viernes, 20 de abril de 2018

The Normans and William the Conqueror (part I).

The White Tower, built by William the Conqueror, London UK. Photo: Stephan Brunker. German Language Wikipedia
Permission GNU FDL

The review and study of historical processes is a fascinating task. When establishing any sequence of events which led to the great happenings of human history, we often may find some patterns. It seems as if everything followed some kind of script, to get those results. Is amazing to realize how the slightest variation on a simple link of that chain of events, might have produced completely different consequences. A "what if..." question many times arises, opening the doors to the imagination. 

At the same time some predestined people emerge, no matter their origin. They seem to take a road which always leads to put them in front of the main historical changes... for better or for worse. Is interesting to consider if each sequence of facts may create its own characters. On the other hand, might they be who showed the way, with their decisions and acts? Could it exist somehow, a mid point between those extremes? Sure it is a subject for endless debates.

Vikings disembarking at Iceland, by Oscar Wergeland, 1909.
By the end of the VIII Century, the Scandinavian peoples needed some expansion. So they began to make incursions along the northern Europe coast: on their nimble ships, they invaded the inner lands, penetrating into the estuary of the big rivers. They came to plunder cities such as Paris and Hamburg. The British islands were even more exposed to those raids. For many years the Normans or Vikings, as they used to call themselves, would become the terror and the nightmare for the european villagers. But maybe they were not too different from the previous invaders of those lands along their history... by then, the vikings were just the last of a long time wave of invasions. Their violence and pagan condition contributed to the inmense fear they caused.

However, as time passed, the Vikings began to settle at some of the lands they "visited" year after year. It seems likely that some tribes of warriors, had no place to go back at their own places. This gradually made them grow a sense of belonging to other lands, so leaving their roots behind. Their violent habits, would take longer to moderate... 

Monument to Rollo. Alesund, Norway. Photo: SinSpinadas
At the dawn of the Tenth Century, a group of vikings arrived to the northern coast of the modern France. They decided to take on the lands, from the mouth of the Sena river to the vicinity of Rouen. All that belonged to the Franks kingdom, and the only solution the latter found, was to negociate. It was not unusual when dealing with those Norsemen, leaded by a conspicuous personage: Hrolf Ganger. He was also known as Gaange Rolf (walking Rollo), because no horse could stand his height and weight, according to some narrations.

Charles III of France, the Simple. By Georges Rouget, 1838
Palace of Versailles. Source:
In the year 911, they achieved a peace agreement with Charles III of France, also known as Charles the Simple. The Vikings would obtain the posession of all the territories that, as a matter of fact, they already were occupying. Only needed to accept becoming subjects of the French king. Besides, the pact would be sealed with a marriage alliance. In return, the norsemen commited themselves to defend those lands, as French vassals. By this, somehow they kept up the appearances, to not show the Franks' weakness by that time. 

Rollo. Falaise, France. Photo: Imars: Michael Shea. Permission: CC-BY-SA-2.5
A story relates that when he was taking the oath before the king Charles III, Rollo refused to bend down on his knees, as was usual. At last, he accepted that one of his liutenants did it, but this man was very arrogant too! In the middle of a great laughter, he took the king by one foot, and simulating he was going to kiss it, lift it till the king fell down. This tale brings a perfect description of the kind of men they were... but at the same time, how low had Charlemagne's descendants fallen. Rollo even accepted the Christian Baptism, adopting the name of Robert. In this manner he came to be the first ruler of those territories, extending from Flanders to Brittany, that would give rise to the Duchy of Normandy.

The cliffs at Etretat, coast of Normandy, France. Photo: Jean-Luc Faisans. Faisans.jeanluc at the French language Wikipedia.
The truth is that over time, the dukes exercised the authority as true monarchs. Normandy became very important, respected and even feared, by the French crown and its neighbors. And it was not only about their military power, but also for the prosperity they had attained. This may result surprising, if we think of their still fresh origin, from errant adventurers and looters. The Normans also assimilated very well to the French customs, their language and would become devout christians.

Edward the Confessor of England. Anonymous.
13th Century. Source:

After a little more than a century, the throne of Normandy was still occupied by Rollo's heirs. Also, they became linked with the royal families of other countries by arranging some political marriages. By the year 1027 the crown belonged to Robert I, called Robert the Devil. He always had to bear the suspicion for the murder of his brother, the Duke Richard III, to keep the Norman crown. Both were cousins of the future king of England: Edward the Confessor, from the House of Wessex. This relationship made the pieces begin to move, to put a Norman prince on the throne of England.

Robert I of Normandy. Falaise, Fr. Photo: Michael Shea
Source: English Wikipedia. Att: CC-BY-SA-2.5

Robert I was one of those persons who only seem to feel comfortable in times of fighting or war. As the new duke of Normandy, he should face internal rebellions. Then battled at Flanders and France, to restore their goverments. Also defeated the Bretons, when they tried to become independent from Normandy. He only failed in his attempt to invade England, in the year 1034. By the end of the same year, a relative calm possibly made Robert feel bored, and so started a pilgramage to Jerusalem. It was something many people did by then, despite the many risks. Some have come to think that he did that as a penitence, for the murder of his brother. But this latter is, of course, only speculation. 

Falaise Castle. Calvados, France. The birthplace of William The Conqueror. Photo: Viault, 2008. Lic. CC-BY-SA 4.0

The Duke Robert the first, only had a son, illegitimate, the fruit of his love for a modest and poor girl. The child was called William, and was born in Falaise, by the year 1028. Although his bastard origin, he was the only heir to the Norman crown. The most disturbing of that, was the weakness situation the Duchy showed... it seemed an easy prey for some secret pretenders to the throne. Among them were Norman nobles, and the king of France himself!

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Photo: Jorge Láscar, 2012  Creative Commons Att 2.0

Before going to the sacred places of Christianity, Robert managed to make the nobles swear loyalty for his son. William was only eight years old, but had to become the new Duke in case his father never came back. And so it was, Robert I from Normandy never returned... It is not difficult to imagine the anarchy process that followed. Then appeared persons who attempted to use the young boy, to gain access to the power. While others simply tried to keep it all for them. In spite of their oath, many nobles came to openly conspire and even fought for the Duchy, on those hard times.

Henry I of France. Anonymous. English Wikipedia.
William's childhood was really troubled. One by one, his protectors or tutors resulted killed. Some people believe that he had to live hiding among peasants, for some time. It seems quite possible, but is difficult to prove. In the end, the support he had from Henry I of France, the protection from some loyal Norman viscounts and the priests, allowed the young boy to survive. Looking in perspective, and considering how easy was to die on those times... it was a true miracle that William could reach his adulthood. 

From that dangerous and hard stage of his life, emerged William, as from a potter's oven. With his mettle, and overwhelming personality, he would never turn back before any obstacle. He was destined to make history, and so remain indelible; his progeny has worn crowns and had sat on thrones, through centuries, until the present times.

William the Conqueror. Falaise, France. Photo: Man vyi, 2012.

We will keep our travel to those lands and days, to witness the rise and triumph of that warrior king. He is better known as William the Conqueror, who would change the course of European History, also influencing notoriously on the so called Western Civilization...




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