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The Vikings' Legacy

Normandy was born from the sea.
Jetty at low tide

It was in the late 8th century that, for the first time in recorded history, a fleet of Viking long boats appeared on the coast of France. They sailed in from Scandinavia, raided villages near river estuaries, stole horses, and rode inland to ransack the rich abbeys in the countryside. They came every few years, until Charlemagne established his power over Western Europe, a power that the Vikings did not dare challenge. But after his death, his descendants could not hold the Empire together, and in 840, it was divided into 3 kingdoms. Charles The Bald inherited the West, Neustria. Stormy skies He was a weak ruler, and the Vikings sensed the opportunity. They had come back as early as 820, but their attack at the mouth of the Seine was beaten back. Then, starting in 834, Vikings from Denmark descended just about every year upon the coast of France, sacking coastal settlements, sailing up the rivers, every year driving deeper and deeper inland.

The Seine was a favorite target: situated at the southern end of the North Sea, it was easily accessible; its wide estuary and slow current facilitated navigation upriver. Storm The rich abbeys that lay close to its banks were too tempting to pass up. In 841, just one year after the breakup of the Empire, the Vikings sacked Rouen and destroyed the Abbey of Jumieges. In 845, the Danish king Ragnar sailed up the river with 120 ships, passing through Rouen and heading for Paris. Charles the Bald decided to challenge the enemy, and split his army on both sides of the Seine. As soon as Ragnar saw this tactical blunder, he attacked the smaller force, routed it and hung 111 prisoners in full view of the other side. Charles' remaining forces fled back to Paris. On Easter Sunday, Ragnar attacked the French capital and laid it to ruins. Charles the Bald, unable to resist, paid Ragnar 7,000 pounds of silver for him to leave with his loot. Thus was born the tradition of the Danegeld, the ransom the Vikings exacted from their enemies in exchange for a period of peace.

Rainbow Charles had bought himself six years of freedom and peace, but in 857, Ragnar's son, Bjorn Ironside came back to sack the city again. In the ensuing years, the kings defended their capital with fortified bridges, and when the next attack came, in 885, the Viking fleet of 700 ships was stopped. The Vikings laid siege for a full year, but where besieged in turn by the Frankish army. They finally agreed to withdraw, with a payment of 700 pounds of silver.

HarborDuring the second half of the century, the repeated, devastating assaults on abbeys and monasteries destroyed the organization of the church. With the monarchy and the state already weakened, traditional loyalties were breaking down. The local chieftains, which traditionally provided protection in exchange for service, became the dominant force. In Rouen and the surrounding areas, the Vikings had settled down, taking over the rural fiefs they had sacked, and becoming part of the local aristocracy.

In 911, a Viking chief named Rollo, also known as Hrolf the Ganger, was raiding towns south of Paris. He had gotten his nickname because he was so tall that he had trouble riding a horse, and he rather go on foot. Harbor After laying siege in front of Chartres, he was forced to withdraw, and king Charles III saw an opportunity to reach an accord with these marauders who continued to sack his kingdom with impunity. He summoned Rollo to a meeting in St-Clair-sur-Epte, a small town at the eastern edge of the Viking colony. Charles would make Rollo Duke of Normandy and give him the lands the Vikings already occupied in the Seine valley. In return, the Duke would defend the region from further Viking attacks, and would swear allegiance to the king. After accepting the terms of the treaty, by tradition, Rollo was to kiss the king's foot. Either by ignorance of the protocol, or in a show of defiance, Rollo the Ganger, instead of kneeling down, grabbed the king's foot and raised it to his mouth. The king fell on his back, and all the assembled Vikings burst in laughter. Charles believed he would have no trouble dominating this small band of settlers, and that he would quickly regained Normandy. But Rollo had gained total control of the Seine river, and the lands to the west were now an easy reach.

Boats at JettyThe Vikings, the scourge of the earth, had become Normans. They would convert to Christianity, and rebuild all the abbeys they had sacked, doting them with large land holdings. Their political traditions were democratic or oligarchic, but they embrace feudalism, in the manner of the Frankish kingdom, where all the power and loyalty stemmed from the top. Their goal had become the expansion of the Duchy, and the building of wealth. They brought with them their adventurous spirit, their power and their authority as conquerors.

Quickly, the Dukes extended their power over other Viking settlements, west of the Seine, along the Orne river, and into the Cotentin peninsula. Then their armies marched south and west toward Brittany. By the time William was born, in 1028, the province of Normandy was about what it is today, and they had reestablished order to the land. The seat of power also moved west, from Rouen, to Caen and Bayeux. William was born in the castle of Falaise, south of Caen, and, in time, he would build a huge castle in his new capital.

Boats at jetty The Viking spirit of adventure did not die with their newfound prosperity: When William challenged Harold for the throne of England, his knights responded as one and assembled near Caen, in the castle of Bonneville. William's fleet left Dives, near the mouth of the Orne, on September 12 1066, but contrary winds forced him to take shelter north of Dieppe, near the border of his duchy. It was not until September 27 that he was able to sail for England. Harold was busy fighting an invading Danish force near York, and he rushed south to meet William. Their armies met at Hastings, on October 14. In the course of the battle, Harold was hit between the eyes by a Norman arrow, and the English army retreated. Some historians have attributed the Norman victory to a new technology as yet unknown to the English knights, the spurs. Jetty and lightThey allowed the Normans to shoot their arrows from horseback, while the English archers had to fight on foot. On Christmas day, 1066, William was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey. William the Bastard had become William the Conqueror. The story of his victory was told in a dramatic work of art, commissioned by his wife Mathilda and his half-brother, Otto, bishop of Bayeux: The "Telle du Conquest", a large scale embroidery work now known as the Tapestry of Bayeux. The Norman nobles who fought with William received large domains in England, and many settled on their new lands. They brought with them their language, their customs and their architecture, which culminated in the great cathedrals of Lincoln, Durham and York, and the formidable castles of Wales.

Back in Normandy, William's oldest son, Robert, rebelled against his father in 1078. Originally, Robert was to have inherited both Normandy and England, but this revolt was his downfall and William rejected him as heir to the crown of England. At William's death in 1087, Robert became duke of Normandy and William II became king of England.

Lighthouse Even before William quashed this last rebellion, some nobles from the Cotentin had left Normandy to seek military fortune in other lands, following the shrines to St-Michael to the holy land. The sons of Tancrede de Hauteville faired particularly well. His eldest son, William, became Duke of Apulia. Robert Guiscard, Tancrede's second son, succeeded him and added Calabria to his domains, and his son Bohemond became Prince of Antioch during the first Crusade. Tancrede's other son, Roger, conquered Sicily, and his son, Roger II, would be one of the strongest Christian kings of his time.

In less then 200 years, the descendants of a small band of adventurers had become the biggest power in the western world, reigning on countries from the Northern Atlantic to the farthest shores of the Mediterranean. Lighthouse

They were at the apogee of their power.
In 1287, Antioch fell back in the hands of the Muslims. The last Norman king of Sicily, Manfred, was killed by Charles of Anjou in 1265. In Normandy, in 1106, Robert was defeated by his younger brother Henry Beauclerc, now King Henry I, at the battle of Tinchebrai, and jailed in Cardiff for the rest of his life, reuniting England and Normandy once again. In 1120, Henry lost his two sons, heirs to the throne, in a shipwreck at Barfleur. His daughter, Maud, married Geoffroy Plantagenet, Duke of Anjou, in 1127. Before his death in 1135, Henry had nominated his nephew, Stephen of Blois, to succeed him, despite Maud's claims to the throne. After 19 years of conflicts and chaos, Henry II, son of Maud and Geoffroy, became king in 1154. The Plantagenets now controlled England and Normandy, along with most of southwestern France. Their power was too great a threat to the French kings, and in 1204, after the fall of the fortress of Chateau-Gaillard, the duchy of Normandy would revert to the French crown.


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