Gateway to the Classics: Barbarian and Noble by Marion Florence Lansing
Barbarian and Noble by  Marion Florence Lansing

Rollo the Viking

Rollo, or Rolf the Walker his companions called him, for he was so large and tall that he could not ride on the little Norwegian ponies which scrambled up and down the steep mountain paths, but always walked wherever he wished to go. He was a splendid Norse hero, such as the poets loved to describe in their sagas, tall, broad-shouldered, with yellow hair, and "fiercely blue" eyes, which could command the roughest sea robber and bring him to his will. And he was a typical Northman, too, in his restlessness and love of adventure. His father was Jarl Roegnwald, a chieftain highly honored by the king of Norway, but the narrow limits of the group of islands over which his father ruled were too close for him, even as his father's horses were too small. The wild blood ran too swiftly in his young veins for him to be content at home; and after the fashion of young Norse nobles he built him a ship, and gathering a company of men, betook himself to the wide sea where he might wander wherever he pleased. There was no harm in that, for the calling of sea rover, which meant as well sea robber, was an honorable one among the Northmen; but the king of Norway, Harald Haarfager, had made a law that while the sea roving nobles of his realm might plunder every other land, and might rob any other peoples, they should never exercise their right of Strandhug  or appropriation on their fellow countrymen. So when Rollo, voyaging home from a long cruise in the Baltic Sea, where he had been very short of food, landed on the island of Vigen and plundered a Norwegian village, Harald, who happened to be staying near by, was very angry, and caused a court of justice to be assembled to banish Rollo from Norway.

Hilldur, the mother of Rollo, went as soon as she heard this to the king to intercede for her son, but Harald was inflexible. Though Rollo was indeed the son of his most trusted chieftain and dearest friend, and though there were none that the king held in greater esteem than Jarl Roegnwald and the lady Hilldur, nevertheless his son must be punished for his lawlessness. Finding her prayers ineffectual, Hilldur departed from the king, chanting mournfully as she went the song written about another Norse hero:

You then expel my dearest son (named after my father!)

The lion whom you exile,

Is the bold progeny of a noble race.

Why, O King, are you thus violent?

But the king could not be moved from his purpose, and Rollo sailed away from Norway, an outlaw, in the boat which was become his only home.

We hear of Rollo presently in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland, where a company of Northmen had settled who became his willing allies, and again we read in the chronicles of England how in the early years of Alfred's reign "Rollo and his gang" landed in Britain, "and started to harry the land." Then in one of the intervals of rest from Danish attack comes the welcome entry, "In this year Rollo and his mates made their way over into Normandy." Alfred had made peace with them, and Rollo, ever restless and longing for adventure, had led his men over into France.

History tells us that Rollo left England because Alfred had defeated him in battle, but legend has another tale of his going, which I have copied from an old, old book, where it is headed "The Vision of Rollo."

"At night, as Rollo slept, there seemed that a swarm of bees flew quickly over him and his host, and hummed off southward, and flew over the mid sea, and so came to land. And there drew they together, and settled on the leaves of diverse trees, and in short time, filled they all that land, and began to bring together unto one place flowrets of many a hue. Here woke Rollo, and thought on that dream, and the interpretation thereof. And when he had diligently considered the thing, he guessed that he might find rest from his toil in those parts where the bees had settled. So crossed he the sea, and put to shore in Normandy."

"Rest from his toil" would have seemed to the terrified Franks the last thing which Rollo or any of his Viking band wanted. The Charles who ruled that portion of the empire of Charlemagne—whose great union of the countries of Europe had fallen to pieces in the hands of his weaker sons—was called by his subjects Charles the Simple or Charles the Fool, by which we may guess that he was not wise or strong enough to manage his own people, much less to drive out a great company of Northmen such as came in the mighty fleet of Rollo and his allies. He was far away inland when the Northmen, or Norsemen, as the name came to be pronounced, came up the Seine and made their camp at a town five leagues from Rouen, and the terrified people did not know to whom to turn. But a bold archbishop, by the name of Francon, taking his life in his hands, went over into the Norsemen's camp, and came before the terrible Rollo, of whose wild exploits he had heard for twenty-five years, and proposed that he and the barbarian leader make a treaty concerning the safety of the city of Rouen.

It took a brave man to enter the barbarian camp with such a proposition, the more as Francon knew that the emperor Charles was far away and the walls of Rouen were so broken down by the previous Norse invasions that the city was hardly defensible. But Rollo was a leader who admired a brave man, whether friend or foe, though the archbishop could not know that. Moreover we begin to see here for the first time in Rollo's life that perhaps he was more than a splendid barbarian. Perhaps after all the Norse sea king, now for twenty or thirty years a rover, did desire "rest from his toil" and a home where he might dwell with his people. At all events he made a treaty with the archbishop of Rouen that if his people might have possession of the city and might occupy it without opposition from the inhabitants, they would neither plunder nor kill nor harm in any fashion the city or its people.

The citizens of Rouen did not know what to make of this message which the archbishop brought back. They did not have much faith in the promise, but they were helpless, so it mattered little what they did. It was with many misgivings that they threw open their gates and gave over their keys, but the barbarians kept their word, and no man of Rouen suffered from their entry into the city.

Outside the gates of Rouen the Norsemen built a huge camp, and hither came Charles with all the Franks he could muster to fight them. To tell the tale of the battles between the Franks and the Norsemen were a weary matter. Other Vikings came and joined Rollo, and other leaders became his allies. One of these was Siegfried, who came so near to taking Paris in the famous thirteen months' siege of the year 885, but was at last driven back by the noble count Odo in command of the Franks. Meanwhile Rollo, who could never be content to have taken one city, led his men here and there in the western part of France, taking one city after another, and behold! the conquered people found that this terrible Rollo of whom they had heard such tales was not the barbarian of their fancy, but a strong ruler, who in spite of his rude ways treated them fairly and was better able to preserve order in the land than their absent emperor, whose overlordship had not kept the Frankish nobles from constant strife among themselves.

Year by year the Norsemen gained more power, until, some eight or ten years later, Rollo made plans for an extensive conquest of the kingdom. All the Norsemen in France were to unite and move in three great armies up the three rivers of France, the Seine, the Loire, and the Garonne, ravaging and taking possession as they went.

Charles the Simple was filled with panic at this plan of invasion. He had met Rollo before, and he remembered well the answer which Rollo had given one of his messengers who asked the Norse chieftain, "For what end have you come to France?"

"To drive out the people who are here, or make them our subjects, and to gain for ourselves a new country," Rollo had answered.

"Will you submit to King Charles?" the ambassador had asked.

"No. We yield to none," had been the proud reply. "All that we take by our strength and our arms we will keep as our right."

Charles had not forgotten that defiant message which had come to him soon after Rollo's first coming to France. Now he wrote to Archbishop Francon, who had dealt with Rollo at Rouen, entreating him to solicit from Rollo, in whose province at Rouen he still dwelt, a truce of three months.

"My kingdom is laid waste," wrote the alarmed monarch, "my subjects are destroyed or driven into exile; the fields are no longer plowed or sown. Tell the Northman that I am well disposed to make a lasting peace with him, and that if he will become a Christian, I will give him broad lands and rich presents."

Rollo consented readily to this proposal, and the truce was strictly observed by both sides; but at the end of the three months the Franks resumed hostilities without notifying the Northman that they considered the truce to be at an end. This Rollo regarded as an act of bad faith, to which he promptly responded by renewing his invasions with even greater violence. The fair valleys of France were for many months the scene of bloodshed and slaughter, and the people of the land despaired of ever seeing prosperity again, even as the people of England had lost heart before the coming of Alfred. A great council or parliament of barons and nobles and bishops came together to entreat Charles the Simple to take pity upon the land.

"Look upon the sufferings of your people," they said to him. "Their life is become altogether wretched. The land is desolated and brings forth no more crops, for of what use is it to sow seed when bands of Norsemen will shortly trample down the growing harvest, or if perchance the wheat should come to its growth, they will reap it before the very eyes of the starving people. The vineyards have been laid waste, the vines broken down, the peasantry wander hither and thither through the land in search of food, and because of the unsettled state of the country the highways are infested with robbers and murderers, and neither pilgrim nor merchant dares to travel on the highways."

They did not tell him so in words, but Charles could not help seeing that the people blamed him for the state of affairs, and said among themselves, "All this comes because we have a weak king, who will neither meet the enemy in battle nor make nor keep a wise peace with him, but leaves us at his mercy." What they needed was a king like Alfred who had delivered England from just such a state of misery.

Either King Charles was wiser than he had seemed, or else he had farseeing counselors whose suggestions he followed, for he roused himself and did the wisest thing which could have been done. He sent Archbishop Francon to Rollo, offering him the province of Neustria and the hand of his daughter, the beautiful young Gisela, in marriage, provided he would become a Christian and live in peace with the Franks. The nobles had by this time come to see that in Rollo they had a chieftain of very different temper from the wild sea robbers who came into the land for naught but treasure and slaughter. Perhaps Rainier, the count of Hainaut, had the ear of the king, and told him how he had been taken prisoner by the Norseman, and how his wife Alberade, the countess Brabant, had gone to Rollo, requesting her husband's release and offering to set free twelve captains of the Vikings, who had been taken by her men in the battle, in exchange for Count Rainier, and to give up as well all the gold which she possessed. She would have counted herself fortunate to save her husband, even though it left them impoverished and destitute, but Rollo had restored to the countess not only her husband but half the gold which she offered. At all events the king made known to Rollo his willingness to give him a province of his realm, and Rollo accepted the offer, objecting only to the lands offered to him, which he considered too much devastated by war.

At the little village of Saint-Clair King Charles and Rollo met, even as Alfred and Guthrum had met in England. The Franks pitched their tents on one side of the river, and the Norsemen on the other. After much bargaining it was settled that Rollo should have a great province, of which Rouen was the center, in the north of France, and he came across the river where the counts and bishops and nobles and lords were assembled to witness the ceremony of receiving the Norseman into the kingdom.

Rollo had to take an oath of allegiance to Charles as his overlord, making himself one of the emperor's crown vassals, and this he consented to do, putting his hands between the king's hands in token of homage for the province and saying, "From this time forward I am your vassal, and I give my oath that I will faithfully protect your life, your limbs, and your royal honor."

Then the king and all the nobles and abbots and dukes, and the great crown vassals, repeated a like oath, confirming the cession of land made to Rollo. They swore that they would protect Rollo in his life, his limbs, and his folk, and his honor; and would guarantee to him the possession of the land, to him and his descendants forever. After this Rollo was declared the duke his province, and the wandering outlaw of Norway was a rightful landholder once more.

There is an old story, which may or may not be true, that when the terms had all been agreed upon, the Frankish nobles told Rollo that for so great a gift as this he was bound to kiss the king's foot.

"Never," quoth Rollo, "will I bend the knee to any, and I will kiss the feet of none."

When the Franks pressed the point, he ordered one of his followers to come forward and take his place. The man stepped forward. No Norseman would dispute a command from Rollo. But he did not relish the duty, and he did not intend to bend the knee any more than his master. Instead, therefore, of stooping before the king, he took the king's foot in his hand and raised it to his mouth, lifting it so high that the poor old monarch fell over backward, amid shouts of laughter from the throng. The barbarian was not all gone from the Northman yet.

At Rouen Rollo received baptism from the hands of his Frankish associate and neighbor, Archbishop Francon, and wore, as King Guthrum had done in England, the white robe of the Church for seven days. It must have been a strange sight to see the old Norse sea king stalking about in the long white garment. Rich presents were given on both sides, and many of his followers were baptized at the same time. Those who refused to come into the new settlement received presents of arms, money, and horses, and went whither they would, beyond the seas, to return to their native land or to pursue their life of adventure. Then Rollo was married by Christian ceremonies to the lady Gisela, and went to his province, which soon came to be known as the duchy of Normandy, while the men who dwelt there and their descendants were known as Normans, which was easier to say than Northman or Norseman.

Normandy was in a sad state when Rollo became duke; but he ruled wisely and well, so ordering the affairs of his duchy that he was honored of all men. The laws which he gave out were fair, and he was careful to have them justly administered. The farmers and tillers of the land he protected with great diligence, and the land became rich and prosperous. Robbers and murderers were dealt with so severely that they ceased to frequent that duchy. The pretty story is told of the safety of the kingdom which is told of the realms of Alfred and other wise kings also, and which shows how happy and serene the people were under their ruler.

When Duke Rollo was hunting one day, he and his company came to a fair glade, where they sat down to rest and refresh themselves. As they feasted together Rollo said that he would prove the honesty of his people and the security of his duchy. So he took off two gold bracelets and hung them on a tree close by; and though the tree was. beside the highway, yet when the duke went many weeks later to seek them, they hung there still.

It is a beautiful page of history,—this tale of the Northman become Norman,—and it does not end with Rollo and his men. They could not wholly throw off the effects of their wild lives of conquest and strife. But their descendants, keeping the strength and vigor of their Viking ancestors, took on the culture of the Franks, forming a race which became the conquerors and leaders of Europe, the foremost champions of her religion and her civilization and her arts. It was Rollo's descendant, known in history as William the Conqueror, who one hundred and fifty years later conquered England, and introduced there Norman customs and language and literature. Feudalism and chivalry, the two great institutions of the Middle Ages, come to us in Norman guise.

Rollo died an old, old man, and was buried in the church of Rouen; and with him ends the last great barbarian invasion from the North. The North, the "forge of mankind," as an old Roman writer had called it, had sent one Teutonic people after another down on the gentler Southland, and with the mingling of the races the tale of the wandering of the nations in Europe is complete.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Alfred and the Danes  |  Next: Saint Winfred
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.