Rollo, first Count of Rouen: A saga of sorts

‘This Hrolf was so big that no horse could carry him, which is why he was given the name Göngu-Hrolf. The earls of Rouen and the kings of England are descended from him.’ Orkneyinga Saga

So in my last post (How do you solve a problem like Rollo?) I wrote a few very brief introductions to three sources you would most likely come across if you were to look at Rollo, or the Normans as a whole. Well this post is probably going to be quite a long one, as I’m going to write the story of Rollo, first Count of Rouen, founder of the Duchy of Normandy, as told by those three sources discussed in the link above. So without further ado, here is the tale(s) of Rollo, who in 911 (the same year Æthelred of Mercia, husband of the indomitable Æthelflæd, died) “founded Normandy.” Strap yourselves in: this is a tale of Vikings, some pillaging, plundering, the occasional religious vision and a fortress made of dead horses. Yep. Horse flesh fort. If that didn’t make you want to read on then I’m at a loss to be honest. Anyway!

Origins, England and the Schelde

Both Wace and Dudo describe in detail the specific reason for Rollo’s own journey away from his homeland: Wace describes that the people of Denmark ‘had so many sons, daughters, wives and servants that even the richest man could not feed everyone’, thus they were forced to ‘rid the land of its strong and finest men’ by what surmounts to driving them into exile. But this particular time there was a disagreement between the sons who were to be cast out and their fathers, and when the barons sought the help of the king, he let it be known that the sons were indeed to be forced out. As such, they sought the help of two brothers ‘who dwelt on the border of Denmark and were strong in castles and in friends’; these brothers were Rollo, and his younger brother Gurim, and together with the disenfranchised sons they swore oaths against the king and others when they saw the need to do so. Wace also briefly venerates the brothers and their ancestry, describing each of them as having been ‘intelligent and wise in counsel and was experienced and well tested in battle’, while of their father Wace wrote ‘there was never a king, however strong and powerful, to whom he was willing to do homage, so courageous and valiant was he’. However following the death of their father, the Danish King attacked; the war was hard fought and it was only due to a ruse by which the King appeared to run away before ambushing the brothers that Rollo and the sons were defeated. This is exactly the same tale contained within Dudo’s de moribus save for the events taking place in Dacia, on the border with Alania (this is not a mistake on Dudo’s part, but a deliberate link to the classical past). Dudo’s account of the end of the war with the king is a little different, in that instead of Rollo and Gurim only being ambushed, the city they leave when they pursue the kings army is actually torched before the soldiers who do this attack them from behind. A major detail both Wace and Dudo describe however is that Rollo’s younger brother Gurim, along with many of the men fighting with them, are killed in the fighting, with Gurim being noted to have been ‘mutilated (though only with great difficulty) by very many wounds’. Rollo manages to escape from the fighting (Wace specifically uses the word seaport) and both Wace and Dudo describe him as escaping with six ships to the island of Scania in southern Sweden while the king, fearful of Rollo’s return, destroys all of his castles, dwellings and towns, ‘leaving nothing which could be razed to the ground’. While on Scania, Rollo had a dream in which a ‘divine voice’ says ‘arise swiftly, Rollo, going hastily across the deep in navigation, proceed to the Angles, there you will hear that you will return healthy to the fatherland and that in it you will, without defeat, enjoy never-ending peace’. This is the first, though it is by absolutely no means the only, instance where Rollo and the Normans appear to be guided as if by divine will. The idea of providence and destiny, with the Normans as God’s chosen people, is extremely prevalent by those pro-Norman writers up until the end of the twelfth-century. The Orkneyinga Saga gave a much shorter description of who Rollo is, naming his father as Earl Rognvald Eysteinsson who campaigned with Harald Fine-Hair and was given charge of North More, South More and Romsdale as a reward. He married Ragnhild, daughter of Hrolf Nose and she gave birth to Rollo ‘who conquered Normandy’. It also explained the meaning of Rollo’s more traditional name: ‘This Hrolf was so big that no horse could carry him, which is why he was given the name Göngu-Hrolf. The earls of Rouen and the kings of England are descended from him’.

Rollo and his men set off from Scania ‘swiftly flying across the sail-winged sea’ to the land of the Angles with, supposedly, the intent to ‘linger there calmly for a while’. Alas, the peasants of the surrounding area attacked Rollo twice, but are defeated both times with Dudo describing him as being ‘well versed in the zealous exertions of war and extremely fierce in the exigencies of combat … enveloped in a helmet wonderfully ornamented with gold and a mail coat…’ It paints a picture of Rollo that would not seem out of place in a heroic poem such as Beowulf. It is after these victories over the English that Rollo has a second vision, described in detail by both Dudo and Wace: in this dream or vision, he is atop the highest mountain in France but is black with leprosy. However, he bathed in a clear spring and was cured, the leprosy being washed away, and the mountain suddenly teemed with birds with a red left wing, that wherever they went obeyed Rollo. An old Christian prisoner explained that the mountain was the Holy Church, the waters represented baptism and the leprosy, which was washed away, represented the stain of sin. The birds meanwhile were his followers who would also be baptised, and the red left wing was symbolic of the shields they would carry in his service. Following the dream Rollo sends messengers to King Alstem of the Angles (or Æthelstan according to Wace) to explain that the cause of the previous battles was that ice hemmed in their ships forcing them to fight those who attacked them. Dudo informs us that Rollo sought the peace for the purposes of ‘buying and selling’ in order to gather the provisions needed to cross to Francia, but whatever the reasoning Rollo and the King meet face to face and they forge an alliance where they shall each go to the others aid. The two by all accounts parted as friends and Rollo and the Danes set sail, interestingly enough Dudo specifies that a number of Angles were also counted among Rollo’s warband when they leave England. Dudo looked back to the classical past again when he described how during this voyage, a huge storm appears at the beginning of the summer season and crashes against the ships; Rollo prostrates himself on the deck and prays to the Christian God. Alternatively, Wace does not mention any divine storm, but both he and Dudo place Rollo next in Walcheren. The locals attack the new arrivals but are defeated and the Danes ‘destroyed their houses and their towns’ and stayed a long time. In an effort to drive out Rollo and the Danes, the people of Walcheren sought the help of their neighbours, with the first to offer help being Duke Radbod of Frisia and Count Rainer ‘Long Neck’ of Hainault, but again Rollo emerged victorious: ‘all the bravest and strongest men took flight; their lands were destroyed, as were all their men’. Rollo pursued Rainer and after defeating and unhorsing Rainer many times, he was captured. But not only was his release secured by his wife, who had gathered together a large amount of gold and silver as well as returning twelve of Rollo’s most trusted companions who had been captured, Rainer went so far as to say he would become Rollo’s liegeman ‘for he considered him a wise, noble and worthy man’. It is here Wace gives us his first date in Rollo’s life, claiming that it was in the year 866 when Rollo and Rainer were reconciled. Dudo’s account differs somewhat from Wace as the Count of Hainault is named Ragnar ‘Broad Throat’, but the first year Dudo records is 876, where ‘noble Rollo, forsaking the bed of the River Schelde on the advice of his fideles, launched his sails before the ship-bearing winds and came by ship to Jumièges’.

William of Jumièges account of this first section of Rollo’s life is a much shorter affair as he revised and shortened certain aspects of Dudo’s work considerably. The motivations behind this decision appears to have been partially driven by a desire to simplify Dudo’s history, but also by religious concerns. In his dedicatory letter to King William he describes that he cut out Rollo’s genealogy, as well as his dream ‘and many other features of that kind, for I consider that they are merely flattery, and do not offer a model of what is honourable or edifying’. Rollo’s deeds as a Christian ruler were of more importance for William than actions as a pagan. Another key difference present in the GND is that Rollo is not mentioned by name until the warband is ensconced within Rouen, until then the account follows ‘the Danes’ rather than a single figure. The story of a ‘firm and indissoluble friendship’ with the English King is the same, albeit without Rollo, and so are the battles between the Danes and Rainer Longneck who is in William’s account ‘duke of Hainault and Hesbaye’, though it is more probable that he was merely Count of Hesbaye at most, and his grandson Rainer III actually had the sobriquet ‘Longneck’. Finally, William described how after the exchange of Rainer for his weight in gold and the twelve captured Danes, the warband left the Schelde and arrived at the mouth of the Seine in the year 876, where they arrive at Jumièges and deposited the relics of a holy virgin called Ameltrudis which they had brought with them from ‘Britannia’ on the altar of St. Vedast on the opposite side of the river.

Rouen to Chartres

Dudo placed Rollo’s arrival at the monastery of St. Peter, where he also steers his ships to the opposite bank and places not just relics but also the body of the virgin (in this account called Hameltrude) upon the altar at the chapel of St. Vedast. In the Roman de Rou Wace also places Rollo at ‘Saint-Vaast’ where he presents the body of a saint Ernouftrute which he had brought in his ship. Wace’s wording in particular highlights the efforts made by many of the chroniclers to emphasise or create for a pagan a pious backstory that would be recognisable to Christians: ‘Rou came straight to Jumièges in Normandy. He was not a Christian and had not been baptised, yet in his heart he loved and feared God’. The Archbishop of the time according to the chronicles, Franco, having heard of Rollo’s (or the Danes in the GND) arrival and of the destruction wrought in Walcheren goes to meet him, securing a truce to protect Rouen in return for letting the Danes come and go as they please. Wace then describes how the Normans (as they are now referred to) sailed up the Seine and moored their ships near the church of Saint-Martin; the fundamental difference here is that Wace describes Rollo as appraising the towns beauty, as do his followers and so ‘they asked to remain there and Rou agreed to this; they spent I do not know how many joyful days there’. This description is greatly at odds with that provided by Dudo and William. Dudo describes the inhabitants of Rouen as ‘poor men and destitute merchants’. Rollo surveys the city and ‘he saw its monuments laid in ruins, and large stones torn away from sanctuaries, churches shaken from their foundations and walls smashed on every side, and a small and defenceless band, and he began to be perplexed in spirit’. Dudo also wrote an apostrophe that proclaimed ‘oh Rollo, mighty duke and most superior leader, Through Christ’s gift this town will flourish under your leadership’. This passage serves to highlight again the role of providence and a Norman destiny as God’s chosen people, but it also appears to tie the fortunes of the Normans to those of Rouen. William describes Rouen’s walls has having been ‘broken down by the ferocity of the enemy’ and cited Archbishop Franco as ‘despairing of any support to resist them’ as being the driving reason as to why a truce was agreed. Instead of then elaborating on the state of Rouen, William does describe the Danes appreciating the cities strategic position ‘on land and near sea, which could easily be provided with food, they unanimously decided to make it the capital of the whole province’. There is this emphasis on Rouen as being immediately important, as if to say that this is the chosen land for the wandering Normans who had been forced from their homes. The chroniclers were not just paying lip service when they praised Rouen’s location; even if Dudo had painted a rather bleak picture of its prosperity in these first impressions made by the Normans, it was the ‘glittering prize’ at the centre of a highly desirable territory, with a strategic and economic importance that cannot be overstated in terms of location.

Rouen is also the backdrop for another difference between the chronicles: for William of Jumièges it is after the Normans appraisal of Rouen’s location that they chose Rollo by lot ‘and appointed him to be lord and leader of the army, promising fealty to him’. It is the first mention of Rollo in the chronicle, unlike Dudo and Wace who put him firmly in the forefront of their works. This is due to William’s way of attempting to circumvent as best he could the pagan-ness of Rollo, though he does call him deceitful and describes how ‘as a heathen at heart he thirsted like a wolf for the blood of Christians’. The chronicles do agree that when Rollo and the Normans next leave Rouen they head up the Seine towards Paris. It is after this departure from Rouen that Rollo and Hasting (Anstign in Dudo) meet each other and the differences between them become abundantly clear. Dudo placed the meeting between the two men near ‘Damps’ and both he and Wace use the meeting to portray Hasting as the opposite of everything Rollo is or would become. Dudo describes him as ‘that exciter of all vileness’ while Wace portrays him as ‘a man who reduced so many unfortunate men and women to tears and completely destroyed the city of Luna’. Hasting had been sent by Ragnold, a man variously described as count of Paris and the land around it,  ‘duke of all France’ or ‘Prince of all Francia’, to find out who the Normans were and why they were in Francia. When asked by Hasting whether they would be willing ‘to lower your necks to King Charles of Francia’, Rollo proclaimed ‘we will never subjugate ourselves to anyone’ and sending Hasting on his way because ‘we care nothing for your double-talk’. This is where Hasting just disappears from the Chronicles, with Wace and William explaining his absence as the result of political intrigue which led to him selling the city of Chartres which he held to a nobleman called Theobald, then taking the money and vanishing. Upon receiving this reply Ragnold attacked the Normans, with a striking difference between the accounts being that in Dudo’s History the Normans have enough time to construct a circular bulwark of earth ‘with ample space to act as a gate’ and when the first Franks enter the gate the Normans promptly reveal themselves and cut down their enemies. All three chronicles agree that Ragnold’s standard bearer, Roland, was killed in the ensuing battle and the rest of his contingent was put to flight. Dudo alone uses this skirmish as a way to justify Rollo’s later actions: following the battle, Rollo calls together those who were returning from pursuing the routing Franks and asks them ‘what evil have we done to the Franks? Why did they leap upon us? For what reason have they preferred to strike us down?’ He goes on to explain that ‘whatever evil we might do to them, we will be committing because their own deeds were a cause of offence’.

But what future actions was Dudo trying to excuse? At the front of his mind when he wrote that dialogue may have been Rollo’s next move, which was to attack Meulan and lay waste to the entire province. William claims that Rollo not only occupied the town, but then ‘destroyed it and put its inhabitants to the sword’. The slaughter of the Christian inhabitants of the town perhaps required a more forward approach to excusing Rollo’s actions, as such Dudo had to show that the Christian Franks, rather than the still pagan Normans, were in the wrong. While the three sources agree on a chronology of events following Meulan, there are some variations in one key event especially. Ragnold, having extricated himself but not his army from the previous encounter with Rollo, attacked with an even greater army than before. Dudo described how the Normans stood very close to one another to make their numbers appear smaller than they were, then they proceeded ‘unshattered through Ragnold’s battle-array’. Ragnold ‘seeing his followers wanting’ attempted to flee the battle but a Seine fisherman associated with Rollo pierced Ragnold with a spear and killed him. William claimed that Rollo had anticipated a second attack from Ragnold and ‘put some of his men to the sword, and pursued others in shameful rout’, with Ragnold himself being killed by a Seine fisherman again but who had thrown a javelin. As for Wace, he did not deign to specify the manner of Ragnold’s passing, only commenting that he ‘took flight, and as on so doing, was killed’. Further differences arise in Rollo’s next steps: all the chroniclers agree that he followed the Seine to Paris and besieged the city. Wace does not specify whether the Normans successfully attacked Paris, but does say that they had ‘plundered the towns and seized everything in them’. He then heard from spies that Bayeux was undefended and so the Normans next appear there. Bayeux is held by Berengar, ‘count of the Bessin as far as the Vire’, information which is entirely unique to Wace. Furthermore, Wace also wrote of how in the first battle between Rollo and Berengar, the inhabitants of Bayeux captured ‘Rotim, the noblest of all the Norman princes’. This is not mentioned by Dudo or the GND meaning it could be a scribal error for Rotomagim (Rouen) which was interpreted as a man named Rotim. Equally, none of the other chronicles mention Rouen being attacked or captured. Either way, the townsfolk of Bayeux received a year-long truce, after which the Normans returned and attacked again, damaging it greatly as well as ‘destroying the farmsteads and the people; all the barons in the land went over to their side’. Dudo gives a rather more prosaic reason for why the Normans abandoned the siege of Paris and struck Bayeux instead: what Wace tactfully explains away as Rollo moving to an area that still has towns to pillage, Dudo bluntly wrote the same reason from a different perspective. The Normans were running out of money and simply could not afford to remain outside Paris. Thus, the Normans made instantly for the Bessin and seized all its booty while they had begun to storm Bayeux. However, the inhabitants resisted fiercely enough that the Normans could not stay there, and even managed to capture ‘Botho, that most extraordinary Norman count’. Just like Wace’s Rotim, Botho was returned to Rollo in exchange for a year’s truce, during which time the Normans were ‘besetting’ Paris. When the truce had ended though, Rollo returned once more to Bayeux, took possession of it by force and ‘utterly destroyed the entire city and has claimed for himself captives and spoils from the whole region’. In comparison, William of Jumièges is more concise than either Dudo or Wace: like the others he noted that Rollo went to besiege Paris, but is informed that Bayeux lies utterly defenceless, so he withdrew from the siege, took Bayeux and ‘promptly destroyed it and massacred its inhabitants’.

Following the events at Bayeux, the chroniclers first make mention of Popa, Berengar’s daughter. William placed her as being one of Rollo’s prisoners and that he ‘bound her to himself according to the Danish custom. She bore him William and a very beautiful daughter called Gerloc’. It is unclear what the ‘Danish custom’ entailed, but what is clear is that this was not a Christian union. Wace merely wrote that Rollo made Popa ‘his beloved’ and at this stage does not mention Gerloc, only William Longsword ‘whom the Flemish killed in proven treachery’. Dudo describes Popa as ‘the maiden Popa, beautiful in appearance, grown strong from the arrogant blood of a very powerful man, and has joined her to himself in sexual union. And he has sired by her a son named William’. Following his pagan union to Popa, Rollo returned to Paris and Wace claimed that ‘everyone in France trembled for fear of Rou; they did not know where to seek protection and it seemed to them that God hated them’. For centuries people had seen pagans, not just Vikings, as a scourge sent by God to punish them for their sins; it seems odd that a twelfth-century author such as Wace would portray the progenitor of his monarchs dynasty in such a way. Wace then has Rollo move from Paris to Evreux which he captured although the bishop, who Wace uniquely called Ysembard, had fled to Paris and only returned when trouble subsided. From Evreux Rollo returned yet again to Paris and ‘he was greatly feared everywhere on account of the harm he was doing; he had destroyed and defeated all the barons to such an extent that they gave him tribute as a means of protecting their lands’. This is a more positive description of Rollo’s actions for although he is still very much a ‘Viking’ he is displaying the strength and skills expected of a strong, successful ruler in the ninth and tenth centuries. Sadly, Paris’s position on the Seine and the width of the river itself ensured that he could not induce its defenders to surrender, so with casualties mounting on both sides the Normans withdrew once more. Dudo also wrote of Rollo’s attack on Evreux, but instead Rollo does not lead the attack himself, sending his army to capture the bishop who in this account is named as Sebar, but he has already fled the city by the time the Normans arrived. A final description by William claims that after the ‘destruction’ of Bayeux Rollo returned to Paris and besieged it ‘with battering rams and catapults’ while he sent another army to Evreux to kill Bishop Sebar and his people, but upon finding the bishop had fled the army instead killed all the inhabitants and returned ‘laden with rich spoils’.

It was at this point that the chroniclers returned once more to England. In Dudo’s words, the Angles had heard that Rollo was besieging Paris and was held fast and being ‘entwined in Frankish affairs’ thought he would not be able to come to the assistance of King Alstem, they began to ‘grow haughty and to contend against the king, dealing blows in unsuitable wars. Truly the English land was laid waste by the armies of the king and his opponents’. Upon hearing this news, Rollo made one last attempt to take Paris which failed despite the Normans managing to ‘cast down citizens in battle’, so they sail with all haste to aid King Alstem and uphold the promise of friendship made between the two men. After arriving Rollo scattered the rebel Angles after a series of battles and the destruction of their towns and villas, thus bringing them to heel once more. In a further display of honour Rollo repaid Alstem for his earlier support in Walcheren against the Walgri and demanded no reward, save that Alstem not stop any men who wished to return with him to Francia and forcibly suggested that the King remain in his realm rather than travel with him so as to keep the peace. William of Jumièges also stressed the virtuous nature of Rollo’s aid to the embattled king, as he was ‘full of compassion’ for the king’s troubles and as such immediately abandoned the siege to sail to England. Such was Rollo’s skill that ‘as soon as he arrived he put down the rebels with vigour, took hostages, and set them at the king’s feet’ before he chose a large number of young men and, laden with gifts, returned to France. Wace, in his description, relayed a new piece of information where he described how Rollo landed at Southampton, an interesting choice as tradition puts Rollo’s activities from 876 onwards. This would mean that Alstem of the Angles was in fact Guthrum of East Anglia (died c. 890), meaning that were Rollo would have to have led a marauding group of Danes across Wessex; a bold move considering Alfred the Great’s relations with Northmen. This aside the king humbly begged Rollo to ‘avenge him against the English who harmed him greatly; he would give him half of his entire kingdom’. Wace used this second visit to England to stress the qualities that Rollo possessed. His skill as a leader (and the strength of the Normans) is shown when Wace described how ‘they [the rebels] had shown great scorn for the king and his men, but it was Rou’s men who had defeated all of them; from many he cut off the ears and feet’. The description of this savage punishment is unique to Wace but it shows Rollo dispensing justice. Rollo defeated the English many times and managed to reconcile them with the king, but he refused to take even a small parcel of land, returning it all to Alstem; he then set sail back up the Seine to Rouen accompanied with any English warriors who elected to join him. While his account is shorter than Dudo’s, Wace stressed Rollo’s loyalty and virtue in refusing to take what he might from the king, instead being extremely humble.

The French king heard of Rollo’s return and called his barons along with Archbishop Franco to him telling them to advise him. A truce was agreed but understandably some nobles were unhappy about striking deals with pagans, such as ‘Ebles, count of Poitiers, who was lord of the Gascons, and Richard, who was lord and duke of the Burgundians’. The information regarding Ebles being lord of the Gascons is entirely unique to Wace. Dudo had Rollo split his army into three on his return to Francia, with one group plundering the banks of the Seine, another following the Loire and the third along the Gironde. In the History King Charles had to ask Bishop Franco of Rouen, who Dudo described as being ‘now associated with Rollo’ to negotiate a three-month truce because the Normans had begun to storm the town. The Franks are also portrayed as the antithesis of Rollo, as Ebles and Richard admonish ‘the unwarlike Franks, feeble in arms and almost womanish’ and irritated the Franks to such a degree that they waged war on Rollo as soon as the truce had ended. For his part Rollo was apparently worried he would be ‘counted cheap by the Franks because of the safety which he had given them, began to mangle and destroy and obliterate the populace, by savagely and cruelly laying waste their provinces’. He then proceeded to meet a detachment of Normans at St. Benoit-sur-Loire, where Rollo spared the monastery and instead headed to Étampes, then Villemeux before returning to Paris. Here he was confronted by an ‘incomprehensibly numerous multitude’ of ‘rustics’ that with his cavalry he ‘crushed them to their utter destruction by a cruel and violent death’. In the GND Charles had sent Franco to ‘order’ Rollo to stop disturbing the Franks, an uncharacteristically forceful word to be associated with the Frankish king. After the truce ended Rollo did not wait for the Franks to initiate hostilities again but instead ‘at once with his usual fury destroyed France as far as Étampes by sending armies hither and thither’. Finally, Wace also describes how Rollo ‘in honour of the good saint’ ‘kept their church and town safe’. After he had plundered the Gâtinais and laid waste to Étampes, he pillaged his way to Villemeux, besieging, capturing and plundering towns along the route before returning to Paris with the intent to besiege it yet again. However a large force of Franks caught up to the Normans and while Wace makes it clear that he does not know whether they had one leader or many, or who was in this army, they were utterly defeated and ‘fell in large numbers on the plain’.

Rollo then sets about besieging Chartres, but is forced to withdraw from a battle against the relieving Frankish force when the bishop of Chartres emerges from the town at the head of a procession bearing holy relics. The GND puts Richard of Burgundy (the Justiciar, Count of Autun d. 921) as the leader of this force, and excuses Rollo’s retreat by arguing that he realised his men were facing death, and so decided to yield to save their lives: ‘thus – as a wise man, not a timid coward – he abandoned the fight’. The story regarding the failed siege is much the same in Wace’s re-telling, but there are some unique additions such as the procession from Chartres singing litanies and the ‘kyrie eleyson’, along with Rollo being mysteriously blinded as he retreated, though his sight soon returned. Some Normans sought refuge on a hill not far from the city, at which point Count Ebles of Poitiers arrived at the sight, angry that he had missed the battle proper and attacked the hill. Wace put the number of Norman casualties on the hill alone at ‘one thousand eight hundred’. Accounts differ as to the groups’ actions: according to Wace they heroically cut their way through the sleeping Poitevins and French at night, forcing Count Ebles to hide in a fullers cottage until it was safe. Dudo described how some blew horns and trumpets thus allowing the remainder to slip through the camp, where the army saw that the hill was empty and set off in pursuit. They found the Normans within a fortress made out of the skinned bodies of the animals they had brought with them and hung the bloody skins and hides outside the corpse-walls. Upon discovering the fort, the Franks and Burgundians who pursued them say to one another ‘who will attack those men? Whoever wishes to lose his life, let him approach that marvellous fortress made of flesh’. The GND treads a middle path between the other two accounts, having the Normans slaughter their way through the camp and with Ebles spending the night ‘trembling with fear’ inside the fuller’s house, but also includes the account of the monstrous fortress of flesh. But upon seeing the grisly defences, the Franks abandoned the pursuit allowing the Normans within it to re-join Rollo. Despite the chronicles not explicitly spelling it out, the events at Chartres ended in defeat for Rollo and the Normans. Yet this defeat resulted in a formal grant of land from the Franks, making Rollo count of Rouen and starting the process that would end with the creation of the duchy of Normandy: it is important to note that Rollo was by no means the first Viking to be in such a situation following a defeat. The two sides met at St. Clair-sur-Epte on opposite sides of the river; Dudo claimed that the Franks suggested that Charles give Rollo ‘the land from the Andelle to the sea’ and the hand of his daughter ‘in sexual union’, while in return Rollo is to be baptised and accept Duke Robert of Burgundy as his godparent. Interestingly Rollo apparently refused to do homage while the land promised was so barren and empty, so to placate him Charles gave him Brittany as well. This is interesting firstly because any land owned by the fiercely independent Bretons was obviously not Charles’ to give away, but this was not an uncommon practice to grant the land of your troublesome neighbours. Secondly though, this may refer to the Cotentin peninsula and Avranchin, which had come under Breton control in 867. With these details agreed, Rollo placed his hands in the king’s, and in return gained his daughter Gisla and the land ‘from the river Epte to the sea’. Dudo is also the first to relay the story of Rollo refusing to kneel to kiss the king’s foot, so instead has a warrior who lifts it to his face rather than bend down, sending the king toppling backwards to great laughter. The Roman de Rou differs slightly as instead of delegating the act of kissing the king’s foot, Rollo himself lifts Charles out of his throne to complete the act of fealty.

Count of Rouen & Duke of Normandy

All three chroniclers wrote that in the year 912 Rollo was finally baptised and married to Gisla; he also ‘begged and exhorted all his men so earnestly that he had them all baptised and honoured them greatly, giving many of them towns, castles and cities’. This shows Rollo in a capacity of a landed ruler, in that a ruler, be they English, Frankish or Scandinavian were expected to not only give gifts in the form of precious items but also land, titles and, in a twelfth century context, castles. The chronicles describe how he went from pillaging the land to rebuilding it. In the History on the first seven days following his baptism and starting with the church of St. Mary at Rouen, he gave to one or more different churches a gift of land to be held in perpetuity. He began restoring the land, erecting churches that had been ‘utterly cast to the ground, restored sanctuaries that had been torn down by the crowd of pagans, remade and increased the walls and towers of cities, he subjugated the rebellious Bretons to himself and tread down upon the whole Breton realm, affluently granted to him as a source of victuals’. That small passage alone has Rollo performing the various deeds expected of a successful and devout warrior ‘prince’ of the times. Note how the churches and sanctuaries had been torn down by non-descript pagans rather than, say, the Normans. Dudo also recorded Rollo’s capacity as a giver of law and justice in the story regarding a farmer who left his ploughshare in a field (as Rollo forbade anyone take their ploughs home with them) only to have his wife scold him and secretly steal them. When he discovered his tools missing, the wife sent him to the duke to ‘let him turn you into a ploughman himself’. Rollo sent a manorial agent to ascertain the author of the theft by trial by fire and when none of the villas inhabitants, or the inhabitants of nearby villas, were found guilty, the wife herself was brought forward. ‘After being soundly cudgled with a broom, she confessed to the theft before everyone’ so the husband too was questioned and, when it was revealed he knew what his wife had done, they were both immediately hanged and ‘finished off with a cruel death’. Apparently the severity with which this crime was dealt dissuaded others from theft and banditry, and the land ‘was at rest, without thieves and bandits, and it was still, stripped of all seditions’. Another event which demonstrated Rollo as a dispenser of justice involved him having two young knights who had been sent by Charles to Gisla slaughtered in the marketplace by the local populace because they had been sequestered in a house by her and had not paid him the respect he was owed. The GND also told the story of the ploughman and his wife, but made no mention of the two knights, while the opposite is true of Wace’s account, but they all share the portrayal of Rollo as effectively keeping the peace within his new territory. At an unknown date Gisla dies childless and so he ‘resumed his relationship with Popa’, but ‘physically broken by hardship and battles’ he arranged the line of succession and made all the nobles accept his son William as their lord. William of Jumièges claimed Rollo lived for five more years and ‘worn out by age, left humanity and died in Christ’. Wace also said he lived for a further five years after planning the succession before ‘leaving this mortal world like a good Christian; he had confessed properly and avowed his sins’. He added that Rollo was apparently laid to rest in the southern side of the church of Our Lady, which is not found in the other sources.


However the first mention of Rollo, or more specifically his band of Normans, in Flodoard of Reims Annals is in 923, when King Raoul of France, Hugh the Great and others ‘crossed the Epte and entered the land that had been given to the Northmen when they had come to the faith of Christ shortly before, so that they might cultivate the faith and have peace’. The next time the Normans are mentioned is in 925 when Raoul again goes to prosecute a campaign against them, joined by Herbert of Vermandois and Arnulf I of Flanders along with other Franks from along the sea coast; they attacked a praesidium (a fortified area within a larger fortification). In response to this Rollo, who is recorded as being the princeps (first or leading man) ‘sent 1,000 Northmen from Rouen, in addition to the men of that oppidium (can mean anything from a castrum, castellum or even an urbs)’. The Franks successfully attacked the castrum of Eu, with some of the Normans managing to escape to the nearby island. The Franks in turn attacked this and although it took longer to seize than Eu itself, the Normans were slain, either drowning, dying on the swords of the Franks or killing themselves on their own spears. That the king and two very prominent nobles took military action against the Normans could perhaps be a sign that they felt in some way threatened by them. What the Annals does reveal is that the Normans were, within fifteen years of being granted the land around Rouen, enmeshed in Frankish politics. King Charles had been captured during a civil war and placed in the custody of Heribert of Vermandois. When King Raoul protested Heribert’s use of Charles to secure positions and titles for his sons, Heribert took the former king to Eu in 927 where Rollo’s son William Longsword ‘committed himself to Charles and affirmed his friendship with Heribert’. The Normans owed their position to Charles, so in this way it is not really surprising they supported him this way, but even so supporting an ex-king who was at the time a bargaining chip for Heribert is intriguing. No one has an exact date of death for Rollo, but according to the Annals, the last mention of him is in 928 where it is recorded that ‘Odo, the son of Heribert, whom Rollo was holding as a hostage, was not returned to his father until Heribert and certain other counts and bishops of Francia committed themselves to Charles’. There is no mention of when Odo became a hostage of the Normans, but it would go some way to explaining the Normans loyalty to Charles against unfavourable odds. Regardless, in 933 it is recorded that William Longsword was now princeps of the Northmen; he committed himself to King Raoul in return for the land of the Bretons ‘that was located along the sea coast’, perhaps affirming the earlier claim Charles may have given to the Normans concerning the Cotentin.

Conclusion (Thoughts)

When you realise that many pro-Norman and Anglo-Norman histories used Dudo’s History as one of their sources, it is unsurprising how similar the tales of Rollo and the Norman past appear to be. But with each new work changes were made, stories abbreviated or cut out entirely and ultimately each work was tailored to the intended audience or the author’s patron (oftentimes these were one and the same). As already discussed, neither Dudo, William of Jumièges nor Wace should be used to accurately recreate a history of Rollo or the Normans: they were not intended to be, nor should we read them as such. For example, Emperor Constantine had shown how great rulers acted when they converted, so when Dudo looked back to write his own history, he had Rollo endow Jumièges which had ceased to exist in the tenth century. Rollo’s marriage to Gisla was borrowed from the Annals of Saint-Vaast, where it is Gotfried who marries the earlier Charles the Fat’s daughter, a not entirely unusual occurrence when dealing with Vikings. Dudo and Wace in particular were faced with the problem that Rollo started as a pagan Viking, but became a Christian lord and they tried to overcome this by stressing his pious nature. Even when simultaneously portraying him as a feared and even loathed raider, they also had him spare churches and monasteries from being sacked, or deposit the relics of a saint at Jumièges and other such pious deeds. William of Jumièges’ Rollo is characterised in much the same way, but the idea that the Normans are God’s chosen people, of providence, is quietly swept to one side as demonstrated by his refusal to include the story of Rollo quieting a storm when returning from England.  Or by removing any tales from before his conversion that seemed overtly Christian. William preferred to write his history in a mostly literal sense, so it does end up lacking the focus on God intervening on behalf of the Normans. It is nearly impossible to place Rollo’s actions within an accurate time frame: he supposedly arrived in 876, was granted land in 911 and then died c. 928: that is a space of thirty-five years between his arrival and the grant. Again, the three chronicles examined above should not be read literally. However Dudo’s, William’s and Wace’s Rollo are all shown as physically powerful characters, capable warriors in their own rights and skilled tacticians. They built alliances in England, negotiate truces in France and even extricate their men from potential disaster outside Chartres. These skills were used just as successfully after the grant of land, religious foundations were rebuilt and endowed, laws made and enforced and peace was ensured. Finally, Rollo managed to tread a careful path through Frankish politics. These characteristics are also hinted at in Flodoard’s Annals with Rollo supporting Charles, or releasing Heribert’s son only when other nobles had also given their support, while the dispatch of 1,000 men from Rouen to counter an incursion by the king points to at the very least an understanding of military matters. So, except for the Annals, the chronicles turn Rollo, whoever he may have been, into a semi-mythical hero, an amalgamation of other pagans who were his near-contemporaries and classical figures Christian or otherwise. Wace particularly drew on similar material to the chansons de geste: heroic tales of, for example, a legendary Charlemagne and his knights to create such a figure. A Norman answer to figures such as Ragnar Loðbrok, Beowulf or Aeneas.

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