Harrying of the North
The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North was a series of campaigns waged by William the Conqueror in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate northern England, and is part of the Norman conquest of England. It effectively ended the quasi-independence of the region through large-scale destruction that resulted in the relative "pacification" of the local population and the replacement of local Anglo-Danish lords with Normans. A contemporary Anglo-Norman chronicler wrote that the death toll due to the Harrowing was over 100,000. Because of the scorched earth policy, much of the land was laid waste and depopulated, a fact to which the Domesday Book, written almost two decades later, readily attests.
At the time of the Norman Conquest the North consisted of what became Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland on the east and Lancashire with the southern parts of Cumberland and Westmorland on the west. The population of the north pre-conquest can be described as “Anglo-Scandinavian” carrying a cultural continuity from a mixing of Viking and Anglo-Saxon traditions. The dialect of English spoken in Yorkshire was likely unintelligible to people from the south of England, and the aristocracy was primarily Danish in origin. Further, communications between the north and south were difficult, partly due to the terrain but also because of the bad state of the roads. The more popular route between York and the south was by ship. In 962 Edgar the Peaceful had granted legal autonomy to the northern earls of the Danelaw in return for their loyalty; this had limited the powers of the Anglo-Saxon kings north of the Humber who succeeded him. The earldom of Northumbria stretched from the Tees to the Tweed.
After the defeat of the English army and death of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, English resistance to the conquest was centred on Edgar Ætheling, grandson of Edmund and half-brother of Edward the Confessor. It is said that the English conceded defeat, not at Hastings, but at Berkhamsted two months later when Edgar and his supporters submitted to William in December 1066. However, of all the men who submitted to William at Berkhamsted it was only Ealdred, Bishop of York, who would remain loyal to the Norman king. William faced a series of rebellions and border skirmishes in Dover, Exeter, Hereford, Nottingham, Durham, York and Peterborough.
Copsi, a supporter of Tostig (a previous Anglo-Saxon earl of Northumbria who had been banished by Edward the Confessor), was a native of Northumbria and his family had a history of being rulers of Bernicia, and at times Northumbria. Copsi had fought in Harald Hardrada's army with Tostig, against Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. He had managed to escape after Harald's defeat. When Copsi offered homage to William at Barking in 1067, William rewarded him by making him earl of Northumbria. After just five weeks as earl, Copsi was murdered by Osulf, son of Earl Eadulf III of Bernicia. When, in turn, the usurping Osulf was also killed, his cousin, Cospatrick, bought the earldom from William. He was not long in power before he joined Edgar Ætheling in rebellion against William in 1068.
With two earls murdered and one changing sides, William decided to intervene personally in Northumbria. He marched north and arrived in York during the summer of 1068. The opposition melted away, with some of them – including Edgar – taking refuge at the court of the Scottish king Malcolm III.
Back in Northumbria, William changed tack and appointed a Norman, Robert de Comines, as earl, rather than an Anglo-Saxon. Despite warnings from the bishop, Ethelwin, that a rebel army was mobilised against him, Robert rode into Durham with a party of men on 28 January 1069, where he and his men were surrounded and slaughtered. The rebels then turned their attention to York where they killed the guardian of the castle there plus a large number of his men. William's response was swift and brutal: he returned to York, where he fell on the besiegers, killing or putting them to flight.
Possibly emboldened by the fighting in the north, rebellions broke out in other parts of the country. William sent earls to deal with problems in Dorset, Shrewsbury and Devon while he dealt with rebels in the Midlands and Stafford.
Edgar Ætheling had sought assistance from the king of Denmark, Sweyn II, a nephew of King Canute. Sweyn assembled a fleet of ships under the command of his sons. The fleet sailed up the east coast of England raiding as they went. The Danes plus their English allies retook the city of York. Then, in the winter of 1069, William marched his army from Nottingham to York with the intention of engaging the rebel army. However, by the time William's army had reached York, the rebel army had fled, with Edgar returning to Scotland. As they had nowhere suitable on land to stay for the winter, the Danes decided to go back to their ships in the Humber estuary. After negotiation with William, it was agreed that, if he made payment to them, then they would go home to Denmark without a fight.
With the Danes having returned home, William's patience with the rebels seems to have run out. As they were not prepared to meet his army in pitched battle, he employed a strategy that would attack the rebel army's sources of support and their food supply.
William's strategy, implemented during the winter of 1069-1070 (he spent Christmas 1069 in York), was an act of genocide that became known as the Harrying of the North. From the Humber to the Tees, William's men burnt whole villages and slaughtered the inhabitants. Food stores and livestock were destroyed so that anyone surviving the initial massacre would succumb to starvation over the winter. The land was salted to destroy its productivity for decades to come. The survivors were reduced to cannibalism.
Contemporary biographers of William considered it to be his cruelest act and a stain upon his soul, but the deed was not mainstream knowledge before Whig history. The Harrying of the North is regarded as the worst act of genocide in the history of Britain. In his Ecclesiastical History, 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 hunger.I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.—Orderic Vitalis, 12th century.
Other 12th century chronicles by William of Malmesbujhxhetzry, Symeon of Durham and Florence of Worcester report the Harrying with an obvious feeling that it was not an acceptable act.
The wasting of the countryside must have continued for some time, as in 1086 the Domesday Book entries indicate wasteas est or hoc est vast (it is wasted) for estate after estate.
Oderic Vitalis was born in 1075 and would have been writing his Ecclesiastical History some 55 years after the event. It is possible that the figure of 100,000 was used in a rhetorical sense, as the estimated population for the whole of England, based on the 1086 Domesday returns was about 2.25 million; thus, a figure of 100,000 represented a large proportion of the entire population of the country at that time (~4.5%).
Having effectively subdued the population, William carried out a wholesale replacement of Anglo-Saxon leaders with Norman ones in the North.
The new aristocracy in England was predominately of Norman extraction; however, one exception was that of Alan Rufus, a trusted Breton lord, who obtained in 1069-1071 a substantial fiefdom in North Yorkshire, which the Domesday Book calls "the Hundred of the Land of Count Alan", later known as Richmondshire. Here Alan governed, as it were, his own principality: the only location held by the King in this whole area was Ainderby Steeple on its eastern edge, while Robert of Mortain held one village on its southern fringe; the other Norman lords were completely excluded, whereas Alan retained the surviving Anglo-Danish lords or their heirs. Alan also exercised patronage in York, where he founded St Mary's Abbey in 1088. By 1086 Alan was one of the richest and most powerful men in England.
In Scotland, Malcolm married the Ætheling's sister, Margaret, in 1071. Edgar sought Malcolm's assistance in his struggle against William. The marriage of Malcolm to Edgar's sister profoundly affected the history of both England and Scotland. The influence of Margaret and her sons brought about the Anglicisation of the Lowlands and also provided the Scottish king with an excuse for forays into England, which he could claim were to redress the wrongs against his brother-in-law.
The formal link between the royal house of Scotland and Wessex was an obvious threat to William, who marched up to Scotland in 1072 to confront the Scottish king. The two kings negotiated the Treaty of Abernethy (1072) through which Malcolm became William's vassal; amongst the other provisions was the expulsion of Edgar Ætheling from the Scottish court. Edgar finally submitted to William in 1074. William's hold on the crown was then theoretically uncontested.
In 1080 Walcher, the Bishop of Durham, was murdered by the local Northumbrians. In response, William sent his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux north with an army to harry the Northumbrian countryside. Odo destroyed much land north of the Tees, from York to Durham, and stole valuable items from Durham monastery. Many of the Northumbrian nobility were driven into exile.
As a result of the depopulation, Norman landowners sought settlers to work in the fields. Evidence suggests that such barons were willing to rent lands to any men not obviously disloyal. Unlike the Vikings in the centuries before, Normans did not settle wholesale in the shire, but only occupied the upper ranks of society. This allowed an Anglo-Scandinavian culture to survive beneath Norman rule. Evidence for continuity can be seen in the retention of many cultural traits:
Many personal names of a pre-conquest character appear in charters that date from the 11th century to the 13th century. The vigorous northern literary tradition in the Middle English period and its distinctive dialect also suggest the survival of an Anglo-Scandinavian population. The relative scarcity of Norman place-names implies that the new settlers came in only at the top rank. Domesday Book shows that at this level, however, Norman takeover in Yorkshire was virtually complete.
The Normans used the church as an agent of colonisation and post-1070 founded several monasteries in the north. There had been no monasteries north of Burton-on Trent before the Harrying. Of the monasteries built, Fountains Abbey became one of the largest and richest. Along with the foundation of the northern monasteries, the Normans increased the number of motte-and-bailey castles they built there.
From the Norman point of view, the Harrying of the North was a successful strategy, as large areas, including Cheshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire were devastated, and the Domesday book confirms this, although in those counties it was not as complete as in Yorkshire. The object of the Harrying was to prevent further revolts in Mercia and Northumbria; however, it did not prevent rebellions elsewhere.
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