The Fate of the English: Conquest to Colonisation, 1066–84

In the spring of 1068, William received troubling tidings. Edwin and Morcar, the only English earls to have survived the Conquest unscathed, had raised the flag of rebellion in the West Midlands and in the North. The local population flocked to their cause and they were soon joined by the rulers of Gwynedd (in northern Wales) and Scotland. There were also rumours of a Danish invasion. All of William’s enemies were converging, and even Edgar the Ætheling may have briefly joined their ranks.

William responded with his typical steely determinism, marching straight to Warwick as soon as he got wind of the insurrection. His speed caught the rebels unprepared, preventing them from linking up with their Welsh allies. Having won a first victory, William proceeded to build a castle – a gesture as symbolic as it was strategic. The tide was already beginning to turn. By this point – if not before – Edgar the Ætheling had gone into exile at the court of Malcolm III in Scotland. Outmanoeuvred, the earls Edwin and Morcar now sought terms. As in 1066, they submitted to the king in return for pardon. William himself headed north, securing further rebel lands and building castles at Nottingham and York. On his way back south, he did the same at Lincoln, Cambridge and Huntingdon. Slowly but surely, the castle was becoming the symbol of Norman lordship – and the key to controlling the new colony. For castles could be held by a handful of trained men, enabling the small Norman elite to dominate a much larger English population with relative ease.

The Conqueror had seen off the threat, but only just. Had he waited any longer; had Edwin and Morcar met up with their Welsh allies; had the Danish fleet arrived sooner, the result might have been very different. William’s conquest still hung by a thread. As he was discovering, land won by the sword can just as easily be lost by it.

That William’s regime was far from secure in these early years is revealed by the handling of Edgar and the other leading English magnates. These men had submitted at Berkhamsted in December 1066. The following spring, William took them with him en masse, when he returned to Normandy. The fear was that the English would not stick by William’s side with a throne-worthy candidate on the loose – fears that soon proved well founded. The real surprise, in fact, is not that William kept Edgar, Edwin and Morcar under lock and key, but that he let them live at all. When Cnut had conquered England, he swiftly despatched the remaining son of Æthelred who’d tarried there (Eadwig the Ætheling); he did likewise with a number of leading English magnates. The Norman duke now took a very different tack.

That William did so reflects developing ideas about chivalry in mainland Europe. In pre-Conquest England – as in much of early medieval Europe – it was the norm to slaughter or enslave rebels and opponents captured in battle. By the mid-eleventh century, however, conventions had begun to change on the continent. Noblemen there now preferred to spare and ransom each other in battle (though such courtesies were not extended to non-aristocratic combatants).1 From this perspective, it would have been deeply dishonourable for William to kill Edgar in cold blood. It also wouldn’t have done much to help his cause. William may have promised his men riches in England, but he had to work with the local powers, at least initially. The nature of William’s claims further militated against executing Edgar. Unlike Cnut, William had cast himself as the rightful heir to his English predecessor, Edward; to execute Edgar risked acknowledging that the emperor had no clothes. Contemporaries were well aware that William was breaking with tradition, and his panegyrist William of Poitiers underlines William’s contrasting this clemency with Cnut’s brutality.2

If William, initially, succeeded in neutralising Edgar’s threat, he was not able to stifle opposition closer to home. Shortly after his departure, Eustace of Boulogne seized the opportunity to strike at Dover on the Kentish coast. Eustace was not Norman and had enjoyed mixed relations with William to date. He’d played a major part in the Hastings campaign, earning praise from Guy of Amiens in this connection; and it may be that he was disappointed by the rewards on offer. It’s also conceivable that Eustace was eyeing up his own prospects of acquiring the throne. (As the second husband of Godgifu, the Confessor’s sister, he held at least as strong a dynastic claim as the Conqueror.) But whatever the grounds, Eustace’s venture failed thanks to the stiff opposition offered by Odo of Bayeux (the new earl of Kent), and he was stripped of his rights in England. By 1071, however, he was back fighting at William’s side, and he was one of the wealthiest magnates in England come the Domesday Survey.3

A greater threat soon emerged among the English. Towards the end of 1067, a rebellion began to foment in the West Country. Harold’s mother Gytha was a wealthy landholder in Exeter, the most important town south and west of Winchester. In William’s absence, she and her associates began advocating the succession of Harold’s sons, who’d gone into exile in Ireland, just a short boat ride away from the north Devon coast. This was a threat William couldn’t ignore. The moment he got wind of the growing insurrection, he took to the campaign trail, risking a Channel crossing and military operations in the heart of winter.

William was already back in England in early December and soon moved against Exeter. Gytha was, however, able to escape as the siege commenced. William now sought to cow the city into submission, ravaging the surrounding countryside and blinding an English hostage within sight of the walls. But Exeter was a hard nut to crack and the siege dragged on for another three weeks. When the town finally submitted, it did so conditionally.4 The people of Exeter agreed to swear loyalty to William on the agreement that taxes and dues would remain at pre-Conquest levels. That the townsfolk were able to dictate terms reveals how precarious William’s position still was. With Gytha on the loose and the return of Harold’s sons on the cards, William could ill afford to offend the main city (and key fortress) of the south west. This rapprochement between ruler and town found expression in a charter of the following year for the bishopric of Exeter. At a glance, this looks almost identical to one of the Confessor’s diplomas, as indeed was the intention; here William is every inch Edward’s heir. Yet beneath such apparent continuity lie important differences: the royal entourage is now largely Norman, with Odo appearing above any of the native English bishops in the witness list and Robert of Mortain attesting first among the earls. As in Domesday Book, this is change dressed up as stasis.5

William may have given ground, but this was an important strategic victory. He’d secured the support of Exeter; and from here, he might hope to extend control over the rest of the south west. To speed up the process, he began work on a castle within the old town walls. Thereafter, William marched into Cornwall – a demonstrative show of strength in a region unaccustomed to royal visits – before returning to Winchester to celebrate Easter. Then William proceeded to London for Pentecost (Whitsun), where his wife Matilda was formally crowned queen.

The threat to his rule, however, had not passed. The summer months saw an attempted landing by Harold’s sons, who travelled up the Severn Estuary to Bristol. After being repulsed by the townsfolk there, they proceeded to harry the north Somerset coast before being decisively defeated by Eadnoth the Staller, one of a small but significant number of English aristocrats who’d thrown in their lot with the new regime.6

Still, the new Norman overlords could do little to paper over the reality of conquest. And trouble was also brewing in the Midlands and North where, as we’ve seen, Edwin and Morcar soon found a warm reception. The problem for William was that he couldn’t keep Edgar the Ætheling and the leading English magnates under lock and key forever. Yet almost as soon as they were left to their own devices, they began fomenting discord. The ringleaders were the brothers Edwin and Morcar. Neither had taken kindly to the enforced Norman jolly of the previous year. More immediate grounds for grievance were the appointment of a host of new Norman earls and sheriffs within their old domains. Edwin and Morcar remained earls in name, but their wings had been decisively clipped.7

Once Edwin and Morcar committed to resisting their new lords, rebellion spread fast. They were able to tap into existing grievances, for the West Midlands magnate Eadric the Wild had raised a smaller rebellion in 1067. Both Eadric and the Welsh ruler of Gwynedd, Bleddyn ap Cynfn (Eadric’s old ally), now joined the cause; and soon the entire West Midlands and the North were up in arms. This rebellion was much larger than those of Eadric or the Godwins and posed a direct threat to William’s regime, not least since it secured the support of the Scottish king, Malcolm III, at whose court Edgar sought refuge at some point in the year (sadly we do not know whether before or after the rebellion).8 But alive to the danger, William was able to nip the rebellion in the bud by his forced march to Warwick.

Once more, decisive action had steadied the ship. But if the situation looked stable – and William and Matilda felt secure enough to return to Normandy in the autumn of 1068 – such illusions were soon dashed. Late in the year William sent the Fleming Robert de Comines north to replace Gospatric as earl of Northumbria. Gospatric had been part of the previous year’s rebellion and was now in exile at the Scottish court with Edgar. Yet what was supposed to mark the end of the rebellion prompted its renewal. For soon after his arrival, Robert was killed at Durham on 31 January. What ensued was effectively a repeat of the previous year’s rising. A bad situation was made worse by revolt against William’s authority in Maine. William sensibly decided to focus his energies on the greater prize (and greater threat) in England. Again he moved fast, arriving at York in February, where the local Norman commander had holed himself up in the castle built the previous summer. Catching the besiegers unawares, William inflicted a major defeat on the rebels, before proceeding to sack the city, reportedly desecrating the cathedral in the process. The contrast with Exeter’s merciful treatment a year earlier is striking. William was losing patience with the English.

The Conqueror may have quashed the northern rebellion. But the political situation remained volatile. This probably explains Matilda’s return to the relative calm of Normandy at Easter, while William settled down to ride out a summer of revolt. For the second year running, Harold’s sons now returned. They sailed up the Bristol Channel, this time landing in northern Devon, before being defeated by William’s men, probably near Northam. There were also disturbances on the Welsh frontier, as English rebels in the West Midlands once more called on support from across the frontier.9 William’s regime was looking decidedly shaky, and many were keen to reap the rewards of toppling it.

The situation was further complicated over the summer by the arrival of a large Danish fleet. The English rebels had been appealing to the Danish king, Svein, for support for some time. As a descendent of Cnut, Svein had his own claims to the English throne. Now the Danish threat finally materialised, and a large fleet commanded by Svein’s brother Osbjorn and two (or possibly three) of his sons sought out English shores. They initially struck at Dover, Sandwich, Ipswich and Norwich, before sailing north. Here they joined up with the rebels of previous years, and the united force marched on York, where the garrison offered battle but suffered a resounding defeat.

As previously, William responded decisively, marching north. Faced with the Conqueror’s full force, the invaders decided that discretion was the better part of valour and retreated from the city of York. This was the third northern rebellion in quick succession, and William was now determined to stamp his authority on the region. He again let his men ravage York, doing even greater harm than earlier in the year (the Domesday Survey reports that two-thirds of housing there was still uninhabitable). For Christmas – the anniversary of his triumphant consecration at Westminster three years previously – William called for his crown, which we can imagine him wearing triumphally in the wreckage of the city. This was a show of brute force.

It was over these winter months that William undertook his most infamous act: the Harrying of the North. This was partly an effort to hunt down his enemies in the aftermath of the rebellion. But it was also a symbolic show of strength. William’s men systematically devastated the surrounding countryside, seeking to inflict maximum damage. Even the king’s sympathisers were appalled by the resulting destruction. William of Malmesbury, writing half a century later, reports that in many regions the soil remained barren.10 As this statement suggests, what mattered besides the loss of life and livestock (and this was considerable) was the damage to the region’s ecology. Far more died of famine than ever had at the swords of the Norman knights. This was the politics of terror, a concerted effort to crush the will to resist.11 This was also a strategic move. Medieval armies marched on their bellies, and William was ensuring that the rebels would find no sustenance in the North. In political terms, the Harrying had the desired effect. Most of the rebels submitted early in the New Year, and the North would not rebel again. In human terms, it was a catastrophe from which the region was still recovering decades later.

Despite the submission of the English, the Danish fleet remained intact into the New Year. William had initially bought them off in December, when his main energies were focused on the English rebels. This only secured a temporary reprieve, however, and Svein soon sailed over from Denmark to join the fleet. Yet without local support, the Danish king’s prospects were now poor. He sought to link up with the remaining rebel elements, who’d begun to coalesce around the Fenlands. It was here that Hereward the Wake, the inspiration for many later legends, had been agitating against the abbey of Peterborough. The previous year, William had removed Abbot Brand from his post – an act of revenge for the latter’s appointment by Edgar the Ætheling. Brand was now to be replaced with a Norman, Turold of Fécamp. Not all were pleased by this move, however, and in response Hereward and his men proceeded to sack the abbey before the arrival of the new abbot.

It was to join up with these rebels that Svein now sent Osbjorn south to Ely, which soon became the main rebel base. But Hereward and his small band of outlaws could hardly provide an adequate camp from which the Danes could operate. When William later offered Svein terms (which may well have included money), he was only too happy to accept. Such was William’s confidence, that he now returned to Normandy for Christmas. After almost two years in England – William’s longest stay in the region – he was ready to come home.

Yet rebellion continued to rumble on at Ely. Thanks to its easily defensible location – at this time, still an island in the fens – it proved a thorn in the side of the Normans. And it soon became a lightning rod for further resistance. In the winter of 1070/1, Edwin and Morcar carried out what was to be a final rebellion. When this failed to gain traction, they fled – Edwin north to Scotland and Morcar east to join Hereward’s forces in Ely. En route, Edwin was betrayed by three of his men and killed; Morcar, however, successfully joined the Fenland rebels. He was not the only one to do so. Æthelwine, the bishop of Durham, who’d been implicated in the previous northern revolts, now made his way south from exile at the Scottish court. What had started as a regional revolt was threatening to become something much larger. William therefore returned to England in 1071 and led a successful attack on the Isle of Ely. Æthelwine and Morcar submitted and would live out the rest of their days in confinement. Not all the rebels fared so well. Some – the commoners, one suspects – had their hands cut off and eyes gouged out. As in York, William was making a statement.

William emerged from these conflicts with his power considerably enhanced. There was no way of knowing that the revolt in the Fenlands would be the last. But the direction of travel was now clear. None of the later risings had managed to match that of 1068 in scale; and with Svein out of the picture, there was little immediate threat to William. His later years would not be entirely free from troubles – one of the few remaining English earls, Waltheof, plotted rebellion in 1075, and Odo was apparently guilty of undermining William’s rule in 1082 – but never again would the Conqueror’s control of England itself be challenged. The crown the Norman duke had won, against the odds, in 1066 would remain his. But if William’s regime survived largely unscathed, this is not to say that he remained unfazed by these events. There is a palpable anger and frustration to William’s actions in 1069 and 1070 out of keeping with the cool-headed reason of earlier years, an anger and frustration which explain other developments at this juncture.

For it is in these years that we start to see sustained efforts to replace the English ruling elite. To an extent, this represents the natural course of the Conquest. William could not have hoped to reallocate all the lands of the rebel English in the three months between his consecration on Christmas Day 1066 and his departure to Normandy the following March. That further confiscations loomed was clear. Nevertheless, the comprehensive nature of Norman settlement owes much to William’s experiences in the years 1067 to 1070. By 1070, every English earl had turned coat; and many less prominent figures had done so, too. It’s not difficult to see why William now sought to replace such men with Normans and Flemings. In doing so, he killed two birds with one stone, rewarding those who’d been loyal and punishing those who continued to threaten his regime. It’s only upon William’s first return in late 1067, that we start to see Normans replacing Englishmen in the middle to lower ranks of the royal office holders, a process that intensified over the coming years.12 One of the central justifications for the Conquest had been the dissolute ways of the English; it was all too easy to make the case for a clean slate now.

English resistance and Norman settlement thus went hand in hand. The more the native aristocracy rebelled, the more determined William became to extirpate it. The result was the most complete replacement of a ruling elite in British history. The results can be seen in the Domesday Survey. By 1086, less than 8 per cent of land (at most) was in native hands – a staggering transformation. This was, however, not simply a matter of replacing like with like: the very nature and distribution of landholding was changed in the process.13 The fiction was born that all land was held of the king. It was the conquering William who now distributed lands and offices to his men (or, more rarely, confirmed them in the hands of the English). Henceforth, he was to be the lord of all. Similarly new were the forms of military service demanded. Though the obligation to serve in the king’s army had a long history in England, now this was recast to meet the Norman need for heavy cavalry (in what is known as knight service). Royal landholding itself was left considerably enhanced. For while William rewarded his men generously, he ensured that none could rival him. Indeed, more wealth was now concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite, but its numbers had grown, so on average Norman earls held slightly less than their English forebears. There would be no more supermagnates like Godwin and Harold. In general, the rich had got richer and the poor – and moderately wealthy – poorer. For the English, who were now relegated to the latter two groups, this was very bad news indeed.

If the rhetorical framing of the Domesday Survey asserts continuity, its contents thus reveal the harsh reality of conquest and colonisation. In practice, this was achieved by brute force, as must have been clear across the countryside. For every Norman magnate or prelate who claimed that William was the Confessor’s true heir (and Harold an oath-breaking rebel), there were many more who simply believed that they had won their lands by right of conquest. This was certainly the view of the Warennes, one of the many Norman families now catapulted into the circles of Europe’s ruling elite. When, in the late thirteenth century, John de Warenne was asked for the basis of his landed claims, he famously produced a rusty old sword, exclaiming: ‘Look, my lords, here is my warrant. For my ancestors came over with William the Bastard and conquered their lands with the sword; and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them!’14 John’s message was simple – to the victor the spoils. So, ultimately, was William’s. If he had played Edward’s heir at Westminster at Christmas 1066 – appearing more English than the English – three years later at York he cut a very different picture. Surrounded by wanton destruction, he called for his crown, so that he could wear it in proud defiance in the wreckage of the Anglo-Saxon city. Few images better sum up the nature of the Conquest. With York Minster nothing but a smouldering ruin, the rest of the English Church now awaited its fate with bated breath.

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