This article is an edited transcript of William: Conqueror, Bastard, Both? with Dr Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 23 September 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
William the Conqueror started his reign of England by professing to want continuity. There’s a very early writ, now preserved in the London Metropolitan Archives, that was put out by William within months, if not days, of his coronation on Christmas Day in 1066, essentially saying to the citizens of London: your laws and customs will be exactly as they were under Edward the Confessor; nothing’s going to change.
So that was the stated policy at the top of William’s reign. And yet, massive change followed and the Anglo-Saxons weren’t happy about it. As a result, the first five or six years of William’s reign were ones of more or less continuing violence, continuing insurgency and, then, Norman repression.
What made William different from the foreign rulers who came before him?
The Anglo-Saxons had coped with various rulers during the medieval period who had come over to England from abroad. So what was it about William and the Normans that led the English to keep rebelling?
One major reason was that, after the Norman conquest, William had an army of 7,000 or so men at his back who were hungry for reward in the form of land. Now the Vikings, by contrast, had generally been happier to just take the shiny stuff and go home. They weren’t determined to settle. Some of them did but the majority were happy to go home.
William’s continental followers, meanwhile, wanted to be rewarded with estates in England.
So, from the off, he was having to disinherit Englishmen (Anglo-Saxons). Initially dead Englishmen, but, increasingly, as the rebellions against him went on, living Englishmen too. And so more and more Englishmen found themselves without a stake in society.
That led to great change within English society because, ultimately, it meant that the entire elite of Anglo-Saxon England was disinherited and replaced by continental newcomers. And that process took several years.
Not a proper conquest
The other reason for the constant rebellions against William – and this is the surprising bit – is that he and the Normans were initially perceived by the English as being lenient. Now, that sounds strange after the bloodbath that was the Battle of Hastings.
But after that battle was won and William had been crowned king, he sold the surviving English elite back their lands and tried to make peace with them.
At the start he tried to have a genuinely Anglo-Norman society. But if you compare that to the way that the Danish king Cnut the Great started his reign, it was very different. In the traditional Viking manner, Cnut went around and if he saw someone who was a potential threat to his rule then he just executed them.
With the Vikings, you knew you had been conquered – it felt like a proper Game of Thrones-style conquest – whereas I think people in Anglo-Saxon England in 1067 and 1068 thought that the Norman conquest was different.
They might have lost the Battle of Hastings and William might have thought he was king, but the Anglo-Saxon elite still thought they were “in” – that they still had their lands and their power structures – and that, come the summer, with one big rebellion, they would get rid of the Normans.
So because they thought they knew what a conquest felt like, like a Viking conquest, they didn’t feel like they had been properly conquered by the Normans. And they kept rebelling from one year to the next for the first several years of William’s reign in the hope of undoing the Norman conquest.
William turns to brutality
The constant rebellions resulted in William’s methods for dealing with opposition to his rule ultimately becoming even more savage than those of his Viking predecessors.
The most notable example was the “Harrying of the North” which really did put an end to the rebellion against William in the north of England, but only as a result of him more or less exterminating every living thing north of the River Humber.
The Harrying was William’s third trip to the north in as many years. He went north the first time in 1068 to quell a rebellion in York. While there he founded York Castle, as well as half a dozen other castles, and the English submitted.
At the start of the following year, there was another rebellion and he returned from Normandy and built a second castle in York. And then, in the summer of 1069, there was another rebellion – that time supported by an invasion from Denmark.
At that point, it really did look as though the Norman conquest was hanging in the balance. William realised that he could not hang onto the north simply by planting castles there with small garrisons. So, what was the solution?
The brutal solution was that if he couldn’t hold the north then he would make damn sure that no one else could hold it.
So he devastated Yorkshire, literally sending his troops over the landscape and burning down barns and slaughtering cattle etc so that it could not support life – so that it could not support an invading Viking army in the future.
People make the mistake of thinking that it was a new form of warfare. It wasn’t. Harrying was a perfectly normal form of medieval warfare. But the scale of what William did in 1069 and 1070 did strike contemporaries as way, way over the top. And we know that tens of thousands of people died as a result of the famine that followed.