Most 11th-12th century Norman adventurers went to Italy, but some went south to Iberia to join the Reconquista.
Most 11th-12th century Norman adventurers went to Italy, but some went south to Iberia to join the Reconquista.
And those who desired to wander in the ways of paganism [Duke Richard I] had them guided to Spain by guides from Coutances. And in the course of that voyage they captured eighteen cities, and won for themselves what they found in them. Raiding here and there, they attacked Spain and began afflicting it severely with burning and plundering. But at last the Spaniards put together an army of exasperated rustics and met the Northmen in battle. And in the rage of Mars the Spaniards turned their backs to the foreigners after there had been a terrible slaughter.
-Dudo of Saint Quentin, History of the Normans
All the bishops of [the kingdom of] Toledo and Leon,
unsheathing the divine and material sword, exhort adult
[men] and urge on the young so that all might go bravely
and surely to battle. They pardon sins and raise their
voices to heaven, pledging to all the reward of this life and
-The Poem of Almeria from the Chronica Adefonsi imperatoris (quotes read by . La Historia de España)
In the late 10th and early 11th centuries Italy was the great lodestone for Norman adventurers. The first Normans arrived as pilgrims to its many holy sites. Once there they found a country with numerous polities whose leaders paid handsomely for elite mercenaries. Normans grew wealthy and even acquired titles, inspiring their fellows in northern France to join them. For the descendants of Vikings all roads led south of Rome; but some of their fellows took a different route, one that led to the Iberian peninsula. Iberia was remarkably similar to Italy during this period, and not just because of its warm climate. Iberia was divided into many polities including the Christian lands of Navarre, Aragon, Castile, the Basque Country and the county of Portugal. Further south were the Muslim lands which were sometimes under the control of a single caliphate, though they often broke apart into emirates and taifas. Iberia’s holy sites were not as renowned as Italy’s, though there was Santiago de Compostela in the northwest. This famous church was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Western Europe, which boasted the relics of Saint James, one of Christ’s apostles. The Iberian peninsula, so much like its cousin to the east, drew Norman warriors who came for God, gold and glory.
Vikings had raided Iberia since 843 when they sacked Seville. In the early 960s the leader of Normandy, Richard I, invited the King of Denmark Harold Gormsson, better known as ‘Bluetooth,’ to fight against his enemy Lotaire, the king of West Francia. The Vikings pillaged across the north before negotiating a peace with Lotaire. From there many of them sailed to Iberia where they sacked 18 cities. The counts and later dukes of Normandy kept their ports open to Scandinavian raiders who docked in Rouen and Bayeux, likely picking up a few local soldiers of fortune along the way, before recommencing their southwestern voyage. These Vikings returned with plunder from the wealthy Moorish cities which they sold to Normans. Thus, even if few Normans travelled southward they were well aware of the riches in Islamic Spain.
Normans probably first travelled to Iberia in large numbers to visit the church of Santiago de Compostela. In 997 raiders from Al-Andalus razed the church to the ground before forcing local Christians to carry the gates and bells to Cordoba. The tomb and relics of the saint were left intact, as the Islamic raiders had no interest in the bones of a long-dead Christian figure, and Santiago was rebuilt. Nevertheless, this dramatic episode no doubt informed the Normans of the violent conflict between northern Iberian Christians and the Islamic powers who controlled the rest of the peninsula.
The first Norman in recorded history to become a Spanish lord during this period was a man named Roger. He is often identified as ‘Roger of Tosny,’ though we cannot be entirely sure if these two were the same person. Assuming he was, then Roger was the son of Raoul de Tosny who held the castle of Tillières on behalf of the Duke of Normandy. The construction of the castle at Tillières was a direct provocation to the County of Blois and was regularly attacked by its count and the King of France. Frequent fighting gave the young Roger valuable experience in combat and siege warfare.
After serving alongside his father for a number of years the two were evicted from the castle when King Robert II made Gilbert Crépin its warden. Robert II then exiled the Normans, after which Raoul travelled to Italy to serve as a mercenary while his son went to northeastern Spain. In 1023 Roger travelled to the Ebro valley with a contingent of knights for the express purpose of financial gain. Roger was a bit of an oddity at the time. The Spaniards were accustomed to Aquitanians, Gascons and other southern French crossing the Alps to aid their fellow Christians but at this time few Normans ventured to the western Mediterranean.
Roger began his career by raiding Muslim territories and was known for his brutality against the locals. The chronicler Adémar of Chabannes wrote that,
“The Normans…under their leader Roger had set out to kill pagans in Spain and wiped out a vast number of Saracens and took their cities and fortifications away from them. When he first arrived Roger captured the Saracens, cut one of them each day into halves and with the rest of them as onlookers boiled one half into hot water just like pork, and gave it to them to eat, the other half he pretended to eat at home with his men. Having thus dealt with all of them in this way, he permitted the most recent captives to escape from his custody, making it look like negligence, so that he would reveal this monstrous behavior to the Saracens. This news struck them with fear and the Saracens from neighboring Spain along with their king ‘Musetus’ sought peace with Ermensend, countess of Barcelona, and promised to pay an annual tribute. For Ermensend was a widow, who had joined her daughter in marriage to Roger. When peace was established among them, Roger resolved to make war upon a further area of Spain and one day with only forty Christians he ran into an ambush of 500 chosen Saracens lying in wait for him. Engaging with them he lost his brother-in-law, went into battle three times, and killed more than one hundred of the enemy and returned with his own men. Nor did the Saracens dare to follow him as he fled.”
Roger’s time in Spain was short-lived. A year after he arrived his banishment was lifted and he returned to Normandy, leaving behind his possessions and wife in Catalonia. The Norman’s abrupt departure naturally makes one suspect that he came into conflict with the local lords. Just as with the Lombards in Italy, it is likely that the Spaniards welcomed Normans to their country to fight against their enemies but as soon as the Normans became powerful the locals began to resent the interlopers. Historian Lucas Villegas-Aristizábal even suggests that it was Catalan Christians who ambushed Roger and his men, rather than ‘Saracens.’ This is a real possibility given that medieval sources sometimes falsely blamed Muslims for attacking Christians as a way to gloss over inter-faith violence. The most famous example of this is the Song of Roland, which depicts the paladin Roland fighting against an overwhelming army of Muslims. In reality, Charlemagne’s flank was attacked by Basque Christians who were upset at the Frankish destruction of their fortresses.
It is likely that there were Norman mercenaries serving in Iberia during and after Roger of Tosny’s exploits, though the next time we hear about them is precisely forty years later. In 1063 Pope Alexander II urged the Christians of Spain and southern France to unite against Muslims. The following year a papal contingent led by the Norman lord in Italy Guillaume de Montreuil linked up with soldiers from Aquitaine, Burgundy and Normandy. The Norman contingent was led by Robert Crépin, the younger brother of Gilbert who commanded the castle of Tillières. Since Gilbert was set to inherit his father’s power & riches, Robert decided to travel abroad to seize titles and wealth. These French-speaking forces marched south to join the Catalans to lay siege to the city of Barbastro.
The Christian forces overwhelmed the Muslim defenders of the city who negotiated a surrender. But when the Muslims opened the gates to the city the Christians betrayed their word, slaughtering soldiers and citizens alike. The chronicler Al-Baki wrote that, “The people of [Gaul] and the [Normans], raided [Barbastro] unexpectedly, due to its small number of defenders and their lack of readiness…They massacred the men and took a countless number of Muslim children and women as prisoners. It is related that they picked out five thousand Muslim virgins and beauties and sent them as a present to the ruler of Constantinople. [The Franks] gained so many goods and possessions in Barbastro that it beggars description.” Al-Baki understood there was a difference between the French, who they called ‘Gauls,’ and the Normans, and considered it worth writing down. This means that Muslims were familiar with the Normans, implying that they had been active in Iberia even before Barbastro’s fall.
The Christians held Barbastro from August 1064 until April 1065 when a Muslim army retook the city. The defeated Christians scattered. Many returned to their homes, though some traveled abroad to look for new opportunities to sell their services. The most famous of these was Robert Crépin who first sailed to Italy to join the Norman conquest of Sicily before going further east to serve the Byzantines. There Crépin led the Norman soldiers against Byzantium’s enemies before turning on his Greek-speaking employers.
Events elsewhere diverted Norman attention from Iberia. The year after Barbastro fell Duke Guillaume of Normandy invaded England. Over a two-year period he conquered the country, becoming its king. The subjugation of England by Normandy opened up new areas for conquest: first Wales, then northern territories bordering Scotland and eventually the nearby island of Ireland. Guillaume generously gave out English land and titles to Norman lords. Given how much land and wealth there was to seize just across the Channel, it is no wonder that England became the primary fixation for Normans looking to advance socially and economically. Around the same time, Robert Guiscard and Roger Bosso led the Normans in Italy to conquer the southern half of the peninsula and the island of Sicily. Norman success in the North Atlantic and the central Mediterranean meant there was little reason to travel to Iberia.
Even if politics drove the Normans elsewhere, religion laid a foundation for future conflict. During the 1070s Pope Gregory VII cultivated the language of holy war. He declared that Iberia belonged to Saint Peter and called upon the faithful to retake the peninsula from the Arab-Berber Muslims who had conquered most of it. Gregory VII’s proclamations were incredibly important as they gave formalized structure to the broad, on-and-off conflict between Christians and Muslims in the region. Though the term was not used at the time, Gregory VII was developing and promoting an ideology of Reconquista. Likely Gregory VII championed holy war in response to the ongoing invasion of Sicily. Norman Christians were even then seizing the island from Islamic leaders, inspiring idealistic clergy to imagine broader wars of Christian conquest and conversion. In reality the ‘Norman’ armies were primarily made up of Muslim conscripts and the brothers Robert Guiscard and Roger Bosso conquered countries for personal gain, not piety. But Gregory VII dreamed that the secular lords could serve religious purposes and undo the centuries of Islamic advance.
Gregory VII died in 1085, having failed to unite Christendom to retake Iberia, though his teachings did bear fruit. Ten years after his death pope Urban II declared a holy war, though his goal was the Holy Land, not Hispania. The First Crusade drew French, Normans and Flemish to join the Byzantines to successfully conquer the Levant. This war drew soldiers that might otherwise have served in Iberia. While the First Crusade initially sapped European energies, its success inspired Christians to wage war elsewhere. To many Normans Iberia in the 12th century looked like Italy in the early 11th or the Holy Land during the First Crusade: a vast series of divided territories with a wealthy area ruled by Muslims that was open for plundering; a land where soldiers received religious sanction to act as they wished, take what they wished, so long as they killed the enemies of the faith.
The first of the new generation of Normans in Iberia was Rotrou, son of the viscount of Perche. Rotrou served under the Duke of Normandy Robert Curthose during the First Crusade. He proved his valor during the Siege of Antioch when he was one of the first to follow Bohemond over the walls and take the city. During the ensuing Battle of Antioch he fought on the frontlines. Unlike most of his surviving compatriots who chose to stay in the newly-established Crusader States, Rotrou chose to leave the Holy Land and return to Normandy. His actions heavily imply that he had traveled out of genuine religious conviction rather than for his own gain.
When Rotrou returned to Normandy he was uplifted to Count of Perche, a step above his father’s title, and one which he had earned fighting in the Crusade. Then, after roughly five years, he decided to travel to the Kingdom of Aragon and help its leader Alfonso I, called “the Battler,” take territory from the Taifa of Saragossa. Shortly after arriving the Normans were sent home, as Alfonso I signed a truce with Saragossa and he would not tolerate unruly Normans in his territory causing trouble, especially as he was trying to finalize a marriage alliance with Castile.
Rotrou returned to Normandy where he lived for fifteen years. We know little of his life until the sinking of the White Ship on 25 November 1120. The White Ship was a sailing vessel that had on board some of the leading Anglo-Norman nobles, among them Guillaume Adelin, the heir to the throne of England and the duchy of Normandy. The ship struck a rock and sank, killing all three hundred of its passengers, save a butcher who managed to swim to shore. Rotrou’s wife, son and two nephews were among those who drowned. The agonized Rotrou may have taken this as a sign that he had sinned and he travelled to Iberia to wage holy war as penance. He took with him a cadre of knights and a lord named Robert Burdet.
When Rotrou and Robert arrived in Iberia they joined Alfonso I the Battler. The king of Aragon and Navarre was in desperate need of soldiers because the Almoravids had reunited the Muslim territories of Spain into one polity, one which threatened to undue 100 years of Christian advances. When Rotrou arrived Alfonso I gave him control of the recently-conquered city of Tudela. Rotrou appointed Robert Burdet mayor of the city while he went off to fight down south. The Count of Perche led an army of Normans and southern French to take a fortress at Peña Cadiella, modern-day Serra del Benicadell. The fortress overlooked a pass between Murcia and Valencia. Its conquest allowed Alfonso I to launch attacks into the south of the peninsula while protecting his territories from reprisal. Rotrou spent over a decade fighting in Spain and southern France before leaving for the Holy Land where he would die in 1144.
In the latter years of his life Rotrou was a respected lord with territories on both sides of the Pyrenees. Moreover, his connections to Normandy made him a valuable ally for the Spanish lords. While in Spain, Rotrou oversaw the marriage of his niece, Marguerite de l’Aigle to García Ramírez, the future king of Navarre. This marriage led to the birth of Marguerite of Navarre who later became queen of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. While ruling as regent, Marguerite called upon Étienne of Perche to serve as chancellor. Étienne was Rotrou’s illegitimate son, who in 1166 was even then in Italy on his way to fight in the Holy Land like his father before him when he received the summons. Rotrou’s life and family provides a window into how interconnected the Normans were across widespread kingdoms. His wife Matilde was daughter of Henri I the Norman King of England, his niece Marguerite was queen of Navarre, his grand-niece Marguerite was queen of Norman Sicily, and his son Étienne was the archbishop of Palermo and Chancellor of Sicily. Meanwhile Rotrou was a lord in Normandy and northeastern Spain. All this is to say nothing of the lesser-known members of the family.
Robert Burdet probably travelled to Iberia in Rotrou’s company to fight for titles and wealth. Unlike Rotrou who was the powerful Count of Perche, Robert was not nearly as well-established. His family had been among those Normans who did not join Duke Guillaume in his conquest of England and thus missed out on all the land and wealth which other Norman lords seized. While the Count of Perche fought the enemies of God, Robert spent his time looking over charters, managing tax payments and all the duties required of the mayor of Tudela. In 1129 Robert got a major promotion when Olegeur, the bishop of Tarragona, named him prince of Tarragona. Tarragona was in rough shape by the early 12th century. It suffered Moorish raids and violence between warring Christian lords. The city’s buildings were largely in disrepair, while the countryside was sparsely populated. According to Orderic Vitalis, “Oaks and beeches and other tall trees were already growing in the cathedral church, and had for a long time covered the ground inside the walls of the city, for the former inhabitants who had lived there had been slaughtered or driven out by the cruelty of the Saracens.” Still, the gift of a principality was something too good for anyone to pass up and Robert accepted. As prince Robert would manage secular affairs, namely the city and principality’s defense, while bishop Oleguer controlled religious affairs.
Olegeur probably chose Robert because as a foreign lord he would have less power than a local. This meant that the Norman prince could not easily bully the church. Moreover, his lack of power would put him on the defensive politically, forcing him to protect what territories he had rather than use the principality to conquer more land. Robert recognized how weak his position was and travelled to Rome where Pope Honorius II confirmed his rights. Then he went to Normandy to raise more soldiers before returning to Tarragona. In his absence, Robert’s wife Sibylle ruled and even donned a hauberk and patrolled the city walls.
When Robert returned he lowered taxes in his territories to encourage immigration. He campaigned with Alfonso I and helped move the front-line of the Christian-Muslim conflict further south. His actions led to Tarragona’s revival. But success breeds envy. In the late 1140s archbishop Bernat de Berga allied with Ramon Berenguer IV, the count of Barcelona, to seize power over the principality. Bernat issued a new charter declaring him overlord of Tarragona and demanding 1/5th of Robert’s income, including those gained from raids against Islamic territories. Robert had to accept or risk losing his princely title altogether.
Robert Burdet died in the mid-1150s, bequeathing Tarragona to his son Guillaume. But the power-struggle between the secular and religious leaders continued, until in 1171 members of the archbishop’s family assassinated Guillaume. In the words of historian Lucas Villegas-Aristizábal: “This in turn caused the two remaining brothers Berenguer and Robert, to assassinate the archbishop, but leading the Norman family to flee to Moorish-controlled Majorca in order to avoid punishment from the Church and the count-king. The blood feud was partially resolved in the 1180s during the reign of Alfonso II of Aragon-Barcelona, when [Guillaume] II, grand-son of Robert Burdet was partially restored to some of his grandfather’s lordship, but by then any independence of the principality had long ceased to exist and the [Burdet] family became nothing more than one of the many aristocratic families who possessed lands in the territories of new Catalonia under the lordship of the counts-kings of Aragon and Barcelona. Like their fellow Anglo-Norman settlers in Tortosa they were quickly assimilated into the local aristocracy and, because of the lack of new Norman immigrants after a few generations, they ceased to be considered foreign.”
The last great period of Norman involvement in Iberia was during the Second Crusade. In 1144 the County of Edessa became the first of the Crusader states to fall. Christian weakness in the face of resurgent Muslim powers in the east led Pope Eugenius III to call for a holy war in December 1145. The Second Crusade is famous because this time it was led by kings, namely Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany. In early 1147 the pope declared that holy war in Iberia was just as important as in the Holy Land. Thus, even as the greater lords and their hosts travelled east to the Levant, many thousands travelled south to Iberia. However, a fair number of the contingents of knights that sailed along Iberia’s western coast were not looking to help the Iberians. Instead, they intended on sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean to get to the Levant.
In the Spring and Summer of 1147 these knights docked in the newly-established Kingdom of Portugal to resupply before continuing to the Holy Land. When they arrived the Portuguese King Alfonso I welcomed them. Alfonso I offered the Crusaders money if they helped him take the city of Lisbon. Beginning on 1 July a Christian host of Portuguese, Anglo-Normans, Germans and Flemish besieged the city. The Muslim defenders held out until the 21 October after starvation forced them to surrender. The Muslims agreed to open the gates to the Christians on 25 October in exchange for leniency. Much like at Barbastro the Christians agreed, but once inside they massacred the inhabitants, plundered the city of its goods and took advantage of the women.
After despoiling the city many Crusaders continued their journey to the Holy Land, though some remained in Iberia. Many of the Anglo-Normans who were present at the siege of Lisbon later fought at the Siege of Tortosa in 1148. After taking the city the Count of Barcelona granted the Anglo-Normans an area of land to establish their own community where they cultivated vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees. However, the Anglo-Normans were subordinate to the Spanish lords and because there were so few of them relative to the native population they quickly assimilated into the local culture. While the Second Crusade proved a failure in the east, it was a major success in the west in no small part due to the thousands of Normans who fought at Lisbon, Almeria and Tortosa.
After the Second Crusade Norman forces continued to make their way into Iberia and regularly fought for the Portuguese, serving at the Siege of Silves in 1189 and the conquest of the Alcaçer do Sal in 1217. Thus, the Normans played a pivotal role in the expansion of Portugal from a small territory extending eastward from the modern-day city of Porto to stretch all the way to the southern coast.
Events closer to home brought an end to Norman adventuring in Iberia. In the late 1170s the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland, a major campaign which diverted fighting men from other fronts. The true death-knell of the Norman mercenary age was the ascendency of French King Philippe II, better known as Philippe-Auguste. Before he came to power in the late 12th century the French monarchy was at an all-time low. When Guillaume the Conqueror’s heirs joined the House of Anjou they controlled England, much of Ireland and roughly the western half of France, meaning they had far more territory than the King of France even within France. Yet, Philippe-Auguste was determined to be a strong king and assert his power over his vassals and between 1202-1204 he conquered Normandy. Ten years later he defended his lands at the famous Battle of Bouvines. Philippe-Auguste subordinated the troublesome northern province and reestablished the supremacy of the King of France. Norman mercenary culture collapsed as the territory lost its autonomy and became more closely linked to France. Mercenary culture gave way to chivalry, a romantic idealization of Christian knights as pious soldiers of God.
The Normans were never as successful in Iberia as they had been in Italy. In Southern Italy the Normans travelled in large numbers and found a country divided between many small polities. Due to Southern Italy’s small size it was easy for the Normans to unite, forming a truly formidable army against their many opponents. Success bred success, as Norman victories led to more Normans travelling to Italy to join their fellows. By contrast, northern Iberia was not nearly as wealthy or as religiously important as southern Italy and fewer Norman soldiers-for-hire travelled there. When they did they found a vast, mountainous territory which inhibited their ability to coordinate. Finally, the Iberian polities were larger than those in southern Italy, and the powerful kingdoms of Leon, Aragon, Castile and eventually Portugal could not be bullied by what few Normans travelled to their lands. Even when the Normans did become lords they were heavily outnumbered by the people already living there and very quickly integrated into the local culture.
Nevertheless, the Normans played a major role in the history of Spain and especially Portugal. Norman soldiers supplemented the Iberian armies. They advanced Christian territory in the 11thcentury when Islamic Spain was divided. They held Christian territory against Almoravid aggression. A decade after the County of Portugal asserted its independence as the Kingdom of Portugal Anglo-Norman forces greatly aided the fledgling state. First the Anglo-Normans participated in the successful siege of Lisbon and later fought to expand the country’s territory south along the coast.
The Reconquista took place over 700 years and was mostly fought by indigenous Iberians, with much help from Aquitaine and Gascony. Yet, no history of the Reconquista is complete without examining the roughly 200-years of Norman engagement.