William the Conqueror is a name synonymous with English history. His victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is a date etched into the English conscience from early school days. The Norman Duke became the English King William I, but was he actually a Viking?
No, William the Conqueror was a Norman. However, Normans are descendants of the Vikings, who began to settle in what is now Normandy during the ninth century. While William the Conqueror was a Norman Duke, he was the great, great, great-grandson of a Viking leader called Rollo.
There are too many greats before the word grandson to claim William the Conqueror as a Viking rather than a Norman descended from Vikings. In this article, I will look at how the Vikings came to be Normans, the role of Rollo, and the subsequent rise of William, Duke of Normandy to King William I.
The History Of The Vikings In The Centuries Before William The Conqueror’s Birth
The popular perception of the Vikings is of a terrifying tribe pillaging their way around the coastal regions of Europe. While there is a good element of truth to this, the Vikings were also master boat builders, traders, and farmers.
The Vikings are also referred to as Norsemen, meaning men from the North.
They were bands of seafaring warriors originating from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. They were not one tribal group but came from various ancestral lines across Scandinavia.
The common ground was they had the skills to build the longboats that carried them to new lands.
From the late 8th century these raiders from the north began to carry out hit-and-run raids.
The most famous of these was on the island of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England in 793 AD.
Here they ransacked the monastery and killed some of the monks, a tactic which was to become a bit of a Viking trait.
The French coast did not escape Viking attention. By 820 AD, the Norsemen’s incursions were gathering pace along the lower Seine. At this time, France was in the midst of a civil war and overall authority in some areas was in short supply. The Vikings saw an opening and took full advantage.
Viking Settlers in France In The 9th Century
The raids in France picked up in frequency and intensity. The lure of better agricultural land was strong. Their campaign was not a pretty one. Monasteries were destroyed, monks killed, and markets and towns plundered. It was a campaign of terror.
Up to 814 AD, the Frankish leader Charlemagne’s military campaigns brought about a semblance of order in large swathes of Europe. He headed the Carolingian Empire which covered much of modern-day France, Germany, and Italy as well as some neighboring territories.
It was after Charlemagne’s death in 814 AD that the unity he had built began to crumble.
Frankish tradition saw the lands of the empire split between surviving sons. First, this was Charlemagne’s only surviving son, Louis the Pious. However, he had three sons, with whom the empire was divided on his death in 840 AD.
The bickering that followed led to civil war within the Carolingian empire. This proved prime pickings for the Vikings, who stepped up their raids into France.
From a few raiding Viking ships, hundreds were now landing on the French coast.
The newcomers started to set up semi-permanent camps and villages rather than return home with their pickings. The warring Carolingian sons were too weak to fight the Vikings.
They needed to do something to bring about peace and prevent incursions further inland from the Norsemen.
Rollo, the First Ruler of Normandy – William The Conqueror’s Great-Great-Great-Grandfather
Rollo was a Viking leader who came to prominence in northwest France in the latter part of the ninth century. He was fierce and highly successful.
A tall figure for the times, it was said he was called Rollo the Walker as it was hard to find a horse suitable for him to ride. However, it is best to take such anecdotes with a considerably large pinch of salt.
What we do know was Rollo became the first ruler of Normandy, a name derived from the Norse Men.
Inhabitants would become known as Normans, the most famous one being William the Conqueror. Rollo was the great, great, great grandfather of William the Conqueror
For a good simple overview of Rollo’s life, I found an excellent Youtube video on the See U In History channel that you can see here :
Rollo – A Fearsome Viking Leader
By the time Rollo arrived on the scene, the Vikings had already made their presence known.
They raided and ransacked Rouen in 841 AD, before turning their attention to Paris in 845 AD.
Although they did not take Paris this time around, it was only due to being paid off by the Frankish king, Charles the Bald (source).
Rouen was again the center of attention forty years later. Rollo had come to France around 878 AD and became the leader of the Viking settlers, and he chose Rouen as his capital.
In 885 AD, the Vikings led by Rollo were back at the walls of Paris.
Rollo oversaw a siege of Paris which lasted for the best part of a year. The city’s defenders were resolute and the Viking force was unable to take Paris. However, they only left after being paid off by the Frankish king, Charles the Fat, who had brought an army up to relieve Paris.
The Parisians had held steadfast under attack. They were not best pleased to see their king pay off their besiegers rather than engage them in battle.
Of course, the Vikings did not go away completely and continued to raid and pillage along the waterways of France. It was becoming increasingly clear that these ferocious warriors were putting down roots and were here to stay.
The Siege of Chartres
Rollo kept up his campaign in France for the next two decades. He was taking advantage of the division in the leadership of the Carolingian empire and the internal squabbles it had created.
By 911 AD, Charles the Simple was in charge of the area largely covering modern-day France.
The tag ‘simple’ was more to do with his open, straightforward approach to issues and their solution. It was not a slight on a leader who was pragmatic and insightful. However, there will be those who deem these qualities as weak in a leader facing an opponent as fierce as Rollo,
Rollo’s besieging days were not over. In 911 AD, it was the turn of the city of Chartres.
The poor folk of Chartres had seen their city burned by Vikings in the middle of the previous century. They must have feared the same fate for their rebuilt city.
Chartres was saved by the arrival of a force of West Frankish cavalry who forced the Vikings into retreat. However, Charles the Simple saw the current state of conflict with the Vikings as unsustainable.
He also did not feel he could defeat them. There was only one other option left. It was time to talk.
The Vikings of Normandy – 10th Century
In 911 AD Charles the Simple, or Charles III to give him his proper title, and Rollo agreed to a deal.
The Vikings would receive land so long as they stopped their raids on the rest of Charles’ domain. The agreement between the two leaders formed the Treaty of Saint Clair sur Epte. Normandy was born, with Rollo its first ruler.
In truth, some of the land conceded in the treaty by Charles was pretty much under Viking rule already. However, Rollo had now established an independent Viking territory in the northwest of France.
As the years rolled by and the Vikings became more integrated with the locals, the Viking culture morphed into Norman culture.
The merging of Viking and French cultures was kick-started by Rollo marrying Gisela, the daughter of Charles the Simple. Another important element of the treaty was Rollo’s conversion to Christianity.
The Viking raiders had always been viewed as barbarians. The fact they targeted monasteries during their raids helped solidify this view. When Rollo accepted Christianity, monasteries, monks, and bishops around France must have let out a huge sigh of relief.
Yet, that was not all that Rollo agreed with as his side of this unique treaty. He also agreed to send men to Charles’ aid when threatened by outside forces.
However, Rollo was happy to accept this for the security of the land. He began to rebuild the communities his Viking raiders had previously razed.
The following clip from the excellent BBC series ‘The Normans’ describes the treaty that created Normandy.
The Descendants Of Rollo Up The William The Conqueror
Rollo stayed true to the treaty and there were no more raids on West Francia, the region ruled by Charles the Simple. Viewers of the Netflix show ‘Vikings’ will already be fully aware of the name Rollo, a fan’s favorite on the ‘historical’ drama.
Rollo ruled Normandy until 927 AD and was succeeded by his son, William Longsword.
Gradually the new Normans integrated more into the Frankish culture around them. For the first time in a long while, peace and stability reigned over the region.
However, by the time William, Duke of Normandy took charge, instability and civil war had returned. He became Duke at the tender age of 8. No innocent childhood for William.
He was the illegitimate son of the former Duke Robert I, and was often referred to as William the Bastard.
The following table lists the leaders of Normandy from Rollo through to William the Conqueror.
|Dates of Reign
|Rollo the Walker
|911 AD to 928 AD
|928 AD to 942 AD
|Richard the Fearless
|942 AD to 996 AD
|Richard the Good
|996 AD to 1026 AD
|1026 AD to 1027 AD
|Robert the Devil
|1027 AD to 1035 AD
|William the Conqueror
|1035 AD to 1087 AD
Something in the Genes
William, Duke of Normandy, was the great, great, great-grandson of Rollo, the first ruler of Normandy. Like Rollo, William was a fierce warrior. When he inherited Normandy he had to deal with his feuding barons.
With the help of French King Henry I, William overcame opposition in order to retain his title.
William continued to face threats both internal and external. However, by 1064 AD he was the most powerful leader in the north of France having taken neighboring Maine. This capture was important as it created breathing space between Normandy and Anjou ahead of his next conquest.
King William I
William added king of England to his titles following his defeat of Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Yet there is no doubt that William’s was a Norman invasion, not a Viking one. And as with most invasions, the local population was none too welcoming.
The Norman castle-building program is a visual legacy of William’s way of deterring any rebellion against Norman rule. His campaign was one of attrition, severely punishing villages and towns that did not bow to Norman ways.
However, one threat he faced was very close to home. Britain was still experiencing Viking raids. William’s ancestor Rollo knew all too well about how rebellion and stability in a country can be used to the advantage of overseas raiders.
Now, William, Rollo’s own flesh and blood, was on the receiving end. William used an old Carolingian tactic and paid them off.
William The Conqueror – A Norman with a Viking Heritage
The Duke of Normandy’s conquest is famously celebrated in the Bayeux tapestry. This stunning piece of art was most likely commissioned by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo.
It is a treasure trove for historians, depicting intricate details about civil and military life in 11th–century Normandy.
Among the detail are symbolic references to the Norman’s Viking heritage (source). The tapestry has ships depicting Viking longboats heading toward the English coast. Boat figureheads of bulls and dragons reinforce the Viking influence.
It is therefore understandable that William the Conqueror is sometimes looked at as a Viking. However, two centuries had passed since the Vikings first raided France and William set sail for Hastings.
In the meantime, Normandy was created, two hundred years of integration had occurred and the pagan Vikings of northwest France had become the Christian Normans of Normandy.