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The Normans
by Sarah Orne Jewett
Chapter III.

Dukes of the Normans


               "For old, unhappy, far-off things
               And battles long ago."
                      -- Wordsworth.

     Before we follow the fortunes of the new duke, young William Longsword, we must take a look at France and see what traditions and influences were going to affect our colony of Northmen from that side, and what relations they had with their neighbors. Perhaps the best way to make every thing clear is to go back to the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne, who inherited a great kingdom, and added to it by his wars and statesmanship until he was crowned at Rome, in the year 800, emperor not only of Germany and Gaul, but of the larger part of Italy and the northeastern part of Spain. Much of this territory had shared in the glories of the Roman Empire and had fallen with it. But Charlemagne was equal to restoring many lost advantages, being a man of great power and capacity, who found time, while his great campaigns were going on, to do a great deal for the schools of his country. He even founded a sort of normal school, where teachers were fitted for their work, and his daughters were busy in copying manuscripts; the emperor himself was fond of being read to when he was at his meals, and used to get up at midnight to watch the stars. Some of the interesting stories about him may not be true, but we can be sure that he was a great general and a masterly governor and lawgiver, and a good deal of a scholar. Like Rolf, he was one of the men who mark as well as make a great change in the world's affairs, and in whose time civilization takes a long step forward. When we know that it took him between thirty and forty years to completely conquer the Saxons, who lived in the northern part of his country, and we read the story of the great battle of Roncesvalles in which the Basque people won; when we follow Charlemagne (the great Charles, as his people love to call him) on these campaigns which take up almost all his history, we cannot help seeing that his enemies fought against the new order of things that he represented. It was not only that they did not want Charlemagne for their king, but they did not wish to be Christians either, or to forsake their own religion and their own ideas for his.

     When he died he was master of a great association of countries which for years yet could not come together except in name, because of their real unlikeness and jealousy of each other. Charlemagne had managed to rule them all, for his sons and officers, whom he had put in command of the various provinces, were all dictated to by him, and were not in the least independent of his oversight. His fame was widespread. Embassies came to him from distant Eastern countries, and no doubt he felt that he was establishing a great empire for his successors. Thirty years after he died the empire was divided into three parts, and thirty-four years later it was all broken up in the foolish reign of his own great-grandson, who was called Charles also, but instead of Charles the Great became known as Charles the Fat. From the fragments of the old empire were formed the kingdoms of France, of Italy, and of Germany, with the less important states of Lorraine, Burgundy, and Navarre. But although the great empire had fallen to pieces, each fragment kept something of the new spirit that had been forced into it by the famous emperor. For this reason there was no corner of his wide domain that did not for many years after his death stand in better relation to progress, and to the influence of religion, the most potent civilizer of men.

     All this time the power of the nobles had been increasing, for, whereas, at first they had been only the officers of the king, and were appointed to or removed from their posts at the royal pleasure, they contrived at length to make their positions hereditary and to establish certain rights and privileges. This was the foundation of the feudal system, and such a growth was sure to strike deep root. Every officer could hope to become a ruler in a small way, and to endow his family with whatever gains and holdings he had managed to make his own. And as these feudal chiefs soon came to value their power, they were ready to fight, not only all together for their king or over-lord, but for themselves; and one petty landholder with his dependents would go out to fight his next neighbor, each hoping to make the other his tributary. France proper begins to make itself heard about in these days.

     If you have read "The Story of Rome," and "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire," you can trace the still earlier changes in the old province of Gaul. The Franks had come westward, a bold association of German tribes, and in that fifth century when the Roman rule was overthrown, they swarmed over the frontiers and settled by hundreds and thousands in the conquered provinces. But, strange to say, as years went on they disappeared; not because they or their children went away again and left Gaul to itself, but because they adopted the ways and fashions of the country. They were still called Franks and a part of the country was called France even, but the two races were completely mixed together and the conquerors were as Gallic as the conquered. They even spoke the new language; it appears like an increase or strengthening of the Gallic race rather than a subjugation of it, and the coming of these Franks founded, not a new province of Germany, but the French nation.

     The language was changed a good deal, for of course many Frankish or German words were added, as Roman (or Romance) words had been added before, to the old Gallic, and other things were changed too. In fact we are not a bit surprised when we find that the German kings, Charlemagne's own descendants, were looked upon as foreigners, and some of the French leaders, the feudal lords and princes, opposed themselves to their monarchs. They were brave men and ready to fight for what they wanted. Charles the Fat could not keep himself on his unsteady throne, and in Rolf's day France was continually at war, sometimes at home, and almost always with the neighboring provinces and kingdoms. Rolf's contemporary, Charles the Simple, lost his kingship in 922, when his nobles revolted and put another leader in his place, who was called Hugh the Great, Count of Paris. Charles the Simple was kept a prisoner until he died, by a Count of Vermandois, of whom he had claimed protection, and whose daughter William Longsword had married.

     There was a great deal of treachery among the French nobles. Each was trying to make himself rich and great, and serving whatever cause could promise most gain. There was diplomacy enough, and talking and fighting enough, but very little loyalty and care for public welfare. In Normandy, a movement toward better things showed itself more and more plainly; instead of wrangling over the fragments of an old dismembered kingdom, Rolf had been carefully building a strong new one, and had been making and keeping laws instead of breaking laws, and trying to make goodness and right prevail, and theft and treachery impossible. We must not judge those days by our own, for many things were considered right then that are wrong now; but Rolf knew that order and bravery were good, and that learning was good, and so he kept his dukedom quiet, though he was ready enough to fight his enemies, and he sent his son William Longsword to school, and made him a good scholar as well as soldier. This was as good training as a young man could have in those stormy times.

     Under Rolf, Normandy had held faithfully to the king, but under his son's rule we find a long chapter of changes, for William was constantly transferring his allegiance from king to duke. When he succeeded his father, Normandy and France were at war -- that is, Rolf would not acknowledge any king but Charles, who was in prison, while the usurper, Rudolph of Burgundy, was on the French throne. It is very hard to keep track of the different parties and their leaders. Everybody constantly changed sides, and it is not very clear what glory there was in being a king, when the vassals were so powerful that they could rebel against their sovereign and make war on him as often as they pleased. Yet they were very decided about having a king, if only to show how much greater they were by contrast. Duke Hugh of Paris takes the most prominent place just at this time, and with his widespread dominions and personal power and high rank, we cannot help wondering that he did not put himself at the head of the kingdom. Instead of that he chose to remain a subject, while he controlled the king's actions and robbed him of his territory and kept him in personal bondage. He had no objection to transferring his strange loyalty from one king to another, but he would always have a king over him, though at three different times there was nothing except his own plans to hinder him from putting the crown of France upon his own head. He had a stronger guiding principle than some of his associates, and seems to have been a better man.

     From Charles the Simple had come the lands of Normandy, and to him the first vow of allegiance had been made, and so both Rolf and William took his part and were enemies to his usurper and his foes. When William came into possession of his dukedom, one of his first acts was to do homage to his father's over-lord, and he never did homage to Rudolph the usurper until Charles was dead, and even then waited three years; but Rudolph was evidently glad to be friends, and presented Longsword with a grant of the sea-coast in Brittany. The Norman duke was a formidable rival if any trouble should arise, and the Normans themselves were very independent in their opinions. One of Rolf's followers had long ago told a Frenchman that his chief, who had come to Neustria a king without a kingdom, now held his broad lands from the sun and from God. They kept strange faith with each other in those days. Each man had his own ambitious plans, and his leagues and friendships were only for the sake of bringing them about. This was not being very grateful, but Rolf's men knew that the Breton lands were the price of peace and alliance, and not a free gift for love's sake by any means.

     As we try to puzzle out a distinct account of William's reign, we find him sometimes the enemy of Rudolph and in league with Hugh of Paris, sometimes he was in alliance with Rudolph, though he would not call him king, and oftener he would have nothing to do with either. It is very dull reading, except as we trace the characters of the men themselves.

     Most of the Normans had accepted Christianity many years before, in the time of Rolf, and had been christened, but a certain number had refused it and clung to the customs of their ancestors. These people had formed a separate neighborhood or colony near Bayeux, and after several generations, while they had outwardly conformed to the prevailing observances, they still remained Northmen at heart. They were remarkable among the other Normans for their great turbulence and for an almost incessant opposition to the dukes, and some of them kept the old pagan devices on their shields, and went into battle shouting the Northern war-cry of "Thor aide!" instead of the pious "Dieu aide!" or "Dex aide!" of Normandy.

     Whatever relic of paganism may have clung to Rolf himself, it is pretty certain that his son, half Frenchman by birth, was almost wholly a Frenchman in feeling. We must remember that he was not the son of Gisla the king's sister, however, but of Popa of Bayeux. There was a brother or half-brother of hers called Bernard de Senlis, who in spite of his father's murder and the unhappy beginning of their acquaintance with Rolf, seems to have become very friendly with the Norse chieftain.

     The fortunes of war were so familiar in those days and kept so many men at fierce enmity with each other, that we are half surprised to come upon this sincere, kindly relationship in the story of the early Normans. Even Rolfe's wife's foolish little nickname, "Popa," under cover of which her own name has been forgotten, -- this name of puppet or little doll, gives a hint of affectionateness and a sign of homelikeness which we should be very sorry to miss. As for Bernard de Senlis, he protected not only the rights of Rolf's children and grandchildren, but their very lives, and if it had not been for his standing between them and their enemies Rolf's successors would never have been dukes of Normandy.

     With all his inherited power and his own personal bravery, William found himself in a very hard place. He kept steadfastly to his ideas of right and might, and one thinks that with his half French and half Northman nature he might have understood both of the parties that quickly began to oppose each other in Normandy. He ruled as a French prince, and he and his followers were very eager to hold their place in the general confederacy of France, and eager too that Normandy should be French in religion, manners, and customs. Yet they did not wish Normandy to be absorbed into France in any political sense. Although there were several men of Danish birth, Rolf's old companions, who took this view of things, and threw in their lot with the French party, like Botho, William's old tutor, and Oslac, and Bernard the Dane, of whom we shall hear again, there was a great body of the Normans who rebelled and made much trouble.

     William's French speech and French friends were all this time making him distrusted and even disliked by a large portion of his own subjects. There still remained a strong Northern and pagan influence in the older parts of the Norman duchy; while in the new lands of Brittany some of the independent Danish settlements, being composed chiefly of the descendants of men who had forced their way into that country before Rolf's time, were less ready for French rule than even the Normans. Between these new allies and the disaffected Normans themselves a grand revolt was organized under the leadership of an independent Danish chief from one of the Breton provinces. The rebels demanded one concession after another, and frightened Duke William dreadfully; he even proposed to give up his duchy and to beg the protection of his French uncle, Bernard de Senlis. We are afraid that he had left his famous longsword at home on that campaign, until it appears that his old counsellor, Bernard the Dane, urged him to go back and meet the insurgents, and that a great victory was won and the revolt ended for that time. The account of William's wonderful success is made to sound almost miraculous by the old chronicles.**

     The two Norman parties held separate territories and were divided geographically, and each party wished to keep to itself and not be linked with the other. The Christian duke who liked French speech and French government might keep Christian Rouen and Evreux where Frenchmen abounded, but the heathen Danes to the westward would rather be independent of a leader who had turned his face upon the traditions and beliefs of his ancestors. For the time being, these rebellious subjects must keep their grudges and bear their wrongs as best they might, for their opponents were the masters now, and William was free to aim at still greater influence in French affairs as his dominion increased.

     Through his whole life he was swayed by religious impulses, and, as we have known, it was hard work at one time to keep him from being a monk. Yet he was not very lavish in his presents to the church, as a good monarch was expected to be in those days, and most of the abbeys and cathedrals which had suffered so cruelly in the days of the pirates were very poor still, and many were even left desolate. His government is described as just and vigorous, and as a general thing his subjects liked him and upheld his authority. He was very desirous all the time to bring his people within the bounds of Christian civilization and French law and order, yet he did not try to cast away entirely the inherited speech or ideas of his ancestors. Of course his treatment of the settlements to the westward and the Danish party in his dominion must have varied at different times in his reign. Yet, after he had made great efforts to identify himself with the French, he still found himself looked down upon by his contemporaries and called the Duke of the Pirates, and so in later years he concerned himself more with his father's people, and even, so the tradition goes, gave a new Danish colony direct from Denmark leave to settle in Brittany. His young son Richard was put under the care, not of French priests, but his own old tutor, Botho the Dane, and the boy and his master were sent purposely to Bayeux, the very city which young Richard's grandfather, Rolf, had helped to ravage. At Rouen the Northmen's language was already almost forgotten, but the heir to the duchy was sent where he could hear it every day, though his good teacher had accepted French manners and the religion of Rome. William Longsword had become sure that there was no use in trying to be either wholly Danish or wholly French, the true plan for a Duke of Normandy was to be Dane and Frenchman at once. The balance seems to have swung toward the Danish party for a time after this, and after a troubled, bewildering reign to its very close, William died at the hands of his enemies, who had lured him away to hold a conference with Arnulf, of Flanders, at Picquigny, where he came to a mysterious and sudden death.

     The next year, 943, was a marked one in France and began a new order of things. There was a birth and a death which changed the current of history. The Count of Vermandois, the same man who had kept the prison and helped in the murder of Charles the Simple, was murdered himself -- or at least died in an unexplained and horrible way, as men were apt to do who were called tyrants and were regicides beside. His dominion was divided among his sons, except some parts of it that Hugh of Paris seized. This was the death, and the birth was of a son and heir to Hugh of Paris himself. His first wife was an Englishwoman, Eadhild, but she had died childless, to his great sorrow. This baby was the son of his wife Hadwisa, the daughter of King Henry of Germany, and he was called Hugh for his father; Hugh Capet, the future king. After this Hugh of Paris changed his plans and his policy. True enough, he had never consented to being a king himself, but it was quite another thing to hinder his son from reigning over France by and by. Here the Frenchman begins to contrast himself more plainly against the Frank, just as we have seen the Norman begin to separate himself from the Northman. Under Rolf Normandy had been steadily loyal to King Charles the Simple; under William it had wavered between the king and the duke; under Richard we shall see Normandy growing more French again.

     Under William Longsword, now Frenchman, now Northman was coming to the front, and everybody was ready to fight without caring so very much what it was all about. But everywhere we find the striking figure of the young duke carrying his great sword, that came to be the symbol of order and peace. The golden hilt and long shining blade are familiar enough in the story of William's life. Somehow we can hardly think of him without his great weapon. With it he could strike a mighty blow, and in spite of his uncommon strength, he is said to have been of a slender, graceful figure, with beautiful features and clear, bright color like a young girl's. His charming, cheerful, spirited manners won friendship and liking. "He had an eye for splendor," says one biographer; "well spoken to all, William Longsword could quote a text to the priest, listen respectfully to the wise sayings of the old, talk merrily with his young friends about chess and tables, discuss the flight of the falcon and the fleetness of the hound."

     When he desired to be a monk, he was persuaded that his rank and duties would not permit such a sacrifice, and that he must act his part in the world rather than in the cloister, for Normandy's sake, but in spite of his gay life and apparent fondness for the world's delights and pleasures, when he died his followers found a sackcloth garment and scourge under his splendid clothes. And as he lay dead in Rouen the rough haircloth shirt was turned outward at the throat so that all the people could see. He had not the firmness and decision that a duke of Normandy needed; he was very affectionate and impulsive, but he was a miserly person, and had not the power of holding on and doing what ought to be done with all his might.

Notes for Chapter 3

“For old, unhappy, far-off things"... WORDSWORTHThese lines are from William Wordsworth's (1770-1850) poem that is known under two titles, "The Reaper" or "The Solitary Reaper" (1807).
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Roncesvalles in which the Basque people won:  According to Wikipedia, the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778, is recounted in The Song of Roland (12th century) as well as in Orlando Furioso (1532).
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If you have read "The Story of Rome," and "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire":  
    Jewett mentions "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire." Since no book of this title was in print during Jewett's life-time, according to WorldCat, it appears that Jewett is making a common error with the title of Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788).
    While it is possible she is referring to a prospective title in the Stories of the Nations series, this seems unlikely, since in this same sentence she mentions The Story of Rome (1886, 1885) by Arthur Gilman, which appeared in the Nations series about a year before The Story of the Normans.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller
    Assistance from:  Allison Anderson and Gabe Heller.


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