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Rollo the Viking: The Life and Legacy of the Viking Ruler Who Conquered Normandy by Charles River Editors
Rollo the Viking: The Life and Legacy of the Viking Ruler Who Conquered Normandy by Charles River Editors

The Viking Legacy of Rollo

Rollo – The Viking Warrior Who Founded Normandy

Rollo, also known as Hrólfr in Old Norse, Rou or Rolloun in Norman and Rollon in French, was a Viking warrior who emerged as the foremost leader of the Norsemen who had established a permanent settlement in the valley of the lower Seine.

The Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

Following the Siege of Chartres in 911, Charles the Simple, the king of West Francia, granted lands between the mouth of the Seine and Rouen to Rollo and his men. In exchange, Rollo agreed to end his brigandage, convert to Christianity, swear allegiance to Charles, and defend the Seine’s estuary from Viking raiders.

The First Ruler of Normandy

Rollo’s name first appears in historical records in a charter of 918 as the leader of the Viking settlers who had made the lands between the Seine and Rouen their home. He went on to become the first ruler of Normandy, a region that still exists in northern France today. He held this position until at least 928 and was succeeded by his son, William Longsword.

The Legacy of the Normans

The offspring of Rollo and his followers, who had intermixed with the indigenous Frankish and Gallo-Roman population, became known as the “Normans”. Over the following centuries, the Normans would conquer England and parts of southern Italy and Sicily, leaving behind an enduring legacy that would shape the histories of Europe and the Near East.

Rollo – A Leader Among the Vikings

Rollo’s leadership skills, military prowess, and ability to establish a lasting settlement in Normandy earned him a place in history as one of the great Viking leaders of his time. His legacy would continue long after his death, as his descendants went on to shape the course of history in significant ways.

Rollo's Name and Origins

The Normans A History of Conquest by Trevor Rowley
The Normans A History of Conquest by Trevor Rowley

According to the Heimskringla, a 13th-century Icelandic saga, Rolf the Ganger went to Normandy and became its ruler. It is widely believed that Rollo is a Latinized form of the Old Norse name Hrólfr, a theory supported by Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, which renders Hrólfr as Roluo. However, some experts suggest that Rollo may also be a Latinized version of the Norse name Hrollaugr.

Rollo’s Baptismal Name

In the 10th century, the French historian Dudo recorded that Rollo adopted the baptismal name Robert. This suggests that Rollo had converted to Christianity, which was not uncommon for Vikings who settled in France.

Rollo’s Legacy in Literature

The Norman French verse chronicle Roman de Rou, commissioned by King Henry II of England, contains a variant spelling of Rollo’s name: Rou. The chronicle was compiled by Wace, who was also a descendant of Rollo. The Roman de Rou details the history of the Norman dukes and their conquests, including Rollo’s legacy as the first Duke of Normandy.

Rollo: A Viking Leader of Uncertain Origins

Rollo as depicted in the 13th century

Rollo as depicted in the 13th century

Rollo was a prominent Viking leader who played a significant role in history, but his origins remain uncertain. Though there is some evidence about his family and place of birth, historical sources are often contradictory.

Birth and Origin

While Rollo’s exact birth date is not known, it is believed that he was born in the mid-9th century, in Scandinavia. However, there is much debate about whether he was of Danish or Norwegian descent, as early sources are inconsistent. In the Medieval Latin texts, terms such as “Vikings,” “Northmen,” “Swedes,” “Danes,” and “Norwegians” were used interchangeably, causing confusion.

Family Background

According to Dudo of Saint-Quentin, a cleric who wrote about Rollo’s life in the late 10th century, Rollo’s family was originally from Dacia, a blend of the Latin words for Denmark and Sweden. Dudo claimed that Rollo’s father, an unnamed Danish nobleman, and Rollo’s brother Gurim were killed by an unnamed king of Denmark. Following these events, Rollo was forced to flee Denmark. However, it is worth noting that Dudo’s work was commissioned by Rollo’s grandson, Richard I of Normandy, and may be biased.

Other sources suggest that Rollo was born in a town called “Fasge.” However, whether this refers to Faxe in Denmark, Fauske in Norway, or another settlement that no longer exists is unclear. Benoît, the chronicler who wrote about Rollo’s life in the mid-12th century, also claimed that Rollo fled to “Scanza island,” which likely refers to Scania in Sweden.

Historical Activity

The earliest recorded historical event associated with Rollo is his involvement in leading the Vikings who besieged Paris in 885-886. Despite their efforts, they were ultimately defeated by Odo of France. Rollo went on to become the first ruler of Normandy, a region that he and his followers seized from the Frankish king, Charles III.

Potential Kinship with Ketill Flatnose

Evidence suggests that Rollo may have been related to Ketill Flatnose, a Norse king who ruled over the Isles of Scotland. Both Rollo and Ketill had family members with similar names, and Rollo may have visited Scotland during his lifetime. However, the extent of their kinship remains unknown.

Rollo was a significant historical figure whose origins are still shrouded in mystery. While there is some evidence about his life, the contradictory historical sources make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about his birthplace and family background. Nevertheless, Rollo’s role in leading the Vikings who besieged Paris and establishing Normandy as a region continues to capture the imagination of historians and the general public alike.

Rollo's Biography

Poppa of Bayeux's statue, Place de Gaulle, Bayeux

Poppa of Bayeux’s statue, Place de Gaulle, Bayeux

Rollo’s Conquest of Rouen and Coastal Provinces

Dudo’s account of Rollo seizing Rouen in 876 is corroborated by Flodoard. Robert of the Breton March waged a campaign against the Vikings but ultimately conceded certain coastal provinces to them.

Rollo’s Friendship with a King in England

Dudo claimed that Rollo befriended a king in England called Alstem, which has puzzled many historians. However, recent scholarship suggests that Alstem is actually Guthrum, the Danish leader who was baptized by Alfred the Great and recognized as king of the East Angles in 880.

Rollo’s Relationship with Popa

Dudo recorded that Rollo, after forcefully taking control of Bayeux, married Popa, a daughter of Count Berenger of Rennes, and she gave birth to his son and heir, William Longsword. However, Popa’s parentage is uncertain and may have been invented to legitimize her son’s lineage, as Dudo’s chronicle is known for making fantastical genealogical claims.

14th century depiction of the marriage of Rollo and Gisela

14th century depiction of the marriage of Rollo and Gisela

The Viking Warlord Rollo’s Settlement in Normandy

There are few records of Rollo, but in 911, Robert I of France defeated another band of Viking warriors, which paved the way for Rollo’s baptism and settlement in Normandy. Rollo agreed to be baptized and defend the realm in return for formal recognition of the lands he possessed. The seal of the agreement was a marriage between Rollo and Gisela, Charles’s daughter. The earliest record of Rollo is from 918, in a charter of Charles III, which referred to him and his associates for the protection of the kingdom.

Rollo’s Pledge of Fealty

Dudo narrates a humorous story not repeated in other primary sources about Rollo’s pledge of fealty to Charles III as part of the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. The attendant bishops urged Rollo to kiss the king’s foot to prove his allegiance. Rollo refused, saying “I will never bow my knees at the knees of any man, and no man’s foot will I kiss.” Instead, Rollo commanded one of his warriors to kiss the king’s foot. The warrior complied by raising the king’s foot to his mouth while the king remained standing, which “caused the king to topple backward.

On taking his oath of fealty, Rollo divided the lands between the rivers Epte and Risle among his chieftains and settled in the de facto capital Rouen. It was agreed that it was in the interest of both Rollo and his Frankish allies to extend his authority over Viking settlers.

Rollo’s Legacy

Rollo died sometime between a final mention of him by Flodoard in 928 and 933, the year in which a third grant of land was given to his son and successor William. The land was usually identified as being the Cotentin and Avranchin areas.

Rollo's Legacy in Normandy and England

Rollo, the Viking warrior and conqueror, left a lasting mark on history through his descendants. His son, William Longsword, and grandchild, Richard the Fearless, transformed Normandy into a powerful principality, assimilating with French-Catholic culture and creating a new people known as the Normans. The House of Normandy, which Rollo founded, produced William the Conqueror, who went on to become the progenitor of the Norman dynasty in England.

Genetic Investigation of Rollo’s Descendants

In 2011, a genetic investigation was launched to trace the origins of the historic Viking leader through the remains of his descendants. Researchers opened the tombs of Richard the Fearless and Richard the Good, Rollo’s grandson and great-grandson, respectively. However, the skeletal remains in both graves significantly predated Rollo, disproving any direct relation. Nonetheless, the Norman dynasty continued to influence history through its legacy in England.

Rollo’s Legacy

Following Rollo’s death, his descendants carried on his legacy, ruling over Normandy for centuries until the eventual collapse of the French monarchy. Through various lineages, most of the Capetian kings traced their ancestry back to Rollo, cementing his influence in the history of France.

Reconquering Normandy

Henry V, one of Rollo’s descendants through John Lackland, would go on to conquer Normandy as part of his campaign to conquer France. However, the region was later lost again during the reign of his son, Henry VI. Despite facing numerous challenges, Rollo’s dynasty persevered, using a combination of ruthless military tactics and the infighting of the Frankish aristocracy to maintain their power. This strategy left their opponents weakened and unable to combat the growing determination of the Rouen Vikings to remain in power.

Featured Image

Effigy of Rollo of Normandy, Notre-Dame de Rouen

Effigy of Rollo of Normandy, Notre-Dame de Rouen

Rollo, the Viking warrior who became the first ruler of Normandy, passed away in the year 932. He was buried in a now-lost location that was likely a place of great significance to him, possibly in the vicinity of his capital city, Rouen.

Later, a tomb was built in the Cathedral of Rouen to honor Rollo, and it became a place of pilgrimage for centuries. However, the exact location of Rollo’s remains remained a mystery for many years, with some historians speculating that they had been moved or even destroyed during the tumultuous events of the French Revolution.

In 2005, a team of archaeologists carried out a study to try and locate Rollo’s remains. They identified a tomb in the cathedral that was consistent with the historical records of Rollo’s resting place, and a small sample was taken for analysis.

The analysis confirmed that the remains were consistent with the period in which Rollo lived, and they were also of a man of advanced age, which fits with what is known about Rollo’s lifespan. While it cannot be said with absolute certainty that these are Rollo’s remains, the evidence strongly suggests that they are.

Today, visitors to the Cathedral of Rouen can see the tomb that is believed to contain the remains of Rollo. It is a testament to the enduring legacy of this remarkable figure, whose influence on the history of France and beyond is still felt to this day.

Sources

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, April 12). Rollo. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollo

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, March 17). Gisela of France. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gisela_of_France

  • The Routledge companion to medieval warfare : Bradbury, Jim : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. (2013). Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/routledgecompani00brad_406

  • Turnbow, T. (2013, March 18). Reflections of a Viking by Clive Standen. HuffPost; HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/vikings-history-channel_b_2892766

  • Turnbow, T. (2013, March 18). Reflections of a Viking by Clive Standen. HuffPost; HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/vikings-history-channel_b_2892766

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