The Unravelling of William the Conqueror’s Good Intentions

In my last blog post, I wrote about William the Conqueror’s Good Intentions. He wished to rule as a just, legal, God-appointed King.

So, what went wrong?

William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror, pictured in the Bayeux Tapestry

William the Conqueror would have been admired today for his PR.  He constantly maintained that he was the rightful king of England, by inheritance from his Great Aunt Emma, King Edward’s mother. 

He conveniently forgot that in England at that time, the succession was not fixed by birth, as it is today.  In those days, the Witan, the council of wise men, selected the member of the royal family who they believed would do the best job.  On Edward’s death, they chose his brother in law, Harold, for their new king.

William’s stance was one of many of what EA Freeman names ‘legal fictions’ played by William.  Today, we might call it ‘spin’.

One of William’s ‘legal fictions’ was that, as he was legal king, those who fought against him at Hastings were guilty of treason.  Hence, their possessions were forfeit.

Another was that, when he visited Normandy in 1067, the English nobles accompanying him were honoured guests.  They were actually hostages.

William declared that the whole country was ‘Terra Regis’.  (Land of the King).  At a stroke, every single landowner in England had to apply to the king to reinstate their rights.  These came with strings attached: first, featly to the King must be sworn.  Often, a payment also had to be made.

William thought it was his divinely appointed due.  The English felt that people were forced to buy back their own land. 

William also demanded increased taxes.  He had expected, after Hastings, to pay off his mercenaries, and take smooth control of England.

But it didn’t happen like that.  William had to keep his mercenaries to force obedience from the English.  Those mercenaries had to be paid, and so William increased the taxes of his new dominion.

The first to rebel, in February 1068, was Exeter.  Exeter, in the far south west, was a walled city in the tidal reaches of a great river.  It was a rich trading town, and, in 1068, Exeter’s Aldermen sent William a message saying that they would make no oaths to him, but that they would pay him the ‘tribute’ they had been accustomed to pay to previous kings.  These were lower than average, as Exeter, along with London and York, enjoyed special privileges.

William was infuriated.  He demanded total loyalty and obedience – and the taxes that HE decided.

He summoned an army – for the first time, it included the English Fyrd, country men called up for a fixed service.  These were not great nobles, but middling sorts of men, men who had little choice but to ‘roll with the flow’.  What they thought about being conscripted to put down rebellion of their own countrymen has gone unrecorded.

William raced to Exeter, pausing only to ‘harry’  – i.e. pillage and burn – Dorchester, Wareham, Bridport and Shaftesbury along the way.

The fear generated by this tactic did its work. As William approached the city, the Aldermen of Exeter sent a message of abject surrender.  As was normal at the time, hostages were given to secure the deal.

However, the Aldermen, it seems, did not speak for the majority.  As William approached, the gates of the city were locked against him. 

William retaliated.  One of the unfortunate hostages was blinded – his eyes ‘put out’ in full view of the city walls.

This served only to harden the resolve of Exeter’s citizens.  They withstood William’s siege for 18 days, and were defeated only when William sent tunnelers to undermine the city walls.

Exeter was crushed, and many men of the west country were punished by confiscation of their land.

With the West Country subdued, William returned to London.  But in the summer, the midlands rose.  In what appears to be a co-ordinated rising, the northern Earls, and the Welsh, gathered their followers at Warwick.

But William rode against them, and his reputation, it seems, terrorised the Earls.  At the last moment, they surrendered. 

William then went on a circular tour.  He built castles at Warwick, Nottingham,  York, Lincoln, Cambridge and Huntingdon. He left every castle garrisoned with his own troops: a garrison to keep the local populace under control.

In January 1069, he sent a garrison even further north, to Durham.  These troops, however, were massacred by the locals.  Their success galvanised locals to attack the castle in York.

William raced to York for vegeance.  He terrorised the city, and garrisoned a second castle.

At each garrison, soldiers committed abuses.  Homes, farms, land, somehow became the property of William’s followers.  Goods were stolen – the Archbishops of York was in dispute with the garrison because his cart of grain had been diverted into the castle. 

And so it went on.  Dispossesed English men took to the woods and mountains, lived as outlaws, and harassed parties of Normans as and when they could.  The Normans, feeling the danger, ventured out only in large, armed parties.  They were conquerors, but they were under siege.

Things came to a head when the King of Denmark (who was King Harold’s cousin) finally responded to pleas from the English for help.   He sent a force to York.

Here, in September 1069, the Danes, allied with the English, destroyed the Normans in York.  The city was burned down in the fighting – but two castles and their garrisons were killed.

Traditionally, no-one fought in winter, and with the city  destroyed, the Danes and English withdrew to wait out the winter before going south to attack William in London.

It was a fatal error.  William, determined to assert his God-given Kingship, defied convention.  He raced north, and unleashed his ‘Harrying of the North’. 

A woman flees a burning home in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Pic from Wikimedia commons,

Villages from the Humber to Durham, to Chester, were destroyed, the people killed, the houses burned.  William specifically ordered that livestock and winter supplies were also burned, so that those who avoided direct murder would die by starvation.

And die they did.  Chroniclers report that bodies lay scatttered on the ground, because there was no one left alive to bury them.  Those few who survived were forced to eat ‘forbidden’ foods such as dogs, cats – and human flesh.

EA Freeman, the doyen of Conquest studies, wrote, “William was now lord of Northumberland; but, in being lord of Northumberland, he was lord only of a wilderness.”


“The Norman Conquest”; by Edward A Freeman MacMillan, 1871

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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