08 October 2008

Expansion & Invasion: The Normans

By Lisa Yarde

During the Viking Age, the spirit of conquest and expansion beyond Scandinavia gave birth to a new race of warriors--the Normans. From their base in northern France, a region called Normandy, they expanded their influence and control into the British Isles and the Mediterranean with bloodied swords.

Beginning in 820, Scandinavian raiders penetrated the northern Frankish kingdom, sacking Rouen and besieging Paris. After decades of repeated incursions, a new leader emerged named Hrolfr Ragnvaldsson known as "the Ganger" who set his sights on the Frankish territory. Born on the Norwegian island of Giske to Jarl Rognvald the Wise of More in about 860, Hrolfr descended from lone of the oldest ruling families in Norway, one which would come to control the Earldom of Orkney. Clearly, ambition ran in the family. Hrolfr did not want the usual bribes, loot and plunder; he intended to stay and establish holdings in the beleaguered kingdom.

In 887, he carved out territory and settled his people in the lower Seine region. Twenty-four years later in 911, King Charles the Simple of France concluded a treaty with Hrolfr at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, conceding the territory the Viking leader had held for so long. In return, the Viking leader promised to protect the land against other Scandinavia raiders. Hrolfr, now baptized Rollo / Robert became the first Count of Normandy.

By the custom of hand-fasting he wed Poppa, daughter of the Count of Bayeux after killing her father Berenger and fathered at least fourteen children during his marriage with her. He also married the daughter of Charles the Simple, Giselle but had no heirs by her. He built fortifications at Bayeux, Brionne, Bessin and Maine, and his followers also married Frankish women and took local concubines. When he died in 933, the Normans were in complete control of northern France from the outskirts of Brittany to the coast of Flanders. In 1911, on the thousandth anniversary of the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, France erected statues of its first Viking leader, like the one shown here at Falaise.

Statue of Hrolfr the Ganger / Count Rollo at Falaise, Normandy

Despite the next two centuries of intermarriage between the native Frankish people and the Scandinavians, and their acceptance of Christianity, their Norman descendants yearned to expand their territory and control. Hrolfr's heirs added the Contentin and Avranchin and Richard II became first to style himself Duke of Normandy. The warlike tendencies of their ancestors led to bitter struggles among the Normans. In 1017, when Richard exiled Osmond for killing one of the Duke's relatives, he raised a band of more than 200 warriors and journeyed to Italy. Osmond's brother Rainulf became the first count of Aversa, north of Naples.

In 1035 Rainulf struggled to hold his land against Byzantine interests and appealed to his fellow Normans. Two of the twelve sons of Tancred de Hauteville, William and Drogo answered the call. William won the nickname "Iron Arm" by killing a Muslim ruler at the siege of Syracuse, in southern Italy. He became Count of Apulia. His brother Drogo succeeded him. From their bases in Italy, the Normans wrested control of Sicily and Malta from the Muslims, and established the kingdom of Sicily which existed until 1194.

Statue of William II, last Norman king of Sicily

In 1066, Hrolfr's great-great-great grandson William the Conqueror set his sights upon an even greater conquest than in the Mediterranean; rule of England. The Vikings had raided along the English coast for at least 50 years before they began terrorizing the Frankish domain. From early on, they also expressed a strong intent to remain in the lands they raided.

After the Battle of Edington in 878, the Danish Viking leader Guthrum the Old wanted to settle peaceably in England. By treaty with King Alfred the Great in 886, Guthrum achieved his wish in the establishment of the Danelaw, territory stretching from Northumbria and East Anglia to the eastern coast. Two centuries later, Duke William of Normandy married Matilda of Flanders, a descendant of the King Alfred and consolidated his power. The English king Edward the Confessor was half-Norman by his mother Emma and he held the Normans at his court in high favor.

When he died, his Anglo-Danish in-laws, the Godwinsons, under Harold seized the throne. William claimed that two years before, Harold had sworn an oath recognizing Edward's offer of the English crown to the Norman Duke. In the autumn of 1066, William sailed to England and his followers ravaged the English coastal towns, daring a response from Harold. The King marched his army south, just after defeated a Viking invasion from the north at Stamford Bridge. So it was that an Anglo-Danish ruler met the Norman Duke, himself descended from a long line of Viking seafarers, but Harold lost England and his life at the Battle of Hastings.

Bayeux Tapestry, depicting Duke William and his Norman retainers

With their rise to power, the Normans imposed feudalism and dynamically changed the political power structure and culture of very domain they conquered.