Everyone in England knows the date 1066, for in that year England
changed forever. Most will connect 1066 with the Battle of Hastings
but Hastings was the culmination of a series of major events that
had taken place that year. When the saintly and childless King
Edward died the king's council, the Witan, gathered to elect a
new king. Finding no suitable member of the Royal Family, they decided to make Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, the new king. Of Danish Royal blood through his mother, he had in fact been
effectively running the kingdom for several years.
Harold faced a challenge to his new throne from the Norwegian
king Harald Hardrada, who claimed to be Christendom's best warrior.
Harald invaded the north of England with a fleet of 360 longships
manned by men from all over the Viking world. After defeating
the local army at Fulford, he took York. King Harold Godwinson
marched 200 miles in six days and caught the Viking army off guard
and killed Hardrada and most of his men. The English victory was
such, that only 24 longships were needed to get the Viking survivors
home. Whilst celebrating the victory feast news was given to King
Harold that another challenger had landed, Duke William the Bastard
of Normandy. Harold gathered the remnants of his army and rapidly
marched south to meet the new threat. Outside Hastings, blocking
the strategic roads to the main city of the realm, London, and
Winchester, where the treasury was, and with reinforcements still
arriving, the English army was defeated. King Harold died and
with him fell his household troops and the flower of the English
The impression of many people, especially those not of English
birth, and including a surprising number of history academics,
is that that was that. Having lost their king, most of the nobility
and the best fighting men, the English then stopped resisting
the Norman's and that the Conquest, as such, took effect immediately
King Harold died. Noting could be further from the truth. From
the rearguard action at the Battle of Hastings, know as the Fight
at the Fosse, where Norman casualties were higher than even those
of the main battle, o the final quenching of resistance some twenty
years later, the Normans knew little peace from their English
subjects. Indeed has it ever ended? Those who know the English
class system with its continous sniping would say that the struggle
against the 'Norman Yoke' continues to this day.
After Hastings William advanced on London by a circular route
that started via Kent, burning a ring of fire around the country's
main city. The advance was resisted and met much armed resistance.
Meanwhile the Witan had proclaimed the young Edgar Ætheling,
last scion of the old Wessex royal line, king. William moved fast
towards London to enforce his will before the remaining English
nobility were able to re-group around Edgar and start an organised
resistance to him. Such was William's uncertainty, and the problems
he was having with the local populace, that he was forced to take
a considerable detour to Wallingford, well west of London, before
he could find a safe and defensible place to cross the Thames.
Even then it was uncertain what the reaction of the Londoners
would be to his army. London, upon the advice of Aldred, Archbishop
of York, and Earl Morkar of Northumberland together with his brother
Edwin, submitted. Even so there was an armed skirmish which resulted
in the massacre of many Londoners.
William's coronation was on midwinter's day, and shortly after
he returned to Normandy taking the surviving English nobles with
The English resistance first showed itself, not in armed defiance,
but in stubbornness, when the monks at Peterborough not only elected
one of their own to replace the recently deceased abbot, but sought
out Edgar Ætheling, whom they declared was the true king,
to approve the appointment. William was not amused and sent armed
men to display his wroth. Fortunately William was always gold
hungry and allowed himself to be bought off with a hefty fine.
But the real trouble in 1067, was brewing in the hilly Marcherland
of the Welsh border, where two Norman Earls who belonged to families
settled in the area during the reign of King Edward the Confessor,
used the confusion caused by William's seizing of the throne,
to extend their land holdings at the expense of the local English
thanes, especially those lands held by Edric, soon to become known
as 'the Wild'. There was already bad blood between Edric and his
Norman neighbours and now it exploded into open warfare. In revenge
for raids on his land Edric, in alliance with two Welsh princes,
Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, devastated Herefordshire and eventually
sacked Hereford itself, before retreating back into the hills
ahead of the new king's revengeful army.
Meantime, King Harold's mother, Gytha encouraged the people of
Devon to rise up and William had major problems subduing them,
especially in retaking the city of Exeter. At the same time, the
other main claimant to the English throne, Edgar Ætheling,
had escaped the Norman king's clutches and gone to Scotland with
his family and a large number of important men. The south was
also restive and later in the year, the men of Dover invited Eustace
of Boulogne to help them in their insurrection. This uprising
was soon put down, and without the presence of King William himself.
The people of the north were also chafing under Norman rule. William
advanced upon them with his army, burning and laying waste as
he went, The men of Northumberland lacked the confidence to take
part in a battle and either submitted or fled into Scotland to
join the other refugees there.
In the autumn two of King Harold's sons, who had gone to the Norse
east coast of Ireland, came and raided the west country, where
the Celtic Cornishmen joined them in arms. They plundered and
ravished the countryside to such an extent that eventually even
the English lost patience and joined with local Norman garrisons
to expel them.
In the following year of 1068, King William appointed a certain
Robert de Comines, Earl of Northumberland, without asking the
locals if they would accept him instead of the English Earl Morkar.
The result was that the men of Northumberland massacred Robert
and 900 of his men whilst they were staying in the city of Durham.
Edgar Ætheling took advantage of this and came from Scotland
and received the men of Northumberland at York. William moved
up fast from the south and surprised the Northumbrians. Hundreds
were slain and the city torched.
1069 and Harold's sons were back, raiding the west country again.
Unfortunately for them they met defeat at the hands of Earl Brian
of Penthievre, and fled back to Ireland. At the same time Edric
the Wild and his Welsh allies had broken out again and took Shrewsbury
before moving on to Chester. William had to leave them to their
own devices as he had his hand's full dealing with an uprising
in Northumberland lead by Morkar and his brother Edwin supported
by the Danish king, Swein Esthrithson, who also had a claim to
the English throne. Fighting alongside them were the Earls Waltheof
and Gospatrick, together with Edgar Ætheling. The Normans
in York were slaughtered with Earl Waltheof's exploit of slaying
a hundred Frenchmen with his long-axe as they tried to escape
through a gate ending up in heroic verse. William moved north
again laying waste as he went. The Danes took to their ships and
commenced raiding the east coast, seeking assistance from their
relations in the Danelaw part of England, which included the marshy
wetlands of the Fens, where other trouble was brewing. William
left part of his army to watch them whilst he crossed the Pennine
hills to face the threat posed by Edric and the Welsh princes
who now had a formidable army bolstered by the men of Cheshire
and Staffordshire. William rode with his men and joined Earl Brian,
who had marched up from the west country after beating Harold's
sons. Edric became wary and withdrew to the hills with his Herefordshire
and Shropshire men. The Welsh, with the remaining English, marched
on and were defeated at the battle of Stafford. William then devastated
the land about and laid it waste. A further revolt in the west
country, that seemed to be aimed at individual Normans, fizzled
out in the face of forces drawn from London and the south east
and through internal dissent amongst the insurgents.
William now dealt with the Northumberland problem, a problem that
had grown with the stepping up of revolt in the Fens lead by a
local landholder, Hereward the Wake. After a hard march north
along a route determined by violent resistance, broken bridges
and swollen rivers, William took and re-entered York without a
fight. The Danes had fled and the men of Northumberland, dispirited
by William's ability to advance despite the hazards set before
him by both nature and English, fled into the hills, pursued by
King William's men. With grim determination, William's army set
about destroying homes and crops, and extinguishing all human
and animal life from the Humber to the Wash. Those that avoided
violent death, died from exposure or starvation.
The blood letting didn't stop William from celebrating Christmas
at York, complete with a feast served on silver plate especially
brought up from Winchester. Christmas over, William chased the
men of Tees around the Cleveland hills. William's harrowing of
the north had its effect on the leaders of the northern rebellion,
as Waltheof and Gospatrick both came to an accommodation with
him. The king made his way back to York in atrocious conditions,
seeking bands of Englishmen as he went, and suffering heavy losses
of men in the process. Here he re-erected the castles the Anglo-Norse
had burned down and re-garrisoned them. He was now able to turn
his attention to Chester, which was defiantly refusing to recognise
him. Chester was at the northern extremity of the Welsh Marches
and at the same time offered access to the Norse based in Ireland,
should they decide to help their relations living in Cumberland.
In January 1070, a Norman army set off across the Pennines in
bad weather through land that offered them no sustenance as they
themselves had laid it waste. William's army suffered badly in
the hills to both weather and English attacks. The men, who were
mainly mercenaries from the northern provinces of France, mutinied,
so he abandoned them to their fate. With a reduced force consisting
of only Normans, he arrived at Chester, and it submitted without
a fight. He then busied himself building castles to hold the north
down. He also spent money on buying the Danes, under their leader,
Jarl Osbjorn, off with a large Danegeld.
The revolt in the Fens, lead by Hereward, had been strengthened
by refugees from the harrowing of Northumberland, including Earl
Mokar. At the same time it had been weakened by Osbjorn taking
a bribe. However, whilst his brother, Jarl Osbjorn, and his fleet
had been bought off, King Swein of Denmark and his new fleet hadn't!
What happened during the years 1070 and 1071 is as much legend
as recorded fact. We know that William made at least two unsuccessful
attempts, either in person, or through a lieutenant, to take the
Isle of Ely where Hereward and his forces were based. We also
know that Hereward kept his Danish allies paid by allowing them
to sack Peterborough and its Cathedral, now controlled by a Norman
Bishop. What we do not know are the exact happenings, nor the
sequence of events. Eventually Swein, perhaps seeing himself in
a no win situation, allowed himself to be bought off. Later Ely
was taken by the Normans after local monks betrayed secret causeways
through the Fens that would allow an army access to the isle.
Although Ely fell in 1071, Hereward escaped and, with a band of
followers, remained a thorn in King William's side for many years
1072 and the trouble came from the Scots with their numbers swelled
by many English, including Edgar Ætheling. William took
an army across the border and confronted Malcolm King of Scots
at Abernethy. Malcolm accepted the inevitable and made peace.
By 1073, William felt that at last he had conquered England. Just
as well as his French subjects in Maine were revolting. The army
that William took with him to bring his French subjects to heel
was largely English. These Englishmen showed that they had watched
their Norman masters well, for they devastated Maine in the same
manner as the Normans had Cheshire and Northumberland. But, apart
from some banditry, England was quietly brooding both that year
and the following.
The storm broke in 1075 with the 'Revolt of the Earls'. The two
Earls were both half English and half French, and both had supported
William in his claim for the throne in 1066. Ralf, Earl of East
Anglia, was English on his father's side and had been born in
Norfolk, but grew up in Brittany. Roger, Earl of Hereford, English
on his mother's side and born in Hereford, was Ralf's brother-in-law.
They plotted to bring in Danish support, they also tried to bring
in both Edric the Wild and Earl Waltheof. Waltheof declined to
be involved in the plot, but also declined to betray them. If
successful, the simultaneous rising of the Earls would have cut
England in two. Somehow the timing got out of alignment and William
was able to crush Roger, before dealing to Ralf. The only memorable
event was the defence of Norwich by Ralf's new bride, Emma, where
she withstood siege for three months after her husband had left
to seek aid from the Danes. The fleet of 200 ships arrived too
late to lift the siege. Of the Earls: Ralf made it to his Breton
holdings to be joined by his wife, and there he continued his
fight against the Normans. His punishment was loosing all right
to his English lands. Earl Roger was also disinherited. Unfortunately
for him he had been captured and spent the rest of his life in
prison. Earl Waltheof, having refused to take part in the revolt,
had none-the-less to swear an oath of secrecy. Taking the advice
of Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, he revealed the whole
plan to King William. At first the king accepted Waltheof's protestations
of innocence but, some say on the information given to him by
his niece Judith, Waltheof's wife, he later charged the Earl of
Northampton with treason and had him beheaded. The English and
many Normans were aghast at the execution. Soon miracles were
reported at Waltheof's tomb and it rapidly became a place of pilgrimage.
Many contemporaries said that King William's luck changed from
then onwards as a result of Divine judgment.
William's troubles were now mostly in France or the borders with
Scotland whence Malcolm and his English supporters came to raid.
The Welsh too were a cause for concern. The only major problems
from the English came in 1080, when the men of Gateshead slew
the Bishop of Durham and a hundred Frenchmen, and 1086 when Edgar
Ætheling was again in revolt. But to the very end of his
reign, the following year, William was threatened by the Danes,
who knew that any landing they made on the East Anglian or Northumberland
coasts would find support from their relatives in the Danelaw.
Even during those later years, when it seemed that the English
were getting used to having Norman masters, things were not that
peaceful. Evidence of this is the Murdrum fine. Because of the
high rate of homicide being suffered by the Normans and their
French allies, King William legislated that all Frenchmen who
settled in England after the invasion were to be in the king's
peace and therefore he was their protector in an alien land. Its
introduction was recognised at the time as being necessary due
to the hatred of the Normans by the English and their attacks
on them. The fine was a high one of 46 Marks. The sum was to be
paid by the lord of the dead man to the Crown if the perpetrator
was not hastily caught. If the killer could not reimburse the
victim's lord, then the Hundred where the crime had been committed
In view of the strength and longevity of the English resistance
to the Norman Conquest, why did it fail? A vital element was King
William's determination and immense energy that saw him going
from one end of the country to the other fighting the flames of
resistance and stamping on the smouldering embers of resentment.
Another important element was that, once an area had been secured,
castles were raised and garrisoned to keep the locals in check.
But the key element was that the viable leadership of any English
resistance was effectively neutralised when King Harold was killed
at the Battle of Hastings. There was no king, and therefore no
leadership or heart in the remaining English. Until a new king
was elected, the defence of the realm devolved on the noble ealdormen
- who were either dead, or recovering from Stamford Bridge or
Fulford. Under the ealdormen came the king's thanes and shire-reeves
(people like Edric the Wild or Hereward the Wake, Harold's son
Swein or any one of a myriad other resistance leaders who remained
a problem to the Normans) who did continue the fight against William
in their own regions. Without decisive leadership, no English
army could take the field. That was advantageous to William, giving
him time to recover, take London and Winchester and force the
acknowledgement of his accession from the remaining members of
the Witan. But it did take until 1075 until William felt confident
in his control of England. Then it was the turn of Anglo-Norman
barons to rebel against him, claiming a wish to return to the
laws and rights of Englishmen during the rule of Edward the Confessor.
And always there was the threat of Viking invasion, supported
by the men of the Danelaw.
Slowly the English and Normans came together through the necessity
of living side by side and also through marriage. With many of
the rank and file Normans, and their French colleagues, being
men of small worth, they had little option, but to mix in with
their English neighbours, leaving their noble masters to carry
on the illusion of being truly French. But even they, with their
children being raised by English nannies and their English reeves
and stewards managing their estates, became first Anglo-Norman,
and then English. Yet even the Anglo-Norman chronicler, Orderic
Vitalis, who wrote in 1125, applauded the continued resistance
of the English to William the Bastard!
Written by Geoff Boxell, author of the novel "Woden's Wolf."
Orericus Vitalis, "Ecclesiastical Historii"
Geoffrey Gaimar, "Gesta Herwardi"
William of Malmesbury, "De Gestis Regum Anglorum"
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
"Woden's Wolf" covers the turbulent years from 1066 to 1100 and follows the story of Godfrew of Garrett in the county of Surrey as he struggles to come to grips with the English defeat at Hastings and the resultant Norman Conquest.