King Clovis of the Franks died in 511, and the Frankish empire was divided between his four sons: Theuderic, Chlodomer, Childebert and Lothar. According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the first challenge that the Frankish brothers faced was an attack that came out of 6th-century Denmark, a world described with legendary and mythological embellishments in the epic poem, Beowulf, and the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.
In the chronology provided by Gregory of Tours, the Scandinavian raid seemingly occurred after Clovis’ death in 511 and before the ascendance of Sigismund of Burgundy in 516. The fleet of raiders reportedly landed near the Rhine Delta and began pillaging the lands of the Franks and the Frisians. The proto-Vikings (the true Viking Age would not begin until the late 8th century) grabbed as much loot and captives as they could carry and hauled the spoils back to their ships. So much loot was brought back to the beaches that it would take a long period of loading before the fleet could set sail.
Unfortunately for the raiders, it did not take long for King Theuderic to hear of the attack. He gave his son, Theudebert, control of an army and a fleet to defend the realm and push back the invaders. The raiders were not prepared for the quick response—at the time, their fleet was divided, with some ships at sea and others still being loaded on shore. While the raiding forces were in disarray, Theudebert arrived with an army of Franks and, likely helped by regional allies, slew the Scandinavian king who had led the invasion. The Frankish fleet also intercepted the foreign ships that were at sea and evidently captured the vessels, for Theudebert’s forces supposedly retrieved all of the looted wealth that had been taken by the raiders.
Gregory of Tours identified the slain leader of the raid as a certain King Chlochilaich, who ruled a piece of Denmark. Many scholars believe this king was the historical inspiration behind the character, King Hygelac of Geatland, from Beowulf. Of Hygelac’s death, the poem stated:
“The war-hatred waxed warm ‘gainst the Hugmen,
When Hygelac came with an army of vessels
Faring to Friesland, where the Frankmen in battle
Humbled him and bravely with overmight ‘complished
That the mail-clad warrior must sink in the battle,
Fell ‘mid his folk-troop.”
(Beowulf, chapter XL, line 22-27)
The 6th-century raid of King Chlochilaich/Hygelac turned out to be a dismal failure, yet the man was more than two centuries ahead of his time. Although the Scandinavian fleet was too slow and unorganized to get away from the Franks on this occasion, the countrymen of Chlochilaich/Hygelac would continue to hone their craft over generations to become fine-tuned raiding machines by the late 8th-century.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (A scene from Beowulf by J. R. Skelton (c. 1908), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written by an anonymous Icelander in the 14th century, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.
- https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm#L.XXXI.56 (Beowulf text)