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How a Viking laid the groundwork for the King of England

Who was the real Viking Rollo?
Rollo, played by Clive Standen in Vikings, alongside a portrait of William the Conqueror, his great great great grandson.

On 28 September 1066, a man set foot on the south coast of England, beginning the audacious military campaign that would make him known to history as William the Conqueror. It’s no wonder he managed to pull the invasion off, with the fierce Viking blood that flowed through his veins. William was, after all, the great-great-great-grandson of Rollo, the warrior made famous by epic TV drama Vikings. But just who was the real Rollo?

It’s not an easy question to answer, because – unfolding well over a thousand years ago – Rollo’s life remains shrouded by grandiose myths and tall tales, folklore mixing with fact. That said, historians generally agree on a certain narrative, which has Rollo as a man whose destiny would change the course of Europe.

His early years are particularly hazy in the historic record, but we know the real Rollo was a key fighter in a titanic Viking assault on Paris in 885 AD. This was far from the first raid on the city. Decades before, in 845, the legendary Viking hero Ragnar had led a devastating invasion of the territory, plundering Paris and making off with a heap of loot. The great Paris skirmishes we see in the TV series condense these two separate campaigns for dramatic purposes. In real life, Rollo had not yet been born at the time of the 845 raid, but he was very present for the 885 attack.  

The sight of hundreds of Viking ships sailing towards their city must have been terrifying for the Parisians, but they fought back with shocking gusto, pouring hot oil and wax on the invaders. Rollo and his Viking army attacked the bridges and fortifications of Paris with catapults, battering rams and other siege engines, but the locals stood firm and the messy, violent stalemate would carry on for months before the Vikings were forced to give up.

Below watch an interview with Clive Standen, who plays Rollo in Vikings, talking about his character:

Rollo’s personal destiny still lay along the Seine, however. Continuing his campaign of plunder, he and his forces were involved in another siege, in the region of Chartres, in 911. According to historical accounts, it was after this confrontation that Charles the Simple, ruler of West Francia, decided it was time to make an accommodation with the bolshy Viking. After all, Rollo and his men had by this time already begun to assimilate with the local culture. The king made the fateful decision to grant Rollo swathes of land, in exchange for his promise to cease any more incursions and help protect the nation from other Viking raids.

This conversion of Rollo from pagan warrior to local aristocrat is chronicled in the TV series Vikings, which depicts his deal with the king, his rebirth as a local nobleman, and his handling of such thorny cultural issues as getting a suitably un-Viking-like haircut. The drama also delves into his peace-making marriage to the king’s formidable daughter, Gisla. This storyline is similarly based on historic accounts of a real marriage between Rollo and Princess Gisla. However, there’s a bit of controversy about Gisla, with some historians believing she was either an illegitimate daughter of Charles, or that she was actually a character from folk tales rather than fact.

Either way, the important thing was the pact between Rollo and the king, which made the former invader one of the big political players of the region, embroiled in the often violent rivalries around him. The pact also established a dynasty that would change the world. Rollo and his assimilated Norsemen would become known as the “Normans”, and their region became Normandy. Generations later, William the Conqueror would establish his reign in Britain, meaning that Rollo is a distant but direct ancestor of our own Royal Family.