Hereward the Wake
After 1066, there were numerous rebellions or threats of rebellion in England, and almost as many invasion scares. The widespread fear of an English uprising, or that Danish, Flemish or Irish war bands were about to repeat William’s coup at Hastings, tells us a great deal about the insecurities and guilt-ridden nature of the first twenty years of Norman rule. A millennium later, and Hastings appears as a mighty and permanent paragraph break in English history. At the time, there was no guarantee that the victors of Hastings would not themselves be swept away in the subsequent chaos of plunder and revenge. In fact, none of the rebellions or invasions attempted after 1066 amounted to much. Their failure has been blamed upon the incompetence or churlish indifference of the English themselves, with Carlyle’s heroic Norman toil once again triumphing over Anglo-Saxon ‘pot-bellied sloth’. In fact, the failure of the English resistance can be traced to a number of different causes. It was poorly coordinated, reminding us of the deep personal and regional divisions that had long been apparent in English society. It was launched by families that had themselves been traumatized by the events at Hastings and which in many cases had already been robbed of their strongest or most dynamic male warriors. In a single day at Hastings, William had cut off not only England’s head but its strong forearm.
The outcome was a series of rebellions, inadequately prepared and poorly led, beginning at Exeter in 1068, via risings in the north in 1069 brutally suppressed by William, through to the so-called revolt of the earls in 1075, when a rising by the Northumbrian Earl Waltheof, the Breton, Ralph, Earl of East Anglia, and Roger, earl of Hereford, was decisively crushed by King William’s loyal viceroy, Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, without the King even having to set foot in England. This did not entirely end resistance. As late as 1085, there were fears that Cnut IV of Denmark, cousin of the late King Harold and son of Danish King Svein Estrithsson, who had attempted invasions of England in both 1069 and 1070, would mount a major expedition to England in league with his father-in-law, Count Robert of Flanders. In the remote fenlands, at Peterborough in 1070, and then in a final desperate stand at Ely in 1071, a local landowner named Hereward earned a heroic reputation for himself as a captain of English ‘freedom-fighters’. Like the Jews in their great fortress at Masada in the histories of Josephus (one of the most frequently read ancient histories, not least because it appeared to supply an alternative history of Christ’s Judea to that available from the Bible), Hereward and his men were forced to watch from Ely as the Normans slowly built a causeway towards them, eventually taking the island with great bloodshed. According to the later semi-fictionalized account of these events, known as the Deeds of Hereward, Hereward himself was pardoned by King William. Another early historian, however, tells us that he was murdered in France by a band of disgruntled Norman soldiers. In any event, like Harold Godwinson, Hereward very rapidly faded from reality into myth. According to the Deeds of Hereward, one of his first acts of heroism was to fight with a ferocious bear, offspring of one of the last talking bears in the north, from whose acts of rape were descended the kings of Norway. After that as an introduction, anyone who believes much else in the Deeds of Hereward does so very much at their peril.
English rebellion itself slowly faded from violent reality to distantly remembered legend. Modern historians, who like to speculate on what might have happened in 1940 had the Germans crossed the Channel, may find the events of the 1070s instructive. The English did attempt resistance, and very brave resistance it must have been. William the Conqueror, for all his claims to be the heir to Caesar or Charlemagne, was a brutal enemy. In the 1050s, when the men of Alençon in southern Normandy had rebelled against his ducal rule, manning the walls of their town and banging on pelts to taunt William for his ancestry as a tanner’s bastard, William exacted a vicious revenge, having their hands and feet cut off. In the winter of 1069, when he led an army across the Pennines to suppress northern resistance, almost unimaginable horrors were unleashed: pillage, deliberate starvation, all of the more ghastly accompaniments to military action against a civilian population. This was a war against English terrorists, conducted with all the brutality that such wars tend to engender. According to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, himself of mixed birth as the son of an English mother and a Norman father, raised in Shropshire and later a monk of St-Evroult in Normandy, this ‘harrying of the north’ was a crime in which William succumbed to the cruellest promptings of revenge, condemning more than 100,000 Christian men, women and children to death by starvation, besides countless others slain by fire or the sword. Though Orderic’s statistics are not to be relied upon, before the days of war-crimes tribunals or the Geneva Convention, brutality and terror were not disguised but, on the contrary, deliberately advertised as the hallmarks of successful warfare.
William certainly brought a brutal enthusiasm to the task in hand, but it is arguable that the English themselves were inured to brutality. The north of England, even before 1066, had seethed with vengeance killings and blood feud between the houses of Bamburgh and York. Even at the English royal court, there had been murders and conspiracies that rendered England in many ways a far less chivalrous society than the supposedly brutal society of pre-Conquest Normandy. With their songs of Roland and Charlemagne, it is arguable the Normans were already acquiring a veneer of chivalry and polite manners, imported for the most part from further south, from the princely courts of Aquitaine and ultimately from Spain, from the court of the Arab caliphs. It was the distant civilizing influence of Islam in the eleventh century which ultimately did most to smooth away the brutalities of European warfare. In particular, wars between equals were henceforth to be conducted openly and according to some sense of legal propriety. Peasants and lesser peoples might be tortured, starved and treated as the brute animals that they were perceived to be, but women, children and high status prisoners were not deliberately to be harmed. Even the most significant of noble enemies were to be imprisoned or ransomed, not mutilated or murdered.
These were rules obeyed as much in the breach as the observance. William did not order the execution of any close member of the ruling dynasty of Wessex or even of the Godwinsons. Indeed, he seems to have striven to preserve a fiction of courtesy, even when members of these families were caught in the most blatant of conspiracies. But when Earl Waltheof of Northumbria rebelled in 1075, the outcome was judicial execution. Waltheof’s beheading was treated in some circles as an act of martyrdom, yet another reason, perhaps, for William to tread a more chivalrous path in future, to deny rebels either the crown of martyrdom or the oxygen of publicity. Henceforth, for unmitigated brutality we would need to turn away from civil war or disputes between Christian knights, to the frontiers of Wales or the more distant parts of Scotland and Ireland. Here, the Normans behaved as if the local population lay quite outside the rules of Christian warfare. Being barbarians, who themselves failed to observe the chivalric niceties, such peoples were to be suppressed with maximum prejudice. Long before American frontiersmen invented the rituals of scalping, English soldiers on the Welsh Marches had turned head hunter. In the early 1060s, Harold Godwinson had sent the head of the Welsh King Gruffydd to Edward the Confessor. After 1066, this brutal trophy-collecting remained a regular feature of Anglo-Welsh warfare. By the 1230s, the English crown was paying a bounty of a shilling a head for all hostile Welshmen decapitated on the Marches.