After 1066 William the Conqueror set about ruling his new kingdom. The impression we get is that England rolls over rather easily – where was the heroic struggle we might have expected? This isn’t the full story; the Conqueror spent the first years stamping out forest fires all over the place. But there is some truth in it – English resistance lacked the leadership it needed to be effective. We find out what happened in the History of England podcast.
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Why did England fall to William so easily?
Well, a few reasons really.
- There were no credible leaders
- The leaders they did have were self serving and not much to write home about
- The Normans built castles – lots of them
- The cream of England’s warriors had been decimated by the 3 battles of 1066
- Some of them thought they could work with William. Ha.
The new Aristocracy
By the end of William’s reign 54% of the Aristocracy were Norman. In some areas it was almost a total wipeout. There are only 2 Thegns who held significant estates directly from the Conqueror. A whitewash.
The Harrying of the North
The conseqences of William the Conqueror’s rampage lasted for well over 15 years, with the entire vale of York laid waste. I promised some passges from one of the Chroniclers, Roger of Hoveden. By and large, Roger is a dull chap, but the Harrying caught his imagination.
‘William…swore he would pierce the whole of northumbria with a single spear… (he) did not cease throughout the whole winter to ravage it, slay the inhabitants and commit many other acts of devastation.
… a famine prevailed to such a degree that…men ate human flesh and that of horses, dogs and cats; some persons went as far as to sell themselves into slavery… some departed from their native country into exile.
It was dreadful to see human corpses rotting in the houses, streets and high roads, and as they reeked with putrefaction, swarming with worms, and sending forth a horrid stench; for…there were not suifficient left to inter them.Between York and Durham there was not one inhabited town; the dens of wild beasts and robbers …were alone to be seen.
You get the picture. It was a difficult time.
Looking back, its hard not to feel that William had a rather easy ride after 1066, that England collapsed with surprising ease, Surely we should have expect a heroic struggle over decades with battle after battle before William was able to finally secure his new kingdom.
As we’ll see in this week’s episode, in fact he had to work harder than it might at first appear. But it’s also true to say that resistance to the new regime was weak and disjointed. One principal reason is that there’s a lack of credible leaders for the English to rally around. Edgar the Atheling, the man proclaimed but never crowned king, was only 15. All of the Godwinsson brothers had died at Hastings, and Harold’s sons had fled to Ireland or were captured. The Earls Edwin and Morcar might have provided some resistance, but they had no claim to the throne, and no one to unite behind.
We talked last week about some of the military advantages the Normans held, in cavalry and mobility. But it was the castle was now to be the most significant. The use of castles is so closely associated with the Normans that the chroniclers often actually use the term ‘castlemen’ when talking about them.
We tend to think about castles as defensive structures, but in this context they were very much used as the basis for offense as well. Castles allowed the development of a strongpoint in hostile country, and over the crucial period of the Norman settlement they made the crucial difference between success and failure.
This Norman conquest was not a massive folk movement like the 6th century or 9th century. The wonder is that a relatively small number of people managed to dominate the much more populous English, and the castle played a central role in this. In William’s reign alone, the Normans may have built over 200 castles, and of these over 90 were converted to stone and can still be seen. By 1100 there are over 3,000 castles in England. These castles made a massive difference for the Normans, and a time when there was almost no effective technology to overcome castles.
I guess another reason I’d advance for the relatively easy submission of England is the tradition of kingship and the public relationship between the AS people and their king. Though alien, William may well have been seen as perfectly legitimate; AS kings could well be chosen as other than the eldest son, and from other branches of the royal family. We tend, I think, to view history through a lens that is deeply coloured by nationalism, and forget that nationalism is a largely 19th century concept, and even a basic sense of English patriotism would have been diluted by a greater sense of loyalty to village and region. In passing, I should admit that I find this particular historical theme the most confusing of all – so if anyone can direct me somewhere or put me straight I’d be delighted! Anyway, the point is that to many English Thegns and Ceorls, there was simply a new master in town. We should not downplay the cataclysmic impact of the conquest, and the pain reflected by the English chroniclers. But initially at least there was a chance that William could have been accepted as nothing more than a kink in the royal line.
To add to that, once William was invested as king the basic inclination of the lay and ecclesiastical nobility was towards loyalty, order and obedience. People like Edwin and Morcar very probably also thought that this was where their best personal interests lay – there are some indications that Morcar’s eventual revolt came once he realised that William was not going to allow him to marry into his family. The experience of Cnut has been of an invader very willing to allow the existing nobility share in the rule of the new kingdom, and create a new state that was not dominated by the new nobility, but shared by the old and the new.
This doesn’t in the end happen in England. The old English nobility is replaced to the most remarkable degree. By the end of William’s reign, all the major positions are held by Normans – there are no English Earls, the major landowners are overwhelmingly Norman. It’s a topic we’ll come back to but it is not immediately obvious that this was William’s original intention. There is no doubt that William was driven by his need to reward his followers, and his desire to wring as much money as possible from England to feed his avarice. But within those parameters, the signs are that he intended to reach an accommodation and balance between his Norman and English lords.
This doesn’t happen because in fact the leading English earls find it impossible to serve their new master, and in his turn William was to find them deeply untrustworthy. And to return to that general feeling that England was conquered rather easily, in fact the history of the first 10 years of William’s reign is one of continual revolt and fire fighting. This resistance was not co-ordinated, and was never able to really get off the ground. The leaders of the revolts were mainly concerned with their own selfish self interest, without any wider ambitions or patriotism. But we should have no illusions about the fact that William would never have felt entirely secure in England, and would have felt severely threatened at times.
So let’s go back to the new and shiny Westminster, where we left William standing, for one very rare time in his life, pale and tembling as his soldiers fire London, mistakenly afraid that the natives had risen in revolt. As I say, his first approach was to work with the local leaders. He was very clearly distrustful of the secular leaders, like the Earls Morcar and Edwin. They kept their lands, but their position as Earls was largely honorary, he demanded hostages, and he kept them physically close by. But he did seem perfectly willing to rely on the Old English ecclesiastical leaders. Stigand remained Archbishop of Canterbury, despite the fact that he was clearly in breach of the rules by holding multiple offices, and would have been strongly disapproved of by the Norman church. Ealdred, the Archbishop of York who had already played the peacemaker, was made a viceroy of Northumbria; Athelwig, the Abbot of Evesham and Wulfstan Bishop of Winchester were given a similar position in Mercia. The situation in the far north was more uncertain. William appointed a man called Copsi, a supporter of Tostig, to be earl in Bamburgh, but he was quickly despatched by Oswulf, the descendant of Uhtred of Bamburgh, who you will remember from previous episodes. But sometime during 1067, we find a man called Gospatric as earl in Bamburgh. Gospatric seems to be from Scotland, and seem to have earned his position by offering William lots of cash, something William was partial to.
And William seems to have felt reasonably relaxed about his position. A the start of 1067 he made sure he had things set up to his liking – he ordered a castle to be built, on the site of the Tower of the current London, he made his half brother Odo the Earl of Kent, and basically unofficially put him in charge – and he set off back for Normandy before Easter 1067.
This was William’s idea of having a good time. He went on a procession through Normandy, with the conquered English leaders Stigand, Edwin, Morcar and Edgar the Atheling in tow. Before he went, he had made sure that his line of return was secure, building castles at Dover and Pevensey. William didn’t return to England until the end of the year, and it’s a pattern that is repeated for the rest of his life. Normandy was his home, and his main priority – England was a sideshow.
Back in England, his confidence does seem to have been well placed. There are two hotspots. The first was caused by an AS Thegn called Eadric the Wild. Eadric’s motivation for rebellion, like so many, was to be the removal of some of his lands in Herefordshire by a Norman called Richard FitzScrob. Eadric wasn’t having it, and he and some of his Welsh mates attacked Hereford castle. They had no luck taking the castle, and so retreated into Wales, and spent the next 2 years causing the Normans trouble, without causing them any serious problems, if you see what I mean.
In the South West, Harold’s Mother refused to give up the City of Exeter. Late in the year, William arrived back in England, and must have been pretty pleased at the way things were going – I’d like to bet that he’d expected something a bit more dramatic. So he was disposed to be reasonably diplomatic – I mean reasonably on William’s scale, rather than a 21st century scale. So he did his normal trick of having some poor citizen mutilated in full site of the walls, all fairly standard, but when that didn’t have the desired effect he negotiated. Gytha sailed away into exile in Flanders, and Exeter had to submit, but with no punitive conditions. William promptly had a castle built, and was able to relax. In April 1068, he felt happy enough to bring his wife Matilda over to join him, and in May she was crowned as his queen in England. Everything looked good.
In the background of course, the real revolution was going on, as steadily the lands held by English Thegns were taken over by Norman invaders. It’s difficult to know exactly how fast this happens, and precisely what the process was, but because of the Domesday survey we have an extremely good idea of the end result. By 1086 the vast majority of English Thegns had been dispossessed of their lands. The numbers are truly staggering – by 1086, 190 lay Norman nobles held 54% of English land. It is difficult to know exactly how far this went down the social scale; the English gave themselves Norman names pretty quickly, and many Thegns would have become knights, even if that meant moving down the social scale and now having to give homage for land they had previously held as of right. But in terms of land ownership, English names are almost entirely absent from Domesday. There are only two thegns we are sure continue to hold land directly from the King – Coleswein of Lincoln and Thurkil of Artden. The rest was split between Norman Barons, the Church, and land that Willam held in his own hands as the Kings Domain land.
The way William did this was to create a number of mega–rich barons, the kind of people who would have appeared in the Sunday Times rich list. There were about 150 Baronies of this kind. The biggest winners, like his half brother Robert Count of Mortain, ended up with a barony with 800 manors. Others of his known companions at Hastings like Hugh de Grandmesnil were handsomely rewarded with over 100 manors, right down to relatively modest estates such as Gilbert de Bretteville with 19 manors. In general, these men were simply given the landholdings of existing AS Thegns; this meant that the holdings were widely spread throughout the country, though there are exceptions we’ll come to like the lords of the marches.
Initially, William probably simply took over the land of the thegns who had died at Hastings, and you can bet there was plenty to go round. Then as more of the remaining major AS earls fell foul of him, more lands were added to the pot. But even with this first bunch, picture the scene repeated all over the country, of a group of mailed Norman soldiers appearing in the village, chucking the old thegn’s family into the street, building a castle and general setting up camp. I’d imagine that as this spreads the dissatisfaction among lords grew. This was essentially colonisation. One of the better chroniclers of the age was a chap called Oderic Vitalis, writing in the 12th century and born of a Norman father and English mother. He says:
‘foreigners grew wealthy with the spoils of England while her own sons were either shamefully slain or driven as exiles to wander hopelessly through foreign kingdoms.’
Then there’s the matter of how land was held. This was a fantastic opportunity for William to start from scratch and design his new state the way he wanted it. What he does is to make sure that it is absolutely clear that all lands and all rights come from the King. No body has any land held because it belongs to them – they are simply getting the use of the land in return for a set of military services. This also would have bugged the English.
So I think it’s important to remember all this background strife bubbling away as we go through the constant rebellion and dissatisfaction of the next few years. Added to that was the personal disappointments of the individuals involved, as they discover that their new King is not going to give them the influence they once had, and that his Norman mates are the ones who really count. And one more thing before I get on with it; the Norman lords themselves also had to adjust. Now in the main they do just fine, given that many of them are now rich beyond their wildest dreams. But life is not like it was back home. William was very careful to hold on to the central powers of the AS Monarchy which had been allowed to slip in Ducal Normandy. For example, he held on hard to the office of Sherrif, with the right to administer justice anywhere, including the Barons’ lands. This gets up a few noses. He also imposed a much higher level of military service for land than they were used to in Normandy. Though I don’t think any of them were on the breadline, so obviously don’t waste any sympathy on the poor lambs.
Ok, so in 1068 thing begin to get a little hotter. Edwin and Morcar have had enough of being dragged around like lions in a menagerie and raised their standard in revolt. Edgar the Atheling does the same, and Gospatric Earl of Northumbria. The rebels were clearly getting some support from Malcolm, the king of Scotland, who was married to Edgar the Atheling’s sister Margaret, later to become canonised as St Margaret.
Co-incidentally the sons of Harold Godwinsson launch a raid from Ireland to the South West at the same time.
This all sounds serious, but you get the impression that William hardly broke sweat. He moved fast, a struck north with his army, cutting Edwin and Morcar in Mercia off from the north. They quickly apologised to William, and he forgave them. As he marched north he established castles at places like Warwick and Nottingham, and by the time he reached York the revolt had disappeared into nothing. Edgar and Gospatric fled to Malcolm in Scotland. William had bared his teeth. But they’d be back for another go in 1069.
William realised that his authority was not yet firmly stamped on Mercia and Northumbria, and he appointed his own man to be earl, Robert of Comines. Robert gathered a substantial force of 700 household troops, which you’d have thought would be enough for most emergencies, and set off north in January for Durham. As he travelled, he was met by he Bishop of Durham, Aethelwin, who came with some friendly warnings. Look Robert, he might have said, just go easy here, things are still very edgy, you need to be diplomatic and win people round, and be aware of treachery.
After wondering what the word diplomatic might have meant, Robert sent his men in with their hobnailed boots with as much sensitivity as a bull in a china shop. They generally set about alienating the locals, to the point of murdering a few of them for good measure. All of which ensured that Aethelwin’s warnings had been justified – the Northumbrians exploded into violence, and set about murdering Roberts’s men. Despite Aethelwin’s warnings, Robert was taken completely by surprise secure in the confidence that Norman soldiers would be able to come whatever the despised AS’s could throw at them – and they paid the price. ‘So great’, recorded Roger of Hoveden, ‘was the multitude of the slain that nearly every spot in the city was filled with blood’. Only 1 Frenchman escaped. Robert himself took refuge in the Bishop’s house. The rebels couldn’t storm the place so they simply torched it, and Robert and his men were burned alive.
By this stage Aethelwin, disgusted by Robert’s stupidity and arrogance, had switched sides, sent messages to Gospatric and Edgar in Scotland, and closed Durham against the king.
William had other things on his mind and couldn’t react straight away. The sons of Harold again raided the south west from Ireland, but were eventually driven off, and had done nothing to increase their popularity with the locals – with the damage they inflicted, they’d made themselves the enemy.
Edgar, Gospatric and his allies knew that their best chance for independence lay in the north. It was re-assuring distant form Normandy, and well within reach of their principal ally, Malcolm in Scotland. It had a history of autonomy within the English kingdom, dominated by powerful earls. And the Scandinavia tradition there opened up further possibilities.
In 1069, though, they realised that they needed to do considerably better than the previous year, and they had 3 further groups they needed to bring with them. The first was Waltheof, the youngest son of Earl Siward of Northumbria. He had been made an earl of land around Huntingdon and Northamptonshire in 1065, and he would have been 16 in 1066. William had treated him generously, allowing him to keep his lands and status. But bringing Waltheof to their side would give the rebels the credentials they needed to bring the Northumbrians to their side, and for whatever reason they were able to talk the 19 year old Waltheof into joining them.
The second group were the Scandinavians. Because despite my grand assertions that we came to the end of the viking age in 1066 with the death of Harold Hadrada, the Danes seemed to lack that kind of 20/20 hindsight. So they continued to think that they could roll back time and relive the days of Canute the Great. Svein Esthrithson now felt secure on the throne of Denmark, and ready to challenge, and it’s not until we get to the death of his some, Cnut II, that English kings can turn their attention elsewhere. Svein therefore assembled a massive fleet of 240 ships, maybe 10,000 men, and sent his brother, Osbern, and his sons Harold and Cnut.
The third group were the Earls Edwin and Morcar – but this time, perhaps fatally, the Earls refused to take part.
The plan, simple enough, was to take York and proclaim Edgar king. We never get the chance to find out whether that was the extent of their ambitions, but I think we suspect not, and that London would have been next.
Things kicked off in September, when the Danish fleet followed the traditional route to the north, appearing off the South East coast, and raiding Dover, Ipswich, and Norwich as they went. But the results were disappointing by comparison with the past, as the raiders met the walls of the Norman castles. But by September 8th they appeared in the mouth of the River Humber, where they were joined by Edgar, Gospatric and Waltheof joined them.
So now William faced a threat of considerably larger scale than before. As always with northern revolts, the focus was York, and the Danes and rebels attacked the castle there. The Normans were led by William Malet, one of the men who had fought with William at Hastings and a major landowner. They fought with determination, firing all the houses around the castle to make sure that the Danes could not use the materials to fill up the ditch surrounding the castle. The rebels stormed the city on 21st September and the Normans were overwhelmed. Over 3,000 were killed, and only William Malet and his daughter allowed to go free.
With England in flames, Edric the Wild realised that William had trouble on his hands and took full advantage, attacking Shrewsbury with the help of his Welsh allies and rebels from Chester.
William gathered his army and marched north. Florence of Worcester describes his mood by saying he has a ‘heavy heart’, Roger of Hoveden as ‘extreme irritation’ – which is lovely understatement given what’s coming. Because William had now clearly decided that is was no more Mr Nice guy, that if he was to survive absolute brutality was going to be needed.
He started with York, and his name alone made the Danes withdraw from York to the other side of the Humber. William detached a force to watch them, and then descended with lightening speed on Shropshire, defeated Eadric and forced him and his allies to scuttle back to Wales. While he was away, the rebels had once again occupied York, but William had no desire to see his men die against its walls. So instead he began what would become known as the Harrying of the North, and which would be the one thing that seems to have troubled his conscience for the rest of his life.
By devastating the area around York, William deprived the rebels of any food and supplies, and forced them to leave the city.
Meanwhile he send messages to Osbern and offered him a deal – lots of money to leave. Osbern leaped at the chance. He’d already demonstrated a complete lack of desire to fight the Normans, there was no food, and the rebels were probably whining – a good time to leave. Back in Denmark, Svein was furious, outlawed Osbern and set sail to join and lead the fleet himself. But it was way too late for the Northumbrian rebels. They’d been chopped off at the knees, and they retreated before William’s fury.
William celebrated Christmas with studied and calculated pomp and largesse. He wore the crown and regalia which he had brought up specially from London. All around him, the people of York and the surrounding countryside were starving, and his message was for them and any future rebels – don’t take me on because if you do, this is what will happen.
After Christmas, he just kept going north, killing and destroying as he went – destroying crops, killing livestock, burning villages. The Harrying of the North outraged and horrified even William’s most ardent supported in a hard age. No one seems to have a problem with eh odd mutilation or blinding here or there – but this was different. The most staid of chroniclers breaks into flowing prose, to condemn his brutality. I’ve put some of the longer quotes from Roger of Hoveden on the website, but here’s the odd snippet. Roger has described the devastation, and now goes on to describe the impact:
‘ a famine prevailed to such a degree that compelled by hunger men ate human flesh, and that of horses dogs and cats and whatever was repulsive . . ‘
‘it was dreadful to behold human corpses rotting in the houses, streets and high roads for there were not enough left to inter them’.
Oderic Vitalis is another chronicler, generally very well disposed to William, though well balanced. He wrote:
‘ 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 hunger.
I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.’
Oderic also recorded that even William himself came to realise the depth of his crime. Oderic records William’s words on his deathbed:
‘ I attacked the English of the Northern Shires like a lion. I ordered their houses and corn, with all their belongings, to be burnt without exception and large herds of cattle and beasts of burden to be destroyed wherever they were found. It was there I took revenge on masses of people by subjecting them to a cruel famine; and by doing so — alas!— I became the murderer of many thousands of that fine race’
In point of fact, the harrying though worse in the North, was also carried out in 1070 through large swathes of Mercia. And the evidence of the depth of the destruction is clear in the Domesday book, where vast areas remained uncultivated and de-populated even 15 years later.
But you have to say that he had made his point. And hate it or loathe it, it worked pretty well.
Edgar fled back to his brother in law in Scotland. Waltheof and Gospatric submitted to William, and hang me if they don’t get a kiss on both cheeks, a chuck under the chin and are told not to worry. Both are restored to their earldoms. Waltheof is even promised marriage to William’s niece, Judith.
Presumably, in the midst of this chaos and slaughter, William felt he still needed their local knowledge and influence, and was prepared to give it one more try. He would not be giving them another one.
Meanwhile, remember the Bishop Aelgwin in Durham? Well, he ran around like a headless chicken for a while, disinterring the body of St Cuthbert and running for it with the bones of the saint, then coming back to Durham . . . but in the end he died in alone of starvation in a Norman prison.
William may have regretted the Harrying on his deathbed, but in 1070 he showed even sign of satisfaction. He paraded his army in May at Salisbury, and paid off most of his mercenaries – which shows either a certain coolness, or maybe he knew that after 4 years of occupation he could now rely on his feudal levies being forthcoming. He was confident that resistance was crushed. He was wrong as it happens. But not very wrong. None of the rebellions that followed would threaten as much, and he would be perfectly able to cope.
After 1070, William began to focus on setting his kingdom up in the way he wanted it, with the people he trusted. And those people did not include the English.