The Normans: basically Vikings who spoke French


One condition of securing the lands that became Normandy was that Rollo the Strider had to abandon his pagan Norse gods, such as Odin and Thor and convert to Christianity. By the time of Duke Robert and his son William, the Dukes were highly devout – William, for example, went to Mass every day. But even so, their sexual attitudes were still strictly Viking.

The lords of other lands might marry for reasons of dynastic calculation, choosing their brides by the power of their fathers, or the size of their dowry. The Normans chose their women the old-fashioned way, seizing them as spoils of war or seducing them with less than subtle charms. They lived by what was known as the ‘more Danico’ or ‘Danish custom’, by which marriage was not determined by church services or religious vows, but was simply an informal matter of cohabitation and the production of children.

Rollo, for example, captured his partner Poppa, who was the daughter of Count Berenger of Neustria during a raid on the town of Bayeux. The couple then had three children: Rollo’s successor as Duke, William Longsword; a daughter called Gerloc, who married the Duke of Aquitaine; and another daughter Kadlin, whose husband was Bjolan, King of Scotland.

William Longsword, in his turn, was formally married to a woman called Luitgarde, but sired his successor Richard the Fearless with Sprota, a Breton who was a spoil of war, captured on a raid into Brittany.

Richard married Emma, daughter of Hugh the Great, Count of Paris, but again the marriage produced no issue. He then, in extraordinary circumstances described in Devil found himself sleeping with a young woman called Gunnor. Her older, married sister, being married, had refused Duke Richard’s advances, but offered her sister up to him instead. The partnership between Richard and Gunnor, which was eventually legitimised in a Christian marriage service, produced not only a successor, Duke Richard II ‘the Good’, but also two of Devil’s central characters, Robert Archibishop of Rouen and Emma of Normandy, who was Queen to two Kings of England, Ethelred the Unready and Canute.

Richard the Good was the first Duke of Normandy to produce his successor within a marriage that was both religiously and politically conventional. He had six children with his first wife Judith, who was the daughter of the Count of Brittany: their union  was an attempt to ease the often fractious relations between the Normans and their Breton neighbours. Two of these children were the warring brothers at the heart of Devil, Richard and Robert, both of whom became Dukes of Normandy.

Robert I, who was known either as ‘the Magnificent’ or, in some accounts, ‘the Devil’ fathered William the Bastard (or Conqueror as we know him) thanks to a straightforward act of teenage lust. Robert was about eighteen, and Herleva – the tanner’s daughter he first saw dancing or doing the laundry, depending on which account one follows – roughly the same age, perhaps a little younger. She was, to put it bluntly, an unmarried teenage mother. Today she’d be on benefits. But being an enterprising girl, Herleva did better that. She slept with a Duke, gave birth to a King, married a Viscount – thus becoming a Viscountess herself – and produced two more sons, a Bishop of Bayeux and a Count of Mortain.

You might almost think she was a Viking.

One Comment

  1. Barbara Whitaker
    August 21, 2015 at 12:10 am // Reply

    just finished reading the first book in the trilogy and loved it. When is the second book due. Regards

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