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Those pesky Norwegians

By Staff | Jul 24, 2009

Legend tells us that around the year 900, a Viking called Ganga Hrolf was exiled from Norway for particularly bad Viking behavior. He was plundering in his own king’s territory and refusing to pay taxes. For these things, historian Hjalmar Boyesen tells us Ganga Hrolf (Rollo the Walker in English) was sent away. Legend has it that he was so big that Scandinavian horses could not carry him, so he walked everywhere – hence Rollo the Walker.

Both Norway and Denmark claim this particular Viking. lesund, Norway boasts a statue of Rollo the Walker, and tradition is strong elsewhere in Europe that he was Norwegian. The Danes, however, call him Rollo the Dane and have a good argument, for according to historian Gwynn Jones, most of Rollo’s followers were Danes.

In much of France, Rollo and his followers asserted themselves as plunderers and potential overlords. Norwegian or Dane, Rollo the Walker eventually settled in northern France. Norwegian historian Boyesen reports that Rollo the Walker received a large swath of French land in return for converting to Christianity. The land this Norseman (Northman) and his followers occupied became known as Normandy. These Vikings, who gave their children French names and adopted French culture and language, were known as the Normans.

Rollo had a great-great-grandson named Robert. As a young duke, Robert carried on an intimate relationship with a woman named Herlve, pronounced ‘Air-lehv’. Herlve was a tanner’s daughter and is an historical figure who has long fascinated me. Stories developed over the centuries, stories in which, according to historian Charles Carlton, Herlve was washing clothes in a stream below Falaise Castle. Robert saw her and was instantly smitten. But these are only stories; in reality we know very little about her. We do know that when she became pregnant, rather than abandoning her, Robert brought her into Falaise where she bore their son. Given the period, it was a bit of a Cinderella story without the wedding, for while Robert did not marry Herlve, she and their son William, called William the Bastard, lived well at Falaise.

Bastards were not uncommon in this period, and the illegitimate sons of noblemen could expect to hold rank. William, like his father, was a duke. The English surname ‘Fitzroy’ was given to bastard sons of kings. William received less scorn for his illegitimate birth than for his maternal grandfather’s occupation as a tanner. That William’s relatives were tanners gave his enemies plenty of reason to taunt him. Tanning leather was a smelly business; it involved great quantities of urine to soften the hide, and it left tanners with an odor even Vikings found offensive.

According to historian David Douglas, when, “William was besieging Alenon, the defenders waved hides and skins from the walls to taunt the duke with the fact that his mother’s relatives were polinctores.” (Polinctor, in this instance, means tanner.) William, however, was a fairly spectacular leader and warrior, and his days as the object of derision were soon to end.

In this same period, another Norwegian, King Harald Hardrada, invaded the east coast of England. Ottar Dahl, a teacher in Oslo, recently informed me that Hardrada means ‘Hard Ruler’. Historian Michael Evans tells us Hardrada came not so much to plunder and leave but rather to conquer and rule. Hardrada’s hopes were not ill founded, for there were Viking settlements in the area that very well may have welcomed him. But Hardrada was defeated by England’s Saxon King Harold Godwinsson.

Mere days after successfully defending his borders from one Norwegian, the Saxon Harold Godwinsson was forced to march his men south at a withering pace to face a second Norse invader. This time it was the Norman, William the Bastard, son of Herlve and great-great-great grandson of Ganga Hrolf.

William would meet an exhausted Godwinsson at Hastings on October 14th, 1066, where William would make history, alter the geography and law of England, forever change the English language, and take a new name: William the Conqueror.

Skjelver is a Rugby author.

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