The Harrowing (or sometimes the Harrying) of the North is the name given to the destruction inflicted on the northern counties of England by William the Conqueror after the battle of Hastings.
It might well have seemed to William the Bastard, duke of Normandy and
newly crowned king of England that with his victory at the battle of Hastings and the haste with which the great and the good of England had afterwards made their submission, that England was secure within his grasp.
He was mistaken in this belief as sporadic if determined resistance was to continue for some years to come, as explained in English Resistance to the Normans. In particular Norman control of England north of the Humber was far more fragile than it looked. Here was old Northumbria, old Jorvik where even the kings of Wessex trod carefully with due deference to local sensibilities.
In 1068 saw the first uprising in Northumbria against the new Norman king, and in the following year the appointment of Robert of Comines as Earl of Northumbria did not go down well with the locals and he and his small force were massacred at Durham. York revolted, killed the local Norman governor and burnt the newly built Norman castle.
As Orderic Vitalis explained;
The English now gained confidence in resisting the Normans, whom they saw as oppressors of their friends and allies, and dared to launch an attack on the royal castle in York.
A great deal of that increase in confidence was attributable to the arrival of a Danish
fleet in the river Humber
in the September of 1069, which persuaded a number of the leading figures in the north such as Waltheof Siwardson
, Edgar Aetheling
to join in the assault on York
William's response to this assault is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which stated that;
King William came on them by surprise from the south with an overwhelming army and routed them, killing those who could not escape - which was many hundreds of men - and he ravaged the city.
At which point in time one might sympathise with William's position; he had tried hard to work with the locals in finding a way to reconcile them to his new regime, but nothing seemed to work. So in his frustration he carried out what came to be considered the most notorious act of his reign, namely as Orderic Vitalis was to relate;
In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance. In consequence so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless populace, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.
Norman forces scoured the countryside "stopping at nothing to hunt out the enemy hidden there", killing those that they could find, burning homes, slaughtering livestock and generally devastated the land.
Nowhere else had William shown such cruelty. Shamefully he succumbed to this vice, for he made no effort to restrain his fury and punished the innocent with the guilty.
The point was of course to teach the natives a lesson and at the very least to render them incapable of sustaining any kind of future resistance. The response of the English was simple. Those that could, fled; either north to the King of Scots or south to the so called Camp of Refuge at Ely where Hereward the Wake was still holding out against the Norman invaders.
Even to a Norman such as Orderic Vitalis (although one with clear sympathies to the natives of England) such actions were not in accordance with the expected behavious of a good Christian king.
My narrative has frequently had occasion to praise William, but for this act which condemned the innocent and guilty alike to die by slow starvation I cannot commend him. For when I think of helpless children, young men in the prime of life, and hoary greybeards perishing alike of hunger I am so moved to pity that I would rather lament the griefs and suffering of the wretched people than make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such infamy.
He was later to claim that William himself was show remorse for his treatment of the poor inhabitants of the north and to record the following death bed repentance;
I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire.
In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops with all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of this fair people.
The harrowing of the north was so comprehensive that Simeon of Durham was to paint a similarly bleak vision of a devastated land writing that "it was horrible to observe in houses, streets and roads human corpses rotting ... for no one survived to cover them with earth, all having perished by the sword and starvation, or left the land of their fathers because of hunger" and claimed that "there was no village inhabited between York and Durham".
The extent to which the 'Harrowing' was actually as devastating as has been claimed is still a matter of some debate. Although previous generations of historians have generally accepted Orderic's account at face value and promulgated the notion that William I reduced Yorkshire and much of the north to the status of a wilderness, their more recent equivalents have had cause to doubt this traditional account.
Although Orderic Vitalis is sometimes described as a 'contemporary chronicler' he was actually writing some sixty years after the event, and from the perspective of the monastery of Saint Evroul in Normandy. His account of the harrowing may well have based on coloured and embroidered hearsay regarding the activities of a generation of men long since dead and buried. In particular the reference by Orderic to the death of "more than 100,000 Christian folk" is straight from the Department of Guesstimates: Medieval section and should probably be translated as 'a lot'; it is very unlikely to be an accurate assessment of the true death toll.
Much of the argument has centred around the interpretation of the information contained in the Domesday Book of 1086. This records that over a third of the feudal townships in Yorkshire had against them the description "now the king has it and it is waste" or similar, which is seen by some as evidence of the destruction wrought by William. Others however argue that 'waste' should be taken to mean that the land was simply untenanted or that the commissioners had simply failed to record any information regarding that particular location.
It has also been noted that some of the very manors that one would most expect to have been effected by William's wrecking spree, namely those belonging to the leaders of the rebellion often appear to have escaped destruction, despite their proximity to York and their accessibilty therefore to William's campaign of retribution.
Against this there is however the contemporary evidence of a cleric named Hugh the Chanter, who stated that the city of York "and the whole district around it was destroyed by the French" through "famine and flames". The Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, also a reasonably contemporary account of events states, as regards Yorkshire, that "the king William went into that shire and completely did for it".
A more considered opinion regarding the Harrowing would be that of Richard Fletcher writing that;
William did, as he intended to do, a great deal of punative damage and inflicted much human suffering, but it is impossible to belive that the damage could ever have been as extensive as the distant Orderic alleged