“In his anger at the English barons, William commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and foods should be burned to ashes, so that the whole of the North be stripped of all means of survival. So terrible a famine fell upon the people, that more than 100,000 young and old starved to death. My writings have often praised William, but for this act I can only condemn him.” Orderic Vitalis
Although it only took William of Normandy and his army one day to defeat the English at the Battle of Hastings, it took far longer to secure his position as King of England. Sporadic rebellions and threats of foreign invasion were hallmarks of the early years of William’s reign and prompted his greatest act of cruelty, known as the Harrying of the North.
The Rebellious English
The Anglo-Saxon brother and earls, Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, are notorious figures of medieval history. They had unsuccessfully defended the north of England at the Battle of Fulford Gate in September 1066, narrowly escaping death in the ensuing slaughter. In the aftermath Morcar was replaced as the earl of Northumbria which is probably why neither earls fought at Stamford Bridge or at Hastings. In early 1067, shortly after William’s coronation, Edwin and Morcar swore loyalty to their new king but they did not keep their promise for long…
In 1069, possibly because of William’s fiscal demands, or Morcar’s loss of claim to Northumbria, the earls were in rebellion. They joined forces with a Danish fleet and with England’s other claimant to the throne, Edgar the Aetheling. Together, the rebels took York, sacked the city and attacked the Normans who had recently settled there.
William Strikes Back
The Harrying may have had the desired effect but there is evidence to suggest that William may have deeply regretted the severity of his actions. According to Orderic, William bared all on his deathbed:
“I persecuted the native inhabitants of England beyond all reason. Whether nobles or commons, I cruelly oppressed them; many I unjustly disinherited; innumerable multitudes, especially in the county of York, perished through me by famine and sword…I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have shed.”