The Harrying of the North. Gouache on paper, by Patrick Nicolle (1907–95). Private collection. (© Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images)
For several years after the battle of Hastings, England was riven by conflict as the invaders fought to extend and consolidate their rule in the face of native resistance and incursions from outside the kingdom.
In the weeks immediately following the battle, William ravaged the southern shires before marching on London. Having secured the city’s submission that December, he was crowned king of the English on Christmas Day, ushering in a new French-speaking ruling dynasty.
Over the winter of 1069–70, the conflict reached its climax with brutal attacks on the civilian population of England – among the worst atrocities ever to take place on British soil. In a campaign that became known as the Harrying of the North, William’s knights comprehensively laid waste to Yorkshire and the neighbouring shires, razing entire villages and putting their inhabitants to the sword, slaughtering livestock and destroying stores of food.
This ‘scorched-earth’ operation was one of the defining episodes of the Conquest, not just from a military-political perspective but also because it shaped modern perceptions of the Normans as a tyrannical and merciless warrior class. But how had it reached the point that such brutal measures were considered necessary, and why was the north targeted?
When William set sail from Normandy in 1066, he could not have dreamed of a more complete and decisive victory than that he won at Hastings. Harold lay dead, along with his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, and many other influential noblemen who might otherwise have helped continue the resistance struggle against William.
Yet in those early months of the Conquest, the invaders’ position was precarious. There may have been only 20,000 Normans in England – possibly fewer – attempting to control a country with a population of about two million. Outnumbered in a foreign land, it was perhaps to be anticipated that the conquerors’ paranoia should soon spill over into violence.
Some of this stemmed from misunderstanding. At William’s coronation, Norman guards stationed outside Westminster Abbey misconstrued the shouts of acclamation by Englishmen inside as hostile yells. Panicking, the guards set fire to neighbouring houses and called to those inside the church to flee to fight the flames. Only the clergy and William himself – trembling violently, we’re told – remained within to continue the ceremony.
The coronation of William the Conqueror in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. Produced by a Flemish artist in the 15th century. From ‘The Island Race’, a 20th-century book that covers the history of the British Isles from the pre-Roman times to the Victorian era. Written by Sir Winston Churchill and abridged by Timothy Baker. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
It wasn’t long, however, before the first sparks of genuine insurrection flared. In the summer of 1067, while William was absent from England, a then named Eadric (known as se wilda – ‘the Wild’) joined forces with King Bleddyn of Gwynedd and King Rhiwallon of Powys to launch raids on the Normans in Herefordshire. Also that year the men of Kent, who had taken up arms against the invaders, joined forces with Eustace, count of Boulogne, who sailed across the Channel and attacked Dover but was swiftly repelled.
The unrest continued into the following year. In the early weeks of 1068 the citizens of Exeter – including Harold’s mother, Gytha – rose up, and sent letters to other towns in the south-west exhorting them to do the same. In response William laid siege to the city, which held out for just 18 days before surrendering. A few months later, Harold’s sons launched raids on Somerset, Devon and Cornwall with a fleet of 52 ships. They pillaged widely but failed to establish a foothold – if, indeed, that was ever their intention – and withdrew to Ireland with their plunder.
Up to that point, the risings had been local in nature and were swiftly suppressed before any significant damage could be done. Concerted and widespread rebellion against Norman rule was slow to develop, perhaps due to a lack of clear leadership in the aftermath of Hastings. However, in the summer of 1068 at last a more cohesive resistance began to take shape.
The principal instigators were Edwin and Morcar, the titular earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively, whose authority had been severely curbed since 1066. Under the new regime they exercised little real power, and William had handed over parts of their earldoms to his supporters.
Several Northumbrian nobles rallied to Edwin and Morcar’s cause, as did Bishop Æthelwine of Durham and King Bleddyn of Gwynedd. One of our principal sources for this period, Orderic Vitalis, wrote that the leading men of both England and Wales came together and sent out messengers across Britain to foment insurgency. “A general outcry arose against the injustice and tyranny which the Normans and their comrades-in-arms had inflicted on the English,” he wrote. “All were ready to conspire together to recover their former liberty.”
Despite such efforts, the rebellion proved to be short-lived; resistance quickly crumbled as William swept through the English Midlands. In an effort to impose control, the Conqueror established castles in major English towns: Warwick, Nottingham, York, Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge.
Nevertheless, it was the first large-scale coordinated resistance the Normans had faced, and a sign of things to come. Even by early 1069, William’s hold on England was not assured; indeed, he was still not master of the entire kingdom – his authority extended no farther north than York. Beyond lay the vast and troublesome region of Northumbria, which had thus far resisted his attempts to bring it under his control – and it was from there that the greatest threat to his rule would emerge.
Warwick Castle. The first castle to appear on the site was a wooden motte and bailey constructed in 1068 at the command of William the Conqueror. (© David Steele/Dreamstime.com)
The crisis of 1069
William’s early attempts to assert control over the Northumbrians had seen him appoint native English earls – first Copsig, then Gospatric – to govern them. Both appointments had been dismal failures: Copsic was assassinated by a rival in 1067, while Gospatric defected in 1068 to support Edwin and Morcar. Finally, in January 1069, William sent one of his own men, Robert Cumin, at the head of an army to take the region by force – only for the Norman troops to be ambushed and slaughtered at Durham.
Worse was to come. In the summer of 1069 the Normans found themselves at the centre of a perfect storm as their many enemies all began marching at once. Foremost among those foes was a coalition of Northumbrian noblemen, including Gospatric but headed by Edgar Ætheling, grandson of the short-reigning King Edmund Ironside (r1016). Edgar, still only around 17 years old in 1069, Edgar had bid for the crown before: in 1066, after Harold’s death, he had been briefly acclaimed king by Archbishop Ealdred of York, backed by Edwin, Morcar and the men of London.
The Northumbrian threat was compounded in August when a Danish invasion fleet numbering some 240 or 300 ships (depending on which source we believe) arrived in the Humber, from where Vikings had previously launched several invasion attempts. The Northumbrians and Danes swiftly formed an alliance, and together attacked York.
Meanwhile there was further trouble on the Welsh border, where Eadric the Wild had once more allied himself with the Welsh kings, and also this time with the men of Chester. The men of Devon and Cornwall were in revolt at the same time, though it’s unlikely that these risings were all co-ordinated; rather, the impression given by the sources is that their timing was coincidental. Nonetheless, the crisis tested the Normans to the limit and marked a crucial turning point in the Conquest.
Leaving his deputies to tackle the insurrection in the south-west, William first confronted Eadric and his allies, crushing them at Stafford, before marching north. He reached York a little before Christmas only to find that, on hearing of his approach, the Northumbrians and their Danish allies had strategically withdrawn, the former to hiding places in the hills and woods, the latter to their ships on the Humber.
Frustrated by his failure to meet his principal enemies in battle, William was forced to adopt a new strategy. First, he secretly approached the Danes, promising them a vast amount of silver and gold if they would leave England in the spring, to which they readily agreed. William then turned his attention to the recalcitrant Northumbrians. Shortly after Christmas 1069 he divided his army into raiding parties, which he dispatched to carry out the now infamous Harrying of the North.
William the Conqueror. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Shock and awe
The objective of the campaign was twofold. First, William sought to flush out and eliminate the Northumbrian rebels. More importantly, by comprehensively destroying the region’s resources, he sought to put an end to the cycle of rebellions in the north by ensuring that any future insurgents – or invading Viking armies – would lack the means to support themselves.
In a way, it was an admission that his previous policies regarding the northerners had failed. On two occasions he had installed one of their own to govern them – both times without success – and his single attempt to take the region by force had proved a costly disaster. In the end, William seems to have decided on a destructive strategy: if Northumbria could not be his, he would leave nothing there for his enemies.
The Harrying was as efficient as it was effective. William’s armies, we’re told, spread out over a territory that spanned 100 miles, reaching as far north even as the River Tyne. The 12th-century chronicler John of Worcester wrote that food was so scarce in the aftermath that people were reduced to eating not just horses, dogs and cats but also human flesh.
Orderic Vitalis, a contemporary of John, claims that as many as 100,000 people perished as a result of famine in the following months – a significant proportion of the total population of England. Though we might be rightly suspicious of Orderic’s round total, a figure somewhere in the tens of thousands is not hard to believe – which would make the death toll of the Harrying comparable in magnitude to that of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.
While Yorkshire and the north-east bore the brunt of William’s wrath, parts of Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire also suffered. The resulting refugee crisis saw survivors fleeing as far south as Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire, where a camp was established by Abbot Æthelwig, who ensured that food was distributed to the survivors. The abbey’s chronicle relates, though, that many of those starving folk died not long after their arrival “through eating the food too ravenously”, and that the monks had to bury five or six people every day.
The affected region took a long time to recover. Symeon of Durham, another 12th-century author, wrote that for nine years after the Harrying no village between York and Durham was inhabited, and that the countryside remained empty and uncultivated. Even 16 years after the event, in 1086, when the great systematic survey of England known as Domesday Book was compiled, one-third of the available land in Yorkshire was still listed as vasta (waste).
Over the course of just a few weeks, then, William not only clearly demonstrated the punishment awaiting those who rose against him, but also snuffed out any remaining hopes the rebels might still have of someday driving out the invaders. It’s true that there were further risings in the years to come, but William never again faced a crisis of the same magnitude as he did in 1069.
What Hastings had heralded, the Harrying confirmed. The Normans were here to stay.
James Aitcheson studied history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is the author of four novels set during the Norman conquest; the latest, The Harrowing (Heron, 2016), follows five English refugees fleeing the Normans during the Harrying of the North.
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