The assertion of Norman power

During the early years of its existence, ducal Normandy was, in a way, a double-faceted state. This was illustrated by the fact that several of its jarls/dukes had alternative names (Rolf/Rollo/Rollon was also called Robert) and that some of them had two weddings : one Christian, to maintain propriety and for stratgegic reasons, and the other pagan, more Danico (“in the Danish custom”).

The personalities of these jarls/dukes was one of the main assets of Normandy. It facilitated the emergence of the concept of “Normanity”, a synthesis of the different contributory elements : Frankish, Saxon, Christian and Norse pagan.

Additionally, the Normans were able to consolidate and increase their power, generation by generation, often passing through severe crises, knowing how to face permanent threats from their bordering neighbours (Breton, Angevin, French, Flemish) who aspired to drive the “pirate people” back to the sea.

On the other hand, these first dukes did not give way to the temptation of Viking-type adventures, although they were not reluctant to support and help their Scandinavian cousins’ expeditions in Spain or England.

Lastly, showing more and more signs of willingness to appease his Christian neighbours, Rolf (reigning AD 911 to c. 932) restored the archbishopric of Rouen, as well as the monks of Saint-Ouen, though he himself remained deeply pagan, benefiting no doubt from the experiences of the Danes of the Kingdom of York . Also, his son and successor, William Longsword (reigned c. AD 932 to 942), wanted to be regarded as a resolute Christian and was a promoter of living on good terms with the Frankish kings. Nevertheless, after a difficult minority, Richard I (reigned AD 942 to 996) had to confront an attempted Frankish reconquest. Eventually, he managed to maintain domestic peace and, moreover, kept his neighbours at a respectful distance, thanks to the permanently available help of the Scandinavian armies. It is under the reign of his son, Richard II, (reigned AD 996 to 1026) that the Church had a great expansionist phase and that a great monastic boost and fervour were launched, covering Normandy from its eastern part (with Fécamp, Jumiège, Saint-Wandrille, Saint-Ouen and Rouen, notably) up to its western part after AD 1050 (notably with Saint-Michael’s Mount). Here, too, the episcopal sees were taken up again, up to the last, that of Coutances. Richard II reinforced the institutions of the duchy, following an original feudal model which respected as much the Scandinavian settlers’ fierce spirit of independence as it was based on a strong ducal authority. Servitude disappeared completely. During all this foundation period, the influx of Scandinavian immigrants continued. It is from them that a new ruling class was built up.

Benefiting by its position of trade and as a military centre for the Viking expeditions (Danish, Norwegian and Anglo- Scandinavian, on the basis of agreements with the Scandinavian sovereigns), in England and in southern Europe, Normandy knew real prosperity. It is during this period that a new generation of cities emerged : Alencon, Argentan, Dieppe, Falaise, Saint-Lô, Valognes and, notably, Caen, which arose c. AD 1025 and imposed itself quickly (c. AD 1060) in place of Bayeux as second capital of the dukes.

The 11th century emerged as the most brilliant in Norman history, though troubled by very serious crises after AD 1035 and in AD 1047, caused by the rebellion of the Viking settlers of Cotentin and Bessin, who remained fiercely loyal to paganism and to their tradition of independence. But, in the end, the ducal authority was triumphant. It established a relative uniformity of the institutions and forbade the formation of really autonomous seignories. This prompted a number of vigorous Normans to seek their fortunes far away from Normandy, which nevertheless contributed to Norman prestige. Some of these adventurers founded prosperous state sin southern Italy and in Sicily, or rented their services as mercenaries in England, in Spain and in far away Byzantium, where they generated wealth. A portion of these riches found their way back to Normandy, contributing to the building of the cathedrals of Coutances and Sées. Through such adventuring, thee Normans also acquired an unequalled military experience, which led to the formation of the heavy cavalry which was to distinguish itself during the conquest of England by William in AD 1066.

For their part, the dukes organised the army on the basis of the knight’s fief (the ost), in conjunction with the formation of local militias, a system descended from the organistions of the Viking colonies. The dukes also developed and strengthened an intelligence network, unequalled in Europe. All this contributed uniformity and efficiency to the Norman defensive system.

The dukes themselves had at their disposal a personal guard, the heritage of the Scandinavian hird. Before discovering the offensive potential which resulted from this structure, for interventions in foreign countries, the Norman dukes acquired great prestige in Europe. This enabled Richard II to give his sister, Emma, in marriage to the English king Ethelred II. It was this union which would later give rise to the Norman claim to the English throne.

Finally, the successive jarls/dukes succeeded in creating of the ambitious, boisterous, independently-minded and freedom-loving Viking settlers, an aristocracy which no European nation had at that time, and which was to astonish the world with the conquest of England by William the Conqueror.