Vikings at the River Rhine. © Alte Schule e.V.

When Vikings Attacked Xanten in AD 864 and the Saxons Saved the Day

In the middle of the 9th century, Vikings sailed up the major European sacking and robbing monasteries. One such raid went up the river Rhine and reached Xanten in 864. The annals of Xanten provides us with a lively story

Map of Viking raids in the Rhine region. Source: Wikipedia
Map of Viking raids in the Rhine region. Source: Wikipedia

In the year 864, due to excessive flooding, the rural pagans, often called bandits, came from all directions through the River Rhine and reached the highly esteemed location [Xanten]. They ravaged it completely. What is greatly lamentable for all who hear and see is that they set fire to the church of Saint Victor, a marvellous edifice, and plundered everything they found inside and outside the sanctuary.

At first, the clergy and almost all of the ordinary people fled. Yet, they later returned to the same sanctuary, where they were [once more] overwhelmed by the mad [people].

The abbot, with the sacred body of Victor, mounted on a horse and carrying a chest in front of him, and accompanied by only one priest, secretly brought this to Cologne in great danger and only through the intervention of the saint’s merits. At that time, Guntharius, the nephew of the younger Hildiwini, ruled as bishop in that place.

After the bandits committed this crime, they sought refuge on a small island near the monastery, where they built fortifications and stayed for a while. However, some of them, sailing further down the river, set fire to a large royal estate there and were defeated by more than a hundred men, while only one ship from their fleet remained [on the island]. The rest, barely getting back on their ships, returned confusedly to their own people. Meanwhile, Lothar [II], having prepared his fleet, planned to attack them, but his men disagreed. On the other hand, the agile Saxons from the opposite river bank skillfully manoeuvred so that they killed a certain king named Calbi, who had attempted to attack their shore with arrogant recklessness. All those who followed him were almost drowned in the river. The others, terrified by this, abandoned the aforementioned place [the island] and sought refuge in uncertain territories.

Transl. from Annales Xantenses et Annales Vedastini. ed. by Bernard von Simson. Hannover: Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in Usum Scholarum Separatim Editi (SS rer. Germ) vol. 12),1909, p. 20 ff

Landscape at Bislich© Dreamstime/Waeske/ 2158323369
Landscape at Bislich © Dreamstime/Waeske/ 2158323369

The detailed story of how the Viking warrior, Kalf, and his band of brothers sailed down the Rhine in 864 to rob and burn the Cathedral of St. Victor presents us with a fascinating vignette of a social landscape featuring a fleeing congregation, a brave abbot, a powerless king and a band of brave Saxon warriors.

Probably written by an eyewitness or at least a member of the audience, when the abbot from Xanten arrived at Cologne to tell his story, we get an intimate sense of the wet and inundated landscape filled with islets of different sizes which even today characterise the lower Rhine just before bending towards Holland to turn into a delta. We don’t know exactly where the main riverbed of the Rhine paved its way in this locality around this time, nor where any river arms were located. However, we may safely presume that on one river bank, Xanten was located with its Monastery and surrounded by a small town peopled by “ordinary” craftsmen and peasants. In contrast, a settlement was located on the other bank, here identified as “Saxon”. In between, a water-logged landscape would have caressed the banks.

12th-Century Shrine holding the relics of St. Victor. Source: Wikipedia
12th-Century Shrine holding the relics of St. Victor. This shrine was not the one, which the abbot carried to Cologne. Source: Wikipedia

Let us assume this may be identified as present-day Bislich. If so, we get a sense of how the cultural identification of the river people across the ancient limes as “others” was still operational in the minds of the Franconians living on the left bank. Despite Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony 777-799 and the forced Christianisation, they seem to have been considered as members of a different “nation” or at least another “people”.

In this context, it is interesting that these people took action to send the Vikings packing. A close reading thus offers up a fascinating social landscape featuring vile Vikings, the fleeing people of the Monastery,a brave abbot, an Emperor who abandons his people, and the “agile” Saxon warriors who take action and save the day.

Is it too much to believe that those agile Saxons were the “direct” descendants of Bodi and his brave men? And that it is perhaps significant that the last of the coins found in the burial ground at Bislich dates to the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840). Even though Saxony was conquered at the end of the 8th century, cultural integration or submission appears to have been long in waiting. At least in the mind of the annalist, who wrote the Annals of Xanten.


Vikings at the River Rhine. The boat is built as part of a youth programme. © Alte Schule e.V. 




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