Harrying of the North

The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North was a series of campaigns waged by William the Conqueror, king of England, in the winter of 10691070 in order to subjugate the north of his newfound English kingdom (primarily Northumbria and the Midlands). The north at the time was a land of many free farmers and Scandinavians, and the Harrying suppressed their independent way of life. The death toll is believed to be 150,000, with substantial social, cultural, and economic damage. Due to the scorched earth policy, much of the land was laid waste and depopulated, a fact to which Domesday Book, written almost two decades later, readily attests.


After the abdication of Edgar the Aetheling (whom William had never recognised anyway) from the kingship of England in December 1066, the population of northern England found themselves bereft of the state protection which a king provided, for William's victory had not been secured there. Due to their mixed Anglo-Scandinavian identity, they preferred as their kings members of the House of Munsö of Sweden or the Fairhair Dynasty of Norway, or the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex. Despite their never having sworn allegiance to him, William considered the northerners rebels as they were within the realm of King Edward, whom he regarded as his direct predecessor.

The situation in Northumbria was secured by William by the quick appointment Copsi, a native who had done homage to William, as earl. The appointment did not last as Copsi was murdered by Osulf, son of Earl Eadulf III of Bernicia, whose family had long been rulers of Bernicia and at times Northumbria also. When the usurping Osulf was killed, his cousin, Cospatrick, bought the earldom from William. He was not long in power before he joined the Aetheling in rebellion in 1068. With support of Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, the deposed earl of Northumbria, Edgar rebelled against the new king and was defeated immediately. He fled to the court of King Malcolm III of Scotland and there married his sister Margaret to the Scotch king in return for assistance. This he received and he began to plot with the king of Denmark, Sweyn II, a nephew of King Canute. In 1069, he and his allied forces invaded again to claim the crown to which the old Witan had once elevated him. It was at this time that, on 28 January, the rebels converged on Durham and murdered the newly-named earl Robert de Comines, a Norman who ignored the advice of William's ally, the bishop of Durham, Ethelwin.

The Harrying

At that juncture, Ethelwin abandoned the pro-Norman camp (the only English prelate to do so) and a mixed army of Gaels, Vikings, and Angles fell on the north to secure the throne for the old dynasty. The army captured York, but made no other headway and the Northumbrians proclaimed no independent state. William promptly and without delay marched an army north, violently razing all the way, to devastate the illegitimate Saxon prince. Again Edgar fled to Scotland and, for the first time in many years, the king of England paid the Danes to leave his soil.

From the Humber to Tees, William's men burnt whole villages and slaughtered the inhabitants. Foodstores and livestock were destroyed so that anyone surviving the initial massacre would soon succumb to starvation over the winter. The survivors were reduced to cannibalism, with one report stating that the skulls of the dead were cracked open so that the brains could be eaten.


William granted Alan of Brittany the fief of Richmondshire in 1071.

It was not until 1072 that William appointed another earl in Northumbria and the Scots made peace. It was, further, not until 1074 that Edgar and William made peace and William's hold on the crown was not even theoretically opposed.

From the Norman point of view, the tactics were a complete success, as large areas, including regions as south and west as Staffordshire, were waste (wasta est, as Domesday says) and further rebellions of any substance did not occur. Contemporary biographers of William considered it to be his cruelest act and a stain upon his soul, but the deed was little mentioned before Whig history and was not mainstream knowledge until then.

The effect on the north was immense and, in economic terms, there was a great inequality between North and South until the Late Middle Ages and later. In the fifteenth century, the Council of the North was enacted to repair some of these inequities.

The north of England despite the economic boom triggered by the Industrial Revolution, has remained the poorer half of England to this day.


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