The Harrying of the North is the name given to a series of campaigns in Northern England, carried out under King William I, to assert his authority and quell any opportunity for rebellion. It resulted in possibly the most destructive massacre of people to take place in England, something described by some as genocide.
Despite military and political attempts to establish his authority following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, by 1069 William was still not master of the entire kingdom. His authority extended no further north than York.
The presence of the last Wessex claimant, the seventeen years old grandson of Edmund Ironside, Edgar Atheling, had encouraged Anglo-Danish rebellions. William paid the Danes to go home, but the remaining rebels refused to meet him in battle, and he decided to starve them out by laying waste to the northern shires, especially the city of York, before installing a Norman aristocracy throughout the region.
From a base in York, William implemented the Harrying of the North over a period of weeks in the winter of 1069 – 1070.
Contemporary chronicles vividly record the savagery of the campaign, the huge scale of the destruction and the widespread famine caused by looting, burning and slaughtering. Although some scholars believe that the chronicles may have exaggerated the scale of destruction and death, there is agreement that it was nevertheless a sustained and brutal repression of William’s subjects in the North.
William’s knights lay waste to Yorkshire and neighbouring shires. Entire villages were razed and their inhabitants killed, livestock slaughtered and stores of food destroyed, in a ‘scorched-earth’ strategy that was carried out during winter. Florence of Worcester said that from the Humber to the Tees, William’s men burnt whole villages and slaughtered the inhabitants. Food stores and livestock were destroyed so that anyone surviving the initial massacre would succumb to starvation over the winter.
One chronicler wrote that food was so scarce that people were reduced to eating not just horses, dogs and cats but also human flesh. Another wrote that as many as 100,000 people died as a result of famine. Whilst this figure is disputed, there is an acceptance that the death toll was somewhere in the tens of thousands, at a time when the total population of England was probably little more than two million.
The Harrying of the North stamped William’s authority on the whole country: the Norman Conquest was complete.
William had asserted his authority and suppressed any possibility of rebellion.
However, William had also destroyed the country: by the time the Domesday was compiled in 1086, one third of the available land in Yorkshire was still recorded as vasta (‘waste’).
The Normans used the church as an agent of colonisation and, post-1070, founded several monasteries in the north. Of these, Fountains Abbey became one of the largest and richest.
The Normans also increased the number of motte-and-bailey castles they built in the North.
William replaced all the Anglo-Saxon leaders with a new aristocracy in England that was predominately of Norman extraction. The one exception was Alan Rufus, a trusted Breton lord, who was granted a substantial fiefdom in North Yorkshire, later known as Richmondshire, from which by 1086 he had become one of the richest and most powerful men in England.
From the perspective of King William, the Harrying of the North achieved its aims.
Suggested Places to Visit:
Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire