independent lands.

According to the Annales d’Angoulême, in the year of 843, Brittany experienced what might be interpreted as the end of days. The events of the 24th of June of 843 caught the Bretons by surprise during the celebrations of the festival of Saint John. The city of Nantes wasn’t fortified, for the denizens of Brittany had not imagined that such a thing, which was about to happen, would disturb their festivities. When the people of Nantes realized what was happening, it was already too late for them to organize any kind of defences, let alone any resistance. The Viking raiders had entered the city posing as merchants, but under their clothes they bore their weapons. The bishop of Nantes (Gerhardus), continued his sermon on the steps of the cathedral until he was violently killed before the townsfolk. The Norsemen killed everyone they could get their hands on (or rather their axes). The city was brought to ruin.

The scandinavians attacking the city of Nantes were raiders of Westfold (a region on the continental coast of the Fjord of Oslo). Their movements had been traced and recorded as far as the Hebrides, and they ostensibly travelled through the Bay of Saint George to arrive in the Bay of Biscay where they led a raid on the Saint John festival. They continued along the Loire River and terrorized the Pays de Retz further inland. Once they had filled their ships they returned to the coast, but not without incident. Two of the fleet’s ships wrecked along the river, too heavy from their booty to keep afloat. Finally, the Northmen established a base on the nearby island of Noirmoutier where they stored and split their spoils. Some returned north, while others continued their voyage south. They avoided returning to the Loire thereafter, for the new count of Nantes, Lambert, fortified the Loire River’s banks to prevent a repeat of the monumental catastrophe in Nantes.

It is well known that some of the Norse people sailed as far as the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), which unfortunately little is known about the Viking raids there, safe a few sea battles and raids to the northern christians and the southern muslims. The Viking terror reverberated across the Carolingian Empire, and nearly all the Annales, or chronicles, of the time make reference to the carnage of the sack of Nantes, so everyone across Europe already knew what these Norse men were capable of.

By 847 C.E. it became clear that the Viking invaders of Western Europe had developed political ambitions beyond the sporadic raiding of the previous three decades. Their sights moved beyond Britain and Normandy to other, less defended lands such as Ireland and Brittany. The Vikings used Noirmoutier, an island in the Bay of Biscay, as their base to launch a massive invasion attempt and to supply the warriors involved. The resources of the island (salt) was a necessary resource for any army of the time, and the Vikings were no exception. The Vikings exploited the rift along the Breton March between the Franks and the Bretons. A struggling Breton army even solicited the help of the Vikings to help defeat the Frankish army on two separate occasions. With Nantes under Scandinavian control, the great citadels of Brittany suffered the same fate. Cornouaille, Broweroch, Poutrocoët, Domnoée, and finally Saint-Brieuc were brutally raided. The Vikings expertly divided the lands and conquered them. By 854 C.E. a state of full military occupation was in place. So it would seem what Brittany would remain under Viking dominion.

In Normandy, the heavy influence and frequent raids of Vikings changed the political landscape. The Vikings themselves became divided and often tried to raid each other. Charles the Bald (the king of France of the time), began a campaign to use the variable alliances of the Vikings against themselves. On the Seine, Charles hired Vikings to defend certain areas of the river. Once secured, Charles turned his attention to Brittany where a powerful warlord (Salomon) ruled over a large area of the region. At first, Salomon appeared keen on an alliance with Charles; the Vikings in the Loire themselves had recently been troubled by raids from other groups of Vikings. Charles offered Salomon land rights and the status of vassal. Unfortunately for Salomon, a simultaneous Danish raid on Chartres and Tours following the new alliance sent the counts of Neustria (Western France) into revolt. Charles was forced to cancel his promises to Salomon. Free of the protectorship of Charles the Bald, the Vikings on the Loire suffered a heavy defeat by Robert the Strong, the leading Neustrian Count who had had enough of the Scandinavians invading his lands. The conflict ended in a stalemate. For the next 20 years, more or less, a similar political and military climate dominated the region. Along the Seine the Vikings continued to sack and pillage, and the Franks continued to rebuild and attempt to mount a resistance.

Salomon was finally murdered by his rival in 874. The ensuing power vacuum caused a civil war between the Vikings in which a Breton-Frankish alliance emerged to weaken the invadors. The raids intensified after Salomon’s death. An internal struggle again erupted between the Bretons and the Franks, causing the resistance to dissolve. One leader remained with a guerrilla force to fight the Vikings – a man named Alain of Broweroch. Alain mounted an effective resistance and fought the invaders constantly. His greatest opportunity came when the Carolingians successfully pushed out the Seine Vikings who fled into Brittany and disrupted the power structure there. With a renewed civil war between the Vikings, Alain fielded two Breton armies and led them to repeated victories. By the year of 892, Alain had completely expelled the Vikings from Brittany. Along the Seine things for the Vikings weren’t good either. The Great Danish Army left mainland Europe and sailed for England to focus on the kingdom of Wessex.

Alain the Great ruled over Brittany after the expulsion of the Vikings as a sovereign king not loyal to Charles the Bald. The Bretons saw the Franks as incapable of defending them, and thus loyalty to the empire served them no benefit. A period of peace ensued. Through military endeavor, judicious alliances, and payment of Tribute, Alain kept the peace in his lands. Upon his death in 907 C.E., his successor – Gurmhailon – would have no trouble keeping this peace. The system put in place by Gurmhailon’s predecessor quickly fell to pieces. Scandinavian invaders again sacked the Breton coast and began deep incursions into Breton lands. The Bretons began a long period of restoration to repair damage done by the Vikings. Still, the overlords from the north seemed a new permanent feature to the Breton landscape. Raids intensified in the continuing decades after Alain the Great  died without a suitable or qualified heir. The situation grew more difficult when a Viking force comprised primarily of Danes sacked and occupied Nantes a second time. Defeated, the Bretons retreated to their countryside where they squabbled in civil war over who should lead them to victory against the invaders.

In 913 C.E. the grandson of Alain the Great was born. The child received an invitation from his godfather, King Athelstan of Wessex, to live under the protection of his kingdom. The child was named Alain Barbetorte (Barbe-Torte). Upon Alain’s return he laid claim to the throne of Brittany. The little resistance he encountered was squashed. It took little more than a fortnight for Alain to gain support from the entire kingdom. Thus began one of the more aggressive and seldom known military campaigns held during the Viking Age. Alain led an army beginning in Normandy where many Vikings entered into Brittany having been forced out of the Seine river valley by Charles the Bald. After cleansing the northern territories of Brittany of the Vikings, Alain marched south straight for Nantes. As they passed through Viking held villages Alain’s troops left a wake of devastation behind them. Further and further they marched into the Loire river territory. A fresh fleet of Vikings had sailed up the river to sack the city of Nantes. Alain recruited these Vikings to help him sack the city. His agreement with them included something unusual: a settlement charter. The agreement was that if these Northmen joined him in battle, Alain would grant them rights to fertile lands in the Loire River Valley; so long, of course, they also convert to Christianity. With a deal brokered, the two armies converged on a heavily fortified Nantes. Within two days the city was taken.

Thus the end of the Viking Age in Brittany was near. The Bretons had reclaimed their independence. Breton Sovereignty lasted until the 15th Century when the dukes of Brittany finally accepted to join the kingdom of France.

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4 responses to “The Viking Age In Bretagne

  1. Where does Rollo as we know him here in The U.S. come into play during this time? Was he not one of the first Norseman from Danmark or Norway to carve-out and hold territory in Normandy? I believe he was the great-grandfather (or at least a direct-line relation to)William The Conqueror.

    • Yes Rollo or Hrólfr was the first Duke of Normandy. Born in the IX century and as Duke of Normandy during the early years of the X century. He doesn’t come into play during these events or this wouldn’t be just a blog post but an essay.

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