Was William the Conqueror a war criminal? The brutal story of the Harrying of the North

William I’s Harrying of the North of England over the winter of 1069/70 resulted in perhaps 150,000 deaths, reducing many victims to eating cats, dogs and even one another. So should it, asks Marc Morris, be branded a genocide?

War criminal? William the Conqueror shown on horseback in the Bayeux Tapestry. The king's Harrying of the North was a military success but a human catastrophe – one that even appalled chroniclers traditionally sympathetic to the Norman regime. (Photo by Bridgeman)

In 1069 William the Conqueror celebrated Christmas in York. It was exactly three years since his coronation as king of England, which had taken place in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, just a few weeks after his victory at the battle of Hastings. To mark the anniversary, William had ordered his crown and other regalia to be brought from Winchester to York, so he could wear them ceremoniously during the winter festivities.

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But the mood in York that Christmas can hardly have been very festive, for throughout 1069 the city had been subjected to repeated waves of violence. The cathedral church of York Minster – presumably the location in which the king heard Mass on Christmas morning – was in a terrible state, having been ransacked by William’s soldiers during the spring. In the words of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was “completely laid waste and burned down”. Much of the rest of the city, meanwhile, had been reduced to ashes by a fire started by the garrisons of its two new Norman castles in September, and the castles themselves had subsequently been destroyed by an invading Danish army. The English archbishop of York, Ealdred, had been so distressed by the news that the Danes were coming that he had fallen ill and died shortly before their arrival.

Since William’s own arrival in December, however, the suffering had increased dramatically. A few weeks earlier, he had divided his army up into small units and sent them out into the Yorkshire countryside with orders to burn and destroy everything that was capable of sustaining human life – the barns full of carefully harvested crops, the beasts still standing in the fields, and those that had already been slaughtered as food for the winter. Consequently, while the king feasted that Christmas, many others were beginning to starve and, in the months that followed, countless thousands would die as a result of famine.

This episode, known since the late 19th century as ‘the Harrying of the North’, was the most notorious of the Conqueror’s career. “Nowhere else,” said the 12th-century historian Orderic Vitalis, “had William shown such cruelty.” Yet 950 years after the event, historians continue to disagree over its extent, its long-term effects, and even its morality. Some doubt that the king’s troops could have caused so much destruction in such a short space of time. Some have accused William of committing genocide, while others have insisted that this was a perfectly normal way for a medieval ruler to make war. At the distance of almost a millennium, is it possible to reach a meaningful verdict?

England in revolt

The Conqueror had come north in the autumn of 1069 to deal with a rebellion, the most serious of his reign to date. Almost as soon as he had been crowned, William had faced uprisings from Englishmen determined to reverse the outcome of Hastings. In the summer of 1067, while he was celebrating his victory in Normandy, there had been revolts in Kent and the Welsh Marches. Towards the end of the same year, warnings of a larger rebellion had brought him back to England, and he had spent the early months of 1068 in the West Country, suppressing resistance orchestrated by the surviving members of the family of Harold Godwinson.

Then, during the summer, a conspiracy involving the earls of Mercia and Northumbria had led William to carry war into those regions, planting castles in Warwick, Nottingham, Lincoln, Cambridge, Huntingdon and York. Castles were still a novelty in England, and Orderic Vitalis attributed the success of this campaign to their construction. Because of these new fortifications, said the chronicler, “the English, in spite of their courage and love of fighting, could put up only a weak resistance”.

While the Midlands were tamed by this military innovation, the north was barely affected, with the single castle at York serving as a lone outpost of William’s authority. But that was about to change. When a foreign-born mercenary named Robert Cumin was appointed as the new Earl of Northumbria at the start of 1069, the Northumbrians responded by slaughtering him in Durham, along with all his men, and then marching south, hoping to retake York. William, who was back in Normandy, was once again forced to rush across the Channel and advance into northern England in order to raise the siege. Before returning south, he reinforced York with a second castle on the opposite banks of the Ouse.

In the face of the rebellion, William must have feared that the Norman conquest was in danger of being reversed

But two castles were not enough to save the city when a third northern rebellion erupted at the end of the summer. This time the trigger was an invasion sponsored by King Swein of Denmark, led by his brother, Asbjorn. Northern England had strong cultural and commercial links with Scandinavia as a result of earlier Viking settlement, and Danish intervention was evidently seen by many natives as preferable to rule by Normans. The leaders of Northumbrian society who had fled to Scotland the previous year now returned, “riding and marching with an immense host, rejoicing exceedingly”, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Together with the Danes they seized York, destroyed both its castles, and put the city’s sizeable Norman garrison to the sword.

Conquest on the line

When William marched his army north in the autumn of 1069, therefore, it was with the knowledge that his earlier strategy had failed. He must also have been afraid that the Norman conquest, which we take for granted as a decisive historical turning point, was in serious danger of being reversed. Among the rebels was Edgar Ætheling, a member of the Old English royal line who had been proclaimed king in London after the battle of Hastings, and may have been crowned in York that autumn.

As William was struggling to tackle the rebellion in the north, new risings broke out in both the West Country and the Welsh Marches, forcing him to send troops and commanders from his side, and eventually obliging him to cross the Pennines and confront these rebels in person. When he returned to Yorkshire in December, he was frustrated to discover that the Danes had returned to their ships in the river Humber and were beyond his reach.

Faced with the prospect of defeat, William decided on a new, twofold solution. His first move was to buy off the Danes, promising them a large sum of money and permission to plunder the coast, provided they departed in the spring. The next step was to render northern England uninhabitable by subjecting it to a merciless harrying. There was military strategy in this. As another 12th-century historian, William of Malmesbury, explains, by destroying everything, the king was ensuring that there would be nothing to sustain the Danish army if they reneged on their pledge to go home. But, as both Malmesbury and Orderic attest, the king also ordered the harrying because he was angry. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of his soldiers had been killed at the start of the year in Durham and more recently in York. William, says Orderic, “made no effort to restrain his fury”. The harrying was an act of vengeance.

From a purely military point of view, the campaign of devastation was a great success. At the start of the new year, William pursued the native leaders of the north as far as the river Tees, where they were forced to submit. The Danes, who predictably failed to leave as promised, were reduced to a miserable diet and considerable hardship – so much so that, when their king arrived in the spring of 1070, expecting to lead them to victory, he was quickly persuaded to make terms and depart. For the rest of William’s reign, there were no further risings in northern England. Edgar Ætheling, who fled back to Scotland and then to Flanders, eventually made his peace with the king in 1074.

Eating horses and humans

But from a human perspective, and a moral one, the campaign had been appalling. “So terrible a famine fell upon the people,” wrote Orderic, “that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.” Another 12th-century writer, John of Worcester, reported that people were reduced to eating horses, dogs, cats and even human flesh. Simeon of Durham, adding to John’s account, asserted that the land between York and Durham lay uncultivated for the next nine years, its deserted villages haunted only by wild beasts and robbers.

It is sometimes objected that these 12th-century chroniclers are too late to be credible, and that more closely contemporary accounts are not as sensational or as judgmental. But there is enough earlier evidence to corroborate the claims of later writers. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a telegraphically terse source for this period, reports that William went to Yorkshire in 1069 and “ruined it completely”. William of Jumièges, who was possibly writing his Deeds of the Norman Dukes at the behest of the Conqueror himself, described how the king “massacred almost the whole population, from the very young to the old and grey”.

Marianus Scotus, writing in Germany in the 1070s, reported that famine in England had caused people to resort to cannabalism, substantiating the account of John of Worcester. Most compelling of all, the late 11th-century chronicler at Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire penned a haunting picture of starving refugees turning up in great numbers at the abbey gates, only to die from exhaustion, or “through eating food too ravenously” – a line that recalls the tragic fate of some of those liberated from Nazi concentration camps. “Every day,” the Evesham Chronicler lamented, “five or six people, sometime more, perished miserably and were buried by the prior of this place.”

The extent of the human suffering is also confirmed by Domesday Book. The famous document, the product of a kingdom-wide inquiry into landholding carried out at William’s command in 1086, is a uniquely valuable source for historians, not least because it preserves statistical data for not one but two (sometimes three) sets of dates – the condition a particular estate was in at the time of the survey, and its condition in 1066. Domesday can thus be used to demonstrate precisely how much had changed as a result of the Conquest, and in the case of the Harrying the answer is: a lot.

In the folios that cover the northern shires – and, most especially, Yorkshire – the word that occurs time and again is “waste” (Latin: vasta). And the counties with the most waste were those in northern England and the Welsh Marches, harried by William in 1069–70, and also Sussex, which had been ravaged during the Hastings campaign. But the overwhelming majority of waste was concentrated in Yorkshire, which accounted for more than 80 per cent of the total for all of England. Other shires had recovered their values by the time of the survey, but in Yorkshire almost two-thirds of all holdings were still described as waste in 1086. Since 1066 the shire had lost more than 80,000 oxen and 150,000 people.

Domesday, in other words, corroborates the scale of the death-toll given by Orderic Vitalis. Like most medieval chroniclers, Orderic had probably plucked his figure of 100,000 from the sky to mean “an awful lot”, but on this occasion the administrative record suggests he may actually have under-recorded the scale of human losses.

One account asserted that, for nine years, the land between York and Durham was haunted only by wild beasts and robbers

It is the scale of the suffering, in the end, that serves to condemn William. Historians will point out that harrying was the normal method of warfare practised by premodern armies. The Roman writer Vegetius, whose manual On Military Matters was much read in the Middle Ages, insisted that the whole point of war was “to secure supplies for oneself while destroying the enemy by famine”. The Vikings had repeatedly harried England in the early 11th century, and the shortlived King Harthacnut had harried the people of Worcestershire.

Burning and killing

But, as the historian John Gillingham observes, it was rare that ravaging “was taken to the point of starving non-combatants to death”. Looting, burning and killing were all normal practice, but William’s destruction of all means of sustenance in Yorkshire was clearly extraordinary in its extent and thoroughness. The king must have known that the human cost would be terrible, but he nevertheless gave the order.

In modern times we would have no hesitation in branding such an act as genocide – a term coined in 1944. Contemporaries did not do so, but they were clearly shocked by the amount of death William had caused. According to Orderic Vitalis, one soldier in the king’s army, Gilbert d’Auffay, returned to Normandy at this point, declining the offer of estates in England. Another, named Reinfrid, moved to sorrow by the effects of the Harrying, became a monk at Evesham, and later returned to Yorkshire to refound the derelict abbey of Whitby.

The most shocked of all was Orderic himself. As a monk writing in Normandy in the 1120s, he looked back fondly on William’s reign. A major source for his own chronicle was a contemporary biography of the king written by William of Poitiers; Orderic was for the most part content to parrot its praise.

But although he had spent most of his life in Normandy, Orderic had been born in England, and his mother was English. Born just five years after the Harrying, he must have heard many tales of horror from his mother and other locals until his father sent him to Normandy at the age of 10. Accordingly, when he came to write about these events, he departed from his usual panegyric. “When I think of helpless children, young men in the prime of life, and hoary grey-beards all perishing of hunger,” he said, “I am so moved to pity that I would rather lament the grief and sufferings of the wretched people than make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such infamy.”

William had broken no human law, and would not be condemned by any earthly court. But Orderic declared that the king’s “brutal slaughter” would surely be punished. “For the almighty Judge watches over high and low alike; he will weigh the deeds of all in an even balance and, as a just avenger, will punish wrongdoing, as the eternal law makes clear to all men.”

Dr Marc Morris is the author of The Norman Conquest (Windmill Books, 2013) and William I: England’s Conqueror (Allen Lane, 2016).

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This article was first published in the November 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine