The 4 Times that Paris was Besieged


Medieval drawing representing the siege of Paris by the Vikings. Sourced from Wikipedia

The motto of Paris, in Latin, is fluctuat nec mergitur. It can be translated as “she is tossed by the waves but does not sink”. It refers to the incredible capacity of the city to survive to its many hardships.

Among these hardships, 4 sieges marked the history of the city by the sufferings created and their important consequences.

1. 52 BC: When Julius Ceasar’s troops fought the Parisii

The Parisians have a long tradition of rebellion. This started in 52 BC, when the tribe of the Parisii rejected the Roman authority. The Parisii were Celts, or Gauls as they were called by the Romans. They settled in what is today the Parisian region. Their stronghold was called Lutetia, the ancestor of Paris.

In 58 BC, Julius Ceasar, in search for glory, started the invasion of Gaul, a vast territory similar to modern France. Some of the many tribes living in Gaul, including the Parisii, coalised under the lead of Vercingetorix to maintain their independence.

Vercingetorix throwing his weapons to the feet of Jules Cesar, painted by Lionel-Noël Royer in 1899. Sourced from Wikipedia

In 52, Ceasar sent the general Titus Labienus with 4 legions and a cavalry unit to punish them. Camulogène, an experienced commander, faced him with an army hastily created with the remaining locals.

You would expect the disciplined and experienced Roman legions to beat easily the amateurs of Camulogène. But the expedition started with a failure. Julius Ceasar, our only source, tell us that Labienus had to renounce to cross the marshes around the river to reach Lutetia, on the other side. Was he defeated by Camulogène?

Labienus prepared a new plan. Reaching the city of Metlosedum, today Melun, he massacred the inhabitants and was able to cross the rivers with some of his soldiers. The other part of his army sailed secretly at night on the river. Labienus wanted to encircle Lutetia, to attack the city by the land and by the river.

Informed, Camulogène took the hard decision to burn the city and destroy the bridges. This scorched earth tactic ensured that the Romans would not take advantage of their expected victory: no food supply and no richness to be plundered. The stakes of the battle was a city that is no more.

Camulogène’s army met the Roman army in an open plain. Today it is the Champ-de-Mars, the grass field under the Eiffel Tower.

The Champs-de-Mars seen from the Eiffel Tower by Diliff. Sourced from Wikipedia

The Gauls bravely faced the legions but they could not resist the best army in the world.

A few months after, the coalition of Vercingetorix is defeated. Gaul surrenders and is colonized by the Romans. They rebuilt a new Lutetia that became a prosperous city. It survived the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD and became one the capitals of the Franks tribe in the early Middle Ages.

2. 885-887: When the Vikings wanted to cross Paris

In the ninth century, new invaders threatened Western Europe: the Vikings. These fierce warriors coming from modern Denmark, Norway and Sweden took advantage of the weakness of their opponents.

The Franks Empire created by Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was too big to quickly react to their raids. The Vikings invasion on the Seine River started in 845. Paris was taken and sacked one time, two times already they have been paid a tribute to leave Paris.

In 885, the city had some new defenses. The old Roman wall encircling the Ile de la Cité, the main Island, has been rebuilt. On the left and the right bank, at the extremity of the bridges, 2 little fortresses were built: the Petit Châtelet and the Grand Châtelet.

Paris around 800, before the fortification. Made by Sven Rosborn, sourced from Wikipedia

A big Danish invasion was prepared and stormed Rouen, just downstream of Paris. The chronicles, that might have exaggerated, talk about 30 000 thousand warriors and 700 ships. Their plan is not to take Paris but simply to cross it. Their main target was the region of Bourgogne (Burgondy), in the southeast.

In November 885, they negociated with the bishop Gozlin to cross the city but Gozlin refused. Under the command of the count of Paris Eudes, the Parisians resisted the attacks on the fortress of the Grand Châtelet, situated where today you have the eponym plaza.

After their failures, the Vikings decided to besiege the city. They could not block all the accesses: that is why the Parisians could receive some food but barely enough.

The count Eudes fighting the Vikings by Jean-Victor Schnetz. Sourced from Wikipedia

They received the support of some Franks armies but none of them was able to break the siege. The countryside around Paris and the surrounding cities were sacked by the Vikings.

A heroic event happened during the siege in the winter 886. The flood destroyed the bridge connecting the Ile de la Cité with the left bank. 12 warriors found themselves on the left bank, after the broken bridge. They were in the little fortress of the Petit Châtelet, facing thousands of Vikings with no hope to be rescued. Refusing to surrender, they fought until the last man.

Eventually, in September 886, the Emperor Charles the Fat arrived from Italy with a powerful army. The Parisians thought they were saved and prepared to get rid of the Vikings. However, they overestimated the will and the courage of their emperor.

Charles preferred to pay a tribute to the Vikings. He even allowed them to sack Bourgogne, a region in rebellion against his authority. The Vikings crossed the city, plundered Bourgogne, and were paid a big amount of money. They went back to their country after some altercations.

The political consequences were immediate: the dishonored Charles lost his throne in 887.

The Franks aristocracy gave the western part of his empire to the count Eudes who became king of West Francia, the future France. His descendants established a new dynasty, the Capetian. The throne remained in the family, under different names, until the Revolution of 1789.

The only solution found by the Franks kings to appease the Vikings was to give them a land. A Danish king called Rollo, was given in 911 the territory downstream the river Seine. These men from the north are at the origin of the name of this region: Normandy.

Paris suffered a lot from this siege. It was impoverished and many of its churches and monasteries were sacked and destroyed. However, Paris was again a capital.

3. 1589-1594: when king Henri IV tried to enter his capital

In the XVIth century, France was shaken by the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants. The French kings took the Catholic sides, along with the majority of the Parisians.

A problem arised when the heir of the throne became the leader himself of the French Protestant, Henri of Navarra. The Sainte Ligue, an association of Catholic extremists, led by powerful dukes was created in 1585, putting pressure on the kingdom.

The ruling king Henri III, whose power was challenged by the Sainte Ligue, tried to take back the control of Paris. In 1588 his troops were expelled by a rebellion of the Parisians, who used barricades for the first time of their history. As a revenge, he got the leaders of the Sainte Ligue assassinated.

But himself was assassinated by a monk in 1589. Henri of Navarra became the legitimate king, under the name of Henri IV.

Henri of Navarra, soon-to-be Henri IV of France. Sourced from Wikipedia

However, the Sainte Ligue still controlled Paris and the Parisians had no intention to let a protestant took control of the capital.

After some victories over the Catholics, Henri desired to enter Paris in 1590. His domination could not be complete, practically and symbolically, if he did not control the rich and populated capital.

In May 1590, Henri started to besiege Paris. Tensions were high in the city. The inhabitants who proposed to deal with the king, to make peace, were often massacred. By the end of summer, the population was starving and ready to negociate.

However, an army led by the duke of Mayenne, leader of the Sainte Ligue, forced Henri to lift the siege. The duke had accepted the help of the Catholic Spain, the rival of France. For him and his followers, it was better to have this foreign army in Paris rather than to be ruled by a protestant.

After having failed to take the city by force, Henri tried ruse. He still controlled most of the Parisian region. In January 1591, 12 men presented themselves in the gate Saint-Honoré. They asked to open the door so that their carts full of flour could enter.

These men dressed as peasants were actually captains of the royal army. Their plan was to get the gate opened to let in thousands of soldiers hiding not far behind them.

But this plan was way too simple. The movement of so many soldiers, so close from the city, the day before, had been noticed by the Parisians. The doors were never opened for the fake peasants. The Parisians called this event the Day of the Flours.

Eventually, Henri decided that religion was less important than politics, or in other words he put his ambition ahead of his faith. He converted to Catholicism in 1593 and was accepted in Paris in 1594. He is said to have declared: “Paris is worth a mass”.

The recantation of Henri in Saint-Denis by Nicolas Baullery. Sourced from Wikipedia

His entrance in 1594 stayed in the memories. It was a moment of national reconciliation. Henri went to Notre-Dame for a ceremony. At the end, the bells of all the Parisian churches started to ring. Henri reached his palace of Le Louvre surrounded by a happy crowd.

Henri forgave the Parisians. The surrender of Paris was followed by the others rebellious part of the kingdom. The king managed, for some decades, to put an end to the wars of religions.

4.  1870-1871: the last famine and the last revolution in Paris.

When a war broke out in July 1870 between France and the soon-to-be German Empire, the Parisians felt safe. Their city was well defended by a wall of 33km of diameter, defended by 94 works of fortification and some fortresses situated 3km ahead of the wall.

However, the disastrous turn of event for the French army put the capital in a precarious position. The Empire of Napoleon III had collapsed and was replaced by a Republic and a Government of National Defense.

An army was quickly raised but these amateurs had no chance against a well-equipped and well-commanded German army. Paris was besieged. The authorities in Paris could only communicate with the countryside by carrier pigeons, rapidly attacked by the German falcons.

In a famous event, one of the leader of the Republicans, Gambetta managed to escape Paris in a gas balloon.

Gambetta preparing to leave Paris by Guiaud and Didier. Sourced from Wikipedia

The German artillery started to destroy or to take possessions of all the defensive works. The French troops tried several exits from the city, that ended in bloodsheds.

The German army commanded by the general Moltke under the supervision of the chancellor Bismark, did not launch an attack on the city, which was simply besieged.

In winter the Parisians start to starve and the prices went up. The Parisians started to eat their dogs, their cats and even the rats. The animals of the zoo could be found in the menu of the good restaurants.

The menu for Christmas 1870 created by Choron, image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

In January 1870, the French authorities asked Bismarck the armistice. 3 000 Parisians had died in the battlefield and 64 000 civilians in the consequences of the siege.

Was that the end of the sufferings of the Parisians? No, because the anger, sufferings and humiliation of the Parisians created a will of rebellion.

The non-professional army, the National Guards, still had weapons. When the government decided to deprive them from their canons, paid by the Parisians, a riot started that transformed into a revolution.

The army was forced to abandon the city, the government retreated to Versailles. Meanwhile, a new municipal government settled in the capital: the Paris Commune. For nine weeks, the capital was independent from the rest of the country. It was ruled by a municipality dominated by socialists that started a progressive agenda.

This revolution was brutally repressed in May, in what is called the “Bloody Week”. The army took back the city, streets by streets, barricades after barricades, savagely massacring the young working-class men and women they faced. The revolution was defeated and the working-class movement beheaded for a long time.


Paris was besieged several times but never completely destroyed. Most of it was preserved even during World War II despite Hitler’s order to burn the city. Each time, the city recovered from its hardship.

Maybe, as its motto says, Paris is indeed unsinkable?