Who was this fierce Viking warrior that established a dynasty that would change European and West Asian history forever?

What does a name mean?

The man that we know today as "Rollo" is recorded in various sources throughout a myriad of countries between the 10th and 13th centuries CE. Just what his name was, though, and what it exactly means, continues to be the source of debate by academics and historians to this day.

The 10th century CE French historian, Dudo, in his seminal work, Historia Normannorum, first makes mention of Rollo. This is the first time we have any historical record of the first Duke of Normandy. In it, Dudo recounts the baptism of Rollo, the Viking ruler of Normandy, and how he took the Christian name, Robert.

The majority of information, however, that we have about Rollo comes from the Heimskrangla – a collection of Old Norse King's saga complied in the 13th century CE by Icelandic man of letters, Snorri Sturluson. In one of these sagas, a certain "Rolf of Ganger" journeyed to France and ended up ruling the area we now know as Normandy.

There is also a theory that the name "Rollo" is a latinization of one of the Old Norse names, either Hrólfr or Hrollaugr. Both are mentioned in sagas, and the latter even pops up in the 12th century CE compilation of Danish history, Gesta Danorum.

The debate over Rollo's birthplace

Like all personalities and figures from a pre-modern era, it is often hard to separate fact from fiction, tall tales from the truth. The man known as "Rollo" is an example of this blurring of reality and fantasy.

Aside from the sagas and the later Christian accounts, Rollo was believed to have been born in either Norway or Denmark sometime in the late 9th century CE. Academics and historians agree that he was born in Scandinavia, but there are many disagreements about whether he was born north or south of the Skagerrak.

The main historical evidence we have that suggests Rollo was indeed born in what is now Denmark comes from family sources. Rollo's grandson, Richard I of Normandy, commissioned a family history by Dudo. In this history, he was given access to family members who recounted how Rollo's forebears had fled Denmark after a disagreement with a Danish nobleman. Richard I's son, Robert, who would rise to become Archbishop of Rouen, was even nicknamed, by his contemporaries, "Robert the Dane."

There is other evidence, however, that Rollo was indeed born in Norway. Geoffrey Malaterra, an 11th century CE Benedictine monk and historian, mentioned that Rollo had sailed from western Norway, whilst a 12th century CE English monk also mentioned that Rollo's forebears were Norwegian noblemen. Moreover, Snorri Sturalson identifies Rollo as "Hrólf the Walker" – who was a giant of a man – and was born in Møre on the west coast of Norway.

All that academics and historians can say for certain is that Rollo was born somewhere in Scandinavia, sometime in the mid-to-late 9th century CE. For a man who shaped much of European history, it is unfortunate so little of his origins are known.

The inside of Chartres Cathedral. Photo: Mick Haupt/Unsplash

The Siege of Chartres - another Viking siege

Since the early 9th century, Vikings had been raiding and terrorizing the northern borders of the various Frankish kingdoms. The long and unprotected coastline of what is now northern France, the Netherlands, and Belgium was only a small distance from the Viking heartland in Denmark and offered vast riches and treasures, making it easy pickings for the Vikings.

In 858 CE, a Viking force razed the city of Chartres to the ground. This forced the local Burgundians to rebuild and refortify the city properly. Yet the Vikings returned, some 50 years later, in 911 CE, led by Rollo. Chartres was an important trading town for Richard, Duke of Burgundy, and he was hell-bent on not letting the Vikings raze his prized possession down again. He made overtures to the West Frankish king Charles the Simple for military aid.

During the siege, Richard had divided his forces into three to defend the town, but all came under heavy losses by the Viking warriors. It was only the arrival, literally late in the day, of West Frankish cavalry that turned the ride of the siege. Charles the Simple's cavalry forced the Vikings to retreat and form a defensive line made up of slaughtered livestock, mostly horses. The smell, however, of rotting horse flesh was simply too much for the cavalry horses, and they were unable to force the initiative and make the Vikings route.

Yet, with Chartres saved from another Viking raid and raze, West Frankish king Charles the Simple decided to enter into negotiations with Rollo and his Viking army.

The Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

The negotiations that Rollo and Charles the Simple entered into begat one of the most important documents in medieval European history. The Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte essentially changed the Vikings forever.

Charles, with firsthand knowledge of the martial skills and valor of the Vikings, decided to try and ally himself with Rollo to stop further Viking raids. The West Frankish ruler offered what is now Brittany and all the land between the river Epte and the ocean to Rollo in return for loyalty and military assistance. Furthermore, as a sign of goodwill, Rollo was to be baptized and take the Christian name "Robert." Rollo, the pagan Viking warrior, was now to become "Robert," the first Count of Rouen.

Normandy and its impact

Ceding the Vikings this land changed European history forever. From now on, these one-time raiders and traders were now landed aristocracy and a new political entity and force to be reckoned with. Using Normandy as a base, Rollo's ancestors went on to invade, conquer and subjugate huge areas of Europe, from the British Isles to Sicily and parts of the Byzantine Empire.

Rollo was hailed by Normans (as members of the Norse settlers in the areas ceded by Charles the Simple would now be called) as the inspirational founder of an ancestral dynasty that placed kings on the throne of England and Sicily. Rollo's grandson, Richard I, would expand this fledgling part of northern France and turn it into the Duchy of Normandy.

The last historical record of Rollo comes from Flodoard, a Frankish chronicler and historian. According to him, sometime between 928 and 933 CE, Rollo granted his son and successor, William, land in the Avancin area of northern France.

This great warrior, who established a foothold in northern France that would shape European history for the next two centuries, slips out of historical sources and is believed to have died around this time. 

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