Vikings is the present-day name given to the seafaring Norse pirates that came from Southern Scandinavia, who raided, pirated, traded, and settled in different parts of Europe between the end of the 8th to the 11th century, which was known as the Viking age.
These Vikings voyaged as far as North America, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and North Africa. During the Viking Age, the Vikings had great influence and played an important role in influencing the early medieval history of the British Isles, Scandinavia (currently Norway, Denmark, and Sweden), Estonia, France, and Kievan Rus. They established Norse governments and settlements in these areas as well and created trade routes that have now become Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. From these Norse colonies came the Icelanders, Rus’ people, Normans, Faroese, and Norse-Gaels. Thereafter, they began to spread Norse culture in every region they settled in. As they did this, they also came in with concubines, slaves, and other foreign cultural influences to the Scandinavian countries. Through this, they significantly influenced the historical, economic, and social development as well as the genetics of the Scandinavian people. One Viking who had a profound impact during the Viking age was Rollo. Read on to find out who he was, his biography, and his mythology.
Who was Rollo?
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.
Once he became Christian, his new name was Robert, and he was seen as a role model by other Norsemen and future Christian writers. In Christian literary writing, Rollo is described as a model of excellence in Christianity based on his virtues and a great ruler who established Christian laws in the land of Normandy.
Rollo has blood ties with William the Conqueror, who was the first Norman King of England from 1066 to around 1087 CE. He is also a supposed ancestor of several European monarchs who directly trace their lineage to Rollo’s immediate descendants. During his reign, he upheld his promises to Charles and fully protected the region from Viking raiders at all costs. He further restored order to Normandy, because he was involved in its destruction during the war.
His ruling style was guided by a Viking code of law based on the concept of individual responsibility and personal honor, which allowed him to strategically reform any laws that the magistrates were unable to enforce in the land. Germanic folklore and a charter of 918 records Rollo as the leader of all the Viking settlers. He reigned over Normandy from 918 to around 928. Unfortunately, he died in 930 CE, and his death is associated with natural causes.
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.
Despite the fact that 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 both 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.
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.
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.
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.