I can almost guarantee that if you asked any English person who can only remember one thing from history at school, it is the date 1066. It is drilled into us: 1066, the turning point in English history, when William the Conqueror came over from Normandy, beat others to the throne of England, and ended the “dark ages”, bringing writing and culture and law and order. (I’m afraid I’m not going to go into the inaccuracy of that image today!)
However, whilst most people could probably relay the order of events, and maybe even name some of the other claimants (Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada in case you don’t know), The Battle of Hastings is usually where schools end with the history, as if that was it, everything was all peachy after that. But actually a lot of people in England resisted Norman rule – England wasn’t really one unified country under one king, and there were many different nationalities with different interests spread out across the country. William had a big task on his hand to bring everyone under control if he wanted the Crown and country.
William the Conqueror (centre) with his half-brothers, from the Bayeux Tapestry.
At the time of the Norman conquest, the north of England was a community mixed of old Anglo-Saxons and Vikings who had developed a shared culture. The aristocracy was mostly Danish in origin, and the north was very separate from the south due to poor road links. Whilst the north technically came under rule of southern kings, since 962 the northern earls were ruled by an autonomous leader who pledged loyalty to the southern king. This meant that in many ways, the north of England viewed itself as somewhat different to other areas of the country.
As such, when William won the battle at Hastings, many in England pledged loyalty (and centred resistance) to Edgar Ætheling, who was the grandson of Edward the Confessor’s half-brother. After the battle, William invariably faced skirmishes and border rebellions across the country, which he tackled by building a huge amount of castles and forts across England. Before the Normans, castles were pretty much non-existent in England, but it is estimated that by the end of the eleventh century there were between 500-1000 castles across the country. William had been busy.
A map showing some of the strategic castles that William built (from History Extra)
Initially, William tried to rule the north via local people, placing two native English earls to govern. However, the first earl was murdered by a rival in 1067, and the second defected in 1068 to Midland rebels. As such, in January 1069, William finally sent one of his own men with an army to subdue the region; however, the army was ambushed at Durham and all were killed. The rebels then continued to York where they killed the guardian of the recently built castle, as well as many of his men.
William managed to subdue the rebels in York, but the damage was done – rebellions broke out all across England. In Dorset, Shrewsbury, and Devon, earls were dispatched by William to deal with rebels, whilst he himself dealt with rebels in the Midlands and Stafford. There were also skirmishes on the Welsh border under Welsh kings and rebellious English earls. A coalition of Northumbrian noblemen rallied under Edgar Ætheling who was keen to claim the crown for himself. Things got even worse for William when a Danish invasion fleet came to support Edgar. There may have been as many as 300 ships in the force. The fleet sailed up the east coast of England, raiding and plundering as they went, and then finally landed in York to meet with the Northumbrian rebels where together they retook York.
Clifford’s Tower, York, the largest remaining part of York Castle. (Photo from English Heritage)
Attacked on all sides, William did remarkably well. He left the south-western rebellions to be dealt with by his deputies, whilst he crushed the Welsh and their allies before turning north. William reached the north of England in winter 1069, but the rebels had plenty of warning of his impending arrival and dispersed, with Edgar returning to safety in Scotland. The Danes had nowhere to stay the winter with their fleet, and so William was able to bribe them with payments of silver and gold to return home, which they duly did. William had ridden out the storm of rebellion, but after several years dealing with these problems, and frustrated that he hadn’t been able to crush the rebels in battle, his tether had worn thin. He decided to employ Roman strategies to end any hope of future rebellion.
Vegetius, writing in the fourth century about Roman warfare, had said “the main and principal point in war is to secure plenty of provisions and to destroy the enemy by famine” and that is exactly what William set out to do. During the winter of 1069-70, William divided up his northern army into small raiding parties to flush out the hiding rebels, and to destroy resources so that the rebels wouldn’t have amenities to build up their strength again after he left. The results were devastating. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis writing 50 years after the events describes what happened:
“He levelled their places of shelter to the ground, wasted their lands, and burnt their dwellings with all they contained. Never did William commit so much cruelty; to his lasting disgrace, he yielded to his worst impulse, and set no bounds to his fury, condemning the innocent and the guilty to a common fate.
In the fulness of his wrath he ordered the corn and cattle, with the implements of husbandry and every sort of provisions, to be collected in heaps and set on fire till the whole was consumed… there followed, consequently, so great a scarcity in England in the ensuing years, and severe famine involved the innocent and unarmed population in so much misery, that, in a Christian nation, more than a hundred thousand souls, of both sexes and all ages, perished of want.
On many occasions, in the course of the present history, I have been free to extol William according to his merits, but… when I see that innocent children, youths in the prime of their age, and grey headed old men, perished from hunger, I am more disposed to pity the sorrows and sufferings of the wretched people… I assert, moreover, that such barbarous homicide could not pass unpunished. The Almighty Judge beholds alike the high and low, scrutinizing and punishing the acts of both with equal justice” [Orderic Vitalis, The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy, Vol II pg 28]
William and his soldiers in a twelfth-century manuscript. British Library Cotton Claudius D II fol 33.
William’s troops destroyed crops and settlements, burning and looting as they went. Inhabitants of villages were slaughtered, and food and livestock decimated. It was said that those who survived had to resort to cannibalism to survive the winter. The Evesham Abbey chronicle records refugees as far away as Worcestershire. The Abbot there, Æthelwig, set up a camp to distribute food to the survivors, but the chronicle says that many who arrived were so far starved that they died not long after their arrival, despite ravenously eating the food provided.
The results were devastating. Symeon of Durham wrote in the early twelfth century that no village remained inhabited between York and Durham and that the countryside remained empty and uncultivated for nine years. In 1086 when the Domesday Book was recorded, a total of 60% of holdings in Yorkshire and the North Riding were recorded as waste land. It is believed that only 25% of the population remained, with 80,000 oxen and 150,000 people killed or fled. William had crushed the North.
Normans burning Anglo-Saxon buildings, with a woman and child fleeing, from the Bayeux Tapestry.
However, historians have been conflicted in the extent of the damage that William was responsible for. Archaeological evidence such as a plethora of coin hoards deposited at that time do support a mass destruction and displacement of people. Moreover, it has been suggested that the regular dispersal of villages in Durham and Yorkshire suggest a large scale organised reconstruction, rather than natural expansion. Nonetheless, other historians have questioned whether William’s army could really be responsible for such large-scale damage. William’s army had already fought the Welsh, and parts of his army were spread across the south either quashing other rebellions or preventing more. Would it be possible for the small remnants of his force to do so much damage? This has led to the suggestion that, rather than the damage being exaggerated (although the round figure of 100,000 in Orderic Vitalis isn’t taken as read, generally few dispute the extent of the mass death and destruction), the damage wasn’t entirely William’s doing.
William was only in the north for at most three months, and with a reduced retinue of troops. It may have been that the raids by William’s men were compounded by raiding Danes or Scots who capitalised on the destruction and lack of defence. Whatever happened, whilst further uprisings against William still took place in later years, William never faced such a huge rebellion as experienced in 1069.
The Harrying of the North is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, with images of men burning buildings and women and children fleeing. Orderic Vitalis claims in his chronicle that on his deathbed William deeply regretted his actions, saying:
“I persecuted the native inhabitants of England beyond all reason. Whether nobles or commons, I cruelly oppressed them; many I unjustly disinherited; innumerable multitudes, especially in the county of York, perished through me by famine and sword…I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have shed.” [from History in an Hour ]
Though whether this was poetic licence or based on truth we don’t know.
An image of the Domesday Book, from the National Archives.
From then on, William began to replace the old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with Norman ones, and his new, loyal, nobility tightened his grip on the country. However, Norman natives only populated the higher levels of society (unlike when the Vikings invaded and filled all slots in society) meaning that for centuries after Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian culture survived under the surface. Even in the thirteenth century, charters survive with pre-conquest names, and very few places took on Norman names.
William’s Harrying of the North was certainly brutal, swift, and efficient. Though we have to look at the events through the lens of the time, even contemporaries were horrified with the extent of his actions. Nonetheless, it had the desired effect, and from then on William was able to tighten his grip on the country and subjugate it despite some further, smaller rebellions.
Previous in Important Events: The Biggest Party Ever? The Field of the Cloth of Gold
Check out my history book recommendations on Bookshop UK.
Further Reading can be found in many books an articles, but some sources I used are here: