The True Story of Rollo

The True Story of Rollo

This write-up explores who Rollo was, his biography, and his role during the Viking age. Also, we discuss whether he was indeed Ragnar’s brother.

Rollo was among the most popular Vikings because he was the first one to take up the throne and establish the law in Normandy, a province in northern France. He had profound authority in the region, and he was identified as an outstanding and most influential warrior among the Norsemen, who secured a permanent settlement in the valley of lower Seine.  Charles the simple, the King of West Francia, gifted Rollo and other Norsemen land between the mouth of Seine and Rouen after the Siege of Charters in 911. All that the king needed in exchange was for Rollo to end his brigandage, convert to Christianity, and pledge to defend the estuary in the Seine from Viking raiders and to swear allegiance to him.

Dudo’s chronicle talks about how Rollo seized Rouen in 876. Another contemporary chronicler known as Flodoard complements Dudo’s work and identifies that Robert of the Breton Match was against the Vikings and their settlements, but, later he acknowledged some coastal provinces as theirs. Dudo describes that Rollo initiated a friendship with a king known as Alstem from England. Alstem was the Danish leader who was baptized by Alfred the Great. As Rollo forcefully controlled Bayeux, he had the beautiful Popa (daughter of Berenger) as his companion, whom he married and sired a son and heir named William Longsword.

The True Story of Rollo

In 911, the brother of Odo known as Robert I of France defeated a band of Viking warriors with his well-trained horsemen, which paved way for Rollo’s settlement in Normandy and his conversion into Christianity. By being baptized, it meant that he was ready to help the king defend the realm. The seal of the agreement between Rollo and Charles was a marriage between Rollo and Gisla (Charles’ daughter). The pact took place at a place called Saint-Clair-Sur-Epte on 911.

Dudo narrates that at the time, the attendant bishops pressured Rollo to kiss King Charles’ foot to prove his loyalties to the king. However, Rollo rejected the offer and swore that he would never bow at the knees of any man; neither would he kiss anyone’s feet. Instead, Rollo chose one of his men and ordered him to kiss King Charles’ foot as a pledge to protect the land. Just like Rollo, the warrior said that he would not bow before any king to kiss his foot. In that regard, he picked up the King’s foot and raised it towards his mouth. At the time, King Charles remained standing in a weird position, which humored Rollo’s crew. Now that the oath of fealty was taken, Rollo went ahead to divide the land between River Risle and Epte, gave the chieftains the chance to rule over established settlements in that particular region, and went ahead to settle in Rouen, which was the de facto capital back then.

King Charles gave him Rouen and its hinterland in exchange for solid alliances with the Franks. Because of this, Rollo came into an agreement with his Frankish allies and informed them that through their alliance they would extend his authority over the Viking settlers in Europe. Eventually, this agreement became the basis of later concessions to the Seine Vikings.

Sometime later, King Charles III renounced the throne and gave it to Rudolph of France. While it seemed a good idea to Charles, Rollo was angered by the ordeal and claimed that it was a breach of their initial pledge and oath. Out of anger, Rollo considered the pledges he made non-binding and non-effective and immediately commissioned his men to raid settlements in the west to expand his territory and establish more authority. Following Rollo’s brutal method of conquest, there was the need for the rulers to propose another trade-off, and it became even more urgent in 923 when King Charles’ successor, Robert I, was killed in the war. To counter the situation and protect himself, Rudolph of France sponsored a new agreement that handed over the provinces of Bessin and Maine to a specific group of Norsemen ruled by Rollo. At this juncture, Rollo had to move his authority westward and leave the Seine valley as a peace pact. As he settled, he domesticated and restrained his associates and subjects, and constantly protected them and the Franks around Bayeux from attacks and raids by other Viking leaders.

In 933, the Cotentin and Avranchin areas, the third grant of land, were given to Rollo’s son and successor (William) immediately after Rollo’s death. His son’s conquest of England drastically changed British society and European culture. Also, his ruling style was heavily influenced by the policies that Rollo had already implemented in the region.

Life& Origins

Rollo is said to be born in the mid-9th century, but it is quite uncertain whether he is Norwegian or Danish. Dudo of Saint-Quentin wrote a biography of Rollo in the 10th century and identified that Rollo came from Denmark. Dudo’s contemporary was known as Robert the Dane, who was also Rollo’s great-grandson. According to Dudo’s account, there was an unnamed king of Denmark who was somewhat hostile to Rollo’s family, hunted down his father. When Rollo’s father died, Rollo’s brother known as Gurim was also killed in the war. Since Rollo’s life was also in danger, he had to flee Denmark to seek refuge.

Even though Rollo is identified as the first Duke of Normandy, he never held the title officially. Instead, his great-grandson, Richard II, was the one who was given the title of the first duke. In most accounts of his lifetime and reign, Rollo is referred to as ‘chieftain’. He ruled as Viking chief and during his reign, he reformed passive laws that seemed to merely suggest acceptable behavior and preferably implemented a law code that emphasized the need for personal honor and individual responsibility.

His law code identified that crimes such as assault, murder, fraud, and robbery were punishable by death. After this, he introduced a decree in Normandy that the farmers should leave their farm implements outside, but one farmer’s wife hid her husband’s implements to make it look as though they were stolen. Rollo chose to reimburse the man but ordered the trial of the thieves. However, when they realized that the man’s wife and her husband were the culprits, they punished them and left them to hang to death. Since then, no one stole from their neighbors.

Also, Rollo punished another group of men who dishonored him and his wife’s reputation by executing them in the public square at Rouen. This action prevented petty crimes such as gossip and slander. The bishops claimed that Rollo’s measures were quite harsh and sought intervention from the Pope.  Even so, Rollo’s conversion to Christianity had nothing to do with him wanting to maintain law and order in Normandy as the basis for prosperity and peaceful coexistence.

The True Story of Rollo

Viking Chieftain

While not much is told about Rollo’s life, most Icelandic literary sources agree that he was a Viking Chieftain who conducted multiple raids in the kingdom of West Francia. Viking raids in the kingdom of West Francia began in 820 CE, and the region saw several invasions by ships up in the Seine River. There was not much peace in this region until about 911 CE.

According to Flodoard the chronicle and Dudo’s chronicle, Rollo conducted a Viking raid around Rouen in 876 CE, which devastated the region completely. During the first raid in 820CE, the Vikings had no idea what they would encounter on the way, so they were almost always unsuccessful. They suffered great losses and often retreated upon encountering the natives of the land. After a series of unsuccessful raids, there came a ruler known as Asgeir, who showcase vigilant military prowess. He often prepared his Viking crew and ensured they followed a specific conquest strategy that helped them merge victorious. They looted nearly all areas they come across in Rouen and burnt all the places and things that were in their way. After this successful raid, there came the Norse Chieftain Reginherus in 845, who conducted the siege of Paris. The invasion attack was detrimental but was ended when Charles the Bald paid off the Vikings to leave his territory.

By around 858 CE, Viking raids became more popular and frequent. The son of Ragnar Lothbrok (Bjorn Ironside) and his queen along with Hasting attacked Paris right before they conducted a raiding expedition to the Mediterranean. Some years after, particularly in 876 CE, under the command of Rollo of Normandy about 100 ships said up to Seine valley to lay waste to the region. Also, Rollo played a vital role in the Second Siege of Paris that took place between 885 and 886 CE. During this time, Rollo was up against Charles the Simple. He led a huge expedition that worried Charles at the time. West Francia only experienced a positive outcome during the raid when they paid off the Vikings to avoid looting their cities. This eventually led to an agreement between Charles the Simple and Rollo, and the main beneficiaries of the outcome were the Danes. Unlike other Viking leaders who often breached any agreements they made, Rollo of Normandy upheld the terms and protected the king and the people he vowed to protect.

The True Story of Rollo

Is Rollo really Ragnar’s brother?

Rollo is the main character in the TV series ‘Vikings’ and is portrayed as Ragnar Lothbrok’s brother. However, this isn’t the case in reality. According to the Norse sagas and other Icelandic literary sources, Rollo isn’t related to Ragnar, the 9th century legendary Norse chieftain. As we had mentioned earlier, Rollo was born in the mid-9th century in Norway, which was More og Romsdal back then.

Just like in his real life, the film shows that there are very few details about his ethnic details. Also, he was raised in a family of noble areas. Additionally, there is an ongoing controversy regarding Rollo’s ethnicity. Some historians and film producers argue that he was Norwegian, while others claim that he was Danish.

More often than not, he was known as Hrolfr and sometimes, Ganger Hrolf. Also, he was known as Robert (after he converted to Christianity) or Rollon. Eventually, he became the Count of Rouen. Before he got to the northwestern part of France where he took part in multiple raids in an attempt to conquer the Seine valley, he led expeditions to Scotland and Ireland, where he wasn’t really successful. Eventually, Charles III the Simple granted Rollo and his crew lands between the Seine valley and Rouen.

As mentioned earlier, the king of western Francia (Charles) gave Rollo of Normandy the land in exchange for his protection against any pirates or other raids. This shows how Rollo became the Count of Rouen and a direct ancestor of William the Conqueror. Thereafter, the Norsemen permanently settled in a region known as Normandy and lived under Rollo’s leadership. He reigned over the land until 927 CE.

Even after Rollo’s death, several of his descendants continued to rule the land of Normandy until about 1204. Rollo’s dynasty was so powerful that it survived through a combination of atrocious military actions and brutal infighting among the Frankish aristocracy, which somehow weakened them at some point when John Lackland was in power. All in all, Rollo is remembered for his strategic ruling style and identified as the first ruler, duke, and leader of Normandy.

When it comes to the relationship between Rollo and Ragnar, it seemed strenuous. Rollo loved Lagertha with all his heart but was torn apart when she chose to marry Ragnar over him. Out of bitterness and anger, Rollo has betrayed Ragnar’s trust ever since then. Rollo joined forces with Jarl Borg (Ragnar’s enemy) to fight against Ragnar and King Horik. Eventually, Ragnar got angry, and they ended up in a violent and bloody face-off. During the faceoff, Rollo surrendered to Ragnar and was judged by the men of Kattegat for his betrayal.

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