History of the Normans

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By c. 900 the Vikings had ravaged northern France to such an extent that there was little plunder to be found along the rivers which had formed their major avenue of attack. Ironically it was a Danish Army (under a leader called Hrolf or Rolf in some chronicles), which arrived in 911 to pillage the lower Seine Valley that created the Vikings' only lasting impact on western Europe.

Hrolf attempted to besiege Chatres without success, but his army was such a threat to the Seine valley, that Charles, King of the Franks, negotiated a treaty at St. Clair-sur-Epte. Under this treaty all the land bounded by the rivers Brestle, Epte, Avre and Dives was granted to the Danes; effectively the land they already controlled. By 924 the Franks were forced to grant the Danes the districts of Bayeux, Exmes and Sees, and in 933 the Cotenin and Avranchin.

Hrolf was baptised in 912 and became known as Rollo. Within two generations he and his followers had adopted the Franks' language, religion, laws, customs, political organisation and methods of warfare. They had become Franks in all but name, for they were now known as Normans, men of Normandy - the land of the Nordmanni or Northmen.

The Normans' love of the sea and their dynamism led to commercial prosperity. By the middle of the 11th century Normandy was one of the most powerful states in Christendom. Desire for conquest, in conjunction with limited available land led many Normans to pursue military goals abroad: to Spain to fight the Moors; to Byzantium to fight the Turks; to Sicily in 1061 to fight the Saracens; and of course to England in 1066.

In Normandy William 'the Bastard' succeeded to the dukedom at the age of seven or eight. For the next twelve years of his minority the dukedom was in a constant state of anarchy. The rebellion of the barons came to a head in 1047, when the whole of lower Normandy rose against him. With the help of his feudal overlord Henry I of France, William, aged twenty, crushed the revolt on the field of Vales Dunes, near Caen. The castles of the rebellious barons were razed and the nobles never challenged the duke's power again.

Norman relations with Anglo-Saxon England were uncomplicated. As the Normans became Christian and adopted the French language, so their dukes found a common interest with the rulers of southern Britain in closing the English Channel to Viking fleets. This alliance broke up when the Normans supported Edward and the House of Wessex against Cnut of Denmark in their struggle for the English throne. When Edward the Confessor returned from exile in Normandy to take the English crown in 1042 he was understandably pro-Norman. It was probably because of these pro-Norman sympathies that William's claim to the throne had any credibility.

The Norman dukes' fear of Scandinavian intervention contributed to William's alliance with Flanders in 1066. Other victims of Viking raids had been the Channel Islands or Iles Normandes. These islands were not a part of the duchy of Normandy in 1066; instead they were a personal dependency of Duke William, as were the Counties of Brittany and Maine. All these areas contributed men and ships to the 'great expedition' of 1066.

Many Norman warriors, administrators and churchmen had served in England under Edward the Confessor. Some were responsible for reorganising English defences along the Welsh borders around 1055, although their attempts to introduce Norman-French cavalry tactics to the English ultimately failed.

Original article by Neil Harrison 1991