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Chapter 2

Building a Dukedom


Rollo’s death left the young duchy at a crossroads. Succession from father to son wasn’t an established fact, and while Rollo’s eldest child William Longsword by now a thirty-four-year-old veteran was the obvious candidate, Viking leadership had to be won.  

Although Rollo had been the unquestioned leader, his last years hadn’t been triumphant. Expansion to the east had largely been stopped by the powerful neighboring Count of Flanders, and William Longsword proved to be a handy scapegoat. Several rebellions against his authority had to be brutally suppressed before he could assert control. Much of the resistance came from his adoption of the surrounding culture. Rollo may have encouraged the embrace of local traditions, but William abandoned his heritage with unseemly haste. He married a direct descendant of Charlemagne, swore fealty to the French king, and had even started calling himself ‘Count of Rouen’.   

This last bit was typical Norman bluster. The title that the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte accorded was a simple Latin ‘princeps’, in this case nothing more than the generic ‘leader’. By adopting a Frankish title, William not only confirmed his subjects’ worst fears about his Gallicizing tendencies, but also alarmed Arnulf, the formidable Flemish count.  

The struggle to halt the Norman advance had been a hard one, and Arnulf had no desire to see it begin again under an ambitious new leader. When William made the mistake of intervening in Flemish politics, Arnulf decided to permanently destabilize the troublesome province. Pretending that he wanted to make peace, he lured William to an island to discuss their differences, then had him assassinated.  

Not content with merely killing its leader, Arnulf twisted the knife further by then inviting the French king, Louis IV, to invade. William’s son, Richard I, was only nine years old, and clearly incapable of any organized resistance. The armies of Louis and Arnulf swept into Rouen, took Richard hostage and sent him off as a trophy to the king’s court.  

That would have been the end for Normandy if it were not for the mutual disgust King Louis and Arnulf felt for each other. Before long, Arnulf had withdrawn in a huff, and without Flemish support Louis’ position was hopeless. When a Norman force counter-attacked Rouen, he not only lost the battle but managed to get himself captured in the process. The delighted Normans exchanged him for their captive count, sending the humiliated monarch back to his capital, chastened, if not wiser. Richard I returned to Rouen in triumph, and at the tender age of thirteen took control of his inheritance. He ruled for the next forty-nine years.  

The problems facing the new count were enough to demoralize a grown man, but he threw himself into his work with a heedless abandon that earned him the nickname ‘the Fearless’. He quickly proved far more adept on the Frankish stage than his father had ever been. When the French king decided to threaten Normandy again, Richard invited some Danish Vikings to pillage the upper Seine Valley. After a few weeks of such treatment the king got the message and offered peace. Richard, however, wanted a more permanent solution. The Carolingian kings descended from Charlemagne would always be hostile to upstart Normandy, so he helped an ambitious noble named Hugh Capet to seize the throne, helping to establish the Capetian line of kings that would last for over three hundred years. All in all, it was a stunning reversal of fortune for one who had started his political career as a prisoner of a Carolingian king.  

Richard next turned his attention to internal affairs. One of the duties of a Christian prince was to look after his subjects’ spiritual well-being, and the church in Normandy was in an appalling state. The turmoil of the previous century had left most of its monastic houses abandoned, and driven priests from their parishes. Over the next few decades Richard re-founded monastic communities at Mont St-Michel, Fécamp and Evreux, and imported reforming monks from across Europe to fill them. As a signal of how important the Church was he even appointed his younger son to the See of Rouen a tradition that virtually every reigning member of his family would continue. Since education was largely in the hands of the church, literacy slowly began to recover. It is mostly from his foundation at Fécamp that we get the earliest records of the Norman dynasty.  

As Norman prestige grew with the influx of clergy, Richard gradually became dissatisfied with the title of ‘Count’. At first he tried out the old Roman ‘Consul’ then switched to the more formal ‘Marquis’. Soon, however, he had his eyes on an even more prestigious appellation. Hugh Capet had been a Duke – a title reserved for the greatest of the Franks – and since he had vacated it on assuming the mantle of king, Richard appropriated it for himself. Neighboring chroniclers (rolling their eyes no doubt) referred to him as the ‘Duke of the Pirates’, but nonetheless, the title stuck.  

By the fall of 996 Richard the Fearless had spent half a century in power and was in failing health. At sixty-three he had lived longer than most of his contemporaries and few expected him to survive much longer. While in Bayeux he fell ill and moved to his favorite castle in Fécamp. There he solemnly chose a successor and walked barefoot to the nearby abbey where he received communion and asked to be buried under its portico. The next night a sudden seizure struck him and he was dead by the time his attendants reached him.  

He had been a formidable duke, and Normandy owed much of its firm foundations to him. While Normandy had been largely Christianized and feudalized under his leadership, perhaps his greatest accomplishment had been to convince his Scandinavian subjects that the principle of legitimacy, of son succeeding father, was far preferable to the instability of rule by the strongest.  

His reign is also the great dividing line in early Norman history. The reigns of Rollo and William Longsword are shadowy at best, long on legend and short on facts. Thanks to Richard’s patronage of the Church, however, the monks returned to their Chronicles, and contemporary accounts multiplied. With Richard the mists of legend part and Normandy emerges into the historical record.  

The Normans certainly appreciated their long-lasting duke; they virtually canonized him. He was remembered glowingly as a sustainer of the poor, a guardian of orphans, a defender of widows and a redeemer of captives. Later legends even had him wandering Rouen at night, confronting demons outside dark churches. The greatest tribute to him, however, was composed a century after his death. In the Song of Roland, the great French epic about Charlemagne, he appears as ‘Richard the Old’, complete with long white beard and clear, alert eyes. Normandy of course didn’t exist at the time of Charlemagne, but thanks to Richard, by the time the poem was written, France without a Normandy seemed inconceivable to the French.  

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