Resistance to the Normans

The Norman Invasion encountered resistance all over the country, as the author of a series set during it recounts.
The Conqueror
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Resistance to the Normans.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the events of 1066 led to a simple shift in power from the old Anglo-Saxon era to that of the new Norman period. And, though it is true to say that a great number of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, warrior elite, and fighting men had lost their lives at the Battle of Hastings, the seven or so thousand men that fought with King Harold on that day were but a fraction (albeit a significant one) of England’s military strength at the time.

The army on that day comprised mainly the fyrds and thegns of the southern counties – those close enough to answer the summons to confront the Norman invader so soon after then great victory at Stamford Bridge near York. The men of the midlands and the north, the great Earls Morcar and Edwin of Northumberland and Mercia, were not present. An army of at least equal size or greater than that which Harold had commanded on October 14th was still available.

William’s grip on England, limited at first to little more than the south eastern corner, was precarious to say the least. But the fact that he was able to secure the throne and reign for twenty years reflects the sporadic and disjointed nature of the resistance and the lack of a proven war leader to rally behind. Edgar Aetheling – the last male heir of the House of Wessex – was still a fresh-faced youth, while Harold and his brothers were dead (save for the youngest who still languished in a Norman prison).

Count Eustace of Boulogne at Hastings

Instead, we see a series of small and brief insurgencies, some more impactful than others but all of which were doomed, ultimately, to fail. This article will examine some of the more and less well-known of them that occurred in the first months and years after Hastings.

Rumours of dissent began as early as 1067. In the region around Herefordshire and Shropshire, one of the most powerful land-owning thegns – Eadric the Wild (also known as Silvaticus on account of his propensity to hide from the Normans in the wooded regions of the area) – rose up against the Normans, perhaps in opposition to the new-fangled castles that were springing up across the land (notably at Hereford and Shrewsbury) which impinged on his own lands and powers – though it is worth noting that the castle in Hereford dated back to the 1050s, having been founded by one of Edward the Confessor’s Norman acolytes.

Though the Normans devastated his lands, they could not bring him to heel. According to John of Worcester, whenever they attacked him, they lost significant numbers of their soldiers. One might imagine that, rather than face the Normans on the open field, or waste his resources on attacking well defended castles, Eadric chose instead to wage a form of guerilla warfare, ambushing the Normans amongst the hills and trees of Shropshire.

Eventually, Eadric sought aid from two Welsh kings, with whom he led a raid into Herefordshire, ravaging the land up to the city and carrying off great booty. Little more is heard of Eadric after this, and it is assumed that he made his peace with the new king.

Not long after, a new rebellion occurred, one that had the potential to have far more serious consequences for William. The men of Kent rose up (supposedly because of their hatred of the Normans) and sent messengers across the channel to invite Count Eustace of Boulogne to help them in taking the castle at Dover.

On the face of it, this seemed an odd move. Eustace had himself attacked Dover back in the early 1050s and had fought for William at Hastings. But since then, the two men had fallen out and so the Count was happy to accept the invitation. Presumably his nose had been put out of joint in respect of the size of reward he had received for his services.

Having assembled his troops, Eustace crossed the channel to join with the English rebels. All seemed to going well as Bishop Odo of Bayeux – the region’s governor – was away north of the Thames. But, nevertheless, the Count was sent packing by the castle’s garrison who left the safety of their walls to put the attackers to flight, forcing Eustace to flee back to Boulogne. One has to wonder how many soldiers Eustace had committed to the enterprise if they could be so easily dispatched by the garrison of one town.

Then there was the trouble in the south-west; a conspiracy which carried the threat of being the most serious challenge to William’s power yet. That is, if the rumours heard by the king during his return to Normandy were to be believed. For this insurrection was supposedly helmed by the surviving members of the Godwine family; the south-west being part of their traditional heartlands.

Such was William’s disquiet that he hurried back to London in the depths of winter 1067/68, risking a channel crossing at a time that was known for treacherous and deadly storms. Information soon came to light that the uprising was based at the city of Exeter; a fact which became clear when William’s agents intercepted messengers sent out to neighbouring cities urging them to join the cause.

The revolt centred on King Harold’s mother, Gytha, who’d gone west after Hastings, presumably to plot her revenge. With no remaining sons to fight her cause, however, her hopes rested with her three grandsons, children of Harold’s first marriage, and most likely in their late teens or early twenties now. Located in Ireland, the plan was for them to raise a fleet filled with Irish mercenaries and thence to join up with their grandmother.

Such was his concern that William chose not to wait. Instead, he marched his army west – an army that, ominously, contained English warriors for the first time. A canny test of their loyalty. But the city refused to surrender, and so a siege ensued. With little support from the surrounding region combined with the failure of the Godwineson boys to set sail from Ireland, meant that the rebellion was doomed to failure. They were not helped, in fact, by the sight of Gytha fleeing from the city with other ‘leading nobles’, leaving the rest of the inhabitants to their fate.

Countess Gytha at St Nectan’s Church

With Exeter subdued, the rest of 1068 proved to be more or less settled. Or, at least, the troubles were less concerning. But that all changed at the beginning of 1069 when the north – so often a hotbed of insurgency – rose in revolt. Though much of the preceding year had been quiet, disaffection had, nevertheless, been growing all the time. More and more English landowners found themselves pushed to the side, their lands passed on to Normans in their place. This, more than anything, more than any affection for the Godwine family, was the one thing that was likely to spark the kindling of revolt into a raging inferno.

In an attempt to stamp his authority on the notoriously dangerous region, William appointed one of his own, Robert Cumin (possibly from Flanders) to head north at the head of an army numbering somewhere between five hundred and a thousand men. In typically heavy-handed fashion, Cumin set out, laying waste and pillaging as he went. Seeking shelter from winter snows, he entered Durham, where his men continued to loot and kill with abandon.

But the Northumbrians – never ones to take things lying down – had seen enough. At first light, they broke into the city and massacred Cumin and his men. The earl was actually burned to death with a handful of defenders in the bishop’s house. News spread. Risings followed in York, where the Norman governor of the newly built castle was also killed. And, sensing an opportunity, the exiled English leadership came south from Scotland to join the fray, including none other than Edgar Aetheling, the last scion of the House of Wessex.

But, once again, William acted quickly and decisively. Like Harold had done before him, the king came north at pace and with an ‘overwhelming army’. Taken by surprise, the rebellion collapsed, with most being captured, killed, or put to flight. Edgar, as was his wont, fled back to Scotland, leaving William to bring York to book and to construct a second castle.

The final of these early threats to William’s throne in 1069 came in the form of the perennial enemy, the Danes. Ever since William had been crowned king, attempts had been made by the English to entice King Swein Estrithson (to whom Gytha was related) to invade. But he’d shown little interest until now. He could see that Norman rule was unpopular and precarious, especially in the north where the generational ties to his own people were especially strong. He could be assured of a warm welcome there, at least.

So Swein gathered his army and sailed, arriving in the south east around late August 1069. He proceeded to raid his way up the coast as a prelude to invasion – perhaps in an effort to disable William’s own fleet that was stationed in the southern ports. Arriving at the mouth of the Humber, they were joined by their English allies – the northern lords and, once again, Edgar Aetheling. With the great host assembled, it must have seemed that Norman rule was on the brink of collapse.

They arrived in York to find that the Norman garrison had fired part of the city to prevent the timbers being used to bridge the moat, though the blaze had blown out of control until it had consumed most of the city. Inexplicably, the Normans then abandoned their castle to attack the Danes, whereupon they were slaughtered by the much larger force. Having killed roughly 3,000 soldiers, the Danes then looted the city, destroyed the castles and returned to their boats.

To make matters worse, as William marched north to confront the Danes, news reached him of further rebellions in Somerset and Shropshire. It must have seemed that the whole country was up in arms. That the king himself diverted west to deal with the risings there – eventually defeating a large force near Stafford – shows how seriously he took it.

He returned east to find that the Danes were being elusive, clearly unwilling to meet him in battle. It seemed that they hoped to survive in the north for long enough to allow fresh soldiers to arrive in the spring whence they could launch a full-scale invasion. The king’s response was clever. Unable to bring the Danes to battle, he did the next best thing; he paid them off. With them out of the way, he was able to turn his attention to the English rebels. So enraged was he by the continual problems from this part of his kingdom, that he gave orders for a brutal scorched earth policy that is marked out even today as one of the most devastating acts in English history. It’s said that more than 100,000 citizens died of starvation following this ‘Harrying of the North’, and the effects remained evident in the Domesday book almost twenty years later.

More challenges would follow, but having ridden the storm for the first two to three years, William’s rule would only get stronger and stronger.

Paul Bernardi is the Author of the Huscarl Chronicles, a set of three books that follows a young man’s journey to become a man in defence of his family, his country and his king amid the tumultuous events of 1066 and the years that followed.