a Scandinavian pattern
territory controlled by the
built in a Nordic tradition
In the ninth century Dorestad was occupied by Danish rulers, although intermittently, for almost half a century. Although archaeological excavations were carried out on a large scale evidence for their presence could not be obtained, but can be deduced from the written records.
The presence of the Danish rulers in Dorestad was introduced by a series of Viking raids on the trading town, initiated by Lothair I. This
Carolingian king, who was in conflict with his father Louis the Pious, had intrigued with the Danish political exile Haraldr 'junior' and incited
him to plunder the Frisian coast lands. In the process Dorestad was struck several times. Afterwards Lothair granted the place to this Dane and
his brother Hrśrekr to consolidate his military position against the other Carolingian kings.
Danes in Dorestad
with gripping animals
between Charles the Bald (violet),
Lothair I (yellow) and
Louis the German (orange)
The first phase: The Carolingian struggle for power
The background of the first series of viking assaults on Dorestad had a political character. These attacks were carried out by Haraldr 'junior', encouraged by the Frankish ruler Lothair I. In 833 the latter had revolted against his father Emperor Louis the Pious. He had found sufficient supporters to depose his father from the throne. But the next year Louis regained power and deprived Lothair of his dominions, including Frisia (3). The revolting son was expelled to Italy for 6 years, together with his supporters. In this period Lothair intrigued as much as possible and he managed to agitate Haraldr 'junior' in damaging the interests of Louis. The Frisian coast lands were plundered almost every year between 834 and 839, in the period that Louis and Lothair had a conflict. The emperor warned Lothair in vain. Only a couple of counts were punished for their negligence in chasing the pirates (4). Haraldr 'junior' probably was left behind at the Carolingian court in 826 after the county of Riustringen in East Frisia was granted to his uncle Klakk-Haraldr. Therefore he must have been well-known to Lothair.
It seems that in the 830's the trading town of Dorestad only was assaulted once, and that was in 834. After that year Dorestad is only mentioned without further indication in different sources. The emporium itself was attacked again only after 12 years. Possibly it was not rebuilt after 834 and further raids were aimed at the administrative centre, the stronghold in the 'Upper Town'. The emperor reacted 'furious' after the second attack in 835, presumably because the main royal interests were damaged for the first time that year. In 839 father and son reconciled with each other and Lothair regained his dominions. More or less for his services, but also to his own interest Lothair granted Dorestad to Haraldr 'junior' and his brother Hrśrekr (5), for the Carolingian kings started to lose control of Dorestad. The Carolingian rulers Charlemagne and Louis the Pious tried to restrict the power of the local elite by granting the Church of Utrecht with large parts of the town. But Lothair sought the aid of the members of the clan of Klakk-Haraldr to hold control of the trading town. Later on Lothair also granted 'Walcheren and neighbouring places' (the estuary of the River Scheldt) to Haraldr 'junior' (6).
The second phase: The claim of Hrśrekr
the territory of
Charles the Bald is violet
the territory of Louis the
German is orange
Although the written sources hardly give an account on the Danish rulers, we are better documented in Frisia than in other places like Normandy, where Hrólfr (Rollo) received property from the king and local noblemen were obliged to be loyal to him. Hrólfr was a political exile, like Hrśrekr. However the assignment of the area downstream of the River Seine to the Norsemen can only indirectly be deduced from one charter that was drawn up later and from the unreliable and non-contemporaneous chronicle of Dudo of Saint-Quentin.
Hrśrekr could not hold his following for long, for it is not very likely that many Danish adventurers stayed long in the Frisian coast lands. Commanders like Hrśrekr had to commit their men with the perspective of fame and prestige goods. But these men had to spend their days without action and would rather join the drifting sodalitates, as Hincmar called the Viking gangs in 861 (12). With his shrinking following Hrśrekr had to seek for local forces. So the revenues of the trade centre Dorestad must have been important to him. But with his appearance coining came to an end. It apparently must have been too profitable for the king.
Hrśrekr probably wandered about different fulcrums in Frisia and must have left the administration in Dorestad to a notaris (deputy), although he must have had an abode in Dorestad. But Scandinavian rules were not accustomed to live in a vicus. They rather established themselves in a sal, a big hall outside the town. Such a hall was found for instance outside the trading town Skiringssal on the border of the Oslo fjord in Norway. This settlement was named after the sal. In the ninth century the castrum on the bifurcation of the Rivers Rhine and Lek must have been eroded in a way that it no longer was of any use to the local ruler. Perhaps the big building on De Geer was the sal that was used by the Danes, but no prove has been found to confirm this possibility.
Despite the turbulent period - the Frankish coasts were permanently harassed - Hrśrekr was able to beat off most pirate raids, for only one raid on West Frisia was mentioned. Although Dorestad more or less was secured from lootings because of the Danish presence, it is not likely the inhabitants were very glad with these rulers. For a long time they were remembered by the less gentle way they acted collecting taxes (13). The housing of their following - a colourful company of exiles and outlaws - will not have made them very popular. The legal right of tax freedom, given to the merchants in the area of the Church of Utrecht, must have been disregarded by the rulers. A military ship duty called Koggedienst, probably enforced on the population by Hrśrekr, will only have been accepted with grumble, especially when the Frisian merchants had to use their own ships. The merchants must have constituted an important part of the Dorestad population. Still in 863 'many Frisian merchants' were mentioned (14). Therefore it is quite possible that during the rule of Hrśrekr they started to move their trading activities to other places like Tiel and Deventer. These places were situated outside the Frisian territory of the Danish rulers. This tendency continued after the Treaty of Meerssen in 870 as is stated below. So the presence of the Danish defenders in Dorestad must have strangely enough triggered the downfall of the town.
After the death of the Danish king Hárekr, as the relations between the Franks and the Danes got worse, Hrśrekr was stationed in the North of Saxony to defend the borders of the empire (15). But soon it appears that Lothair needed his vassal more in Frisia. For a gang of Vikings abused the absence of Hrśrekr to raid Dorestad and the surrounding area (16). So Hrśrekr had to return, but the attackers managed to plunder Dorestad and a villa, called 'not modest', where the Frisians in vain tried to take refuge. Possibly Hrśrekr urged the pirates to move to another place, because afterwards they sailed to Cologne, but on their way at Neuss they were surrounded by Frankish troops. Here Hrśrekr mediated between the two opponents and on his advice the pirates agreed to retreat (17).
6th or 7th century with
used as decorative pendant
(diameter is 25 mm)
The text on this page is based on my paper 'Denen in Dorestad. De Deense rol in de ondergang van Dorestad', Jaarboek Oud-Utrecht 2005
(Utrecht 2005), 5-40.
Third phase: The downfall of Dorestad
After the death of King Lothair II in 869 Charles the Bald tried to annex Lotharingia. The East Frankish king Louis the German succeeded in blocking the appointment of a confidant of Charles on the episcopal chair of Utrecht. With Hrśrekr he was more successful, for he concluded an agreement with the Dane at Nijmegen (18). Possibly he already had promised him the Frisian coast lands, because at the Treaty of Meerssen the original territory of Hrśrekr stayed intact and was added to the West Frankish kingdom. Even if we presume that the new frontier between the kingdoms was mainly established along the River Meuse, as we take the Treaty to the letter, than Charles actually would still have dominated West Frisia with the presence of Hrśrekr all the same.
Dorestad was not mentioned in the Treaty any more. Charles showed little interest in the place and rather benefited a trading place like Quentovic, favourably situated between the English Channel and the West Frankish hinterland. Dorestad, already declining, was now cut off politically from the Austrasian markets and was condemned to disappear. Possibly also a large flood in 870 played a final role (19). The East Frankish monarchs moved their support and influence to Tiel and Deventer, places within their kingdom. The special privileges of the merchants in Dorestad also moved to these places (20).
The resemblance between Tiel and Dorestad, at a distance of only 10 km from each other, is striking. In both places we find a harbour along an older distributary of the river and on the bifurcation a stronghold for the benefit of the fisc. Behind the trading zone a more agricultural area with farms could be found where the church was (and in Tiel still is) situated (21). It appears that the merchants from Dorestad must have moved to Tiel. An ecclesiastical chronicler from the early eleventh century wrote about, as he mentioned them, these crude, unreliable, godless, adulterous people, without discipline, who rather held collective orgies. Especially the aberrant customs of the merchants of Tiel were noticed. He probably meant the Frisian traders, originating from Dorestad, because they punished according to their own laws, with the approval of the emperor (22). His observation of orgies on feast days and the loose sexual moral remind us of Nordic customs as we know them from Icelandic saga's and Arab testimonies. Therefore it seems that there must have been a Danish element in the population of the merchants in Tiel. In this context the discovery in Tiel of coins from the tenth century with the inscripion IOIIISTATAS (degenerated: Dorestad) is remarkable (23). Although Tiel must have been attacked as well, the place recovered and flourished with royal support. When the trade was moved from Dorestad to Tiel it was a loss for Hrśrekr and must have excited him to start negotiations with Louis the German in 873. The Betuwe and Teisterbant (with Tiel) in the central Dutch river area once belonged to his territory, but he must have lost these regions after the Treaty of Meerssen. The meeting with Louis was held in an atmosphere of distrust. Nevertheless the king accepted him as his vassal, probably in Frisian territory on the eastern side of the River Vlie (24). After that we do not hear anything about Hrśrekr any more. The power base of Guđröđr, the successor of Hrśrekr, was situated in Kennemerland along the sea shore. Dorestad was not mentioned any more afterwards.
As the East Frankish king got hold of Lotharingia as a whole the church of Utrecht effectively recovered power. The bishop encouraged the town of Utrecht to come into bloom, at the same time the trading town of 'the greedy merchant' was neglected. The trading function of Dorestad no longer existed and the administrative function was moved to Utrecht. The 'Lower Town' was called Wik or vicus in the tenth century. Wik became Wijk (bij Duurstede). The famous merchant town was reduced to an agricultural village: a Wik with terra cum mancipiis (land with unfree farmers).
with a fabulous creature