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Middle Ages

The true history of Rollo, the Viking from whom all current European monarchs descend


One of the most interesting chapters of the Vikings television series is the one where we witness the twist given to the story thanks to the character of Rollo, who here is shown as brother of King Ragnar Lothbrok. In reality the character, like many others in the series, is inspired by a real person.

This is Hrolf Ganger, known by the nickname of Rollo the Walker, a Norwegian Viking warlord who is considered the first Duke of Normandy.

Statue of Rollo in the French city of Rouen

Rollo headed a group of Norwegians and Danes who, in addition to pillaging the coasts of the North Sea, served as mercenaries of whoever hired them. Exiled from the kingdom of Norway, he commanded expeditions to Scotland, Ireland, England and Flanders, as well as devastating the banks of the Seine.

His origin is not very clear. The Norman writer Dudo of Saint Quentin refers to him as Danish, but this appellation seems to be generic to the inhabitants of Scandinavia. Geoffrey Malaterra in the 11th century and William of Malmesbury in the 12th century claim that he was Norwegian of noble origin. Icelandic sagas of the thirteenth century place him on the Norwegian coast in the ninth century as the son of Count Rognvald Eysteinsson. It is these sagas that give him the nickname of the Walker, because he was so big that no horse could transport him. It is said that he weighed more than 140 kilos and has a height of more than 2 meters.

According to Dudo of Saint Quentin Rollo seized Rouen in the year 876 and commanded the Viking fleet that besieged Paris between 885 and 887. Other authors think that he did not arrive in France before the year 900. In any case his presence is documented in a letter of 918 where King Charles the Simple grants him lands for the protection of the kingdom.

After this pact with the Frankish king the Vikings, including Rollo, would have converted to Christianity, they would have been conceived the city of Rouen and other lands on the coast of Neustria. Rollo and his men would gradually adopt the pre-existing administrative and ecclesial system. He would marry Poppa of Bayeux, daughter of Count Berengar of Rennes, and had a son, William I Longsword. Other sources claim that he married the king’s daughter, Gisela, after repudiating Poppa. Although most likely his marriage was Danish style, the Nordic polygamous system, since at the death of Gisela the sources said he returned with Poppa. His grandson Richard would turn those lands into the main power of France. His descendants and those of his men, the Normans, would give name to the region, since then known as Normandy.

The exact date of his death is not known, but most historians give the approximate year 928. His tomb can be visited in the cathedral of Rouen.

Tomb of Rollo in the Cathedral of Rouen

Rollo would be the great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror (William I of England), and through him, the direct ancestor of all current European monarchs.