King RolloDigital vector art by Charles Cranston.

By Susan Abernethy

As I wrote in an earlier post about testing my family DNA, it was revealed that on the patrimonial side, my ancestry was about ninety percent Nordic Viking. This was a bit of a shock as the family history always stressed our ancestors were from Ireland and therefore we thought we were of Celtic background. In addition to this revelation, a new television series has aired on the History Channel called “Vikings”. The Vikings were starting to creep into my consciousness. So I began reading “A Brief History of the Vikings” by Jonathan Clements.

In recounting what is known of Viking history and the sagas which were written about in the Middle Ages, Clements tells the story of Hrolf the Walker, otherwise known as Rollo or Rolf. Now this is a Viking I knew something about. He was an ancestor of William the Conqueror, the Norman duke who crossed the English Channel and beat King Harold II (Godwinson) at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to become the first Norman King of England.

According to traditions and writings in Norway and Iceland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there was a man named Harald Fairhair who is remembered by medieval historians as the first King of Norway. Harald seems to have been pretty powerful. A great deal of trade was going on between Norway and other countries and Fairhair collected duties on the trade with Iceland and Lapland. There is some archaeological evidence that backs this tradition. He appointed earls who were entrusted with dispensing justice, enforcing the law and collecting taxes. These earls were allowed to keep a portion of what they collected for their own expenses. In return, they were obligated to provide soldiers for the king when needed.

Fairhair’s system allowed for a great deal of economic prosperity, especially for the earls and the king. But the smaller landholders were likely disenfranchised. This made for some pretty unhappy Norwegians who couldn’t pay the taxes or protection money to the earls, forcing them from their land. Some of the dispossessed fled across the North Sea to Scotland, the Orkneys, the Faroe Islands, and to Finnmark, Finland and the south Baltic coast. A few of these refugees may have ended up creating more trade for Norway but some created trouble for Fairhair. One of these troublemakers was the son of Fairhair’s associate Rognvald – Hrolf the Walker.

Hrolf supposedly got his nickname because he was so large there was no horse big enough to carry him. After spending some time in the Baltic harassing the inhabitants, he must have become tired of this occupation or felt he could do better because he returned to Norway and was attacking in the west. He eventually took his men and ships, travelling to the Hebrides and Ireland and finally the southern shore of the English Channel.

Hrolf made many incursions into the territory of the Franks as the French were called then. He participated in the Viking siege of Paris in 885-6. In 911, Hrolf began a siege of Chartres. Many noblemen answered the plea for help from the Bishop and Hrolf was defeated on July 20, 911 at the Battle of Chartres. The result was the Treaty of St.-Claire-sur-Epte. Hrolf swore fealty to the French King, Charles the Simple, converted to Christianity, was baptized with the name Robert and may have married Charles’s presumably illegitimate daughter Gisela.

Depiction of the baptism of Rollo, from a fourteenth-century French manuscript, Toulouse Library.

Depiction of the baptism of Rollo, from a fourteenth-century French manuscript, Toulouse Library.

Charles was probably formalizing an existing state of affairs as Hrolf had been in Frankish territory for some time. Charles may have seen an opportunity to create a buffer between future Viking attacks and his kingdom. Hrolf and his soldiers were given all the land between the river Epte and the sea and in return Hrolf promised to end his attacks and give military assistance for the protection of the kingdom which he appears to have provided.

Continue via Rollo, Viking Count of Normandy « The Freelance History Writer.