The Danish role in the decay of Dorestad

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bronze fibula with
a Scandinavian pattern





territory controlled by the
Danish rulers in Frisia





iron rivet of a ship,
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.
Hrśrekr was able to protect the emporium (staple market) from most raids, at first with the help of his Danish followers, but gradually also with forces he locally recruited. Unfortunately for Hrśrekr his position in Dorestad was not of much use to him because the trading town was already declining. The importance of the long distance trade had declined ever since regional trade increased. Moreover the growing power of the local elite made it difficult for the Frankish kings to hold control over Dorestad. An attempt to reduce that power by granting property in the Dorestad area to the Church of Utrecht was not very successful. Due to this development Emperor Louis the Pious lost interest in Dorestad. Minting stopped and constructions in the harbour were no longer extended. The economical decline sustained when Dorestad was appointed to the Middle Kingdom of Lothair I. The trading town became less attractive for those merchants that stayed behind. They rather moved to places outside the territory that was ruled by the Danes, like Deventer and Tiel, both rising merchant towns just outside Frisia. The key position of Hrśrekr at the Treaty of Meerssen in 870 was the cause that his territory - and therefore also Dorestad - was appointed to the kingdom of Charles the Bald. That is why the trading town became politically isolated from the hinterland in the Rhine-Meuse area and was doomed to decline. Hrśrekr now only held the West Frisian coastal area with the declining trading town of Dorestad. The few merchants that stayed behind were persuaded by Louis the German with special privileges to move to Tiel and Deventer.

Danes in Dorestad
The first Norsemen in Dorestad were traders. Although they constructed excellent ships their share in the marine long distance trade was modest. Traders and carriers in the Northern seas were mostly Frisians. So we do not hear much about these Danish traders. The first time we come across Danes in Dorestad is when the place is raided in 834 (1). We must not have an excessive idea of the Viking raids on Dorestad. After a raid business went on as usual. Habitation in the area of the Kromme Rijn (NW of Dorestad) did not change much in the period of the supposed excessive raiding. Minting did continue on a large scale in the 830's and 840's, the period in with most frequent Viking raids occurred (2). Besides it is ironic to establish the fact that Dorestad profited from the wealth that was robbed all over Europe and shipped to the north, but returned by trade. After 863 Dorestad was not mentioned anymore, anyway not in the texts that were written by clergymen. But archaeological research makes clear that at least a part of the place continued to function.
In the period that Danish rulers played a political role, we can recognize three phases. In the first phase the Frankish rulers had to grant the Danish brothers Haraldr 'junior' and Hrśrekr, nephews of Klakk-Haraldr, a former king of Denmark and now an exile in Francia, Dorestad after a series of assaults in the 830's. In the second phase Hrśrekr reconquered the area that was taken from him in the 840's. In the third phase Dorestad as well as its Danish ruler fell between two stools after the division of 870. Dorestad went down, the merchants moved to places like Tiel and Deventer, and shortly after we do not hear anything from Hrśrekr anymore.

silver buckle and buckle plate
with gripping animals

Division of Verdun in 843
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
Ever since 840 Frisia was not raided any more. The pirates now aimed for England and the West Frankish kingdom of Charles the Bald. After the three sons of Louis the Pious concluded a treaty of friendship, they did not need their Danish supporters any more. The urge to take defensive measurements had diminished after the viking attacks had come to an end. Now the presence of Danish rulers in the mouth of the Rivers Wezer, Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt was an undesirable situation for Lothair. In or shortly after 844 Haraldr 'junior' and Hrśrekr fell into disgrace. Hrśrekr was falsely accused and arrested but escaped to the kingdom of Louis the German. Haraldr 'junior' perished, probably while he was arrested. Hrśrekr established himself in Saxonia near the Danish borders as fidelis (faithful man) of the East Frankish king. Here he gathered 'quite a large gang of Danes' and started to attack the northern coasts of the kingdom of Lothair (7). Possibly we are dealing with the same gang, that under the leadership of Ragnarr harassed the Seine region in the early 840's. Charles the Bald granted Ragnarr goods in Flanders but like Haraldr 'junior' and Hrśrekr he also fell into disgrace. In 846 the vicus Dorestad and two other villae (settlements) were plundered (8). Apparently we are dealing with a large attack, because all three centres of the conglomerate Dorestad were raided. It seems that the next year the raiders were not aiming for Dorestad but sailed upstream to the vicus Meginhardi. The chronicler Gerward suggested that they operated from Dorestad. Another chronicler Prudentius indeed reported the Danish occupation of Dorestad that same year (9). So it seems that Hrśrekr already held the town before Lothair assigned it to him.
It appears that the defense was locally organized. In 845 the raiders were defeated by 'Frisians' (10). The king did not take any precautions, as far as we know. In 850 Hrśrekr destroyed places in Frisia and the Betuwe and finally captured Dorestad with an extensive Danish army, provoked by the false accusations of Lothair (11). At last the king had to admit and Hrśrekr regained the strategic trade centre that was unjustly taken from him. The conflict between the king and his vassal came to an end. This second series of raids appeared to be as well politically inspired as the raids in the 830's. Hrśrekr settled in Dorestad en regained his territories on condition that he should defend the Frisian coast lands against Viking attacks. Furthermore he had the obligation to collect taxes for the king. In 839 Hrśrekr only held the vicus Dorestad in iure beneficii (as a fief), but now he got Dorestad without further indication as the core of his territory, defined as 'Dorestad and other counties'.

silver fibula
with Scandinavian
interweaving pattern





Lothair I

Division of Meerssen in 870
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).

turtle broach


golden bracteate from the
6th or 7th century with
Scandinavian pattern,
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.

(1) AB, Rau, 1958, 834, 24.
(2) Coupland, 2002, 226 ; possible we are dealing with Frisian imitations (Henstra, 2000, 63-64).
(3) Ordinatio imperii, Pertz, 1835, 270-273.
(4) Astronomus (Tremp, 1995, 504).
(5) AF, Rau, 1960, 850, 38.
(6) AB, Rau, 1958, 841, 54.
(7) AF, Rau, 1960, 850, 38.
(8) AX, Rau, 1958, 846, 348.
(9) AB, Rau, 1958, 847, 70; AF, Rau, 1960, 847, 34; AX, Rau, 1958, 847, 348.
(10) AX, Rau, 1958, 845, 346.
(11) AB, Rau, 1958, 850, 76; AF, Rau, 1960, 850, 38; AX, Rau, 1958, 850, 350.
(12) AB, Rau, 1958, 861, 106.
(13) Gosses, 1946, 148.
(14) AB, Rau, 1958, 863, 116.
(15) AB, Rau, 1958, 857, 94.
(16) AB, Rau, 1958, 859, 100.
(17) AB, Rau, 1958, 863, 116; AX, Rau, 1958, 864, 354.
(18) AB, Rau, 1958, 870, 206.
(19) Hessing, 1994, 227.
(20) Muller & Bouman, OSU no. 88.
(21) Sarfatij, 1999, 268
(22) Van Rij, 1980, 80.
(23) Sarfatij, 1999, 273-274.
(24) AF, Rau, 1960, 873, 90

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).




bronze grip of a key
with a fabulous creature





Coupland, S., 'Trading places: Quentovic and Dorestad reassessed', Early Medieval Europe, 11 (2002) 209-232.
Gosses, I.H., 'Deensche heerschappijen in Friesland gedurende den Noormannentijd', in: Gosses, F. & Niermeyer, J.F. (eds.) Verspreide Geschriften (Groningen/Batavia 1946), 130-151.
Henstra, D.J., The Evolution of the Money Standard in medieval Frisia (Groningen 2000).
Hessing, W.A.M., 'Wijk bij Duurstede-De Horden', in: W.A. van Es & W.A.M. Hessing (eds.), Romeinen, Friezen en Franken in het hart van Nederland (Utrecht/Amersfoort 1994), 226-230.
Muller Fz., S. & Bouman, A.C. (eds.), Oorkondenboek van het Sticht Utrecht tot 1301 I (Utrecht 1920).
Pertz, G.H. (ed.), Capitularia regum Francorum, Monumenta Germaniae historica, Leges (Hanover 1835).
Rau, R. (ed.), 'Annales Bertiniani', Quellen zur karolingischen Reichsgeschichte II (Darmstadt 1958), 11-287.
Rau, R. (ed.), 'Annales Xantenses', Quellen zur karolingischen Reichsgeschichte II (Darmstadt 1958), 339-371.
Rau, R. (ed.), 'Annales Fuldenses', Quellen zur karolingischen Reichsgeschichte III (Darmstadt 1960), 19-177.
Rij, H. van (ed.), Alpertus van Metz, Gebeurtenissen van deze tijd & Een fragment over bisschop Diederik I van Metz (Amsterdam 1980).
Sarfatij, H., 'Tiel in Succession to Dorestad', in: H. Sarfatij, W.J.H. Verwers & P.J. Woltering (eds.), In Discussion with the Past, Archaeological studies presented to W.A. van Es (Amersfoort 1999), 267-278.

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