What was the Harrying of the North?
The Harrying of the North was a series of military campaigns in the northern shires of England in the winter of 1069 – 1070 by the Normans against the Anglo-Dane population.
William the Conqueror had defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. However, the English had continued to resist and this was focussed on Edgar Aetheling, the grandson of Edmund Ironside. The presence of Edgar in the north, a history of autonomy stretching back to 962 when Edgar the Peaceful had legally recognised the different status of the region and a tradition of Anglo-Danish truculence all leant itself to rebellion which broke out periodically.
William decided that the region needed to be brought to heel after it rose again in revolt 1069 at the instigation of Edgar and the arrival of a fleet from King Sweyn of Denmark. William marched north from Nottingham to York with his army but the rebels, who had occupied the city, fled. William then went on to buy off the Danes, paying them a considerable sum of money to leave without a fight.
The Danes now out of the picture and the English rebels seemingly not willing to face him in a pitched battle, William decided to punish the population instead. Defenceless as they were, William and his Norman warriors slaughtered the people indiscriminately, burning farms and crops and killing life stock. The destruction was so complete that any people surviving the murderous rampage would go on to starve to death, when winter arrived, due to the destruction of the crops and animals.
The level of destruction is reflected in the Domesday Book of 1086. In records for Yorkshire, entries showing ‘hoc est vast’ (it is wasted) accounts for 60% of holdings. An estimated 25% of the population remained and a loss of 150,000 people and 80,000 oxen are recorded.
The result of the Harrying, outside the massive loss of life and destruction, was the replacement of the upper levels of society with Normans. The Normans however, unlike the Danes, did not settle the land with new populations. The Anglo Danes at the lower levels of society continued to be the majority and their traditions continued.
From a Norman perspective the Harrying was a success in that the North was subdued and the modern revulsion at the genocidal destruction was not a consideration.
Unknown: ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘
Rex, Peter: ‘The English Resistance‘