Waves crashed against the shore as wakes poured from Viking longboats. The ripples not only disturbed the water, but struck fear into the hearts of all who dared oppose their progress. Leader of this destructive fleet was Rollo, a man of mysterious heritage, but one who left no question of his strength and sheer willpower. He sailed onto the banks of Rouen but did not see the physically fractured and ransacked city for what it was. When he stared from his flagstaff vessel, Rollo gazed only on opportunity. It was all but unprotected land, ripe for plunder and siege. West Francia’s foreign shores invoked promise and future for a man capable to the task. That man was Rollo. He did not scheme to only plunder wealth; he sought to conquer and inhabit. He did not realize at the time, but Rollo stared into his future foundation and legacy. There was no way for him to know that his boat waves rippled far past the sea and into politically fractured France, and eventually throughout Europe.Sworn pagan enemy, Charlemagne ruled as King of the Franks until 814 CE. His reign marked countless wars against political and religious enemies alike. His near-constant victories led to rapid land expansion, and in 800 CE, the Pope proclaimed Charlemagne a renewed Emperor of the Romans. This consolidated power did not last, and by the death of Charlemagne’s son Louis I, internal strife and civil war plunged the empire back into fragmented chaos. Louis I’s three sons almost immediately devoured each other for primary control, but after three years of a bloody stalemate, they finally agreed to peace talks. The region divided into what became West, Middle, and East Francia. However, Charlemagne passed on more than a powerful legacy; he accrued a multitude of pagan enemies set on revenge. By 820 CE, a pagan Viking navy launched into the River Seine to plunder along Frankish coasts. The root of Viking hails from Old Norse, the word Vikingr translated to “raider” or “pirate.”1 It is suspected that the first wave of Viking raiders broke off from a larger force in Britain after news of Charlemagne’s death. Hungry for revenge and lured by rumors of vast Frankish wealth, Viking warriors preyed on unarmed monasteries and townspeople. Vikings looted gold, murdered, burned crops, and claimed slaves all while the Frankish empire imploded. The coastal township of Rouen was decimated by repeated Viking attacks. The earliest invasion recorded was in 841 CE, when a small raiding party sacked the city, burned fields to the ground, and looted any transportable wealth before the Vikings moved on. Rouen suffered two additional attacks within the next fifteen years, and each Viking band occupied the city for longer durations. By 876 CE, Rollo reached the war-torn town with the largest force to date. Europeans at the time did not discriminate between Scandinavian Viking descents, and to the terrified and ill prepared, it was an invasion of “north men.”2
As a Viking chieftain, Rollo commanded a raiding force large enough to suppress and overcome local opposition and crush any resistance encountered. As fate held, Rollo was not in need of the legendary brutal tactics that led the Viking race into infamy. After years of foreign wars and raids, Rouen was in no position to adequately oppose Rollo’s force. The current Bishop of Rouen quickly and accurately assessed the city’s emergency. Unable to raise a proper defense or call for help in time, the bishop brokered a truce. Rollo gained control of Rouen without bloodshed. He was instead proffered into the city, where he began to build his camp—and his reputation. He chose not to sack religious houses or private homes. Instead, his force took up residence in Rouen and built a base of operations.3 Surrounding the township proper was a 1,600-meter perimeter, sturdy Roman-built wall instilled with 34 individual towers.4 Although most likely dilapidated from centuries of strife, the wall provided Rollo with a symbolic and physical seat of power.5 Rouen was small but strategically located on the Seine River and provided easy maneuverability out to the sea or deeper into Frankish territories. After he solidified control over the township and surrounding lands, Rollo wreaked havoc on West Francia.
Vikings, nomadic by nature, are not known for their complacency; and in this respect, Rollo was no different. After Rouen was established as a home port, Rollo begun to set sights on neighboring areas. He grew his lands and held claim by any means necessary. Paris was the political and religious stronghold for the fractured country, which made a prime target for the pagan Vikings. Tales of vast riches and Paris’ supposedly unbreechable walls, lured Rollo to the city. After a stagnant two-year encampment with little forward movement, Rollo understood he was unable to take—much less keep—a city such as Paris. Soon he turned his sights on other areas and laid waste to both the regions of Bayeux and Bessin. His efforts were rewarded when consecutively the duchies fell to Rollo’s command and he unofficially acquired the territories by force. But land and gold were not the only riches found during the conquest. Rollo obtained Count Berenger of Bessin’s daughter, Popa. The exact circumstances of the acquirement is unknown, as is the extent of consent concerning Popa’s involvement. It is possible Rollo’s men took her captive after the ransack of the count’s residence, or she was bartered during a surrender negotiation. Regardless, Rollo and Popa conceived at least one child together, William, who would later succeed his father.6
Rollo was a force of nature, who, like a plague, consumed everything within his path. Soon, King of West Francia, Charles III, known as Charles the Simple, was forced to reckon with Rollo and his men. By 910, Rollo terrorized a bloody path inward through West Francia. He pillaged as far south as the areas of Bourges and St. Benoit-sur-Loire and at least as far east as Villemer. No township or countryside was safe as Vikings “set about savaging, crushing, and destroying the people.”7 The country was systematically decimated and desperate for royal intervention. Charles rallied forces, allied with Richard of Burgundy and Ebalus, Count of Poitou, and encountered Rollo’s army outside the city gates of Chartres.8
In attempt to curtail Rollo against further slaughter of the local populous, Charles the Simple’s forces engaged Rollo’s on July 20, 911.9 A warpath ensued and was immediately paved in blood and heavy losses for both armies. After several hours, Rollo’s forces trekked their way up a hill and established high ground over their enemy. This was an effective tactic until evening, at which time Charles’ allied forces surround the hill in a “ring fence” formation.10 Ever cunning and adaptive, a small group of Rollo’s men snuck into the Frankish camp and created a startling diversion with a faked full-on Viking charge. Simultaneously, the majority of Rollo’s men passed undetected to their supply trains and constructed a creative—yet gruesome—“miraculous flesh castle.”11 In a successful attempt to shock, disorient, and repel Frankish forces, “northmen immediately slaughtered the[ir] innumerable animals…and by tearing off and flaying half the hides of the beasts, they made a fortification round themselves out of the very carcasses. They stacked one upon the other, and pulled away the bloody hides to face outwards, and to stupefy the horses and knights who were gazing at them, and keep them away.”12 The Christian armies had never before witnessed such a barbaric obstacle and not a single man attempted to breech the carcass wall as Rollo’s forces retreated from the city. Instead, the three allied armies disbanded their separate ways while the Frankish nobles and Charles the Simple counseled on an alternate method to rid West Francia of the Viking horde.
Tenth century Frankish military forces were unable to effectively engage against Vikings on the warpath. European medieval tactics as a whole centered around siege warfare in lieu of pitched battlefields.13 Instead of a professional military, armies formed from a “feudal summons” system. A regional noble served as a knight and was compelled to recruit, train, and supply several foot soldiers from his lands and lead them into battle when directed by their king. Most foot soldiers were otherwise unskilled laborers, thrown into battle from their farms and fields. Knights, however, were skilled in various warfare tactics and honed talents in a series of mock-battle events known as tournaments. Knights purchased their own costly armor, weapons, and horses. As such, a knight was more valuable alive than dead, as possible ransom back to a king. A strong honor code existed among medieval knights, even between enemies. Christian knights did not hold a strong desire to “shed the blood of their brothers” unless absolutely necessary.14
Siege warfare was an effective strategy between feudal Frankish forces. “The true end of military activity [between armies] was the capture and defense of fortified places.”15 However, Viking forces refused to engage in such practices. Instead, most Viking armies adopted “characteristic hit-and-run tactics bolstered by the establishment of overwintering bases.”16 The utilization of longboats provided a unique mobility advantage. Viking ships were fast, light, and equipped with sails designed to maneuver equally well in open water and in narrow waterways further inland. Vikings landed ships, established camp, and attacked all before proper Frankish forces were able to assemble. When the two forces met on an open field, even well-trained knights were disadvantaged. Vikings were known for light, simple armor and brutal full assaults. Their enemies were subdued quickly and without mercy, as men ran in a frontal assault.17 Vikings waged war on a very different honor system than the chivalry code that Frankish knights held as their standard laws of armed conflict.18 A Pagan army intent on total destruction without safeguard to their own men’s lives proved a formidable enemy.
Charles was almost desperate to devote forces to the long-anticipated invasion of Lorraine.19 However, Rollo was more than a thorn in his North Western side and must be dealt with before any external campaign became conceivable. He saw no clear way to divide forces between Rollo’s defeat and a Lorraine offensive. In a deft political move, Charles the Simple and his Frankish nobles followed the example of previous European rulers and brokered a truce with Rollo in the Autumn of 911 CE. Charles the Simple offered Rollo a legitimately-recognized claim to the current lands surrounding Rouen, in addition to the acquisition of nearby counties. He proposed land controlled from the river Epte to the sea.20 Rollo was also offered marriage into the royal family. According to legend, Charles offered his daughter Gisela as a wife to Rollo and bestowed on him the primogeniture title “Duke of Normandy” in an agreement known as the Treaty of St. Clair-sur-Epte. There is no lasting record of this treaty, nor is there a French official record of Gisela’s existence. Some historians believe she was an illegitimate heir. The highest condition of these presented terms was that Rollo must renounce his pagan faith and be baptized as a Christian.21 With the Normans satisfied, Charles the Simple launched an offensive against Lorraine in Spring of 912 CE.22
Rollo marched his forces to the banks of the River Epte, while Charles the Simple and his nobles gathered along the opposite shore.23 It was here both parties discussed terms. The Treaty of St Clair-sur-Epte was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Charles convinced Rollo to halt further West Francia raids and defend the sovereignty against any future Viking attacks, in exchange for land grants and title. The extended territory provided Rollo’s forces fertile farmlands, in addition to the oversight of all Frankish inhabitants in the region.24 The legitimate titles bestowed on Rollo were also in Charles’ best interest. Through the utilization of Frankish authority, combined with brutal might, Rollo extended his influence over neighboring Viking settlements established throughout the banks of West Francia.25 Rollo exercised complete control over the emerging duchy of what eventually became Normandy, which was the term used by English monks who transcribed Rollo’s life almost a century after his death. It is unknown if Rollo or Charles the Simple referred to the land as such. However, Normanni, was a Latinized word meaning “Northmen.”
Rollo agreed to Charles the Simple’s terms. Rollo wed Gisela and was baptized into the Catholic faith in 912 CE. Once again Rollo and his men met with Charles and his nobles for an oath of fealty ceremony. After Rollo recited the oath, nobles instructed him to kiss the foot of Charles the Simple as a sign of fealty and submission. However, Rollo was a proud man and refused. Vikings were not known to stand on ceremony and such seemingly useless gestures. Tensions rose from the refusal and Charles’ court took offence. Finally, a solution was reached. One of Rollo’s appointed captains kissed Charles’ foot on his behalf. Never one to show weakness nor acquiescence, Rollo’s captain technically did as instructed. However, the man raised Charles’ foot high into the air to his lips, which effectively toppled Charles to the ground. The court turned into an uproar as the Northmen laughed while the Frankish nobility aided their king. Everyone disbanded quickly afterwards to prevent any further risen tempers.26 Charles obtained an ally (probably a few bruises) and Rollo obtained a Dukedom.Feudal Europe patched itself together by rulers receiving oaths of fealty from local powers called vassels. Charles the Simple needed Rollo officially tied to West Francia and to himself. The ceremony included ruler and vassal, traditionally accompanied by both of their armies. Vassals pledged subjugation and rulers pledged protection. However, the ties between Rollo and Charles were not as conventional. Rollo’s Norman forces already occupied most lands officially bartered by Charles. Charles was desperate to forge an alliance and understood that he was dealt the lower hand. The ceremony’s failed civility influenced greater perception of Franco-Norman feudal relationships. Rollo spoke the words and followed through with both the marriage and baptism; however, there was an ever-present undercurrent of “who was subordinate to whom.”27 Charles the Simple did not possess anything of value to Rollo, and was fortunate that Rollo was politically motivated to establish legitimized authority.28
The fealty sworn to Charles was by no means a clear-cut example of subordination nor entailed all the traditional obligations between a king and his vassals.29 Rollo conducted court as if he claimed independence and equality, not subjection.30 Both men understood Charles was more in need of Rollo’s cooperation. Charles turned a blind eye to Rollo’s leadership because there was no true form of recourse. This behavior continued for nine years until Rollo was called to arms.
Rollo pledged allegiance and alliance to Charles and therefore took on responsibility of West Francia’s Northwest coast’s security in addition to the sworn obligation of Charles’ protection. In 920 CE, Charles the Simple was captured by Robert, brother of Odo, whom Charles deposed and replaced as king. After nearly a year of negotiations, Charles was reluctantly released; however, Robert openly challenged him over the West Francia crown. Charles the Simple retaliated against threats to his reign and raised a large force, which included Rollo and his Viking warriors. In 923 CE, Rollo’s warband stormed into the Battle of Soissons. The battle raged, and although forces killed Robert, Charles the Simple’s army lost the battle. Charles was once again taken prisoner while Rollo and his remaining forces retreated to the coastline base camps. Robert’s son-in-law Rudolph, Duke of Burgundy, claimed the crown of West Francia for himself.31
Rudolph was politically astute and knew not to begin his reign as Rollo’s enemy. In an attempt at peace, he granted additional land concessions as far west as the River Vire, and surrendered official control of Maine and Bayeux.32 Rollo’s territory grew, but the appeasement did not endure. King Rudolph was short-sighted and failed to comprehend Rollo’s political ambitions. By 925 CE, Rollo and his Viking horde once again left cities ransacked and fields burned in their violent wake.33
Rollo’s exact year of death is unknown. It is possible he continued raids until as late as 932 CE, or died in 925 CE, shortly after he broke agreements with King Rudolph. Rollo was entombed within the Cathedral of Rouen with full Catholic rites. This Viking began a legacy of fierce warrior nobility who strove towards greatness both on and off the battlefield. His most famous descendant is the great William the Conqueror, the Duke who led the only successful cross-channel invasion and claimed the crown of England for himself.
Charles the Simple