Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Normans in Normandy: William Longsword 2

Normandy and France

In 927, at St Quentin Rollo and William Longsword met Charles the Simple, who had been deposed in 923 and imprisoned at Peronne by Herbert II of Vermandois.  The Rollonids were prepared to change their allegiance given four years earlier and support Charles against Ralph, the actual king of France.  Charles’ death in 929 put an end to this attempt to restore him to the throne and William Longsword had no reason to remain hostile to king Ralph. 

In 931, Hugh the Great, duke of France with whom the Rollonids had been on good terms since 927 seized land at Braine-sur-Vesle, some seventeen kilometres south east of Soissons.  The land belonged to the diocese of Rouen and the Normans considered this to be an unfriendly act.  Two years later, William Longsword met Ralph at St Quentin and agreed an non-aggression treaty with him.  Ralph confirmed William’s sovereignty over the Cotentin and Avranchin and his ‘protectorate’ over Brittany.  Between 935 and 939, William was married to Leutgarde, daughter of Herbert of Vermandois.  He had no legitimate children and his successor, Richard was the son of Sprota who he had apparently married in 930 ‘more danico’.       

In 936, King Ralph died and the Franks were divided over his successor. His brother Hugh the Black succeeded him in Burgundy, but made no attempt to gain the throne for himself; there would be no Burgundian dynasty of West Frankish kings. Once again Hugh the Great was in position to put himself forward, but once again he chose not do so. Instead, he recalled Charles the Simple’s son Louis IV[1] from his exile in England and arranged for his coronation; presumably, he believed that the fifteen-year-old Carolingian would be grateful, and subject to his control. As one of their first acts, Hugh and Louis went to Burgundy and secured the recognition of Louis by Ralph’s brother (as well as territorial concessions to Hugh). But all did not go well for Hugh. In 937, Louis left Hugh’s guardianship and set himself up at Laon. Over the next couple of years, Louis, Hugh the Great, Herbert II of Vermandois, Arnulf of Flanders, and other Frankish magnates began to jockey for position, as short-lived alliances formed and dissolved and minor military actions erupted.

Meanwhile, a group of Lotharingian nobles revolted against King Otto I.  King Louis took advantage of this by travelling to Lotharingia and receiving the homage of the rebels. Otto responded by launching large-scale raids into West Francia.  Louis did not have the resources to effectively oppose him and appealed for support from Aethelstan of Wessex. I In 939, Hugh the Great, Herbert of Vermandois and Arnulf of Flanders agreed to support Otto against Louis IV.  It was not in William Longsword’s interests to allow Francia to become too powerful and too united.  

After the death of his leading ally in Lotharingia, Louis IV ended his direct conflict with Otto by abandoning Lotharingia. This did not end the conspiracy against him.  In 941, Hugh and Herbert went to the east to meet with Otto. This time, however, William Longsword refrained; instead, he travelled to Amiens for a meeting with King Louis. He ‘committed himself to the king,’ who then conceded to him the lands that King Charles had given to Rollo in 911. This would presumably be the ‘first grant,’ of Rouen and its environs; the legal status of the later grants by Charles’ and Louis’ rivals, the Robertines, is not at all clear. But although William did not take direct action against Louis, when Hugh and Herbert besieged Reims, intending to depose the archbishop who was Louis’ chancellor and staunchest supporter, William joined them. The town was captured and the archbishop expelled; Herbert’s son, who had earlier been archbishop and subsequently deposed, was now restored. But when Herbert and Hugh went on to besiege the royal stronghold of Laon, William did not join them.

Louis succeeded in forcing his foes to abandon their attack on Laon. He and Otto then traded expeditions into each other’s lands; Louis’ vigorous challenge to Otto seems to have intimidated Hugh and Herbert, who stayed out of the fray. But Louis did not succeed at pressing his advantage, and in 941 Hugh and Herbert attacked Laon again, for the first time taking arms directly against the king. This time, their siege was successful, and Louis barely managed to escape. Shortly after, Hugh, Herbert, William Longsword, and Arnulf met; we do not know what they discussed, but if Hugh and Herbert were trying to get William and Arnulf to take a more active stance against the king, they failed. William and Arnulf continued to stay out of the fray. Louis seemed to have taken heart at William’s restraint, and in 942 he sent Roger, count of Douai, to Rouen as a royal envoy. Roger died at Rouen, but not before negotiating a new peace between William and the king. Louis then travelled to Rouen to seal the alliance personally, where he was ‘received in royal fashion.’  William Longsword played a central role in this process.  He acted as mediator between Louis IV and Otto I, depriving Hugh and Herbert of their chief foreign supporter and played a major diplomatic role in the internal affairs of Francia.  At the Rouen meeting in the autumn of 942, the seven most powerful Norman landowners recognised William’s son Richard as his successor.

Normandy and Flanders

Meanwhile, the detente that seems to have existed between the Rollonid Principality and Flanders since the late 920s suddenly broke. Arnulf had, through the 930s, expanded his power in the area, disinheriting his nephews and seizing the counties of Boulogne and the Ternois for himself. He then made an alliance with Herbert of Vermandois, marrying Herbert’s sister.  The flashpoint was the county of Ponthieu, located directly between the two rival states, and its capital of Montreuil.

Conflict between Herluin II, count of Ponthieu and Herbert of Vermandois began a decade earlier.  In 929, Herbert and Hugh the Great besieged Montreuil but Hugh changed sides and came to Herluin’s support.  Three years later, Herbert of Vermandois was defeated by Herluin but then captured, by surprise the castle of Ham, some twenty kilometres south-west of St Quentin.  In 939, Herbert supported by Arnulf of Flanders besieged Montreuil and its capture gave him all of Ponthieu and Vimeu between the rivers Somme and Bresle.  Herluin II sought the support of Hugh the Great to regain his lands but Hugh refused because he already had an alliance with Arnulf.  Herluin then turned to William Longsword for help.   Troops from the Cotentin attacked and recaptured Montreuil, slaughtering most of Arnulf’s garrison.  But at a price.  Herluin had placed his lands under the protection of the Normans and performed homage to William for his help.  The Normans were now assured of a buffer between their borders and those of Flanders.

For Arnulf, Hugh the Great and other Carolingian lords the Normans remained undesirable intruders in France and they decided to eliminate William who was becoming too powerful and was increasingly playing a role in the politics of the French monarchy.    It was at this moment that Arnulf sent messengers to William Longsword, saying that he wanted to settle their conflict over Montreuil. William went to the meeting on an island in the river Somme at Picquigny, where he was murdered by Arnulf’s men on 18th December 942.

William’s career began in danger, as the principality Rollo had built was almost destroyed by Riulf’s revolt against a son seen as tied too strongly to Frankish interests. Barely surviving this revolt, William spent the remainder of the 930s strengthening his western frontiers especially with Brittany.  At the end of his life, his conflicts with Arnulf of Flanders over Montreuil quickly drew him into the conflict between King Louis and his greatest nobles, Hugh the Great and Herbert of Vermandois. William was playing at the highest level of the Frankish political world, receiving the friendship of the king. But perhaps this relationship made him overconfident; when he was invited to a meeting with Arnulf, he was too trusting, and this led directly to his death.

Normandy under William Longsword

By 936, Normandy already had defined frontiers.  It had already taken the Passais, part of Seois and the Perche.  To the east, faced by the principalities of northern France, by the French in the Vexin and Drouais, the final limits of Norman power were already fixed.  The Rollonids had occupied the Meresais, the area between the Eure and the Seine as well as the left bank of the river Avre in the early 920s.  Normandy was, with the exception of the England, the only state in Europe that already had its boundaries clearly defined.  The seven dioceses of the ancient archiepiscopate of Rouen were reunited.

There is little contemporary evidence about how Normandy was governed under William Longsword.  It is known that he chose Bot, previously councillor to Rollo as his ‘mayor of the palace’ but it is unclear exactly what this means.  It has been suggested that it was simply the title given to the chief councillor or to his role as regent when William was absent from Normandy.  Later chroniclers used the term ‘constable’ implying that Bot had an important military function as chief of William’s personal bodyguard.  William’s closest advisors consisted of three ‘secretaries’ or ‘counts’ (including Bot) and, with the seven most powerful Norman ‘princes’ formed an Assembly of ten councillors.  It is not known whether the seven ‘princes’ corresponded with those responsible for the seven ancient cities of Normandy (Rouen, Bayeux, Lisieux, Coutances, Sees, Avranches and Evreux) and the lands around them.  If this was the case, then they would have had a clear military responsibility for those areas.  What is certain is that the ‘princes’ were William’s tenants-in-chief.  The ten councillors may also have been responsible for the ten ‘pagi’ that existed in Normandy in the 930s: Caux, Talou, Vexin, Roumois, Evrecin, Lieuvin, Hiesmois (including Seois), Bessin, Cotentin and Avranchin.

There are, however, major problems for historians with this administrative structure.  First, the words ‘prince’, ‘count’ and ‘councillor’ were Latin terms that did not correspond to the realities of the broadly Scandinavian structures that existed in Normandy in the 930s.  Secondly, the Nordic texts do not indicate that Normandy was ‘governed’.  This explains why William is always referred to as the ‘jarl’ or leader of the Normans of the Seine or of Rouen and by Frankish writers as the ‘military commander (‘princeps’ or ‘dux’) of the pirates of the Seine’. The jarl, like everyone else, was not above the law or Scandinavian customs.

The lack of contemporary Norman sources make it very difficult to be clear about the administrative structure that William inherited from his father.  How far William was a ‘moderniser’ (to use a modern term) is difficult to say.  Certainly, his Christianity and role in Frankish politics in the 930s and early 940s led some Scandinavian settlers to accuse him of diluting his Scandinavian past.  The rebellion of Riulf was a consequence of this.  The problem for historians is how far back it is possible to push the ‘Frankification’ of Norman rule and what that actually means.  It is possible to see this process in several important respects.  William produced coinage and, unlike the practice in the remainder of France, he had a monopoly over this.  Three new ‘pagi’ were established in the Cotentin (Hagi, Saire and Baupt) probably under William: here William was clearly following an existing Frankish model.  The existence of ‘sergentries’ (in practice, if not in name) probably dated back to Rollo and almost certainly to William.  The sergeants received land in return for the services they performed: maintaining order, judicial and military functions especially guarding their lands.  Whether this replicated the increasing ‘feudal’ arrangements in the Frankish kingdom or was simply a practical solution for the need to provide rewards for supporters while also protecting Rollonid lands or both is debatable.  Under William, the first restorations of monasteries began.  Around 942, monks from Saint-Cyrien de Poitiers arrived at Jumieges.  They had been sent by William’s sister Gerloc who had married William III, duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitiers.  Martin, the new abbot of Jumieges was briefly William’s adviser on religious matters.  William himself restore the abbey at Fecamp.  Despite this, with the exception of Rouen and Evreux, there were no bishops resident in the other dioceses.  William recognised the importance of Christianity and Christian organisation to the future development of his lands, a process continued by his successor Richard I.  Just how far this process had come by 942 is debatable but the murder of William Longsword revealed just how fragile the Rollonid Principality remained.


[1] On Louis IV see, Philippe Lauer, Le règne de Louis IV, BÉHÉ 127, Paris: Émile Bouillon, 1900.

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