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History of Normandy

Normandy takes its name from the Viking invaders who attacked large parts of Europe towards the end of the first millennium. They were called Norsemen which evolved into the modern term “Norman”. In northern France, the first Viking raids began between 790 and 800. These invasions were centered primarily in the lower Seine valley, and by the mid 800’s the villages of Rouen, Nantes and Quentin had been pillaged. The Vikings attackers sought to capture the treasures stored at monasteries, easy prey considering the helplessness of the monks to defend themselves. An expedition in 845 went up the Seine River and reached Paris. These raids were carried out primarily in the summer, as the Vikings spent the winter in Scandinavia. Eventually, the Norsemen settled permanently along the coast, and displaced the ruling Frank lords.

Their colony continued to receive Scandinavian immigrants and also incorporated neighboring Franks. Norsemen often married Frankish women, and adopted the French language and customs. Although the Vikings were predominately Danish, their leader Rollo was Norwegian. Following his defeat in 911 AD by King Charles the Simple at Chartres, Duke Rollo agreed to adopt Christianity and marry Charles’ daughter. In return for his allegiance, Rollo was granted the districts of Normandy. Thus, it is possible that Samson Vikings came to France from Norway or Denmark, where the Samson surname can still be found today. 

Rollo’s descendants gained the title Duke of Normandy, and although increased their strength within the duchy, they had to observe the superiority of the King of France. However, this did not limit their authority over their territory, and they struck their own money, leveled taxes, rendered justice also raised their own armies. They appointed family members to positions as counts and viscounts, and held on to some territory in Scandinavia. The dukes were therefore practically independent of the French king, although they paid homage to each new monarch. 

The dukes of Normandy also maintained relations with foreign monarchs, especially the king of England. Emma, sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, married King Ethelred II of England. Richard’s grandson, Duke William of Normandy invaded and defeated England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, in order to press his claim to the English throne. Ralph de St. Samson accompanied William the Conqueror and was granted estates in several counties for his loyalty (his descendant, William Sampson was summoned to Parliament as a baron 1297-1304). Although there may be distant connections to these Sam(p)sons, our line of the Samson family remained in Normandy.

William the Conqueror’s great-grandson, Henry II was not only Duke of Normandy and King of England, but also Count of Anjou and Maine (from his father), Duke of Gascony, and Duke of Aquitaine (by marriage). Thus, a Duke or Normandy held more territory and was more powerful than the King of France, his overlord. Henry’s son John was a weak king, and the king of France, Phillip II sought to exploit that weakness both legally and militarily, and by 1204 had succeeded in wresting control of most of the ancient territorial possessions. The subsequent conflicts and dynastic turmoil eventually ushered in the One Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1328-1453), which largely took place in and around Normandy.

From 1487 to 1491, France attacked and defeated the independent duchy of Brittany, and in 1532, Brittany was incorporated into the Kingdom of France. The country also engaged in the long Italian Wars (1494-1559), which marked the beginning of early modern France. By the period of King Francois I, the Renaissance was beginning in France, and new ideas had come to Normandy and the rest of the country. This was also the time that France became interested in territorial expansion and sent explorers to North America and elsewhere. Colonies were established in New France at Quebec and Acadia. 
Meanwhile at home, France became involved in bitter civil and religious wars between the Catholics and the Huguenots (French Protestants). The first war started in 1562, and for the next 40 years, periods of intense fighting and massacres with periods of short lived peace ensued. The new king, Henry IV de Bourbons brought an end to the conflict with the Edict of Nantes, which granted Huguenots substantial rights in a nation still considered essentially Catholic. At the time of Toussaint Samson’s birth, King Henry IV had united the country and ushered in a period of prosperity. But in other parts of Europe, the conflict of religion was still raging. This struggle, known as the Thirty Years’ War, was the final effort of the Counter-Reformation. The countries of France, Spain and the Netherlands, as well as Denmark, Sweden, and the Holy Roman Empire were all at war. The conflict was one of the most destructive wars in European history, and deeply affected the people of France. 

Taxes needed to pay for the war efforts were increased by three times, and thousands of people died in jail because they were unable to pay. Peasants burdened by bad harvests, plagues and epidemics began to rebel against the heavy tax increases. When the situation became intolerable, two insurrections, known as the First and the Second Fronde, erupted and were brutally suppressed. The government responded by depriving the nobles of local political power, and creating a more centralized system (which eventually led to the French Revolution).   Severe economic and social hardships were especially felt in the east and north part of the country such as Normandy. Thus, in the 1640’s France was involved in both a foreign war, as well as a series of domestic revolts. It was during this period of unrest that Toussaint Samson married Catherine Le Chevalier at St. Gatien-des-Bois in 1641, and his sons Gabriel and Jacques were born in 1643 and 1647.

Because of its geographic location, Normandy has been the site of many wars, not the least of which was the Allied landings of World War II on June 6, 1944. The Normandy invasion began with overnight parachute and glider landings, massive air attacks, naval bombardments, then early morning amphibious landings on five beaches codenamed Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah, and Sword.   During the evening, the remaining elements of the parachute divisions landed on the coast. The Normandy landings were the first successful opposed landings across the English Channel in over eight centuries. They were costly in terms of lives, but the defeat inflicted on the Germans was one of the largest of the war. The beaches at Normandy are still referred to on maps and signposts by their invasion codenames. There are several vast cemeteries in the area, such as the American cemetery, in Colleville-sur-Mer, and the Canadian cemetery in Bény-sur-Mer. A few Samson descendants of Gabriel and Jacques died during this battle and are buried in their ancestral home of Normandy. These cemeteries are not far from St. Gatien-des-Bois (see map of the Allied Landings in the photo section).

Written by Charles A. Samson, May 2010.
Sources: “Portrait of Normandy”, Derek Pitt and Michael Shaw; “The Normans”, R. Allen Brown; “Norman People”, Genealogical Publishing Company; “Leading Facts of French History”, David Montgomery; “The Course of French History”, Pierre Goubert; “Early Modern France”, Robin Briggs.

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