Rollo of Normandy (ca. 860-ca. 932)

Rollo, sometimes known as “Rolf,” belonged to the savage “Northmen” (the Vikings) who descended upon Western Christendom in semi-regular, yet always unpredictable savage raids for nearly three centuries beginning in the mid-ninth century.:”(Some of this information has been taken from the article “Rollo of Normandy,” by David C. Douglas, in The English Historical Review, No. CCXXVIII, Oct. 1942, pp. 417-436. Supplementary material has been taken from Charles Homer Haskins, The Normans in European History [New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1995], reprint of 1915 edition.)”: Due to the scanty and sometimes romantically unreliable records which remain to us, little is known of Rollo and his life. He was probably born in Norway, was exiled for “lawless” behavior (piracy), travelled to Scotland and Ireland, and, like other notable barbarians before him, eventually married a Christian woman who quite literally changed his life.:”(Remember Clovis, the fifth century king of the Franks, converted by his Christian wife, Clotilda.)”: Rollo was a proud son of a proud heritage: it is reported that no one in his family back to his great-grandfather had ever paid homage to any man.:”(Haskins, pg. 27.)”: A perhaps unreliable Viking saga about a figure named “Harold Fairhair,” who is often identified with Rollo, states that he was physically so huge that no horse could carry him.:”(Ibid., 28.)”:

Rollo’s destiny, or rather, that of his descendants, was to be a grand one. In the year of the Lord’s incarnation 911, the territory we know as “Normandy” was ceded by King Charles the Simple (r. 898-922), an embattled descendant of Charlemagne, to the marauding Northman ruler Rolf (ca. 860-932), as part of an agreement to alleviate the Norman raids. Rolf publicly humiliated the king by upending him from his horse when the latter presented his foot to be kissed, but he nevertheless accepted the Christian religion with all of his subjects. Rolf passed the throne of the new domain of Normandy to his son William “Longsword” (d. 942) sometime around 927.

There is some debate to this day whether the position with which Rollo was invested and which he passed down to his successors was more akin to that of a “count” (comte) under Charlemagne or a “duke” (dux) in the style of later Medieval rulers. Whatever the case, within only a few generations his descendants would be unambiguously called “Dukes of Normandy.” William “Longsword,” Rollo’s own son, was followed by Richard I, Richard II, Richard III, Robert I, and at last the most famous of their lineage, William the Conqueror, who planned and oversaw the Norman Conquest of England in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1066.

Rollo’s conversion to Christianity is often thought of as a merely formal occasion helping to ratify a political treaty with a Christian king (Charles the Simple). Although Rollo did grant extensive lands to the Church and found many monasteries, it is possible that he reconverted to paganism on his deathbed. As well, it is apparently the case that Rollo and his people’s immediate effects on the Church in their new domains were not positive. The Frankish Church generally speaking was in a state of decline in this period, as is notably seen in the great gaps in succession lists of some of its bishops.:”(For instance, Lisieux has a gap from 832-990, Avranches has a gap from 862-990, and Sees has a gap from 910-936.)”: But while this may be the case with Rollo himself, and with some of his followers and successors, it is nevertheless true that by the time of the Norman Conquest the savage Northmen of Rollo had been to no small degree tamed by the Gospel and had become dynamic cultural leaders in the societas Christiana. From their loins, both physical and cultural, would come, for instance, the great reforming movement of Lanfranc of Bec, which would have a great impact on the English Church in the aftermath of the Conquest, and the work of one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the second millennium, St. Anselm of Canterbury.

Rollo the savage Northman would thus prove to be an instrument in the hand of God, forging a legacy that he himself would never see, nor likely comprehend at all.


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