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France’s Viking invaders became Christians and Normans

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Royalty on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

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This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

William the Conqueror, picture, image, illustration

William the Conqueror falls from his horse by John Millar Watt

Just as the Vikings from Denmark had plundered, looted, pillaged and burned the coasts of England, now, in the ninth century, under their leader Hasting, they turned their fierce gaze upon the coast of France.

When the Vikings had gained a foothold on the land they went one day to the Bishop of one of the seacoast towns and told him sadly that Hasting was dead.

“His last wish was to be buried as a Christian,” they chorused sadly. “Unless this happens, how can he enter Paradise?”

The Bishop was touched. Here was a golden opportunity to introduce Christianity to these warring pagans. Eagerly he called his parishioners to a funeral service for the great Hasting in his church and solemnly the coffin was carried in before a procession of Vikings and Christians.

When everyone was inside and the doors closed, up popped the coffin lid and out came a very much alive Hasting, sword in hand. The Vikings closed in on the Christian “mourners” and killed them all. Then they rifled the Church of its treasures and sailed away.

Over the years not all the Vikings were content to make such hit-and-run bandit raids. Thirty thousand of them under their chief Rollo, sailed, up the Seine in their long ships to Paris and laid siege to the city while the King, Charles the Fat, was away in Germany.

The Parisians, under their leader Count Eudes, drew up their drawbridges and prepared to keep the invaders at bay.

A year went by – a year of tightening belts, of starvation and of famine. Still the Parisians held on grimly, watching from the city walls as their tormentors roasted fine lean meat on spits upon the ground below and ate their fill.

Then one night Count Eudes escaped from the city. Undetected, he galloped through the besiegers and rode as fast as he could go to the King in Germany. Having obtained the pledge of Charles the Fat to return with a large army and raise the siege, he rode back to Paris and again under cover of night got back into the city.

But Charles the Fat was also Charles the Coward. When he did come back to Paris, and he was a long time coming, instead of attacking the Vikings he paid them a large bribe to go away.

The agony of Paris was over but its fury with the King had just begun. Charles the Fat was deposed and Count Eudes then became King.

When Eudes died Rollo the Viking was still foraging in northern France. But even roving Vikings eventually liked to settle down somewhere, and now he accepted the offer from King Charles the Simple of a handsome grant of land, a title, baptism as a Christian, and a French princess for his wife – in return for his allegiance to the crown of France.

The title Charles gave to the fearless Viking was Duke of Normandy. In due course Rollo’s great-grandson William was to succeed to the title and emblazon his name on a page of English history as William the Conqueror.

While the Vikings were at the peak of their activities France was ruled by a succession of weak kings – made the weaker by the strong line taken by all the dukes and barons who ruled over their territories like kings themselves and who feared no man – least of all a king whom they themselves were so often in a position to order about. Weakness, too, had sprung from the enmity of the family to which Count Eudes belonged (called the Robertians after one of their number, Count Robert the Strong, a great landowner) and the royal Carolingian house.

Some of these Robertians in fact had actually been kings themselves, alternating with the Carolingian kings. In the year 987 the Robertians finally emerged the stronger party when their candidate for the throne, named Hugh Capet, was elected. Hugh took his surname from the fact that he liked to wear a cape or cloak, and his dynasty marked the election of a new dynasty of kings called the Capetians.

King Hugh tried hard to stem the power of the barons, but they never let him forget that they had elected him and therefore expected him to favour them.

“Who made thee a count?” demanded the King of a baron who was not treating him with proper respect. “Who made thee a King?” retorted that nobleman. And that exchange aptly summed up the royal position.

An interesting little story told about Hugh’s son Robert serves to show firstly how weak were these early Capetians and secondly, by contrast, how powerful the authority of the Pope was becoming.

Robert, already married to a woman much older than himself, had fallen in love with his cousin Bertha, and as soon as he became King, married her. For this the Pope excommunicated him – that is, cut him off from the Church.

King Robert, hurt though he was by this punishment, continued to regard cousin Bertha as his wife, with the result that the Pope put the whole of his kingdom under an interdict, which meant that no services could be held in any of the churches. At length Robert yielded; he sent Bertha away and the interdict was lifted. And although he went personally to Rome to ask if he could take Bertha back, the Pope was adamant in his refusal – and the papal verdict was accepted.

Now we are in the eleventh century – a vibrant 100 years for France. Just as the Romans had once integrated themselves with the Gauls, so the Vikings had now integrated themselves with the French, and from that union had come Normandy, and from Normandy Duke William, who in 1066 took the crown of England and found himself king of a foreign land yet only a duke owing homage to another king in his own country.

Before he sailed for England William asked the King of France, Philip the First, to join him in his expedition. But Philip was an indolent man who lived only for pleasure and was not interested in a foreign war. When William triumphed over King Harold of England, though, Philip was jealous and saw the danger of having one of his vassals as a king and therefore an equal.

There was not much that lazy King Philip could do to hamper resourceful King William but he did take advantage of the Conqueror’s divided interests in England and Normandy to stir up rebellion in the northern dukedom. For this William angrily went to war with his King. It was during this war that William burned one of Philip’s towns. Riding through the smouldering debris the new King of England’s horse slipped on a piece of burning wood and threw its rider. A few weeks later William the Conqueror died from the effects of the fall.

If Philip was a lazy, useless King, the rest of France did not follow his example. With the words of Pope Urban the Second ringing in their ears, Frenchmen from all over the land banded together in a fever of excitement to launch the First Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Saracens.

The causes and effects upon Europe’s story of the exciting Crusades to the Holy Land have recently been dealt with in a series of articles in LOOK AND LEARN (January 2 to February 13, 1965) so we need only record their happening. This we must do, because as you will know from those articles, France led the Crusades; she was the organizing spirit behind them after the papal call to action and although the Crusades were truly an international movement, France supplied the majority of the knights and soldiers who fought for the Cross.

The reign of Louis the Sixth, called Louis the Fat, saw the extension of the growth of towns and cities which was an important development of France, and indeed, of Germany and Italy, in the Middle Ages. During the time of King Philip and King Louis towns, or boroughs, had been built around market places to protect them; the inhabitants of these boroughs were now called bourgeois.

Other towns grew up for a different reason. They had been built originally around a feudal lord’s castle and were natural places for municipal development. When Louis the Fat was fighting his barons in an attempt to curb their power, these townspeople helped him and were rewarded for their loyalty to the monarch by being granted certain important privileges, like making their own laws and appointing their own magistrates. These self-administering groups came to be called communes.

The idea of semi-independent townships jealously guarding the privileges they had won was not confined to France. In Italy communes like Venice, Milan and Florence, and in Germany an association of cities known as the Hanseatic League, actually became independent republics, raising their own armies and fighting their own battles.

Louis the Fat minded none of this. By giving some power to the bourgeois who could now work for their own improvement, he created a newly-felt loyalty towards the sovereign and at the same time curbed the barons’ power.

But there was one striking difference in the growth of power among merchants and traders in France and the parallel occurrence in England. In our country merchants and knights mingled without much difficulty into the Commons, creating a two-tier structure of government in the Lords and the Commons. In France there was no such unity of the lowest orders, and the bourgeois, although gaining great freedom and power, remained the “Third Estate,” a name that was a constant reminder that they were socially the lower class.

Much medieval history is the story of the lives of a succession of kings, for, in comparison with later ages, scant accounts have been left to us of the lives of ordinary people. One important medieval Frenchman whose story we do know, however, was a teacher by the name of Abelard.

Of all the medieval universities of Europe, that at Paris had become the most famous and in the twelfth century it was attracting pupils from all over the Continent. This success it owed to the brilliance of its teachers and most of all to Abelard, a man who rejected the comforts of a noble birth to become a scholar.

Abelard studied hard and soon so outshone his teachers that it was he who became the master, commanding great audiences. Nothing, he argued, could be accepted unless it could be proved true, and in religion faith should be arrived at by reason. Topics he discussed and argued included questions like, Is God a substance, or not?

To Abelard’s lectures came a beautiful and intelligent girl of 17 named Heloise, and Abelard soon fell in love with her. The couple eloped and married, but because marriage would harm Abelard’s career in the Church, Heloise kept it secret. Like all secrets, however, it was discovered and Heloise fled to a convent.

With his bride gone, Abelard went into a monastery. To him there, Heloise wrote some of the most beautiful letters in European literature: letters of pure love and nobleness of character that have become famous.

Abelard continued to teach, but he had many enemies and he was condemned by them as a heretic. His health never recovered from this blow and he died a year later.

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