David Churchill on the Viking Heritage of the Normans

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Today I am delighted to be hosting Day 5 of ‘The Leopards of Normandy: Devil’ Blog Tour.

Please welcome to neverimitate the author, David Churchill, as he tells us more about William the Conqueror’s ancestors, the Vikings.

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Most schoolboys who know about the Vikings think they’re great. With the longships with the dragon prows; the horned helmets (even if they didn’t actually wear them); the gods of Asgard like Odin, Loki and, of course, Thor, what’s not to like? Me, I was also proud of them because my granny Ebba Roll was the daughter of a Norwegian shipbroker. So as far as my eight year-old self was concerned, I had Viking blood in me too and I thought that was great.

Granted, I am not exactly the Viking type. I don’t drink gallons of mead from horn goblets. I’ve never raped or pillaged in my life.  True, I do have some experience as an oarsman, but that was gained rowing in a college eight down the peaceful waters of the river Cam, not braving the Atlantic ocean all the way to Greenland and America, nor rowing down the Dnieper to the Black Sea and Constantinople beyond. The Vikings were warriors, invaders, explorers, traders, nation builders and among the many things they became, they were Normans.

The story of the founding of Normandy in 911 by the man variously known as Hrolf, Rollo, Robert or Rou is a classic piece of Viking swagger. After decades of rootless wandering and fighting, much of it in northwest France and up and down the valley of the River Seine, Rollo was finally defeated by a Frankish arm outside Chartres. One hates to indulge in cheap national stereotypes, but the French promptly surrendered – or as good as – to the man they had just beaten. King Charles the Simple conducted a bizarre negotiation on an island in the River Epte in which Charles offered Rollo first Brittany (too rocky, Rollo said) and then Flanders (too damp) before granting him the lands between the Epte and the sea, which would become a duchy known as Normandy, after the Norsemen who had founded it.

It is, I think, impossible to understand the Normans without appreciating their Viking blood and their Viking attitudes. But even Rollo, as with so much in this story, is shrouded in mystery. No one knows exactly who he was or where he came from. Among the more plausible candidates, however is Hrolf Rognvaldson, whose father was a Norwegian earl. He was known as Ganger Hrolf, or ‘Walker Rolf’ because he was so big that no horse could carry him … Or as I have chosen to translate it, Rollo the Strider, because a man that cool needs a name to match.

 

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I reviewed this action packed work of historical fiction here.

Don’t forget to check out the other great blogs taking part in this tour. Click here for links.

Book Review: Devil

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Devil, by David Churchill, is the first book in a planned historical trilogy. The series of books, The Leopards of Normandy, will tell in imagined detail the story of William the Conqueror. This first installment concentrates on William’s parents and the circumstances of his birth. Drawing from known historical facts the author weaves a compelling tale of power, sex and violence. He brings the characters to life.

The Duchy of Normandy was created to bring peace between the King of France and the Viking invaders who had slaughtered, raped and pillaged their way across the lowlands of Flanders, the seashores of Brittany and the vineyards of Burgundy for more than twenty years. Their leader, Rollo, was now in his sixty-fifth year and felt ready to settle down. In exchange for fealty the King offered him land and a title. He became the first Duke of Normandy.

When Rollo’s great-grandson died the Dukedom passed to his eldest son, Richard. However, there was enmity between Richard and his younger brother Robert, William’s father. Both were young men who were all too willing to fight for what they believed were their rights. Overseeing this bloody feud and attempting to broker peace was their father’s brother, Robert, Archbishop of Rouen. Although he sided with his namesake in many areas of contention he refused to condone his choice of partner, a lowly tanner’s daughter named Herleva who became William’s mother.

The detailed history is fascinating but it is the imagined personalities and the causes of each intrigue which make this book so hard to put down. This story is not just about battles won and lost but is a tale of individual courage, risk, a lust for wealth, power and vengeance which spanned a continent. The distances between places matters when the fastest means of transport is a horse which will tire or a boat which may be sunk or becalmed. Hunger, thirst and cold are as deadly as spears, arrows and boiling tar.

The ruling classes in France and its neighbouring countries were closely related through blood ties and political marriages. The elder Robert’s sister, Emma, had married two Kings of England, Ethelred and Canute, bearing each of them sons. Canute had a second wife who also had a son. These children were sent away young to be raised in the countries they were destined to rule. When questions of succession arose in any of these lands it was common to have titles taken by force leaving those with blood rights bearing grudges which they would raise their children to avenge.

The history covered in this book is known so there are few major surprises in the plot. The way in which it is told though makes it a worthwhile read. What is gained is an understanding of why things happened as they did, even those acts which seem brutal and shocking by today’s standards. If history could always be told in such colourful detail it would be far more enjoyable for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.