Battlefields, Bribes, and Brides: Rollo, a Viking’s Path to Dukedom

Tapestry depiction of Rollo | Curtesy of Wikipedia Commons

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.

Rollo Sculpture Erected in Falaise Town Square | Courtsey of Ancient.eu
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

Vikings in Normandy | Copyright The Map Archive | Used with Permission

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.

Baptism of Rollo | Courtesy of Exploring History.org

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.

Drawing of Rollo’s Captain Upending Charles the Simple | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
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

14th Century depiction of the marriage of Rollo and Gisela | Courtesy of Pinterest

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

Tomb of Rollo | Courtesy of Exploring History.org

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.

  1. Emma Groeneveld, “Viking Warfare,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, June 1, 2018, https://www.ancient.eu/Viking_Warfare/.
  2. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Kingdom of West Francia,” by Joshua J. Mark.
  3. Martin Dougherty, The Untold History of the Vikings (New York: Cavendish Square, 2017), 106-107.
  4. Bernard S. Bachrach, “Early Medieval Fortifications in the ‘West’ of France: A Revised Technical Vocabulary,” Technology and Culture 16, no. 4 (1975): 547.
  5. David Crouch, The Normans: The History of a Dynasty (London: Hambledon and London, 2002), 2.
  6. David Crouch, The Normans: The History of a Dynasty (London: Hambledon and London, 2002), 2-4.
  7. Dudo of St. Quentin, History of the Normans, Eric Christiansen, transl. (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1998), 42. https://books.google.com/books?id=3ueqiHfAzrMC.
  8. Dudo of St. Quentin, History of the Normans, Eric Christiansen, transl. (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1998), 42. https://books.google.com/books?id=3ueqiHfAzrMC.
  9. D.C. Douglas, “Rollo of Normandy,” The English Historical Review 57, no.228 (1942): 427-28.
  10. Dudo of St. Quentin, History of the Normans, Eric Christiansen, transl. (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1998), 44. https://books.google.com/books?id=3ueqiHfAzrMC.
  11. Dudo of St. Quentin, History of the Normans, Eric Christiansen, transl. (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1998), 45. https://books.google.com/books?id=3ueqiHfAzrMC.
  12. Dudo of St. Quentin, History of the Normans, Eric Christiansen, transl. (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1998), 45. https://books.google.com/books?id=3ueqiHfAzrMC.
  13. Mark Cartwright, “Siege Warfare in Medieval Europe,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, May 24, 2018, https://www.ancient.eu/article/1230/siege-warfare-in-medieval-europe/.
  14. Sean McGlynn, “The Myths of Medieval Warfare,” June 12, 2013, http://deremilitari.org/2013/06/the-myths-of-medieval-warfare/. Originally published by History Today, Vol. 44 (1994).
  15. Sean McGlynn, “The Myths of Medieval Warfare,” June 12, 2013, http://deremilitari.org/2013/06/the-myths-of-medieval-warfare/. Originally published by History Today, Vol. 44 (1994).
  16. Emma Groeneveld, “Viking Warfare,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, June 1, 2018, https://www.ancient.eu/Viking_Warfare/.
  17. Emma Groeneveld, “Viking Warfare,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, June 1, 2018, https://www.ancient.eu/Viking_Warfare/.
  18. Mark Cartwright, “Siege Warfare in Medieval Europe,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, May 24, 2018, https://www.ancient.eu/article/1230/siege-warfare-in-medieval-europe/.
  19. D.C. Douglas, “Rollo of Normandy,” The English Historical Review 57, no.228 (1942): 427.
  20. Dudo of St. Quentin, History of the Normans, Eric Christiansen, transl. (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1998), 48. https://books.google.com/books?id=3ueqiHfAzrMC.
  21. D.C. Douglas, “Rollo of Normandy,” The English Historical Review 57, no.228 (1942): 429.
  22. D.C. Douglas, “Rollo of Normandy,” The English Historical Review 57, no.228 (1942): 427.
  23. Dudo of St. Quentin, History of the Normans, Eric Christiansen, transl. (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1998), 48. https://books.google.com/books?id=3ueqiHfAzrMC.
  24. Bob Corcuera, “Rollo and the Foundation of Normandy,” Exploring History, February 7, 2017, https://exploringhist.blogspot.com/2017/02/rollo-and-foundation-of-normandy.html.
  25. David Crouch, The Normans: The History of a Dynasty (London: Hambledon and London, 2002), 6.
  26. Bob Corcuera, “Rollo and the Foundation of Normandy,” Exploring History, February 7, 2017, https://exploringhist.blogspot.com/2017/02/rollo-and-foundation-of-normandy.html.
  27. C. Warren Hollister, “Normandy, France, and the Anglo-Norman Regnum,” The Medieval Academy of America 51, no. 2 (1976): 202.
  28. C. Warren Hollister, “Normandy, France, and the Anglo-Norman Regnum,” The Medieval Academy of America 51, no. 2 (1976): 202-203.
  29. Mark Hagger, “Confrontation and Unification: Approaches to the Political History of Normandy, 911–1035,” History Compass 11, no. 6 (2013): 435.
  30. David Crouch, The Normans: The History of a Dynasty (London: Hambledon and London, 2002), 2.
  31. Bob Corcuera, “Rollo and the Foundation of Normandy,” Exploring History, February 7, 2017, https://exploringhist.blogspot.com/2017/02/rollo-and-foundation-of-normandy.html.
  32. Jean Renaud, “The Duchy of Normandy,” in The Viking World, ed. Stefa Brink (Routledge, 2008), 453; Bob Corcuera, “Rollo and the Foundation of Normandy,” Exploring History, February 7, 2017, https://exploringhist.blogspot.com/2017/02/rollo-and-foundation-of-normandy.html.
  33. Christopher Harper-Bill and Elisabeth Van Houts, A Companion to the Anglo-Norman World (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2007), 24.

Tags from the story

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

22 Responses

  1. and please elaborate more about the Siege of Paris (885 to 886). Rollo supposed took part in it too. Odo of Paris succeeded in defending Paris due to his tactical shrewdness and heavy fortification of the city.

  2. I can’t but feel that the “Saga of Rollo,” and the Franks should be a better-known historical cautionary tale. Your explaining of the story shows that you need to be careful about how you choose to be your enemies and the people who you decide to continue your work. Also, it shows the differences between part-time soldiers and people who were breed of war. It’s interesting to imagine what it would look like if the Frankish forces were professional warriors.

  3. The vocabulary in the article was amazing and well complimented by the imagery embedded within it as well. This was a well written article and there’s no surprise that it’s up for nomination. I genuinely enjoyed this article; I enjoy reading articles about Vikings and have heard of Rollo before, but didn’t know the full story.

  4. The imagery at the beginning really kicjrd the article off. I started to imagine the scenery in my head. It was interesting to take a look at the Viking time period before modernization came through. Rollo had outstanding battle strategies. He made himself seem manly by not putting anything religious due to whatever belief he had at the time. Good job!

  5. Congratulations on your nomination, Annissa! You are an amazing writer and I loved the amount of detail you incorporated into your article. It was very informative because I had no idea about Rollo or his backstory. I thought it was amazing that he left such a big legacy behind once he passed away. I really enjoyed reading this article, it’s definitely deserving of an award!

  6. Wow what a great well written, interesting and informative article regarding a certain historical time frame. I am familiar with the Vikings and how their culture and traditions were laid out, but I don’t recall ever learning about such a prominent Viking leader like Rollo. I think you did a great job in detailing his timeline and storyline in a vivid way.

  7. This article was very informative on the topic of not only militaristic views that Rollo happened to show, but also just the general life style of Vikings. I find it impressing that Rollo was able to establish his dominance against others and succeed. It’s also very smart, in terms of setting your dominance, to create a wall with towers to help shield from enemies. Rollo had a strong pride and continued to portray his dominance wherever he went in order to establish his strong sense of individualism.

  8. This article was very interesting to read and descriptive. I loved the images you used they really helped me paint a beautiful picture. I felt like I was actually there the whole time. I had never been interested in this kind of stuff but I never lost interest the whole time I was reading. good job.

  9. I have never heard about Rollo before. This article did a great job explaining who is Rollo and what was his big impact in the world. Vikings are very famous and are known to sack cities, burn them and still everything a city has for their own benefit. Rollo was different, he was a viking that conquered different cities and spread his power over them. Instead of destroying a city and leaving, he stayed there to rule it and expand territory for his country. He made many Vikings and his country proud.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.