The Completion of the Norman Conquest II

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Hereward The Wake by Andrew Howat

Trouble began on 28 January 1069 with an attack on a Norman expeditionary force which had advanced to Durham. The Durham chronicler says the Normans provoked the people by their aggression, which included killing men of the Church. The Northumbrians then caught the Normans by surprise early in the morning, and among those killed was Robert de Commines, the newly appointed earl of Northumbria. Then the gathering rebels focused their attention on York. A Norman force at York under Robert fitz Richard, the castellan of Clifford’s Tower, chose to make a rash sortie against the rebels in 1069, and was massacred: ‘many hundreds of Frenchmen’ were killed.

William Malet, who had survived by staying within the castle at York apparently with his wife and two children – a perilous place for them to be – sent to William for aid.38 The king returned from Normandy and marched north again without hesitation. He was delayed at Pontefract but eventually Lisois de Moutiers found a ford. The rebels decided to get away and William recovered York; he ‘spared no man’, and built a second castle (the Old Baile), which was entrusted to William fitz Osbern. Even after this there was an attack on both Norman castles, but fitz Osbern held them off. The Danish fleet, paid to withdraw by William after the defeat of the rebels, finally returned home in a sad state according to Orderic Vitalis.

William punished the region with the most harsh of all his harsh measures in England, the harrying of the north. Harrying as a punishment was not new in England, but William’s was so severe as to be long recalled. Symeon of Durham wrote that, as a result: ‘there was no village inhabited between York and Durham’. The harrying was condemned even by normally favourable chroniclers. Orderic wrote:

nowhere else had William shown such cruelty. Shamefully he succumbed to this vice, for he made no effort to restrain his fury and punished the innocent with the guilty … My narrative has frequently had occasion to praise William, but for this act which condemned the innocent and guilty alike to die by slow starvation I cannot commend him … I would rather lament the griefs and sufferings of the wretched people than make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such infamy.

The Conqueror sought out any rebel, and any who got in the way. His troops spread over a great distance, combing woodland and remote areas, leaving no hiding place unsearched. He wanted the whole region north of the Humber to be deprived of food. Houses and crops were destroyed, any living creature that crossed the path of William’s troops was slaughtered till a great band of ashes and waste spread over Yorkshire.

The Conqueror also dealt with the Scottish involvement. In 1072 William led an expedition into the northern realm. King Malcolm Canmore was forced to submit and do homage. The deal probably included the submission also of Edgar the Aetheling, who had frequently taken refuge north of the border and was the Scottish king’s brother-in-law. He was forced to leave Scotland for Flanders, but within a couple of years Edgar had submitted, and was even able to appear at William’s court.

In the meantime, there had also been problems in the west. Just as Scottish encouragement aided the northern rebels, so were the Welsh involved along the western borders. A Welsh rebellion was beaten down in 1069 and in the following year William took over Chester in person and sent an expedition into North Wales. There had been further disturbances in the south-west. Twice the surviving sons of Harold Godwinson brought a force from Ireland.

Three sons of Harold are named altogether: Godwin, Edmund and Magnus. They came first in 1068, and then again in the summer of 1069. On the first occasion they raided into the Avon and attacked Bristol, which fought them off, and then raided in Somerset. They brought sixty-four ships on the second occasion, landing in the mouth of the Taw. They came to Exeter and caused devastation around the city. Count Brian for the Conqueror led out a force against them and there were two clashes which together destroyed the raiders, who went away in but two small ships. Harold’s sons returned to Ireland. William of Jumièges thought that 1,700 had been killed in their venture. The failure of her grandsons was sufficient to cause Harold’s mother, Gytha, to leave Exeter and go into exile abroad, where she died.

There were widespread outbreaks of opposition, but all were crushed: at Chester, Shrewsbury, Stafford, Montacute, Exeter and elsewhere. Sometimes William dealt with it in person, sometimes men acted for him. The reliability of these troops under such leaders as Count Brian, William fitz Osbern and Robert of Mortain goes far to explain the success of the prolonged period of fighting which brought about the completion of the Conquest.

The final serious thrust of opposition broke out in East Anglia. This will always be associated in our minds with the half legendary personage of Hereward the Wake, identified as a thegn (perhaps a king’s thegn) from Lincolnshire who had held three manors, and who was said to have been outlawed for an earlier attack on a Norman lord. One suggestion is that he had been involved in the northern revolt of 1069.

Detail can be added to the bones of this story of Hereward only from the twelfth-century poem about his exploits, the Gesta Herewardi (Deeds of Hereward), and in this there is difficulty divorcing reliable material from legend. The fact that it was written does suggest a surviving anti-Norman attitude in England. We can say little about Hereward for sure. The rebellion of which he was part was a last throw by the combined surviving English nobles prepared to take up arms against the Normans. It finally broke the northern earls. The Conqueror had offered Edwin marriage to his own daughter. When this had been advised against by some of his courtiers, he had changed his mind, which had brought Edwin to the point of rebellion, with English and Welsh support.

Now Morcar joined the rebellion in Ely in 1071. The rebels had taken to this isolated and difficult area. Ely was then truly an island, surrounded by waters and treacherous marshland. But William approached in force, probably entered the island at Aldreth, and caused the rebels to flee. Morcar submitted, and Hereward escaped. The real Hereward disappeared into obscurity – we know nothing more of him at all – but the legendary Hereward grew in stature as the years passed. Morcar was thrown into prison under the guard of Robert de Beaumont, and stayed there for the rest of his life. Orderic says that in trying to raise help to get his brother released, Earl Edwin was killed after being betrayed by his own servants.

As for Waltheof, son of Siward, he had been given Northamptonshire by the Conqueror, and also William’s niece Judith in marriage in 1070. Orderic says he was handsome and of fine physique. He had no apparent reason to oppose William, having suffered more disappointment before the Conquest than after. Yet he conspired against William in 1075 with two of the newly appointed earls, Roger Montgomery of Hereford and Ralph the Breton of Norwich. Orderic says they spread the message that ‘the man who now calls himself king is unworthy, since he is a bastard … He unjustly invaded the fair kingdom of England and unjustly slew its true heirs … all men hate him and his death would cause great rejoicing.’

The chronicler records that these two approached Waltheof, who was reluctant to join them and refused to take part in rebellion. The earls sought aid from Denmark, rebelled in 1075 and were beaten in battle. Later, Ralph fled to Denmark and then to Brittany. But his men in Norwich suffered: ‘Some of them were blinded/And some banished from the land.’ Earl Roger was taken prisoner and tried, then cast into prison. When the Conqueror sent him gifts in prison the earl ordered them to be burned, causing William to swear he would never be released. Earl Roger died in fetters.

If we may trust Orderic, Waltheof was not guilty. Lanfranc later also expressed the view of Waltheof’s innocence. But it did not save him from William’s vengeance against the rebels. According to Orderic, Waltheof was accused of conspiracy by his own wife, Judith. The earl admitted being approached but said he had refused to give support. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the other hand implies Waltheof’s guilt in conspiring, and rather oddly says that ‘he accused himself’ and sought pardon. Waltheof was imprisoned for a year at Winchester. There were some at court ready to advise that he should be executed. The probable guilt of Waltheof was in failing to reveal the conspiracy of which he was aware.

For fear of repercussions in Winchester, Earl Waltheof was taken from his prison early in the morning of 31 May 1076. The executioners allowed him to say the Lord’s Prayer, but when he broke into tears before its completion, they would wait no longer and hacked off his head with a sword. According to Orderic, the severed head continued ‘but deliver us from evil. Amen.’ The body was later exhumed and taken to Crowland for burial.

More trouble for William later in his reign came from his own half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, in whom ‘vices were mingled with virtues’ and who was also brought down for his opposition to the king.54 It was said that Odo sought the papacy for himself, expecting help from the Normans in Sicily and planning to lead a band of knights from England. William scotched the scheme and arrested Odo probably in 1083. One assumes that William’s complaint was that Odo was deserting his duties, but the whole tale has a fishy ring about it, and one suspects some other plotting of Odo’s had come to the Conqueror’s attention. Odo was imprisoned till the end of the reign. He would cause a similar stir after his release against the new king.

William’s reign was hardly a happy one. At no time was he free from cares. His quarrels with his own son, Robert Curthose, were perhaps as hurtful as any of the rebellions listed above. But William had won a throne, and his family retained it. The rebellions were all crushed, the opposition virtually annihilated. The Norman Conquest of England was one of the most complete and efficient conquests in history.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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