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The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North was a series of campaigns waged by William the Conqueror in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate Northern England, and is part of the Norman conquest of England. It effectively ended the quasi-independence of the region through wide-scale destruction that resulted in the relative "pacification" of the local population and the replacement of local Anglo-Danishmarker lords with Normans. 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.


With the abdication of Edgar Ætheling from the kingship of Englandmarker in December 1066, the population of northern England found itself bereft of the state protection which a king provided, for William's victory had not been secured there. Despite their never having sworn allegiance to Edgar, William considered the northerners rebels as they were within the realm of King Edward, whom he regarded as his direct predecessor.

Pre-conquest society can be described as “Anglo-Scandinavian” carrying a cultural continuity from a mixing of Viking and Anglo-Saxon traditions. It was reported that the dialect of English spoken in Yorkshiremarker was unintelligible to people from the south of England, the aristocracy was primarily Danish in origin, and the Anglo-Saxon kings were said to only exercise a limited amount of power in the shire.

William secured the situation in Northumbria with the quick appointment of 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 also 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 but was immediately defeated. He fled to the court of King Malcolm III of Scotland and there married his sister Margaret to the Scottish king in expectation of assistance. Upon receiving the assistance, he began to plot with the king of Denmark, Sweyn II, a nephew of King Canute. With his allied forces he invaded in 1069 to claim the crown to which the old Witan had once elevated him. It was at this time, on 28 January, that the rebels converged on Durhammarker 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 Yorkmarker, but made no other headway and the Northumbrians proclaimed no independent state. William promptly dispatched an army north to stop the attempted restoration of the West Saxon line to the throne. 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 Humbermarker to Teesmarker, 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 land was salted to destroy its productivity for decades forward. 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. A plague followed.

Even some who were usually in support of William and the Normans were horrified by his actions.

Aftereffects and Legacy

Having effectively subdued the population, William carried out a wholesale replacement of Anglo-Saxon leaders with Norman ones in Yorkshire. He granted Alain Le Roux the Honour of Richmond in 1071 giving him control of York. As a result of the demographic decimation, Norman landowners sought settlers to work the agricultural fields. Evidence suggests that such barons were willing to rent lands to any men not obviously disloyal. Unlike the Vikings in the centuries before, Normans did not settle wholesale in the shire, but only occupied the upper ranks of society. This allowed an Anglo-Scandinavian culture to survive beneath Norman rule. Evidence for continuity can be seen in the retention of many cultural traits:

It was not until 1072 that William appointed another Earl of Northumbria, William Walcher Bishop of Durham 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 theoretically uncontested.

From the Norman point of view, the strategy was a complete success, as large areas, including regions as far 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.

However this view is contested by the writings of Symeon of Durham in his Libellus De Exordio Atque Procursu Istius, Hoc Est Dunhelmensis, Ecclesie in which he states after the 1080 murder of Walcher Bishop of Durham by the local Northumbrians, King William rode up with an army and laid waste all the lands from York to Durham. The implication here being that a second laying 'waste' implied a general sacking, and that contemporary records were guilty of exaggerating the extent of the Harrying.

See also


  1. Forester, Thomas, ed., The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854, Pg 174
  2. Dalton, Paul et al., Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship: Yorkshire, 1066–1154, Cambridge University Press 2002, ISBN 0-5215-2464-4, p298
  3. Kapelle, William E. The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and its Transformation 1000–1135. University of North Carolina Press, 1979, p11.
  4. Forester, Thomas, ed., The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854, p174
  5. Rollason 2000


  • Stenton, Sir Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition. Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • Hynde, Thomas (ed). The Domesday Book: England's History Then and Now. 1995.
  • Kapelle, William E. The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and its Transformation 1000–1135. University of North Carolina Press, 1979. p.11.
  • Rollason, D. 2000: Symeon of Durham, Libellvs De Exordio Atqve Procvrsv Istivs, Hoc Est Dvnhelmensis, Ecclesie. New York

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