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2a. The Normans and the Norman Conquest

   
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Extract from “The Isles” © Norman Davis 1999, 2000

“Rangvald, Earl of More, companion to Harald Fine-hair, King of Norway, and brother of Sigurd the Powerful, first Earl of Orkney, married Ragnhild, daughter of a certain Hrolf Nose. Ragnvald and Ragnhild produced a son whom they called Hrolf after his maternal grandfather. This boy grew into a warrior of such enormous stature that he was dubbed Hrolf Göngu or Göngu Hrolf, ‘Hrolf Walker.’ He was so big that no horse could carry him; so he had to walk.

“Göngu Hrolf must have been born in the 860s. He would have reached the age of adventuring and have sailed from the fjords in his first expedition in the 880s. He may well have been among the Northmen who joined the siege of Paris in 885. He was certainly among the Vikings who stayed on in the lower valley of the Seine after the failure of the siege and made it their permanent home. The sagas have no doubt that it was Hrolf the Viking who was to make history, though the issue is somewhat confused by the presence of someone else known as ‘Rolf the Dane’ – possibly the same man, possibly someone else.

“Just at the time that Hrolf, or Rolf, was settling into his new residence, the Carolingian Empire was finally breaking up. After the threefold division of Charlemagne’s possessions in 842, the three constituent parts gradually pulled apart. The western kingdom, Neustria, centred on Paris, looked back to its Gallo-Romano roots and spoke Frankish Latin. Neustria was ruled for thirty-one years, from 893 to 928 by one of Charlemagne’s great-great-grandsons, Charles III the Simple, who followed his father’s fashion and called himself King of France. But his powers were limited. In the decades since Charlemagne’s death each of the old Carolingian counties of Neustria – Toulouse, Flanders, Anjou, Gascony, Poitou, Burgundy and Auvergne – had sprouted semi-independent hereditary dynasties of their own.

“For this was the era when the military-territorial system which historians call feudalism was being regularized. Especially in France, the havoc wreaked by several generations of Norse invasions acted as a major stimulus. Princes of weakened states, unable to raise taxes or armies, began to delegate their authority over a given tract of land in return for a sworn contract promising political loyalty and military service. The lord swore to protect his vassal; the vassal swore to serve his feudal lord. A king’s principal vassals, the tenants-in-chief, very often the hereditary counts that had grown up in the Carolingian period, were encouraged to make similar arrangements with lesser vassal or ‘sub-tenants;’ they ceded jurisdiction over portions of their own feudal lands in return for specified obligations of loyalty and service, usually calculated in terms of the supply of knights and of castle-builders.

“Such was the context in which Charles III the Simple, King of France, wondered what to do with his Scandinavian squatters on the Seine. Their depredations continued unchecked. There was no force at hand to tame them. There were no funds to pay Danegeld. So the best way out was to recruit them. In or about 911, therefore, King Charles met Göngu Hrolf at the monastery of St Clair-sur-Epte. In the resultant treaty, the king agreed to give Hrolf the high title of Duke and to award him in fief all the land in the valley of the Seine between the two rivers Epte and Bresle. In return Hrolf agreed to become the king’s vassal and – in order to validate the vassal’s oath – to accept Christian baptism. Henceforth, Hrolf’s adventurers were formally integrated into the French feudal order. The Latin scribes, who recorded the deed, gave Hrolf’s name the Latinate form of ‘Rollo’ and they gave his new dukedom the name of Normandia – literally ‘the land of the Norseman.’ The deal was to be more solid and successful than the one which King Alfred had reached a generation earlier when setting up the Danelaw.

“The assimilation of Rollo’s men into French society proceeded with great rapidity. All of them who did not return to their families in Scandinavia received a mannshlutr or ‘man’s share’ of land. An estimated five thousand warriors received Christian baptism, took French wives and became a ruling class. Viking laws and institutions were abandoned in favour of hierarchical feudal jurisdictions. Pagan rituals and the Norse language died out quickly. The ducal castle was built at Rouen and a religious centre at the Abbey of Bayeux. Hrolf-Rollo, having married Popa, daughter of Count Béranger of Bretagne, founded a dynasty that was to rule the dukedom for 250 years.

“As neophytes, the Normans zealously pursued their commitment to France, feudalism and Christianity. They regarded themselves as the most loyal servants, both to their king and to the Roman pope. When the king’s demesne was attacked by Burgundy they raced to his defence, receiving a large extension to their duchy in payment. When ecclesiastical and monastic reforms were introduced by William of Volpiano (962 – 1031), they were quick to adopt them. When the last of the French Carolingians died in 987 they took a leading part in establishing the new dynasty founded by Hugh Capet. By the end of the tenth century, after only three or four generations, they were by all appearances completely Frenchified.”

“In 1035, the death of Knútr the great, King of Denmark and England, coincided with the death in Normandy of Duke Robert le Magnifique and the accession of Robert’s son, Guillaume le Bâtard (William the Bastard).”

Continuing with an extract after the Battle of Hastings -
“Guillaume, now le Conquérant, ‘the Conqueror,” took two months to get himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day and three years to impose his rule on the greater part of England. His method was to build impregnable stone castles like the Tower of London and then to terrorize the surrounding countryside into submission. In 1067 the West Country was ravaged, in 1068 Wales was invaded. In 1069 the Normans marched against their Norse rivals in Jorvik (York).

"The model feudal state of ‘Angleterre’ which the Conqueror established was a highly successful implant. Having created Normandy by submerging themselves into the French order, the descendants of Rollo now expected to repeat the experiment by giving absolute priority to the political, social and linguistic culture of their early adoption. It is sometimes argued that the Conqueror originally intended to leave the Old English system intact. If so, he was soon persuaded against such a policy by the outbreak of numerous revolts. In any case, the horde of Norman, Breton and Flemish knights who took part in the Conquest were straining to be rewarded. Within twenty years, they had divided up virtually all the land in the kingdom between them. Tens of thousands of manors, large and small, passed into French hands. All but two of the king’s tenants-in-chief were from France. Under Lanfranc (1010-1089), sometime Prior of Bec and now Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church was similarly purged. The entire ruling class of Church and State spoke French.”