1 – Harrying of the North, 1069-70
The Harrying of the North came in a proto-England, an England that bore little resemblance to that that we know today. There is, even in the modern era, a cultural divide between the north and the south of the country, but back in the 11st century, the two major regions were in essence two different realms. The south had recently been conquered by, well, William the Conqueror, who had gained himself the sobriquet at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when he defeated (and killed) Harold Godwinson, King of the Anglo-Saxons, on the south coast. The victory had been sweet for William, and not just because his previous name was William the Bastard, a reference to his disputed parentage.
Conqueror by name and nature, William set his sights on the whole island. England in 1066 was reeling from the death of Edward the Confessor, who left no successor. His brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson had previously defeated Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, twice in September 1066 and emerged as the most likely King, only for William to land from his ancestral homeland of Normandy, in modern day France, and stake his own claim. Though Harold had been vanquished and William crowned king, the new man on the throne still had plenty to do to exercise effective control, and that was mostly to take place in the north.
The north of England – roughly corresponding to the modern counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria and Cumbria – was vastly different to the south. They had a predominantly Scandinavian background, having been previously conquered by the Vikings, and their language was all but unintelligible to southerners. For a hundred years, they had enjoyed a different set of laws, administered from York and enjoyed considerable autonomy and many of the leaders in the north had kin back in Norway and Denmark who considered England to be their domains.
Almost as soon as William was crowned on Christmas Day 1066, rebellions began in the North. All but one of the nobles who had submitted to his army after the defeat of Harold reneged on their oaths, the most prominent of whom was Edgar Ætheling. He had been elected king by the Witengamot, the council of nobles, after the defeat of Harold, but submitted to William and was taken to Normandy. When he was released he resurfaced in the court of Malcolm I of Scotland, plotting a revolt. He got the Danes and the native Northumbrians onside and forced William to act.
The King did not mess around. He headed north and took control of York, killing anyone in his way. The Danish fleet that was supposed to leave to assist Edgar Ætheling never arrived and suddenly the pretender to the throne found himself with increasingly few options. William was in no mood for mercy. He intended strike fear into his new subjects and began laying waste to the whole region. Whole villages were wiped off the map and thousands killed, with many more again perishing due to cold and hunger over the winter of 1069. Historians today have debated whether William’s actions would have fallen under the modern day definition of genocide, such was the ferocity with which he harried the North. Orderic Vitalis, who lived just a generation after the events, wrote in his history of the Norman conquest:
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.
The brutal treatment meted out on the North of England would serve the purpose of pacifying the region and cementing the rule of William – but once he was gone, there would be hell to pay all over again…