William the Conqueror's Harrying of the North

William the Conqueror's Harrying of the North

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Hastings & the March to London

William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England in 1066 CE and defeated Harold Godwinson, aka Harold II (r. Jan-Oct 1066 CE) on 14 October at the Battle of Hastings. Over the next two months, William's army marched around south-east England winning control by force, intimidation or submission of such key strategic points as Dover Castle, Canterbury, Winchester and, finally, London. William was crowned king on Christmas Day of the same year but his new kingdom was far from secure. Still, it had been a hard campaign, motte and bailey castles had been built to protect his gains, and now some rest and recuperation were needed. The new king had at least received oaths of loyalty from Stigand, the archbishop of Canterbury, and most of the Anglo-Saxon nobles. William gave lands to his followers in return for their promise to perform military service to protect the kingdom, although this did not always go to plan, as with the murder of Copsi, the new Earl of Northumbria, murdered by a relation of his Anglo-Saxon predecessor. There would also be some trouble in Hereford where Eadric the Wild attacked the castle there, helped by the Welsh prince Bleddyn of Gwynedd. It seemed the Normans would be inheriting the problems the English kings had long been having with their frontiers.

Forts & motte & bailey castles were erected in an attempt to discourage further armed resistance.

William's army of several thousand men was simply not big enough to impose Norman rule everywhere and so a war of attrition developed with the Normans torching any towns and villages where resistance was prevalent. Forts and motte and bailey castles were erected in an attempt to discourage further armed resistance, Norwich receiving a new castle in early 1067 CE, for example. For the time being, though, William had established a strong enough footing in his new territory that he could even afford a return trip back to Normandy in March 1067 CE. Trusted nobles such as Odo of Bayeux (made the new Earl of Kent) and William Fitzosbern (made Earl of Hereford and who built a castle at Arundel in Sussex) were left to guard the kingdom. In Normandy, where William celebrated his English victories in the abbey of Fécamp and paraded a few high-ranking Anglo-Saxon 'hostages' for the amusement of his compatriots, the Conqueror basked in his well-deserved adulation.

Anglo-Saxon Rebellions: Exeter

While William was absent, trouble was brewing in England. The honeymoon period when the Anglo-Saxon hierarchy seemed too shocked to effectively respond to the events of 1066 CE was coming to an end. There was even treachery amongst William's own allies, with Eustace of Boulogne attacking Dover - unsuccessfully - with a force from northern France in the autumn of 1067 CE, probably motivated by a dissatisfaction with the rewards he had received for fighting alongside William at Hastings. Then there was one of the first serious outbreaks of homegrown trouble at Exeter. A major cause of discontent was the heavy tax William had introduced, and because Exeter was also thought to be sheltering Gytha, the mother of Harold II, William felt compelled to return to England and deal with the trouble personally. Arriving on 6 December 1067 CE, William led an army to lay siege to Exeter, then a well-fortified city.

Exeter was besieged for 18 days, William's men regularly attacking the city's outer walls and working to undermine them. Eventually, after heavy losses on both sides, the city surrendered in January 1068 CE and a new castle was built there to deter any future trouble. The rest of the western corner of England was similarly subdued. William was now confident of his control of all of southern England, and by Easter, he was back at Winchester. On 11 May William's wife, Mathilda was crowned queen in Westminster Abbey with what was left of the Anglo-Saxon nobility in respectful attendance. Still, though, the volatile north remained to be dealt with.

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Harold's Sons Attack Bristol

Before William could turn his attention to the north of England, circumstances intervened to present him with a more immediate problem. Harold Godwinson's son Godwine (and perhaps two of his brothers) launched an attack from Ireland in the early summer of 1068 CE. Godwine, whose mother was Harold's longtime lover Edith Swan-Neck, was likely in his teens but the family was obviously still wealthy enough to fund an army. The fleet, a mix of rebels and pirates, attacked the western coast of England at Avonmouth and then moved to take Bristol. The city resisted, and a local shire army was mustered, which successfully saw off the Godwinsons who fled back to Ireland to rethink their strategy.

The First Rebellion at York

Also in the summer of 1068 CE, the simmering discontent in the north broke out into what would be the first of three rebellions at York, the key city of northern England. William responded to the situation by marching northwards via Warwick and Nottingham. At Warwick, a large castle was built and a garrison established to keep an eye on Eadwine, earl of Mercia and one of most powerful Anglo-Saxon nobles. Nottingham got the same treatment as William progressed up the country ensuring his rear would not be challenged when he came to focus on York.

The northern rebels were organising themselves into an effective force, rallying around the figurehead of Edgar aetheling.

The northern rebels were organising themselves into an effective force, rallying around the figurehead of Edgar aetheling, great-nephew of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066 CE), but still only a teenager. Further, they had the support and sanctuary of the king of the Scots, Malcolm III (r. 1058-1093 CE), who had married Edgar's sister Margaret. Not only did the rebels want to reinstate what they considered the true line of kings in England - indeed, they were already calling Edgar their king - but many of the Anglo-Saxon barons who had lost their lands to Norman nobles (William alone had claimed around one-fifth of England for himself) found they had a great deal worth fighting for and not much to lose.

In the event, when the Conqueror arrived, the citizens of York were no doubt aware of the ruthless devastation caused by the king's army as it had marched north and they promptly swore their loyalty. Edgar and the rebel leaders fled to Scotland, although they would keep returning south over the next two years whenever a rebellion looked promising. To be doubly sure the city remained loyal, William took hostages and built yet another castle (this would become the famous Clifford's Tower which still stands - albeit leaning a little - today). William's loyal follower William Malet was made sheriff of the city and a new earl of Northumbria was installed, the Norman Robert de Commines. Returning to London, William stopped off to organise more castle-building at Lincoln, Huntingdon, and Cambridge.

Everything now seemed to be settling into place, and the new Norman order looked firmly and safely established. Then trouble started all over again in December 1068 CE and, once more, it was in the north. Robert de Commines arrived at his new post at Durham with a large force of knights (at least 500 by tradition) but rather than help keep the peace these warriors achieved the opposite by being rather too keen to plunder their new home. Northumbrian rebels then attacked Durham in January 1069 CE, killing any foreigners they came across, including the earl and wiping out his army. Even worse for the king, the rebellion quickly spread to York where the garrison commander was killed. William, just back from Normandy at the time, received news of the disasters at Durham and York and responded in typical fashion, personally force-marching north with an even bigger army than previously. William arrived in York so quickly he caught the rebels off guard and routed those still with a stomach to fight.

The Danish Invasion

In what must have seemed to William a never-ending story of recurring bad characters, Godwine then turned up again in the summer of 1069 CE, once more sailing from Ireland but this time with a more impressive fleet of around 60 ships. The former prince seemed intent on attacking the abbey of Tavistock in the southwest corner of England. Fortunately for William, the Count Brian of Brittany was on hand to deal with this new threat and the rebels were routed, Godwine fleeing back to Ireland for the third time, never to appear in the historical record again. There were also problems in Exeter and at Montacute Castle in the summer of 1069 CE as well as an attack on both Chester and Shrewsbury by Eadric the Wild. The revolts were all ruthlessly put down by loyal troops and local commanders but the kingdom was stubbornly refusing to be subdued and, even worse, a new character was about to make his appearance in the drama, Asbjorn, brother of King Sweyn II of Denmark (r. 1047-1076 CE).

The Danes had long claimed parts of England as their own, and these Viking warriors were infamous for taking full advantage of any political upheaval in foreign parts they considered a rich source of plunder. Asbjorn landed off the coast of northern England with a Danish fleet of some 300 ships in September 1069 CE, and Edgar was recalled from Scotland. York was, yet again, to be the focal point of the rebellion. Still in control of the city's castles, the Norman garrison did not do posterity any favours when they accidentally started a fire which spread out of control and partially burnt down the cathedral on 19 September. On 21 September, the Danes arrived and, joining forces with Anglo-Saxon rebels, the castles of York were taken, the commanders ransomed off and the ordinary troops massacred. This was the biggest Norman defeat of the entire conquest and now the most serious threat to William's reign in England.

From the Forest of Dean near Chepstow where he had been hunting, William assembled an army and marched, for the third time in two years, to York. Delayed at the River Aire by heavy rains and the resulting floods, when the king finally arrived at his destination, it was all rather disappointing. The rebels had fled the city, and the Danes had retreated down the River Trent with their extensive booty from York. Without a fleet of his own, William could not pursue the Danes and so he returned to the old policy of the Anglo-Saxon kings and paid them to leave English shores. To make it clear to anyone with an interest in the north of England, William decided to spend Christmas of 1069 CE in York, even moving the royal regalia there in a bold statement of intent.

The Harrying of the North

Any lingering rebels across the north of England were mercilessly hunted down and executed or mutilated over the winter of 1069-1070 CE. To ensure the local population also got the message that William was here to stay, vast swathes of northern England - from Chester and Shrewsbury in the west across to the northeast coast of Cleveland - were ravaged. This harrying was not a particularly controversial strategy of the period but it was a brutal one. Livestock, crops, and farming equipment were all burned so that no future rebel army would be able to support itself in the north. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle succinctly puts it, William "utterly ravaged and laid waste that shire [York]" (quoted in Allen Brown, 74). The consequence for ordinary folk was famine. An early 12th-century CE chronicle by Orderic Vitalis (a monk at the abbey of St Evroul in Normandy) puts the death toll caused by food shortages at 100,000 men, women, and children. Vitalis summarises William's ruthless strategy as follows:

He cut down many in his vengeance; destroyed the lairs of others; harried the land and burned homes to ashes. Nowhere else had William shown such cruelty. Shamefully he succumbed to this vice, for he made no effort to restrain his fury and punished the innocent along with the guilty. In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber be stripped of sustenance.

(quoted in Bennett, 52-3)

While anti-Norman sources perhaps exaggerate the severity of William's harrying, the hardships seem self-evident, with people forced into eating whatever they could - from dogs to human corpses - and many even selling themselves into slavery in order to survive. The most telling statistic of all relating to the harrying of the north is perhaps a silent one, for in the 1086-7 CE Domesday Book, that carefully compiled and comprehensive record of land assets and property in Norman England, many entries describe northern areas of England merely as 'a waste' and Northumberland was not even worth recording at all.

The strategy, although severe, was successful and northern lords began to swear allegiance to the Norman king, starting with Gospatric of Bamburgh. Unfortunately, Edgar aetheling, that young master of the quick disappearing act, had once again escaped William's clutches. On top of that William's own soldiers were not at all content to be campaigning in the winter. When William sought to mobilise westward across the Pennines in February 1070 CE, there were even minor revolts in the army - mostly by his French allies if the Norman chroniclers are to be believed. Nevertheless, William pressed on, promising his men rich material rewards and plundering the as yet untapped riches of the English monasteries. Eventually, Chester, Shrewsbury, and Stafford were all secured and refortified as bulwarks against the threat from Wales. There would be no more homegrown rebellions, the harrying had served its purpose. Just prior to Easter 1070 CE, William felt confident enough to disband his army at Salisbury.

Hereward the Wake & King Sweyn II

The subjugation of England was not quite finished yet. The Danes, although paid to leave the stage the year before, remained greedy for more booty in a kingdom that looked so unsettled. This time King Sweyn himself led the raiding party which attacked Ely in May 1070 CE. The abbey at Ely was a rallying point for Norman resistance, and Sweyn there linked up with a local nobleman, Hereward the Wake. The abbey of Peterborough was sacked and, in June, William once again had to reach deep into his royal purse to pay off the troublemakers and see them on their way back to Denmark. A loyal commander was put in charge of the area, Turold of Malmesbury, but William was obliged to land an army in person which eventually took control of Ely in the summer of 1071 CE and so ensured East Anglia remained loyal to the king.

Another campaign was directed at Scotland in the following year in order to prevent the constant raids into northern England from that kingdom, and another result was the exile of Edgar to Flanders. It had been a long hard campaign since 1066 CE to secure England and there would continue to be occasional baronial revolts and threats from abroad but these would not be based on old Anglo-Saxon loyalties. The Conqueror had finally secured his kingdom, and a new era of English history began.

Harrying of the North

Following the 1066 Battle of Hastings, most of the land previously owned by Anglo-Saxon nobles was now held by the Normans, who built defensive motte-and-bailey castles to suppress Saxon dissent and huge stone cathedrals to bring their Catholic French culture to the British Isles. After the death of King Harold Godwinson at Hastings, the brothers Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria backed the Anglo-Saxon noble Edgar Atheling in claiming the throne, thus rebelling against the recently-crowned Norman King of England, William the Conqueror. The two earls later submitted to William due to a lack of strong opposition, and they were rewarded with land in the north. When William had to return to Normandy, where he was still Duke, he took the brothers as hostages to ensure that they did not rebel against him while he was absent. In 1068, shortly after returning to England, the brothers immediately incited an Anglo-Saxon revolt in Mercia in response to the Normans' cruelty. William, dealing with a series of revolts at the same time (at Dover, Exeter, Hereford, Nottingham, Durham, York, and Peterborough), headed north and built a number of defensive castles. The brothers were once again forced to submit to William they were pardoned and held as hostages again, but they were able to escape. On 28 January 1069, William replaced Morcar as Earl of Northumbria with a Norman (Robert de Comines) without consulting the locals, who were outraged. Edwin and Morcar instigated a new uprising, resulting in the massacre of the new Earl and 900 of his men.

The Harrying of the North by James Aitcheson

Ask most people what was the defining event of the Norman Conquest and they’ll probably name the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror defeated and killed his rival Harold Godwineson en route to seizing the English crown in 1066. However, it was the cruel coda to Hastings that has arguably done most to define modern perceptions of the Normans and their impact on England. Over the winter of 1069-70, William the Conqueror’s armies laid waste Yorkshire and the north-east of England in a ruthless scorched-earth campaign known today as the Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North. Entire villages were razed and their inhabitants put to the sword livestock were slaughtered and stores of food were destroyed. One of the most brutal episodes of the Middle Ages, even today this campaign ranks among the very worst atrocities ever to take place on British soil, and it’s against this backdrop that my latest novel The Harrowing is set.

Facts your never knew about the Harrying of the North:

  • As many as 100,000 people died as a result of famine in the wake of the devastation, according to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis: comparable in magnitude with the death toll resulting from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.
  • The twelfth-century historian John of Worcester records that food was so scarce in the aftermath of the Harrying that people were reduced to eating not just horses, dogs and cats but also human flesh.
  • Yorkshire and the north-east bore the brunt of William’s wrath, but they weren’t the only regions affected parts of Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire also suffered.
  • Refugees from the devastation are recorded as far south as Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire, where a camp was established by Æthelwig, the abbot, who ensured that food was distributed to the survivors. Unfortunately, the abbey’s chronicle says that many of those starving folk “died through eating the food too ravenously”.
  • The effects of the Harrying of the North were long-lasting. In 1086 – sixteen years after the event – one-third of the available land in Yorkshire was still ‘waste’ (Latin: vasta) according to Domesday Book, the great survey that William commissioned towards the end of his reign.

Facts you never knew about James Aitcheson:

  • I didn’t always imagine myself as a historical novelist. As a teenager I loved science fiction and fantasy, and particularly enjoyed writing in those genres. It was only while I was studying History at Cambridge that I really began to think about turning to historical fiction.
  • Having said that, the first ever piece of historical fiction that I can remember writing was a short scene set during the Battle of Roundway Down in 1643, which I included as part of my school History project on the Civil War when I was twelve. I still have it on my computer!
  • My favourite historical location is Old Sarum, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, which is steeped in history. An imposing Iron Age hillfort, it was later occupied by the Romans and in the late Anglo-Saxon period housed a mint, before becoming the site for a Norman castle and cathedral after the Conquest.
  • My favourite historical novel is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: an absorbing and affecting tale, written in her customary sparkling prose, of a housemaid in 1840s Canada convicted of the murder of her employer.

James’s new novel The Harrowing publishes on 07 July and is available to buy here , and you can find out more about James on his website or by following him on Twitter and Facebook.

Ask most people what was the defining event of the Norman Conquest and they&rsquoll probably name the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror defeated and killed his rival Harold Godwineson en route to seizing the English crown in 1066.

However, it was the cruel coda to Hastings that has arguably done most to define modern perceptions of the Normans and their impact on England. Over the winter of 1069-70, William the Conqueror&rsquos armies laid waste Yorkshire and the north-east of England in a ruthless scorched-earth campaign known today as the Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North. Entire villages were razed and their inhabitants put to the sword livestock were slaughtered and stores of food were destroyed.

One of the most brutal episodes of the Middle Ages, even today this campaign ranks among the very worst atrocities ever to take place on British soil, and it&rsquos against this backdrop that my latest novel The Harrowing is set.

The Harrying of the North

Throughout English history, bloodshed and violence has always remained a constant theme — with civil wars and foreign conquests providing English rulers with the opportunity to exact violent reprisals against their enemies. The Norman conquest of England, which is for many the most famous tale in English history, is no exception to this rule. In 1066, William the Conqueror led his troops across the Channel and defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, leaving England in the hands of a foreign duke from Normandy.

Although the battle itself has become perhaps the defining moment in English history, much less attention has been paid to the bloodshed that followed the Norman invasion. And one campaign in particular shocked even William’s contemporaries for the sheer brutality inflicted on the English people. In 1069, William undertook what has since been dubbed the Harrying of the North — a violent and bloodthirsty scorched earth campaign that would inflict mass suffering upon the people of northern England.

William, in a fit of unrestrained rage, ordered his troops to lay waste to large parts of Yorkshire and Northumbria in retaliation for an attempted uprising. The brutality would leave entire villages deserted and force locals into the unenviable choice between cannibalism and starvation. The Harrying must have felt like hell on earth for the local population — but to the Normans, it represented just another tool to complete their conquest of the country.

The affair can tell us not only about how the Normans used brute force to control unruly English nobles, but also how William was able to cement his position as the undisputed ruler of England’s northern frontiers. Much has been made about whether or not William acted too rashly in his conquest of northern England, with tales of Norman violence living on for centuries to come. However, the wave of fear unleashed by William has undoubtedly played a major role in the Norman effort to wipe out the rebellious English nobility, and in turn has left behind a lasting scar on northern England.

William’s Conquest

In the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings, as William the Conqueror surveyed the battlefield and contemplated his next move, it was apparent to all that the Normans had now become England’s latest rulers. The conflict, in which a dispute over the English throne had compelled William to lead an invasion force from Normandy, had culminated in the death of England’s last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson.

Whilst the Battle of Hasting has today become synonymous with the Norman conquest of England, William’s hold over the country in 1066 was still very much in doubt. Vast swathes of territory, particularly in the north, remained outside of Norman control and showed little respect towards their new master from across the Channel.

Uprisings were frequent, and between 1066 and 1069 William was faced with a number of direct challenges to his authority by restless nobles. Up until 1069, the Normans were able to maintain control of England and consolidate their position, building a series of castles in York, Lincoln, Nottingham and Warwick as a symbolic gesture that they were here to stay. Yet, as the winter air chilled and frost began to settle on the grounds of northern England, 1069 would present William with his greatest challenge to date — and in turn would see a brutal and merciless Norman response.

1069 would bring about a combination of simultaneous uprisings against Norman rule, with William’s ability to maintain control over the country now called into serious question. Earlier in the Summer, a group of nobles had once again risen up in Northumbria and looked to establish their own northern power base. The rebels were led by Edgar Ætheling — a seventeen year old who a few years previously had staked his claim to the throne before submitting to William — alongside an English noble named Gospatric. To make matters worse, the Northumbrian nobles had backup.

A Danish invasion fleet, with as many as 300 ships, had landed in the Humber and formed an alliance with the Northumbrians before attacking the city of York. The Danes were led by the brother of King Swein of Denmark, Asbjorn, and between their raiding party and the Northumbrian rebels William was faced with a formidable enemy. And it only gets worse for the Normans. Additional uprisings, unconnected to those further north, had broken out on the Welsh border and in the south west (Devon and Cornwall). From William’s perspective, it must have seemed as if the whole country had risen up against him all at once.

Tough Times, Tough Measures

William quickly mobilized his troops to tackle the threat head on, leaving his subordinates to deal with the south west. He marched straight towards the Welsh border, bringing a swift end to the uprising and putting the rebels to the sword. With the easy part taken care of, William then turned his attention towards a much greater threat — the Danes. The Danish fighting force, who by this point had retreated to their ships, refused to give battle and avoided direct confrontation with the Normans.

William, who was keenly aware that time was of the essence, opted on this occasion to use an altogether different tactic. The Danes were bribed with large quantities of gold and silver, allowing William to purchase their loyalty and avoid a long and drawn out conflict. With the Danes safely back on their ships, the Northumbrians were now the sole challenger to William’s authority — and on this occasion, he was not in the mood to bargain.

Shortly after Christmas Day, William divided his troops into raiding parties and sent them out to wreak havoc on the Yorkshire countryside. Norman forces would plunder without mercy — burning down villages, slaughtering livestock and unleashing a wave of violence on the local population. The end result was a spree of almost total destruction. With their livelihoods destroyed, famine set in and the locals were forced into cannibalism to survive. In all, thousands would perish in the initial slaughter itself, with the survivors facing a slow and agonizing death in the weeks and months to come.

Orderic Vitalis, a chronicler and monk writing in the 12th century, recalled with horror that “When I think of helpless children, young men in the prime of life, and hoary grey-beards all perishing of hunger, 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.” The destruction was so rigorous that in the Domesday book of 1086, compiled almost 20 years after the Harrying, over one-third of Yorkshire land was still described as being in a state of ‘vasta’ — waste.

The actions taken by William were certainly harsh, and have been likened by some to a modern day war crime. However, the violence and cruelty displayed by William was undoubtedly effective. The Harrying had two main objectives in mind: firstly to defeat any remaining Northumbrian rebels, and secondly to leave any future rebels with no resources for a new northern rebellion. When judged by this criteria, the Harrying would prove to be an unmitigated success. William would never again face a rebellion in the north, with his brutal tactics ultimately preventing any further challenges to his authority.

To Orderic Vitalis, William had “made no effort to refrain his fury” in his pursuit of the rebels, and he had certainly spared no expense to protect his own position and ensure Norman control over England. William’s response was both heavy handed and practical, combining sound military principals with a penchant for violence and destruction. The Harrying may have been cruel, bloodthirsty and short tempered, but it was also successful — and ultimately to William, this was all that mattered.

What happened after 1066? The Harrying of the North

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.

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William the Conqueror: The Harrying of the North

I am currently a head of faculty, with over 8 years teaching experience, specialising in History. I am passionate about developing excellent teaching which allows all pupils to feel challenged, supported and involved in their own learning. I have maintained outstanding results across KS4 and 5 for the last six years and feel this has been made possible through rigorously planned lessons which are constantly updated to take into account meaningful, pedagogical changes in education.

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Complete lesson, designed for Key Stage 3, on the Harrying of the North in 1069-70.
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1066 and The Norman Conquest (William the Conqueror)

Lesson bundle comprehensively covering the Norman Conquest. Lesson 1: The Succession Crisis - Who Should be King of England? Lesson 2: 1066: The Year of 3 Battles (Fulford, Stamford Bridge and Hastings) - How William became King of England Lesson 3: The Harrying of the North Lesson 4: Castles - How William Controlled the Lands Lesson 5: The Feudal System Lesson 6: The Domesday Book


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I am currently a head of faculty, with over 8 years teaching experience, specialising in History. I am passionate about developing excellent teaching which allows all pupils to feel challenged, supported and involved in their own learning. I have maintained outstanding results across KS4 and 5 for the last six years and feel this has been made possible through rigorously planned lessons which are constantly updated to take into account meaningful, pedagogical changes in education.


Over the centuries since the Battle of Hastings, many people in England have claimed that an ancestor fought on the Norman side. While there is sound evidence of extensive settlement in England by people of Norman, Breton and Flemish origin after 1066, the fact remains that the names of only 15 men who were with Duke William at the battle can be found in reliable sources. [4]

This group is sometimes called the "proven companions," [5] Many lists and so-called "rolls" of other alleged companions have been drawn up over the ages but, unless new evidence turns up, all are conjecture of no historical value. The three unchallenged sources remain as follows:

The following three sources constitute the only generally accepted reliable contemporary evidence which names participants at the Battle of Hastings. Between all three sources only 15 names result. [7]

  • Gesta Guillelmi II Ducis Normannorum ("The Deeds of William II, Duke of the Normans"), by William of Poitiers, written between 1071 and 1077. The author was born in about 1020 in Les Préaux, near Pont-Audemer, and belonged to an influential Norman family. After serving as a soldier he studied at Poitiers then returned to Normandy to become chaplain to Duke William and archdeacon of Lisieux. He died in 1090. His work is a eulogistic biography of the Duke. The earlier and concluding parts are lost, but the extant part covers the period between 1047 and 1068 and contains details of the Conqueror's life, although untrustworthy with regard to affairs in England. It gives a detailed description of the preparations for the Norman Conquest of England, the Battle of Hastings and its aftermath. The work forms the basis for much of the writing of Orderic Vitalis.
  • Historia Ecclesiastica (The Ecclesiastical History), by Orderic Vitalis, particularly books 4 & 5. [8] Orderic was born in England in about 1075, the son of a Norman priest, and at the age of 11 became a novice monk in Normandy in the monastery of St Evroul-en-Ouche. He started his great work, commissioned to be primarily a history of his monastery, in about 1110 and continued it until his death in 1142. , an annotated pictorial representation of the Norman Conquest. It was probably made in Canterbury, shortly after the event in the 11th century (many figures on the tapestry can be shown to have been copied from figures on manuscripts known to have been in Canterbury at the time). It may have been taken to Bayeux by Bishop Odo, William's half brother, when he returned there in the 1070s.

These three sources are unfortunately manifestly inadequate, as all are primarily from a Norman perspective. William of Poitiers, chamberlain to Duke William and a trained knight, who provides the most detail, was absent in France during the battle, and betrays severe prejudices in respect of Breton culture and their role at Hastings. Both William and Orderic state that the Bretons were a major component of the battle array, but neither names any of the Bretons present.

The order in which names are listed below is that given in the respective sources:

"A certain Norman, Robert, son of Roger of Beaumont, being nephew and heir to Henry, Count of Meulan, through Henry's sister Adeline, found himself that day in battle for the first time. He was as yet but a young man and he performed feats of valour worthy of perpetual remembrance. At the head of a troop which he commanded on the right wing he attacked with the utmost bravery and success." [9]

"With a harsh voice he (Duke William) called to Eustace of Boulogne, who with 50 knights was turning in flight and was about to give the signal for retreat. This man came up to the Duke and said in his ear that he ought to retire since he would court death if he went forward. But at the very moment when he uttered the words Eustace was struck between the shoulders with such force that blood gushed out from his mouth and nose and half dead he only made his escape with the aid of his followers." [10]

"There were present in this battle: Eustace, Count of Boulogne William, son of Richard, Count of Evreux Geoffrey, son of Rotrou, Count of Mortagne William FitzOsbern Haimo, Vicomte of Thouars Walter Giffard Hugh of Montfort-sur-Risle Rodulf of Tosny Hugh of Grantmesnil William of Warenne, and many other most renowned warriors whose names are worthy to be commemorated in histories among the bravest soldiers of all time." [11]

  • (4) Geoffrey, Count of Mortagne & Lord of Nogent, later Count of Perche (fr) (Source: William of Poitiers)
  • (5) William fitz Osbern, later 1st Earl of Hereford (Source: William of Poitiers)
  • (6) Aimeri, Viscount of Thouars a.k.a. Aimery IV (Source: William of Poitiers)
  • (7) Walter Giffard, Lord of Longueville (Source: William of Poitiers)
  • (8) Hugh de Montfort, Lord of Montfort-sur-Risle (Source: William of Poitiers)
  • (9) Ralph de Tosny, Lord of Conches a.k.a. Raoul II (Source: William of Poitiers)
  • (10) Hugh de Grandmesnil (Source: William of Poitiers)
  • (11) William de Warenne, later 1st Earl of Surrey (Source: William of Poitiers)
  • (12) William Malet, Lord of Graville (Source: William of Poitiers)

"His (King Harold's) corpse was brought into the Duke's camp and William gave it for burial to William, surnamed Malet, and not to Harold's mother, who offered for the body of her beloved son its weight in gold." [12]

"Hic Odo Eps (Episcopus) Baculu(m) Tenens Confortat Pueros." ("Here Odo the Bishop holding a club strengthens the boys.") [13]

  • (14) Turstin fitz Rolf a.k.a. Turstin fitz Rou and Turstin le Blanc, [14] (Source: Orderic Vitalis)
  • (15) Engenulf de Laigle (Source: Orderic Vitalis)

These five were agreed upon by both David C. Douglas and Geoffrey H. White and are from the Complete Peerage XII-1, Appendix L.

  • (16) Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances (Source: William of Poitiers) [15]
  • (17) Robert, Count of Mortain (Source: The Bayeux Tapestry) [15]
  • (18) Wadard. Believed to be a follower of the Bishop of Bayeux (Source: The Bayeux Tapestry) [15]
  • (19) Vital. Believed to be a follower of the Bishop of Bayeux (Source: The Bayeux Tapestry) [15]
  • (20) Gilbert d’Auffay, Seigneur of Auffay (Source: Orderic Vitalis) [15]

Since the time of these lists, J. F. A. Mason in the English Historical Review adds one additional name:

For William the Conqueror, Winning the Battle of Hastings Was Only the Beginning

1066 is one of the most famous dates in British history: William the Conqueror&rsquos victory at the Battle of Hastings. It is always easier to oversimplify history and assume that his victory was all that William needed to win over the people of England, but the Norman Conquest was a complicated and drawn-out affair in which William spent many years suppressing resistance to his rule, especially in northern England. This culminated in the Harrying of the North, in which William and his troops massacred the people and destroyed the land. While many sources document the brutality of the campaign, many modern historians doubt it was as violent as stated.

When Edward the Confessor died childless on January 5, 1066, it led to a succession crisis and a power struggle between many claimants to the throne of England that culminated in the Battle of Hastings. William, the Duke of Normandy and a cousin of the English king, defeated Edward&rsquos successor Harold II on the battlefield. The Norman Conquest wasn&rsquot complete with William&rsquos victory at Hastings, and not everyone in England was happy with this new ruler from Normandy. William attempted to reconcile the Anglo-Saxon lords to his rule by allowing them to hold on to their lands if they swore loyalty to him.

Harold II falls at Hastings. Harold was struck in the eye with an arrow (left), slain by a mounted Norman knight (right) or both. Bayeux Tapestry. Wikipedia Commons

After his coronation on Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror had his crown, but he didn&rsquot have the support of the people of England. Between 1067-1068, there were many revolts against William in various parts of the country, especially in northern England. The lords of northern England were used to being left alone and ruling themselves, so they didn&rsquot like this new king who wanted to rule over them. The Normans built castles in Exeter, Warwick, York, Nottingham, Lincoln, Huntingdon, and Cambridge to establish their presence and to control the rebellions.

England in 1066. Pinterest

William tried to appoint native Anglo-Saxon lords in Northumbria, an earldom in northern England where there was a heavy concentration of resistance, in an attempt to control the area, but this experiment failed. In 1067, the first lord he appointed, Copsig, was assassinated by his rival Osulf Osulf was murdered himself not long afterward. In 1068, Osulf&rsquos cousin Gospatric bought the earldom from William, but he quickly turned against the king and joined the rebellions against him.

William decided to deal with the Northumbrian challenge himself. He marched north to York in the summer of 1068, where the rebels quickly scattered. Some of the rebels, including Edgar Æthling, took refuge at the court of King Malcolm III of Scotland. Edgar Æthling had a blood claim to the throne of England and was a symbol of the resistance against the Normans, and he led many of the revolts against the king himself. He was the grandson of Edmund Ironside, the half-brother of Edward the Confessor, and he was seen as a better claimant to the throne than William.

William the Conqueror: A Short Biography

This blog will offer a short biography of perhaps the most famous king in English History, William the Conqueror. Born in 1028 the bastard son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and to an unmarried French woman by the name of Herleva, who was the daughter of Fulbert of Falaise Fulbert may have been a tanner or embalmer according to the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans). He was taunted for his birth and was named ‘William the Bastard’ yet he did not only become the Duke of Normandy he extended the influence of the House of Normandy and became one of England’s most brutal and influential Kings.

Though William had a brutal childhood that would make him the king he was, he ascended to the Dukedom at the ripe old age of just 8 upon the death of his father, whose nobles swore allegiance to him should he fail to return from his crusade in Jerusalem. So, with the Duchy in the hands of a child the Norman Aristocracy saw their chance to grab power and the Duchy become alight with strife and civil war. This was described by William of Jumièges in the Gesta Normannorum Ducum “plots were hatched and rebellions, and all the duchy was ablaze with fire.” Williams steward, Osbern, who was sleeping in a bed beside the young duke had his throat slit by a Norman rebel and every one of Williams guardians was assassinated.

Though William had a tough upbringing he had the support of his great uncle Archbishop Robert and the King of France Henry I which enabled him to succeed to his father’s duchy. However, upon the death of his great uncle in 1037 the young duke lost one of his key supporters and the duchy once again fell into turmoil. William’s cousin, Guy of Burgundy led a rebellion against him at the battle of Val-es-Dunes, William, by now a tall and able warrior in his twenties, enlists the support of the French king Henry I and wins a decisive victory. He emerges as a ruthless leader, punishing the rebels by cutting off their hands and feet, and establishes Normandy as a powerful state. He marries Matilda of Flanders, a strategic move which seals an alliance with a rich neighbouring county of Flanders. By the time of his marriage, William was able to arrange the appointments of his supporters as bishops and abbots in the Norman church. His consolidation of power allowed him to expand his horizons, and by 1064 William was able to secure control of the neighbouring counties of Maine and Brittany.

Meanwhile, Edward the Confessor whose mother was a sister of Williams grandfather offered the English throne to William upon his death as he was childless. Unfortunately, William was betrayed by Edward the Confessor who apparently gave the throne to his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson a powerful English earl and landowner who was quickly crowned king the very next day, despite the oath that he made to William to support his claim. William assembled a fleet and army in the North of Normandy to take what he was promised but due to Northern winds and strong seas, the invasion was delayed by several weeks. Harold who had been preparing for an invasion from the south quickly moved his army north to defeat the Norwegian Invasion lead by Harald Hardrada who was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on the 25 September 1066. Harold marched south to London to raise more troops before marching to Hastings. On the 14 October 1066, the Battle f Hastings took place and Harold was killed though the circumstances to which he was killed remains uncertain. William ultimately won the battle and was crowned King of England in London on Christmas day 1066.

After William was crowned king there were several revolts that William used as an excuse to take land from the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and made it his own private property. To cement his kingship William creates a new Norman aristocracy, castles were erected to protect the new nobles and flaunt their power. Perhaps the most controversial of William’s strategies was the so-called ‘Harrying of the North’ which was a series of campaigns organised by William to subjugate the North of England through terror and brutality. The last Wessex claimant Edgar Atheling had encouraged rebellions and though the rebels refused to give in he decided to starve them out by laying waste to the northern shires, he lays waste to English villages and destroys farmlands robbing the small communities of their livelihoods and were plagued by famine. Many of Williams contemporaries referred to it as a “stain on his soul.” Writing about the Harrying of the North, over fifty years later, the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis said:

“The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change.”

“To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation.”

“I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.”

After the ‘Harrying of the North’ was over in 1070, this was still not the last rebellion that William would have to contend with to defend his crown. The Revolt of the Earls in 1075 was a rebellion of three earls against William I of England (William the Conqueror). It was the last serious act of resistance against William in the Norman Conquest. The revolt was caused by the king’s refusal to sanction the marriage between Emma and Ralph de Guader, Earl of East Anglia in 1075. Then, in William’s absence, Ralph, Roger de Breteuil, 2nd Earl of Hereford and Waltheof, 1st Earl of Northumberland began the revolt but it was plagued by disaster. William deprived Ralph of all his lands including his earldom. Roger was also deprived of his lands and earldom, but unlike Ralph he was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. He was released along with other political prisoners on the death of William I in 1087.

William is perhaps best remembered for the compilation of a survey of the landholdings held by himself and by his vassals throughout the kingdom, organised by counties. It resulted in a work now known as the Domesday Book. The listing for each county gives the holdings of each landholder, grouped by owners. The listings describe the holding, who owned the land before the Conquest, its value, what the tax assessment was, and usually the number of peasants, ploughs, and any other resources the holding had. This allowed the strengthening of taxation and consolidation of power and besides the taxes, William’s large landholdings throughout England strengthened his rule. As King Edward’s heir, he controlled all of the former royal lands. He also retained control of much of the lands of Harold and his family, which made the king the largest secular landowner in England by a wide margin.

William I died on 9 September 1087, however, his legacy is perhaps the most powerful that has ever been left by any English monarch which was the introduction of a new feudal system that would dominate the class system for the next 500 years. He introduced a change in landscape that can still be seen in Norman architecture throughout England, the change of language as Norman French became the language of the court, government and the ruling classes – and stayed that way for almost three hundred years, and still impacting on words we use today. The Normans also imported their vast culture including the introduction of cider and rabbits that were considered a delicacy for the wealthy before the Normans successfully introduced them to the isles. The Normans also abolished slavery within the Kingdom of England and according to Mark Morris, author of the book The Norman Conquest, some 15-20% of people in Anglo-Saxon England were slaves but this practice was stopped by the Normans. William also introduced many skilled Norman administrators, whom were largely responsible for turning England into a formidable and powerful government in Europe that lasted for centuries.


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