72: The Viking Conquest of Normandy
“The Normans are an untamed race, and unless they are held in check by a firm ruler they are all too ready to do wrong. In all communities, wherever they may be, they strive to rule and often become enemies to truth and loyalty through the ardour of their ambition…They were from the first a cruel and warlike people and were governed by powerful kings; but they rejected the faith of Christ for a very long time. [Rollo conquered Normandy and] his bold roughness had proved as deadly to his softer neighbours as the bitter north wind to flowers. If the Norman people would live according to the law of God and be united under a good prince they would be as invincible as were the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar and the Persians and Medes under Cyrus and Darius and the Macedonians under Alexander, as their many victories in England and Apulia and Syria amply testify. But because strife divides them among themselves they take arms to rend each other; though they conquer other peoples they defeat themselves, and as their hostile neighbours look on with scorn they belabour and mercilessly butcher each other, so that their mother Normandy is constantly in tears.” -Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History
One of history’s great mysteries is why raiders, pirates and eventually conquerors left Scandinavia to ravage Europe. Perhaps the lands now belonging to Denmark, Norway and Sweden experienced a population boom. With limited land and access to women, because powerful lords took wives and concubines, the younger sons had to seek their fortunes abroad. Another theory, is that European re-urbanization in the centuries following the fall of Rome, birthed market towns with concentrated wealth; a perfect target for raiders. Other historians claim that advances in shipbuilding resulted in the Viking longship and drove the attacks. Perhaps it was Charlemagne’s fault. His wars with the Danes had a pronounced impact on the Scandinavian world. He introduced Christianity at the point of a sword to the Odin-worshippers, driving a wedge between those who wanted to draw closer to the Carolingian Empire and those who remained faithful to the old ways. The glory of the palace at Aachen and across the Empire in general made Vikings envious; moreover, many realized that one successful raid on a palace, royal mint or monastery would grant them the money they needed to become lords in their own right, elevating them to the position of thane or even jarl back at home. Whatever the cause, the Vikings discovered that Western Europe was wholly unprepared for their arrival. The existing kingdoms, and the Carolingian Empire, were primarily land-powers, ruled by horselords and employing Roman roads to control their lands. Moreover, especially in the British Isles, religious figures built monasteries on secluded islands to escape from secular interference. Sailing on their dreaded longships, Vikings could strike these wealthy targets and leave only ashes by the time slow-marching bands of soldiers arrived to drive them away.
On 8 June 793 the Viking Age began with the devastating attack on the Lindisfarne monastery. These raiders killed or enslaved those holy men residing on the secluded island community off the northeastern coast of Northumbria. News of the devastation spread rapidly throughout Christendom. The great theologian Alcuin of York, then residing at Aachen, lamented on the death of his countrymen, writing, “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God.” This catastrophe was merely the first page in a centuries’-long epic. This epic ended on the 25 September 1066 when the English defeated Harald Hadrada, the King of Norway, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Three days later an invasion force from northern France led by Guillaume the Duke of Normandy docked at Pevensey. Within three months Guillaume seized the English throne, ruling over a conglomeration of territories stretching across the Channel. The Viking Age ended when the Scandinavian invaders were effectively repulsed and replaced by those Scandinavians who settled in Western Europe.
This episode talks about the settlement of Scandinavian peoples in Normandy beginning with their earliest encounters with the Franks, colonization of the northern coast, and the establishment of their own recognized polity within the Frankish, later French, kingdom. At the end I’ll explain how Frankish Neustria became Normandy, the land of the Normans, the land of the Northmen. The settlement of northern France was one of constant contestation. The Northmen spoke Old Norse, worshipped Odin, and had a militaristic culture based on raiding, values which they brought to Francia. Yet, they quickly came to rule over a population of Old French-speaking Christians with their own complex culture. Thus, there was pull from both sides to adopt the values of the other. These conflicting cultures resulted in squabbles both within and without the territory, as some Normans sought to assimilate while others aimed to preserve their heritage. Ultimately, the Normans will become more French than Scandinavian; they adopted the French language, political institutions and Christianity. Yet, they retained their own sense of uniqueness. Normans conserved or developed their own customs, established a highly-complex bureaucracy that was much more comprehensive than that employed by the Kingdom of France, their soldiers conquered across the British Isles and the Mediterranean, and they developed a north Atlantic empire. The Normans did become French, but they were also something more; something that would challenge France and alter its history forever.
Few sources on the Vikings remain to us from the 9th and 10th centuries. Most information on the period comes from either Norman chronicles, which were commissioned by the leaders of Normandy to establish their history, or from the Norse sagas, oral traditions passed down for centuries and only transcribed in the 11thcentury after the Christianization of Scandinavia. Contemporary sources usually come from the Franks, who were as hostile to the Vikings with the pen as the Vikings were to them with the sword. Moreover, surviving Frankish sources were written from those with second-hand knowledge, as annalists like Flodoard of Reims recorded stories told to him by monks fleeing violence. Since this period is steeped in legend and ducal propaganda we have to read against the sources, compare histories against each other, lay out probabilities and make the best argument for what occurred. Even then, we have to remember that much of our knowledge of the period remains educated guesses.
The 11th century was a cultural watershed for the Normans, who by then were well-established, controlled many decently-sized urban areas, and whose dukes commissioned many works on their history. One of the most famous of these id Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s De Moribus, which retells the history and Christianization of the Normans as a means of legitimizing their rule. Another is the Gesta Nommanorum Ducum by Guillaume of Jumièges, a history of the 7 leaders of Normandy beginning with Rollo. These works were among the first commissioned serial biographies of a polity’s rulers in European history. Combined with miracle stories and church histories, the 11th century Normans were a remarkably literate people that produced an unusually large collection of writing on themselves, though, as we shall see, there remains a number of discrepancies in the text. Many of these disagreements stem from the biases of the writers. Dudo’s narrative was meant to justify Norman independence from French overlordship, while Guillaume’s was meant to legitimize Duke Guillaume I for those rebellious Norman nobles who rejected him as a bastard and for the English subjects who he conquered.
Chapter 1: Pillage, Fire and Sword
“[The Northmen] are inflamed by excessively wanton behaviour and through revelling in extraordinary shamefulness, mate with as many women as they can. As a result, they have fathered countless children from sexual intercourse of an immoral illicitness. After these have grown up, they fight fiercely among themselves…When they grow too many in number and become too numerous for the land which they cultivate, a crowd of adolescents is gathered together by lot…and is expelled into other realms of the world to acquire by force their own kingdoms…They do indeed live in exile from their fathers to tussle courageously with kings…They are exiled and banished so that they can fight and despoil…the young men’s harshness is encouraged, with the aim of overthrowing nations…In this way they ravage everything which does not oppose them.”
-Dudo of St. Quentin, History of the Dukes of the Normans
The first Viking attacks on the land we now call France began in the late 790s. These were small-scale raids that did not draw much concern, given that brigandry and highway robbery was a not-uncommon problem at the time. After Charlemagne passed on he left the empire to his son, Louis the Pious. Louis proved unable to fill his father’s oversized shoes, and he spent much of his reign fighting against his rebellious sons. In 820, six years’ into Louis’ reign, northern raiders penetrated the Seine in earnest, taking numerous hostages and pillaging important monasteries and churches. Frequent civil wars opened up the sparsely populated west to more raiders who even set up bases to use for future expeditions. In 840 Louis died and left his western territory to his son, Charles le Chauve, in English, Charles the Bald. When news that the emperor died reached Scandinavia Vikings boarded their longships and sailed en masse to attack the Frankish Empire, knowing that Louis’ three surviving sons would be too busy squabbling over each others’ territory to defend their own.
During the 840s raiding parties grew so large that they could sack walled cities. The largest of these comprised small armies. In 841 the annals read, “Danish pirates sailed down the Channel and attacked Rouen, plundered the town with pillage, fire and sword, slaughtered or took captive the monks and the rest of the population, and laid waste all the monasteries and other places along the banks of the Seine, or else took large payments and left them thoroughly terrified.” In 842 the Normans destroyed Rouen and razed the monastery of St. Ouen. In 843: “Northmen pirates attacked Nantes, slew the bishop and many clergy and lay people of both sexes, and sacked the city,” before moving on to the southwest. In 844 Charles was busy fighting against the pretender Pippin II who ruled over Aquitaine and likely paid a group of Northmen to sack Toulouse.
Then disaster struck for the king of West Francia. In 845 an entire navy of 120 ships manned by berserker warriors led by the warlord Ragnar sailed up the Seine River to besiege Paris, the crown jewel of the western kingdom. Along the way they captured and hanged 111 Franks as a sacrifice to Odin. This was a relatively humane form of human sacrifice compared to some other Viking rituals, at least according to the Franks. Dudo recounts that Scandinavians sacrificing to Thor, “did not make him an offering of sheep, nor cattle, nor wine, nor grain, but honored him with human blood, considering it the most precious of all sacrifices. For this, a prophetic priest chose victims beforehand. They were cruelly struck on the head with one strike from an ox-yoke and then one of the battered heads was singled out by lot for one extreme and final blow. That man was then dashed to the ground and they would search for ‘the tube of the heart’ on the left-hand side, that is the aorta. Once the blood had been drained from it, as was the custom, they smeared their own heads and the heads of their men.”
The warlord leading the terrifying armada was possibly Ragnar Lothbrok, whose life is retold in the Icelandic Sagas, though historians debate whether Lothbrok even existed or how many of tales involving him actually occurred. Ragnar’s forces captured Paris and held it against reinforcements from King Charles. Unable to retake his most populous city by force, he was forced to pay 7,000 pounds of silver to the warlord, who left Francia for England. Charles contended with Vikings throughout the rest of his reign. Yet, they were just one of many threats that his kingdom faced. To the south, Islamic raiders from Al-Andalus attacked Provence. Hungarian raiders occasionally penetrated the east. Pippin II constantly agitated in the southwest as he angled to take the throne of West Francia or at least Aquitania. Finally, his half-brothers Lothar and later Ludwig threatened to conquer his kingdom. Charles was beset on all sides and by all accounts considered the other Carolingians and internal dissent a greater threat to his rule than occasional raids. However, there were instances when the Northmen’s activity became too much to bear, such as in 852 when Charles and the Emperor Lothar campaigned together in Frisia against Scandinavians who established bases there.
In 855 Ragnar Lothbrok’s son Björn, known as Ironside, led a raid down the Seine. Charles defeated the raiders but Björn escaped and became a perpetual enemy of the Franks. The following year Charles learned that Vikings built a base at Jeufosse, 60 kilometers northwest of Paris. Charles attacked the fortification and slaughtered many Vikings, yet he did not dislodge them, and the Northmen raided Paris on 28 December. Meanwhile Pippin II hired Scandinavian mercenaries who sacked Poitiers, while still other Vikings raided Saint Denis and captured the abbot, who was also the king’s cousin. In 857 Björn Ironside relocated his forces to the island of Oissel, near Rouen and made a new fort there. Charles could not let Ragnar’s son have such a strong foothold on the Seine and he allied with the new Emperor Lothar II for a campaign the following year to dislodge them. All the fury of the Franks and their Lotharingian cousins could not overthrow Björn and his followers. During the siege Charles fell ill and Ludwig invaded from the east. In one of the great crises of his reign, Charles fled south in a desperate and ultimately successful bid to defend his kingdom from annexation from his half-brother. Even as he saved his regnum from conquest, the Vikings established permanent bases in northern West Francia, and soon raided Paris yet again. With West Francia in chaos Björn raided the Loire valley with his foster-father Hásteinn, who was also the first named Viking to attack West Francia in the 830s. From the Loire Valley they moved to Provence before launching an expedition into the Mediterranean.
By the mid-century virtually every major city and town in West Francia had been attacked by the Vikings, with many falling to their onslaught. Despite perpetual massacres across the kingdom Charles feared rebellious nobles more than the Northmen and he prohibited or even tore down their fortifications. The situation become so dire that in 859 peasants in the Loire and Seine made a sworn association to defend against the berserker raiders. When local nobles heard about this they gathered their soldiers and met them. Despite all the peasants’ arguments that they were defending their country and their own lives the aristocrats slaughtered them without mercy. Thus, the Franks played right into the hands of the Northmen. Through their mutual distrust and civil strife they decimated their kinsmen and left their country open to foreign fury.
By now the Frankish lords recognized that the Vikings were masters of warfare, capable of sudden strikes and large-scale attacks on fortified positions. Charles adroitly hired Scandinavian mercenaries to fight for him against his enemies, often pitting one group of Northmen against another. When he wasn’t fighting the Vikings, or his half-brothers, Charles was funding the construction of fortified bridges along the Seine to prevent future raids. Meanwhile he employed a strategy of paying off larger armies while engaging smaller ones. Nevertheless, Charles could not stop every warlord with dreams of achieving quick glory and the Northmen used the many rivers and canals throughout West Francia to penetrate every part of the kingdom.
One other method that the Franks used to combat the Vikings was religion. The Franks hoped that conversion to Christianity would temper the raiders, and possibly make them more sympathetic to their fellow Christians than their Nordic kinsmen. When Frankish nobles made treaties with northern warlords they often included clauses stipulating that they be baptized. Vikings often accepted baptism as a means of convincing whatever lord was paying them that they were a trustworthy business partner, one the Franks could hire to fight off diehard Odin-worshippers. Since the Norse were polytheists some may have accepted that Christ was a Continental god to be included into their pantheon. Finally, there are those who were genuinely moved by Christian theology. This last group was a small minority, especially since the Vikings looked down on Christianity and even killed some who abandoned the Norse religion.
Increased contact between mainland Europe and Scandinavia meant that Christianity spread northward. One of the most prominent figures in this mission was Rimbert. Probably born in southern Denmark, he became archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen. He later preached to the Danes at Hedeby before going on a mission trip to Sweden. Rimbert kept up a lively correspondence with the Frankish monk Ratramnus of Corbie, explaining to his western counterpart that the common Scandinavians lived very similarly to the Franks. In a world where 90% of the population were agricultural workers, these peasants worked from sun-up to sun-down in the fields, they engaged in craftwork, enjoyed festivals and games. Like the Franks they were connected to the broader world through market towns. Rimbert saw a common populace ripe for the preaching of the Gospel. Yet, this side of Scandinavia, one which encapsulated the overwhelming majority of its people, was not one the Franks were accustomed to. Their only interactions were with the warrior class, made up primarily of the lesser sons of nobles seeking their fortune abroad, and the ‘kings.’ The chronicles generally referred to any warlord as a ‘king,’ whether they ruled a country, a territory or just owned a longship as any Northman wealthy enough to own a sea-faring vessel was considered a king in his own right. It was these sea-kings and their berserkers who met the Franks. During the 800s the Vikings were primarily raiders who hopped to and from Scandinavia and at most set up bases in the British Isles or on the Continent. Even around the turn of the 10th century the Viking settlers were largely male warriors, preferring to make a community with the local women, rather than import their own people to the lands they ruled. Thus, Scandinavians in northern Francia were the elite ruling class, while the vast majority of their subjects were Franks.
In 866 the Vikings expanded their mastery of the north by allying with the Bretons. Hásteinn waged war alongside Salomon, the Count of Rennes, and ravaged the Frankish northwest. One of the great lords of the north, Duke Robert le Fort, led an army against the Vikings and even managed to surprise them while they were trying to flee. Yet, the fearsome warriors turned on the Franks and killed Robert. In the wake of the disastrous Battle of Brissarthe, Charles chose to recognize Brittany’s independence. This was all part of Charles’ strategy of calculated retreats. Since assuming the throne he had been under constant assault on all sides, yet he miraculously grew stronger over time, until in the 870s he ruled over West Francia, Italy and some of Lotharingia. The emperor proved so strong that he even managed to keep the Vikings in check during the final years of his reign, repulsing all attacks down the Seine River. While raids continued in the Loire, the Scandinavians turned their attention to Britannia and Frisia, which were less well-defended than West Francia. Finally, according to the chronicler, Charles made a settlement with the powerful warlord Hásteinn. In 872-873 Hásteinn was fighting in Maine and seized Angers. Now-Emperor Charles besieged the city. But rather than setting in for a long fight, Charles negotiated with the warlord. In exchange for fealty, the Frank made Hásteinn Count of Chartres, the first Viking given a lordship in West Francia. If true, this was the first such treaty made by a Frankish lord to cede land to a Scandinavian with the promise that he would defend the territory against future raiders. It’s doubtful if such an arrangement ever occurred, but if it did, it did not last long. According to Guillaume of Jumièges, around 876, before Hásteinn could even pick out his favorite hunting spot, Emperor Charles was preparing to annihilate all the Vikings in Francia. Fearing reprisal and deciding he preferred the life of a raider to that of a Frankish lord, Hásteinn ransacked the city he was charged to protect and left Francia for England.
Charles had lived his life with a dozen swords held at his chest and even more knives pointed at his back. With cunning and unrelenting vigor, he outlived his half-brothers, subdued his vassals and established a modicum of peace throughout his realm. This tranquility was partly secured at the expense of England, which served as the main battleground for Viking lords between 865 and 878. According to Danish sagas, the aged warlord Ragnar Lothbrok raided across Northumbria when its King Ælla captured him and threw him into a pit filled with venomous snakes. In response, three of Ragnar’s many sons amassed what the natives called ‘The Great Heathen Army’ the largest invasion force England had seen since the Romans. Within a year the berserkers captured King Ælla and subjected him to the blood eagle execution; they restrained him in a kneeling position then took long knives and severed his ribs from his spine before pulling out his lungs to form makeshift wings. Even with their vengeance accomplished, the Scandinavians were unsated and fought for dominance of England. After a decade of fighting, in 878 King Alfred the Great of Wessex defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Eddington. In the ensuing Treaty of Wedmore the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes divided England into separate kingdoms. With England offering diminishing returns, the Great Heathen Army looked to the Continent, where, conveniently, Emperor Charles died the year before. His son Louis II, called ‘The Stammerer,’ chose to rule only West Francia, as he did not believe he was capable of holding Italy and Lotharingia. When the Vikings of the Great Heathen Army learned that the Emperor was dead and his lands fragmented they took up their longships and sailed for the Continent. Thankfully for the Franks, the greater host attacked Frisia and the German lands, at least initially.
Guillaume of Jumièges recounts that the Vikings sailed from Britannia, bearing with them the body of a holy virgin, Ameltrudis, to use as a relic for their own conquest and to impress upon the locals that they too held Christian spiritual power. The sudden onslaught of the host overwhelmed Rouen, whose defenders surrendered the city to the Scandinavians who established a large-scale, permanent presence there. The seizure of Rouen proved an incredible turning point in the history of Frankish-Viking relations. Rouen was not Jeufosse, or Oissel; it was not some fortified base where raiders could spend the winter and use as a launching pad to attack western cities. Rouen was itself a large city, perhaps the most populous urban area north of Paris. It hosted many merchants and served as a major permanent connection with the Frankish economy. The capture of the city meant that the Vikings who controlled it were political leaders of a significant population of Franks and had a vested interest in their well-being and development; for the purposes of taxing them and expanding their own power of course. But hey, better to be a taxpayer than a human sacrifice, right? Don’t ponder that too deeply. As the Vikings settled in the north, Louis II spent the entirety of his two-year reign fighting unsuccessfully to dislodge them until he died of illness and passed on the kingdom to his sons.
Every time a king of the Franks died the Vikings took it as an opportunity to raid while the new king secured his power over his vassals and settled into his role. When Louis II died and the kingdom passed to his two sons a new wave of attacks struck the kingdom. It was then that the Great Heathen Army, battered from its conflicts with the Germans, despoiled the north of West Francia. As his people suffered under the ravages of this wearied, yet terrible force, Louis III raised his banner and rode north. On 3 August 881 the young king, between 19 and 21 years old, routed the Viking horde at the Battle of Saucourt-en-Vimeu. As the epic poem Ludwigsliedrecounts,
“Every warrior fought there, but none like Louis—fast and brave, as was his nature. Some he struck and some he stabbed. He relentlessly poured a bitter drink for his enemies—woe upon their lives forevermore! God’s might be praised—Louis was victorious! Thanks be to all the saints—he was triumphant in battle! Rejoice, Louis our king, blessed in battle, always there where he was needed. May the Lord hold him in his grace.”
Like many epics, Louis III’s tale ended in tragedy: a year and two days later he was on his horse, playfully chasing a maiden when he hit his head on a lintel and died instantly. The legendary savior of the north was gone, and his kingdom passed to the ineffectual Carloman II. Meanwhile, through no political acumen, or skill in battle, the Carolingian Karl der Grosse, in English, Charles the Fat, inherited the remainder of Charlemagne’s empire. Karl was beset by Vikings in the northwest and in 882 he paid the warlords and veteran leaders of the Great Heathen Army Godfrid, Sigfrid and their companions 2,800 pounds of silver to leave Lotharingia and pillage West Francia. And pillage they did. From their base at Condé-sur-l’Escaut, in the far north along what is today the French-Belgian border, the Danes devastated the kingdom. That autumn they even marched upon Reims, the coronation site of the Frankish kings and the seat of its most important archbishop. The attack forced the 76-year-old Hincmar to flee his beloved city with the relics of Saint Remigius to Épernay, where he died shortly thereafter. Yet, King Carloman II managed to save the city and forced the Vikings to retreat for the winter. The following year the Scandinavians got the better of Carloman II, routed his army, and conquered Amiens. With no other recourse, Carloman II decided to copy Karl’s strategy: he paid the Danes 12,000 pounds of silver if they left Amiens and went eastward. These Vikings really had it made, as the Franks and the Germans were both paying them to attack the other. I should have been a Viking instead of becoming a historian…I wonder if it’s too late. On 6 December 884, Carloman II died. With no legitimate Carolingian adult males in the west, Karl der Grosse inherited the throne of West Francia. What Charlemagne had built through war, his great-grandson inherited through pure dumb luck. The emperor immediately ordered the Franks to hunt down and kill Sigfrid and rid the west of the warmonger menacing the land. It was a task much easier ordered than accomplished and the Frankish expedition failed.
On the 25 November 885, this period of remarkable violence in the north of West Francia reached a crescendo when hundreds of longships carrying thousands of warriors reached Paris. The older Parisians were well-versed in Viking raids; Between 845 and 863 Scandinavians ravaged Paris three or four times. But for over twenty years the largest city in West Francia was safe, due to Charles’ project of fortified bridge-building and because the Vikings expended most of their energy in England. This army, which dwarfed even Ragnar’s unstoppable force from forty years previous, barreled through the defenses along the Seine until it reached the great city. So many nearby towns had been put to the sword and the torch. No doubt the city had a fair number of refugees who hoped that the high stone walls of Francia’s greatest fortress would keep them safe. Their faith must have been challenged when the Viking war drums echoed through the heart of the Seine basin.
The Vikings set up camp on the northern bank, opposite the Île de la Cité. With the combined army assembled opposite Paris, it was a clear demonstration of the Northmen’s might. While the host waited for a signal, their leader, Sigfrid marched with a small retinue to the gates of one of the two bridges. There he made the Bishop Gauzlin, then-master of the city, an offer: surrender the two fortified bridges so that the host could sail to Burgundy and ravage the largely unspoiled lands to the south, or die. Perhaps it was courage that drove Gauzlin. Maybe he had compassion for the Burgundians and refused to let them suffer under the unencumbered Northmen. Perhaps it was honor; Gauzlin knew if he ran from a fight and let innocents die he would be damned by historians, if not by God. Whatever his reason, Gauzlin said ‘no.’ The Siege of Paris had begun.
The siege began in fury as the Vikings sought to overwhelm Paris with their berserker frenzy. But the walls rebuffed the invaders. Sigfrid was no simpleton, and he tried a number of tactics, including digging tunnels, launching flaming pots and crafting battering rams. Yet, the Parisians, reinforced by soldiers under the command of Duke Odo, held the line. After four months, Sigfrid tired of the siege and in March led a large contingent of his men northward where they captured Bayeux. He left behind a fraction of his host to harangue the Franks under the command of a young warlord named Rollo. That October the emperor arrived with an overwhelming force to relieve the siege. Yet, rather than annihilate the Vikings, when Karl discovered the remnants of the great host he made Rollo an offer: Karl paid the Northmen 700 pounds of silver and gave them free passage down the Seine to ravage Burgundy. The region was then in revolt against the Emperor, and Karl decided to use the Vikings to punish his enemies.
The meeting of the last monarch to rule over the whole of Charlemagne’s empire should have been a glorious but futile battle for the Vikings, during which Rollo and his countrymen would inevitably fall to an insurmountable force that would have gladly sent them to Valhalla. Fate intervened to save Rollo from oblivion and elevate him among his fellows. Through the course of his life, Rollo would rally his fellow Scandinavians, transforming them from foreign Viking marauders into Normans who ruled over their own realm in northern France, and eventually, far beyond it.
Chapter 2: The First Norman Lord
“The bishops said to Rollo, who was unwilling to kiss King Charles’ foot: ‘You who receive such a gift ought to kiss the king’s foot.” And he said: ‘I shall never bend my knees to the knees of another, nor shall I kiss anyone’s foot.’”
-Dudo of Saint-Quentin, History of the Dukes of the Normans
Who was this warlord who came to the shores of northern Francia, assaulted its greatest city and founded a dynasty? Much has been said about Rollo, but only long after he passed away. We don’t even know when or where he was born. Near the end of his life, Rollo’s grandson Richard I commissioned Dudo of Saint-Quentin to write a history of the Normans. This ducal propaganda piece, finished roughly ninety years after Rollo’s death, claimed that he was Danish. Since most Vikings came from Denmark this is probably true, but we cannot help but doubt Dudo’s accuracy as he confuses Denmark with the Roman province of ‘Dacia’ today in the Balkans, and further claims that the Danes were descended from refugees of the Greek city-state of Troy. In contrast, the Scandinavian sagas claim that Rollo was Norwegian. The Heimskringlaby 13th century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson says that Rollo was the son of Ragnavald, the jarl of Møre in Norway and of Hild the daughter of Rolf Nevja. These sagas elevate Rollo to mythic proportions, stating that he grew so large that no horse could carry him. In the Heimskringla Rollo became a brigand who harassed eastern Norway. When King Harald learned of Rollo’s lawlessness, he banished him from the country. According to this story the Norwegian petty noble began his exile in the Orkney islands north of Scotland before heading south where he took a Christian Celtic wife and had a child, who became his son and heir Guillaume Longue-Épée, in English, William Longsword.
To this day historians are divided on Rollo’s origins. Moreover, they are divided on when Rollo came to Francia. Dudo claims that Rollo arrived in 876, though given later events, historian Elisabeth van Houts argues that is too early. Some French historians even claim that Rollo did not land in Francia until the 890s, after the Siege of Paris. They claim that it is unlikely that the Viking warlord Sigfrid left behind was the same Rollo that later ruled Normandy. Much like with Ragnar Lothbrok, it is frustrating how little we know about this foreign terror who had such a profound impact on French history. Moreover, we can only begin to put together something of a reliable narrative once he is firmly established as King Charles le Simple’s vassal in the year 911.
While I cannot say what did happen, I can say what most likely happened. Around 900 Rollo probably was an established jarl in Rouen. By this point the Vikings controlled a number of important urban areas, the largest being Rouen and Bayeux. The Scandinavians were rulers, not settlers. Historian van Houts notes that in the surviving historical record of the Normans there are 80 names of Scandinavian origin, most of them Danish, and only three were women’s names. This implies that Viking men married local Frankish women rather than move women and children to Francia. This is likely as the Vikings often had less access to their own native women, given that established lords had multiple wives. Thus, the Scandinavian domination of Normandy went something like this: first, the Northmen raided and became ever more familiar with the geography, politics, language and culture of West Francia. Then they set up semi-permanent bases in strategic locations around the country to use as winter strongholds. As the Carolingian Empire collapsed, the Vikings outright conquered northern port-cities, forcing them into a more sedentary, defensive position. These conquerors took local wives, spoke Old French as their primary language, many adopted Frankish culture and Christianity, while leaders became integrated into regional politics.
As the Vikings settled and became ‘Normans’ they increasingly respected the established religious and political institutions in northern Francia. As late as 905, King Charles le Simple issued a charter directing tax collection in Rouen. Moreover, the archbishop remained in the city, despite Viking overlordship, as the Northmen sought to ingratiate themselves with the local population and understood that the archbishop could be an important ally. During this time it is very likely that Scandinavian rulers even protected, sponsored and restored churches as they converted to Christianity and sought to gain public support. I do not mean to imply that all was well by the 900s. Some Northmen remained fixed in their ways; in early 906 a Viking raid forced the monks of Saint Marcouf to pack up the body of their eponymous saint and flee with the long-decayed corpse to Corbény.
More than most, Rollo appears to have accepted his role as a sedentary leader, who established links with his vassals and to his noble neighbors. Which is not to say that Rollo was peaceful; peace was never an option, not in 900s West Francia. But, according to the chronicles, Rollo fought border skirmishes, conquered lands he thought rightfully belonged to him, and otherwise asserted his power in a similar manner to the Frankish lords, rather than Scandinavian marauders. Thus, Rollo’s powerbase at Rouen, his even-handed nature, and his assimilation into Frankish culture meant that by the 900s he was the Viking that the Franks recognized that they could negotiate with. It was perhaps for this reason that Rollo was given the daughter of the Count of Senlis, Popa of Bayeux as his wife, further ingratiating him with the Franks. Although, again we aren’t exactly sure who Popa was, whether she was in fact a noble or if the Norman dukes fabricated this later, and we also don’t know if Popa birthed Guillaume or if he was born from a Celtic woman from Britannia.
On 20 July 911 Rollo besieged the walled city of Chartres. This regular target for Viking attacks going back to Hásteinn offered much firmer resistance than he anticipated. According to Frankish chronicles, Bishop Gantelme carried the tunic of the Holy Virgin, inspiring the men of the city while causing the Northmen to flee in terror. More likely, the combined might of King Charles, Duke Robert of Neustria and Richard the Duke of Burgundy, overwhelmed Rollo’s forces who fled for their lives. Rollo and his men reached their ships on the river Epte only to realize that they would not be able to fully board before the king’s cavalry descended upon them. In desperation, the Vikings slaughtered the animals they had captured and made a wall of their carcasses to scare off the horses, a desperate but effective tactic. Rollo successfully retreated to the other side of the river, but the king was not looking to kill him. Instead, Charles wanted to parlay. From opposite banks, the two negotiated through emissaries as the Frankish king offered Rollo official recognition in exchange for vassalage and his promise to keep other Vikings from raiding his lands. According to Dudo, Charles initially offered Rollo the county of Flanders, but the latter refused since the region was mostly marshlands. The king then offered him the northern coast of West Francia, which Rollo accepted. Rollo agreed to be the king’s vassal, be baptized, declare his love for Christ and take the Christian name ‘Robert,’ in honor of his godfather Duke Robert, though we’re going to keep calling him ‘Rollo’ since there are just too many Roberts around 900. ‘Robert’ was the ‘Louis’ of its time. Thus, in 911, Rollo became Count of Rouen, and the north of Francia became ‘Normandy,’ the land of the Northmen.
The Norman retelling of this event has Rollo act with remarkable defiance, which is almost certainly false. Dudo records that after Charles gave him the north, Rollo refused to ceremoniously kiss the king’s foot. Instead, he ordered one of his men to perform the rite for him. The oaf, rather than bending down and kissing the king’s royal stomper, grabbed the foot and lifted it to his mouth, causing his majesty to fall on his rump to laughs. While humorous, this absolutely did not happen. Moreover, the Norman histories claim that Charles made Rollo duke of Normandy when he was merely the Count of Rouen. It was only under Rollo’s great-grandson Richard II that the Norman lords were powerful enough, and the kings of France weak enough, that they created the title Duke of Normandy. Rollo was far more submissive than the official Norman histories tell; after all, he had just gotten his Asgard kicked, and the very reason the Franks dealt with him was because he was more open to negotiations than his hard-headed fellows. Which is not to say that Charles envisioned Rollo and his descendants as permanent counts of the north, in complete contrast to the Norman histories, which claim he gave Normandy to them to rule in perpetuity. Charles almost certainly viewed this as a temporary arrangement. The Carolingian household was hobbling through a crisis period, and he was the first restored monarch after Odo I seized power during a period of tumult. As fate would have it, the Carolingian house would fail and West Francia would enter into a protracted contest for the crown. Over the following eighty years the great Frankish magnates were too occupied competing for power to oust the Normans.
If you thought Rollo could not be a good political leader due to his heritage as a Viking, let me disabuse you of that. First, the raiders were, by their very nature, highly-organized and Rollo and his descendants created the most well-run political administration in all of France, which they accomplished through acquiring an unprecedented amount of information. Survey collections by officials meant the Norman leaders knew roughly how much wealth their vassals had, allowing for more efficient taxation. Further, they could reallocate resources as needed, and finally they could keep an eye on anyone growing too wealthy that might oppose them.
A second reason why Rollo proved a good leader was that he was tolerant. Again, that might not seem like something one would say about Vikings given how in this episode alone I’ve described three different methods of human sacrifice. Well, it’s not like the Franks were much better and they had a habit of killing people for their religion as well. I think the world is much more accustomed to Christians killing heathens so we do not view it as particularly barbaric when a Christian soldier cries, “Deus Vult!” and bashes in the head of a non-believer, whereas when a Viking yells, “For Valhalla!” and stabs someone through the heart we tend to cringe. Rollo was not a bloodthirsty mongrel; he recognized that if he was going to rule Normandy the country needed to heal from a century of bloodletting. Much of the countryside was depopulated and so the new Count of Rouen offered cheap land and freedom to those willing to relocate within his fief. The result was spectacular both in the number of people who emigrated to Normandy and the manner which this took. Over the century, Normandy probably became the freest region within all of France, with far more tenant farmers and landowners and fewer serfs than anywhere else.
This ties into the third reason why the Normans were successful and that is because they had a significant merchant class. The Scandinavians had at this time broad economic connections. They developed trade routes which primarily serviced Normandy, the British Isles and Scandinavia. The whole of northern Europe was their market. Yet, through these trade hubs the Vikings traded with much of the rest of the world: in the northwest this meant Iceland, Greenland and for a time Vinland aka northeastern Canada. To the east, Scandinavians had conquered, settled or at least developed economic ties throughout Eastern Europe, including the areas that would become modern-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Through the east they traded with Constantinople, or as they called it ‘Miklagard,’ ‘The Great City.’ Furthermore, the Vikings traded and raided all throughout the Mediterranean. Under Rollo’s supervision a new wave of free Frankish merchants took advantage of these well-established trade routes.
A fourth reason why Rollo succeeded in creating a successful polity was his tolerance of varying faiths. In 911 Rollo was baptized and the following year the Archbishop of Rouen christened him. Yet, he was raised an Odin-worshipper and many of his Scandinavian warriors retained the old faiths. The new count let them retain their faith even as he pursued Christianity to tie him more closely with the Frankish world. This tolerance would not be without its setbacks; there will be periods of internal strife within Normandy and while scholars cannot be sure some suspect that areas led by cabals of lords who were more culturally and religiously Scandinavian conflicted with areas of Normandy controlled outrightly by Franks. I say controlled, because the majority populations of all regions of Normandy were Frankish, and as Normandy expanded it brought in regions that were ruled by Franks even as the core areas around Rouen and Bayeux were run by Scandinavians for a long time. Finally, this tolerance meant that a significant population of Jews emigrated to Normandy both for economic opportunities and to escape persecution from the Christian Franks. While little information remains, Jews appear to have been fairly successful in the major cities…for a time. As Odin-worshippers who had little contact with Jews, the Vikings did not have any special hatred for them, but as they Christianized the Normans adopted many of the same anti-Judaic prejudices.
A fifth reason for Normandy’s success was that Rollo created, at least for the time, just laws and administration which respected both Frankish and Scandinavian traditions, while clearly delineating property lines to prevent conflicts. As one chronicle records, Rollo, “established excellent rights and judicious laws for his house and soldiers; thus in a short time he won over people of different origin and of various skills and so made one people out of a mixture of different ones. In this way he quickly grew so strong that his [people] became more numerous and stronger than the neighboring realms and kingdoms.”
A final reason why Rollo succeeded was because he largely put an end to Viking attacks in his domain. Under his rule the raids along the Seine virtually ended, as the Normans transitioned from raiding to trading. Rollo’s peace impressed the Franks so much that the in 915 the monks of St-Ouen Abbey, who had fled with the body of their saint from a Viking attack in 842, returned after 73 years. This was one of a series of reclamations Rollo oversaw during his reign. According to The Miracles of Saint Coutances, before the Norman settlement numerous areas in northern Francia,
“were destroyed in an indescribable manner: many cities were captured and burned, towns were laid waste, churches destroyed, estates of saints and churches robbed of their rights and privileges, the clergy and people fled from the sword and were annihilated. The relics and bodies of the saints were taken from their hiding places or by fugitives transported to various regions. While this misery took place, the holy church of Coutances, which for a long time had flourished and had faithfully put up a fight for God under thirty-three bishops, was completely razed to the ground, robbed of its lands and privileges, separated from the relics and bodies of its saints during the next 74 years…fouled by idolatry and trampled upon by the fury of the pagans. After such a long time of desolation many who had taken away the relics and bodies of the saints had long since died in exile and consequently many bodies of saints deprived of their custodians remained spread out over many regions.
After Rollo…in the year 911, the fourteenth indication, and two years after he had made peace with King Charles, the bodies of the holy bishops of Coutances, Laudus and Rumpharius, which had been taken away, were brought to Rouen and with the agreement of Rollo received in the church of Saint-Sauveur.”
One cannot understate the importance of the restitution of saints with their holy places during this period. For Rollo, the return of so many relics and holy figures was a remarkable legitimizer. Here was proof that a powerful Christian ruler had brought order to the north, something which neither kings nor dukes had accomplished. It was as if God had ordained Rollo as the savior of the north after a century of devastation that saw Christians hanged, bludgeoned, stabbed, and ritually executed for pagan war deities. This was an era of profound faith, where a local church or monastery served as the heart of a community, and the relic they held was the heart of that heart. That Rollo returned the soul of so many localities to their proper place, or found new homes for those churches that were razed, greatly abetted his right to rule. Furthermore, as church figures were secular political figures in addition to their role as spiritual leaders, Rollo gained a vast network of powerful allies who could serve as his eyes, ears and hands throughout his fief.
While Normandy was largely at peace other bands of Northmen continued to raid northwestern Francia, largely along the Loire. Success is best measured against failure; in this case, Rollo’s ability to, mostly, keep the peace in Normandy while Charles, Robert of Neustria and other lords still struggled against the Vikings was a powerful sign of the Count of Rouen’s efficacy. If anything, continued raids on Rollo’s potential enemies kept them occupied while he established his domain.
Thus, Normandy rapidly grew through a combination of skillful management, generous incentives for immigrants, the connecting of Frankish merchants with the Scandinavian world, tolerance for different faiths and cultures and the mostly-successful deterrence of further Viking attacks. No doubt, King Charles elevated Rollo as a temporary expedient, believing that once he grew strong enough he would remove this foreign blight. Charles probably assumed that the Frankish people would view their Scandinavian overlords as foreign menaces who had desecrated their churches, burned their houses, raped their women, killed their elders and sold their family into slavery. To everyone’s shock, Rollo proved to be a brilliant administrator and political mind who rapidly grew Normandy’s population, oversaw a thriving economy, endeared himself with the church and local political elites and kept sea-borne marauders away. Charles’ plan to set this Viking lord in a position to fail backfired spectacularly. While the Carolingians’ power declined and ultimately disappeared, the Normans grew stronger with every generation until, under Rollo’s great-great-great grandson, they became kings in their own right. Despite Rollo’s remarkable early success, the road from Rollo to Guillaume le Conquérant was not straight and it was filled with many deadly pitfalls that threatened to end his household, if not the entire Norman project.
Chaos engulfed the realm in the 920s as King Charles tried to assert his authority over the Frankish nobility while expanding into Lotharingia, what he viewed as a breakaway region that belonged to him by birth. In 922 the disagreements between Charles and the majority of the great magnates became irreconcilable and the lords forced Charles to flee east while they appointed Robert I as their king. Charles was not idle during his exile. He amassed an army which was supported by many Vikings and invaded West Francia. Charles called upon Rollo for aid, and the Norman assembled an army, though it was unable to meet with the king’s host before its fateful engagement. On 15 June 923 Charles met the Frankish lords at the Battle of Soissons. The Franks defeated the Lotharingian and Scandinavian host, and captured Charles, but King Robert I died in the fighting. In the aftermath of the conflict, the Franks were torn between the powerful Duke Hugh le Grand, that is Hugh the Great, father of the future king Hugh Capet, and the ever-ambitious Heribert Count of Vermandois. The lords feared electing either and so they compromised by electing Rodolphe, the Duke of Burgundy as their new king.
The Count of Rouen no doubt enjoyed watching his rivals kill each other until Charles’ final defeat and imprisonment. The Carolingian king was his great patron, who had a longstanding relationship with the Scandinavians. Furthermore, Rollo believed that his oath of vassalage was to Charles the person, not to West Francia as a country, and certainly not to whoever claimed the throne. As the Franks swore their oaths to Rodolphe, Rognvald, one of Rollo’s vassals, led his forces against the Oise, “where they ‘devastated the land, leading off flocks and herds, removing much of the portable wealth, and taking numerous prisoners.” [Mark Hagger]. While in the Vermandois, Count Heribert’s men stumbled upon the Norman camp and freed the captive Franks. Outraged at the turn of events, Rognvald marched on Arras only to be surprised by a Frankish host which butchered most of his men.
King Rodolphe and Heribert retaliated with a devastating assault on the County of Rouen. Yet, Rodolphe had many fires to put out, and in 924 he generously offered Rollo more territory and tribute if he kept the peace. That is if the chronicles can be believed, and that might be something of a stretch. Again, it’s possible that the record of this agreement was Norman propaganda to justify their annexation of more territory. In either case, King and Count agreed to a peace.
The peace did not last long. The following year, in 925, violence broke out along the Seine as a Frankish host attacked a Norman camp. The Normans escaped and it appears this served as the casus belli for renewed hostilities, as Rollo then marched on Beauvais and Amiens. In response, Hugh le Grand ransacked the County of Rouen while Heribert captured the fort at Eu. According to Flodoard the Franks broke through the walls and,
“Once they had possession of the town…they then slaughtered all the males and set fire to its fortifications. [Some of the Vikings, however] escaped and took possession of a certain neighboring island. But the Franks attacked and captured it…After the Normans, who had been preserving their lives by fighting as best they could, had seen what had happened and had let slip any hope of survival, some plunged themselves into the waves, some to extricate themselves cut their throats and some were killed by Frankish swords, while others died by their own weapons. And in this way, once everyone had been destroyed and an outrageous amount of booty had been pillaged the Franks returned to their own territory.”
Both sides were devastated, yet it was Rollo who more quickly recovered from these setbacks and in 926 he nearly captured King Rodolphe. The beleaguered king agreed to yet another tribute to the troublesome northern count. Despite repeat concessions from the king, Rollo’s conflicts with the Franks were not an unmitigated success, and it is likely that he faced increasing internal unrest. Whether through genuine loyalty or as an excuse to wage war, Rollo stubbornly maintained his allegiance to the deposed King Charles even when it was clear to all that the crown had irrevocably slipped from him. Furthermore, constant attacks against the county of Rouen, including major defeats such as at Eu, took their toll on the Normans. Finally, Rollo was growing old. Exactly how old we’ll never know, but he was well past his prime fighting age.
Historians do not know Rollo’s ultimate fate. Some scholars believe that as he neared his death he abdicated in 927 in favor of his son Guillaume Longue-Épée, before dying the following year. Other scholars contend that Guillaume forced Rollo to step aside, and that the old Viking lingered for another five years. Whatever the case, it is clear that by 927 Rollo’s reign was over. The great Viking turned lord of Normandy was no more. He had travelled far, from unknown origins in Scandinavia and plundered the British Isles and West Francia before striking a deal to become the Count of Rouen. Through brilliant political oversight, Rollo laid the foundation for a new realm within Francia, one that had more landholders, tenant farmers and merchants than West Francia’s usual lord and serf-dominated countryside. He restored the ravaged churches and monasteries of the realm and renewed Christian hopes for a godly domain, even as he showed tolerance to pagans and Jews. While he and his followers suffered heavily under the later wars, he exacted concessions from the beset King Rodolphe and expanded his domain. It was Rollo who began in earnest this great new project in French history, which melded the northernmost Franks with Scandinavian warriors to create a new people, known as the Normans.
Chapter 3: Neither Viking nor Frank
“With his three hundred mail-clad men did Guillaume suddenly charge the hostile camp of the reckless multitude, crushing them and slashing them with swords and spears. He broke up the tents of the leaders, and burned the [camps] of their knights. Those whom he found he felled with the sword and he himself dispatched to [the Underworld] those who resisted.”
-Dudo of Saint-Quentin, History of the Dukes of the Normans
Guillaume was 34 years old when he succeeded and possibly overthrew his father. Rollo had taught him well the art of statecraft and imbued his son with the idea to always ask for more. The new Count of Rouen met the Franks at Eu to agree to a peace but refused to accept King Rodolphe as his lord. Guillaume maintained Rollo’s claim that the 911 agreement was a personal settlement between Rollo and King Charles le Simple and did not extend to the usurper kings Robert I or Rodolphe. Guillaume played a dangerous game; his peace treaty with Rodolphe was more like a truce, for as long as he defied the monarch his county was always under the threat of attack. Yet, these were uncertain times, and since the king was too weak to guarantee peace the great magnates formed their own alliances. Thus, Guillaume joined a coalition with Duke Hugh le Grand and Count Heribert of Vermandois.
In 933 Guillaume met with King Rodolphe again and this time, he acknowledged Rodolphe as his overlord. The king bought the Count’s vassalage by ceding him Cotentin, the peninsula in what is today northwest Normandy, and Avranchin, the area just south of it. This arrangement opened up a period of increased interconnection between the ruling counts and the Franks. First, Guillaume married off his sister Gerloc to Guillaume III, Duke of Aquitaine, upon which she took the French name Adèle. Then he wedded Liégard, daughter of Heribert of Vermandois, in a marriage that brought together two of the most powerful lords in the entire kingdom, though he took a Scandinavian or Breton woman named Sprota as his wife in ‘the Danish fashion.’ While Liégard was his official wife, wedded before the people and God, Sprota was somewhere between a secondary wife, mistress and concubine and bore him a son, Richard I.
Despite his heritage as an outsider, Guillaume had the talent to masterfully play the diplomacy game. Yet, his frequent interactions with the Franks angered some of his Scandinavian vassals, who saw him as ‘going native.’ In 936 a Scandinavian noble named Riulf gathered his fellows and listed his grievances against Guillaume. Dudo recounts that he accused the Count of favoring Frankish lords over Scandinavians. Riulf went further and accused Guillaume of being a Frank through his mother Popa of Bayeux. Finally, he claimed that Guillaume wanted to take lands belonging to the Scandinavians and redistribute them to his family in an act of unconscionable nepotism.
These are all the grievances that remain to us in the chronicles, yet there may have been more underlying complaints levied against the Count that have been lost to time. When Riulf accused Guillaume of being native, he could have also been attacking his Catholic faith. While Rollo, and ostensibly his son, tolerated all faiths, they naturally gave precedence to the Catholic Church which was not simply a religious organization but a political institution. Priests often acted as the secular lords of townships and even cities. Religious leaders were great landowners and raised fighting men in times of conflict. Churches and monasteries were valuable political tools during this period, and lords frequently sponsored them in border lands to assert their claims and establish economic and administrative outposts. It was the Catholic Church which anointed the Counts of Rouen. The organized, established, wealthy and ever-present Catholic Church naturally impressed itself on the hearts of younger Scandinavians who turned from Odin-worship to Christianity. Thus, Guillaume might have angered the diehard Scandinavians who saw him as betraying their heritage for a Frankish one. Moreover, since the church was not just spiritual but economic and political, when Guillaume appointed a priest to oversee a region he may have looked at it in purely geostrategic terms, but his Scandinavian vassals saw it as corruption and favoritism, especially as the Count of Rouen gave his family members positions of power.
The angered Scandinavian cohort assembled a small armed band outside of Rouen. They then sent an emissary to the Count to relay their grievances and demanded that he gift them lands as recompense. If the chronicles can be believed, which is a big ‘if,’ Guillaume listened attentively and responded with a level of humility. He offered his disgruntled vassals gold, horses and weapons, but he refused to give them the land grants they so desired. Riulf and his followers were unsatiated and maintained their position outside the city. It appears that the Scandinavians truly believed that they could reason with Guillaume, and acquire some, if not all of their gains through negotiation and the intimidation that their encamped presence imparted. However, the Count would not begin his reign with concessions, which might inspire further armed demonstrations in future. Guillaume assembled a host of three hundred horsemen and without warning descended on the camp, slaughtering his unsuspecting countrymen. Many who survived fled to the nearby river where they drowned. The place where they fought has since been named Pré-de-la-Bataille, ‘The Battlefield,’ and there is a street in Rouen named for it.
Dudo depicted this event as a glorious battle of a Christ-like Count vanquishing a conspiracy by an insatiable malcontent who could not be placated even had he got his way. In reality, this was a surprise attack against vassals with legitimate grievances. The brutal crackdown was Guillaume’s response, and everyone got the message: “I rule as I please,” with the addendum, “I will give preference to the Franks.” Guillaume’s favoritism for the Franks is understandable: he was surrounded by them, both within his county and without. Furthermore, Guillaume aimed to continue his father’s expansionist policies, and the more he conquered West Francia the more Franks he was going to incorporate. Guillaume believed, as far as we can tell, that his position would always be in danger if he posed as a Scandinavian leader, as many Franks would conceive of him as some barbaric, foreign warlord. If he was going to rule over the Franks then he had to be a Frank.
In mid-January 936 King Rodolphe died. He left behind no living children; even if he had it is not certain if they would be recognized as the legitimate monarchs given that he was not a Carolingian. Hugh le Grand sent emissaries to the Court of Wessex where Louis, the son of the deceased king Charles the Simple, was living in exile. Louis, called ‘d’Outremer’ or ‘Louis from Overseas,’ boarded a ship and sailed to Normandy to press his claim to the throne. The great magnates met the former exile, who did not even speak Old French and decided he would make for an ideal king because he was weak and without connections. Thus, Louis ‘d’Outremer’ became Louis IV. Hugh enacted enormous concessions from Louis IV, including the title the Duke of the Franks, but he was not alone. Guillaume posed as the king’s loyal man against his rebellious nobles so that he too could gain royal patronage.
During this period of political instability the Count of Rouen focused on conquering Brittany. Louis IV gave Guillaume free-rein to attack the northwest peninsula as the territory was its own Celtic country whose leader did not recognize the King of the Franks as his overlord. The Normans furiously warred for dominance over the Bretons. Yet, the Bretons won most of their engagements with the Normans, including a decisive battle at Trans-la-Fôret, where a combined force of Bretons and Franks from Maine overwhelmed the Norman fortress. But Guillaume was undeterred. Even as his invasion of Brittany stalled he expanded directly southward, taking Evrecin and possibly Evreux which he made into a mighty fortress.
While the great magnates wanted Louis IV to be a mere figurehead he had other plans. The king learned to speak Old French, established connections and played the political game. In 939 he attempted to conquer Lotharingia though he was defeated by the German King Otto I, who would become the first Holy Roman Emperor. In 940 Louis IV came into open conflict with his vassals, primarily Hugh le Grand who was at the time the great power in the realm. After initially pledging loyalty to the king, Guillaume switched sides and joined the rebellion, whereupon he took the city of Reims with Heribert of Vermandois. The following year Louis IV raised an army in Burgundy only to be utterly defeated and captured by Hugh and Heribert.
What probably should have been the end of Louis IV’s claim to authority, turned out to be the beginning of his ascent to power. In 942, at his lowest point, Pope Stephen IX declared that all Franks must swear allegiance to Louis IV and properly obey him. This led bishops across West Francia to rally for the king, which led to a reconciliation and new settlement with the great lords. Guillaume seemed to flow like a leaf in the wind. When the breeze turned directions he became an ardent loyalist who posed as the king’s defender against Hugh and Heribert. Guillaume was remarkably insistent that he was the king’s man, so much so that there is a famous anecdote retold by Richer of Reims which may have sealed his fate. King Otto I, King Louis IV, Hugh le Grand and Arnulf Count of Flanders were holding at meeting at Attigny. When the Count of Rouen learned that the meeting was going on without him he forced his way into the room and took the seat of honor at the king’s left side. This infuriated Otto I who tired of Louis IV’s intrusions within and along the border of Lotharingia. Guillaume’s audacity simultaneously angered Hugh and Arnulf whose lands bordered Guillaume’s and who regularly fought with the Normans. The two lords conferred with Otto I who denounced Guillaume’s presumptuous actions. Taking the German king’s words as permission to act, the two plotted the count of Rouen’s downfall.
On 17 December 942 Arnulf invited Guillaume to discuss a peace settlement on the island of Picquigny in the Somme, on the border between their lands. Guillaume arrived and negotiated with Arnulf’s envoys until sundown. Then, three of the emissaries approached and told him that their lord had a secret for him that only he was allowed to hear. The Count of Rouen approached and one of the men embraced him and drove a knife through his chest, killing him. When news spread of the Count’s death, his grief-stricken sister Adèle sponsored a poem, now known as The Plaintsong of William Longsword, whose refrain is, “Shed tears for Guillaume, who died innocently.” Guillaume ruled for 15 years during which he sought closer ties with the rest of Francia. On a cold winter night he learned that Frankish politics was as deadly as any Viking onslaught.
Chapter 4: The Fury of the North
“With a sudden shout [the Vikings] sprang from their boats and set all the surrounding countryside on fire. Men were carried off chained with their women, villages were pillaged, cities laid waste, and strongholds laid low: the land was turned into a desert. Throughout Theobald’s country all were stricken with grief but no dog barked. When there was nothing left to destroy, they went straight on and invaded the lands of the king, and all that they stole from the Franks they sold for a small price to the Normans. Normandy, remained free of these heathen raids; France with no resistance, was carried off captive.”
-Guillaume of Jumièges, Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans
Richard I, Guillaume’s only male heir, was a mere ten years old and illegitimate when his father was assassinated. In the medieval period divisions of land between counts, duchies, even kings, were often held together by the personal power of their rulers. This was an era before the nation-state, when politics was personal. Countries and territories were not, for the most part, expressions of a people unified by language, ethnicity or religion. Territories were ad hoc creations representing the conquests of those who ruled them. Guillaume’s murder meant there was no powerful leader holding the County of Rouen together, and the realm descended into chaos.
Richard I’s one stroke of fortune was that King Louis IV supported his claim, though not for any altruistic reasons. Louis IV bore no love for Guillaume, nor his son; the late Count had warred against him and used him as a puppet. The Frankish king aimed to turn the tables and use Richard I to gain power in the north. The king was partially successful, as the lords east of the Seine River pledged to Richard I, who was under his control. However, at the same time Hugh le Grand warred against the Normans who bordered his lands, accusing them of violating his territory and returning to paganism. The Duke of the Franks impressed his power on the north and the Norman lords to the west of the Seine River pledged to him. As the great Frankish powers divided up the county a Viking fleet led by two warlords, named Sihtric and Turmold, landed in the north. After securing the north, the Vikings and their Norman allies attacked Brittany, ravaging the borderlands. They caused so much terror that a wave of refugees swarmed into the church at Dol seeking sanctuary and killed its bishop in the press of bodies. Yet, Sihtric and Turmold were better at raiding poorly-defended settlements than fighting pitched battles, and King Louis IV led his armies to victory over the Vikings around Rouen, solidifying his hold on the territory. Meanwhile Hugh besieged Bayeux, believing that after taking it Louis IV would recognize his hold over the city. But the Frankish king feared Hugh more than the Vikings and ordered him to end the siege. Louis IV then paraded into the city and even took hostages, infuriating Hugh.
With roughly half of Normandy under his command the king turned to Richard I, the young boy who he dismissed as the, “son of a whore,” born from a pagan seductress. He sent his prisoner to Laon, to receive a Carolingian education. Meanwhile his chosen man, Herluin of Montreuil would rule Rouen in his stead. It was a dark time for the Normans to say the least. They were caught between the King in the east and the Duke of the Franks in the west, with their lord held captive. According to the chronicler Guillaume of Jumièges Count Arnulf counselled Louis IV to completely expel the Normans and re-Frankify the north. He suggested that the king should impose such heavy taxes on the north that the Viking lords would return to Denmark, an audacious plan if true since these ‘Viking’ lords were by the 940s mostly born and raised in Normandy, usually from a Scandinavian father and Frankish mother.
When Richard I turned 15 years old and became a man in 945 he returned to Rouen. If Louis IV believed that the boy he had abused would grow into a meek and timid man who would obey his every command he was soon sorely disappointed. Richard I formed an alliance with Hugh to humble their supposed overlord. Under instructions from Hugh, Harald of Bayeux called Louis IV to meet with him while he was travelling through the north. The king arrived at the meeting place only to be swarmed by a sudden onslaught who killed his bodyguard. Fearing for his life, Louis IV managed to flee to Rouen, but instead of finding aid he was seized and held prisoner. But Hugh made a major political miscalculation. The Duke’s remarkable power, such that he could decide the fate of the king, troubled the other lords of West Francia and even the German Otto I. Under immense pressure Hugh orchestrated the king’s release in 946.
In 946, Otto I formed a coalition with Conrad, King of Burgundy, Arnulf, Count of Flanders and Louis IV’s loyalists to attack Hugh. Yet, Hugh’s castrums were impregnable and instead the combined armies turned northward to attack Normandy. No doubt the veteran leaders believed that the 15- or 16-year-old, untested son of a pagan whore would be no match for them. Yet Richard I and his Normans met the invasion with cunning and ferocity. When Otto I’s nephew led a force towards Rouen, Norman spies informed an encamped cavalry force of their movement. The horsemen charged the surprised Germans, decimating them and killing their leader in the Bataille de La Mer Rouge, The Battle of the Red Sea, named for how much blood was spilled. To this day in Rouen there is a square called ‘place de la Rougemare.’ Combined with Rue Pré-de-la-Bataille, Rouen has a surprising number of places named for massacres.
Following this defeat the main coalition force arrived at Rouen. There, Richard I looked out from the walls and saw the host of the German king, and the treacherous Count Arnulf who had murdered his father. The Normans were hopelessly outnumbered by the colossal forces, yet the high walls of the city held, and the combined German and Flemish host could not engage with the smaller Norman force. The Normans then masterfully duped their enemies, sending out double agents to spread the rumor that Otto I was negotiating a separate peace without consulting Arnulf. The Count of Flanders was deceived and led his forces back east. With only the Germans remaining the Norman cavalry waited for nightfall and burst out from the gates in a devastating hit-and-run on Otto I’s camp. The Germans held, but by now the campaign proved too costly and Otto I returned to the east. Richard I survived the most grueling test imaginable. He proved he was a capable count that could defend and reunite Normandy against the many forces that sought to subjugate and destroy it.
Over the next five years Richard I and Hugh warred against the King of the Franks. In the process, Richard I established his rule over the north and emerged as a formidable leader in the game of Frankish power politics. In 950 Hugh betrothed his seven-year-old daughter to Richard I, though the two did not marry for another ten years. In 954 King Louis IV died, leaving the throne to his 13-year-old son Lotaire. The following year, Hugh named Richard I guardian of his 15-year-old son, Hugh Capet, though the Count of Rouen recognized him as the senior lord due to his position first as duke then as king.
As had been the case with his father, the great magnates of Francia wanted Lotaire to be an impotent figurehead, but like his sire the young king refused to cede power to his vassals. He particularly viewed the Count of Rouen as his natural enemy. In 960 he summoned Richard I to a meeting where the king’s guard ambushed the count’s cohort, though he managed to escape. In response, the following year Richard I attempted to capture the king at Soissons but he was equally unsuccessful.
Richard I had suffered the cruel machinations of Frankish kings his entire life. After Lotaire’s repeat attempts to capture or even assassinate him, Richard I decided to send the king a message that even though he was his overlord, the Count of Rouen could not be bullied. He may have been part Frank, but the blood of Vikings coursed through his veins. If the Franks allied against him then he would unleash all the fury of the North. To that end, Richard sent emissaries to the mighty King of Denmark, Harald Gormsson, known to history as “Bluetooth.” Richard I called for aid and offered the Danes a chance to ravage Francia, which was one of their favorite past-times. Bluetooth was overjoyed and sent ships back to Richard I laden with gifts, thanking him for the opportunity. Just behind the treasure boats came the Viking fleet. The Normans and their Danish allies sailed to Jeufosse, the old Viking stronghold and utterly devastated it. The Vikings and their Norman cousins awed the Franks and forced the Count of Blois to cede the mighty fortress of Evreux to Richard I. Even Lotaire was humbled and he met the Count at Jeufosse where they negotiated a peace. According to Guillaume of Jumièges, the king and count then encouraged the Vikings to convert to Christianity. Those who refused left Francia for Spain where they sacked 18 cities. Never again would Lotaire dare attack the Norman lord. The rest of Richard’s 54 year-reign was relatively peaceful, though he did fight border skirmishes against Odo I the Count of Chartres, who envied the Count’s marriage to Emma and the land and power that accompanied it. The two would skirmish for thirty years until Richard I agreed to marry his daughter Matilde to Odo I’s son Odo II.
After finally securing his realm, Richard I concentrated on strengthening the county. Notably in 966 Richard I led a community of monks to Mont-St-Michel, a small abbey which his father had seized, and which Richard hoped to use as an important site to secure his border with Brittany. Richard I was a great patron of the church and invited Guglielmo of Volpiano, the Italian abbot of Saint-Bénigne at Dijon, to reform the Norman abbeys, in particular Fécamp. Richard exercised remarkable power within his county and subordinated his vassals. The count oversaw a series of marriage alliances that expanded his power beyond the county’s traditional borders. Normandy experienced remarkable peace and prosperity at a time when the rest of Francia struggled with foreign invasion and internal conflict. Moreover, Richard I maintained ties throughout the Scandinavian world, which cowed his enemies, especially following Bluetooth’s invasion. These ties meant that Vikings who raided England were free to trade in the County of Rouen, bringing with it increased prosperity. In 991 Norse Vikings defeated the King of the English, Æthelred II called ‘The Unready,’ at the Battle of Maldon, forcing him to pay tribute. The English king was so worried that the Normans might aid the Vikings and invade his territory that he established diplomatic ties with Normandy, whereupon they agreed not to aid each others’ enemies. This was an important, and politically-savvy treaty on Richard I’s part; while he could call upon his Scandinavian kin for support he recognized that the Normans were by this point, children of two worlds, neither truly Viking nor Frankish. Their territory had long been the target of Scandinavian raiders and with its increased prosperity it could be vulnerable to attack if it ever experienced a period of weakness. Thus, Richard I deftly navigated both Frankish and Scandinavian politics and maintained peace within his borders at a time when there was war practically everywhere else.
Since I’ve talked long enough about war, it’s time to talk about an even more complicated topic: love. In 968 Emma died childless. Following her death, the Count of Rouen married Gunnor. We know very little about Gunnor’s origins; given that she had a Danish name it is probable that she was from the Norman aristocracy located in the Cotentin peninsula, though this is contested in a probably-false but truly wonderful story told by Roberto of Torgini. In his Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans, Roberto claims that Richard I heard a tale that the most beautiful woman lived in Equiquevelle. The Count visited the house of a forester and there met the man’s wife, Sainsfrida who was the most breathtaking woman he had ever seen. After she had left, the count ordered the forester to send her to his bedchambers that night. Later, the forester relayed the count’s orders in despair, to which Sainsfrida replied that there was nothing to worry about, as she would send her sister Gunnor to bed. Gunnor was even more beautiful than Sainsfrida and since she was unmarried Richard I could take her without the guilt of cuckolding another man; not that he seemed particularly disturbed beforehand. The story is almost certainly a fabrication, but I could not help but retell it.
Gunnor was probably a Norman noblewoman of Danish origin, and possibly Richard I’s wife, ‘in the Danish fashion’ while Emma still lived, and his Christian wife after Emma’s death. Gunnor gave birth to six children who survived into adulthood, three sons and three daughters. The sons were Richard II, successor to his father, Robert who became Archbishop of Rouen, and Mauger, Count of Corbeil. During the course of Gunnor’s long life she arranged for her three daughters to be married to powerful lords which strengthened Normandy. Her first daughter was Emma of Normandy, who became the wife of two English kings Æthelred the Unready and Cnut the Great, and mother of two kings, Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut. The second daughter was Matilde of Normandy, wife of Odo II. The third and final daughter was Havoise of Normandy who married Geoffroi I, Duke of Brittany. Gunnor was not just a remarkable mother, but an incredible stateswoman as well, who outlived her husband by three decades before finally dying in 1031. She was a brilliant administrator and linguist who ruled Normandy while her husband was away. A great patron of the church, she sponsored the restoration of Coutances, near Mont St. Michel, tightening the Norman hold on the island abbey. She served as counselor to four leaders of Normandy, her husband, son and two grandsons. Finally, she is among the most responsible for preserving the history of the Normans, as she passed on information to Dudo for his manuscript.
On the 20 November 996 Richard I died at the monastery of Fécamp. His early reign was one of the most tumultuous periods in Norman history. Held hostage in Laon, the Franks divided up his inheritance even as Viking marauders tried to take advantage of the chaos. Despite all expectations this illegitimate teenager defied an invasion by three kings and the count who murdered his father. When King Lotaire tried to betray him he responded with the fury of the north and brought Francia to heel. He served as guardian and mentor to Hugh Capet before he became the first Capetian king of France. Richard created one of the strongest realms in the kingdom, and he exercised more direct control over his realm than most other lords. He created alliances across the mainland and the Scandinavian world, all to his benefit. He is known to history as Richard Sans-Peur, “Richard the Fearless,” a title he well-earned.
Chapter 5: The First Duke of Normandy
“France had been cleared of the poison of destructive hostility…The victory of the peace they had been seeking was dictating the future.”
-Dudo of Saint-Quentin, History of the Dukes of the Normans
Richard II inherited the County of Rouen from his father when he was nine years old. During his minority his uncle Raoul d’Ivry governed the realm. In the year 1,000, just before Richard II came of age, the north faced a major peasant rebellion. According to Guillaume of Jumièges, “Throughout every part of Normandy the peasants unanimously formed many assemblies and decided to live according to their own wishes, such that in respect both of short cuts through woods and of the traffic of the rivers with no bar of previously established right of way, they might follow laws of their own. In order to ratify these new decrees, each of the rebellious peasants’ groups chose two envoys who brought the decisions for confirmation to an assembly held in the middle of the province.” This was a far different kind of crisis for the Count of Rouen: so often, the northern leaders were threatened in periods of weakness, but now they faced popular opposition due to their strength. Richard II’s father had brought his vassals to heel and built numerous castles and bridges across his realm, which were then used to monitor and control the peasants, who groaned under the weight of taxes and tolls. Raoul responded to the peasants’ protests by massacring them and cutting off the hands and feet of their leaders. In short order the peasants returned to their ploughs.
Shortly after entering his majority, Richard II faced another rebellion, this time from his half-brother Guillaume. Richard II had given his half-sibling the task of expanding Norman power in Hiémois, a region south of Caen. Guillaume succeeded in pushing the county’s boundaries, but he was so successful he figured he would carve out his own independent realm. Raoul warred against Guillaume who he captured after much fighting, forcing his rebellious associates to pledge their loyalty to Richard II. Guillaume remained a prisoner in a tower in Rouen for five years until one night he escaped by climbing down a long rope. After living as a fugitive, Guillaume returned to his half-brother and begged for clemency, upon which Richard II made him Count of Eu, if only to stop his blubbering. The dismal failure of these two rebellions reaffirmed Richard II’s iron grasp over his realm.
With firm control over his county, Richard II spent most of his reign at war. Since events overlap chronologically we’ll go by region, starting with his conflicts in France. Sidenote to explain the name-shift: when Hugh Capet ascended the throne in 987 he had no claim to the Carolingian Empire so the kingdom of West Francia was no longer one part of a greater Frankish empire; West Francia effectively became ‘France.’ In 1005 Richard II’s sister Matilde, wife of Odo II of Blois, died. Following her death, Richard II decided to reopen the rivalry between Normandy and Blois and demanded that Odo II cede Evrecin. Odo II refused, at which point Richard II constructed a castle at Tillières-sur-Avre. Then he used his links to the Scandinavian world to call for an army of Vikings to supplement his forces. The combined force of Normans, Scandinavians and Bretons alarmed King Robert II who stepped in to negotiate a peace before fighting could commence. The great lords of France met at Coudres where Robert II conceded Tillières and the surrounding land to the Count of Rouen, while the Count of Blois kept his castle at Dreux, though he soon lost it to none other than King Robert II. As was custom, the Franks then invited the Scandinavians to convert to Christianity. Richard II’s brother Robert, The Archbishop of Rouen, led the conversions and anointed the Norwegian leader Olaf. Guillaume of Jumièges records that when Olaf returned to Norway his fellow Norwegians killed him for betraying Odin and their gods, though honestly, they could have killed him for any number of reasons. Vikings be Vikings. Next, Richard II made his brother and archbishop the Count of Evreux, further expanding the dynasty’s power.
While Richard II’s connections to the Scandinavian world meant he could call upon powerful allies it also meant he was dragged into their political intrigues, which resulted in the Count’s second area of conflict, that being with the English. In the year 1,000 Richard II welcomed a Scandinavian fleet into Normandy, which then raided England. Æthelred II decided he needed to keep the Vikings from using Normandy as a launching pad for attacks into his realm and so in 1002 he struck a marriage alliance with Richard II to marry his sister Emma. Thinking he had secured Norman neutrality, on 13 November Æthelred II ordered the execution of all Danes within his kingdom, in an event now known as St. Brice’s Day Massacre. The slaughter infuriated the Normans who viewed the Scandinavians as kin, allies and valuable trading partners. The following year. Richard II signed a treaty with the King of Denmark Sweyn Haraldsonn, called ‘Forkbeard,’ that opened Norman ports to Danish raiders. After five years of Scandinavian raiders sailing out from Rouen, the King of the English had enough. Æthelred II sent an English force to Cotentin to capture Richard II or at least ravage his lands. The assault proved disastrous and the English fled across the Channel. It’s at this point that I cannot help but think of poor Emma, whose dinner table conversation with her husband must have been awkward at best.
Despite lingering hostility, Richard II and Æthelred II grew closer together due to the rising power of the King of Denmark. In 1013 Sweyn invaded England and rapidly seized the country. Æthelred II, his wife and their two sons Edward and Alfred fled to Rouen where the count received his sister and her troublesome family. On Christmas Day Sweyn Haraldsonn became King of the English, a title he held for roughly five weeks before mysteriously dying. Æthelred II seized upon the opportunity and returned to England, probably supported by Norman auxiliaries gifted by Richard II who wanted to uplift his ally while curtailing Danish power. Æthelred II retook England before dying in 1016, at which point Cnut the Great seized power. The following year, Richard II married his sister to Cnut, who was then king of England, Norway and Denmark, ruling over a vast personal empire. Meanwhile, Emma and her sons remained in Rouen for their own safety. The children of dispossessed kings are never truly secure, after all.
Richard II’s most successful and least-bloody conflict was his conquest of Brittany. The house of Rollo became tied to Brittany in 996 when he was still a child-count. That year his elder sister Havoise married the Count of Rennes and Duke of Brittany Geoffroi, or Geoffrey in English. In the year 1000 at the age of 16 Richard II married Judith, [pronounced in English as Judith], Geoffroi’s sister at Mont St. Michel. While Mont St. Michel was not yet the world wonder it is today, a marriage on an abbey on a hill on an island overlooking the Channel sounds like something out of a fairytale. These two marriages made the Duke of Brittany and Count of Rouen doubly brothers-in-law. These close ties led Geoffroi to make the mistake of trusting Richard II with his progeny. In 1008 Geoffroi left Brittany for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, placing his sons under the authority of the Norman lord and his sister. The Duke of Brittany died during his return journey, leaving Richard II and Emma to act as regents in their stead.
Richard II immediately set to work seizing power along the border. He began his intrusion subtly by becoming the premier patron of Mont St. Michel when he appointed its abbot in 1009. He then gave the abbey property in Verson, 100 kilometers to the northeast near Caen, effectively tying its fortunes to Normandy and establishing his lordship over it. Then he built fortresses along the border while making alliances with the counts of Chartres and Bellême. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he rewrote the history of the region when he hired the chronicler Dudo to claim that King Charles le Simple ceded Brittany to Rollo in their 911 agreement, propaganda which he then spread throughout the peninsula to justify his suzerainty. At the same time, Richard II had Dudo change the title conferred upon Rollo and his descendants from Count of Rouen to Duke of Normandy. It was an audacious self-promotion during a time when only kings could grant such a title, but Richard II seized it through a common legal argument known as, “what are you going to do about it?” With the heirs to the Duchy of Brittany under his command and no independent lord powerful enough to oppose him, the Norman Duke Richard II conquered Brittany without fighting a single battle.
When Richard II was not acquiring territory through war or subterfuge he oversaw marriage alliances with his many family members and dependents that expanded Normandy and his own control over it. Expansion of the duchy and Richard II’s large-scale building projects brought in remarkable wealth to Normandy. During this period a type of urban development known as a ‘bourg’ grew up around fortifications and monasteries. These largely merchant communities sold goods to the lords, soldiers and holy figures at the Normans’ many outposts. The Normans’ excellent taxation-system meant that the duke directly benefitted from the merchants, allowing him to construct more forts and patronize more holy sites, and success bred success. Normandy’s already significant merchant class regularly traded with the Scandinavian world. Modern archeologists have discovered coins minted in Rouen during this period in what are today England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Russia, Germany and Poland. Richard II grew so prosperous that he showcased his wealth on the international level when he gifted the Sepulchre of Our Saviour in Jerusalem 100 pounds of gold.
In addition to being a great conqueror and administrator Richard II was a noted lawgiver as well. During his reign he furthered the process of making Norman laws, which combined Frankish law with Scandinavian customs. Richard II ruled at a pivotal moment in French history as Norman political power waxed and the monarch’s waned. Political power corresponded to a decline in economic and cultural power as the Duke of Normandy patronized holy sites even as the French monarch’s influence declined. It was during Richard II’s reign that Normandy as its own unique country inhabited by a distinct people known as Normans developed. This idea was slow to progress at first, and largely relegated to the upper class, who increasingly saw themselves as a hybrid of Frankish and Scandinavian culture but separate from the two. The Norman identity that took shape under Richard II was still in its infancy. Normandy and the Norman people would crystallize under his grandson Guillaume due to his codification of the law and his remarkable conquests.
Richard II, first real Duke of Normandy, became a great and feared lord within France. A terror to his enemies, he could also demonstrate loyalty to his friends. He was a cordial vassal to King Robert II who in 1017 invited him to the coronation of his son Hugh, who sadly died before he could ascend to full kingship. Then in the 1020s Richard II joined Robert II in suppressing a rebellion in Burgundy. Duke Richard II died on 28 August 1026, and left the throne to his son, Richard III.
Chapter 6: A Duke on Par with Kings
“To the venerable Archbishop of Rouen, Robert…I sympathise with you, holy father, over the injuries with which you have been unjustly afflicted, especially from one who owed himself and his all to your good faith. I am also deeply grieved over him who was our brother and fellow bishop as long as he stood upright, who has now fallen into these great depths of crime and infamy. But to you father, it should be very comforting that though he has taken away your outward possessions, he could not take away those that are within.”
-Letter to the Archbishop of Rouen from the Bishop Fulbert of Chartres
Richard III took up the title of Duke of Normandy upon his father and namesake’s death, while his brother Robert became count of Hiémois. There must be something about Hiémois stirring brothers to rebellion as not one year into the duke’s reign, Robert led a cabal of nobles seeking independence. At this point, no noble within Normandy had the strength to resist the duke, so centralized and cohesive was his power, and Richard III quickly brought Robert to heel. Robert swore allegiance to his elder brother, who marched back to Rouen when he suddenly and mysteriously died, quite possibly poisoned. He had ruled a little less than a year. His only heir was an illegitimate infant not yet one year old named Nicholas. Since babies rarely make good rulers, the Norman nobility elected Robert as their new leader, with a little prodding from his uncle Robert Archbishop of Rouen.
Robert’s rule rested on shaky ground, as more than a few suspected foul-play in his brother’s death. The new duke decided to endear himself to his loyalists by rewarding them with land. The problem was in acquiring that land, which came at the expense of the church. While this tactic was pretty common for medieval rulers, the extent of his seizures infuriated church leaders, with the Archbishop of Rouen leading the condemnation of his nephew. Duke Robert responded by calmly and rationally besieging the Archbishop’s castle at Evreux, capturing and then exiling him to France. Duke Robert failed to recognize that holy men’s power does not come from strategic locations or arms but from influence. While in France the Archbishop led the rest of the priests in Normandy to place an interdiction on the duchy, meaning that they refused to perform the sacraments or properly bury the dead. People started to get upset that their immortal souls were risking damnation because of the duke’s greed and Robert relented and restored his uncle to his see in Rouen. Still, Robert managed to confiscate a fair amount of territory, satiate his supporters and demonstrate his power to the church. While he could not cow the archbishop anyone beneath him was fair game, as was the case with Bishop Hugh of Bayeux who rebelled against him only for Robert to besiege his castle and reduce him to a much-weakened state. Nevertheless, the Duke appears to have repented for his sins and regularly donated to the poor and the church, eventually earning the honorific Robert Le Magnifique, Robert the Magnificent, for his generosity. See, in the medieval period it pays to support the church because they usually write the histories. Maybe Robert’s father Richard II taught him that since he is known to history as Richard Le Bon, Richard the Good, even though he was not a particularly nice guy.
Duke Robert’s primary political concern was Brittany. In 1025 Robert’s cousin Alain became the Duke of Brittany. Alain refused to recognize the Duke of Normandy as his superior, given that they were equal in the peerage system. He began subtly undermining Norman supremacy in 1029 when he supported his own candidate for abbot of Mont St. Michel and married the daughter of Odo II the Count of Chartres, a habitual enemy of the Normans. Robert decided to clamp down on the Bretons’ move for independence. He led an army across the border, made a castle at Chéruel and claimed the surrounding territory. Then he ravaged the area around Dol before returning to Normandy. Outraged and needing to prove himself, Alain led a Breton army to Avranches, which the Normans smashed.
After dealing with the Bretons, Robert turned his attention to the Scandinavian world, which inevitably meant Cnut the Great since he ruled pretty much all of it at that time. Despite Cnut’s remarkable power, Robert seems not to have worried for the safety of his own duchy, either due to the Normans’ strength or because Cnut controlled a far-flung, sometimes rebellious empire. According to the chronicler Ralph Glaber, the Duke of Normandy was so confident in his power that he dismissed his wife, Cnut’s sister. Since then historians have disputed this account. It is possible Robert never took a proper Christian wife, and instead only had wives in ‘the Danish fashion,’ the first of which was Arlette de Falaise who in 1028 gave birth to a son, Guillaume. Even if Robert did not dismiss Cnut’s sister there still existed tensions between the Duke of Normandy and the king in the north over the rightful inheritance of England. For nearly twenty years Edward and Alfred, the sons of King Æthelred II, had resided in Rouen. Robert believed that their time had come to return to England and for Edward to take his place as king, where he would be a powerful friend and ally of the Normans. Cnut refused; he had three sons and a kingdom for each and he intended to give England to Harold. In response, Robert prepared a massive invasion fleet, sailed out from Rouen into the Channel…and then turned and attacked Brittany. Even if Robert could defeat Cnut it would have probably come at an incredible cost, so instead he decided to turn his forces against his upstart western neighbor. The Duke of Normandy committed to a serious two-pronged assault with his navy ravaging the coast while an army invaded from the east. Outnumbered, Alain sent messengers to the Archbishop of Rouen to negotiate a peace. The Archbishop met the Duke of Brittany at Mont St. Michel and there Alain agreed to recognize Norman hegemony over Brittany alongside Robert’s territorial expansion. Finally, he removed his abbot from Mont St. Michel, ceding the abbey to the Normans. It was also probably during this invasion that the Normans seized control of the Channel Islands, as they only appear in the Norman records at this point. Robert even granted the monks of Mont St. Michel half of Guernsey Island in order to further tie them to Normandy and the Duke’s patronage. Alain’s submission to Robert was sincere and lasted until his death, when he was killed fighting Roger II de Montgommery, an upstart Norman noble who rebelled against his son.
During the last half-decade of his reign Robert expanded his influence well beyond his borders. In 1030 Baldwin IV Count of Flanders fled to Normandy due to a rebellion by his son Baldwin V. The dispossessed count appealed to Robert, who responded by desecrating Flanders, “‘Like a fearsome whirlwind’” [Mark Hagger]. The rebellious son surrendered and submitted to his father. After restoring Baldwin IV, Robert arranged a marriage between the count and his sister Éléonore.
Perhaps Robert’s greatest achievement was playing literal kingmaker to Henri I. On 20 July 1031 King Robert II ‘The Pious’ died. While the king wanted his eldest Henri I to take the throne, the boy’s mother Constance believed his younger brother Robert should be king and supported him. Way to play favorites mom. Conflict between Constance and Robert on the one side and Henri I on the other, forced the young king to flee to Normandy in 1033. The Duke recognized another chance to put an ally in a position of power and he sent Henri I to his uncle Count Mauger of Corbeil who led a resistance force that eventually wore down the rebellion. Backed by the Duke of Normandy and the German Emperor, Constance conceded and Henri I took the throne, though he placated his younger brother by making him the Duke of Burgundy. As a reward for his support, Henri I gave Robert the territory of Vexin.
Robert’s last years were devoted to God and posterity. He restored most if not all of the church land he had seized, while sponsoring many more churches and abbeys. In 1035 he chose his illegitimate son Guillaume as his successor and created a regency council to care for him, composed of Archbishop Robert of Rouen (his uncle), Count Gilbert of Eu (his cousin), Count Alain of Brittany (his cousin), and Osbern de Crépon (first cousin once removed). This behavior may seem strange since Robert was in his mid-thirties and by all accounts healthy. But the duke was then preparing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and wanted to leave his son an uncontested ascent should something occur. Robert made it to the Holy Land, but on his way back he fell ill and died in early July at Nicaea, near Constantinople.
Under Robert le Magnifique, the Dukes of Normandy held power on par with kings. They ruled over the Duchy of the Brittany, decided who would be Count of Flanders, contended with the king in the north over the succession of the English throne and even played kingmaker to Henri I of France. However, while the Norman lord ruled like a king he did not wear a crown. That would all change under his son and successor.
Chapter 7: The First Norman King
“Do not antagonize the cub, for one day he will be a lion.”
Guillaume became duke at the age of 7. Usually this meant trouble, though Robert’s council kept the peace, until that is their leader Robert the Archbishop of Rouen died in 1037. With the venerable archbishop gone a conspiracy of nobles tried to kill the young duke, who they called ‘Guillaume le Bâtard,’ ‘William the Bastard.’ They launched their plan in 1040 when they had assassins murder Count Gilbert en route to Eschafour. There was even an assassination attempt on the young Duke Guillaume’s life, though this was thwarted. That winter, Osbern de Crépon was with his ward in Le Vaudreuil when an assassin marched into the Duke’s bedroom and slit Osbern’s throat before the assassin was murdered in turn. That October Alain Duke of Brittany died fighting against Roger de Montgommery in an unrelated rebellion, meaning that the three remaining council members were all killed within a year. Guillaume’s uncle feared that any palace or stronghold might conceal an assassin and so he hid his nephew among the peasants. Meanwhile local rebellions pockmarked the land and a famine struck. In 1042 Henri I the King of France took advantage of the chaos and seized Tillières castle, then razed the town of Argentan. When Robert le Magnifique had left for the Holy Land five years previous he believed his son would rule in peace and strength. Instead, the boy hid in a hovel in the countryside while his relatives murdered his friends and tutors.
The boy persevered largely due to the support of the church, which remained faithful to him. Around 1042 Guillaume’s minority ended and he made a ruling clique comprised of Archbishop Mauger of Rouen (his uncle), Count Guillaume of Arques (another uncle), Roger II of Montgommery, who proved much more faithful than his exiled father and redeemed the family name. There was also Guillaume son of Osbern, Roger of Beaumont and Raoul Taisson. Guillaume made a large council to maintain the peace, but apparently some people just cannot be pleased, and the Duke’s cousin Guy of Burgundy launched a rebellion. Niel II of Cotentin joined the rebellion because he also thought he deserved a place on the council. These were joined by Ranulf of Bayeux who believed his father had been cheated of lands in Guernsey, and Haimo the Toothy who was angry that his relative Thurstan Goz was sent into exile. Finally, Grimoult of Le Plessis-Grimoult revolted for unknown reasons. In 1047 Guillaume and King Henri I met the rebellious lords near what is today the small town of Chicheboville, just a few kilometers southeast of Caen. There the two forces engaged in a series of cavalry skirmishes. The Duke and King routed the rebels at the Battle of Val-es-Dunes and slaughtered many as they fled.
With his enemies on the run, Duke Guillaume pursued the perfidious lords. His forces besieged Count Guy at his castle at Brionne for three years until he surrendered and moved to court where he lived under house arrest. Grimoult was captured and shackled in irons at the castle of Rouen until his death. He was even buried with his legs still in irons as a mark of his treason. Haimo ‘the Toothy’ died in battle, but he apparently fought so bravely and valiantly that his enemies honored him with an elaborate funeral. His son Haimo was allowed to keep his father’s lands after swearing fealty to Duke Guillaume, and by 1054 the Goz family was restored and became vicomtes of Avranchin. Ranulf was pardoned and his family given the half of Guernsey he so desired, as Guillaume accepted the legitimacy of his complaints and decided to grant them. Niel II of Cotentin went into exile in Brittany and his lands were seized.
By 1050 Duke Guillaume defeated his rivals and restored order to Normandy. That year, or the following he married Mathilde, daughter of Baldwin V of Flanders and King Henri I’s niece. No sooner had he pacified his rivals did Guillaume then have to turn his attention outward. To the southwest, Geoffroi Count of Anjou, captured territory from the lord of Bellême, angering Henri I who called upon the Duke of Normandy to honor his vassalage and join him in punishing the Count of Anjou. According to the chronicler of Jumièges, the Norman Duke committed a serious faux pas by raising an army that was significantly larger than the kings. After the campaign lords from across the realm and as far away as Spain sent Guillaume gifts…assuming the biased chronicles do not exaggerate, though given his obvious strength it is probable that everyone was looking to ally with the ascendant Normans. Guillaume’s power shamed Henri I, and the French king looked for any opportunity to humble the rising power of the Normans. The king did not have to wait for long.
In 1052, the Duke’s uncle Guillaume d’Arques rebelled against him and King Henri I decided he needed to support the insurgency to keep such a powerful lord in check. Guillaume d’Arques rebuked his nephew’s emissaries, prompting the Duke to besiege his castle. It was then that the French king sent an army to relieve the siege. But the Normans learned of the king’s plans and sent a small contingency to engage with them. The French attacked the Normans, who retreated. Thinking victory was at hand the French raced after the Normans, only to find their main army burst out of hiding and slaughter them. With no French reinforcements to save him, the Count surrendered Arques and went in to exile. After a life resisting assassination Duke Guillaume decided he would take no chances and he exiled his other uncle, Mauger the archbishop of Rouen to Guernsey, on the suspicion that he was involved in the rebellion. The spot where he landed was named, ‘Saint’s Bay,’ which you can still visit to this day.
Guillaume had humiliated King Henri I twice now, first as an ally with a larger army, then as an enemy who defeated him in open combat. The other great magnates of France recognized that the Duke of Normandy was far too powerful and feared his influence. Henri I seized upon their mutual worries and formed a grand anti-Norman coalition which included Geoffroi of Anjou, and the Dukes of Aquitaine, Burgundy and the leaders of Brittany. It was as if France itself united against Guillaume.
In 1053 the king led a massive army into Normandy from the south, while his brother Odo attacked from the east. Their plan was to meet at Rouen and take the Norman capital. Guillaume raised his own armies and likewise split his forces, leading the greater force against the king while his vassals checked the eastern invasion. According to what sources we have, the French force marched unopposed and began to rape, pillage and ransack the north at will. The soldiers believed that the Normans would not dare attack such a huge host and they became complacent, probably spreading out to acquire food as they moved. When night fell Guillaume’s army quietly approached the camp. On a sudden the Normans burst upon the French with swords, spears and torches. This slaughter came to be known as La Bataille de Mortemer, The Battle of the Sea of Death. In the wake of the massacre Guillaume sent a messenger to the king who told Henri I to, “drive your chariots and wagons to Mortemer to carry away the corpses of your friends, for the French came to us to test our chivalry, and they found it stronger than they would have wished.” Henri I recognized his invasion had failed and he agreed to a humiliating peace.
The king and the duke must have recognized that there could be no peace. The Normans had become far too powerful. They had defied the king and a joint force from three duchies and one county. Henri I and Geoffroi decided that while raw strength failed, they might succeed by surprising the Normans. In February 1057 the two lords invaded the north through Hiémois bent on utterly ravaging Normandy. The winter assault caught Guillaume off-guard. Rather than wait to assemble a large army, Guillaume rallied what cavalry he could and rode out to meet the invaders. Spies and informants kept the Duke apprised of his enemies’ movements. Guillaume realized that given the army’s movements the invaders would have to turn back and cross the Orne River after taking Caen. Guillaume deftly shadowed the unaware French army until he came upon the marshlands of Varaville where he raised a local militia to supplement his forces. On 22 March the Normans hid and waited as a large segment of the French army crossed over the single wooden bridge spanning the Dives River. The Normans suddenly burst from their hiding places and attacked the forces remaining on their side of the river. The French were trapped with Normans to the south and the west, a lagoon to their north, and a single narrow bridge to their east. The panicked invaders fled, but the bridge could not sustain so many armored men and it collapsed. Safe on the other side Henri I watched as roughly half of his men were either killed by angry Normans or drowned in the river. The Battle of Varaville was an utter rout that ended Henri I’s campaign. Never again would he invade the north, though he, or at least, his forces, fought one last battle against the Normans when they besieged the French castle at Thimert, which Guillaume seized in 1058. The French eventually retook the castle but not before Henri I passed away.
Guillaume spent his childhood and early years running and hiding. By the 1060s he was the most powerful man in all of France. Moreover, his rule was unchallenged within his duchy, where he decreed that, “No one in Normandy might dig a fosse in the open country of more than one shovel’s throw in depth nor set more than one line of palisade, and that without battlements or alures. And no one might make a fortification on rock or island and no one might raise a castle in Normandy and no one in Normandy might withhold the possession of his castle from the lord of Normandy if he wishes to take it into his hand.” Beyond his borders he was feared and respected, having defied the combined might of the kingdom. hen he was not expanding his realm or defying his enemies, Guillaume codified Norman custom. It was during his rule that a clear Norman identity emerged. Guillaume ruled a people whose lords were over a century separated from their old homelands, and had long since ceased being Scandinavian. His people also resisted and destroyed the armies of France who sought to subjugate them. Neither Scandinavian nor French, his people were now Normans. It is this identity that Guillaume helped forge through campaign and creed that he will take with him in 1066. There, across the Channel, Guillaume le Bâtard will acquire a crown and a new moniker, Guillaume le Conquérant; William the Conqueror.
I hope you enjoyed this extra long episode, which I felt needed to be told in full rather than broken up by leaders. A very special thanks to all the history podcasters who graciously and enthusiastically read quotes from Norman history. The readers were, in order, Chris Stewart of the remarkable The History of China, Ben Jacobs of From Wittenberg to Westphalia on early modern Europe, Ben of Battle Royale a podcast ranking the kings of France, Emmanuel Dubois host of Lafayette We are Here another podcast on French history, Jacob Collier of The Podcast On Germany which does a similar thing to what we do but with the country across the Rhine, Genn McMenemy of Ancient History Fangirl which tells dramatic stories of the ancient world, Bry Jensen of Pontifacts which ranks each pope from Peter to present. Be sure to check each of them out and support the podcast community. If you liked the episode and want to help me keep going please check out our Patreon. Thank you very much.
The Annals of Saint Bertin
Kelly DeVries and Robert D. Smith, Weapons and Warfare: An Illustrated History of their Impact, 2007.
Mark Hagger, Norman Rule in Normandy 911-1144, 2017.
Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.
Simon Maclean, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire, 2003.
Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, 1992.
Rachel Stone, Charles West, Charles West, and Simon Maclean, Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work, 2015.
Elisabeth van Houts, The Normans in Europe, 2000. [translated texts and documents]