william the conqueror's leniency cost him -- 10/21/16

Today's selection -- from William I by Marc Morris. William the Conqueror became one of England's most famous kings by defeating King Harold of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and thus changing England more profoundly than at any time in its history. After becoming England's new king, he practiced a policy of leniency that soon proved unwise, and led to a policy reversal embodied by the infamous "Harrying of the North" and the death of 100,000 from among the rebels, a staggering number for that era:

"The reality was that [William the Conqueror] was caught in a vicious circle of his own making. By confiscating the lands of the English who had opposed him at Hastings, and using them to provide for his Norman followers, he had created a class of resentful, dispossessed men; even those who died during the great battle had relatives whose expectations of inheritance had been dashed. England's earlier conquerors had dealt with such dangerous, disaffected individuals by the simpler expedient of having them killed. 'Cnut the Dane', said William of Poitiers, in an impassioned passage addressed to his English readers, 'slaughtered the noblest of your sons, young and old, with the utmost cruelty.' King William had by contrast chosen to treat his defeated op­ponents with clemency, hopeful of ruling a genuinely Anglo-Norman realm. In so doing he had given the impres­sion that his conquest would be reversible, and made it all but inevitable that rebellion would follow. Rebellion was punished with more disinheritance, and led to more Nor­mans being rewarded with land; more disinheritance added to the number of English desperadoes with no rea­son to lay down their weapons.

King William I mounted, with sword and shield, accompanied by knights and soldiers.

"It was no real surprise, therefore, that 1069 witnessed a new wave of uprisings, larger and more determined than before. ... William hurried back from the continent to suppress this insurrection, raising the siege and dispersing the rebels. ... When he withdrew it was clearly in expectation of more trouble to come. ...

"The peace was shattered in the late summer by a second uprising, timed to coincide with a Viking invasion. The English rebels had been appealing for Scandinavian assis­tance ever since 1066, and at this point the King of Denmark, Swein Estrithson, decided to throw his hat into the ring, confident that popular support in northern England would grant him a good chance of success. Danish forces sailed up the Humber in August and quickly seized York, killing its Norman garrisons. The northern rebels joined with them, hailing them as liberators, while other rebellions erupted simultaneously in the West Country and along the Welsh border. William spent a desperate autumn marching his troops back and forth across the country, trying to stamp out these many fires, which together con­stituted the gravest threat to his rule to date. The southern and western risings were in due course crushed, but the Danes remained elusive, and despite retaking York in December the king found he could not get near their fleet.

"Faced with this impasse, and frustrated with the con­tinued resistance of the North despite three gruelling campaigns, William decided to solve the problem by a dif­ferent method. His first move was to strike a deal with the Danes, allowing them to remain in England during the winter and plunder along the coast, on condition that they departed the following spring. He then embarked on the second part of his plan, which was to make northern Eng­land untenable by any army, Danish or English. 'In his
anger', wrote Orderic Vitalis, 'he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind be brought together and burned ... so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all sustenance.' This episode, known to posterity as the Harrying of the North, was one of the most notorious incidents of William's career. Harry­ing itself was standard practice in medieval warfare, but the scale of the destruction visited upon northern England that winter had such terrible consequences that even con­temporary writers felt it was exceptional and excessive. A widespread famine followed, with starving refugees drag­ging themselves into southern England, and even reports of cannibalism. Orderic put the death toll at over 100,000, and an analysis of Domesday data suggests he was probably correct. Writing half a century later, the half-English monk lambasted William for causing such indiscriminate death, lamented the suffering of the innocent and declared that God would punish the king for his 'brutal slaughter'.

"Brutal as it undoubtedly was, the Harrying was effective in bringing the rebellion of the North to an end."


Marc Morris


William I: England's Conqueror


Allen Lane Penguin UK


Copyright Marc Morris 2016



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