Taillefer: The Minstrel Who Ended the Viking Age

Battle of Hastings, 1066

The most widely accepted dates to demarcate the Viking Age are its beginning in 793 A.D. to its end in 1066 A.D. Each date has been carefully chosen to reflect events which historians could agree stood to represent a new trend in the socio-political fabric of Europe of the day.

The Beginning

The attack on Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. was by no means the first instance of Norsemen making incursions into Western Europe. Raids had already occurred on the coast of modern day Netherlands, then known as Frisia, and there is even an attack recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in England which preceded Lindisfarne. Yet Lindisfarne is the accepted precipice for the Vikings’ continent-wide excursions so famous today because it marked a definite change in both how the people outside Scandinavia viewed the Norsemen, and how the Norsemen interacted with Christendom. At the time, the monastery at Lindisfarne was an academic powerhouse—the oxford of its day. News of its destruction quickly spread throughout Europe’s clergy, alerting the power elite to the new danger presented to them. The Viking Age had begun.

The End

The end of the Viking Age was less an end of an era and more the beginning of a new one. The Norman invasion of England saw the implementation of Norman law, an early prototype of the feudal system of the medieval period. The Normans are also credited with the invention of the Motte-and-Bailey, the base design for the medieval castle. Politically, the Normans established the English monarchy, or at least the monarchy of the England we know today. Their lands in Normandy and fealty to the house of Capet was the beginning of the many variable oaths of fealty which would dominate the political spectrum of the Middle Ages in France, England, Germany, Italy, even Spain. The battle of Hastings, which led to it all, was the precipice for the historical period we know today as the Middle Ages.

The battle of Hastings itself was an innovation. William of Normandy (or The Conqueror) brought with him an entirely new style of warfare. Against him were the Saxons, formidable warriors steeped in a tradition of heavy infantry fighting. At Hastings, they stood in a tactically sound position atop a hill with their shields interlocked to form a wall. As the Normans marched upon them, victory seemed certain for the defenders. They had no reason to think that the Normans, French speaking Vikings with a similar military tradition, would confront them with anything other than heavy infantry. What they had not anticipated was the large force of heavy cavalry–prototypes of the medieval knight, called Knits–whose presence in addition to their heavy infantry allowed for an unexpected victory. (It should be noted that the defenders had recently fought a battle against the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, then hastily marched to Hastings. Their fatigue undoubtedly played a role in their defeat as well.)

The Minstrel At the Center of It All

Taillefer, the Norman minstrel, followed the Norman troops singing the “Chanson de Roland” to inspire them. When it came to the battle, both sides stared at each other in a standstill. With no one else willing to engage the other, Taillefer took it upon himself to ride forward and perform a juggling act with a lance and a sword. At the end of the act, he hurled the lance into the enemy line, killing one of the defenders. The rest is very well known history.

There is no mention of Taillefer in the Bayeux Tapestry, or in any of the sources on the battle we have today, but he is mentioned by such historical figures as Guy D’Amiens, Geoffroy Gaimar, Wace, Robert de Torigni, Benoît de Sainte-Maure and even Henri de Huntingdon, thereby making his existence (and this story) likely.

The battle of Hastings, the event which marks the end of the Viking Age, was thus begun my a minstrel who performed a juggling act.

Further reading:

Faral, Edmond (1964). Les jongleurs en France au Moyen Âge. Champion.

Lawson, M.K. (2002) The Battle of Hastings: 1066. Tempus.

Marren, Peter (2004) 1066: The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings. Leo Cooper.

Menegaldo, Silvère (2005). Le jongleur dans la littérature narrative des XIIe et XIIIe siècles : Du personnage au masque. Honoré Champion.

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  1. Ann Telfair says:

    He is considered my family’s ancestor,since we came from Kent and Scotland, where descendents settled. Thanks for the fresh perspective on an old family legend. Ann Telfair

  2. Maree Taylor says:

    He is thought to be an ancestor of mine too, but I do need to do more research on this.

  3. Maree Taylor says:

    We too came from Kent

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