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In search of the Normans: who were they?

David Bates considers who the famously conquering Normans really were, more than 1,100 years on from the foundation of the duchy of Normandy

Detail of a column showing Norman soldiers, c12th century. (CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Published: August 12, 2012 at 9:48 am
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This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

As anyone with the most basic grasp of Britain’s history is fully aware, the Norman invasion and subsequent conquest of England in the late 11th century had a major impact on the story of the British Isles. But who were the Normans, and where did they come from?
The story can be traced back to 911, and the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. The treaty was an agreement by which the Carolingian king Charles the Simple (reigned 898–922) granted lands around Rouen and the river Seine to the Viking chieftain Rollo and his followers. This event is generally viewed as establishing Rollo as the founder of the dynasty of Norman dukes in northern France. The dating of the treaty to 911 is based on some rather vague chronology in the first of the great histories of the Norman rulers, written by Dudo of Saint-Quentin around 100 years after the event.
The anniversary of the treaty in 2011 raised questions about how professional historians and the public understand the birth of Normandy – above all through the invitation in the region's official publicity of ‘Happy Birthday Normandie’ to “feel free to awaken your sleeping Viking spirit and set off to conquer Normandy”. The publicity even went as far as to offer gifts to individuals named William and Matilda. All good fun, I’m sure, but – as a professional historian who spent much of 2010 and 2011 working at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie – I must jib at the reference to “your sleeping Viking spirit”.
What exactly does this mean? It is certainly a reference to the great movement of Scandinavian peoples, conveniently known as Vikings, across the seas of northern Europe. These voyages took them to Iceland, Greenland and North America, as well as to much of the British Isles and what we now call France, and produced several major settlements across this vast region.
The term ‘Viking spirit’ is definitely relevant to the foundation of Normandy. Rollo and his followers were undoubtedly participants in this great movement, as well as being the successors to earlier war-bands that had been active in northern France and the valley of the river Seine since the 840s.
Detail of a column showing Norman Soldiers, 12th century.
Detail of a column showing Norman soldiers, c12th century. (CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
But were the men and women behind ‘Happy Birthday Normandie’ right to make such an explicit link between the adventurous seafaring character of stereotypical Vikings and the birth of Normandy?
In some ways, the association seems strange. After all, explaining historical change on the basis of supposed inherent characteristics of peoples has now been rejected by disciplines ranging from genetic science to literary studies. In its place has appeared a number of complex analyses that see identity as a literary and political construct.
Yet, at the same time, the emphasis on the transition from Vikings to Normans does neatly set up the central historical issues. William and Matilda, the names of William the Conqueror and his wife, are not Scandinavian; through them therefore we are instantly confronted with cultural change. How did the ‘Vikings’ of 911 become the ‘Normans’ of the 11th century?

Social structures

Most historians of the period are agreed that, by 911, Rollo and his followers were already well integrated into northern France’s political and social structures. Since many of them had already been based around the valley of the Seine for some years, political alliances and cultural and economic exchanges with the indigenous Franks had taken place long before 911.
Although they were typical early medieval warriors who regarded plunder as a central objective – a situation that had caused great damage to the monasteries and bishoprics of the region – Rollo and his followers were most certainly not a force from the outside set exclusively on disrupting and exploiting Christian society.
The Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte resembles other agreements made throughout the ninth century – such as the Alfred-Guthrum treaty in England in the 880s – in that its aim was to consolidate the existing integration through conversion to Christianity and the creation of alliances. What became Normandy was created out of negotiations and compromises that were the standard political currency of the time, employed by people who understood one another well.
One crucial result of all this was that the new elite descended from Rollo and his companions, however much it might be reinforced by fresh immigration from other ‘Viking’ settlements, would always be a small minority among the indigenous Frankish population.
All types of source material for Normandy’s 10th-century history, including the archaeological and documentary, are exceedingly thin. When we do emerge into the relative sunlight of the time of Duke Richard II, r996–1026, (Rollo’s great-grandson and William the Conqueror’s grandfather), the evidence indicates a duchy whose frontiers in relation to its neighbours were for the most part clearly defined, and whose people were apparently substantially integrated socially and culturally into the post-Carolingian Frankish world. This took shape following the disintegration of Charlemagne’s empire – the last emperor, Charles the Fat, had died in 888, leaving a legacy of political flux out of which the kingdoms of France and Germany were starting to emerge.
Among other things, Normandy’s early 11th-century inhabitants spoke French, the duchy’s institutional church was in the process of a revival assisted by outside reformers such as William of Volpiano, and charters in the rulers’ names were written in a style that perpetuated Carolingian forms.
A clear sign of the image that the dukes wished to present is made clear by Dudo’s Historia, written for Richard II and his father Richard I (r942–96), with the purpose of portraying them and their predecessors Rollo and William Longsword (r923–42) as model Christian princes. It is also of crucial importance that Dudo set out to describe Normandy as a land in which many peoples had combined to produce the single identity that he called Norman.
No one nowadays would argue, as was once done, that the duchy was created ready-made out of three treaties with the Franks in 911, 924 and 933. Instead, its final territorial composition and size were the products of resilience and military skill. The 10th century in northern France was a period of notable fluidity, the great age of the formation of territorial principalities, such as Flanders, Blois-Chartres and Anjou. It witnessed steady progress by the aristocratic elite, based around Rouen, towards domination over a more extended area. It is, however, a notable indicator of the difficulties they encountered that it was not until three generations after 911 that we can see the full apparatus of ecclesiastical and secular rule taking shape across what had become the duchy.

Maritime culture

To say that the erstwhile predators had gone native and, over a period of a century, assimilated fully to their Frankish neighbours would be to make a serious mistake. Literary sources, combined with linguistic and place-name evidence, indicate that substantial Scandinavian settlement from the British Isles and elsewhere into Normandy was continuing for many decades after 911. In other words, the rulers and inhabitants of the emergent duchy were still participants in the maritime culture of the world of the northern seas.
That they remained so into the 11th century is demonstrated by the way in which Duke Richard II’s alliance was sought by the English king Æthelred the Unready (r978–1016) and the Scandinavian warriors who raided, and eventually conquered, England.
It is probable too that conversion to Christianity was overall a protracted process. A remarkable process of state-building is arguably well illustrated by the 10th-century coinage of the Norman rulers, of which specimens exist from the time of William Longsword onwards. Impeccably Carolingian in design, but dating from earlier than most similar princely coins minted for the likes of the counts of Anjou and Blois, they show the newcomers both associating themselves with the highest elites of the world into which they were integrating and at the same time asserting their distinctiveness and superiority within it.
The territory that Richard II ruled, however, had come to be called Normannia or terra Normannorum, and the people that occupied it Normanni, by both its inhabitants and their neighbours. In other words, no matter how much inter-marriage and acculturation with indigenous Franks had taken place, the land and its people were identified as the home of the people of the north.
That a non-Norman late 10th‑century writer could call its ostentatiously Christian rulers duces pyratarum (‘dukes of the seafaring pirates’) shows that the influence of the past remained culturally and socially positive.

Virtuous ruler

In terms of explaining the astonishing events of the 11th century, Richard II’s reign has to be crucial. One of those medieval rulers who the written sources mostly portray as virtuous and pious, he must have been an extremely capable practitioner of the military culture of the times.
Richard’s reign saw the earliest journeys to southern Italy. The sources on these migrations are both difficult and contradictory, but they suggest that individuals from Normandy and neighbouring regions travelled south in the second decade of the 11th century, sometimes as pilgrims and often in search of fortune through service in war. In the midst of this, we are told, Duke Richard both provided military assistance to Pope Benedict VIII and secured a papal confirmation from him that he could use the title ‘duke of the Normans’.
A seaward-looking maritime province had been transformed into a principality with networks and influence that stretched across the lands of western and southern Europe, all of which was subsequently to be exploited – not just by William the Conqueror, but also by the many individuals who travelled to the Mediterranean, of whom the brothers Robert Guiscard and Roger the Great Count are the most famous.
Yet, in the midst of everything, it was a simple gesture of support from Richard for a family member that was to have the most dramatic consequences of all. His sister Emma had earlier married King Æthelred as part of a package negotiated to sever Richard from the English kingdom’s persecutors. A few years later, when the threat from the armies of Sven Forkbeard and his son, the future King Cnut, threatened to overwhelm England, Richard decided to shoulder the responsibility of sheltering the family.
In 1013, therefore, a young boy, the future King Edward the Confessor, arrived in Normandy to live under the protection of Richard II, his son Duke Robert (r1027–1035) and his grandson Duke William (the Conqueror). Later, after assuming the English crown in 1042, Edward was to make an offer to William that was interpreted by the latter as a promise of succession to the English kingdom. This was to become the justification for the invasion of 1066.
Most aspects of the life and achievements of William the Conqueror and his associates lie beyond the scope of this article. His so-called ‘minority’ should cease to be viewed as a time of exceptional violence when ‘the Normans’ exhibited their worst disruptive characteristics, and rather as a short period in the early 1040s when a feud-based society typical of the entire medieval west was deprived of the refereeing role of an effective ruler.
That a formidable young man soon imposed himself was then of the greatest importance; that so many people from across northern France were ready to trust to his leadership and cross the Channel on a risky venture in 1066 is surely the most powerful commentary there is on just how awe-inspiring he was. (Some indeed would say terrifying; others would think even that word polite.)
It is probable that William’s capacity to assemble the fleet that crossed the Channel in 1066 did represent a continuation of the seafaring traditions of his ancestors. Yet his achievement was not something that can be called quintessentially ‘Norman’. It was rather the accomplishment of a particularly capable early medieval war leader who ruled what had become the duchy of Normandy.
Tourist boards really don’t need to hail Normandy’s ‘Viking spirit’ to persuade people to spend some time there – it is a place of quite exceptional beauty and historical interest. And those who do visit should recognise that Norman identity was forged within the crucible of the regionalisation of power that was a feature of what we now call France in the century after the disintegration of the Carolingian empire.
Visitors should also remember that this was accomplished by an elite with diverse ethnic and social origins who retained and cultivated a continuing consciousness of a different past. ‘Happy Birthday Normandie’ reminds us that this consciousness continues still.
David Bates is professorial fellow at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of William the Conqueror (The History Press, 2004).

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