CONQUEST - 6: THE ROT SETS IN - Norman High-handedness Leads To Northern Risings

Despite advantages in warfare technology and trained cavalry, the Normans were still prone to surprise attack

The Norman cavalry could be cornered or ambushed in woodland or confined spaces - one such clash took place at the side of Caldbec Hill where it dipped into a ravine. The ravine went nowhere and the Normans were trapped, losing many to arrows or axes
The Norman cavalry could be cornered or ambushed in woodland or confined spaces - one such clash took place at the side of Caldbec Hill where it dipped into a ravine. The ravine went nowhere and the Normans were trapped, losing many to arrows or axes | Source

The new Norman state was in a state of turmoil

Norman cavalry - a 'conroi' could number around thirty men
Norman cavalry - a 'conroi' could number around thirty men | Source
An early castle built by the Normans - this one was at York in the area of Coppergate
An early castle built by the Normans - this one was at York in the area of Coppergate | Source
Norman crossbowman - the early crossbows were very simple but effective against an enemy largely unfamiliar with such weaponry
Norman crossbowman - the early crossbows were very simple but effective against an enemy largely unfamiliar with such weaponry | Source

Roger de Montgomerie was given the earldom of Shrewsbury where he raised a castle.

Together with the appointment of Hugh de Avranches to the new earldom of Chester, this signalled to Earl Eadwin the break-up of his earldom of Mercia. An innate distrust of William, his host for the past ten months in Normandy, had been fanned by the king going back on the promise of one of his daughters, Adeliza, in marriage. The withdrawal of the marriage offer presaged Roger's appointment. At the first chance, when everyone fussed over William's queen Matthilda and her young sons, Eadwin and his younger brother Morkere set out northward from London.

First they had to see to their sister Aelfgifu's safety in Chester, see her to a ship bound for Ireland with her young son Harold and then cast around to see who was still loyal to them. Left at Chester, their nephew would remind them of the reason their might was now on the wane. Dislike and mistrust of their brother-in-law had festered in their thoughts ever since his brother Tostig had been made Earl of Northumbria in AD1055. Hastening first northward to York and then back to London had weakened King Harold, even though he had won a hard battle against his wayward younger brother and the greed-driven Harald Sigurdsson ('Hardradi') at Stamford Bridge. Many months as the 'guests' of their new king in Normandy had given them time to think about their futures, if indeed they thought they had one as earls under William's kingship.

They went from Mercia into Wales for Eadwin to seek out Prince Bleddyn as a likelyally against the Normans. As they had no army to assure Bleddyn they could match his force at least man for man, he let them know he would enter into an alliance when they had enough men. Bleddyn's father had helped their father Aelfgar, they reasoned. After all it was not they but Harold and his brother Tostig who had defeated Gruffyd ap Llewellyn in AD1063. With both brothers out of the way now, there could be no reason for Bleddyn and his younger brother Rhiwallon to refuse help. They had, after all, helped Eadric 'Cild' against William fitzOsbern. But Bleddyn was unable to help, he said, because his men had dispersed into the hills with the spoils they had gained from defeating fitzOsbern's lieutenants at Hereford.

The brothers left for King Maelcolm's court to ask for help. Without first checking in York to see what was happening there, Morkere took his brother northward across the Dee and the Mersey into the western part of his earldom of Northumbria - the region known nowadays as Lancashire - and on to Westmorland.

In those days Westmorland, together with Carlisle, had been claimed by the Scots for their own, so they were effectively in Scotland as soon as they passed Great Whernside to their right (at 737 metres/2417 feet, the second highest of the three peaks). With the Lake District to the south-west they passed Carlisle. The Solway Firth shone dully to their left as they forded the River Eden and turned north-east for Teviot dalehead. The worst part would be climbing between Eskhead and Teviothead, a wild and unforgiving landscape at the northern limit of the Cheviots. However, once down to Kelso they could ride north for Stirling and cross the Forth. From Dunblane it would be only an undulating ride to the Tay and Scone beyond. This was a long ride in anyone's day, let alone in 1067. They could count themselves lucky if they reached Maelcolm's court within the week.

To the south a revolt was fanned by William's insistence on the nobles' submission, conveyed by Archbishop Ealdred of York in a missive. The Northumbrians tried to bargain with the king, as had the men of Exeter before them. His answer was to march on them, raising castles as he went north. The first, at Warwick was left in the care of Henry de Beaumont. From there he rode on to Nottingham where he entrusted the next castle to William Peverel. The building of Nottingham Castle set alarm bells ringing in York, and the keys to the city were taken, with hostages including Gospatric, son of Arnkell, to Nottingham to try to head off the king. William entered York unopposed and had a first castle built, on the site of which the squat, solid Clifford's Tower was subsequently erected. Robert fitzRichard was left as its castellan and William Malet was made the first Norman sheriff of Yorkshire. This show of naked force led many of the thegns to make peace. Meanwhile Aethelwin, Bishop of Durham was sent to talk terms with Maelcolm on behalf of William. Some of the nobles, including Earl Gospatric of Bamburgh, went north at around the same time to seek the help of the Scots' king against William.

William left York for Lincoln, where another castle was built and left to the care of Turold, who by 1070 was sheriff of Lincolnshire. Maerleswein had been the previous sheriff, appointed by Harold in 1066 to take over part of Northumbria as a catalyst to the errant Morkere after his defeat by Harald Sigurdsson. Hostages were taken from Lincoln, including a Thegn Thorgood. Two more castles were raised in Waltheof's earldom, at Huntingdon and at Grantchester (later Cambridge). By the autumn of 1068 William felt safe enough to dismiss his stipendiary knights. Some of his Normans also left for home, abandoning their English holdings.

William returned to Normandy at the end of the year, having appointed the Fleming Robert de Commines to the northern Northumbrian earldom of Bamburgh, as the earldom had already claimed one life since 1067: Earl Tostig's hated tithe collector Copsig had persuaded William in January, 1067 to make him earl but a 'welcoming committee' under Gospatric and his kinsman Osulf awaited at Newburn. The welcome proved less than cordial, memories of his brand of 'persuasion' lingered. Copsig had fled to a nearby church from the feasting hall at Newburn on Tyne, and on being forced out when the church was set on fire Osulf beheaded him. Commines' task threatened to be an uphill one!

De Commines took with him a sizeable force. In allowing them free rein, licensing their ravages and excesses to pay them off, he alienated the populace of Durham. Not even the domain of Cuthberht were spared. Nevertheless de Commines was received with full courtesy and honour by Bishop Aethelwin, who even warned of a plan to attack the earl.

At the end of January, 1069 the Northumbrians burst into Durham, killing all the Normans they could find in the streets, laid siege to the bishop's house where de Commines was in residence, and forcd him out by setting fire to the house. The earl was slain on trying to flee, like Copsig before him, along with the rest of his retinue.

In the aftermath of Earl Robert's death his killers planned a revolt on a broader scale. The earliest account - from the Norman view - was that of William of Jumieges:

"In a certain place in one county, rendered inaccessible both by water and by forest, they built a castle with a most powerful rampart which they called in their own language Durham. From there they made various attacks and then returned home to await the arrival of Svein, king of the Danes, to whom they had sent... for aid. They also. sent to enlist the people of York to their cause... Once united they furnished the city with an abundance of arms and money, prepared [themselves] for strong resistance and chose as their king a certain boy [Eadgar], nobly descended from the stock of King Eadward".

This account is close to the version in the Saxon Chronicle which records the arrival in York of Eadgar and the Northumbrian nobles after the killing of Robert de Commines.

One of the nobles was Gospatric, Earl of Bamburgh. With the exception of Maerleswein all the leaders were linked to the house of Bamburgh. Gospatric was a distant kinsman of Eadgar's. His mother Ealdgyth was a daughter of Ealdorman Uhtred (AD1006-16) by his third wife Aelfgifu, daughter of Aethelred II and great aunt to the aetheling.

As a young man Gospatric had served in the household of Earl Tostig and accompanied him and Earl Harold to Rome in AD1060. When the party was attacked by bandits Gospatric, who was richly attired as befitted his rank made out to be the earl, allowing his lords to escape. The robbers, impressed by his devotion to his earl allowed him to leave unharmed.

Gospatric may have been lucky. His uncle and namesake was murdered on the orders of Eadgytha, Tostig's older sister and queen to Eadward. It was due partly to this act that Tostig was ousted in his absence in 1065 for Morkere, despite eight years of rule without mishap. Morkere gave the ealdormanry of Bamburgh to Osulf, who was another nephew of the dead man.

The new state and its bounds

The earlier earldoms were divided up into 'manageable' chunks, shires were re-arranged, Norman, Breton, Flemish and Frankish barons, bishops and shire reeves were appointed by William
The earlier earldoms were divided up into 'manageable' chunks, shires were re-arranged, Norman, Breton, Flemish and Frankish barons, bishops and shire reeves were appointed by William

So you think you can trace your ancestry...

Not that many are willing to claim it, but do you think you are of Norman ancestry?

See results without voting

An outline of the effects of the Norman Conquest on British history. Some say this event proved to be the making of English, later also British history. From punctuating the landscape with castles the Normans also instituted social and boundary changes. Wessex - linked with Harold - disappeared, as did Northumbria, to be replaced with smaller, more manageable units we call counties - we also call them shires, as per pre-Conquest administrative use..

Normans in England

Many English historians have differing views on the influence the Normans had. There are some whose roots lay in Normandy, although they are by no means a majority. Elsewhere in the series you will see that there was inter-breeding with the English, Irish, Scots and Welsh. Only the nobility and merchants or tradesmen brought their wives and families. Only they could afford to. Nevertheless they had trusted English household servants, whet-nurses who raised the lords' children as English-speaking, their tutors only later steering them through the Norman French language. The rest had to find their creature comforts from amongst the general populace, themselves already a heady mixture of Angle, Celt, Dane, Jute, Saxon and West Norse (in the north-west, namely Norwegian or re-located from Ireland).

Next - 3: Infighting Within...

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