The making of the Duchy of Normandy

The founders, the work of the first Dukes (933-1035)

William Longsword Richard I Richard II Robert the Magnificent


William Longsword (933-942)

The territory handed over to the authority of Count Robert (Rollo) was not to have a destiny of any certainty. It could have been the same as that of the Normans installed on the Loire in the same period, who were finally eliminated from the area between 937 and 939. Rollo's successors managed, however, to establish themselves as the dominant princes of this kingdom.

Popa, mother of William Long Sword, statue in Bayeux. [Photo P. David]William Longsword succeeded Rollo in 933. He was the son of one of Rollo's Frankish Christian concubines, Popa, the daughter of the vanquished Count of Bayeux, and was himself, therefore, an example of the rapid assimilation of the conquerors.

In 933, William managed to take back Cotentin and Avranchin from the Bretons. King Ralph (923-936)  helped him in this enterprise and in exchange received the homage due from a vassal. However, it was the Count of Rouen who actually held the power in the vanquished territories.

At the same time William needed to confirm his control over the Irish-Norwegian elements established in Cotentin and Bessin. It would appear that the rebels were keen to retain their peaceful roots, and the Scandinavian traditions of organisation based on a land holding free of the control of a political authority. TLogo of the celebrations for the addition of the Cotentin region to Normandy: 933-1933hey were thus ill-disposed to enter into the bonds of dependency which were developing in Frankish society and which the new count did not hesitate to turn to his own advantage.

In the Frankish kingdom William became involved in the conflicts facing the leaders of the aristocracy and the Carolingian King Louis IV (936-954) under the gaze of the powerful king of Germany, Otto. The Count of Rouen played on the competition between the two authorities to which, in theory, he was answerable, the King of France, and his direct overlord Hugh the Great, heir to the prerogatives of the Marquis of Neustria, Duke of the Franks. In general William allied himself with Hugh the Great, but in 940 he provisionally changed sides and obtained from Louis IV the renewal of the concession granted to Rollo. In 942 he was killed in an ambush set by the Count of Flanders who was hostile to the rise in Norman power.

From the second generation, William Longsword had been the first authentically Christian Norman prince, notably supporting the restoration of the abbey of Jumièges. He won the hand in marriage of the daughter of the Count of Vermandois and thus entered into the society of the most powerful lords of the kingdom.

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Richard I (942-996)

The death of William Longsword left the Principality of the Counts of Rouen at risk. William's son, Richard was a minor. The competing ambitions of the Carolingian King Louis IV and the Duke of the Franks, Hugh the Great held sway over Normandy while uprisings took place under the influence of the recent arrival of the new Scandinavian settlers.

Between 945 and 947, the young Richard I managed to take back control of his father's land. He entered a preferential alliance with Duke Hugh. In 960 this alliance was reinforced by the marriage of Richard and Emma, daughter of Hugh. Furthermore, in 987, the Count of Rouen supported the dynastic change which was taking place; this saw his brother-in-law, Hugh Capet, succeed to the throne of France.

Although the grandson of the Viking Rollo supported the throne, he barely needed to concern himself with its protection. Instead he applied himself to containing the pressures on his frontiers applied by his powerful neighbours, the Counts of Blois and Tours, and the Counts of Anjou. Richard was able to take advantage of the conflicts between the pretenders to the domination of the Duchy of Brittany. He was, however, still recruiting bands of Viking mercenaries and even in 991 had to sign an accord with King Aethelred undertaking to refrain from offering hinterland bases for sorties against England.

Finally, Richard undertook the reorganisation of the Duchy under his own authority. He drew on his family which was derived from Christian marriages or concubinages recognised by Scandinavian law. He himself was the son of a Breton concubine, Sprota, and his princely heirs were born of the Danish Gonnor rather than of his Christian wife Emma. This large number of descendants formed a new aristocracy, the Richardides, to whom all key positions were given.

Despite failing to live the life expected of a Christian prince and the fact that he did not hesitate to give the position of Archbishop of Rouen to his younger brother Robert, Richard also drew on the support of the church. He restored the abbeys of Saint-Wandrille (960) and Fécamp (990), established a monastic community at Mont-Saint-Michel (966) and at the end of his reign undertook the re-establishment of the ecclesiastical hierarchy at Lisieux, Sées, and Avranches (989-990). The Archbishopric of Coutances, which had been deserted since the Viking invasions, was re-appointed, but with the bishop residing in Rouen. Cotentin still escaped to some extent the ducal peace and the progress of re-christianisation.

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Richard II (996-1026)

Richard II, detail from the cartulary of Mont-Saint-Michel, 12th century. (Bibliothèque Municipale Avranches)On his death in 996 Richard I left a domain which had been at peace for 30 years to a child. This rule by a minor opened up the way to a general revolt of the peasantry. This uprising was, however, not directed against the power of the descendants of Rollo. On the contrary it showed that Normandy was part of the development of feudal society at its outset. The peasants were trying to throw off the growing pressures and demands of the aristocracy.

Simultaneously, troubles in the Hiémois territories, a central region of Normandy, were a traditional attempt by a member of the ruling families, William of Exmes, to take power. The two rebellions were contained by the tutors of the young Richard. The counter-measures against the peasants were particularly bloody.

This troubled period enabled the Danish Vikings to use Normandy as a base for new raids into England. King Aethelred called upon the aid of Richard II and their alliance was sealed by a marriage. Emma, sister of Richard married Aethelred in 1002.

This marriage gave rise to a political situation with major consequences. On the death of Aethelred, the Norman princess Emma married the Dane, Cnut, who in 1016 defeated the heirs of Aethelred. She was to be the mother of the last Danish king of England, Harthacnut (1040-2). The sons of Emma and Aethelred took refuge at Richard's court. Prince Edward was brought up at the court of the Duke of Normandy and was surrounded by Norman companions. After Edward succeeded to the throne of England in 1042, the Normans became directly involved in the affairs of the English kingdom.

Tower of the castle of Ivry (Eure), end of the 10th century. Erected at the end of the reign of Richard I, in c. 996, the castle of Ivry (Photo P. David).In France, Richard II conducted himself as a loyal vassal of King Robert the Pious. He took part with him in expeditions into Burgundy (1003 and 1005) and into Flanders (1006). In exchange for which he obtained the support of the king in his own wars against Fulk Nerra, Count of Anjou or Eudes of Blois, against whom he did not hesitate to use Viking mercenaries. Maine and Brittany were frontier zones in which Richard II was obliged to take an interest. Here too, marriage was an instrument of diplomacy. Richard II married Judith, sister of Geoffrey, the Count of Rennes, who married Havoise, Richard's sister. Judith was to be the first Christian princess, as a legitimate wife of a Duke of Normandy, to produce an heir outside the practice of concubinage 'in the manner of the Danes'.

Beside this Richard II turned his duchy into one of the richest and most stable principalities of the French kingdom. He was the first to exchange the title of Count of Rouen for that of Duke. Richard re-used much of the Carolingian administrative mechanism and pursued a reform of the Church, as a pillar of ducal power. As early as 1001 he called upon the services of the Italian reformer William of Volpiano to restore the Abbey of Fécamp where the Dukes had their palace and had chosen to be buried.

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Richard III (1026-1027) and Robert the Magnificent (1027-1035)

Castle of Falaise, the birthplace of William the Bastard, c. 1027 (the keep and tower are 12th and 13th c.)Before his death Richard II chose to divide the Duchy between his two sons Richard and Robert. But the younger, Robert, was quick to rebel against his brother who died under suspicious circumstances. Robert assumed power, but soon entered into conflict with the main lay and ecclesiastical lords of the Duchy, the Richardides. His uncles, Robert, Archbishop of Rouen and Count Evreux, and Hugh, Bishop of Bayeux, were his main adversaries and they were supported by the King of France, Robert the Pious.

Robert also had to resist the insubordinate tendencies which were to occur at each of the periods of weakness of ducal power. The rebel house of the lords of Bellême, neighbouring Maine, entered the scene. They were an example of a noble house established on the threshold of a great principality which tended to act independently, a tendency that the Dukes of Normandy would prove themselves able to juggle, not without difficulty, in order to keep the Duchy's frontiers as they had been inherited from the first dukes.

From 1031, however, Robert stabilised the situation and was able to profit from a dynastic crisis to take control of the former French Vexin, from Mantes to Pontoise, a territory that the Dukes of Normandy and the Kings of France would continually dispute.

In addition to the interventions henceforth common in Flanders, against the Count of Blois or in Brittany, Robert conducted the first great maritime expedition to England to reinstate the sons of Aethelred and Emma, Edward and Alfred, exiled in Rouen and brought up at the court of Richard II. The storm dispersed their ships before they could reach the English coast.

Death of Robert the Magnificent at Nicea, illustration by Tellier for "La Normandie" by Jules Janin, 1844

Tempted by the prospect of despoiling church wealth at the beginning of his reign, Duke Robert quickly returned to the traditional politics of the Dukes of Normandy to the benefit of Saint-Wandrille, Jumièges, Fécamp, or Mont-Saint-Michel. To these he added the foundation of the abbey of Cerisy.

With this action, political preoccupations did not exclude genuine piety which led the Duke to undertake the great Jerusalem pilgrimage when he had only just re-established his authority. Duke Robert died en route, at Nicea, in 1035, aged 25. After a reign of less than 10 years, he left a minor, William, the offspring of his concubine Arlette de Falaise.


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