He was the son of Rolf or Rollo, the lead Viking who settled in Normandy, France. William is the great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror.
Let’s look at some genealogical tables to get the big picture.
Here are Crouch’s first two tables:
Here are Chibnall’s first two tables:
Here is Douglas’s table:
BASIC FACTS AND STORIES
The ancient sources are few and spotty. The points are numbered for clarity and conciseness.
- William was born in lands beyond the seas “to a father dwelling in heathen lands” (qtd in Crouch, who was quoting a Latin lament after his death).
- His mother was Popa or Popia, Rollo’s concubine. The Medieval historian Dudo of St. Quentin, who lived a hundred years after the events and was commissioned to writing a glowing history of these early Normans, says his mother was Gisele, daughter of Charles the Simple (Straightforward, not Simpleton), great-great-grandson of Charlemagne. Thus William was born to the greatest royal ancestor.
- Most modern historians say no. His mother was Popa. However, one modern French Medievalist, Ivan Gobry, accepts Dudo’s account (see below for his genealogical table).
- Many of these early Normans were born to concubines—note William the Conqueror, also called the “Bastard.”
- Concubinage was more acceptable back then, especially among the Danish-Norwegian or Nordic-Scandinavian cultures. Frankish nobility were doing this too, however.
- In any case, William was probably baptized with his father, in 912. He must have had a Viking name and changed it then to the Frankish William. His father’s name was Rolf, but Frankish clerks Latinized it to Rollo. Dudo says Rollo’s name was changed to Robert and even called him that.
- Longsword was a warrior’s name and could have been a Viking cognomen. It speaks of his military power, his fighting prowess.
- He was part of the army of Vikings that sailed into the Seine River estuary, in the second decade of the tenth century (910-919).
- These Vikings were always looking to expand their territories.
- 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.
- In 924-25, brutal fighting between the Franks and Viking invaders happened in Beauvais, Ponthieu, and Amiens, his father Rolf or Rollo leading the Vikings, and William was there too, earning his nickname.
- However, the Viking expansion was halted east of Eu in the Valley of Bresle, by the counts of Flanders (more on that, below).
- While his father Rollo or Rolf was dying, “warfare rose against him, but ever trusting in God, he mastered every enemy by the strength of his right hand” (qtd in Crouch, who was quoting a Latin lament).
- Most historians believe Rollo died from 928-930, and at his death William had to fight to keep his dominance.
- The Vikings along the Seine River submitted. King Ralph (r. 923-936), son-in-law of Robert I, who ruled W. Francia or Lesser France from 922 to 923, brought benefits to William.
- In 927 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, in 933 King Ralph granted the land of the Bretons along the seacoast, after he had sworn previous allegiance in 927.
- This grant encouraged William to gain territory in there. Apparently he did, and coins were minted that were found as far west and south at St. Mon-Michel. One of the coins say he is the “Duke of the Bretons.” William was advancing and upgrading his title. He was a Christian Frankish prince.
- He met a Breton woman Sprota and had a son Richard, a Frankish name.
- Some men, both Frankish and Scandinavian, did not like his growing power. He was turning into a Frankish prince. One of them, named Riulf, revolted in 934. He cornered William in Rouen. William led his personal guard out to fight and won. Riulf fled for his life. He showed why he got his nickname.
- In 933 a historian called William princeps or leader. The Vikings recognized him as the “Count of Rouen.” The titles of dukes and counts were awarded by the Carolingians, but William and other Frankish nobles were taking the initiative and calling themselves such titles.
- It was believed that kings were anointed by God, just as in the Bible, but now the dukes and counts achieved this quality too.
- Dudo calls both William and his father Rollo lawgivers—maybe not an exaggeration.
- William welcomed back monks who had retreated a hundred miles away to an estate at Hapres, near Cambrai. They revitalized Benedictine life in the Seine Valley.
- Leutgarde, daughter of Count Herbert II of Vermandois, was married off to William in about 936-37. Herbert was a direct descendant of Charlemagne. However, the marriage was childless.
- William met his end not by internal struggles, but by Frankish princes.
- In 1939 William affronted Count Arnulf of Flanders, who had to fight Viking penetration into the Rhineland and the north of France. They were a threat to the Flemings.
- He insulted Arnulf by reappointing Herluin as count over the region of Montreuil, which Arnulf had tried to annex.
- Arnulf invited William to meet at a marcher (borderland) conference on the River Somme, on an island in the river on Saturday 15 Dec 942, to arrange a peace settlement.
- As part of his plan, Arnulf talked a long time until dusk, just as the sun set behind the black alder thickets. They parted. He pushed away from the shore but was called back. Arnulf had more information.
- William returned. Six assassins with swords awaited him and hacked him down, the fatal blow being to the head. William was defenseless and unarmed, as were his men.
- Two of his household recovered his body and ferried it back across the river.
- He was laid to rest in the cathedral of Rouen.
- William left a young son, Richard, about nine years old.
Here is William’s epitaph as recorded by Medieval historian Orderic Vitalis, in his Ecclesiastical History (Book 5, ii.372; or vol. 3, pp. 91-93 in Marjorie Chibnall’s translation for Oxford U P, 1972).
Whom William guarded none could overcome,
Helpless were all that William chose to harm;
Fearful to princes were his arms arrayed,
Henry, most warlike emperor, shrank afraid.
He ruled his Normans five and twenty years,
As duke and warrior ceaseless in his cares,
Jumièges [abbey] he raised anew and hoped within
Its holy walls to learn sound discipline;
Following the peerless Benedict, he desired
To serve beneath his rule, by God inspired.
Martin* deferred the day; the powers divine,
Foreseeing his cruel mother, sent a sign.
Then by Count Arnold’s guile, unarmed, he fell;
May he, so slaughtered, gain God’s heaven. Amen
*Martin was abbot of Jumièges.
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
William Longsword, a Norman
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).