The Harrying of the North


Normans burning Anglo-Saxon buildings, in a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

This month is one that is amazingly rich in history, especially English history, and so we are going to have several posts in the remainder of the month. I’m thankful because personally, I’ve had nearly all the politics I can stomach – maybe a bit more. Maybe you’re at the same point, if so, welcome to a rich history.

Today, James Aitcheson tells us about the Harrying of the North. If you thought the Anglo-Saxons were easily conquered by the Normans, you have something to learn, as well as something about how ruthless the Normans really were.

The Battle of Hastings is the most famous event of the Norman Conquest, but it was only the opening engagement in the invader’s consolidation of power in England. For several years afterwards, the country was riven by internal conflict as the Norman’s fought to extend their rule, climaxing in a notorious campaign known today as the ‘Harrying of the North’.

The Harrying, which took place over the winter of 1069–70, saw 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. This scorched-earth operation is one of the defining episodes of the Conquest, not just from a military-political perspective but also in terms of how it has shaped modern perceptions of the Normans as a tyrannical and merciless warrior class. But why were such brutal measures considered necessary and why was the north in particular targeted?

By the winter of 1069, the Norman war machine had been active in the field for more than three years. Throughout 1067 and 1068 there had been a succession of localised revolts and incursions by foreign foes in various corners of the country – Devon, Kent, Herefordshire and the midland earldom of Mercia – although each of these was swiftly put down. Castles were established, including in the major towns of Warwick, Nottingham, York, Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge, in an effort to quell the disturbances and impose control. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that, even by the beginning of 1069, William was still not master of the entire kingdom. His authority extended no further north than York and it was in the region beyond that the greatest threat to his rule lay.

William’s early attempts to bring the northerners under his heel had involved appointing native English earls to govern them: first Copsig and then Gospatric. Both appointments had been dismal failures: the former was assassinated by a rival in 1067; the latter defected in 1068 to the midland rebels. Finally, in January 1069, William sent one of his own men, Robert Cumin, at the head of an army to conquer the region by force, only for them to be ambushed and slaughtered at Durham.

Worse was to come. That summer the Normans found themselves at the centre of a perfect storm, as their enemies all began marching at once.  Foremost among them was a coalition of Northumbrian noblemen, including Gospatric but led by Edgar Ætheling, then around 17 years old and making a fresh bid for the crown, having already been briefly acclaimed king in London following Harold’s death in 1066.

The Northumbrian threat was compounded in August when a Danish invasion fleet numbering some 240 or 300 ships – depending on which source we believe – arrived in the Humber.

via The Harrying of the North | History Today Read it all!

A desperate matter, for both sides, and far from the romantic image of brave knights and fair ladies. It’s always been a hard and dirty business, conquering people, and the English were plenty stiff-necked in those days, as they were in 1940.


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4 Responses to The Harrying of the North

  1. the unit says:

    Yeah, I’m sick, sick, sick of all the politics! BTW the Normans burning the Anglo-Saxon’s house down look just like David Axelrod and a bit like “Lurch” Kerry. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Yep, they do! 🙂


  2. the unit says:

    So I learn from history. Harrying defined. What Trump did. CNN been saying assaulting all day. All day, every time I pass through the room with tv on while going about my business, it’s on. Oops, there’s politics harrying me again. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:



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