Chapter 3

Inventing the Normans

If the Normans gained a duke with Richard the Fearless, they gained an identity with his son. Oddly enough, this was in large part due to the kingdom of England. While the Norman role in the creation of modern England is well known, most are unaware that the reverse is also true. England played a crucial role in the creation and defining of Normandy.  

The British Isles had not only born the brunt of the first Viking raids in the eighth century but had proved so tempting to the Norse that a great Viking army had invaded with the intention of completely conquering it. The Anglo-Saxons were hampered by the fact that they were split into several kingdoms at the time (seven is the traditional number) and within a few years the Vikings had managed to conquer all but the southern kingdom of Wessex. It seemed only a matter of time before that fell as well, but fortunately for the Anglo-Saxons, the king of Wessex was a brilliant strategist named Alfred and he managed to fight the Vikings to a standstill. During his reign he turned the balance of power in his favor and slowly but surely pushed back the Norse invaders. He was so successful that he earned the epithet ‘the Great’, the only English monarch to accomplish that thus far. Alfred’s greatest accomplishment, however, was that he convinced the Vikings that England was no longer a land of such easy pickings. As a result, the next wave of invaders, which included the adventurer Rollo, decided to try their luck in France.  

Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan continued his father’s efforts, even extending English control into Scotland where he received the submission of the Scottish king and declared himself ‘King of all Britain’. Under a strong monarchy, commerce replaced raiding, and by the time Richard I was reigning in Normandy, England was fabulously wealthy. It did not, however, have a surplus of leaders, as the English were quick to find out.  

A fresh wave of Viking activity hammered northern Europe and the British Isles, and the English king Ethelred fell back on the tried and disastrous method of buying the Norse off. This won him the unflattering nickname ‘Ethelred the Unready’.12 Raiders that had come in search of plunder discovered an endless supply of easy money. All they had to do was burn a few villages and wait for the king’s representative to show up with gold to buy them off 

Ethelred’s treasury couldn’t handle the strain of constant Viking payments, so he levied a special tax called the ‘danegeld’ (literally ‘Viking money’) to pay for it. This would possibly have been acceptable to the common man (who was paying it) had it been effective, but the danegeld only made things worse. Not only was it tremendously expensive, but since it tended to draw invaders instead of discourage them, it was also completely demoralizing. 

Across the Channel in Normandy, Duke Richard I was facing the lesser but related problem of what to do about the Vikings. Despite their shared cultural heritage, the last thing the Norman duke wanted was a group of uncontrollable Vikings upsetting trade and rampaging through his territory. A succession of Norman leaders had done their best to convince the rest of Christendom that they were civilized Christians; Richard could hardly welcome pagan raiders into his territory and maintain that pretense. What’s more, there was also nothing to guarantee that the Vikings wouldn’t turn on him. They wanted plunder and Normandy had plenty of it.  

Richard was still wondering what to do when the Vikings forced his hand by requesting access to his ports to sell the goods they had plundered from England. The aging Richard was caught in a dilemma; actively resist and draw Viking ire or assist them and confirm the dark rumors already swirling that the Normans were nothing more than pirates themselves.  

Perhaps it was because he still felt a distant kinship to the Norse, or perhaps he was trying to avoid becoming a target himself, but for whatever reason, Richard I opened the ports and braced himself for the inevitable controversy.  

It erupted almost immediately. The English in particular were horrified that a fellow Christian prince was providing hospitality for the very raiders that were despoiling their nation, and sent an appeal to the pope to bring the Normans back into line. The pope was reluctant to do this as he was, at the time, engaged in a struggle to reform the Church and the Normans were great patrons of reform in their territory, but the scandal was so intense that a papal representative was dispatched to Richard, and the duke reluctantly signed an agreement to stop harboring Ethelred’s enemies. He could hardly break off relations completely, however; he instructed his merchants to continue trading and five years later he died, leaving the issue to his son to deal with.  

Although the thirty-three-year-old Richard II was technically illegitimate, it was a smooth transition of power; a testament to how deeply the principle of succession had taken root. Important marriages were always political matches, and the Norman dukes took the same approach to their mistresses, living openly with them and considering their offspring legitimate. The general population seems to have accepted this as a relic of the old pagan days and been content enough to let such things slide. It was fortunate that there were no real challenges to his authority, for Richard II was soon faced with his first real test. 

Drawn by decades of easy English loot, a huge Danish army descended on Wessex in 996 and began a three-year systematic plundering of the kingdom. By the time Ethelred had gathered enough money to persuade them to leave, the Vikings had decided that they needed a base from which to continue further attacks. They asked Richard II for permission to use Norman ports to resupply.  

Richard was caught in the same quandary as his father, and he came to the same conclusions. In England, Ethelred the Unready was starting to panic. He had emptied the treasury to force the Vikings away, only to see them get a what he assumed was a friendly reception across the Channel and continue their attacks. He had to find some way to close Norman ports. An appeal to the pope proved ineffective, so the king tried his hand at diplomacy. Richard II had an unmarried sister named Emma, and Ethelred offered to marry her if the Normans agreed to shut the door to the Norse.  

This was too good an opportunity for Richard to miss and was certainly worth the risk of offending the Vikings for, so young Emma was packed off to London. Confident that he had solved the Viking menace at last, king Ethelred carried out a surprise massacre of the Danes living in the southwest of England and then mustered a huge fleet to hold off any Danish retribution. When some months passed with no Viking attempt at revenge, Ethelred put his navy to use settling some old scores. Richard II may have been a useful recent ally, but the Normans had stood by for years while the Norse tormented England. The time had come for a little payback, so a detachment was sent to raid the coast of Normandy. It was easily routed, but by then Ethelred had larger problems. The Danish massacre had given its king, Svein Forkbeard, the perfect excuse to invade. Since Richard II had been needlessly antagonized, Svein was welcomed to Rouen with open arms. After a formal alliance between the two was concluded and an oath of perpetual peace sworn, Svein continued to England where he found surprisingly little resistance. The English were tired of their weak king and since Svein was already a Christian he wasn’t met with the usual suspicion accorded to Vikings. By the end of the year the Dane was sitting on the English throne and Ethelred, Emma, and their two young sons were living in awkward exile in Normandy.  

Richard II seems to have realized rather quickly that he had gone too far in making a treaty with the Vikings. Norman dukes had always tried hard to pretend that they were proper French nobility, but the surrounding people were deeply suspicious of their Norse ancestry. Now, it seemed as if the Norman inner Viking was revealed for all to see. Proper Christian, French princes didn’t go around making treaties with Viking kings or trading with Viking pirates and they certainly didn’t use Viking mercenaries to threaten other Christians. 

Richard had just recently been guilty of this.  He got involved in a border skirmish with Brittany, and had brought in Norse warriors13 to help him, which scandalized popular opinion among the surrounding French. Nearly as bad (in the French view) as the shameful behavior of duke Richard II was the conduct of his sister Emma. Barely two years into her exile both her husband Ethelred and his rival Svein Forkbeard died, and she wasted no time abandoning her young sons to marry the new Viking king of England. The boys, one of which was the future king Edward the Confessor, were left to fend for themselves, effectively disowned and orphaned.  

Normandy was clearly being drawn into the Scandinavian orbit, proving what the Gallic population had long suspected about its half-civilized new neighbors. In order to refurbish the tarnished Norman image, Richard II commissioned a pro-French history of the duchy. What better way to combat negative public relations than with a little spin of his own?  

Norman history was given a thorough white-washing. Rollo acquired a high birth in Norway; his fierce son William Longsword was transformed into a gentle ruler a monk at heart and a lover of peace who died a martyr’s death. Richard I was made a paragon of virtue, fighting equally to reform the Church and maintain his independence from the powerful north.  

The tendency of the dukes to have public mistresses was rather embarrassing, but they were given the title ‘Danish wives’ and explained away as holdovers from the old Norse, pagan days when rulers didn’t know any better. Even Richard II’s mother got a makeover. In reality she was the daughter of a powerful vassal of Richard I who had become the duke’s mistress to cement ties with her father. Now, however, she became a humble forester’s daughter who met the duke by chance on a hunting trip and captured his heart with her beauty and virtue.  

These were ancestors that an ambitious duke needed, worthy of even the proudest French nobility, and they gave Richard II the credibility he desired. From his court at Rouen he handed out titles, and appointed viscounts, seneschals, and constables in a quantity that not even the king of France could match. All of a sudden Norman forces seemed to be everywhere, intervening in neighboring squabbles, pressing ducal claims, and expanding the territory of Normandy. The message Richard was sending was clear. These were the actions of one of the great lords of France, and even if uncrowned, he was nearly the equal of the king.  

By the time he died of natural causes at the ripe old age of sixty-four, Richard II had successfully managed to turn the perception of Normandy from a rogue Viking state into one of the most powerful provinces of France. He was a friend of the French king, the brother-in-law of the English king, and had at least five grown sons to carry on his line. His subjects remembered him fondly as Richard the Good, and might possibly have done so without the pandering of court historians. More than any other duke, he had been responsible for creating an identity for his people, and had laid the foundation for even greater heights yet to come.  


This is a web preview of the "The Normans" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App