The Harrying – Unimaginable

Richmond Castle was founded in 1073, possibly as a staging post to conquer the north. It has never been breached.

I wrote in a previous blog about the unravelling of William the Conqueror’s good intentions.

This culminated in the Harrying of the North, an act of destruction from which many historians believe northern England has never fully recovered.

And all because William lost his temper

William in York

He had thought he’d won England in 1066 at Hastings.  But after three years of rebellion and insurgency, the north rose and destroyed two of his castles in York.

In the autumn of 1069, he hastened to the charred ruins of York and ordered his final solution.  Not only were people to be killed, villages destroyed, but, wrote Orderic vitalis ‘all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind be brought together and burned to ashes, so that the whole region north of the Humber be stripped of sustenance.’

The Scots attack too

As William retired from the river Tyne to harry Chester, the Scots (who at that time controlled Cumbria too), saw their chance and poured across the Pennines to add to the misery.  They harried from the Tyne to Holderness.  If anyone of working age was left alive, they rounded them up and took them back to Scotland as slaves. 

Land became waste

The Domesday book, compiled seventeen years later in 1086, records village after village as ‘waste’. Simeon, a chronicler from Durham, wrote that ‘no village was inhabited between York and Durham, they became lurking places places for wild beasts and robbers, and were a great dread to travellers.’


Barnard Castle commands the River Tees

William parcelled out the land to his followers, who built many castles. The castle was the overt sign of oppression.  At first, they were wooden palisades on earthen mounds, now just lumps and bumps in the land.  But some were rebuilt in stone and remain as imposing monuments.

 The land was worth nothing to the conquerors without peasants to work it.  The new barons rebuilt villages and tried to attract new tenants.  But one archaeologist I met said he’d excavated one of these houses, and it had remained unoccupied for a hundred years.  The north was waste.


Simeon of Durham, writing a few decades later, wrote of the horror.  Starving people ate dogs, cats – and human flesh.  The dead lay unburied, crawling with worms, for there was no one left to bury them.  The Scots took so many slaves that ‘no cottage was to be found without an English slave or handmaiden.’

It may be that slavery saved their lives. Many starving refugees died and fell by the roadside.

Some got as far as the monastery at Worcester, where chroniclers reported that the starving died even as they received food. It looks like a description of the ‘refeeding syndrome’ seen in survivors of Nazi concentration camps.


Chroniclers writing in the decades afterwards wrote that 100,000 people died.

The horror is unimaginable.  But, after discovering that my village was amongst the ‘harried’, imagine it is exactly what I set out to do.

Historical novel

I wrote my novel, Bladesmith, imagining what it might have been like to suffer this catastrophe. I’m now seeking an agent and publisher.  If you read this and are interested, please get in touch.

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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