Thu 3 Mar 2011
John, one of the two main characters of Eagle, is an Englishman. To be more precise, he is a Yorkshireman from the West Riding town of Tatewic (now known as Todwick). He was born in 1132, sixty-six years after Battle of Hastings and the crowning of William as king of England, yet the Conquest cast its long shadow over his life. John is a fictional character, but his personal and family history reflect the all too real experience of northern England after the Norman Conquest.
The typical story of the Conquest focus on two figures: Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, as he is known in France). It is a familiar tale to anyone with even a passing interest in English history. The Anglo-Saxon Harold was crowned king of England on January 6, 1066, but his reign would be short. In September of 1066, he headed north to fend off an invasion led by King Harold Hardrada of Norway. The invading fleet, some 300 ships strong, sailed into the Humber in early September and disembarked unopposed. The Scandinavian army conquered York, but was then routed by King Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25. Harold had little time to celebrate, for William, Duke of Normandy, had invaded southern England. Harold hurried south and met William’s army near Hastings on October 14, 1066. William’s victory was total. Harold was killed, and William was crowned king of England on Christmas day, 1066.
This is the textbook story of the Conquest. It is true, but it underplays or simply ignores two important facts: the lack of unity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that William conquered and the length of time it took to consolidate Norman rule. England was not a unified nation-state in 1066. In particular, the North was a region apart, with a unique dialect incomprehensible to men from the south, patterns of landholding that more closely reflected Welsh or Scottish practice than the manorial system of southern England, and strong separatist tendencies. The North encompassed the present counties of Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland in the east, along with Lancashire and the southern parts of Cumberland and Westmoreland in the west. It was geographically isolated form the rest of England, cut off from the South by the Humber in the east, the swamps along the lower Ouse River, the Pennine Mountains, and the peat bogs along the Mersey River in the west. The few roads north were very bad. The resulting isolation is reflected in the Domesday Book – the great Norman land survey of 1086 – which stops at the Tees River, south of Northumbria.
This is the region that the fictional John, the hero of Eagle, is from. The North did not share the South’s manorial system, in which bonded peasants worked on manors. Instead, land was organized into shires and sokes, where groups of free peasants held land in return for relatively light communal labor and renders of grain and livestock. Taxes were low compared with the rest of England – the result of the political compromise through which the kings of Wessex persuaded the North to submit to southern rule. Politically, the North was fiercely independent, even separatist. Northumbria had been its own kingdom until being conquered by the Danes in the ninth century, after which the Danes divided it, ruling Yorkshire and Northumbria as separate kingdoms. It was not until 954 that the king of Wessex integrated the North into Anglo-Saxon England, and even after that date, governance of the North was left to local men and the king’s authority was weak. The men of York welcomed the invading Danish under Cnut, who ruled as king of England until 1035. The Anglo-Saxon kings returned to power in 1042, and in 1065, the North revolted, driving out Tostig, the West Saxon earl who had been imposed upon them by King Edward. Edward was forced to negotiate with the rebellious north, allowing them to install an earl of their own choosing and to abolish the additional taxes imposed by Tostig. In 1066, William may have been crowned king of all England, but his power was tenuous at best in the North, as events would prove. The men of Northumbria and Yorkshire distrusted men from the South and were jealous of their autonomy and privileges.
In 1067, the North revolted again, cutting off the head of William’s appointed earl, Copsig. Undaunted, William installed a new earl and raised taxes. Again, the North revolted, and this time William’s appointed earl joined the rebellion. William rode north with an army, and the rebellious northerners disappeared into the woods. William built a castle in York and in December of 1068, appointed a Norman, Robert de Comines, as earl of Northumbria. Robert went north, killing and plundering along the way, but when he arrived at Durham, he and his men were surprised and slaughtered by the townspeople. The northerners raised an army and marched on York. They were besieging the castle when William arrived and routed them. The rebel army was defeated again shortly after Easter, but they regrouped, biding their time until King Swein of Denmark arrived with a fleet of 240 ships in the fall of 1069. The northerners joined Swein and marched on York, where they massacred the Norman garrison. Again, however, their success was short-lived. William marched north, forcing the Danes to retreat to their ships and make peace. He then turned his wrath upon Yorkshire, determined to assure that the North would never again rebel against him. The devastation he inflicted is what has become known as the Harrowing (or Harrying) of the North.
William’s army marched up and down Yorkshire, hunting down rebels in the hills and killing any peasants they found. Those who escaped the sword fared no better. William’s soldiers burned villages and the grain from the previous harvest. They destroyed plows and slaughtered livestock. They left the people of Yorkshire with nothing. As the monk Orderic Vitalis (1075-1142) wrote of the Harrowing: “The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land… To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of hunger.” While this figure may be exaggerated, there is no overestimating the suffering that William caused. To survive, peasants sold themselves into slavery or joined bands of outlaws, plundering the few villages that had escaped William’s troops. Bodies littered the roads, and wolves came down from the hills to feast upon the dead. Sixteen years later, when the Domesday Book was written, the countryside of Yorkshire was still studded with empty villages. Those peasants who had survived did so at a cost. Formerly free peasants, they were now villeins, tied to the land they worked. They owed more labor and higher rents to their lords. At the same time, most of the native nobility was killed and replaced by Norman lords. Those who survived became subtenants, an underclass looked down upon by their Norman conquerors. In 1080, the nobles of Northumbria suffered the same fate. After a brief rebellion, Northumbria was ravaged by William’s brother Odo.
In the wake of such horrific suffering, reconciliation between the Normans and the people of the North would be a long time coming. The Harrowing and subsequent social dislocation of peasants and thanes alike left a bitter legacy. It had achieved its purpose – eliminating any potential for rebellion – but it left the North a lawless land, roamed by outlaws and wolves, prey to invasions from Scotland, and only loosely controlled by the Norman kings. It was not until the reign of Henry I that Norman rule of the North began to be consolidated. In 1100, he married Maud of Scotland. This marriage has been seen as a sign of rapprochement between the Anglo-Saxons and Normans, because Maud was the sister of Edgar the Atheling, the last male member of the royal house of Wessex. However, Maud was also the daughter of the King of Scotland, and it was this relationship that was more important to Henry. His marriage to Maud inaugurated a long period of peace with Scotland, giving Henry a chance to consolidate his rule in the North. Between 1100 and 1135, he installed Normans loyal to him as barons throughout Yorkshire and Northumbria. These men occupied castles and forts, and gradually brought law and order to the North.
Although the nobles that Henry installed were sometimes given vacant lands, they also replaced local nobles – both the Normans installed by William and the few Saxons who had held onto their lands. Sometimes lands were seized. Other times, inheritance was diverted so that lands passed to Henry’s men. A few Saxons took advantage of this situation, sometimes betraying neighbors in order to ingratiate themselves to Henry and the new Norman elite. This process accelerated during the anarchy that reigned during the rule of Henry’s successor, King Stephen. For most of Stephen’s reign (1135-1154), England was riven by civil war between his adherents and those of another claimant to the throne, Henry’s daughter and heir, Empress Matilda. Royal authority over Yorkshire faded. In 1138, King Stephen appointed William le Gros as Earl of Yorkshire and effectively ceded all control of the shire to him. William was more interested in expanding his own lands than protecting law and order. He set about adding to his holdings through strategic marriages, diverted inheritances, and outright war with competing nobles. Lesser nobles followed his lead. William’s authority was particularly weak in the West Riding, where alliances, treachery, and warfare between nobles large and small were common during The Anarchy. Subtenants, such as John’s brother in Eagle, took advantage of the chaos to expand their holdings, often at the expense of their neighbors.
This is the situation that provides the background to John’s story in Eagle. The North was slower than many other parts of England to adjust to Norman rule. Memories of the Harrowing persisted. The peasants of the North were still resentful of their lowered status, increased taxes, and foreign, French-speaking lords. The Saxon nobles that remained were reduced to subtenants, many of them eager to find a way regain what they had lost. The Anarchy gave some of them an opportunity to do so. This background of conquest and anarchy would define the course of John’s early life and eventually drive him to join the Second Crusade to the Holy Land…
If you want to learn more about the Harrowing of the North and the impact of Norman rule on the North, I recommend William Kapelle’s The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation, 1000-1135 (1979) and Paul Dalton’s Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship: Yorkshire, 1066-1154 (1994). For a more general look at the impact of the Norman Conquest, see David Douglas’s William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England (1964) and Robert Bartlett’s England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225 (2000).