The Anglo-Saxons’ last stand

The spirit of the Anglo-Saxons didn’t die at the battle of Hastings. William I faced years of resistance from a populace resentful of the Norman takeover. Marc Morris charts the defiant attempts to fight the conquerors

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting a woman and child fleeing from a burning house. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Even by medieval standards, the body count at the battle of Hastings was unusually high. “Far and wide,” 
wrote William of Poitiers, chaplain to the victorious William the Conqueror, “the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in blood.” Chief among the fallen, with or without an arrow in his eye, was the recently crowned king of England, Harold Godwinson.

The death of Harold, along with two 
of his younger brothers and countless other Englishmen of rank, meant that the clash on 14 October 1066 was decisive, and it quickly came to be regarded as the watershed moment in English history. A little over half a century later, the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury described it as “a fatal day for England, a melancholy havoc for our dear country, brought about by its passing under the domination of new lords”.

But even the most decisive defeats do not necessarily seem so at the time. In the months and years immediately after Hastings, many people in England chose to resist the Norman conquest in the hope that the verdict of the battle might prove reversible. When news of Harold’s death reached London a few days later, the remaining members of the English elite vowed to fight on. They elected as their new king Edgar Ætheling, a great nephew of the late Edward the Confessor, and the last surviving male representative of the Old English royal line.

William, who had been waiting hopefully 
at Hastings for English submissions, thus resumed his military campaign. In the weeks that followed, he led his army on a harrying campaign through the Home Counties, devastating the countryside around London in an effort to persuade its citizens to surrender. Shortly before Christmas, resolve in the capital crumbled. A delegation of bishops and magnates, including the young Edgar Ætheling, met William at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire and recognised him as their new ruler. A short time later, on Christmas Day itself, the Conqueror was crowned at Westminster Abbey as England’s new king.

Many people, English and Norman alike, clearly hoped that William’s consecration would bring the violence of the conquest to an end. Since the crown had been his objective, the new king could well have declared, like George Bush in 2003, “mission accomplished”, and assumed, like the former president, that “major combat operations” had ended. In March 1067 William returned to Pevensey, where he had landed six months earlier, and dismissed his army of invasion. He then crossed the Channel to Normandy, where he spent the spring and summer in extended victory celebrations.

But, as in 2003, so in 1067, this was not “mission accomplished” at all. William’s coronation was followed by five years of almost constant insurgency as the English, in the words of one chronicler, “plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed”. 
In the course of this extended struggle, many times more people would perish than had done so at Hastings.

Temporary absence

Despite his acclamation in Westminster Abbey, William was under no illusion 
about his unpopularity in England, and realised that even a temporary absence might tempt his new subjects to renege on their recent oaths. On his return to Normandy in 1067, he took with him the most powerful of the English elite, including three surviving earls, the archbishop of Canterbury and Edgar Ætheling.

At the same time, he left the government of his new kingdom to two of his most trusted lieutenants: his half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, and William FitzOsbern, a lifelong friend. According to the pro-Norman William of Poitiers, these men governed the English firmly but fairly, paying “the greatest respect to justice”. The half-English Orderic Vitalis begged to differ, and accused the two regents of protecting Norman soldiers who were guilty of plunder and rape.

Both writers describe how the king’s deputies enforced their rule by building new castles, a move that clearly came as a great shock to the English. Castles were very much a French phenomenon, common enough on the continent by 1066, but virtually unknown in England. For the most part constructed from earth and timber, and built to the well-known ‘motte and bailey’ design, they were both weapons of conquest and badges of oppression. “Bishop Odo and Earl William,” lamented the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people.”

Norman oppression provoked English resistance. During the summer of 1067, the regents faced trouble in the Welsh marches as well as a rising in Kent, both of which were easily overcome. Towards the end of the year, it became clear that something more co-ordinated was being plotted. That December, William returned to England and tried to sniff out the conspiracy at his Christmas court. It turned out to be based in the West Country, and its leaders were the surviving members of the Godwinson family: King Harold’s sons, and his mother, Gytha. At the start of 1068 William marched west and laid siege to Exeter, causing the leaders of the conspiracy to flee overseas and the rest of the citizens to submit.

Anger boils over

The king may have been tempted to write off this rebellion as the last gasps of a faction that was never going to be reconciled to his rule. The Godwinsons were die-hard rebels, but the army he had led to defeat them was comprised, at least in part, of English troops, who had thus demonstrated their loyalty. Again he dismissed his forces and, as a further mark of confidence, sent for his wife, Matilda, who crossed from Normandy and was crowned at Westminster on 11 May. Witness lists to charters drawn up on the day show that both Norman and English magnates were in attendance.

But behind this apparent unity was a more dangerous groundswell of discontent, caused in large part by the redistribution of land. At the very start of his reign William had deemed all land in England forfeit. Many of those who had submitted to him after his coronation had been allowed to buy back their estates, but much confiscated property had been given out as rewards to his Norman followers, especially in cases where the former English owners had died at Hastings.

The problem was that giving the lands of dead Englishmen to continental newcomers was rarely as neat as it appears in Domesday Book, for the dead almost always had relatives – sons, brothers, uncles or cousins – whose expectations of inheritance were thereby dashed. Such people ended up with a reduced stake in society, or no stake at all. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle summarises William’s behaviour in early 1068 by saying “he gave away every man’s land”. Orderic Vitalis adds that the English were angry not simply because of “the deaths of their kinsmen”, but also because of “the loss of their patrimonies”.

In the summer of 1068 this anger was converted into a major rebellion. Its leaders included the Earl of Mercia, Eadwine, and his brother Morcar, the Earl of Northumbria. Both were young men, perhaps smarting at the humiliation of being taken to Normandy as hostages the previous year, and resentful at the intrusion 
of new Norman lords into their respective territories. They were joined by many others, including Edgar Ætheling, who could be advanced as an alternative king, just as he 
had been in 1066.

This rebellion was a complete fiasco. William quickly marched into the Midlands, at which point both Eadwine and Morcar submitted, and then advanced to York, causing Edgar and the other rebels to flee to Scotland. In the course of this campaign the Conqueror cemented his grip on the Midlands by planting castles at Warwick, Nottingham, Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge. Satisfied that the rising had been crushed, he once again disbanded his army and crossed to Normandy.

But if the Midlands had been pacified, the north had not. Before his departure, William had appointed a new earl of Northumbria, a foreigner called Robert Cumin, who descended on Durham in January 1069 and was promptly killed by the locals, along with all his mercenary followers. This massacre triggered a new general rising across northern England. The Northumbrian leaders who had fled to Scotland the previous year now returned in force and laid siege to the new castle that William had constructed in York (the site now known as Clifford’s Tower).

The king wasted no time in returning to England to crush this revolt, raising the siege and dispersing the rebels. On this occasion there were no submissions. In expectation of further trouble, he ordered a second castle to be constructed on the opposite bank of the Ouse, and left William FitzOsbern in command of the city.

The Danes wade in

Trouble was not long in coming. Ever since 1066, the English had been appealing for assistance from Scandinavia, and at this point the King of Denmark, Swein Estrithson, decided to pile into the fray, hopeful of winning himself a second crown. In September 1069, Danish forces sailed up the river Humber and quickly seized York, slaughtering its Norman garrisons. They were joined by the Northumbrian rebels, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “and all the people, riding and marching with an immense army, rejoicing exceedingly”.

At this moment, more than any other, the Norman conquest hung in the balance. Throughout 1068 William had faced the problem of desertion, as the keepers of several castles quit their posts and returned home to Normandy, having decided that the rewards on offer in England were simply not worth the risk. The king had relied on castles to enforce his rule, but the two large garrisons in York had been overwhelmed, and elsewhere across the country other new fortresses now came under attack from the English.

The Normans up the ante

William spent a desperate autumn in 1069 marching his troops back and forth across England, trying to stamp out these many fires. Risings in the West Country and the Welsh marches were in due course crushed, but in the north the Danes remained elusive, and despite retaking York in December the king found he could not get near their fleet.

Faced with this impasse, and frustrated by the continued resistance of the north despite three gruelling campaigns, William decided to solve the problem by different means. His first move was to strike a deal with the Danes, allowing them to remain in England during the winter and plunder along the coast, on condition that they departed the following spring.
He then embarked on the second part of his plan, which was to make northern England untenable by any army, Danish or English. “In his anger,” wrote Orderic Vitalis, “he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned… so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance.”

The Harrying of the North, as it has become known, was the most notorious episode of William’s career. Harrying itself was standard practice in medieval warfare, but the scale of the destruction visited upon northern England that winter had such terrible consequences that even contemporary writers felt it was excessive. A widespread famine followed. Orderic Vitalis put the death toll at more than 100,000, and an analysis of Domesday data suggests he was correct. Writing half a century later, the half-English chronicler declared that God would punish the king for his “brutal slaughter”.

Brutal as it was, the Harrying brought the rebellion of the north to an end, and with it any serious threat of English resistance to Norman rule. It also marked a sea-change in William’s attitude towards his new subjects. At the beginning of his reign he had tried to settle with the surviving English, intending to rule a kingdom that was genuinely Anglo-Norman. But the rapaciousness of his fellow conquerors and the resistance of the natives had led to an increasingly vicious circle of disinheritance, rebellion and death. According to Orderic Vitalis, William had initially attempted to learn English, but eventually abandoned the effort. Certainly it was around 1070 that royal chancery scribes abandoned their longstanding practice of writing in English and switched to Latin. It was also in 1070 that the Conqueror purged the English church of many of its native bishops and abbots, replacing them with foreign clerks from his own chapel.

This change of heart was all too apparent when a final English rising broke out in 1071. Unlike its predecessors, this was a localised revolt, and had the character of a hopeless last stand by desperate men. The abbot of Ely, a monastery in the fens of eastern England, fearing deposition and replacement, had turned for help to a renegade local lord called Hereward, known to posterity as ‘the Wake’. Others soon joined them, including the bishop of Durham and several hundred English exiles from Scotland.

William eventually descended on Ely and subjected it to an elaborate siege, forcing the rebels to surrender. Unlike on previous occasions, there were no pardons in exchange for promises of future good behaviour. The leading rebels, including the bishop of Durham and Earl Morcar, were cast into prison for the rest of their lives, while those of lesser status were deprived of their hands and eyes. Only Hereward avoided both these fates, stealing away through the fens with a band of followers.

Meanwhile, Morcar’s older brother, Eadwine, had not even made it as far Ely. His efforts to raise rebellion in Mercia had come to nothing, and the earl was soon reduced to the status of an outlaw. In the end he was killed after being betrayed by his own servants – who had presumably by this point concluded that there was no longer any hope of resisting the Norman conquest.

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Marc Morris is a medieval historian. His latest book is William I: England’s Conqueror 
(Allen Lane, 2016). He is also author of The Norman Conquest (Windmill Books, 2013).