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The Harrying of the North

"So much misery..."

The period during which William The Conqueror came to power was an exceptionally turbulent one. The death of Edward The Confessor (Edward III) in January 1066 left a vacuum, as he died childless, resulting in several claims to the throne of England. Although Harold Godwinson (Harold II) was crowned king, he faced invasions later that year, firstly by the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada (who teamed up with Tostig Godwinson, King Harold’s previously exiled brother) followed immediately by what we all know as the Norman Conquest. Although this invasion and Harold II’s death in the Battle of Hastings took place in mid-October 1066, a last Anglo-Saxon monarch Edgar Aetheling still ruled (arguably, as he was proclaimed king by the Witan but never crowned) fleetingly from October to December of that year.

William the Conqueror, finally crowned king on Christmas Day 1066, did not find the transition from an Anglo-Saxon monarchy to a Norman one all plain sailing. He had to put down a rebellion in the south-west early in his reign, but great resentment among the populace remained especially in the north and, in January 1069, the people of Yorkshire and Northumbria rebelled. This unrest spread to other areas of the country but was quelled relatively quickly. Then in August 1069 King Swein of Denmark arrived with a large fleet of ships and joined forces with disgruntled nobles from Yorkshire and Northumbria and their men, capturing York where William I’s forces had established a base. The king is said to have bribed the Danes to leave before re-establishing control of York and the northern counties with a singular and unremitting ruthlessness during the winter of 1069-1070, now known as the Harrying of the North.

He is said to have “ordered the corn and the cattle, with the implements of husbandry and every sort of provisions, to be collected in heaps and set on fire till the whole was consumed, and thus destroyed at once all that could serve for the support of life……severe famine involved the innocent and unarmed population in so much misery that….more than a hundred thousand souls, of both sexes and all ages, perished of want…..”
Source: The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, Volume II, p28.

This famine was to last nine years, sufficient duration to ensure that none escaped unscathed. The rate of infant mortality must have been devastatingly high yet, somehow, a small number of families emerged from this period with enough strength of body, mind and character to give rise to lineages which survive today. Thankfully, we are among that number.

It is doubtful that the number of deaths was quite as high as is stated above, given population levels at that time (the population of Leeds, for example, didn't exceed 300 in Domesday). But the Domesday Book, which was collated 17 years after the Harrying, also clearly illustrates the level of devastation, the evidence of which can be seen in the valuations of manors at a fraction of what they had been worth in Edward the Confessor's time (see Joshua Holden's History of Todmorden) and clearly showing low levels of cultivation. Huge swathes of what we now know as Lancashire and Yorkshire were recorded in Domesday as "waste".

What is most surprising is that less than a century later our forebears were happily engaging with the Norman aristocracy and clearly benefitting greatly from it. Throughout the next few generations, marriages between the children and grandchildren of Anglo-Saxon thanes and those of Norman blood were not infrequent among those with any remaining status. Old alliances and loyalties seem, in some cases, to have been forgotten very quickly, as the indigenous 'English' sought out marriages which would bring land, wealth, and elevated status in the form of marriage settlements.

My thanks to researcher Joanne Backhouse for her collaboration and guidance regarding the Stansfeld family and Calderdale.