Copyright © by Den danske historiske Forening.
The foreign policy of Horik I, king of Denmark 814-54.
Civilized Europeans of the ninth century appear to have regarded Scandinavian rulers with a certain condescension. Einhard described Godfred, opponent of Charlemagne, as a rather pompous barbarian who even gave out that he would visit the emperor himself with an army in Aix-la-Chapelle. When Godfred's son Horik (814-54) in 838 requested of Charlemagne's successor Louis the Pious that Frisia and the Abodrites be given over to him, this request, according to the Annals of St Berrin, 'seemed to the emperor so thoroughly inappropriate that he utterly scorned and ignored it'. In fact, Einhard admitted that the Franks were not at all confident that Godfred might not actually carry out his threat, and did Godfred the credit of counting Charlemagne's victory over him among the four most important victories in Charlemagne's long reign of almost constant warfare. It should also be noted that Horik was asking a quid pro quo. The envoys who brought his request to the emperor at Attigny began by reporting that, because of his loyalty to the emperor, Horik had captured and ordered to be killed the majority - or the leaders - of those pirates who had lately attacked the empire. The Danish king and the Frankish emperor apparently cooperated against mutual enemies, and in fact negotiations had been going on for years between them. A couple of years before, Horik had even complained to the emperor about the unjust killing of some Danish legates at Cologne and was given compensation for them.
The events of one particular year must be re-examined to clarify the whole picture. In 845 a certain Ragnar led a fleet against Paris. According to the Annals of St Bertin he was bought off and left Paris soon, and then proceeded to plunder in the coastal regions. Other annals confirm raiding in Frisia. Having raided 'a certain monastery' they were 'struck down by divine judgment either with blindness or insanity'. King Horik is said to have been so disturbed when he heard about this that he sent envoys to Louis the German, king of Eastern Frankia, for peace talks and was ready to release all the captives and restore all the property that Ragnar had seized. In the same year, according to the same annals, Horik sent a huge fleet up the Elbe against the Saxons, who belonged to Louis's kingdom but he was defeated. After this battle a certain civitas of the Slavs was attacked and captured - not, however, by Horik but by the victorious Saxons. This is clear from the grammar of the passage. According to the Annals of Fulda the attack on Hamburg was the end of Ragnar's plunderings in the coastal regions. The divine punishment inflicted upon the vikings, mentioned in the Annals of St Bertin, is echoed in the information that, having sacked Hamburg, the vikings 'returned, not without punishment'.
On this basis, accepting the St Bertin reference to a 'certain monastery' to be to Hamburg, there is little reason to doubt that divine punishment, of whatever nature it was, and Horik's intervention took place after Ragnar's sack of Hamburg. This story has, however, been thoroughly confused by the accounts of miracles allegedly performed by St Germain, written at his monastery in Paris. They claim the punishment inflicted upon Ragnar and his men for their saint, and the 'certain monastery' has therefore often been thought to be St Germain-des-Prés. This is no more credible than most miracula. Although Ragnar may have wrought some havoc before leaving Paris, the St Germain authors
clearly made away with Horik's reaction for the glorification of their own saint. Horik's offer to return booty and prisoners, and his killing off of those that did not die from the divine punishment, the latter, however, only reported in the St Germain miracula, has two possible explanations. Either Horik was continuing his policy of cooperation with Frankish rulers against vikings operating from Frisia, or he felt a need to oblige Louis the German after his own attack up the Elbe and his defeat at the hands of the Saxons.
Control of the Abodrites, Saxony and Frisia had a high priority in Horik's foreign policy. His father Godfred, according to Einhard, regarded these regions as his own, and he certainly had a strong influence among the Abodrites. Very likely, Danish rulers in the eighth century also had a strong position in Frisia and Saxony until Charlemagne restored Frankish power in these provinces. Horik aimed at restoring his father's influence in these parts. In Frisia his chief concern was probably not tribute but rather rivals like Harald Klak, who had been given a fief there by Louis the Pious in 826, as well as other claimants to the throne, or at least to a share in power in Denmark, like those nephews who in 850 forced him to share power with them. The Abodrites were a valuable source of income to Godfred when Charlemagne wanted them as allies against the Saxons, and Danish influence in Saxony was also important; Saxon magnates sought shelter in Denmark.
When Horik sought to negotiate his way back into these regions rather than
fight for them, he showed great awareness of Frankish politics. He timed his
offer to assume control of the Frisians and the Abodrites very carefully, in a
situation when the Abodrites were rebelling and Frisia had just been taken away
from Louis the German by his father who was finding it far from easy to control
because of viking warlords carving out fiefs for themselves there, with or
without imperial consent. His attack up the Elbe coincided with another Slav
rebellion, now against Louis the German, and was probably an attempt to fish in
troubled waters, if not a regular attempt to support the Abodrites. When it
failed, he suddenly had good reason to put up a gentle face and oblige the
German king by returning the booty and prisoners Ragnar had taken in Hamburg,
whether Ragnar had been acting on Horik's command or he was one of those
pirates, the likes of whom Horik had previously captured and executed, in his
own interest as well as in that of Louis the Pious. Three years later the three
Frankish kings jointly warned Horik that if he did not restrict Danish pirates
from attacking the Frankish kingdoms, they would make war on him.