Normans - Viking Rulers of Normandy in France and England

Where did the Normans Live Before the Battle of Hastings?

Illustration of Normans Laying Siege to Paris
Illustration of a Norman attack on Paris led by Rollo in 885. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Normans (from the Latin Normanni and Old Norse for "north men") were ethnic Scandinavian Vikings who settled in northwest France in the early 9th century AD. They controlled the region known as Normandy until the mid 13th century. In 1066, the most famous of the Normans, William the Conqueror, invaded England and conquered the resident Anglo-Saxons; after William, several kings of England including Henry I and II and Richard the Lionheart were Normans and ruled both regions.

Dukes of Normandy

Vikings in France

By the 830s, the Vikings arrived from Denmark and began raiding in what is today France, finding the standing Carolingian government in the midst of an ongoing civil war.

The Vikings were only one of several groups who found the weakness of the Carolingian empire an attractive target. The Vikings used the same tactics in France as they did in England: plundering the monasteries, markets and towns; imposing tribute or "Danegeld" on the people they conquered; and killing the bishops, disrupting ecclesiastical life and causing a sharp decline in literacy.

The Vikings became permanent settlers with the express collusion of France's rulers, although many of the grants were simply a recognition of de facto Viking control of the region. Temporary settlements were first established along the Mediterranean coast from a series of royal grants from Frisia to the Danish Vikings: the first was in 826, when Louis the Pious granted Harald Klak the county of Rustringen to use as a retreat. Subsequent rulers did the same, usually with the aim of putting one Viking in place to defend the Frisian coast against others. A Viking army first wintered on the Seine river in 851, and there joined forces with the king's enemies, the Bretons, and Pippin II.

Founding Normandy: Rollo the Walker

The duchy of Normandy was founded by Rollo (Hrolfr) the Walker, a Viking leader in the early 10th century. In 911, the Carolingian king Charles the Bald ceded land including the lower Seine valley to Rollo, in the Treaty of St Clair sur Epte. That land was extended to include what is today all of Normandy by AD 933 when the French King Ralph granted "the land of the Bretons" to Rollo's son William Longsword.

The Viking court based at Rouen was always a little shaky, but Rollo and his son William Longsword did their best to shore up the duchy by marrying into the Frankish elite.

There were crises in the duchy in the 940s and 960s, particularly when William Longsword died in 942 when his son Richard I was only 9 or 10. There were fights among the Normans, particularly between pagan and Christian groups. Rouen continued as a subordinate to the Frankish kings until the Norman War of 960-966, when Richard I fought against Theobald the Trickster.

Richard defeated Theobald, and newly arrived Vikings pillaged his lands. That was the moment when "Normans and Normandy" became a formidable political force in Europe.

William the Conquerer

The 7th Duke of Normandy was William, the son Robert I, succeeding to the ducal throne in 1035. William married a cousin, Matilda of Flanders, and to appease the church for doing that, he built two abbeys and a castle in Caen. By 1060, he was using that to build a new power base in Lower Normandy, and that is where he began amassing for the Norman Conquest of England.

Ethnicity and the Normans

Archaeological evidence for the Viking presence in France is notoriously slim. Their villages were basically fortified settlements, consisting of earthwork-protected sites called motte (en-ditched mound) and bailey (courtyard) castles, not that different from other such villages in France and England at that time.

The reason for the lack of evidence for explicit Viking presence may be that the earliest Normans tried to fit into the existing Frankish powerbase. But that didn't work well, and it was not until 960 when Rollo's grandson Richard I galvanized the notion of Norman ethnicity, in part to appeal to the new allies arriving from Scandinavia. But that ethnicity was largely limited to kinship structures and place names, not material culture, and by the end of the 10th century, the Vikings had largely assimilated into the larger European medieval culture.

Historic Sources

Most of what we know of the early Dukes of Normandy is from Dudo of St Quentin, a historian whose patrons were Richard I and II. He painted an apocalyptic picture of Normandy in his best-known work De moribus et actis primorum normanniae ducum, written between 994-1015. Dudo's text was the basis for future Norman historians including William of Jumièges (Gesta Normannorum Ducum), William of Poitiers (Gesta Willelmi), Robert of Torigni and Orderic Vitalis. Other surviving texts include the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Sources

This article is part of the About.com guide to Vikings, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology

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