By Lance & Sword - The Norman Conquests
Out of the chaos of the Dark ages strove a race who over the course of 200 years had a profound effect on the peoples of not only North Western Europe but also Southern Italy and Sicily to the Levant and the Holy land.The Normans have always had a special place in my heart, my own family name is traced to the Norman conquest of England and Norman involvement in Scotland, the name being derived from the town of Lyons la Floret in Eastern Normandy. The Normans led an era of conquest, consolidation and integration across Christendom and beyond, but who were these men what was their background and what were the social and political methods they employed that bought significant if not always long lasting success in such diverse area’s.Through this series we will look at the Normans campaigns and conquests throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. We will also cover the Normans in Italy and Sicily and the short history of the Normans in the Holy Land. First though we need to look at the environment that conditioned such men, namely the Duchy of Normandy and the factors that led to it’s creation.
The First Northmen
At the Height of the Dark ages Europe was under the scourge of Viking raids, large swathes of Anglo Saxon England and the Western Frankish Kingdom coastline suffered under near constant harassment from the Viking raiders of Denmark and Norway. The Frankish peoples were particular at danger to the Vikings, political division and bloody succession disputes between the Frankish nobility meant they were unable to present a united defence against the Viking incursions while the Seine and Loire Rivers gave the Vikings easily navigable access to penetrate to the very heart of the Frankish Kingdom.
The first difficulties for the Franks began during a period of internal unrest during the 840‘s following the death of the Frankish Ruler Louis the Pious, once the Vikings realised the Frankish Kingdom had turned upon itself their raids increased. In 841AD the town of Rouen was razed, in the following years Brittany, the Island of Noirmoutier, Nantes were also all attacked. The Franks also had to deal with a prolonged Norwegian incursion down the Loire while in the year 845AD a large Danish host operated in and around the Seine valley culminating in an attack on Paris. Out of the Chaos of the succession crisis stepped Charles the Bald as ruler of the Western Franks, realising that the Kingdom was greatly weakened following the succession crisis he entered into peaceful negotiations with the Viking chief Ragnar, the resultant talks ended with his payment of Danegeld to see the Vikings leave his lands unmolested.
This was not the end of hostilities however, the Vikings sensing the weakness of the Frankish Kingdom returned either to carry out raids with impunity such as the War-bands of Asgeirr, Sidroc and Godfred or like the Viking leader Veland take advantage of periods of upheaval between the competing Frankish aristocracy in the 860‘s and demand and successfully receive Danegeld. Following the death of Charles the Bald in 877AD another succession crisis gripped the Frankish world out of which would step Charles the Simple as leader of the Western Franks. It would be during his reign that the Norman state would emerge under the leadership of the enigmatic Viking Chieftain Rollo.
The Vikings spread fear and terror in their wake, but they were not simple marauders, after the raids came periods and settlement and integration across North Western Europe.
Rollo the first Duke
The background of Rollo is highly contested in part to his early history being obscured by myth and legend, what can be said for certain is a Viking Chieftain of either Danish of Norwegian descent who stepped out of obscurity and founded the longest lasting Viking state in France. Legend has it that Rollo was of such great physical size that no horse could hold him this led to him being known as Rollo the Ganger or “the walker" whatever his size Rollo was skilled not only in the usual Viking prerequisite of violence and Chaos Rollo was also an adept politician who through what was to become the hallmark of Norman expansion, conquer, integrate and then consolidate his position in Northern France.
Rollo's first recorded military campaigns were from 885-886AD where he acted as a minor chieftain of a Viking War-band during the unsuccessful siege of Paris, from there he led a successful raid on the town of Bayeaux resulting in it’s capture and destruction. Taking many prisoners with him from the local ruling aristocracy, Rollo sensed a unique opportunity to embed himself within the series of complex alliances that characterised the ruling elite. To enter the world of the Frankish aristocracy Rollo took a woman to be his wife and the mother to his heir a woman whose background is nearly as contested as his own, namely the Frankish noblewoman Poppa. Whatever Poppa’s background it is apparent she was part of the local establishment and her marriage to Rollo meant he was no longer isolated within the Frankish world facilitating his entry into the world of Frankish politics.
Rollo the Ganger enigmatic warrior and statesman who steeped out of obscurity to construct the Norman State.
In the years following the siege the succession crises that had followed the death of Charles the Balds was resolved with Charles the Simple taking control of the throne in 898AD. One notable incident took place during the crisis, one which would be a prefigure of the negotiations that led to the foundation of Normandy. Charles before his ascension to the throne was forced to deal with a Viking incursion along the Seine led by a certain Hundeus. Hundeus sought not booty but territory and expressed a desire to settle with his people on ceded land in return to converting to Christianity, Charles still contesting his position was unable to make such arrangements but expressed an interest in the deal, something Rollo may have been aware of and sought to emulate in his own future negotiations with Charles.
Charles coronation coincided with Rollo’s return to the Seine valley, now a Chieftan of some stature following a period of unrecorded activity Rollo moved down the Seine towards Rouen. Here though Rollo changed tack seeking to negotiate with the local ecclesiastical powers of Rouen substituting diplomacy for violence to achieve his aims. He offered to spare the city of Rouen in return for allowing Scandinavian settlement in the region, his offer was accepted by the emissaries of the local Archbishop and became known as the “pact of Jumieges”, no doubt the local nobles and clerics realised that it would be better to come to terms with Rollo than suffer the same fate that had befallen the citizens of Bayeaux nearly a decade before. Many of the ecclesiastical establishment however chose to leave the area with many Monasteries being abandoned and their holy relics being moved to what the local clergy would be outside Rollo’s reach.
The Siege of Chartes and the foundation of Normandy
Rollo’s successful establishment of a Scandinavian enclave along the lower Seine area saw an influx of new Viking colonists who further strengthened his position. To safeguard their positions Viking Chieftains cannot remain inactive for long and the same can be said for Rollo, taking advantage of the new manpower at his disposal Rollo launched an assault on Paris during the summer of 911AD. This assault however proved unsuccessful, undeterred however Rollo led his forces south towards Chartes. His forces soon invested the town, digging trenches around it’s walls and therefore beginning a siege action. Unfortunately for Rollo and his War-band this latest Viking incursion saw a sharp response from the leading nobility of the Kingdom, a coalition of nobleman answered the call of the bishop of Chartes to rescue the town and his flock from the Pagan Vikings. Included in this Coalition were the Marquis of Neustria, the Duke of Burgundy and the Counts of Dijon and Poitiers to name a few, these powerful and influential noblemen led the attack on Rollo’s position inflicting a severe defeat on his forces beneath the city walls.
The Franks however far from capitalising on their defeat of the Northmen allowed Rollo and his troops to return to their base on the lower Seine, amazingly at this juncture the Frankish nobility held a Royal council where despite their recent victory over Rollo they concluded that they needed to open Negotiations to reach a permanent accord with the Northmen probably in realising the perilous state of affairs the Kingdom now found itself in. Ambassadors were despatched and a lengthy negotiation process began, the fundamentals of the proposed agreement were that Rollo and his men would swear fealty to King Charles whilst abandoning their old Gods and convert to Christianity in return they would receive land from the Andelle river to the sea while Rollo would receive Royal authority to govern these lands.
Rollo and the leaders of his War band were keen to accept the offer and immediately agreed to an extended truce with a view to arrange a summit between Rollo and Charles where in turn Rollo would swear fealty to the Frankish King. The Meeting of the two rulers finally took place in a place from where the agreement takes it’s name, Saint-Clair-Sur-Epte. As the summit took place Rollo was able to press for further concessions namely an extension to the lands the Normans were to receive, the Franks duly extended the remit of their original offer offering instead the lands from the Epte as opposed from the Andelle as a counter offer. Rollo at the last also sought Royal permission to carry out a series of raids against the mainly Celtic Breton's to the East of his new holdings, probably seeing the opportunity that arose from having two of what they considered potentially hostile outlying regions fighting each other instead of making war against the Frankish Kingdom presented the Franks accepted whilst the Normans could also provide a buffer against future Viking incursions down the Seine.
In the following solemn ceremony Rollo placed his hands within those of Charles and subordinated himself to his service, Charles granted Rollo control of the lands from the Epte to sea as a hereditary estate. At this point unexpectedly and without prior warning the bishops present demanded that Rollo should kiss the Kings foot as an act of submission, this previously undisclosed protocol had the potential to throw the whole agreement into turmoil, however Rollo merely gestured for one of his men to carry out the act. However the man instead of merely kissing the Kings foot gestured the Kings foot towards his mouth then proceeded to tip the King from his seat. What could have been a potentially deadly diplomatic impasse ended when Frank and Norman alike braking out in collective laughter.
A Functioning Duchy and it’s fight for survival
Following the Ceremony Rollo and his army converted to Christianity, how many of them took these as oaths to heart is open to debate, Rollo probably as a sign of good faith ceded some lands around former ecclesiastical area’s back to the Church. This was the beginning of what would become a corner stone the Norman state, the symbiotic relationship of Church and state. In the future the Normans would be known for their piety but this was a process that would take time.
In the coming years Rollo oversaw the expansion of the Duchy seizing Bessin in 924AD whilst at the same time preventing further Viking incursion to the Frankish Kingdom. Now a nobleman of considerable standing Rollo also became involved in the cut throat politics of the Frankish aristocracy especially those located near the borders of the fledgeling Duchy, like any self respecting man of power Rollo took any opportunity to profit from his enemies misfortune. After 10 years in power Rollo finally began to prepare his succession, most likely to prevent the chaos that had so undermined the Frankish Kingdom.
His successor William Longsword ruled for 5 years under his fathers stewardship but Rollo passed over in 932AD, leaving the young William in aperilous situation. William Longsword was considered more Frankish than Viking by his peers, being raised a Christian by his Frankish Mother Poppa he can be considered the first truly Norman leader as opposed to the Christian convert Viking Chieftain Rollo, It was William who oversaw the merge of Scandinavian and Frankish Culture. This was however not without incedent, for William had to overcome a rebellion of not only Breton's who lived in lands seized by his father Rollo but also Scandinavian elements who lived on the fringes of Ducal Authority. These Scandinavians had managed to retain their independence and distinct Scandinavian culture including observance of the Old Gods, William saw Normandy as the sole Scandinavian state within France while the rebellious Normans saw him as too Gallicised and soft.
William Longsword had to fight to ensure the survival of the fledgeling Duchy upon his ascension, without his Fathers fearsome reputation he had to forge his own to save Normandy from external and internal enemies.
Overcoming the odds he soon crushed the rebellion of the wayward Scandanavian's led by the Viking Riouf. The Breton rebels within Normandy despite being backed by the Duke of Brittany Alan Wrybeard and the Count of Rennes Berenger were also bought to heel by the Longsword, following these military successes he further integrated his family line into high Frankish aristocracy by marrying Luitgarde the daughter of a local nobleman, the lands in her dower further added to his own dominions and from this base he sought to continue his fathers expansionist policies by seizing the important fortress of Montreuil. This was a fateful move for it bought him into direct confrontation with Arnulf the Count of Flanders, three years after the successful capture of Montreuil Arnulf despatched a party of assassins who lay in wait for William at Picquigny on the Somme River. Here they were able to successfully launch a successful ambush killing William and ushering in a period of serious instability.
Richard the Fearless and the troubled succession
Williams successor the young Richard the Fearless faced insurmountable challenges on his ascension to the Ducal title, Firstly his mother was a women named Sporta, Williams Breton concubine not Williams aristocratic Frankish wife Luitgarde. This meant he only became recognized as the official heir by William taking his concubine as a form of wife under Danish Law. Secondly being a minor of only 10 years old at the time of his fathers death meant the Duchies many enemies were free to take advantage of his lack of authority, like sharks in a feeding frenzy his enemies pounced. The Carolingian King of France Louis IV leading the Frankish efforts against the young Duke. The French King marched into Normandy taking Rouen as his base of operation while exiling the young Richard to Laon, Louis IV then split the Duchy keeping upper Normandy for himself whilst giving lower Normandy to his ally the powerful nobleman Hugh the Great known as the “Duke of the Franks”.
To the Norman aristocracy the situation was unbearable, rumours abounded that Louis was planning to kill the young Richard and therefore break the Ducal line and seize the lands for himself,f a collection of leading Normans unwilling to be governed by the Carolingian Louis hatched a plan to rescue Richard from captivity and soon the young Duke was free once more. Soon enough Richard was able with the support of the Norman Aristocracy to force Louis from Upper Normandy in 945AD, Richard was able to resume control of lower Normandy by a political marriage to Emma, Hugh the Great’s daughter. This marriage unfortunately was foreshadowed by the untimely death of Emma, however Richard recognised that Hugh’s star was firmly on the rise and now placed Normandy firmly on the Robertian side of the dispute for the French throne against Louis and the Carolingian line.
Richards reign passed with relative tranquillity, once the Duchy was secure the only external came from Theobald the Trickster Count of Blois who in 961AD launched an assault on Evreux, the Normans were able to repulse his attack and in the following year launched a counter attack on Dunois. In the campaigning season of 962AD Theobald again invaded Norman territory this time he choose to attack Rouen, again though Richard was able to rally the Norman defences. With Theobalds forces in retreat the Normans burned Chartes in response to Theobalds repeated incursions only the intervention of Lothair, Louis IV son and successor put an end to the hostilities. Richards machinations with Hugh and his descendants paid off with the inability of Louis and Lothair to stabilise the Carolingian cause Hugh the Great’s son Hugh Capet was able to realise his fathers ambition and become King of the Franks following a council at Noyen in 987AD and the relationship between Normandy and the Franks returned to it’s normal status-quo.
Richard governed Normandy successfully for over 50 years, despite the untimely death of Emma Richard was able to produce an heir Richard II known as Richard the Good with Gunnar, a women of Danish lineage who went on to become the recognised Duchess. The years following Richard I death ushered in a period of civil unrest within the duchy, peasant and lord alike rose in insurrection with Richard I heir the young Richard II being but a mere boy the job of restoring Ducal authority fell to Richards uncle and regent Rodulf of Ivry. The peasant revolt focused not on the Duke but on the Norman nobility who had sought to take control of the water ways and woodlands of the Duchy thus depriving the peasants of the ability to fish or hunt. Desperate and half starved the peasants rose in revolt, Rodulf managed to restore order through the province, the chief instigators of the peasant revolt were rounded up and as punishment had their hands and feet hacked off, a potent warning to those who would raise arms against the establishment in the future.
With the peasantry sufficiently cowed Rodulf focused on bringing the various wayward Norman lords to heel, the aristocratic revolt centred around a certain Guillaume Count of Exmes. Rodulf was able to capture and imprison the rebellious Guillaume, deprived of their leader many of the lords recognised that under Rodulf the Duchy was in strong hands. Many bent the knee and the aristocratic rebellion was bought to a close, with peace restored Richard II was able to on his coming of age take control of the Duchy and bring about a period of relative peace and prosperity. Richard II was a wise and pious ruler and during his reign he was able to attract many intellectuals and clerics to his court, he strengthened the ties between the Church and the state giving the ecclesiastical authorities land and sponsoring the foundation and restoration of many abbeys and churches throughout the Duchy.
Normandy and England initial encounters
Richard II reign saw a rare period of tranqulity between his local Frankish neighbours however the situation across the channel was far from stable and Richard now saw a potential threat on his Northern frontier. From the 980's onwards England had suffered a sustained series of large scale raids led by the Danish King Sven Forkbeard, many Anglo-Saxons believed that the Normans were facilitating their Scandanavian brethren giving them shelter along their coastline from where they could launch their attacks with impunity this led the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred to authorise a reprisal attack on Contentin in 1001AD.
Ethelred the Unready King of Anglo-Saxon England took the first step in binding England and Normandy fates together by marrying Emma, Sister of Duke Richard II.
The attack was a bloody and costly catastrophe for the Saxons with many Saxon warriors being cut down where they landed but the intent was enough for Richard to enter into negotiations with Ethelred. An agreement was reached where Richard’s sister Emma would be wed to Ethelred, it would be this union that would later form the basis of William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne. Ethelred and Emma’s son’s Alfred and Edward would both in time sit on the English throne and their formative years would be spent in Normandy after Ethelred’s disastrous domestic policies forced his family to seek the sanctuary and protection of Emma’s brother Richard II.
In 1003AD Ethelred began to grow tired of the increasing influence the large number of Danes were wielding within his Kingdom, this coupled with the increase in Danish raids led him to order the massacre of all the Danes in England these fateful orders were carried out on Saint Brice’s day November 13th 1003AD,unfortunately for Ethelred the Danish King Sven Forkbeard’s own sister and her husband were caught in carnage thus handing him the pretext to invade England with a view to install himself as King in. Sven’s invasions of 1004AD and 1013AD eventually forced Ethelred into exile, it would be during this exile that both Alfred and Edward would see Normandy as more of home than England however both would as the opportunity presented itself seek to reclaim their birthright and take possession of the English throne. Whatever the situation was at this time what had became certain for all parties the fates of both Normandy and induced were now fatefully intertwined.
Richard III and Robert the Magnificent
Back in Normandy Richard II prepared his son and heir also named Richard for his role as a future Duke of Normandy, this no doubt included schooling in the art of the delicate politics required to maintain the status-quo of northern France. Richard III also displayed considerable talents in the art of war, so much so his father entrusted him to lead a military expedition to release his brother-in-law and Duke Richards son-in-law Renuad the Count of Burgundy who had got into a spot of bother with regional rival the Count of Chalon-Sur-Saone. During this expedition Richard III distinguished himself by capturing the fortress at Mimande and was pressing on towards Chalon when Hugh surrendered and released Renuad.
Following this successful campaign Richard III was able to secure the hand of King Robert of France’s infant daughter, the marriage was to take place when she came of age. At the age of 20 with his father’s backing, proven military experience and the possibility of marriage into the Capetan Royal line the young Richard had no difficulty in asserting his authority as Duke of Normandy following his fathers death on 1026AD. The only black cloud on his horizon was manifested in the form of his brother remembered by history as Robert the Magnificent.
Robert received from his brother the lands around Falaise to govern, he soon became disgruntled and raised the standard of rebellion against his older brother, an act eased by the fact that the lands around Falaise had never fully submitted to Ducal Authority. The rebellion was however short lived, Richard III immediately laid siege to Robert within the fortress of Falaise. Robert duly surrendered and bent the knee to his brothers overlordship, Richard for his part showed his brother clemency even allowing him to keep control of his lands. This may have been a fatal error on Richard’s part for in a few months and being only a year into his reign he was struck down by chronic stomach pains that led to his untimely death, the possibility of him being poisoned on his younger brothers orders cannot be ruled out.
Following Richards death the teenage Robert received his brothers title, his own transition to Duke though would be the opposite to his brothers fully supported ascension due in part to his previous treachery and unruly behaviour. He first had to deal with the rebellion of two leading nobleman, Robert Count of Evreux and Hugh of Ivry. Robert proceeded to besiege the rebellious lords in their castles. Hugh appealed to King Robert to support him however the reinforcements despatched did not arrive in time the prevent the castle falling to the Ducal forces. Hugh was forced into exile allowing Duke Robert to focus his attention on the rebellious Count of Evreux, as Ivry had before it Evreux soon fell. The Count of Evreux had one last card to play, whilst in exile he was able to mobilise his powerful friends within ecclesiastical circles to excommunicate Duke Robert.
Robert doing himself no favours took the excommunication as a personal attack from the clergy, he responded by authorising the seizure of Church property within the Duchy. Robert further alienated himself by refusing to marry, the wayward young Duke instead went on to take a women of common birth as his concubine. The women in question was a certain Herleva a simple tanners daughter, who could have guessed that the illegitimate bastard Herleva soon carried in her womb would become Roberts sole heir and destined to become Duke William the Conqueror.
Reconciliation and Pilgrimage
Robert soon realised that to restore the status-quo he would need to reconcile with the clergy and the powerful noblemen operating against him outside the Duchy. He entered into negotiation with Robert Count of Evreux reinstating his lands and position within Normandy, he also returned many of the Church lands he had seized forcing many of the nobles who had joined in these action to act the same. The excommunication was lifted and life returned to normality within Normandy, it appeared however that a change had overcome the young Duke who genuinely seemed to have embraced a change in his life acting more reasonably and conducting himself in a more measured, balanced manner.
The various stages of Norman expansion as the various Dukes pressed Westward prior to Williams ascension can be clearly seen in this map.
Robert now began to take a more active part in the external struggles so prevalent amongst his neighbours, firstly he intervened in a succession crisis for the French throne receiving territory in return for harbouring and supplying forces to the rightful heir and future King Henry I during his exile. With Henry indebted to him Robert felt confident in his position to act in similar disputes within both Flanders and Brittany further strengthening his own position greatly. Robert also had to keep in consideration the political situation within England, his cousins Alfred and Edward the exiled English Princes sought Norman assistance to regain their throne. Being close in age to both Alfred and Edward Robert sympathised with their plight he was however slow to give any meaningful practical assistance.
Through a cautious yet ambitious foreign policy after nearly a decade of rule Robert had become one of the most powerful lords in France, it is difficult then to understand then why he would jeopardize his own and that of his peoples future by attempting to carry out a dangerous Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. One reason maybe he sought penance for the murder of his brother or perhaps for his seizure of Church lands and subsequent excommunication it may possibly just have been the great Norman sense of adventure whatever the reason Robert pressed on with his preparations primarily those concerning his son and heir William. Robert began to integrate the young William more and more in Ducal affairs, his main concern was on securing Williams succession.
To that end he gathered a great council at Fecamp in 1035 naming William as his heir, the many great Norman lords present swore an oath of loyalty to William satisfying Roberts desire to see his son recognised despite his illegitimacy. The Pilgrimage unfortunately ended in tragedy, Robert reached the Holy land but died on the return journey.
His death coupled with minority of William would lead to an unprecedented period of instability for Normandy, but out of this chaos would step possibly the greatest Norman of all, King William the Conqueror. Join us next time for this amazing story in Part 2 of By Lance & Sword The Norman Conquests.