21 The Normans – a race unbridled


The Normans made a massive impact on Europe, not just England. They went on to establish a kingdom in Southern Italy, and lead the Crusades and the resulting state of Outremer. So the History of England looks at where they came from, with a brief history of Normandy before 1066

21 The Normans – a race unbridled

Beginnings – Rollo (846-931) and the settlement of Normandy

Scandinavian settlements of NormandyCharles the Simple, the King of France, managed to defeat Rollo at Chartres, but realised that the Vikings would be back. So he granted Rollo the land of Normandy in 911, on the promise that Rollo would defend the coast and convert to Christianity. And by and large that’s what Rollo did.

The settlement of Normandy was not heavy, and was focussed around the coast, as the map shows. Rollo and his successors encouraged the Vikings to go native. Within a hundred years, the Normans were as French as anyone.

William I Longsword (b. 893, Count of Normandy 931-942)

William I and the expansion of Normandy Rollo’s son William had to fight to protect the new kingdom from the Kings of France who regreted their decision, and from jealous neighbours like the Counts of Flanders. In the end they got to him, when Arnulf of Flanders had William assasination in 942. But by that stage Normandy had grown from the gift of the Contentin and Avranches from Rudolph of France, and by William’s mariage.

Richard I ‘The Fearless’ (b. 933, Duke of Normandy 942-996)

A minority was always a dangerous time, so when William’s assasination left 10 year old as his heir there was bound to be trouble. Louis IVth of France took advantage, walked in and threw Richard in prison. But 3 years later Richard escaped and enlisted the help of Hugh Capet, the count of Paris and founder of the Capetian dynasty. Hugh helped Richard back to the Ducal throne and Richard never looked back. His reign saw the start of the development of the famous Norman heavy cavalry and reform of the church. New religious foundations sprang up and by the time Richard died, no one would have imagined a world without Normandy – which had not been the case at the start of the reign. Richard was also the first to call himself Duke – and make it stick.

Richard II (‘the Good’, 996-1026) , Richard III (1026-1027) and Robert the Devil (1027-1035)

Richard II built on the work of his father, fostering the development of the church and maintaining his alliance with the Capetians. And on his death, the succession seemed assured through his son Richard. But Richard died suspiciously quickly. Now early death was not unusual in those days, but tomgies will wag and Robert, his brother, was tringly suspected of fratricide. None the less, Robert took over, and set off to have fun and build his wealth by plundering the church. And while he played, his  Barons helped themselves too – not just to church lands, but to Ducal powers as well. By the time the Pope stopped Robert’s spree with the threat of excommunication, the damage was done, and his son would have to deal with the consequence of a very independent nobility. Perhaps by way of contrition, Robert went to the Holy Land on pilgrimmage 1034-5, where his ability to throw money around earned him the title of Robert the Magnificant. But he died on the way back.

William the Bastard (Duke, 1035 – 1087)

William the Conqueror William was illegitimate and under age  when his father died, so he had to contend with a disputed succession. The turning point came in 1047 with the battle of Val es Dune, when Henry of  France helped his vassal William defeat his Barons. From then until the death of his rivals, Geoffry of Anjou and a disillusioned Henry of France, William continued to fight for his survival. But from 1060, William could finally go on the offensive, safe at home and ready to take on the invasion of England.






Hello and welcome … don’t they say that if you are going to know who you are, you need to know where you’ve come from. Well if they don’t they should. So on this principle, today’s episode is to introduce the Normans to our story, since it’s rude not to introduce people when they arrive at a party.

As the name suggests, the Normans were originally Vikings, and their presence in Normandy was very much part of the Viking age. You may remember that period of reconstruction and defence, when Alfred in England had come back from the brink, and was constructing his burghs in anticipation of further attacks. Meanwhile one of the Danish armies had left for the continent. In 885, they joined a larger contingent of Vikings raiding down the River Seine, led by a Danish under king called Sigfred. One of the other contingents was let by someone called Rollo, who would have been close to 40 at the time. Rollo’s origin is fiercely disputed – he’s either or Norwegian or a Dane, and we will probably never know for sure.

When Sigfred accepted tribute from the French King, Rollo and his followers stayed in France, and were sent to harry Burgundy, which then of course was not part of the French kingdom. He later Rollo returned and raided the are now known as Normandy, and in 911 he launched an attack on Paris. The walls defeated him, and he moved on to besiege Chartres, but by this stage the Bishop of Chartres had assembled his own team in the form of the Duke of Burgundy and the Count of Dijon, and in July 911 they defeated Rollo and his army.

The French King, Charles the Simple, was well aware that this did not mean the end. Northern France had been continually hammered by Viking raids, and he saw an opportunity to be rid of two problems in one go. So he offered Rollo an area of land in Normandy, centred on Rouen, in return for his feudal allegiance to the king of France, his commitment to defend the coast and banks of the Seine, and his conversion to Christianity. It’s useful at this point, if you don’t know Normandy well, to refer to the map on the History of England website.

The story of the treaty is a nice illustration of Viking attitudes, whether it’s true or not. So to conclude the treaty, King Charles offered his foot to be kissed by Rollo in the traditional Carolingian method of swearing fealty. Such a humiliating approach was not to Rollo’s liking, so he turned to one of his followers and ordered them to do the foot kissing on his behalf. The warrior stepped forward, but rather than going down to the foot’s level he grabbed the royal foot, yanked it up to his mouth and did the required kissing. Meanwhile, Charles was of course flat on his back, and left in no doubt of the kind of relationship he could expect.

For the next 12 years though, Rollo fulfilled his function faithfully. But in 923 Charles was deposed as king of France by King Robert 1st. Rollo considered his oath to be over, and expanded the Norman lands to the west, including key towns us as Rouen and Lisieux.

So Rollo was extremely successful in establishing the basis of a new territory for his followers. He was also very influential in establishing the future direction and culture of the new state, because he was determined that the Normans would become more French than the French themselves. He’d already had a French wife in Poppa, but on signature of the treaty in 911 he had taken the King’s daughter Gisela for his wife. He encouraged the use of the French language, and for his followers to marry local women.

The strategy was remarkably successful and was probably necessary. Because the evidence suggests that the settlement of Normandy by the Scandinavians in the 10th century was relatively light. There are few Scandinavian place names that survive in Normandy and almost no Scandinavian surviving burials sites have been discovered. They undoubtedly became the new lords, but they married freely with the local women.

The result was that in the 10th Century Normandy was probably a largely Scandinavian state, but during the late 10th and early 11th Century Normandy acquires it’s French character and distinctly Norman Characteristics, and by the time 1066 comes around there’s little evidence of their Scandinavian past. By then they have adopted the continental military methods, culture and dress.

The process of Galicisation was not entirely without its problems, and after Rollo’s son, William Longsword, replace him as leader in 927, the backlash duly arrived, with many lords rebelling against William. William dealt with the rebellion, and used the opportunity to attack his neighbours in Brittany, no doubt with the ambition of extending the Norman borders still further. William was most successful in extending his kingdom by political means, however. He attached himself to Rudolph, who was king of France up to 936, and in 933 Rudolph rewarded his loyalty with the grant of lands to the west, the Cotentin peninsular and Avranches. William gained more land in 935 through marriage, but his expansion eventually brought him into conflict with the Counts of Flanders. And in 942, he was ambushed and killed by Arnulf of Flanders.

This left Normandy potentially in a major mess. Richard was just 10 at the time, and his career gives a pretty good idea of why the Normans were so formidable. Richard was not only young, he was also not legitimate in the eyes of the French – his mother was the unattractively named Sprota, a Breton concubine of William’s, who married a miller when William died.

Louis IVth of France saw his opportunity, and he seized Richard and the Norman lands, and split them up between his followers. Richard was imprisoned, but 4 years later in 946, at the age of 13, he escaped with the help of the Norman supporters of his father and Grand father. He was clearly in a remarkably weak position, so he allied himself to Hugh the Great, the powerful Count of Paris, who had also gained lands in Lower Normandy. He had chosen well. Hugh the Great’s son, Hugh Capet would become the king of France, and the founder of the dynasty that through many peregrinations would end on the guillotine.

His alliance allowed Richard to completely regain his kingdom, and for the next 50 years he ruled successfully and relatively peacefully. His reign is particularly important for the Norman’s future, as Normandy began to develop the characteristics we recognise and associate with them.

It is Richard who really encourages the system of knight service and heavy cavalry that is such a feature of Norman England. Richard also encouraged the Church, being free with his endowments, and these things began the process of turning Normandy into part of the French rather than Scandinavian world.

Richard the Fearless, of Richard Ist, was also the same Duke who had come into conflict with Aethelred about the support he was providing to the Vikings, and eventually came to an agreement; but Richard was open the charge of being a Christian leader who would deal with the pagan norsemen. This did not help their image, and did not help their assimilation into French society.

This clearly worried Richard, because in his later years he commissioned Dudo of St Quentin to write a history of the Normans. This is not unusual of course – we saw Alfred the Great do the same thing in England – but its interesting that the approach Dudo takes is to do everything he can to minimise, excuse and explain away the Scandinavian and pagan elements, even to the extent of claiming that Rollo came to France as a result of a Christian vision. Funnily enough, later writers like William of Jumieges who wrote after the conquest do quite the opposite; they seek to stress the difference between the Normans and the French.

Richard is also generally attributed as being the first rule of Normandy to use the title of Duke. In its time, this was a bold and pushy move – Duke had a particular significance, a title reserved for the most powerful, and bestowed by the King. Richard was making a powerful statement by using the title without permission, but it reflected that Normandy had now arrived, and would not be easily removed.

After Richard Ist death in 996, he was succeeded by his son Richard IInd, called ‘The Good’ because of his support for monastic and church reform. Richard was 26 when he came to the throne, and continued his father’s policy of supporting the Capetians, now Kings of France.

Richard is where the relationship with England began, and it started in conflict. As the Vikings descended on England, Aethelred was horrified that Richard was allowing them to use Normandy as a base. Of course Richard was in a bit of a dilemma – the Vikings are not the kind of people who generally say no to.

But Aethelred was determined to close the Norman ports. So through lobbying the Pope, and by offering to marry Richard’s daughter, Emma, Aethelred managed to get his agreement.

The alliance didn’t last long though, and it’s quite possible that Richard supported Svein Forkbeard’s invasion in 1013. Nonetheless, he was aware enough of his family responsibilities to give Aethelred and his sons refuge after Svein’s victory.

Under Richard 2nd, a new nobility emerges in Normandy that makes the final break with the past. During his reign, a large number of men were recruited to the King’s army, drawn from other French provinces such as Brittany, Flanders, Artois and Picardy. It is these families that would be the companions of William on his great adventure, and most of them could not trace their past back to a Viking past.

R2 continued and accelerated the work of his father, founding monasteries such as Fecamp. The change is dramatic; In 1000 there were 5 Monasteries in the Duchy; by 1035 there were 10, and by 1066 35. Richard also attracted reformers with a Europe-wide reputation to Normandy – men such as William of Volpiano, who made sure that Normandy’s monasteries followed the Cluniac reforms, which were sweeping throughout Europe. During his reign, the Norman’s stunning and superb style of architecture was developed and given expression in the great foundations such as Jumieges.

Richard reigned for 31 years, and on his death the ducal crown passed to his eldest son also called Richard. But Richard died quickly and mysteriously, and his brother Robert was very strongly suspected of having poisoned him. As a result, Robert acquired the nickname ‘the Devil’ – but he also acquired the title of Duke of Normandy, so he was probably prepared to live with that.

Robert is not a great success as a ruler, though not a complete a disaster, and certainly a man who knew how to make an impact. His early years were chaotic; he seized church lands and allowed his vassals to do the same. In the end he saw the error of his ways after being excommunicated by the Pope, which in those days was a genuinely terrifying punishment. He spent the rest of his reign giving the land back and endowing new churchs – but his lords did not follow his example. Robert was rubbish at controlling his lords, so those Lords took not just land but also rights and authority that more strictly belonged to the Duke.

During his rule for example, the Norman Barons took control of the position of vicomte, the equivalent of the English Sheriff. This meant that the Duke had little direct control in the administration or delivery of justice in lands not under his direct lordship. At the same time, his barons managed to make public offices hereditary, again reducing the Duke’s control and patronage.

The nobility’s freedom aided the process of feudalisation that had started with Richard Ist. Under Robert’s lax control, they were able to build castles for example, and warring between them encouraged them to build up their own armies and groups of men, and best organise their land to make this happen.

All of this was to leave massive problems for William. They also give the lie to the myth of Norman administrative efficiency. Whether a good or bad thing, the Anglo Saxon state was more centralised and efficient, and the King had more control over his barons than the Norman Dukes. The Normans themselves were clever enough to realise this when they arrived, and took care not to change anything in that department.

On the plus side, Robert continued the policy of supporting the King Of France. When Henry 1st’s brother rebelled against him, it was Robert’s aid that restored him to the throne. The debt of gratitude Henry owed him was to help William in the future. As a result, Robert was given a crucial parcel of territory called the Vexin. It’s worth again looking at the map on the website, because the Vexin will come up again and again over the next couple of centuries. This is because the Vexin is the key to attacking Normandy from Paris, since it is based around the Seine, upriver from the Norman capital Rouen.

Robert’s other claim to fame come through his son William, later to be called the Conqueror, but at the time known as William the Bastard. William was born in 1028, the son of Robert and Herleva, a skinner’s daughter from Falaise, and his illegitimacy was not to make William’s life any easier.

Back to the negative then; Robert also didn’t help his case by deciding to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem when William was only 8. He did his best to get things sorted before he left, getting all his barons, for example, to swear fealty to William. But all to no avail.

He clearly had a lot of fun on his holiday to Palestine, and by showering churches with gifts and his love of finery he acquired his other nickname, The Magnificant’ But he died, at the age of 35 on the return journey in 1035, and his death left William a whole load of problems.

Who knows whether a man’s character is set up a genetics of environment, but whatever the answer, if environment had an impact then William was going to be a hard, brutal, ambitions, ruthless, energetic warrior king.

The next 12 years were a constant struggle for survival. Predicatably, there were many people who wanted him dead – the Norman barons who wanted to control the regency, and external enemies such as Geoffrey of Anjou who wanted Normandy for themselves. The Various internal threats saw the death of three of William’s guardians. A plot in 1040 to kill William failed. But was Gilbert of Brionne, a son of Richard the Fearless, and one of William’s protectors was killed. As a result, William was forced to accept the regency of Ralph de Wacy, who was probably Gilbert’s killer. From 1042, at the age of 17, William was assuming personal control and enforcing his will on his Barons.

This struggle finally came to a head in 1046 and 1047. The leader of the rebel barons was one Guy of Burgundy, who believed he had a more legitimate claim to Normandy that William. In 1046 they organised an ambush in the Cotentin, but William escaped. Guy raised his standard in open revolt and raised an army of 25,000 men.

William rode to the King of France, Henry Ist. He asked for his protection, on the grounds that a revolt against his vassals was a revolt against the king himself. In an act that he was later to regret deeply Henry agreed with Wiliam and raised an army of 10,000. He marched into Normandy and met up with William’s smaller army at Caen. The battle of Val es dune was a series of skirmishes, which the rebels continuously lost against the better organised royal forces, and during which one of the leading rebel barons, Ralph of Tesson changed sides. Eventually the rebels broke and fled, but Guy of Burgundy himself held out in his castle
of Brionne in the east until 1050. Although in retrospect Val es Dune was a decisive moment in history, Guy’s continued resistance showed both the importance the castle assumes in military history.

During the next 20 years, William gradually rebuilt his position and authority. Essential to this was the continuing loyalty of his two half brothers, Robert of Mortain and Odo of Bayeux. Both would continue to be staunch supporters throughout his reign and Duke, in the invasion of England, and his reign as King. The Count of Mortain, attractively described as being of, and I quote, ‘a heavy and sluggish disposition’, came to prominence in 1049, as William got rid of the nobles who had overseen his minority. Odo, became the Bishop of Bayeux, and was again a close and trusted adviser. He would appear in a most unchristian pose wielding a club at the battle of Hastings, and remained close to William until late in his reign, when he finally blotted his copybook.

In 1051, William and his supporters turned their attention to a southern threat, that of Geoffry Martel of Anjou. Geoffry had attacked the county of Maine directly to the south of Normandy; William challenged Geoffry’s claim in the two crucial border castles of Alencon and Domfort, and while William besieged the castles, Geoffry backed off. As part of this campaign, a famous incident at the siege of Alencon illustrates William’s character. The inhabitants hung skins from the walls of the castle, taunting William’s illegitimacy. Sadly for them, William captured the castle and had the hands of the offending inhabitants cut off. Domfort surrendered without a fight.

In 1053 he strengthened his position when he married Matilda of Flanders. There is a mass of myth and legend associated with this marriage, certainly about the tender courtship. Both of them involve an initial refusal of the marriage by Matilda, followed by a bit of physical violence, followed by a change of mind.

But there are some rather more solid facts. First of all, the main reason for the marriage was probably political – no lord could afford to do anything as wasteful as marry for love. So Matilda was the daughter of the Count of Flanders, and the union therefore helped to remove the threat to his northern border and to gain a valuable ally.

Secondly, Matilda was a distant, 7th generation descendant of Alfred the Great. William already had a distant claim to the throne of England; his great Aunt was the infamous Emma of Normandy, mother of Edward the Confessor. But in a very – very – small way Matilda probably added to his legitimacy.

Whether there was in fact love involved is unknowable, but there were to be no illegitimate children, which is mildly surprising for the time. It’s also true that William went to considerable trouble to land the marriage. William and were 5th cousins – not unusual for noble marriages at the time, but Pope Leo IXth had a mind to cause trouble, to coerce the Normans into church reform – so he refused his assent.

William got married anyway. And a few years later was able to convince Leo’s successor to legitimise the marriage in return for 2 new Abbeys. Cheap at the price.

Matilda herself was a formidable person, and it does seem as though she and William made a good team. They shared the same hobbies and interests – as proved when Matilda fitted out a ship for his invasion of England. She was to be a Regent at time for William in England, and was to prove as adept as he at chucking Saxon Thegns off their land.

By this time, Henry Ist was beginning to realise that he’d helped create a monster, and had come to the conclusion that he should try to put this particular genie back in the bottle. It’s worth noting that Henry 1st wasn’t short on trouble; the lands of the Kings of France were at their smallest extent during his reign.

So Henry changed horses and teamed up with Geoffrey to remove the Norman wart. They invaded twice. The first time, in 1054, they appeared to drive all before them, became over confident and split their army. William’s allies fell on one half and defeated them heavily at the Battle of Mortemer, and Henry, preparing to fight William, was forced to run back over the border. The second attempt in 1057 was no more successful. Henry allowed half of his army to get cut off by the tide, and had to watch as it was cut to pieces by William.

By this stage, William was 30 and standing on a big reputation for military skill, courage and generally being a hard man who could survive against all odds. And 1060, things turned decisively in William’s favour, when both enemies, Henry and Geoffrey died. They were replaced by a weakling and a minor, and suddenly William had survived 15 years of constant struggle and could go on the offensive. In 1062 to seized the County of Maine, and in 1064, completed a successful campaign in Brittany – with the help incidentally of Harold Godwinsson. He was now fully in control of his borders and his own destiny.

It was around this time also that William began his long association with Lanfranc of Bec. Lanfranc was one of the greatest scholars and teachers of his age, and a leading thinker in the great theological debates of the age. He was responsible for bringing another leading thinker, Anselm, to the Monastery of Bec, considerably adding to Norman prestige and reputation. He had reputedly though unprovably also been involved in convincing the Pope to allow William’s marriage to Matilda, but whether or not this is true he certainly became a close adviser and supporter to William, and was a zealous reformer of the Norman church. Helpfully to William, he also had no trouble with the concept of being appointed to his office by a lay lord. This was to become an issue throughout Europe between the Pope and Kings – and one William would have been grateful to avoid.

The period also saw the growth of Rouen as a trade centre and the consequential growth of ducal revenues.

Through this period, William was also able to regain some, though not all, of the ground that had been lost by his father, and establish more authority over his barons. 4 Norman families had taken the title of count, implying also independent powers – William was able to suppress two of these. He did his best to control the barons’ castle building and to wrest back some of the public powers the Barons had appropriated.

William also established his own centre of administration. All medieval governments had to wander around their state rather than establish a big centre of government as we are used to today. This was because communication is so slow, and due to the problems of feeding a large organisation sat in one place. William was no different, but he created a centre for his family at Caen, including a castle, 2 monasteries and a market.

By 1066, William’s powers and administration in Normandy were not unlike those of the English King. There were differences; the Norman Duke was not used to issuing legislation for example – that was the preserve of a king. He had not developed a chancery or started the practice of issuing writs. But basically they were very similar.

All of which meant that by 1064 William was in a good position to invade England. His frontiers were secure, his enemies weak, he had forged his skills in war over 15 years of struggle. His only real problem were the fractiousness of his lords – but he was about to bribe all of them with the prize of wealth beyond their dreams in England, so that’s OK then.

Thanks for listening, have a great week, and I’ll see you next week when we will finally get to that iconic, and by now in my mind slightly scary story of 1066 when all of this comes together in one year of drama, incident and consequence.




8 thoughts on “21 The Normans – a race unbridled

  1. ‘The History of England’
    Robert the Devil (1027-1035)
    Hi David,
    I do like the way you have put all this together but I do have a question for you to answer and to my mind a very important question.
    It is concerning the payment to Duke Robert 1st of the county of Vexin (French) for services rendered to Henry who then became King Henry 1st of France.WHAT KIND OF SERVICE DID ROBERT RENDER TO HENRY OF FRANCE?
    This service must have been heavy deed, possibly murder as the French Vexin was an extremely important piece of real-estate with it’s borders only 50 miles from Paris!!!
    Then later, Robert treks off to Jerusalem to (possibly) expurgate his great sin?
    I really would like your take on this.

  2. I think the services rendered were clear enough – and from Henry’s point of view more than warranted the Vexin – though as you say this was a major concession. The kings of France were to spend the next 250 years regretting it! So Henry 1st of France was exiled by his stepmother in 1033 in a palace coup. It took Robert and his Norman army and an invasion to get him back on the throne – and the price of the deal was the Vexin.
    the pilgrimage could really have been piety. But there are a couple of other possible reasons; firstly, he!d been excommunicated by the Pope; folk in the middle ages were religious, maybe he regretted it in later life, maybe it was the Pope’s price. Or, maybe Robert really did kill his brother Richard by poison – that being the gossip of the time. That could be a good reason for a pilgrimmage. Though I guess we’ never know for sure…

  3. Hi David,
    I was just re-treading old ground and came across your, straight to the point answers. I can’t thank you enough.
    Another historian who had a tremendous facility to communicate medieval history, unfortunately passed away a few years ago was, Frank Barlow.
    The original reason for my wanting that early Norman info, was for some background history for my novel, ‘BELL

  4. G’day David,
    As a ‘Ten pound Pom’ who came to Australia from near Chichester in 1954 aged seven, I’ve always had an interest and soft spot for the Motherland and its history, despite now being a True Blue Aussie.
    So I was delighted to discover recently (thanks to a mention on the ‘Space Rocket History’ website) your website and fascinating podcasts.
    I’m working my way forward from the earlier podcasts and enjoying them and learning from them.
    Keep up the good work and thank you for your dedication.
    Rob Coates
    Perth, Western Australia

  5. Looking at the family trees, it looks to me the Norman connection for the English started with Emma of Normandy. She is the key figure by the looks of it. She was married to Aethelred (Anglo-Saxon) then Richard the fearless (Normandy). Who is she?

    Or is it all just luck as all of them were just trying to strengthen their alliances for survival or conquest.

    I guess Emma isn’t the first, before her there was also Judith of Flanders second wife of Aethelwulf.

    By the way, fascinating stuff, thank you. However as others commented you are going too fast, especially with unfamiliar names and regions etc.; it’s hard to take it in without having to see the maps and family tree and Dona bit of reading before the potcasts.

    1. Hi Simon – different Emmas I think., Emma of Normandy is a fascinating person; married to Aetheled and then to Cnut, leaving her sons by Aethelred in Normandy and one of them returned to be blinded probably by her son Harthacnut. And yes, there are connections well back to Judith, but William really had no claim.
      You are right I was way, way too fast. Eventually I got the message; but it takes a while. Listen to the Richard I episodes – quite desperately fast!

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