The Dramatic History of the Normans: A Tale of Medieval Conquest
History is full of stories that will grip you like a modern page-turner novel, but only a few can do it as easily as the tale of the Normans. Proud and fearsome, these Viking descendants were key players in tailoring the socio-political picture of Europe for much of the high Middle Ages. What follows is a history full of intrigue and characterized by the Norman conquests and military prowess that swept through Europe like a whirlwind, leaving a mark for centuries to come.
The thing that gives this account its unmistakable flair is the unique and inspiring identity of the Normans. Combining the ferocity and the conquering spirit of their Viking heritage with established, carefully developed laws and customs of medieval Western Europe, the Normans were set upon a path that would make their name etched in the foundations of European history.
Page from "History of the Normans," by Dudo of Saint-Quentin. (Public Domain)
The Early History: Viking Settlement in France and the Birth of the Normans
During the 10th century, the raids of the Vikings were penetrating deeper and deeper into Europe and the originally destructive nature of these incursions slowly gave way to settlement. The Kingdom of West Francia, seeking to put an end to the violent raids of the Norsemen, decided to strike a deal with those Vikings, whose encampments in the north of France increasingly resembled permanent settlements. And so, in the year 911 AD the ruler of West Francia, Charles III the Simple, created the Duchy of Normandy - a fief which he granted to the prominent Viking leader Gaange Rolf, later known as Rollo.
This duchy, established in the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, comprised a string of land on the French coastline along the English Channel, much of which had a considerable Norseman population. In exchange, Rollo had to vow to protect the Kingdom of West Francia against future raids of his kinsmen, the Vikings, as well as adopt Christianity and become a vassal of King Charles III.
And thus, Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy and Count of the town of Rouen. This calculated act by King Charles III finally accepted the settlement of the Norsemen, which began as early as 841 AD, and secured his kingdom from the constantly looming threat of Norse invasions.
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In the decades that followed, the creation of the Duchy of Normandy - whose name itself is derived from French Normand - Norsemen - expanded and the Vikings quickly became assimilated. The Old Norse paganism was gradually replaced by Christianity and their language and customs exchanged and fused with those of the Franks. It was this fusion and assimilation that gave birth to a unique Norman identity which was reflected in architecture, warfare, politics, and language - a testament to the unique bond between two powerful cultures.
Victorian interpretation of the Normans' national dress, 1000–1100. (Public Domain)
A Start of Something Great: The Gaange Rolf
The Icelandic sagas mention a particularly notorious Viking – one called Göngu-Hrólfr. Translated as Hrólfr the Walker, this man was said to have an imposingly large stature – and was unable to ride a horse because of his size, thus gaining the nickname Walker. Whatever the case, this Hrólfr, later known in its Latinized form as Rollo, successfully exerted his influence in Viking society, managing to secure a foothold in the Frankish lands by seizing Rouen in 876 AD and plundering Bayeux between 890 and 892 AD.
Charles the Bald, in a desperate attempt to stave off further incursions, granted more lands to the Bretons, namely Cotentin and Avranchin, in hopes that they could defend these territories from the wrathful Norsemen. But these regions were already heavily plundered and couldn’t provide any significant resistance, allowing the Vikings to move ever deeper into West Francia.
In these turbulent years of warfare, Rollo finally cemented his influence by marrying Poppa, a daughter of the Count of Rennes - a marriage that gave him a male heir – William Longsword, and also gave a clear message to the Kings of Francia – the Vikings were there to stay.
Rollo, Duke of Normandy. (Public Domain)
After the creation of the Duchy of Normandy, Rollo, also known by his new Christian name Robert, worked on establishing himself as a powerful duke, connecting his family with that of the Frankish elite. This he accomplished by marrying his daughter Gisla with William III, the duke of Aquitaine, an influential noble of the time.
With his unyielding raids and conquests, but also with his cunning political relations with the Franks, Rollo proved his worth and successfully established a dynasty of Norman counts.
Restless: The Norman Conquest of Sicily
During the early beginnings of the Duchy of Normandy, a part of the Vikings that settled in along the Seine River proceeded to sail even further in search of new places to plunder. The earliest of these raids happened in circa 860 AD, when the Vikings once more raised their sails and journeyed to southern Italy via the Iberian Peninsula. They referred to Italy as “ Langbarðaland” – the Land of the Lombards, a name that is attested in several rune stones from Sweden.
After the few initial raids along the Ligurian and Tuscan coastlines, as well as the sacking of Pisa and the raids in Sicily and North Africa, the Norsemen kept an “on and off” presence in the Mediterranean.
The first concrete mention of the Norman invasion is from 999 AD, with several sources mentioning an increasing presence of Norman knights in Sicily, most of which operated there as mercenaries when the revolt against Byzantine rule began in 1009. From then on, their influence in Southern Italy grew, with the mercenaries led by Rainulf Drengot growing in notoriety.
Norman expeditionary ship depicted in the chronicle ‘Le Canarien’ (1490). (Public Domain)
In the following decades, well into the early 1000’s, many immigrants and petty lords would travel from Normandy, increasing the Norman presence and strengthening their importance in the political scene of Sicily and Italy, eventually conquering half of the Italian peninsula and establishing the Kingdom of Sicily.
The Norman presence in the Mediterranean spans close to two centuries, during which they asserted their superiority in warfare and conquest, utilizing intrigue and treachery, and successfully shifting the sphere of influence.
In the Ancestor’s Footsteps: William the Conqueror
In the years that unfolded after the creation of the Duchy of Normandy, the reigning dukes further developed the Norman influence and established several important connections in the political scene. The lines of succession were clear and uncontested - until the death of Duke Robert I the Magnificent. Robert’s only son, William, was also a bastard, an illegitimate offspring of Robert and a common woman.
This, as well as William’s youth, as he was eight years old at the time, created quite a stir among the Norman nobility, challenging his claim to the ducal title. William spent at least 25 years in a struggle to establish his power and quell his opponents - the chief of which were Guy of Brionne, Geoffrey Martel, as well as the Viscounts of Bessin and Cotentin.
Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry - this one depicts Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Duke William, and Count Robert of Mortain. (Public Domain)
Those first years of his rule were difficult and full of rebellions against him. But after some political struggle with a few key opponents, William succeeded in becoming a duke with the help of Henry I, the King of France, and the Archbishop Robert, his great-uncle. But not before blood was spilled.
Those long years of instability and disorder culminated in an open rebellion against him, organized by several Norman nobles – a rebellion that ended in the battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047 AD. William, just 20 years old at the time, crushed his enemies and claimed his dukedom once and for all.
Finally, by 1060, he fully asserted his rule over Normandy and shifted his focus to England.
Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Normans preparing for the invasion of England. (Public Domain)
The Turning Point: Norman Conquest of England
1066 AD would come to be remembered as one of the turning points in history, and certainly one that will always be remembered by the English – for the events that unfolded from that year onwards would echo through Europe with a thunderous beat.
Edward the Confessor, the childless Anglo-Saxon King, died on January 5th of that year, leaving no heir and a kingdom full of pretenders vying for the English throne. The man who won it was Harold Godwinson, the late king’s brother-in-law and Earl of Wessex – the richest of the English aristocrats.
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Harold meeting Edward shortly before his death, depicted in scene 25 of the Bayeux Tapestry. (Public Domain )
But soon enough, he’d find that his claim to the throne faced a challenge – namely that of William, the Duke of Normandy. William had ties to the English throne, being the first cousin of the late king – a connection established through the marriage of a previous English king - Æthelred the Unready - with Emma of Normandy, a sister to the late duke Richard II, in 1002.
In the ensuing political unrest, William the Bastard, as he was known up to that point, showed his cunning by seizing the opportunity given to him – a clear claim to the throne of England – a land weakened by invasions of the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada.
In one daring sweep, William’s Norman, French, and Flemish forces sailed across the English Channel and land at the southern English coast, where soon after the destiny of a kingdom would be decided at the battle of Hastings.
Duel of the Fates: The Battle of Hastings
The Norman Invasion of England was undoubtedly a daring feat that would establish William, the Duke of Normandy, as one of the most cunning military commanders of his age.
Harald Godwinson, the new King of England, defeated the army of Harald Hardrada in the northeast of the country – only three days before William would land on English shores. In an attempt to deal with this new threat, Godwinson made a long and exhausting march south – a risky feat which ended prematurely, forcing him into a defensive battle near Hastings.
Bayeux Tapestry Scene 57: Harold's death. Legend above: Harold rex interfectus est, "King Harold is killed." (Public Domain)
What happened then, on October 14, 1066, showed the superiority of the new mix of Norman cavalry and infantry tactics, as the forces of William defeated the Anglo-Saxons and started a new age of Norman rule in England – a rule that would take decades to fully set-in.
The New Age of Warfare: Norman Military Prowess
History teaches us that every successful method of warfare gets “stale” in time. New tactics are developed and combat reaches a whole new level. And with the onset of the High Middle Ages, the new military revolution was brought on by the Normans. With the somewhat unique set of circumstances that led to their emergence, the Normans managed to combine the best from the both halves of their identity.
Retaining the well-known Norse restlessness and warlike culture and receiving some of the Frankish early feudal laws and military doctrines, the Normans managed to combine them into a new, revolutionary identity – a heavily militaristic society that would set a new standard in medieval Europe.
A Norman warrior was a formidable opponent. Experimenting with mobility and armor, these early knights were always clad in long chainmail shirts that covered most of the body. The head was protected with a conical, nasal-guarded helm, while most of the body was covered by the long, teardrop-shaped shield.
Modern representation of a Norman knight. (One lucky guy/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Normans excelled in heavy cavalry tactics, employing thundering charges as a form of early shock attacks. With a heavy emphasis on spears, swords, and light maces, Norman cavalrymen inspired the classic image of the medieval knight as we know it today.
War & Culture: Norman Architecture
As the chief remainder of their Viking identity, the Normans retained their love of adventure and exploration. That’s why, through the entirety of the High Middle Ages, Norman mercenaries were key characters in almost every European conflict.
But war was not their only craving – through their numerous connections with other nations, the Normans developed a unique style of architecture. Bringing their own style of Romanesque architecture wherever they went, they managed to create a variety of rich and memorable styles. The most important of these is the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style, developed in Sicily.
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But the architecture they are best known for is, of course, war-related. Normans excelled in the construction of castles and keeps. The earliest of these were wooden – the so-called “motte-and-bailey” castles – only to be replaced in later years with the iconic stone castles which we all know and like.
Bayeux Tapestry - Scene 19: siege of Dinan (detail). The soldiers of William, Duke of Normandy attack the motte-and-bailey castle of Dinan. Conan II, Duke of Brittany surrenders and gives the keys to Dinan via a lance. (Public Domain)
The Norman Legacy
No doubt could be placed at the ferocity and the importance of the Norman story, a formidable identity that rose out of the tumultuous age of the Vikings. With their revolutions in the fields of warfare, exploration and castle-building, the Normans quickly swept over much of Europe, often playing crucial roles in the biggest socio-political struggles of the time.
And so, out of a period of raids and instability, a new force emerged, a nation that would defiantly carve its own place in history alongside the greatest kingdoms and empires - the Norman era.
Top image: Medieval knight riding into battle. Credit: rudall30 / Adobe Stock
Terence Wise; G.A. Embleton – “Osprey Men At Arms: Saxon, Viking and Norman”
John Norwich – “The Normans In Sicily: 1016 – 1130”
David Nicolle – “Osprey Elite: The Normans”
Norman People. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Norman-people
The Normans: A Timeline. History Extra. Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/norman/normans-timeline-normandy-william-conqueror-matilda-flanders-king-john-stephen-battle-hastings/