Who were the Normans?

Who were the Normans?

By Myrabella (Own work) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsMany people know of the Normans due to their conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Many people also know that the Normans controlled Normandy; the place they launched their invasion from. While these are relatively well-known facts there is still some confusion over where they came from.

Questions such as: Where did the Normans originate? Who were the Normans originally? Who were the Normans? Some even ask were Saxons Normans?

There is some mystery over where the Normans came from for many people. Much of the focus is on the Norman invasion of England or just generally about the Norman Conquest. While it is good to know such facts and indeed important markers in British history the Normans existed outside of England and Britain for a long time. They didn’t just appear so who were the Normans originally?

As has already been mentioned in the years before the conquest the Normans ruled over a portion of, what is now, northern France. The story doesn’t stop there though. While the Normans lived in northern France where did the Normans originate? Most accounts suggest the Normans were originally Vikings. While this can easily be shown as their ultimate origin (see below) we know that they did mix with the local Frankish population. This is the reason why we have Norman French.

Let’s go right back to the ancestors of the people we know as Normans setting foot on the shores of what is now northern France.

The Vikings land in France.

During the Viking period, a period generally accepted to be the 9th to 11th centuries, there was a large amount of raiding along the coastlines of northern Europe and the British Isles. The raiders came from various areas although the vast majority of the Vikings came from Scandinavian countries. There were small settlements along the northern coast of Northwest Europe by Norwegian Vikings, some of these Vikings were those who had settled on Ireland’s east coast. Some may well have been from Dublin. The bulk of the Vikings that arrived on the northern shores were Danish in origin.

One of the things to remember here is that the Vikings were not just raiders. They were also traders. The origin of the Vikings is a topic for another article which will be written later so we shall continue.

In the modern world, we consider people to be from countries. This is not odd for us but when you go back; to the time period when the Normans lived in, it is not the right way to look at it. The groupings that eventually became the countries that we have today were starting to form from the groups that were around at this time. Nationalism didn’t exist yet, people felt linked to groups that ranged from families to tribes to wider areas. They held a collective identity that wasn’t directly tied to the land that they occupied.
I f we look at the Normans they were no different. After the initial settlements along the Seine and Loire valleys of Northern France, more Vikings started to arrive on the shores. These new groups of Vikings raided the Frankish settlements and attacked the monasteries. As time went on the invaded further into the Frankish lands and attacked their towns and cities such as Anges, Tours, and Orleans. The Frankish king invited allies, such as the Bretons, to fight against these invaders. These early invasions lasted through the summers with the Vikings heading for home as winter came.

By 845 the raiding Vikings reached Paris. The Franks and their allies fought back and were able to push the Vikings out of Brittany. The raids continued and by 851 the Vikings were also staying for the winter. By this point, the monks were moving inland away from these raids.

The Franks were weak and unable to protect their lands as time went on. In 857 a Breton leader named Salomon took advantage of the situation and took lands across the North coast. These lands were ceded to him by the Franks in 863 with further control being given in 867. When this king died the small empire that he had created collapsed.

By the tenth century, a leader emerged among the Vikings that would change everything. This leaders name was Rollo.


Rollo, sometimes called Rolf, was a Viking who commanded a strong band of raiders. While we can never be certain of his origin it is thought that he was a Norwegian. It is also thought that he was the son of Rognvald, Earl of More. If this is correct then it confirms the reasons for his raiding. There was a lack of usable land in areas controlled by the Vikings. Rollo would have had many kin who would all have received some land which meant that his portion would have been quite small. This happened across much of Scandinavia and is one of the primary reasons why some joined bands of traders and raiders to make a living. They would also look for lands to settle. The Islands to the north of Scotland were colonised by the Vikings as well as areas in the North and East of England as well as the Eastern coast of Ireland.

Rollo was one of the Vikings that went to many of these places to raid and trade. He also raided the area of Northern France known as Neustria. Many of Rollo’s followers were of Danish origin which shows that while a leader may be from one place in Scandinavia he could form a crew from other areas that had close ties. Rollo’s men were well disciplined when fighting on land and he put that to good use. In 911 he raided Northern France and laid siege to the town of Chatres. While the siege was a failure it had an impact on the Frankish King of the time. That King was Charles the Simple.

In 911, or at most only a few years later, Charles met Rollo to discuss the issues that he was facing in the Northern areas of his kingdom. They met at a place called St-Clair-sur-Epte. During the negotiations, Charles the Simple ceded the lands around the Lower Seine to Rollo. Charles had been impressed with the fighting prowess of Rollo’s forces. He knew that he would be unable to end the constant raiding so sought an ally that would answer to him and protect the coast from further raids. Rollo promised to defend the whole river and not to attack Frankish lands.

Norman expansion

Over the next century or more Rollo and his descendants expanded the territory that they had been given to protect. They fought wars against the Bretons to their west and also with the Franks to their east and south. The Frankish kings had had a difficult time controlling the powerful lords in their kingdom and Rollo’s family was no different. At times they allied with Frankish rulers against other Frankish neighbours. They also fought against the Frankish kings.

Over time their conquests were absorbed into the lands that they controlled with the Frankish kings giving them the rights to those lands. By the time of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Normans had taken a large amount of territory across the North of France. They had spread west to the border of Brittany and the conquests south eventually settled at a border along the river Sarthe.

Throughout this expansion the makeup of the Normans as a group changed significantly.

Norman culture

The Normans that first arrived on the Seine and across the Northern coast of France were what we would consider traditionally Viking. They were warriors and traders. They used longships and had a warrior culture.  The loyalty of the warriors was to their leader. This did not mean that they would support their leader no matter what. While the leader of the particular band gave them opportunities of trade and plunder as well as the potential of some land at various points then the leader was followed. If the leader stopped doing any of these things then he would quickly find himself losing men.

At this point, we must note that these peoples would call themselves Danes, Norwegians or they would refer to themselves as coming from tribal groupings, even Saxons. The Franks did not refer to them by these terms on the whole. They made little distinction between the different raiding parties and termed them men of the North or North men. In the languages of the time they would be termed Northmanni and Normands at various times. This has come down to us today truncated to the word Normans. The name literally means North men and that is exactly what these groups were. The Normans eventually brought this in as part of their culture and as a way of defining their new duchy.

The Normans, as mentioned above, did not view their history as a people that were of a particular place or from a particular piece of land. They viewed themselves as having a cultural history written through their histories. Over time they would integrate within the culture of the northern Franks. They would not completely lose their original culture and would create a culture that would become that of a Frankish culture with some small differences. The collective history of the peoples was a strong part of their identity. Indeed the History of the Normans by Dudo is important for looking at how they viewed their culture. While it is a standard history with propaganda, as all histories written by a people about themselves are, It gives us a glimpse into how they viewed themselves. We can see through Dudo’s writings that they valued their fighting prowess and strength of arms. This is potentially an attitude that had developed from the loyalty to leaders during the earlier Viking period.

The Normans supplanted the host culture by replacing the elite of a region. While Vikings were settled in the lands early on these were concentrated in a few areas. As the Normans expanded they would remove the Bishops, Lords, and leaders of the communities and replace them with their own leaders. Interestingly due to the heavily male dominated immigration, they would have had to marry local Frankish women. This is even suggested of Rollo. Eventually, the Norman aristocracy would be very similar to the Franks that they had displaced. Indeed, by the year 1000, there would have been little to distinguish them culturally from the surrounding Franks. The collective history of the ruling families and their ability to trace their lineage back to Rollo and his men may well have been prised and an effort to retain their identity as a separate people as the merged with the existing peoples.

So were the Normans French? Were they Vikings? Were they Franks? They were all of these things. Indeed their Viking heritage would have been remarkably similar to the heritage of the Anglo-Saxons. Especially those who had lived in Danelaw. The Scandinavians, English, and Normans were all interlinked with influences on their cultures coming from the inhabitants of the lands they occupied. The Scandinavians obviously having little influence outside of the original Nordic cultures although they would surely have brought some cultural practices back with them from their travels.

In short, the Normans were French, they were also Vikings and realistically the best way is to describe them as Normans with their own unique culture.


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