Rollo of Normandy, from Viking Raider to Lord

in Sep 10, 2021

Rollo (l. c.860-c.930 CE, r. 911-927 CE) has been featured in the TV series Vikings in which he is played by British actor Clive Standen. While there absolutely is no evidence to suggest that Rollo was the brother of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, there are several evidences strongly suggesting that he did participate in, or even lead, the siege of Paris in 885-886 CE as depicted in the show.

 British actor Clive Standen playing Rollo on Vikings

Also known to his biographers, chroniclers, and poets as Rollon, Robert, Rodulf, Ruinus, Rosso, Rotlo and Hrolf, Granger Rolf or Rolf the Walker, many of the details of Rollo of Normandy's life are semi-legendary.

Most historians agree that the Viking Siege of Paris, in 911 was led by Rollo, who also besieged the city of Chartres. He might have the Fires of Muspelheim themselves with him, for after a fierce battle near Chartres on 26 August that ended on a stalemate, king Charles the Simple (the king of West Francia from 898 until 922 and the king of Lotharingia from 911 until 919–923) decided to negotiate with Rollo, resulting in the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte which created the Duchy of Normandy, with Rollo as its ruler.

Whoever or whatever he was prior to ruling Normandy, Rollo kept his word to Charles and not only protected the region from other Viking raiders but restored order to the land which he had previously helped destroy like a chosen of Odin himself. He is said to have ruled with a Viking code of law based upon the concept of personal honor and individual responsibility and reformed the weak and ineffectual laws which magistrates had been struggling to enforce prior to his reign. He died sometime around 930 CE, probably of natural causes as no mention of his death appears in any records of the time indicating otherwise.

Rollo is also said to have been quite tall and broad-shouldered and was given the epithet “the walker” because he preferred walking to riding a horse (or, alternatively, was too big for a horse to carry).

Statue of Rollo in Ålesund, Norway

No one knows where Rollo came from, his lineage, or what precisely he did prior to his involvement with Charles the Simple. Even after the foundation of Normandy his story is far from certain in that it was ornamented by the Norman historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin (10th century CE) some time around 986 CE in his book “History of the Normans”.

As with many great Viking figures, the legend of Rollo of Normandy eventually overshadowed and then obscured the man's actual life.

One of the few certainties is that he was a Viking chieftain who conducted raids in the Kingdom of West Francia.

Raids in the country of Francia were a very lucrative and profitable, and several incursions were being regularly made before Rollo ascended to lordship over Normandy.

The first raid in Francia took place in 820 CE, 90 years before the siege of Paris led by Rollo. It was unsuccessful, but only because the Vikings had no idea of who or what they would encounter once they landed. They were therefore easily defeated by the shore guard and, suffering losses, retreated. When they returned in 841 CE, under the command of Asgeir, they were much better prepared. They sacked and burned Rouen and carried off enormous amounts of loot. This raid was followed by the Norse chieftain Reginherus' 845 CE siege of Paris which only concluded when king Charles the Bald paid the Vikings to leave.

By c.858 CE, the raids on Francia were so lucrative to the Vikings that the famous leaders Bjorn Ironside (allegedly the son of Ragnar Lothbrok and his queen Aslaug) and Hastein (also known as Hasting) attacked the region either just before or following their famous raiding expedition to the Mediterranean. In 876 CE, 100 ships sailed up the Seine to lay waste to the region and this raid was most likely led or co-led by Rollo or, if not, he at least seems to have played a significant role in the event. It also seems fairly certain that he played a significant role in the later siege of Paris in 885-886 CE.

 Count Odo defends Paris against the Norsemen, romantic painting by Jean-Victor Schnetz (1837)

By this time, it was obvious to Charles the Simple that trying to fight off the Viking raiders was futile. The only times West Francia experienced anything close to a positive outcome in these raids was when the king paid the Vikings to leave the cities alone. For king Charles, the possibility of “hiring” a Viking chieftain to defend against other Viking incursions was then a logical one, a continuation of a policy of defense which seemed to work the best. The difference between the contract of 911 CE and the earlier payoffs was the character of Rollo. Unlike the earlier Viking leaders who took their loot and then either returned or encouraged others to raid, Rollo took the deal offered seriously and committed himself to the king and the people he had sworn to protect.

Statue of Rollo of Normandy, Falaise

But what manner of madness would have to take hold of a king for him to simply give away a – very – large tract of land to an invader?

Needless to say, the constant Viking incursions and subsequent bribery for them to leave were not sitting well with the people of Francia, leaving king Charles in a very precarious political position during the siege of Paris of 911.

The king's counselors asked him why he was not prepared to do more to save his kingdom than he had been doing and he, enraged, basically told them that if they had any better ideas he would be happy to entertain them. The counselors responded:

If you will trust us, we will give you advice fitting and wholesome for you and for the kingdom, so that the people, who are all too stricken with want, may have repose. Let the land from the River Andelle to the sea be given to the pagan peoples; and in addition, join your daughter to Rollo in marriage. And thereby you will be able to grow mightily in power against the peoples who resist you; for Rollo is born of the proud blood of kings and of chiefs; he is very fair of body, a ready fighter, far-sighted in counsel, seemly in appearance, amenable to us, a faithful friend to those to whom he gives his word, a ferocious enemy to those whom he opposes, a constant and amenable vassal in all things, with a shrewd mind, such as we need.”

After considering their counsel, Charles sent the Archbishop of Rouen to Rollo to present the offer. Rollo consulted with his Danish chiefs who pointed out that the land, though presently desolate, had a number of redeeming features and that he should accept the proposal.

Charles III of France, also known as Charles the Simple

Rollo did so and a date was set for his baptism and marriage to Charles' daughter Gisla (also given as Gisela, c. 911 CE). When the day arrived, however, Rollo refused to go through with the baptism, pointing out that the land the king was offering him was in ruin and would take some years to restore to health. The king's counselors advised him to give Rollo whatever he wanted in order to not only protect the kingdom but win souls for Christ who would be impressed by a Viking leader embracing Christianity.

Charles offered Rollo Flanders but Rollo declined because the land was too marshy and so the king then offered him Brittany, which bordered the lands offered in the contract, and Rollo accepted all of it. In order to finalize the deal, and show proper respect to the king, Rollo was then asked to kiss the king's foot but.

That was not going to happen.

Rollo said: “I will never bow my knees at the knees of any man and no man's foot will I kiss.” And so he ordered one of his warriors to kiss the king's foot (but no bending of knee). The man immediately grasped the king's foot and raised it to his mouth and planted a kiss on it while he remained standing, and laid the king flat on his back.

The king was humiliated, but feigned well and pretended not to be upset. Rollo was then baptized, married to Gisla, and took possession of his lands in accordance with the Treaty of Saint Clair sur Epte in 911 CE.

As soon as he took possession of his lands, he instantly engaged in a policy of reformation and renovation, creating laws and he compelling his men and the local inhabitants of his new land to dwell together in peace. He raised up churches that had been demolished to the ground and creating new and extended walls and defenses of cities.

Rollo improved the lands he had been given in every aspect but, just as significantly, honored the treaty he had made with Charles: there are no records of any more Viking raids into Francia after 911 CE.

Rollo of Normandy

Although Rollo is often referenced as the first Duke of Normandy, he never held that title (Richard II, his great-grandson, was the first duke). He is sometimes called Count Rollo by later historians but contemporary documents refer to him simply as “Rollo”. A land grant from 918 CE, for example, mentions “lands which we have granted to the Normans of the Seine, namely to Rollo and his companions, for the defense of the kingdom”. Whatever title he claimed for himself is unknown but early historians refer to him as “Chieftain”.

By all accounts, he ruled his kingdom as a Viking chief, reforming practices and implementing a law code which emphasized personal honor and responsibility. Robbery, assault, and murder were punishable by death but so was fraud as one anecdote makes clear:

Rollo had introduced a decree ordering that farm implements be left out in the field and not taken into the house at the end of the day. To make it appear as though they had done so and been robbed, it seems that a farmer's wife hid her husband's ploughing implements. Rollo reimbursed the man for his loss and ordered the trials by ordeal of the potential suspects. When all survived the ordeals, he had the wife beaten until she confessed. And when the husband admitted that he had known it was her all along, Rollo handed down a finding of guilty on two counts: “The one, that you are the head of the woman and ought to have chastised her. The other, that you were an accessory to the theft and were unwilling to disclose it.” He had them both hung and finished off by a cruel death, an action which so terrified the local inhabitants that the territory became and remained free of petty criminality for a century afterwards.

In another instance, he punished some men who were guilty of dishonoring his reputation and that of his wife by having them executed in the public square of his capital at Rouen. This discouraged others from bearing false witness against their neighbors through gossip and slander.

His methods were harsh, but none could argue with his success in maintaining law and order or the prosperity he brought to the land and, more importantly, he was loyal to his land and his subjects, and always protected them.

Rollo had a powerful progeny, being the great-great-great grandfather of William the Conqueror (first Norman King of England, 1066-1087 CE) and ancestor, or supposed ancestor, of a number of European monarchs who trace their line to his immediate descendants.

William the Conqueror statue in Hastings

Rollo retired in c. 927 CE and was succeeded by his son William Longsword (r. 927-942 CE), dying shortly afterwards in c. 930 CE. William Longsword's illegitimate son, Richard I (also known as Richard the Fearless) came to the throne at around the age of ten, following his father's death. Richard I honored the policies of his father and grandfather and this policy would be continued by Richard II.

The reigns of his successors, Richard III (1026-1027 CE) and Robert I (1027-1035 CE) were marked by instability and civil war which ended with the reign of William I (William the Conqueror), who was Duke of Normandy 1035-1087 CE as well as King of England from 1066-1087 CE. William's conquest of England radically changed not only British society but European culture overall and his polices echo those implemented earlier by Rollo of Normandy.


Rollo's grave at the Cathedral of Rouen



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