The Harrying of the North and the Danes

Danish army did not oppose William the Conqueror.
The Danish army did nothing while William the Conqueror Harried the North.

Who were the Danes?

When the Danish fleet arrived in the River Humber in September 1069, they were greeted with rejoicing.  English resistance fighters flocked to them.  The combined armies marched on York and destroyed the Norman garrisons there.

So where were the Danes when William the Conqueror Harried the North?

Danes had settled in England for generations. So once northern England understood the character of William the Conqueror, they began sending messages to their cousins the Danes, begging for help.

It wasn’t only the people who were cousin to the Danes.  King Swein of Denmark was cousin to dead King Harold, and nephew of King Cnut.

Danish kings of England

Cnut was England’s Danish king.  He built an ‘Empire of the North Sea’, as king of England, Denmark and Norway. After a bloody start, he had a long and relatively peaceful reign.  After his death in 1035, in northern England, Cnut’s reign took on the aura of a golden era.  In rebellions against both Earl Tostig and King William, Yorkshire men demanded a return to the laws of Cnut.

Cnut the Great was king of Denmark, Norway and England
Cnut the Great was king of Denmark, Norway and England

William claimed he had the right to be king of England through his great aunt Emma, who was Cnut’s second wife.  King Swein Estrithsson of Denmark was King Cnut’s nephew, and also cousin to the dead King Harold of England. Swein’s blood was closer to England’s throne than William’s.

Why did Swein Estrithsson not claim England?

This is one of the great questions of the Conquest, one to which I have yet to discover a definitive answer.

But I suspect a great deal was due to his long-running war with Harald ‘Hardrada’ of Norway.  After Cnut died in 1035, his Empire of the North Sea fragmented. After some years of confusion, Norway was ruled by Harald ‘Hardrada’, Denmark by Swein Estrithsson, and England by Edward the Confessor.

But Harald of Norway wanted Denmark too.  In 1050, Harald and Swein embarked upon a long and bitter war that only ended when Harald Hardrada was tempted to England, where he died in 1066.

Maybe after all those years of war, Swein had seen enough of foreign adventures?  Maybe his coffers were empty?  Maybe he needed to attend to things at home?

Finally, the Danes come…

Whatever the reasons for the delay, in 1069, Swein finally turned his attention to England.  But fatally, he sent his brother, Jarl Osbeorn, to lead the fleet.

The Danes arrived in September 1069, and after three years of brutal oppression from William, English resistance fighters flocked to the Danes.

Their united armies attacked the Norman garrisons in York.  The Normans were all killed, fire ran unchecked, and destroyed all of the city. 

The destruction of the city was a critical blow.  No longer fit to live in, the victors let go of their strategic win, left the city and retired to their boats on the river Humber.

Traditionally, the Danes neither travelled nor battled in winter.  They would wait out the winter, then sail south, where their king had arranged to meet them in spring.

William: master of warfare AND psychology

William surprised the Danes – and the English –  by breaking tradition.  Furious at the loss of his garrisons in York, he immediately marched north – in winter.  Yorkshire resistance fighters gathered on the banks of the River Aire and broke the bridge at Pontefract, to prevent William entering the county.

But while William sent troops upriver to seek an alternative crossing, he sent secret messengers downriver to Jarl Osbeorn.

William was a master of warfare. But he was also master of psychology.  He used war as a last resort, not a first.  His secret messengers carried an offer to Jarl Osbeorn.  An offer to appeal to Osbeorn’s dark side.

And Jarl Osbeorn fell for it.  He took the bribe.  In return for William’s money, the Danes would not defend the English as William’s troops poured into Yorkshire. 

Never mind that, after William’s harrying destroyed northern food stores, the Danes also starved.

Never mind that when King Swein discovered his brother’s betrayal, he was distraught. Not only did Swein lose his chance of England, the Danes lost their self-respect. They had betrayed their cousins.

Never mind that Swein outlawed Osbeorn.  It was too late.

The damage was done.

William could destroy the North, undisturbed by one of the best armies in the known world.

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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