By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Rollo (not the candy) was a leader of a band of Vikings who invaded northern France and settled there in 918 A.D. He was called Rollo the Walker, because he was said to have been too big to ride a horse (either too tall or too fat—it isn’t clear in the sagas). The area he settled, or took over, became the land of the Northmen which over time became the duchy of Normandy. Rollo is significant because he was the three times grandfather of William of Normandy who is known throughout history as William the Conqueror (aka, William the Bastard).
William’s father died when he was eight, and he instantly became the heir. But he had to fight for his birthright since he was considered by most everyone as a bastard. Luckily for William, he was very good at fighting and he won his place as the Duke of Normandy. The English king, Edward the Confessor, had promised William the throne of England upon his death. Perhaps he forgot this fact (or just ignored it) because he also promised the throne to Harold Godwinson (Harold the Saxon) as well. Thus a contest for the throne of England was set. Harold was proclaimed king, and William decided to defend his right to the throne.
By a twist of fate, a Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada (the Ruthless) also decided to take England by force. He wasn’t promised the throne, though; his connection came from Harold Godwinson’s troublesome brother, Tostig (gasp! No nickname?). He brought 300 ships and 11,000 Vikings to take the English throne. They attacked at the north of England and managed to take the city of York. Harold knew that William was going to attack as well but that would be at a different part of England, so what was Harold to do? He decided to defend England against Harald Hardrada and his Vikings even knowing that William was close to sailing to attack from a different coast. It turned out that William was delayed in his conquest of England because he was waiting for good winds to take him across the English Channel. If the winds had turned good earlier, who know what would have happened (now that would be a good alternate history idea).
Harold was successful in defeating the Viking forces at Stamford Bridge, but at great cost. And since the Vikings had attacked England at the north end of the country, the English under Harold Godwinson had to force-march ten miles a day for three weeks to get to the south of England and meet William. They were mostly walking—most of the soldiers didn’t have horses, and given the distance, they made good time. But they were exhausted when they got there, and they had to fight the next day. No day of rest for them. William and his Norman forces won the day; Harold was killed with an arrow through the eye; and history was made. This was effectively the end of the English kings, and the beginning of Norman/French rule. William continued to fight to consolidate his rule of England. He fought other battles in 1068 against Harold Godwinson’s heirs and in 1069 the Danes attacked York, aided by revolting (what they did, not how they looked) English nobles. He scorched the earth so badly after he won it was said that there was famine in the area for nine years.
And why was William conquering England so important?
- The Normans brought French language to England. The rulers and the courts spoke French, and it was the official language of England for centuries. In time it trickled down through the whole country and became closer to the language we know today. The reason we can read Chaucer and other Middle English works is that they are not in Anglo-Saxon.
- Many believe that the Normans won because they used stirrups when they rode to battle. Stirrups hadn’t made it to the island of Britain yet and the Normans were using armored cavalry, 3000 strong! When throwing spears and slashing from horseback, it is far easier to stay in the saddle with stirrups!
- William ordered that a national census be done in 1086; the first census was called the Domesday Book. He wanted to see what he had conquered. It is still extant and can be looked at in the National Archives. It is also available online and as a book.
- Some sources believe that the legend of Robin Hood was actually born during the time of the Norman invasion under William, not under his 4th great grandson John.
- The Norman Invasion brought castles to England. France invented the castle as a way to protect property and dominate the land, and the Normans built many stout and menacing castles in England to control England. Many are still standing today.
- Chivalry came to Great Britain with the Normans. Imagine life without the romance of knights and their ladies; King Arthur would not have been such a great influence without this way of acting and living.
- William banned the English slave trade. He even sometimes freed slaves. Some historians believe that 15% to 20% of the population was enslaved before the Invasion. True, they brought in the feudal system with serfs, who were treated sometimes like slaves. But they couldn’t be sold, except when the land was sold or traded hands.
- William erected an abbey at the spot where Harold died, in remembrance and in penance. Ruins of the abbey are still there, as is a town called Battle. Normans erected other churches, cathedrals as well as castles.
- The Battle of Hastings was recreated on a 230 feet long (and 20 inches wide) tapestry by the women of Bayeux, France (either nuns and/or women in William’s family). It is the longest tapestry in existence. It is known as the Bayeux Tapestry and is quite famous for the battle scenes, which are quite graphic. If it was created by nuns, they knew battle…
- Normans brought surnames to England as well. Anglo-Saxons, similar to the Vikings, had a descriptive surname, like Luke the Fat or Marcus the butcher.
- And finally, for the gross factor: William died in his French capital, Rouen. He confessed his sins and distributed his treasure to the poor and to some of the churches in his realms. It is believed that William was injured by a fall or perhaps from the pommel of his saddle (he was very heavy later in life). In any case, it was an internal injury and swelled badly. The priests had a hard time getting him into his stone sarcophagus, which was a little too short and not big enough for him, and had to push hard. His wounds, having festered, burst from the corpse; it was a very quick burial after that… (ewwww…)
- Still, all kings (and queens) in England after William were descended through him. Some believe over 25% of the English population can trace their genealogy back through him. And may Americans can also count him as an ancestor. Justin Timberlake and Barack Obama are very distant cousins, both having lines back to William!
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