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The lion of Rollo, Ruler of Normandy
Lion of Rollo, Ruler of Normandy

The history of the Viking Age contains plenty of gruesome reading. Icelandic sagas tell of a large Viking called Rolv Ganger (Rolv Walker), aka Rollo or Rollon. He was too big for horses to carry him, a saga tells. Viking horses may have been quite small. Their Icelandic descendants are pony sized, at any rate.

Rolv killed many people and became an ancestor of the British monarchy, and he had relatives . . .

After once being outlawed in Viking Norway for raiding where he was not allowed to it by the king at that time, Rollo was banished from Norway and lived by the sword further away from home. After much bloodshed he had Normandy handed over to him in three strides by the French king Charles the Simple. King Charles granted Rollo land between the Epte and the sea and parts of Brittany too.

Whether Rollo was a "duke" (dux) or like a "count" under Charles is debatable. At any rate, brute violence and bloodshed brought a high title and lots of land. Wise persons have fairly different values.

Two spouses are reported for Rollo:

(1) Poppa, said by chronicler Dudo of Saint-Quentin to have been a daughter of Count Berenger, captured during a raid at Bayeux. She was his concubine or wife. They had children: (a) William Longsword, born "overseas" (b) Gerloc, wife of William III, Duke of Aquitaine; Dudo fails to identify her mother, but later chronicler William of Jumieges makes this explicit. (c) (perhaps) Kadlin, said by Ari the Historian to have been daughter of Ganger Hrolf, traditionally identified with Rollo. She married a Scottish King called Bjolan, and had at least a daughter called Midbjorg. She was taken captive by and married Helgi Ottarson.

(2) (traditionally) Gisela of France (d. 919), the daughter of Charles III of France - according to the Norman chronicler Dudo of St. Quentin. However, this marriage and Gisela herself are unknown to Frankish sources. Some details can be hard to verify.

Rollo converted to Christianity to get the Viking-downtrodden and looted Normandy. There he and his band took over, and soon several relatives and other Northmen followed, for the pastures were green and lush. "Set a huge and fierce Viking, skilled in combat, to protect a country-side from other Vikings": The protected Normandie became the best part of France and remained that way for centuries. Normans also took over England and Wales after a descendant of Rollo, known as William the Conqueror, took over England in 1066. Normans also conquered the rich, southern half of Italy, including Sicily, and several other tracts bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. [◦WP, "Rollo"]

This looks like a basic "recipe" of success in later Scandinavian folktales, where the hero gets tough and ends up reigning. In other words, the life of Rollo conforms well to several well-known plots often expressed in Scandinavian folktales among others, such as in Strong John. The success tale of Rollo contains a fair amount of fairy tale motifs, but unlike Scandinavian and other folktales - collected in the 1800s and into the early 1900s for most part - the Rollo story is largely historical, according to the Icelander Snorre Sturlason in Heimskringla, Book 3, section 24; Book 7, section 19, and other Icelandic sagas from medieval times, as the Orkneyingers' Saga, section 4.

A brief look into the fairy tale build-up


Several Scandinavian folktales are showing a similarity in their basic "success recipes" with those of brutal Vikings. It suggests that many folktale heroes walk in shoes like those of Rollo by degrees and through much similar stages where success often depends on combat and getting valuables. It is quite similar with knights -

The saga writer Snorre mentions that Rolv Ganger - later called Rollo and hailed as one ancestor of the British royal house - grew so big that Viking horses (probably ponies) were unable to carry him.

In the course of centuries, myths and other tall stories may grow around admired heroes for wish-fulfilling reasons and some others. Fantasy unites with fact, much as with legends of King Arthur. Arthur's story is mainly composed of folklore and literary invention. There is no clear historical evidence that Arthur was a historical figure, but a whole lot of unproductive speculation. Still he is very popular, for stories about him and his court speak to the imagination of many. The fame of Arthur and his men rests in part on Norman bards. Normans developed romances, and those of King Arthur - blending old Celtic myth and perhaps a skinny core of actual persons at times - were gratefully received in Great Britain and northern France too.

Contrary to what many may imagine, having a king is not a great good, according to Samuel 1:8 in the Old Testament: the king is portrayed as the enemy on top in that passage. Royalty may breed dependence and un-normal subservience with or without near-symbiotic and half-neurotic servility.

Was Rollon Other than Norwegian? A Snapshot

The origin of Rollo is disputed. Norman and Norse sources contain in part conflicting information. From medieval times Norwegian and Icelandic historiy writers have agreed that Gange-Rolv and Rollo is one and the same person, the Viking chieftain Gange-Rolv who in time came to France after being exiled from Norway by King Harald Prettyhair, as some of the medieval sagas tell. The Norwegian-Icelandic version has been challenged by Danish historians, who have claimed that Rollo was originally Danish. And Norwegian, Icelandic, French and British experts have considered that he most probably was Norwegian. "But we have no definitive evidence," says Claus Krag, who is an expert on medieval Norwegian history and professor of ancient history at Telemark University College.

From the report "Biogeographical Origins and Y-chromosome Signature for the House of Normandy" by Michael R. Maglio (published online in April 2014), it appears that Rollo had Danish genes in the DNA of the male Y-chromosome. Judged from the information in the article, Rollo was of Danish origin. Norse sagas tells a different story, for what it is worth.

What about DNA-findings? Norway Today announced on 2 December 2016 that attempts to use the latest technology to disclose the origin of Rollo by a DNA hunt had failed. Why? The bones that were sampled and analysed in Copenhagen, by Explico, did not belong to descendants of Rollo. They were in fact older than him, and older than the Viking Age too.

Sound research mislead by sepulchre names. A research team from the Explico foundation wanted to get genetic evidence of where Rollo came from: Norway or Denmark, by studying the DNA profiles of Rollon's grandson and great grandson Richard I and Richard II. They were thought to lie in stone coffins in a crypt in the town of Fécamp, 40 miles north of Le Havre. The researchers got tooth and bone samples from the stone coffins with the names of the Richards on them, but the skeletal remains they got, were older than the Viking chieftain Rollo of Normandy. "The skeletons in the sarcophagus . . . one is from 250-300 [BCE] and the other from around the year 700 [CE], that is, before the Viking era", says historian and project initiator Sturla Ellingvåg from the Explico foundation to the news agency NTB.

The researchers were not able to find out where the bones might have come from. [◦"Skeletal shock for Norwegian researchers at Viking hunting"]


Rolv and Relatives: Norwegian Robbers and Descendants

"History has many cunning passages". - T. S. Eliot

"History . . . the portrayal of crimes and misfortunes." - Voltaire.

The wicked won . . . It was an evil age. "A time of . . . trolls, gnomes and goblins". - Per Simonnæs, preface. [Noko]

Relatives Ruling the Orkneys

There are stories about the arsonist father and brothers of Rolf Ganger. Their tales start somewhere during the reign of King Harald Fairhair (Chaps. 27, 30-32)

The Orkneyingars' Saga tells a lot of the family and their deeds too. Sources

  1. The Saga of Harald Harfager (i.e., fair hair), chap. 24 tells about Rolv.

  2. The Orkneyingar Saga
  3. From the ◦Landnama Book [Lb]: "Rögnvald, Earl of Mæri, son of Eystein Glumra, the son of Ivar, an Earl of the Upplendings, the son of Halfdan the Old, had for wife Ragnhild, the daughter of Hrolf the Beaked; their son was Ivar, who fell in the Hebrides, fighting with King Harald Fairhair. Another son was Gaungu-Hrolf who conquered Normandy; from him are descended the Earls of Rouen and the Kings of England. (Part 4, ch. 7)"

  4. The Medieval Chronicle of the Kings of Norway (online) containd many sagas that teem with descriptions of how Norwegians flocked abroad as pillaging murderers and traders. A little here, a little there. Norse sagas inculcate certain barbarious norms, and some of them suit vicious guys still. [Nok]

(1) The war-ships of the Vikings were called dragons, from being decorated with the head of a dragon, serpent, or other wild animal; and the word "draco" was adopted in the Latin of the Middle Ages to denote a ship of war of the larger class. The snekke was the cutter or smaller war-ship.

(2) Shields were hung over the side-rails of the ships.

(3) The wolf-skin pelts were nearly as good as armour against the sword.

Some European Viking routes


Rollo Likes Normandy

The historian Reginald Allen Brown [Cf. Tnn] has written extensively about Normans and the Norman conquest. I render him in the following:

"NORMANDY was created by the three consecutive grants of 911, 924 and 933". [Tnn 20] Especially in Lower Normandy the Scandinavian influences and custom remained rather strong. [Cf. Tnn 21 and 41n] Normandy was in part colonised. Rollo and his successors, as rulers of Normandy, obtained the title of count and valuable rights from before, along with widespread domains. [Cf. Tnn 22]

Their buildings seem to document remarkable strength or solidity. The churches were much like bastions. But the duke of Rouen controlled the whole church and his bishops owed him military service for their lands - [Cf. Tnn 32]

"From (their) Scandinavian inheritance the Normans derived their sea-faring, much of their trade and commercial prosperity which they shared with the Nordic world, their love of adventure, their wanderlust which led to the great period of Norman emigration in the eleventh century, their dynamic energy, and above all perhaps, their powers of assimila

(In AD 911) Charles the Simple, king of the west Franks, granted to a band of Vikings, operating in the Seine valley under Rollo their leader, territory corresponding to Upper or Easter Normandy. [Tnn 20] To this was subsequently added by two further grants, first the district of Bayeux, and the districts of Exmes and Seez in 924, and second the districts of Coutances and Avranches in 933 in the time of William Longsword, son and successor of Rollo. [Tnn 20] (2)

And from the French Histoire de la Normandie (1862) we find, in the fourth chapter, how Rollo, son of the Norwegian Rognevald, was made an outlaw by the Norwegian tyrant king Harald Harfager. He arrived at Rouen with his companions. The inhabitants spontaneously submitted to the giant. King Charles at first wanted to fight the Viking, but dropped it. Instead they bargained - Rollo won, he got land and permanent welcome. [Hnam 80 pp]

The historian R. Allen Brown puts the matter into relief: "Normans were pagans when they came (and they continued to come long after 911)." [Tnn 30] But their leader, the Viking Rollo, said yes to getting ◦baptised, and many others followed. More surprisingly, "Rollo . . . is (also - later) said to have wanted to become a monk (at Jumieges). That could have been due to a genuine flame deep inside. [Cf. Tnn 26]

In short time the Normans got the back-up of their astute castles and strongholds, helped themselves to most of it - often they were served by ditches and stockades too. [Cf. Tnn 44-5]

Their treaty at St. Claire-sur-Epte became a fact, and Rollo got baptised and married Gisele.

[It is thought that Rollo showed exceptional skills in navigation, warfare, leadership, and administration. He abdicated to his son Guillame (William) and died in a monastery in 933. Among his people he was for hundreds of years the personification of justice and good government under law. Others, who thought differently, found him cruel and arrogant.]

His son Guillame Longue-Epee (William Longsword) succeeded him. The third duke was Richard sans Peur (the Fearless), and there were many intrigues and hard fights. This Richard died and was succeeded by Richard 2 who massacred Saxons in England at war. The French king Robert became the ally of Richard 2. After his death, Richard 3 succeeded him and died prematurely. Robert le Diable succeeded him and, before he died in Terre-Sainte, became the father of Guillame le Conquerant: William the Conqueror. [Hnam 80 pp]

WE FIND the family tree of William the Conqueror in the book of the historian R. Allen Brown. It looks like this:

  • Richard 1 (ruled: 942-96)
  • Richard 2 the Good (ruled: 996-1026)
  • Richard 3 (ruled: 1026-27)
  • Robert 1 the Magnificent /le Diable (ruled: 1027-35)
  • William the Bastard / the Conqueror (ruled: 1035-87).
  • Rollo's great-granddaughter, Emma married two kings of England, Æhelred the Unready and Knut who was also king of Norway and Denmark. Her son, Edward the Confessor, from the first marriage, was King of England from 1042 to 1066.

    A few more dukes of Normandy may be added for the sake of survey of that dynasty line that ruled over Normandy and its English (British) domain:

  • Robert 2 (ruled from 1087)
  • Henry 1 (ruled from 1106, King of the English (1100-35)
  • Henry II, 1135, King of the English (1135-) [◦Source]
  • "It was a direct result of the Viking onslaught upon Western Europe . . . tidy and precise." [Tnn 20]

    "The Norman monasteries were, by and large, distinguished . . . new . . . vibrant with . . . careless rapture of spiritual endeavour". The (Normans) became great spirituals - intensely aristocratic. [Tnn 28, 30]

    Master builders in a very short time, (Normans) restored and built on monasticism in outstanding degrees. [Tnn 25-6]

    Normans from the next century left grand architectural monuments, and some are still there, more or less intact. The Tower of London is a very Norman building, for example. King William had much of it built. [Cf. Tnn 25 pp]

    "The tower at Rouen was built by Richard 1 (943-96) and is glimpsed from time to time in the reign of his successor and thereafter . . .. It may have been the prototype for the great Norman towers at Colchester and London. [Tnn 44n] (4)

    Normans went on and built very monastic churches at such places as Jumieges [one still stands there] and lots of other places. "They added their cathedrals at Rouen, Bayeux [etc.] Many of these major works of Norman Romanesque architecture survive in whole or part". [Tnn 31-2]

    Formerly hostile Scandinavians . . . became converted [in that way]. [Tnn 13]

    "SOME (including Norman clergy) were patrons of the arts and scholarship . . . and almost all of them were mighty builders." [Tnn 31]

    French version

    In 820 peasants . . .along the Seine saw in the distance ten or so curious war ships called—Drakkar because of the animal sculpted into the prow or the stern, which was actually a dragon—the men from the North didn't travel with their women as they could easily find them on the spot!

    Swearing by the names of Thor and Odin—Vikings plundered, pillaged, raped and slaughtered up until 911 when the famous treaty of Saint Clair sur Epte was signed between the Frank king Charles the Simple and Rollon or Rolf, chief of the men from the North.

    On the whole our invaders calmed down, adopting a somewhat bourgeois attitude to life in this beautiful region which was to become Normandy.

    Soon it was the time for William the Conqueror who, on October 14th, 1066 won the battle of Hastings along with a kingdom—William's heirs were known as the Plantagenets, and they reigned over Normandy and England. In 1189, Richard the Lionheart divided the double crown. [Source]

    TO TOP

    Rollo and Dudo

    Source: [Nbl 350-53]

    Rollo was the son of Earl Ragnvald of More, say Norse sagas. Two of his brothers were Ivar and Tore. Three more were Hallad, Einar and Rollaug. Hallad and Einar in due time became earls of the Orkneys, each in his turn. [eg, Harald Fairhair's Saga]

    After being made an outcast by the tyrant king Harald Harfager, Rolf voyaged to the western isles. Obviously he could count on support from relatives. The earl of the Orkneys was his paternal uncle, succeeded by that uncle's son, that is, his cousin, and later again by his own brothers Hallad and Einar.

    The old sources hold that Rolv took his residence in certain tracts of what today is the domain of Scotland. The Landnamaboka mentions Rolv got a daughter, Kathleen:

    Helgi . . . harried Scotland, and took thence captives, Midbjorg, the daughter of Bjolan the King, and Kadlin, the daughter of Gaungu Hrolf or Rolf the Ganger; he married her. (Part 2, ch. 11).

    Before Helgi had harried and married, Rolv of the Sagas had travelled from Scotland and the isles near it, to Valland, near the English Channel. The Vikings' Valland consisted of the southern Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Normandy, roughly said. He took over Normandy in three steps. The Sagas identify him with the Rollo that the Frank king Charles the Simple bestowed it on.

    Now the chronicler of the Norman dukes, Dudo, tells (ca. 1020) that Rollo was the son of an uncertain king in "Dacia". This is the presentation of Dacia in Dudo's Latin work, ◦Gesta Normannorum:

    Spread over the plentiful space from the Danube to the neighborhood of the Scythian Black Sea, do there inhabit fierce and barbarous nations, which are said to have burst forth in manifold variety like a swarm of bees from a honeycomb or a sword from a sheath, as is the barbarian custom, from the island of Scania, surrounded in different directions by the ocean. For indeed there is there a tract for the very many people of Alania, and the extremely well-supplied region of Dacia, and the very extensive passage of Greece. Dacia is the middle-most of these. Protected by very high alps in the manner of a crown and after the fashion of a city. - [From chapter 2, second paragraph in Gesta Normannorum by the chronicler Dudo ca. 1015]

    Extracts from Dudo of St. Quintin's work is here.

    Three things stand out from Dudo's obscure and glorifying marvel. They are:

    • If what is called Dacia is surrounded by very high alps, it isn't Denmark.
    • Scandia (Scandinavia) is not an island.
    • From Dudo's blurred description, Dacia stands out as some very fertile, southern Alp tract (Balcanlike), and also one that is closely tied in with sailing and ships, as seen from other passages in Dudo.

    To add to Dudo's "back-up of Denmark":

    The Dacians are called by their own people Greeks or Danes, and they boast that they are descended from Antenor. He entered with his followers the Illyrian borders, having slipped away from the midst of the Achaeans who pillaged Troy. [Gesta Normannorum, Chapter 2, paragraph 5]

    Dudo's work has the nature of a romance, and has been regarded as untrustworthy on this ground by such competent critics as Ernst Dümmler and Georg Waitz. The Danish Johannes Steenstrup, on the other hand, while admitting the legendary element in the work, regards the book as of considerable value for the history of the Normans. Further, Leah Shopkow has more recently argued that Carolingian writing, particularly two saints' lives, the ninth-century Vita S. Germani by Heiric of Auxerre and the early tenth-century Vita S. Lamberti by Stephen of Liége, provided models for Dudo's work. [Wikipedia, s.v., "Dudo of Saint-Quentin"]

    There are differences of opinion. The Danish scholar Johannes Steenstrup wrote in favour of Dudo's version back in 1876. But it is not very clear what that version is or implies. For judged from Dudo, Dacia is not Denmark [Norsd 30, 31] - the descriptions of the terrain and the geographic position do not fit.

    Most historians have settled on the presentation of the Icelandic sagas. That position is held by many Icelandic, French, British and Norwegian historians. They have supported the Sagas of Icelandic origin.

    Some Danes love to think that Rollo was Danish, without much valuable evidence that it was so. There is not a single mention of Rollo in the classical Danish sources, and it is often pointed out that a huge, vastly successful marauder from Scandinavia at that time would not go unmentioned in the country he came from - such a "prominent man". The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus from about 1200, has no mention of any Danish Rollo in ◦The Danish History. But there is mention of Gange-Rolf in several Icelandic sagas, and the Orkneyingar Saga, and in the Chronicle of the Kings of Norway.

    Political Rollo Versions

    Vikings launched many attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe in times long gone. For example, a vast Viking army attacked Paris in 885. It was a huge army equipped for bombarding and breaking down huge walls - the king came to the aid and bought Paris back. [Noko 40] (6)

    Sagas tell that Rollo the Walker took part in similar activities, and that this Hrolf (Rolv, Rollo) was the son of the Viking Ragnvald from Trondelag, a marauder that was granted the title Earl of More for helping Harald Fairhair. Sagas tell that Ragnvald's son Rolv was tall and heavy, and that the region he left when he sailed away as a Norse outlaw, was More.

    Many Danes will disagree with many Icelandic sagas on the basis of a Norman chronicler's obscure tales about a tract he calls "Dacia," with key descriptions that do not fit the Danish geography at all, and despite the fact that the medieval Danish History of Saxo has no mention of the notable Rollo. [Noko 39]

    Norwegian and other historians on the other hand have not swerved from the view that the Viking Rollo was Rolv, the son of Earl Ragnvald of More in Norway. And as it also shows up, Danes have changed their views. In short:

    • First they stuck to the presented views of the Norse sagas. However, after Norway and Denmark were split in 1814, Danish historians said Rollo was a Dane on the basis of Dudo of St. Quentin's tales of "Dacia" and a nobleman there, at loggerheads with the Danish king. According to Dudo, the nobleman had two sons, Gurim and Rollo; Rollo was expelled and Gurim killed. William of Jumièges, the original compiler of the history known as ◦The Gesta Normannorum Ducum ("Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans"), written in about 1070, states Rollo was from the Danish town of Fakse. William built his version on his forerunner Dudo. [Wikipedia, s.v. "William of Jumièges"]
    • Swedes supported the Norwegian view, as rooted in several medieval, Icelandic sagas and findings in Normandie - until the union between Norway and Sweden broke in 1905. After that, the Sweden launched their own candidate, but without much success.
    • In Normandy Rollo is celebrated as a real Viking from More on the west coast of Norway [Cf. Noko 35]
    • International scholars or researchers stick to Icelander sagas and Snorre Sturlason as the more plausible source; Snorre says Rollo and Rolv Ganger are one and the same. [Cf. Noko 35]

    This pinpointing more than suggests that political interests may interfere with and/or colour versions and views.

    Be that as it may, after Rollo and his companions settled in Normandy, they most likely kept the ties with their kin, according to Norse customs at the time. Rolv Ganger converted and wed according to Frank fashion and settled in Rouen. Next he granted many of his Viking companions ample landed property. It is likely that kin from up north came to join them in such a fine country as well. It was feasible to go north and fetch one's women and children and kin to the new land, for the soil was fit, there was much fish, and as members of the ruling class they were much safer or freer than those who submitted to the tyranny of Harald Harfager and his family in Norway and its colonies in several western islands. [Cf. Noko 43]

    Normans built fortresses on strategic places, and many rustic castles were to come along with them in a short time. All able men had to serve in the Norman military forces. And the formerly ruined, marauded region was turned into one of the foremost in France, and Rouen became the second largest city in France, and Rolv became the originator of the Norman duchy. [Noko 39, 45-46]

    Rollo in Fargo

    The Rollo statue in Fargo, North Dakota

    In 1911, during the Norman Millennium celebrations, the city of Rouen in Normandy decided to create two copies of its Rollo statue. One replica was sent as a gift to Rollo's putative birthplace somewhere around Ålesund, Norway. The earls of Moere were headquartered somewhere nearby Ålesund, it is estimated.

    The other replica went to Fargo in North Dakota. The two bronze statues were copied from an original stone statue sculpted in 1863 by Arsene Letellier, erected in Rouen in 1865.

    In Fargo, the dedication ceremony in 1912 included a speaker from the French embassy in Washington. A proclamation by the mayor of Rouen, bound in leather with gold seal of the city, gold leaf and other ornamentation, read in part,

    "Since these ancient times, these fierce warriors have populated and have become a hard-working people whose importance is shown by the powerful association of the Sons of Norway which has preserved the cult of memory, and which participated last year in the celebrations in the ancient Duchy of Normandy."

    The celebrations were concluded with a parade down Broadway. The Rollo statue was relocated in the 1980s and now stands in a little park.

    And the other copy of the now war-damaged statue in Rouen is in a small park in Aalesund, Norway. [Noko 39, 48, 40]


    Rollo, Rollon, Rolv Ganger, Norman history, Literature  

    EB: Encyclopaedia Britannica, online or yearly DVD suite. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008.

    Hnam: Barthelemy, Ch. Histoire de la Normandie ancienne et moderne. Tours: Mame, 1862.

    Bnsi: Marongiu, Antonio. Byzantine, Norman, Swabian and later Institutions in Southern Italy. Collected Studies. London: Variolum Reprints, 1972.

    Hee: Woodward, E. A History of England. London: University Paperback/Methuen, 1965.

    Lb: Ellwood, T., tr. The Book of the Settlement of Iceland (The Landnama-Book) . Kendal: T. Wilson, 1898. On-line.

    Norsd: Steenstrup, Johannes. Normannerne, bd 1. Copenhagen: Klein, 1876.

    Noko: Simonnæs, Per. Normannerne kommer. Oslo: Grøndahl Dreyer, 1994.

    Nok: Hødnebø, Finn, and Hallvard Magerøy, eds. Norges kongesagaer. Vols 1-4. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1979.

    Tnn: Brown, Reginald Allen. The Normans and the Norman Conquest. London: Constable, 1969.

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