Rollo the Strider

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The moment I first encountered the story of Rollo, first Duke of Normandy, I knew I had to find a way to get it into ‘Devil’, because once you’ve met Rollo you understand exactly why the line of Dukes that followed him were not only warmongering, pillaging, maiden-snatching warriors, but also shrewd and calculating rulers. It was in the blood.

As so often with men of this era, there’s not a great deal of evidence to go on, and what there is, is disputed. Rollo’s name is the Latin form of the Scandinavian name Rolf, or Hrolf, though his people knew him by the nickname Rou. He was a Viking warrior, who lived from c.846 to c.932, meaning that he died in his eighties, an impressive lifespan for a man of his times. It is not in doubt that he rampaged across northern France for many years, frequently defeating the Frankish armies sent to oppose him. Then, having been for once defeated himself, he still managed to persuade King Charles the Simple of France to grant him the land of Neustria, which became Normandy. His precise identity, however, is a mystery.

According to some Scandinavian historians, Rollo belonged to the Yngling dynasty whose influence ranged across part of modern-day Finland, Sweden and even as far as the Orkney Islands, off the northeast coast of Scotland.

Dudo of St Quentin, a monk who was commissioned by Duke Richard I (Rollo’s grandson) to write the first formal history of the Normans described Rollo as a ‘Dacian’, by which he meant a Dane. But Dacia had nothing to do with Dacia, which was a Roman term for a tribe who lived in the Carpathian Mountains, north of the Danube in what is now Romania.

Dudo, then, was not a historian – nor even a geographer! – in the modern sense, but more like a collector of popular tales and myths. He received most of his information from stories told to him by members of the Norman court, notably Richard I’s half-brother Rodulf, Count of Ivry. From them Dudo gathered that Rollo was the son of a mighty Danish nobleman who rebelled against his king and then died, whereupon Rollo was exiled from Denmark, never to return.

The story of how Rollo bargained with King Charles, turning down offers of land that he felt were inadequate, before demanding and getting Neustria is also taken from Dudo’s work. Within that story comes the splendid tale of Rollo refusing to bend his knee to the King and his feet, but persuading one of his men to do it in his place. In Devil, the scene takes place with King Charles seated on a throne. The Viking – whom I have called Olav the Raven – bends to take the foot that the King has daintily extended towards him, but then grabs it and, as he get to his feet, pushes the king backwards so that the chair … well, I won’t say exactly what happens to the chair, that would be a spoiler. I will, however, admit to taking some liberties with the source material: in Dudo’s version King Charles is standing.

The final possible explanation of Rollo’s origins is that he is the man described in medieval Norwegian sagas as ‘Ganger Hrolf’, or ‘Hrolf the Walker’. This Hrolf fell out with the Norwegian King Harald Fairhair and went off to seek his fortune elsewhere. He was known as Walker because there was no horse big enough to carry him. I have changed that to Strider because Rollo the Walker sounds like a 10th century rambler, whereas Strider has an altogether more purposeful and stylish air. Rollo was undoubtedly a man with a sense of purpose, and I think he did it in style.

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