Normans

Forward to 3 – Early Monarchy – Back to Carolingian Dynasty
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014

Before we consider the Capetians we should look at another feature that occurred at the end of the first millennium, the coming of the Norsemen, the Normans.

The Germanic tribes that we have considered earlier (Visigoths, Franks, Merovingians…) can be shown to have derived from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and gravitated in to central Europe, from where they were then driven westward by the pressure of the Huns. But still others had actually stayed behind in Scandinavia.

The Romans were not so very keen on northern European winters and so had never despatched a navy in to the North Sea and had done nothing to interfere with any developments in Scandinavia.

These Northmen or Norsemen became impoverished in their own lands and developed a wind and/or oar-propelled long ship in to an agile and speedy sea-going craft. They used these to pursue their preferred profession. They would travel up rivers and streams to attack unsuspecting and prosperous villages. In Norse they called these inlets vīks, so they became known as Vikings.

The Vikings ‘press’ is not correct for they did not just rape and pillage they also traded, though it is true they tended to use the former approach on weaker communities that they encountered and the latter was used with those who had strength. Monasteries and churches were favoured targets.

The demise of the Roman Empire in the 5th century had left a power vacuum which of course prompted invasions and attacks.  The Vikings harried Britannia which proved to be incapable of withstanding their assaults. Not a great time for the English because they were also harried routinely by the Celts from Ireland and the Picts from Scotland.

This prompted the Britons to invite the Saxons, Jutes and Angles to settle and to help them defend their lands.  These ‘protectors’ seeing their weakness soon annexed the country for themselves. Forming seven kingdoms of their own they pushed the Celts from Britannia to the extremities of Ireland, Scotland. Wales and Cornwall. Many of these Celts moved across the channel to the western peninsula of ‘France’ and settled, their origins in Roman Britannia led to the area becoming known as Brittany and the inhabitants as Bretons.

By the 8th century Charlemagne had been intent upon unifying the lands of modern-day France and Germany. But preoccupied with this he was unable to resolve the annoyance of Viking attacks along the Manche.

Then were initially content with raiding communities but then progressively they began to establish communities along the eastern coast of England, the islands of Scotland, eastern Ireland and around the estuary of the River Seine in northern France. They would later settle in Iceland (discovered in 860) and Greenland (discovered in 982).

By the end of the 9th century Norway had been unified by Harald Halfdanson, aka Harald Fairhair, and this further served to push the Vikings out of Scandinavia.

The civil war between Carolingian brothers did lead to one brother inviting a Viking fleet to come to his aid and this drew Francia to their attention. In 845 a group raided down the Seine towards Paris and were bought off by a payment of silver. The rich pickings attracted many Viking groups so West Francia from the 860s started fortified its towns and communities against such attacks. Many religious communities moved inland to avoid the threat.

In 865 the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok managed to rally their peers to form a large army usually referred to as the Great Heathen Army. Arguments continue about how large an army with most placing this at 1,000 up to several thousand warriors. But this time their target was to be the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

They attacked East Anglia in 865, wintered there then captured York in 866, By 868 they were battling with the Mercian and Wessex defenders in Mercia. When they moved on to Wessex in 991 Alfred the Great paid them off. They wintered in London in 872, attacked Northumbria in 873 and finally conquered Mercia in 874. Turning again to Wessex in 875 they were defeated by Alfred at the battle of Edgington, They retained control of the north and east of England. In 879 they became aware of new weakness among the Frankish kings and started to attack their possessions again.

From early coastal bases the Vikings expanded their area of control and influence into Francia. In 885 a large group led by Siegfried and Rollo among others, sailed up the Seine to lay siege to Paris.

Rollo was said to have been born named Robert though is sometimes said to be called Rolf or Hrolf, in Francia he was known as Rollon.  He was reported to be so big that no horse would bear him, he was therefore given the sobriquet, the Ganger or the Walker.

Harald Fairhair had passed a law that the Vikings could not attack their own. Returning from a forray Rollo was hungry and attacked a Norwegian village for supplies, he had been banished from his homelands.

His force on the way to Paris, took Rouen bloodlessly when Bishop Francon advised his people to trust in the Vikings’ nobility; having first received their promise not to pillage if they were allowed to enter freely and peaceably.

When the raiders moved on to Paris they found it much better protected and less trustful. The siege proved lengthy and eventually Siegfried took tribute and returned to the north, while Rollo had been paid off and prompted to turn his attentions against Burgundy.

The French defence of the Viking raids only became stiffer and Viking losses ever greater. In 911 Rollo and others conceived of a coordinated attack along the Seine, the Loire and the Garonne.  Rollo himself once again ventured up the Seine where he put Chartres under siege and moved on to Paris. The Bishop of Chartres asked for help and the response from nobles, notably not the King, led to a French victory in the Battle of Chartres.

In 912 an agreement was signed, Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, where the French King, Charles the Simple, recognised the Viking control of the territory of Brittany and other northern regions and agreed that it should become an independent country. It was called Normandy, with its capital based at Rouen, they became Normans, a French contraction of the word Norsemen.

As part of the deal Rollo was recognised as a French noble, a duke (though some suggest a mere count), and he agreed to convert to Christianity. His descendants formed a long line of dukes of Normandy.

The Normans agreed to give fealty to the French king, though some accounts say that Rollo was not prepared to kiss the foot of the French king and had one of his men do this, however in lifting the king’s foot he almost tipped the king from his horse.

They also agreed to protect France against other extreme Vikings, which they duly did. However when Charles the Simple was deposed in 922, Rollo felt his arrangements with the king had been personal and no longer applied. He expanded westward and was ceded Bayeux and Le Mans, later he took Bessin and moved against Picardy.

The settled Vikings, Normans, soon inter-married with the Franks and became progressively more French. They mostly converted to Christianity. The province, now free from raiders, became prosperous from its agricultural produce.

Their original character as raiders was unchanged as would be seen a century later in their annexation of England. Rollo was the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror!

Rollo passed his lands to his son William Longsword in 927. He died in 932 and his pagan roots were respected when he was burned at Rouen Cathedral.

Other Normans had continued on to Italy and established themselves in Sicily and Naples creating two new kingdom that successfully rid Italy of the Greeks and the Arabs and acted as a powerful counter-balance to the Lombards. In time they too would become subsumed and become ‘Italian’.

Forward to 3 – Early Monarchy – Back to Carolingian Dynasty
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014