The early 840s were a time of heightened Viking activity. Norsemen took advantage of the Carolingian Dynasty’s civil war among the sons of Louis the Pious (d. 840). Lothair, one of these sons, was said to have “called in the Norsemen to help him, had put some Christians under their lordship, and permitted them to plunder others” (Nithard’s Histories, IV.2). Meanwhile, from 839-845, Vikings raided the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain on a near-annual basis. By this point, the British Isles (and to a lesser extent, France) was already becoming a familiar raiding destination for the Vikings. Yet, in the early 840s, one large Viking fleet found its way to a land that had never before faced Viking raids—the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba.
A Viking fleet reportedly numbering 108 vessels of various sizes was spotted sailing along the coast near Lisbon around August of 844. The movements of these raiders were documented by various writers, such as Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Rāzi (d. 955), Īsa ibn Ahmad al-Rāzi (d. 980), Ibn al-Kutia (d.977), Ibn Hayyān (d.1076), and Ibn Idhari (c. 13th-14th century). The order and duration of the Viking attacks vary in some of these sources, but the authors are fairly consistent about which cities in the Emirate of Cordoba were attacked by the Norsemen.
By all accounts, Lisbon (or the region in its vicinity) was the first area in the emirate that was raided by the Viking fleet in 844. After reportedly fighting three skirmishes in the area around Lisbon, the fleet continued sailing down the coast of the Iberian Peninsula and reached the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. The ultimate target for the fleet of raiders was Seville, a city that the raiders could reach by sailing inland by means of the Guadalquivir. Before reaching this goal, however, the Vikings may have raided settlements that were situated along or near the river, such as Cadiz, Medina-Sidonia, Isla Menor, and Coria del Rio. Whatever the case, the Vikings reached the city of Seville by September or October, and by this time their reputation had preceded them—the governor of Seville fled the city before the Vikings arrived, taking shelter in fortified Carmona. Therefore, when the fleet of raiders dropped anchor at Seville, they found the city leaderless, unorganized and undisciplined. According to the account of Īsā ibn Ahmad al-Rāzī, the citizens of Seville poured out of the city to try to stop the Vikings. Yet, as forces of Seville had no commander, the raiders easily gained a foothold, defeated the defenders of Seville, and took the city by force.
Tracking the Vikings’ movements becomes more difficult after they captured Seville, as the raiders seemed to have split into different parties to scour the land for loot. According to the account of Ibn al-Kutia, multiple raiding or scouting parties were dispatched every day to different locations, and a separate Viking camp might have been set up on Isla Menor.
The Vikings at Seville were a numerous and organized force, reportedly dominated by a single ruler whose name, unfortunately, was not recorded. Due to the size and ferocity of the Viking army, the military leaders of the Emirate of Cordoba decided to take a cautious approach to dealing with the invaders—a decision that understandably annoyed the coastal cities. Nevertheless, Emir Abd al-Rahman II (r. 822-852) mobilized his forces and had some troops gather at Carmona, while the rest formed up at Cordoba.
The Emirate of Cordoba eventually mustered enough troops to instill enough confidence in their military leaders to throw off the earlier policy of defensive caution. The forces of Cordoba began probing the Viking positions, trying to lure the raiders into an opportune ambush or battle. The emirate finally found its chance on November 11, 844, when it caught a reported splinter of 16,000 Vikings off guard at a place called Tablada near Seville. In the battle, the raiders lost many warriors and were forced to abandon several ships. The military of Cordoba, encouraged by this victory, decided to advance against the city of Seville, itself, in order to drive out the Norsemen. The Viking army in Seville, more concerned about gaining wealth than holding land, reportedly abandoned the city when they discovered that the Emirate of Cordoba was finally making its move. Floating once more on the Guadalquivir, the Vikings regrouped and backtracked to some of the places that they had sailed by or raided earlier. They stopped at Coria del Rio, then Isla Menor, Medina-Sidonia and Cadiz, reportedly allowing these cities to pay ransoms for prisoners that were still held by the fleet. Finally, the Vikings exited the Guadalquivir, sailed to Niebla, then back to Lisbon, and finally departed into the unknown.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Prince Vladimir Campaigns to Korsun, by Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Ibn Fadlān and the land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, edited and translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.
- The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.