William the Conqueror and The Harrying of the North

William the Conqueror enters London with his troops

ilbusca / Getty Images

The Harrying of the North was a campaign of brutal violence carried out in the North of England by King William I of England, in an attempt to stamp his authority on the region. He had recently conquered the country, but the North had always had an independent streak, and he wasn't the first monarch to have to quell it. However, he was be famed as one of the most brutal. The questions remain: was it as brutal as legend has it, and do historic records reveal the truth?

The Problem of the North

In 1066, William the Conqueror seized the crown of England thanks to victory at the Battle of Hastings and a brief campaign that led to the submission of the country. He consolidated his hold in a series of campaigns that were effective in the south.

However, North England had always been a wilder, less centralized place—earls Morcar and Edwin, who fought in the 1066 campaigns on the Anglo-Saxon side, had one eye on northern autonomy. William’s initial attempts to establish his authority there, which included three journeys around with an army, castles built, and garrisons left, had been undone by Danish invasions and multiple rebellions from English earls to lower ranks.

Absolute Rule

William concluded that harsher measures were needed, and in 1069 he marched up again with an army. This time, he engaged in a protracted campaign to exert control over his lands which has come to be known euphemistically as the Harrying of the North.

In practice, this involved sending troops out to kill people, burn buildings and crops, smash tools, seize wealth, and devastate large areas. Refugees fled north and south from the killing and the resultant famine. More castles were built. The idea behind the slaughter was to show conclusively that William was in charge, and that no one would send aid to anyone thinking of rebellion.

To further cement his absolute rule, William stopped trying to integrate his followers into the existing Anglo-Saxon power structure around the same time. He decided on a full-scale replacement of the old ruling class with a new, loyal one, another act which would earn him infamy in the modern age.

Contested Damages

The level of destruction is heavily disputed. One chronicle states that there were no villages left between York and Durham, and it’s possible large areas were left uninhabited. The Domesday Book, created in the mid-1080s, may still show traces of the damage in the large areas of "waste" in the region.

However, competing modern theories argue that, given just three months during winter, William’s forces could not have caused the amount of carnage attributed to them. William might instead have been probing for known rebels in secluded places, with the result more like that of a surgeon's scalpel than a smashing broadsword.

Critique of the Conqueror

William was generally criticized for his methods of subjugating England, particularly by the Pope. The Harrying of the North might have been the campaign that such complaints chiefly concerned. It’s worth noting that William was a man capable of this cruelty who was also worried about his standing come judgment day. Worries about the afterlife led him to richly endow the church to make up for savage events like the Harrying. Ultimately, we will never conclusively confirm how much damage was caused.

Orderic Vitalis

Perhaps the most famous account of the Harrying comes from Orderic Vitalis, who began:

Nowhere else had William shown such cruelty. Shamefully he succumbed to this vice, for he made no effort to restrain his fury and punished the innocent and the guilty. In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be bought together and burned to aches with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance. In consequence so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless populace, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.
(Huscroft 144)

Historians agree that the death toll cited here is exaggerated. He went on to say:

My narrative has frequently had occasions to praise William, but for this act which condemned the innocent and guilty alike to die by slow starvation I cannot commend him. For when I think of helpless children, young men in their prime of life, and hoary grey beards perishing alike of hunger, I am so moved to pity that I would rather lament the griefs and sufferings of the wretched people than make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such infamy.
(Bates 128)

Resources and Further Reading