Monday, July 28, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Medieval: English rebellions after the Norman Conquest 1067-1075

Victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 should be considered as the beginning of a lengthy process of Norman conquest rather than viewed as an isolated event, followed by a complete takeover of England.

Initially, the surviving English nobles hesitated to submit to William. It was only after reinforcements arrived from overseas that William was able to advance to London. The surviving nobles either submitted to William or went into exile. For the next few years, the Normans found themselves in the position of an occupying army in the south of England. In the north they faced uneasy co-operation with powerful English earls who retained a strong sense of identity and Englishness. The western borders were vulnerable to attack from Welsh princes. In addition, the coastlines were vulnerable to raiding from Danes and renegade English.

As a first step, the newly crowed King William consolidated the land around the south-east of England. This was particularly important as it was the easiest route for reinforcements to arrive from Normandy. Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof retained their positions as earls of Mercia, Northumbria and the southern-midland shires respectively.

However, it was not long before the first rebellion broke out. In 1067, a major uprising occurred in Kent, largely in response to the harshness of William’s brother Odo’s oppressive rule. The revolt was supported by a noble from France called Eustace of Boulogne who had grown dissatisfied with William. Eustace sent troops to assist the rebels in attempting to seize Dover Castle. However, the rebellion failed and Eustace’s lands were forfeited by William.

Much more serious was a revolt in Exeter in 1068 led by the former King Harold’s mother, Gytha. This rebellion was co-ordinated with a raid on the south-west launched by three of Harold’s sons from their base in Ireland. Harold’s sons were then defeated by the local Norman forces in the area. Exeter continued to resist through an 18 day siege. Gytha eventually fled to Flanders with a large store of wealth. In 1069, the sons of Harold returned with sixty ships and attacked Devonshire. However, their forces were only sufficient for raiding rather than invasion purposes.

The rebellions/invasions of 1068/69 were all led by members of Harold’s own family. They attempted to co-ordinate resistance across the region but failed to gain universal support. William consolidated his victories by building and garrisoning castles in vulnerable places. This enabled him to retain a core base in each region for command and control of an area.

In 1068, Norman rule over England faced its most serious challenge yet. Realising that in the long-term their positions were threatened by the increasingly aggressive acquisitions of the Normans, earls Edwin and Morcar rose in revolt. They formed an alliance with Bleddyn of Gwynedd and Malcolm, King of the Scots (of ‘Macbeth’ fame). William struck quickly and advanced northwards building castles at Warwick and Nottingham intimidating the Mercians into submission. Both Edwin and Morcar surrendered and Malcolm was forced to sign a peace treaty and return to Scotland.

However, the revolt of 1068 was merely a prequel to a much larger northern rebellion the following year. In 1069, the new commander at Durham, Robert of Comines and the Castellan of York were massacred alongside a large force of Norman knights. This time the rebels included the native Northumbrian aristocracy, King Malcolm of Scotland and King Swegn of Denmark. The coalition focused around Edgar Aetheling, the last male member of the West Saxon house of Cerdic. Edgar had a legitimacy over the throne of England which William had only been able gain through force. The arrival of a Danish fleet in support of the revolt allowed the northern rebels to besiege and devastate the city of York. Unfortunately for the rebels, the Danes were more interested in plundering the countryside. Their army dispersed, allowing William to reoccupy York and destroy the English rebels. Edgar went into exile abroad and another treaty was agreed between Malcolm and William.

The Danes were allowed to plunder the coastal regions in exchange for peace and eventual withdrawal from England. The plunder and devastation wrought by the Normans afterwards became known as the ‘Harrying of the North’. The economic infrastructure of the north of England was shattered for generations. The extent of the damage can be shown through the low geld yields of the area as recorded by the Doomsday Book, twenty years later.

By 1070 William had seen off the most serious threats to his rule. The Danes had been bought off, Edwin had been betrayed by his own men and killed in an ambush and Morcar was imprisoned. However, the final rebellion of 1075 involved some of William’s own most trusted men. Ralph of de Gael, Earl of Norfolk, Roger de Breteuil, earl of Hereford and Waltheof, earl of Northumbria (Norman, Breton and English malcontents) made a secret alliance against William. Yet they too found that they were unable to achieve much more than limited local support and as a result the rebellion failed. William then had Waltheof executed for his role in the revolt.

Waltheof was the last of the significant English leaders who was potentially strong enough to lead a rebellion against the Normans. By 1076, William no longer faced any major potential rivals. The past decade of resistance had been unable to dislodge William. The revolts had been ill-co-ordinated and failed to unify the majority of the population. Throughout the period of rebellions, there were minor English nobles who were prepared to stay loyal to the new regime. The foreign powers that intervened often had a completely different agenda than merely restoring the House of Wessex to the throne. For these reasons, William was able to recover even when the situation had initially turned against him.

William’s rapid responses to rebellions over 1067-1075 resembled a fire fighting exercise followed by a period of consolidation through castle-building. Over the years that followed until his death in 1087, William continued the process of pacifying the Scots and Welsh. By the time his son William Rufus took over, the Norman conquest of England was complete.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Norman Conquest of England, have a look at these books;

Majorie Chibnall, Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1166 (Oxford, 1986)

Brian Golding, Conquest and Colonization: The Normans in Britain, 1066-1100 (London, 1994)

H.R. Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest (London, 1962)

David Bates, William the Conqueror (London, 1989)

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