William the Conqueror and The Harrying of the North

William I
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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; he was, however, to be famed as one of the most brutal. A question remains though: was it as brutal as legend has it, and can documents 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 which led to the public submission of the country. He consolidated his hold in a series of campaigns which 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 multiple rebellions—from English earls to lower ranks—and Danish invasions.

The Harrying of the North

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 euphemistically known now 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 there was no one else who could come and aid anyone thinking of rebelling.

It was around the same time that William stopped trying to integrate his followers into the existing Anglo-Saxon power structure, and decided on a full-scale replacement of the old ruling class with a new, loyal, one, another act which he would be infamous for in the modern age.

The level of damage is very heavily disputed. One chronicle states 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, there are modern, competing theories which argue that, given just three months during winter, William’s forces could not have caused as much carnage as they’re normally accused, and might instead have been probing for known rebels in secluded places, and the result was more a rapier thrust than a smashing of any and everyone.

William was criticized for his methods of controlling England, particularly by the Pope, and the Harrying of the North might have been the event these complaints were chiefly about. It’s worth noting that William was both a man capable of this cruelty, but also concerned about his judgment in the afterlife, which led him to richly endow the church because of events like the Harrying. Ultimately, we will never know how much damage was caused and how you read William was other events becomes important.

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, The Norman Conquest, p. 144.

The death toll cited 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, William the Conqueror, p. 128.