Historia Yorkshire; The Harrying of the North

Hello everyone and welcome back to Yorkshire! Today I will be discussing the ‘Harrying of the North’, a campaign led by William the Conqueror which saw the north of England absolutely decimated. Read below to find out more.

1066 is probably one of the most famous days in the British historical calendar. This is of course the year that William of Normandy invaded Britain and went on to defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings.  Whilst the most famous event of the Norman conquest, it was only the beginning of Williams campaign to consolidate power over the entire country. For several years there was internal conflict, as the Normans attempted to strengthen their rule. This led to a notoriously gruesome and brutal campaign in the north which we know today as the ‘Harrying of the North.’

The Battle of Hastings from the Bayeux Tapestry. Image taken from Wikipedia

In the winter of 1069-70, William instigated a scorched earth policy which in the north of England meant that villages were burnt, inhabitants killed and stores of food deliberately destroyed.

But why did William undertake such drastic measures?

By 1069, the Normans had been active for more than three years suppressing a series of revolts and William established castles at major towns such as Warwick and York. By 1069 however his authority still extended no further north than York and the area north of York became the biggest threat to his rule. William had tried to bring the northerners to heel and appointed English earls to govern the region. However this proved ineffective, with the earl Copsig being assassinated and Gospatric defecting to the rebels. Eventually William sent his own man Richard Cumin and an army to suppress the rebels but again to no effect. Richard and his men were ambushed and killed at Durham.

Later that year the Normans found themselves facing even more trouble. Edgar Ætheling, a young 17 year old, made another bid for the throne- he had already been proclaimed king briefly after the death of Harold. Later that same year the Danes also got involved, arriving in the Humber with numerous ships and formed an alliance with the north against William. Then the Welsh and the Cornish began to revolt; William really was having a bad year!

Personally if I was William I would have given up by this point and left the northerners to their own devices.

William the Conqueror, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Image taken from Wikipedia

But William obviously had conquering in mind- hence the name I guess – and he slowly moved up north to face the northerners and the Danes.

When in York he made a pact with the Danes, promising them silver and gold should they leave England in the spring. The Danes agreed and William focused his attention onto the rebellious northerners. The northerners however used tactics which frustrated William; they hid in the woods and hills and refused to meet him in open battle – clever move! Frustrated, William adopted a new strategy and divided his army into raiding parties. These raiding parties then went onto flush out and defeat the northern rebels.

But sadly, it wasn’t just the rebels they killed.

Whilst systematically destroying the region, they killed innocent villagers and inhabitants of the towns who were mere bystanders in the rebellion. People who did survive the slaughter faced starvation in the cold winter months as William deliberately destroyed food stores and raised land and livestock to the ground. Spreading out as far as the River Tyne, the north was completely and utterly devastated by Williams forces. The 12th century Chronicler John of Worcester writes that food became so scarce that people were reduced to eating dogs, horses and in some cases human flesh. The situation was desperate. Another historian, Vitalis, claims that 100,000 people died in the famine that followed, in addition to those who were slaughtered. Whilst this figure may not be accurate, it is indicative of just how many people died and how badly the region was affected by William’s forces. Symeon of Durham wrote that for nine years, no village between York and Durham was inhabited and that the countryside remained uncultivated.

The Yorkshire Dales. Photo taken by me.

Some scholars believe the mass destruction of the north and the gruesome decimation of its population to be akin to genocide. Others however believe that the destruction and subsequent slow revival of the north was exaggerated.

What do you think?


Bartlett, Robert (2000). J.M.Roberts (ed.). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075–1225

Thomas, Hugh M. (2008). The Norman Conquest: England After William the Conqueror. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Orderic Vitalis. The Ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy 

Darlington, Reginald R. and P. McGurk (eds.), P. McGurk and Jennifer Bray (trs.). The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450–1066. Vol 2. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: 1995.

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