1066 is one of the most famous dates in British history: William the Conqueror’s 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’s successor Harold II on the battlefield. The Norman Conquest wasn’t complete with William’s 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.
After his coronation on Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror had his crown, but he didn’t 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’t 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.
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’s 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.