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Conquest - 11: Uprising in Northumbria - the Struggle Begins Anew for Unity Against William

Updated on July 1, 2019

From September 1066 England would undergo changes that decided the fates of many for centuries to come...

Beginning with the Norse attack on York, September 20th, reversal at Stamford Bridge 25th, Harold's fall near Hastings October 14th... this would be the thin end of the wedge that saw William as king by Christmas 1066
Beginning with the Norse attack on York, September 20th, reversal at Stamford Bridge 25th, Harold's fall near Hastings October 14th... this would be the thin end of the wedge that saw William as king by Christmas 1066 | Source
Angered by Exeter closing its gates to him late in 1067, William set  the Norman military machine into action with the northward spread of his lords and vassals. By 1074 the takeover was virtually complete but for outlaws - 'Green Men' - in the wilds
Angered by Exeter closing its gates to him late in 1067, William set the Norman military machine into action with the northward spread of his lords and vassals. By 1074 the takeover was virtually complete but for outlaws - 'Green Men' - in the wilds

Despite family feuds in the North, anger against Norman high-handedness grew. The spark ignited finally against Robert de Commines

[William was crowned on Christmas Day, 1066 at Eadward's West Mynster abbey church. The event turned into a fracas when Normans posted outside to guard the doors heard shouting within. This was the English acclamation for the new king, and was interpreted as an attempt on their lord's life. Houses were burnt down, people killed or injured. It was a warning of things to come. Before William left England after the New Year, early in 1067, he made former Earl Tostig Godwinson's tax gatherer Copsig the new Earl of Northumbria. Before he had settled in at Newburn on Tyne and the welcoming feast begun Copsig was dead, killed by Osulf of Bernicia. Osulf was a kinsman of Earl Gospatric, the encumbent lord of northern Northumbria].

Having returned late in 1067 William appointed a new earl, the Fleming Robert de Commines. By summer, 1068 Robert and his retinue were dead, warned against their excesses by Bishop Aethelwin of Durham. The warnings were ignored and Robert's men ran roughshod over the people of Durham. A rebellion in the summer saw the Flemish earl burned out of his lodgings. After fleeing to the bishop's house that too was set on fire and he was cut down with those few of his men still alive.

Shortly afterwards the last of the 'Cerdicingas' - the royal house of Wessex - Eadgar the Aetheling arrived in York with the Northumbrian nobles and the province rose as one. The Norman knight Robert fitzRichard and his men were caught beyond the safety of their wooden castle walls and were slaughtered to a man. The remaining Normans at York under William Malet shut themselves up behind their walls and sent to the king for help. William returned from Normandy and sped north with alarming haste, rivalling Harold II's march north in mid- September 1066. Like Harold he took his enemy wholly unaware with overwhelming force and routed them. Many could not flee in time and were cut down savagely. When satisfied he had achieved his aim William stayed in York for a week, having a second castle built across the river from the first (at Baille Hill, at the southern end of the present Skeldergate Bridge). He appointed the Fleming Gilbert de Ghent as castellan at this new site and left for the south to celebrate Easter in Winchester. De Ghent sent an expedition of Flemish knights to Durham to teach the citizens a lesson for killing his fellow countryman, but the men were engulfed by a 'black fog', said by Northumbrians to have been brought down on them by Saint Cuthbert to protect his flock. The Normans had no explanation to offer to William for their failure.

William fitzOsbern was left by the king to 'mop up' at York and left shortly before Easter to rejoin William at Winchester for the festivities. The king sent his queen Mathilda back to Normandy with his young sons Robert and William for their safety (Henry had still not been born). He had good reason to do so. The leaders of the rebellion were still at large. However, many had left for Scotland with Eadgar 'the aetheling', the rightful heir to Edward. During the summer fresh recruits joined the cause including Earl Waltheof, the son of Earl Siward who had died in 1055. Too young to succeed his father to the earldom, he was passed over in favour of Harold's brother Tostig. When Tostig was ousted in 1065 by the Northumbrian nobles Waltheof was passed over again for Earl Eadwin's younger brother Morkere. To ease Waltheof's pain King Harold had created a new earldom for him, Middle Anglia. King William had confirmed him in his earldom early in 1067, so why did he opt to join the rebels? It may have been he felt alarmed at the way William had castles thrown up near Huntingdon and Cambridge on his way back to London from York . Feeling threatened by the new oppressive regime, his earldom overshadowed by a greater Norman presence, Waltheof was now back in Northumbria - his old stamping ground. He owned large tracts of land east of York, and enjoyed William's favour, so his reaction to William's castle building around his earldom is hard to fathom.

Another newcomer was Siward 'Bearn', who held a manor in Deira (Yorkshire). Most of his land, however, was in the midlands, in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire. He is listed amongst those pre-Conquest lords 'with sake and soke' in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. Some of the lesser thegns of the north may have been his dependants, his tenants. Siward 'Bearn' was yet another member of the 'Bamburgh clan', identified with Siward son of Aethelgar who was a great nephew of Eadward 'the Confessor' and deemed a descendant of Ealdorman Uhtred of Bamburgh and King Aethelred's daughter Aelfgifu. Siward 'Bearn' cannot however be the same man because he was imprisoned after the fall of Ely in 1071 and left England into exile and service with the Byzantine emperor's Varangian Guard.

In joining the rebellion, Waltheof drew in men from his lands East Anglia and the south-eastern midlands. Amongst these, Skalpi had been a huscarl with Earl, later King Harold II, holding lands in Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk of just over 7 hides. Skalpi was a median thegn, who formed the rank and file of the revolt. He died at York 'in outlawry'. That East Anglians were involved in the York rising is further supported by the names of some of the exiles taken in by the king of Denmark, Svein Estrithsson. There was Aelfwold, abbot of St. Benet's Holm, for one. He had been entrusted by King Harold with the defence of the east coast in 1066. with him were at least two of his men, Eadric 'the steersman' and Ringolf of Oby. There was also Aethelsige, administrator at the fenland abbey of Ramsey, away from his own priory of St.Augustines at Canterbury.

Another well-known name that shows amongst the East Anglians who fought at York the following year, 1069, was Hereward of Bourne (mistakenly labelled Hereward 'the Wake', his Norman successor took the appellation in hoping it would make him 'fit in' better into his new surroundings).

See description below
See description below | Source

After his coronation at Christmas, 1066 rebellion began against William. Risings sprang up from early 1067 to 1071. Few wanted William as king. Harold's sons raided in the west from Ireland, his eldest son Godwin seeing himself as king.

Rebellion in Durham in 1068 saw Flemish earl Robert de Commines and his men slain to the last man. York's wooden castles were burnt, and rebuilt - in wood again - destroyed a year later when the Northern earls advanced on York together with the Danes. William had much of the land razed in Shropshire, Cheshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in reprisal.

Hereward of Bourne and English nobles held Ely against William over winter, 1070-71. He was ready to concede defeat when a ruse came to him. He threatened Abbot Thurstan with handing the abbey's lands to his followers. In return Thurstan let him know of a little-known way onto the isle. Osprey's campaign book describes everything you've never been told in history classes at school about the Conquest.

Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry - it was the Norman cavalry that their enemies were wary of...
Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry - it was the Norman cavalry that their enemies were wary of...

The nature of the rebellion to put Eadgar on the throne in 1069

led to the Norman stronghold at York being taken by the alliance of Eadgar's friends in Northumbria and Jarl Osbeorn's Danes. With Jarl Osbeorn had come a fleet of over two hundred ships led by King Svein's brother Osbeorn, his nephews Harald and Knut as well as Jarl Thorkill and Bishop Christian of Aarhus.

The allies' losses in York were high, yet the king's shire reeve (sheriff) William Malet, his castellan Gilbert de Ghent and few Normans lived to tell the tale. Malet and his family were taken hostage by the Danes. They were treated well, after all, they had to be kept well as surety of their own safety although the king's brother Robert of Mortain kept trying to outwit the Danes. Having no ships, Robert was in a bad position. Each time he came close Osbeorn's fleet crossed the Humber, back and forth until the Normans gave up trying to corner them. They overwintered on the Isle of Axholme in the north of Lincolnshire. All was still in balance, however. With William's 'Harrying of the North' resulting in North Lincolnshire, much of Yorkshire, Cheshire and Shropshire was laid waste. Many of the Danes died and many fewer left these shores early in 1070 than had come in the summer of 1069. King William paid off the Danes with gold and silver taken from the many abbeys. Taxes on the few landholders left after the wasting of land around them would not have raised much for a sop, with the destruction of livestock and the dispersal of the inhabitants adding to their woes.

Of those who had aided the aetheling and taken the Norman stronghold, a number rode north to Scotland with him. Others left for the eastern shires, sheltering in the Fenlands. Hereward was one of them, Siward 'Barn' was another... .

See also 5: Cuthbert's Cloud

© 2010 Alan R Lancaster


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