Old Time Tales - Lawton Evans

How Normandy Came by its Name

The Vikings were the fierce sea-kings and pirates of Norway. Instead of staying peaceably at home, as they should, they swarmed out of their own land and plundered every seacoast town in Europe. The savage men of the North built sturdy boats, with long sharp prows, and stout sails, manned them with rowers and sailors, and filled them with bloodthirsty men. Then with wild songs they sailed into the storm, far out into the seas of darkness, across to Iceland, and even to the shores of America, plundering and fighting, a scourge and a terror to all lands.

Along the coasts, and up the rivers they sailed. When near a village they uttered their fierce war cries and leaped into the surf, swords in hand. The people fled in dismay to the swamps and hills. The pirates then burned the houses, killed what people they could find, destroyed the crops and carried off the cattle. Wherever the Northmen passed, only dead bodies, smoking ruins, and wasted lands remained, and wolves prowled unhindered in search of human food.

At one time a famous Norse pirate named Hastings ravaged the coast of Italy. He had heard of Rome as a rich and magnificent city, but had only a dim idea of where it was or what it was like. His wild rowers landed near Lucca, and thought they were at Rome so wonderful appeared this beautiful city.

Not able to storm the walls, Hastings decided to capture the city by stratagem. The people of Lucca were celebrating Christmas, but had a vague fear of the strange vessels, filled with fierce-looking men, which were lying out in their harbor. Word was sent to the authorities that the fleet had no hostile intent, all that the sailors wanted was decent burial for their chief, who had just died. After the burial they would sail away, and would do no harm to the people.

Glad to be rid of them so easily, and willing to give Christian burial to a savage chieftain, the people opened the gates of the city to admit the solemn procession of the strangers from the ships. A long coffin, draped in black cloth, was carried on the backs of a dozen men. Behind them marched a large body of stalwart Northmen apparently bowed in grief. The people of Lucca stood aside to let the procession pass. With slow steps the procession moved along, chanting the death songs of Norway, until the church was reached, and the coffin placed in front of the altar. The priests stood ready to take their part in the ceremony. The solemn warriors were arranged in order and the people crowded the church and the court outside. The chant was about to begin, and all was still for a moment.

To the consternation of the people and to the horror of the priests, the supposed corpse sprang out of his coffin, sword in hand, and uttered the fierce war cry of the Northmen. With one blow he crushed the skull of the priest who stood, book in hand, ready to bury him, and turned upon the others. The seeming mourners threw aside their cloaks, drew their swords, and a carnival of death began in the sacred edifice.

Rushing from the church the freebooters lost no time in looting the town of its treasures of gold and silver, and did not hesitate to cut down all who stood in their way. Before the people could recover from their terror and surprise the pirates had escaped to their ship carrying with them valuable booty and many women and maidens to become slaves in far-off Norway.

Other brave and daring chieftains led the Vikings on their forages. The most famous was called Rollo, the Walker, because he was such a giant that no horse could bear his weight. Still on foot he was capable of deeds of endurance that few could equal on horseback.

Rollo collected seven hundred ships from Norway, bound for the fair land of the Franks. He had his eye on Paris, and the beautiful country between that city and the sea. His fleet reached the mouth of the Seine and started up the river. On all sides the peasants fled as they saw the terrible array of ships, filled with grim warriors with long beards and fierce eyes, and heard their terrifying war cries.

"The Vikings! The Norsemen! They are on their way to Rouen and Paris!" was the message passed up the river by swift runners .who bore the news of coming disaster.

The bishop of Rouen heard the news with dismay. Calling his chief men together, he said to them, "Let us open the gates of Rouen to these Vikings, otherwise they will batter down our feeble walls and enter anyhow. I have heard that with all his fierceness Rollo is capable of a kind deed."

This advice seemed good. In fact, there was nothing else to do. A body of citizens went humbly to Rollo's camp, which had been made before Rouen, and said to him, "We are at your mercy, and surrender without resistance. Spare our lives and our town. Why destroy that which is now yours?"

Rollo was a good-natured giant, after all, and replied, "I shall harm nothing in your city, but be sure you do no violence to my men. I am not responsible for them if there is treachery."

The gates of Rouen were opened and the Vikings marched in. It was a beautiful city, the like of which was not in all Norway. The Northmen rested and feasted, and by Rollo's orders treated the people kindly. "Some of these days I shall come here to abide," remarked the great leader, as he felt the soft air and thought of the wild winters of his own Norway. And so it was, as we shall see.

Paris was up the river Seine and Rollo did not forget that that city was his object. After a short stay in Rouen he ordered his men into the boats, and again the river resounded with the cries of the sea kings, and again the peasants along the banks fled from the oncoming ships.

Count Eudes of Paris was warned of his danger. Long before the Vikings had reached Paris two strong walls were built around the city, which, of course, was much smaller than it is at the present day.

Rollo was surprised and angered at the opposition he met. He was accustomed to little else than fleeing men and an open village. He thundered at the gates of the town, "Open for Rollo and his men, or by the gods of Norway you shall all be put to the sword." The only answer he received was a defiant cry from within the city and a shower of heavy stones from the walls.

"Open these gates for the men of Norway, or I shall feed you to the wolves." This time the answer was a quantity of boiling oil and pitch, which, when it fell, made his men howl with pain and rage.

Rollo retired to think it over. Being sea rovers and accustomed to the sword only, they were not prepared with battering rams and scaling ladders and armor, which were necessary in besieging a town. The only thing he could think of was a tower which he proposed to roll up to the walls and so fight on a level with the Parisians.

Accordingly, in a few days, the tower was made. On top was a large platform for holding soldiers. It was placed on high wheels and the men dragged it close to the walls. The only trouble was that the platform did not hold enough soldiers, and those who were on it were soon killed by the archers from the walls. Those who tried to climb the tower were overcome by showers of stones, or shot down by the arrows of the defenders of the city.

Rollo withdrew his tower and sat down to a regular siege of Paris. "If I cannot drive them out, I shall starve them out," said he, and ordered his men to surround the city and see that no one went out or came in. For thirteen months the siege continued, until the Parisians were sorely in need of food. The people were almost starving and many of them clamored for the city to surrender.

"Never!" declared Count Eudes, the brave defender. "I shall go through the Norman lines this very night and get help. Never shall it be said that I surrendered to the barbarians of the North."

The night was dark and stormy. A blinding rain had put out all the fires and the sentries had found shelter where they could. The Norman camp was dark and still and no noise was heard but the wind and the beating of the rain. The count knew every road around Paris and every by-path through the woods. Slipping through the gates, he wound his way among the tents of his foe and in a short while was mounted on a horse and galloping for assistance.

He finally reached the king of France and told him the state of siege that Paris was in. It did not take long for the king to assemble an army and start on his way to repel the enemies of his kingdom. It had not occurred to him before that the count needed his aid. In less than a week after Count Eudes had reached the king, an army of Franks was before Paris.

Rollo saw them coming and counted his men. They were few in number and weakened by sickness and weariness of waiting. They were the kind that grew hardy when battling with stormy seas, but grew weak when confined long to camp or land. So Rollo retired with his Northmen to Burgundy, where we lose sight of him for twenty-five years. He probably went to Norway and continued his career of plundering and devastation. At any rate, the Franks thought they were free of the Northmen for all time.

But in this they were mistaken. The years passed and the Vikings were as busy as ever disturbing the peace of the coast towns and venturing farther and farther up the rivers into the interior of Europe. At last Rollo appeared again, this time a little older, but still as warlike and fierce as ever. He had not forgotten Paris, nor Rouen, nor the fair land of the Franks. Oftentimes amid the storms of the sea, and the snow of the Norway winters, he thought of the vineyards of France and the fertile fields along the banks of the Seine.

Rollo had many ships filled as before with wild soldiers, who sang the songs of conquest as they came down the coast. At last they entered the Seine, passed Rouen, and were again on their way to Paris, plundering the towns and killing the people. By this time Charles the Simple was king of France. He was called Simple because he did not have much sense, but he had enough to know how to deal with those rude men who were over-running France.

Charles sent a message to Rollo proposing that they have a talk about peace. "There is enough land here for us all. Why quarrel over its division?" was the message to the bold Viking.

Rollo agreed to the conference, and so the king and the giant Northman met to talk it over. The king and his men were on one side of a little stream, while Rollo, surrounded by his Viking chiefs, stood on the other side. The king said, "What is it you desire that you come destroying our town and terrifying our people?"

The Viking answered, "Let me and my Northmen live in Rouen and in the land of the Franks. Give us these fertile fields and we will be your vassals and become your subjects. We wish to have this part of France as the land of the Northmen."

The king agreed, for there was not much else to do. Rollo was to have ten thousand square miles of territory for his domain, with Rouen as his capital. The king agreed that his daughter should be given to the Viking as his wife, and that henceforth Rollo should acknowledge Charles as his sovereign.

Rollo received the territory from Charles with great ceremony. It was in due feudal form so far as the monarch was concerned, and Rollo swore to attend his lord in wars and to keep the peace at home.

Nothing remained to be done to complete the transfer of land except the ancient ceremony by which the vassal was to kneel and kiss the king's foot. Rollo was very indignant. "Never have I bowed the knee to living man, much less will I kiss the foot of such a one as Charles the Simple!" and he refused to do the act of homage.

The bishop of Rouen explained to him that it was only a form and that it should be done to make the transfer binding. Rollo then called one of his big soldiers to him and said, "You take my place and kiss the king's foot, and mind you do it with a will."

The man obeyed, but when he knelt to kiss the king's foot, he seized it with both hands and lifted it so vigorously that the king was sent sprawling backwards on the ground, amid the laughter of the Northmen, who thought it was a great joke. Rollo himself laughed until his sides shook. "I hope your majesty is satisfied," said he.

The discomfited king arose with what dignity he could assume, and proclaimed Rollo his vassal and his son-in-law. He had sacrificed his dignity, but the Northmen had sworn peace, and that was what the king most desired.

The new settlers soon showed their intention of laying aside their barbarian customs and taking on the civilization of the Franks. Led by Rollo, they rebuilt the churches and monasteries and restored the towns, and accepted the Christian faith. The name of Northman was no longer a terror, but was softened to Norman, and the land was called Normandy.

Rollo, the pirate, founded a long line of Norman chiefs or rulers, who were called the Dukes of Normandy. Under their rule their territory became one of the most civilized and prosperous portions of France. Six generations later one of their dukes crossed the English channel and conquered the territory of England, and to this day his descendants are kings and queens in Europe.