Born in latter half of the 800s and died around 928, he was the Viking leader who became the count of Rouen, capital of Normandy. Some say he was the duke of the Normans. He was the first in the House of Normandy and the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror.
Let’s start with genealogical tables to find out where we are headed.
Here are Crouch’s first two tables:
Here are Chibnall’s first two tables:
Here is Douglas’s table:
Here is Bouchard’s table of the Carolingians:
BASIC FACTS AND STORIES
There are very few documents that survive about Rollo, and the historian Dudo of St. Quentin, who lived a century after the events and was commissioned to write a glowing history of the early Normans, cannot be trusted entirely.
The points are numbered for clarity and conciseness.
- Norman is related to the word Northman—Vikings. Normandy came from that word too.
- His full name was probably Hrolfr Ketilson, as Crouch’s first genealogical table shows.
- He was born in the second half of the ninth century.
- He grew up in the Norwegian settlements on the skirts of the Atlantic and became a Viking.
- He was of noble descent; otherwise he could not have the title jarl—the word earl is related to it.
- He was a jarl of a small Viking fleet. He commanded this fleet among a Viking army that arrived on the Atlantic coast of France.
- One fleet went south to the Loire River, while his fleet sailed to the Seine River and its large estuary, in the second decade of the tenth century (910-919).
- Rouen, the capital of Normandy, had been weakened by earlier Viking raids, as far back as 845. The Seine was then used as a water route to attack Paris.
- These raids were made easier because the Frankish kingdom was winding down after the death of Louis the Pious (d. 840), son of Charlemagne (d. 814).
- Their inheritance was fought over for many years.
- Paris was besieged from 885-889, and Charles the Fat (deposed 887, d. 888), great-grandson of Charlemagne, had to placate the Vikings by giving them free rein to plunder Burgundy.
- At this time the powerful family called the Robertians (or Robertines) arose around Paris. They were powerful enough to compete with the Carolingians (descendants of Charlemagne) for the throne of West Francia.
- It is important to realize that France as we know it today was not even close to being unified in the Medieval Age. It was in the process of breaking up into a patchwork of duchies and counties, overseen by dukes and counts. They tirelessly competed with each other.
- Odo (Eudes), a Robertian, was elected the king of West Francis in 888. But in 893 an “anti-king,” Charles the Simple (Straightforward, not Simpleton), (r. 898-923, d. 929) was elected. He was the son of Charles the Bald and great-great grandson of Charlemagne.
- Rolf the Viking invaded during these unsettled times and threatened these kings.
- Around this time clerks Latinized his name to Rollo.
- Dudo says Rolf got baptized a Christian in 912. But he and his men may not have been exemplary believers.
- Also, Dudo says his godfather was Robert of Neustria (see him, below) and would have sponsored him, so he took the name Robert, as in Rollo-Robert. Dudo called him Robert.
- So we have Rolf-Rollo-Robert.
- Rollo took a concubine named Popa or Poppa. Was she Frankish or Danish? Their son William (see his post, below) was supposedly born in Nordic lands, so if Popa was his mother, she must have been Danish (or Norwegian).
- Many of the early Normans were born to concubines—note William the Conqueror, who was a “bastard.”
- Rollo developed friendly relations with the archbishop of Rouen. Apparently this archbishop stayed with his flock during the Viking invasions, while most Frankish civil officers lost their lives.
- In 918 Charles the Simple gave Rollo this charter, part of which reads: “We have granted that [the] abbey [of St. Germain-des-Prés] apart from those of its properties which we have given for the protection of the kingdom, to the Northmen on the Seine, that is, to Rollo and his associates” (qtd in Crouch p. 3).
- Rollo was expected to kiss the feet of Charles. Would he do it? Apparently so.
- In other words, Charles the Simple was simply buying off Rolf to have peace. The Carolingians or Franks were weakening.
- In 925 Rollo in Eu led the Northmen against the Franks, who were retaliating for an earlier attack by Rollo in the Beauvaisis. This shows he was active and seeking to conquer new territory.
- Another key paragraph in a near-contemporary historian: In 927, after Count Robert waged a campaign against the Northmen in the region of Chartres, the Northmen “began to accept Christianity. They had been conceded certain coastal provinces along with the city of Rouen, which they had nearly leveled and other cities dependent on it” (qtd in Crouch p. 3).
- Rollo’s daughter Adela married William III, count of Poitiers in 935 and duke of Aquitaine in 951. They had offspring, notably William IV, whose descendants fathered Eleanor of Aquitaine, who married Henry II of England. And this Henry was also descended from Rollo.
- Robert of Neutria (overlaps with later Normandy, but south), who briefly succeeded Charles the Simple, was killed in Brittany by Vikings. Were they led by Rollo? Probably, which indicates he was moving westward. Apparently, if Robert was his godfather, then the Vikings did not honor him.
- Robert of Neustria’s son-in-law, Ralph, became king (ruled 923-36). A record says he ceded the provinces of the Bessin and Maine to Rollo.
- In 927 the son of Rollo—William Longsword—swore allegiance to Ralph, but Medievalist David Crouch says he also gave allegiance to Charles the Simple. Charles was still alive, but he was tricked by Herbert of Vermandois and imprisoned, so maybe William thought it was prudent to swear allegiance to both, somehow, because Charles’s son Louis escaped to England.
- Regardless, the year 927 indicates Rollo was alive, but maybe in frail health. He was dead by 933, when King Ralph granted land to Rollo’s son William, so most historians conclude Rollo died in 928, though Chibnall says around 930.
- His burial place is said to be the Cathedral of Rouen.
Here is the epitaph recorded by Orderic Vitalis in his Ecclesiastical History (Book V ii.372 or vol. 3 p. 91 in Marjorie Chibnall’s translation for Oxford U P, 1972).
Duke of the Normans, dreaded by his foes,
His people’s shield, here Rollo buried lies;
Valiant as were his forebears and, like them,
Not made nor doomed to be an underling.
The king of Denmark, leading mighty armies,
Fell back defeated by his invading power;
Frisians, men of Hesbach, Hainault, Walcheren,
United in one force he scattered far.
He torched the Frisians, crushed in bloody battles,
To offer fealty and pay him tribute.
He captures Bayeux and twice conquered Paris;
None more than he pressed fiercely on the squadrons
Of Franks; fir thirty years he spread destruction
Throughout the fields of Charles the Simple’s kingdom.
After much conquest, looting, fire and slaughter,
He forced the Franks to seek a wise alliance,
Humbly sought baptism at the hands of France,
And cleansed himself from all his former vices.
Once to the meek a wolf, but then most lamb-like;
May he, so changed, find peace and rest in Heaven.
Ivan Gobry, a French Medievalist, accepts the account in Dudo of St. Quentin, who lived a century after the events, which says that Rollo married Gisele, a daughter of Charles the Simple, and had William Longsword. Thus William was a descendant of Charlemagne.
Here is Gobry’s genealogical table:
Key: Rollon = Rollo; ép. = épouse = spouse; fille = daughter; longue épee = Longsword; comte = count; archevêque = archbishop; evêque = bishop; moine = monk; roi = king; Angleterre = England; bâtard = bastard; Bretagne = Brittany.
However, the Medievalists who wrote the books in English listed under Sources say that William Longsword’s mother was the concubine Popa or Poppa. Dudo was merely burnishing William’s ancestry.
You decide. (I agree with the skeptics.)
HOUSES OF NORMANDY AND BLOIS
Rolf or Rollo the Viking
Constance B. Bouchard, Those of My Blood: Constructing Noble Families in Medieval Francia (U Penn P 2001)
Jim Bradbury, The Capetians: Kings of France (Continuum, 2007).
Marjorie Chibnall, The Normans (Blackwell, 2000, 2006).
David Crouch, The Normans: The History of a Dynasty (Hambledon and London, 2002).
David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (UC P, 1964).
Earl of Onslow, The Dukes of Normandy and their Origin (Hutchinson, 1945)
Ivan Gobry, Robert II: Fils de Hughes Capet, Histoire des Rois de France (Pygmalion, 2005).
John Le Patourel, Norman Barons (The Historical Association, Hastings and Bexhill Branch, 1966).
—, The Norman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1976, and special edition for Sandpiper Books, 1997).
Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, eds. William W. Kibler and Grover A. Zinn (New York: Garland, 1995).
Pierre Riché, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, trans. Michael Idormir Allen (U Penn P, 1993).