The Northern Powerhouse of 1065

We hear the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ soundbite from time to time.  But in 1065, a year before the Norman Conquest, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ flexed its muscles.

House on fire.  Pic from Pixabay

The ‘North’, the mythical place signposted on the M1, was in those days called ‘Northumbria’. Once a separate kingdom, conquered by Wessex in 927, it stretched from the River Humber to the Scottish Border. 

Northumbria was governed on behalf of the King by an Earl.  The Earl in 1065 was Tostig Godwinson.  He was brother to Harold, Earl of Wessex and right hand man of King Edward, ‘the Confessor’.

Tostig, though, was the King’s favourite.  Although Earl of Northumbria, he spent much of his time in Wessex, home of the King’s palace at Winchester. 

The king preferred either to pray, or to hunt, and largely left the running of the country to Harold.  Edward liked to hunt with Tostig, who he was said to ‘love greatly’.

The Northerners, however, did not love Tostig.  From this distance, it’s hard to see what their complaints were: scribes, mindful of their careers, were reluctant to write ill of the King’s favourite.

But, there were rumours of excessive taxation.  Of over-harsh justice. Of Illegal land seizures, and desecration of important religious shrines.  There were mysterious deaths of local magnates: magnates who might possibly have made more popular Earls of Northumbria. 

In September 1065, the Northumbrians lost patience with Tostig.  They attacked his palace in York.  They massacred his 300-strong security guard, and took control of the treasury.

They also took control of the weapons.  With them, they headed south.  At Northampton, they met allies.  Together, they sent a message to the King, demanding that Tostig go, and that they choose their own earl, one Morcar.

Morcar was brother of Edwin, the Earl of Mercia.  Edwin was the only Earl in the country who was not a Godwinson.  (Harold and Tostig’s two other brothers were also Earls). 

Handily, Morcar arrived in Northampton with the support of his brother’s Mercian army.  Their friends the Welsh also came, bringing their troops too.

The King was at Britford, in Wessex.  The armies of the Midlands, the North, and Wales, were lined up against him in Northampton.

What should Edward do?  Should he call his own troops?  Could he summon enough men to face down these three combined armies?  Should he hasten to Northampton for soothing peace talks?

Whatever Edward should have done, what he actually did was to send Tostig’s brother, Harold, to sort out the problem.

Did he not realise that the man just might have been a little biased?  Even if Harold wasn’t biased, might onlookers believe him to be? Was Edward simply being lazy, not even giving it any thought? Did he automatically send his right-hand-man, as usual, to deal with any and all problems?

Or, was Edward ill, a first sign, unsuspected at the time, that he was to die in a few months time?

We can’t know.

In the event, Harold went to Northampton and attempted to persuade the Northumbrians to accept Tostig and go home quietly.  The Northerners refused.  To show how serious they were, they did a little light ‘harrying’ of Northampton.

Pity the poor people of Northampton.  The harrying, intended to show King Edward that the Northerners meant business, involved burning houses, stealing cattle – and enslaving those unfortunate residents who they were able to capture.

Harold had to go to King Edward and explain that the Northerners were not for turning – and that they had the combined troops of Mercia, Northumbria and Wales.  Did the King want civil war?

King Edward and Earl Harold had no choice but to give in to the Northerners’ demands.  Tostig was exiled.  Morcar became Earl.  King Edward ‘renewed the laws of Cnut’.

It’s difficult to discover what ‘renewing the laws of Cnut’ exactly meant.  I suspect it meant restoring a more favourable level of taxation in Northumbria, that had been the norm before Tostig became Earl.

Following the King’s capitulation, the Northerners went home, happy that all their demands had been met. 

Unfortunately, they had no idea of the price they would pay.

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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