Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Northmen in France and England

The Northmen as Settlers

At the beginning of their raids the Northmen only came to plunder, and made no attempt to settle in the lands they attacked. But as time went on they came not only to plunder but to settle. And wherever they settled a change came over them. They were so adaptable that they lost their individuality and became merged in the native population. They settled in England and became Englishmen, they settled in France and became Frenchmen. Later, these Norman-French conquered England and again, in time, became Englishmen.

But before they finally settled there the attacks of the Northmen on France were both many and cruel. It was not the coasts only that they left desolate, for in their narrow vessels they sailed up the rivers, and towns and villages far inland were laid in ruins. Even Paris itself was threatened by them more than once.

The Carolingian line was by this time dying out in feebleness, and weak kings, unable to punish the impudent invaders, paid them gold to depart. The Northmen accepted the gold, but they always returned again, each time in greater and greater numbers, ever more greedy, more bold, and more cruel than before. With sword and firebrand they laid waste the land until there were whole districts in the most fertile parts of France where it was said a man might wander for long days without seeing the smoke of a chimney or hearing the bark of a dog.

"The heathen, like wolves in the night, seize upon the flocks of Christ," wails a writer of the time. "Churches are burned, women are led away captive, the people are slain. Everywhere there is mourning. From all sides cries and lamentations assail the ears of the king who, by his indolence, leaves his Christian folk to perish."

Rollo settles in the North of France

After a time, some of the Northmen, under their leader, Rollo, took possession of a part of France and settled there. And from this new base they launched even fiercer attacks on the rest of the country. At length, in the time of Charles the Simple, the French saw that to buy the Northmen off was worse than useless, and to expel them now that they were firmly rooted impossible. The only thing to do was to change lawless freebooters into law-abiding citizens.

Charles, therefore, sent messengers to the rough, old sea king, offering him the undisputed possession of all that north-west portion of France in which he and his warriors had already settled. In return for this, he was to become a Christian, be baptized, and own himself vassal of the king. Rollo was not unwilling to listen to the king's proposal, but he was not content with the land offered to him.

"The land is desolate and barren," he said, "there is not there the wherewithal to live." So he demanded more land. Thereupon the king offered him Flanders. For he had a grudge against the count of Flanders. But Rollo would have none of it.

"It is nothing but a waste of bog and marsh," he said, and he demanded Brittany.

Now the part of France called Brittany had never really been in the possession of the kings of France. So all Charles could give Rollo was the right to conquer it, if he could. And this he readily gave.

Matters being thus settled, Rollo had next to perform his part of the compact, and do homage as a vassal. Upon the appointed day the king seated himself upon his throne with his priests and courtiers about him, and to him came the rough old Northman and his warriors. The ceremony began, but when Rollo was told that he must kneel before the king and kiss his feet he started back in wrath.

"No, by Heaven!" he cried. "I will kiss no man's feet!

"It must be," replied the priests, "in no other way can you hold your fief."

"Then let one of my followers do it for me," replied the proud sea-king.

And as nothing would move Rollo, Charles had to be content with that. So one of Rollo's followers was bidden to perform the act of homage for his master. But he had as little liking as Rollo for what seemed to him a piece of degrading foolery. He had never bent his knee to any man, and he did not mean to do it now. Striding, therefore, up to the throne, without even bending, he seized the king's foot and raised it to his mouth. So rough and sudden was his action that Charles fell backwards to the ground. And thus, amid the loud laughter not only of the rude Northmen but of the Frankish courtiers also, the strange ceremony of homage ended.

After this Rollo was duly baptized, and received the Christian name of Robert, and many of his warriors followed his example and were baptized also. Their conversion was sudden. But this was nothing to the Northmen. For it was said many of them made an annual practice of it, merely for the sake of the white linen robe which they received on the occasion.

The land which was thus given to Rollo was already known as Northmannie. It soon became Normandy, and its people Normans. Very quickly they forgot their heathen religion and their northern speech and northern home. Normandy, strange to say, became the best governed part of France, and the exploits of Rollo the Ganger, the devastator of France, the pillager of monasteries, the slayer of women and children, were almost forgotten in the fame of Robert, Duke of Normandy, the builder of churches, and framer of righteous laws.

Outwardly, wherever the Northmen settled they seemed to disappear and be merged in the native population. In reality they imbued these populations with something of their own spirit. They were filled with a great curiosity, they had a genius for order and government, they were fearless, energetic, and eager, always ready to adventure and to do. Civilized, they retained much of the old vigour which as barbarian heathen had made them such deadly and pitiless foes. Christianized, they became the passionate champions of the Catholic Church. And the descendants of those Vikings who had refused to bend the knee to any man, and laughed aloud at the discomfiture of their over-lord, became the great upholders of the feudal system, the impassioned exponents of the orders of knighthood and chivalry.

The Northmen in England

England suffered from the Northmen even as did France. Here, however, they were met and checked by a skilful soldier and statesman, Alfred the Great. Yet even he, with all his courage and perseverance, could not altogether loosen the grip of the Northmen upon the island. At length he, too, like the king of France, was obliged to buy peace by yielding part of his kingdom to the freebooters. And, by the Peace of Wedmore, Alfred assigned to the Danes all the northern half of England. The conditions of this treaty were similar to those upon which Rollo acquired Normandy. Guthrun the Dane was baptized, receiving the name of Athelstane and owning Alfred as overlord.

But with the Peace of Wedmore the struggle in England did not cease. It was only abated. During the rest of Alfred's life and for more than a century after his death it continued, until in 1016 Knut the Dane became king of all England. This Northman domination lasted until 1042, ending only fourteen years before the conquest of England by William the Norman.