In 1066 Harold Godwinsson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, was killed at the battle of Hastings. Yet England was not conquered in a single day. The victor, Duke William of Normandy, had to fight tooth and nail for several years to hold onto his conquest.
To begin with, the most serious threat came from the north. In 1068 the earl of Northumbria, Gospatrik, joined forces with Edgar Aetheling, the last male descendent of the House of Wessex. William raced north to deal with the revolt, which melted away in the summer. Several of the rebel leaders, including Edgar, fled into Scotland to take refuge at the court of Malcolm III.
This was not the end of the trouble. William had replaced Gospatrik with one of his Norman followers, Robert Comines, who was slaughtered by English rebels at Durham in 1069. Afterwards the rebels turned once again to York, where they killed the Norman constable and many of his men. At the same time fresh revolts broke out all over the kingdom, from the Welsh border to Dorset, Shrewsbury and Devon. William was forced to fight another pitched battle at Stafford, where he scattered a rebel army.
Many of the rebels took to the woods and fens. The most famous of them was Hereward, later called ‘the Wake’, an obscure Lincolnshire thegn who set up camp inside the impenetrable fens of Ely. Although Hereward’s deeds were later exaggerated, he posed a serious enough threat to the Normans. Another famous rebel leader was Eadric ‘the Wild’, a thegn of Shropshire who allied with Welsh princes and launched ferocious raids on the Norman garrisons at Shrewsbury and Hereford.
The Normans called these forest outlaws the ‘silvatici’, which translates as ‘wild men’ or men of the woods. According to a Norman chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, these men lived in rough tents in the wild, disdaining to live in houses lest they became soft. The Abingdon chronicle says that many plots were hatched by the English, that some hid in woods and others in islands, plundering and attacking others who came in their way.
Many strange legends gathered about the silvatici. For instance, Hereward was said to have slain a gigantic bear in combat, while Eadric became associated with all kinds of folk-tales. In one tradition Eadric marries a succubi, a type of demon or supernatural entity, who bore him a son named Aelfnoth. Others claim Eadric is still alive, trapped in the mines beneath the wild hills of Shropshire, and that he is the leader of the Wild Hunt: a band of ghostly horsemen that sweep across the land at certain times of year.
In the end, for all their determination and ferocity, the silvatici were defeated. Some, however, refused to accept the Norman yoke and sailed away from England to find new lands. That, however, is another story…
David Pilling is a writer and historian, and author of The Outlaw. His latest books are Edward I and Wales: 1254-1307, The Wars of Edward I: The Leopard and The Rebellion Against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians, 1265-1274.
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