It may have escaped your notice, but this year Normandy is celebrating its 1100th anniversary. In the year 911, the king of the Franks decided he had had enough of trying to fend off the attacks from the Vikings, and said, “Look, lads, why don’t you just take this bit of the country for your own, to look after?” Rather, you might say, in the manner of a parent with children squabbling over a toy – give them one each and tell them to play nicely.
The name of this king was Charles the Simple, which is rather unkind: unless it meant, “what a brilliantly simple idea that was about the Vikings”. (There was also a king with “the Bald” after his name, which wouldn’t be acceptable today, but Charles the Follicly Challenged doesn’t really work, however true).
So in 911, Rollo, the leader of the Vikings, became the first head of what was to become known as Normandy – the land of the North men. I once had a long conversation in a doctor’s waiting room with a Frenchman who, when I mentioned that, as the English had been ruled by William the Conqueror and his descendants for many years, that made us partly French, said very dismissively that William was a Viking so he didn’t count.
Now, you may think that 1100 years is a goodly slice of history to be celebrating: but that’s young, compared with some anniversaries remembered here in France. Down south, for instance is the little town of Vouillé La Bataille, in the Vienne (not the one in the Deux Sèvres, which is an impostor). The water tower, or château d’eau, without which no French town or village is complete, is decorated with the image of a warrior, and the date 507.
In that year, Clovis, king of the Franks, decided to take on the Visigoths, under Alaric II. There were also Ostrogoths, but they were busy elsewhere having a bit of a punch-up with the Byzantines, so couldn’t come to play, though they were invited.
The two armies met near Vouillé at dawn. The Visigoths used cavalry; they were very good at this, and hoped to carry the day, but things degenerated into a general bout of fisticuffs. And in the middle of this, having their own set-to, were Alaric and Clovis. In those days, leaders led.
Clovis won by killing Alaric, at which point everyone downed tools and said, Fair enough, guv'nor, and went home. Well, actually, they took it as a sign from God, but the result was the same. The next year Clovis decided Paris was a good place to have a capital; so he could be seen as the founding father upon whom one could, in a vindictive moment, blame the creation of the Paris ring road. Can’t have a Paris ring road without Paris, and there would be no capital city there without Clovis. I rest my case.
Whenever we went to the market – a very good one, on a Saturday morning – or to the supermarket at Vouillé, we drove through The Valley of the Dead – La Vallée aux Morts – which was a little off-putting, and caused us to regard the offal section with a rather jaundiced eye.
But without the fracas at Vouillé, Charles the Simple couldn’t have given Rollo the run of Normandy, as there wouldn’t have been a Frankish king at all. And then Rollo’s descendant William couldn’t have come to England, and Harold wouldn’t have got the arrow in his eye (unless he liked playing dangerous sports and didn’t listen to his mother).
So there you have it – one lucky punch, one handy stab, and the whole of English history was changed. Celebrate, by all means, the anniversary of Normandy: but don’t forget Clovis. It’s all his fault.