24 Revolt of the Earls

It took William the Conqueror a few more years until he felt safe from the English. But when the Revolt of the Earls collapsed in 1075, English revolution was over – and we are into the continual cycle of feudal rebellion. This week in the History of England we’ve also got a bit of church stuff, and the pain of trying to rule a cross channel empire

24 Revolt of the Earls

Hereward the Wake

Map of the Isle of Ely When I was at school we learnt that Hereward was a folk hero. We heard how he hid in the marshes of the Fens, and how he goaded and outwitted the stupid Normans. Sadly, the Historians then got their hands on it, found out the truth and told us- and it’s a bit more prosaic.

However, Hereward did indeed maintain a rebellion in the Fens. His hideout was at Ely, which at the time was an island. You have to work quite hard to make this map work for you, but the darkest brown stuff is water, and Ely is the reddish spot in the middle.

Anyway, Hereward teamed up with Svein Estrithson for a while. Then Earls Edwin and Morcar broke free from William – Edwin was killed by his followers, but Morcar made it to Hereward. This made William look up a noticed. He came with his Army; he built a causeway across the fens to Ely.  And Hereward ran for it, and away into legend.


The revolt of the Earls

The Earls concerned are Roger of Montomergy (Marcher lord, Welsh border) and Ralph de Gael, earl of East Anglia. They talked Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, into joining them – but he then got cold feet, and spilt the beans to William. He would have expected forgiveness – he didn’t get any. He was slung into prison and next year had his head cut off. So died the last English Earl.

The revolt fell apart. Ralph de Gael was met and by Odo of Bayeux and he fled, leaving his wife to face the music. They both end up in their Breton lands at Dol, where William tries to capture them, but is fought off. Roger Montgomery is met by Bishop Wulfstan (1008-1095) and Walter de Lacy and he surrendered and was put in prison. So the English have made a choice – they’d rather a Norman king than anarchy.

Lords of the Marches

William normally gave land out in widely distributed holdings, scattered around the country.  But along the borders he took a different approach  – he created large consolidated land holdings. His aim was to create lords who had the strength and resources both to defend the borders against the Scots and Welsh; and also take the offensive.

1086 Land holding of Odo of BayeuxLand holdings of Hugh d'Avranches Land holdings of Roger Earl of Shrewsbury

Let me give you an examplke. These maps have been produced using the superb ‘Propospography of Anglo Saxon England’ (PASE for short) by the way – though any errors are entirely my idiocy. Anyway, first you have Odo of Bayeux. You can just about see that many of Odo’s holdings are scattered throughout the Midlands; most of the manors would not adjoin. In Kent, it’s slightly different. William saw the route to Normandy as being strategically important. So he gave Odo, as Earl of Kent, consolidated holdings, protecting the route home. The next is the Earl of Chester and then it’s Roger of Montgomery. You can see how consolidated their land holdings are.

The strategy works very well in Wales, not quite so well initially in the North. But he does create a group of remarkably powerful lords; he gives all his rights and powers, with the exception of trying men for treason. Effectively these men are mini kings. That will cause some problems for England in the future – but for the moment it’s necessary.



We left our William last week in 1070 probably feeling that he’d seen the last of any pesky rebellions disturbing his peace, and that he could get back to the land he loved – i.e. Normandy. Because one thing to bear in mind is that Normandy was home – not just for William but also for his Norman Barons. England was where they made their riches, but Normandy was what they really cared about, and that will remain the case for a while yet. And William did have time to indulge himself in one of his favourite pastimes, i.e. making money. He grumpily realised that the old English lords that stashed all their spare cash in the churches – so he ordered that the churches and monasteries be taxed and searched for the thegns treasure. There was nowhere to hide. .
Sadly for poor old William, he was to be tested again before he and his boys could finally chillax, as my daughter might hideously say. There’s a game my kiddies used to play when they were small and cute, which involved a plastic hammer and some moles in holes. Every time you smacked one of them, another one popped up somewhere else. Well it was a bit like that for William. In the West, Edric the Wild who had been a thorn in the Norman side was enticed back to the side of light and truth, and pardoned by William. All over England, the pain of dealing with new masters and new traditions continued, day by day. The Murdrum fine enforced by William kind of sums up the pain going on. This fine ruled that if an unknown man was found dead the neighbouring villages were liable for a fine – unless they could provide he was English, not French. This is serious stuff – a pretty clear indication that the French are strangers in a hostile land.
In the mouth of the River Humber in the north of England, King Svein of Denmark had not been impressed with the performance of his war leader Osbern in the 1069 rebellion. Investment 240 ships full of men, result zip, rien, de nada. So he had taken over personal command in May 1070, and decided to hook up with one of the British folk heroes, Hereward the Wake. He had some fun. Together, Hereward and the Danish king robbed Peterborough Abbey. They then holed up in Ely, with Hereward claiming that he was just trying to save the treasure from the Normans. The Danes however, saw it differently. Svein had come to realise that taken England away was not the simple thing it seemed. So he loaded up his ships with the treasures of Peterborough and set sail for Denmark.
Meanwhile, the Earls Edwin and Morcar were beginning to learn to their cost that there was no way back for them. In 1066 they’d essentially decided that they’d play with William, that if they were nice to him he’d reward them. But William had no interest in that. He’d relied on the English bishops to help him rule, and stripped Edwin and Morcar of any real political power, keeping them close by him at court. By 1071, they’d had enough – they either went for a life of useless leisure, or try to regain their power by turfing out William. Now I know what I’d have done, but they chose differently. Edwin headed off for Scotland to try and stir up King Malcolm. Morcar headed off for the area that now looked most promising for revolution – which looked like Hereward and the Fens, which he reached in 1071. Edwin was not so lucky, since he was killed by his followers before he could reach Scotland. I’d love to know why, but that’s simply all we know.
Now when I was a lad, we did a lot on Hereward. We learnt all about the Fens and how back them they were a mass of impenetrable marshes. He learnt about Hereward as a hero who held out for ages with clever tricks, a sort of 11th Century Robin Hood.
Sadly, the truth is a bit more prosaic. It’s true that Hereward kept things going for about a year; but actually, Earl Morcar joining him in April 1071 was the beginning of the end. William took his army to Cambridge, built a causeway to give him access to Hereward’s island stronghold and that was that. Hereward fled into the Fens and into legend, while Morcar surrendered. He was sent to Normandy and imprisoned – this time for good.
The fall of the Earls pretty much completed the ruin of the English nobility; we’ve just got Waltheof to go really. William now turned his attention to the leaders of the English church. William at this stage was still playing ball with the papacy, who as you will remember had helped his claim to England. In the spring of 1070, he invited 3 Papal legates over to England to do his dirty work for him, and the result was an episcopal blood letting. 5 English bishops were dumped from their posts; Stigand was finally kicked out of his job as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and replaced by Lanfranc of Bec, the famous churchman we heard about a couple of weeks ago. Monasteries fared a little better, but still by the end of William’s reign only the minor Abbeys had an English Abbot.
So here’s another source of friction in the land that would have continued to rub the English nose in the English mire. Norman habits were brought over into the English church., For example, there’s a right old barney in the Abbey at Glastonbury when the new Norman Abbot tried to get rid of the monks traditional Gregorian chant, to the point of setting his soldiers on the English monks and killing two of them.
Lanfranc and William made a pair, determined to modernise the English church; it’s clear that William was genuinely committed to improving the running of the Church, and this made Lanfranc very willing to toe the royal line. Any of you who suffered me and my brother’s supplementary episode will know that William established the practice of separate Ecclesiastical courts for the first time. Church synods were pretty much the same as previously, but were run more often in the 1072-1086 period of reform. They were summoned by the King, and he usually attended. William was keen to reform the church, but every bit as keen to make sure that they recognised where their power came from – i.e. not God, William.
The changes Lanfranc and William tried to bring about were similar to those of Dunstan and Edgar way back when. The duties of Bishops were re-defined; the clergy were told to stop having sex and not get married – which they largely ignored. There were some changes in the monasteries – a tightening up of discipline, the down grading of uncouth English monks, revision of rules that sort of thing.
More directly visible was the physical environment. One seats of one third of all Bishops were moved from their old AS centre into new towns. The Archbishop of Canterbury is made the supreme church authority, set over York which had previously not been the case. At the same time, the AS buildings began to be swept away, to be replaced by those massive, stone impressive Norman cathedrals that I absolutely love but which at the time must have been as alien as the Darlec. One peculiar tradition that did survive was the English, Monastic cathedral. Kim mentioned these to me in a tweet a while ago, and I was interested to read that the Monastic cathedral is an almost entirely English phenomenon, with only 2 known outside England. Well there you go. Anyway, they tickled Lanfranc’s fancy. I doubt Lanfranc’s fancy was tickled very often to be honest, so this is of note.
All these changes were not on paper that radical, but the attitude to monasticism definitely changed. Leading AS Cleric had always had an undue proportion of monks, and monasticism a particular hold as a destination site for aging nobles and even kings. This was no longer the case in Norman England. The church after the Normans feels different than the AS church. The ASS church and state felt very intertwined; for example, the king would ask church leaders advice about appointments, whereas Norman kings are much more arbitrary. Norman kings emphasised their authority over the church, and the feudal duties owed them by the church leaders. In AS England, all law went through the Hundred court, and now there are two systems. It all meant more separation, and in the end it lead to more conflict between church and state, though not on the same level as in the Holy Roman Empire.
William was also keen to make doubly sure that the English church looked to him, not to the Pope. The Pope, meanwhile, in the form of the great reformer Hildebrand, or Gregory VII, was looking for something in return for his favours. The papacy had supported William in the hope that he would help them reduce the influence of the laity in the running of the church, implement the kind of reforms he was looking for – and even harboured a hope that William would acknowledge the Pope as his feudal overlord.
Yeah, right.
He really should have known better.
There is a quite delicious letter that has survived from William to the Pope in 1080. Gregory has sent his legate Hubert to whip William back into line, and to pay up for all those favours William owes him. William is having none of it. Here’s an abstract:
‘Your legate . . . has admonished me to do fealty to you . . . I have never desired to do fealty nor do I wish to now; for I promised to neither.’
It’s a simple straightforward naff off. Things continue to get frostier between William and the Papacy now that William’s got what he wants. And the Popes at this stage are embroiled in a major struggle with the Holy Roman Empire, and simply can’t afford to take on England as well. So this policy of independence is maintained for the rest of the Conqueror’s reign, and well into that of his son. Under William, then, the king and Archbishop worked in close partnership together – something that was not to survive to his son.
After William waved goodbye to the papal legates, he turned his attention to the trouble round the fringes of his empire. William faced trouble on his external borders as well as within the kingdom – he was basically surrounded by jealous competitors looking for a bit of his big new kingdom to fall into their laps. On the continent the French king, the Count of Flanders and the Count of Anjou were all looking to win back land they thought was theirs and to put the Norman upstart back in his place. The problems William faced all his life, charging all over the place putting out the forest fires were to be repeated for the next 150 years, until John finally let the side down.
In Flanders, to the north of Normandy, he’d married a sister to Count Baldwin, and that had meant that Flanders was on his side. But Baldwin died in 1070, and this set up a pretty major family quarrel. Baldwin’s son Arnulf was chucked out by his uncle, Robert le Frison. Arnulf was then supported by the French king, Philip I and a group of Norman knights, who invaded Flanders, but unfortunately rather unsuccessfully. The net result was regime change in Flanders, leaving a count in control hostile to Normandy. Robert le Frison married his daughter to Cnut II of Denmark – the Cnut who would harbour designs on the English throne. And he supported William’s son, Robert Curthose, when he rebelled against his father.
Meanwhile to the east you’ve got the King of France, Phillip I. Philip I, nicknamed the Amorous for his famous passion for Bertrade de Montfort, wife of Fulk of Anjou, reigned for 48 years. And for all of those years he’s doing everything he can to undermine William, and get whatever land he can back, or at very least establish exactly who’s boss. He’d not really got the grunt to take William on Mano a mano – this is the period when the lands of the French monarchy are at their smallest extent. But he joins enthusiastically with all of William’s enemies. In 1079 for example, he helps out the Bretons at Dol, inflicting on William one of his rare defeats. He also spent a deal of time encouraging men like Edgar Atheling and Robert Curthouse to rebel against their king.
And to the south you’ve got Maine and Anjou. Maine is a constant battlefield in the struggle between the Dukes of Normandy and the Counts of Anjou. In the 1050’s William had managed to establish a degree of control there but in 1068 a new count Fulk le Rechin took over in Anjou. The result was a series of revolts against the Normans that never allowed them to settle down.
So, you get the idea. A feudal empire, separated by the channel, with a patchwork of Kings and Counts struggling to be the boss. It all meant a busy life for your Feudal kings, William no less than anyone else. And in general, he was to find that as Norman power waxed in England, it waned in France, though not dramatically so for a while yet.
But in 1072 it was Scotland on William’s mind. King Malcolm had married Edgar the Atheling’s sister, and was always looking to raid into England, and maybe hang on to a bit here and there. Edgar the Atheling was there, a constant potential threat to England’s stability. Already, William’s latest choice of earl, Gospatrick, had shown himself incapable of defending the north of his own. When Malcolm had invaded the previous year, Gospatrick had let him raid to his heart’s content, while he took himself off to raid into Cumbria, then still not part of England. And of course, he’d joined the revolt in the north, and so was probably nearing the out tray.
Never one to avoid a challenge, William headed north with his army to do a bit of boil lancing. He advanced on two fronts, from the west and east and Malcolm retreated before him. But eventually Malcolm decided he had no choice but to talk. At Abernethy, Malcolm did homage to William. He agreed to be his best buddy for ever, and to show Edgar the door.
William was content that he’d cauterized that wound for a while. He shouldn’t have been. The history of Scottish-English relations is littered with broken promises on both sides, and in 1079 Malcolm would be back happily raiding again. Ho hum.
William meanwhile sacked Gospatrick, and replaced him with Waltheof. Although Waltheof had also been a bad boy in 1068, Wiliam figured that he was a reformed character. Afterall, he was now married to William’s niece, Judith, and he did have that ancestry from Siward of Northumbria – so hopefully he’d be up to the job.
Gospatrick and Edgar, meanwhile fled to Flanders now that the court at Scotland was no longer open to them. Gospatrick died in 1073 in poverty, but Edgar had a long and colourful, if rather ineffectual career ahead of him. For the moment he sat on another of William’s borders with Robert Count of Flanders, plotting his vengeance. In 1074, he headed off back to Scotland. At which point, Philip of France made him an interesting offer – he offered him a castle in the French part of the Vexin, so that he could sit there and raid into Normandy, and cause William trouble. At the risk of boring you, let me remind you that the Vexin is that area on the Seine east of Rouen, the strategic key to Normandy. It has a Norman bit, and a French bit. So Edgar set off, But he was immediately shipwrecked on the coast of England, and that spelt trouble, with many of his men being hunted down by the Normans.
Edgar slunk back to Scotland, where his brother in law Malcolm sat him down for a family chat. Look, Eddie, he said why not bury the hatchet with William?
And in fact that is what happened. Edgar and William agreed to patch it up – Edgar had to give up any claim to the throne, while William on his part would stop trying to hunt him down and butcher him. So for the next 10 years, Edgar presumably lives a relatively peaceful life. It’s an interesting reflection on the pattern that William follows – brutal repression combined with judicious deal making – we’ve see quite of lot of it.
William now had a right to expect a bit of a break. But 1075 saw the last real threat to is authority, the so called Revolt of the Earls. In a way, this revolt is a bridge between the old world – the English resistance to the rule of the conqueror – and the future, in the form of feudal rebellion. The rebellion would include both Norman and English lords.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that dissent was not easy in the feudal kingdom William had set up. Not that disagreeing with a king was ever a safe or wise thing to do, but William’s conquest made it now particularly perilous. His land settlement had ensured that all land, all authority, more than ever came from the King. It is true to say that to a degree the concept of consultation represented in AS England by the Witan, and afterwards by the Magnum Consillium lived on. But basically if a feudal vassal had a problem with the King, rebellion was his only recourse. Which is one of the reasons why we see so much noble revolt.
The last significant rebellion against William started at what was called a Bride’s Ale. Ale in those days meant party, not just a type of Beer, and it’s kind of somehow very appropriate to the English national characteristics that the word for party and alcohol should be the same. As an aside, I realise that the English reputation for drinking way too much and behaving very badly while under the influence is not a new thing. It’s been with us since AS times. And even since those days, we’ve had an international reputation for it. For example, it was noticed that the English on the Third Crusade gave priority to their drinking – and I quote a contemporary who said:
‘even in the very midst of the war trumpets, they kept up the old English custom and opened their mouths wide with proper devotion to drain their goblets to the dregs’.
I can’t remember where I saw it, but I also remember a complaint from a foreign visitor at the Tudor court, complaining about how much the English drank. So it’s a fine old tradition then.
I guess the excuse was, of course that alcohol formed such a large part of everyone’s diet since the water, especially in towns, could not be trusted. But someone somewhere worked out that Beer played an important part in providing the average person with a fair proportion of their calory intake, with something like an average intake of 300 litres a year per person. Which isn’t far south of a litre a day.
Anyway. Back to the Revolt of the Earls. In 1075 then, two powerful families were keen to join in alliance through marriage. The two lords were Roger Fitzosbern, Earl of Hereford and son of one of William’s companions at Hastings, William Fitzosbern. The other was Ralph de Gael, the Earl of East Anglia. Ralph is in fact as much part of the old world as the new – his family are Bretons, and part of Edward the Confessor’s nobility. Anyway, they wanted Roger’s daughter Emma to marry Ralph de Gael. They could not do so without their feudal lord’s permission- which William would not give. But William was in Normandy, and had been out of the country since 1073. So they went ahead anyway.
At the Brides Ale, i.e. the wedding reception, Ralph and Roger cooked up a rebellion. Partly, they feared William’s wrath on his return. But Roger of Hereford was also upset because the king’s sheriff had been holding court hearings on his lands. In Normandy, the nobility would not have had to submit to this exercise of royal power. And they’d rather not do so in England either.
Ralph and Roger had invited Waltheof to the Bride’s Ale, and caught him in his cups and off his guard – and persuaded him to join him.
After the Bride’s Ale was over, Waltheof had more to regret than a hangover. He’d suffered at the hands of William before, and got away with it. Now he had a nice life and an influential wife. His position as earl of Northumbria had allowed him to finish the his family’s blood feud, murdering the family of Thurbrand the hold. Now he was in danger of throwing it all away. Waltheof was a strong man and brave warrior, but weak willed. He panicked. He ran to Lanfranc and threw himself on his mercy. Lanfranc excommunicated the rebels, while Waltheof went over to Normandy and told William everything.
William was not impressed. He had no words of thanks for Waltheof, and threw him into jail. He recognised that Waltheof may be a brave warrior, but he was a weak, easily lead man. And he figured he could deal with the Northumbrians himself, and so didn’t need the Anglo Scandinavian old guard anymore.
Back in England, the revolt soon fell to pieces. The manner of its collapse was interesting. William’s leftenants, like Odo of Bayeux, put an army in the field and faced down Ralph, who fled to Britanny. In the west though, it was the English Bishop Wulfstan and Abbot Aethelwin who called out the Fyrd, joined with Walter de Lacy and stopped Roger from joining up with Ralph in the East. For good or ill, the English realised that they were better off supporting their Norman king than the anarchy of civil war.
William took Ralph’s lands and exiled him and his family. Ralph and his wife fled to Dol in Brittany where they continued the fight, with Philip of Frances’ help. Roger of Hereford was thrown into jail for the rest of the Conqueror’s life. Waltheof had it worst, despite his change of heart, William had had enough of unreliable English Earls. He dithered for a while, during which Waltheof apparently prayed continuously for God to forgive him. But in 1076, Waltheof, the last English Earl, was beheaded and his body thrown into a ditch. The body was subsequently recovered by the English, and buried at Crowland Abbey, where it supposedly performed miracles.
So that settled it, and remaining English were out, Normans only from now on. Over the next few years, the land settlement in England was completed. William never quite cracked his problem with the North. Waltheof was succeeded by a series of Earls who couldn’t cope with the job. Walcher, Bishop of Durham was first; he lasted until 1080, when the Northumbrians killed him. He was replaced by Aubry de Courcy, who hated it so much that in 1086 he resigned, losing all his English lands as a result of William’s irritation.
But on the Welsh Border, William was more successful. You’ll remember that last week when we talked about the way William parcelled England out to his followers, did so by giving them the lands of Thegns, whose landholdings were generally spread out over different parts of the country. The exception were the Marcher lords.
Basically William created some big, consolidated baronies all along the border with Wales. The idea was to create a kind of series of buffer states along the border, recognising that England and Wales were in a permanent state of low level war. In particular he created 3 great lordships; Chester, with Hugh d’Avranches, Shrewsbury, with Roger Montgomery family, and Herefordshire, with William Fitz Osbern. There were other lords with major landholdings, such as the de Briouze family in Brecon. These lords were seriously powerful. They possessed all the powers of the king, except over treason. They appointed their own Sheriffs. They could declare and wage war at will. Essentially, the royal writ did not run in the Marches, and their only tie was their feudal oath of loyalty to the King. They were their own mini kingdoms, and really very cool. The arrangement worked pretty well on the Welsh border – maybe partly because Wales itself was split into relatively small princedoms.
The Marcher lords could also create their own Forests, subject to the specific set of forest laws. A Forest had nothing to do with their being a lot of trees. It was an area subject to that favourite pastime of the red blooded medieval noble, hunting. The most famous was the New Forest, created by William with much pain to the local population, many of who he chucked off their land to make way for it; but there were many more – so Essex, for example, was entirely forest under Henry I.
Now your average AS Thegn loved hunting every bit as much as the Normans. But along with the Forest came the Forest Laws which were Norman, new, and took the hunting obsession to a new level. The law made special provision to protect what was called the ‘Vert’ – I.e. the vegetation, and the Venison, i.e. the animals themselves, specifically Deer, Hare, Wolf and Boar. They introduced strict penalties for messing with either. Under William, you could be blinded; his son Rufus thought that was a bit namby pamby, and upped it to include death and mutilation.
Pretty much everyone hated this Forest law. The nobility hated it, because it infringed their rights. The peasantry hated it because it made their lives more difficult, and their lives weren’t easy to begin with. The church hated it because of its inhumanity and because it disregarded their privileges too. But the Kings loved it. Over the next few hundred years, you can spot a weak king because he gets forced to make concessions over his forests – John, for example.
I think that’s enough about William for one week – we’ll finish him off next week. We’ll hear about his family troubles, poor lamb, we must of course talk about the super famous Domesday book, and hear how William met his end.

6 thoughts on “24 Revolt of the Earls

  1. Hello, David.
    I wanted to thank you for the engaging and well researched podcast, which has helped to erase much fatigue from my commute to and from work and has carried a train of colorful characters and stories into the rest of the day.
    A small aside (added with full appreciation of your humor and the utter irrelevance of this amendment) with regard to figurative language use: as a medic, I feel obliged to point out that boils are lanced, not cauterized, the latter being reserved for oozing vessels in surgery, or rambunctious medical students.

  2. Aaagh! Alex, how could I? Obviously this will mean a full public retraction, and a Jane Shore-like walk barefoot through the streets of London…
    Glad you are enjoying it, and I shall lance the boil of inaccuracy!

  3. Enjoyable and instructive account, but it wasn’t the sly Roger of Montgomery!

    It was Roger de Breteuil, 2nd Earl of Hereford. son of William fitz Osbern.

    1. So long ago Geoffrey! I’d have to go back to the beginning, so I am going to take your word for it and apologise for the error!

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