If we were to examine the tapestry of Carolingian history around 858, we’d see some arresting images: a Northman plying the salt-way to reclaim his birthright; two warring brothers, fighting over the west; a young king plotting how to rejoin his true love. Somewhere in the bottom corner, there’s be one further image which might catch our attention: a bishop fleeing his ruined cathedral city for the refuge of a secure monastery further inland. This is Bishop Hunger, and we’ve already briefly met his alleged flight from the viking menace when we talked about the Church in Frisia. It’s an important episode to discuss, because it’s the single strongest pillar holding up the case that there was really serious, long-term viking-led disruption. Today, though, I’m going to argue that this episode has been misinterpreted. I’m not the first person to try this: a Dutch historian named Tuuk has also made the attempt, although I think they go too far in trying to argue that Lothar II’s diploma awarding Hunger the refuge-abbey of Sint Odiliënberg is a forgery. Instead, what’s happening here has a lot less to do with serial devastation by raiders, and a lot more to do with overlapping spheres of high politics.
Let’s start with what’s been happening in the Carolingian world. Thanks to Sam, we’ve got a reasonable sense of the politics of the early 850s (although his interpretation and mine are not entirely overlapping). To summarise: after the partition of Louis the Pious’ empire at Verdun in 843, the normal situation was for Charles the Bald and Louis the German (who had made a sworn alliance against their eldest brother at Strasbourg in 842) to co-operate, whilst Charles and Lothar I’s relations varied from cool hostility to outright conflict. However, by the end of the 840s this changed. Lothar and Charles began to grow closer in the face of a different branch, of sorts, of their family. The viking leader Guthfrith Haraldsson was Lothar’s godson, and in the early 850s he launched a major attack on the Seine, to which Charles and Lothar made a joint response. However, Louis the German perceived this rapprochement between his brothers as breaking the Strasbourg Oaths, and he grew angry. He also began cultivating dissident nobles from his brothers’ kingdoms, most obviously rebellious Aquitanians; but he also met some of Lothar’s magnates in Cologne in 852. In 854, his cultivation of the former group paid off in the form of an invitation to make himself king of Aquitaine. Louis sent his second son Louis the Younger into the area in his stead, to limited success. The following year, in 855, Lothar I died after a relatively short illness. He divided up his realm: the destiny of Italy, under the rule of his eldest son Louis II since Louis the Pious’ reign, was settled; but now his son Lothar II was to inherit Francia and his other son the young Charles of Provence was to inherit the kingdom which would provide his nickname. This division left Louis II out, and he was furious about not inheriting anything north of the Alps. A group of Lothar I’s magnates present Lothar II to Louis the German at Frankfurt to get his approbation for the young monarch, which was duly provided. However, in 856 a meeting at Orbe between Lothar I’s sons resulted in Lothar II being forced to actually hand Provence over to Charles rather than having him consecrated as a cleric. Over the course of the following couple of years, Lothar II renewed Lothar I’s alliance with Charles, developed tense relations with Louis the German, and handed over more of his kingdom to his brothers (Bellay and Tarantaise to Charles of Provence in 858, the whole Transjurane to Louis II in 859). Louis’ relationship with Charles also deteriorated, and in 858 he launched an invasion of the West Frankish kingdom. The invasion failed, and in 859 Louis withdrew. In the wake of his withdrawal, Charles’ and Lothar II’s bishops held a series of interlinked councils at Savonnières and Tusey to condemn the invasion and try and restore some kind of familial and political order to the Frankish world.
The second thread we need to follow takes us across the Heligoland Bight to Denmark. Compared to the Danish kingdom, Frankish politics seems calm and relaxed. We have looked previously at the complicated and mostly violent conflicts over the Danish throne, but since the late 830s it had been under the overkingship of Horic I, a son of Charlemagne’s old enemy King Godefrid. As we saw in our previous post, in 850 there was a civil war in the Danish kingdom. Horic was forced to partition the kingdom with two of his nephews, and other candidates also tried to make their play for the crown, notably Guthfrith Haraldsson and Roric of Dorestad. Both men launched major raids in 850 after long periods of quiescence. Instability persisted, and in 855 an even bloodier civil war broke out. Horic, along with his co-kings and most other members of the royal families present, was killed in battle. A new regime coalesced around the child-king Horic II, but it still looked very vulnerable. Roric tried to become king twice, once in 855 and once (more successfully) in 857. Horic II’s reign lasted into the mid-860s, but it seems to have been fragile; he, alongside most Latin references to a Danish kingdom, disappears after 864.
Our final thread of events relates to Frisia itself and political developments there. Following the partition at Verdun, Frisia was most probably split between Lothar I’s portion and Louis the German’s. At this point, the most important figures in southern Frisia were Bishop Alberic of Utrecht and probably Roric of Dorestad, who had been given Dorestad in benefice sometime in the reign of Louis the Pious. However, in the mid-840s Alberic died. His replacement, Bishop Eginhard, appears in a royal diploma of 845 as vocatus episcopus – ‘bishop-elect’, roughly – and seems never to have been consecrated. Ultimately, in 850, Alberic’s brother Liudger succeeded to the see. A little before, Roric had been accused (seemingly falsely) of treachery to Lothar, and had fled to Saxony. In 850, he, along with Guthfrith Haraldsson, gathered a large fleet and plundered Frisia and the surrounding area, forcing Lothar to re-grant him Dorestad and the surrounding regions. It seems to have been a fairly large benefice, stretching from near modern Haarlem almost to the current border between the Netherlands and Germany. Moreover, Guthfrith got no part of it, and led the fleet to the Seine as noted above. He was eventually granted land by Charles the Bald, but abandoned it in 855 when he and Roric left to make their bid for the Danish throne. This decision may also have been prompted by Lothar I’s decision to place Frisia under the subordinate authority of Lothar II. Meanwhile, in 854 Liudger had died and been succeeded not by his relative the cathedral provost Kraft but by a deformed priest named Hunger. It was Hunger who was in post when, in 857, Roric left once more for Denmark and Betuwe and Dorestad were raided by other viking fleets. The following year, in 858, he fled to Sint Odiliënberg.
With these three strands having been laid out, we can look at how they intertwine. After all, what we’ve seen just now is interaction between a set of individuals and groups with mutually interconnected histories going back decades, sharing diverse links of fidelity and kinship (both biological and spiritual) cross-cutting ethnic lines and political borders. Thus, looking at where Utrecht fits into North Sea politics considered as a whole gives us a different picture. So far as we can see, Utrecht’s early ninth-century bishops had been supporters of Lothar I. However, bishoprics, especially frontier bishoprics like Utrecht, were fragile places. For instance, Bishop Eginhard of Utrecht could not be consecrated because Utrecht’s metropolitan see, the archbishopric of Cologne, spent the whole 840s torn between Louis the German’s candidate and Lothar’s. It is therefore significant that Bishop Liudger was not succeeded by his relative Kraft but by Hunger, a priest who may have been out of favour under Liudger’s administration. The roughly contemporary Vita Odulfi says that Kraft refused to stand because he thought amassing personal wealth would make him a target for vikings. Given that – from charter evidence – Kraft was clearly being set up as Liudger’s successor in his predecessor’s lifetime, this reads a bit like a modern politician retiring ‘to spend more time with their family’. Hunger’s first actions as bishop are relevant here. In 854, he got Utrecht’s immunity renewed – by Louis the German. This was no simple administrative matter. It was a public declaration of Louis’ authority over Hunger and his church. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to see Hunger as the representative of a pro-Louis faction who staged a putsch in the Utrecht church and actualised his bonds with his Carolingian patron. This was no petty matter. When factions in his brothers’ kingdoms reached out to Louis the German in the mid-850s, he did not send them away with pretty words and a gift certificate. In 854, as he issued his diploma for Utrecht, he was in the midst of trying to take Aquitaine from Charles the Bald by main force. A couple of years later, after Lothar I’s death, he seems to have tried to annexe another frontier bishopric, Strasbourg. And, of course, in early 858 he launched the largest-scale invasion of one Carolingian realm by another Carolingian ever seen outside of succession crises. If someone in Lothar II’s kingdom was trying to win Louis the German’s support, in other words, there were good reasons for him to be worried. This was less important in the very early years of Lothar II’s reign, when he and his followers were trying to cultivate Louis’ benevolent oversight. However, after Lothar II’s failure to hold on to the whole of Lothar I’s Cisalpine inheritance at Orbe, the young king abandoned the attempt and, as we saw, renewed his father’s alliance with Charles the Bald. This could have painted a target on his back. Meanwhile on the viking front, Roric had done a relatively effective job of defending southern Frisia, with only one raid (in 851) recorded after 850. However, after 855 he was an active participant in the civil war in Denmark. It may thus be significant that southern Frisia is recorded as having been attacked in 857. That very year, Roric intervened in the Danish civil war, taking over ‘the land between the Eider and the sea’ (probably southern Schleswig). This would inevitably have made him, too, a target; and what the Annals of Saint-Bertin gestures vaguely towards as random raiding may well have been a targeted act of intra-Danish political violence. If all this is so, what we have is not poor clergy fleeing wicked Northmen, but the intersection of two sets of frontier conflicts. The viking plundering of Dorestad and Betuwe, in this reading, was not in fact a massive disruption, but it gave Lothar II an opportunity to compel Hunger and his clergy out of Utrecht and into the wilds of the diocese of Liège, easier to oversee and to control: in short, he was hiding sharp political practice and probably hostility under a false smile and a pretence of generosity.