English history: how heavy was the Norman yoke?

In the years before 1066, English history was chugging along very nicely, thanks, with the Anglo-Saxon and Norse royal houses at each other’s throats, as they had been for long enough that everyone thought, Well, families, you know. They’re like that. Because by then they were family, and that was part of the problem. They’d intermarried enough that it wasn’t always clear who was supposed to inherit the chairs, the dishes, the crown. 

It wasn’t what you’d call peace, but at least everyone knew more or less what to expect. 

Then the Normans invaded. In no time at all (as history measures these things) the family broke apart. The Norse became distant relatives who the Anglo-Saxon didn’t see anymore–except, of course, for the ones who’d settled in England. A lot of them had done that in the north, and the Anglo-Saxons saw them all the time but they didn’t seem quite as Norse as they once had, what with the Normans stomping through. By comparison, they seemed positively–English.

Or so I like to think. You won’t find that in any of the history books. 

Just something to break up the text. It has nothing to do with anything.

Irrelevant photo: erigeron

The new outsiders, the Normans, replaced England’s governing class (with themselves, you’ll be surprised to learn), along with its language (sort of; it’s complicated and we’ll leave it alone for now) and its social structure (mostly; everything’s complicated when you give it enough thought). People who’d once been free became serfs–tied to the land and subject to the lord of the manor and his whims. 

See the end of the post for the grain of salt that goes with that last sentence.

Some 600 years later, during England’s Civil War, people who wanted to level out the country’s massive inequalities (called, surprisingly enough, the Levellers) talked nostalgically about the time before the Norman yoke was imposed on free Anglo-Saxon England. That was what they wanted–the freedom the land and its people had once known.

So just how free was Anglo-Saxon society?

Well, it depended on who you were. Free men were free. Free women were freer than they’d be again for many a century, or at least free women upper-class women were. Less is known about free women further down the social ladder. Slaves, though, were anything but free, and although the poorest peasants weren’t slaves, their situation sounds a lot like serfdom, which is somewhere between slavery and freedom.

Let’s work our way through it–or at least as much as I’ve been able to wring out of the internet and the books I have at hand. It won’t be a full picture. So much about Anglo-Saxon England has been lost.

Slavery

In Anglo-Saxon England, people could be born into slavery or they could be enslaved as a penalty for some crime. They could be captured in war, and capturing slaves was as important a reason to go to war as capturing land was. Finally, children could be sold into slavery by their parents and adults could make themselves into slaves. Both of those were probably desperate steps that people took in the face of famine.

There was a well-established slave trade, both within England and to other countries. So slavery’s roots reached deep into the economy. Bristol was a slave port, trading with the Viking merchants based in Ireland.

Slavery wasn’t necessarily a permanent condition, although it could be. Slaves could buy their way out; they could marry out of slavery; or they could be freed by their owners. It wasn’t uncommon for people to free a few slaves in their wills. Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, speculates that people freeing slaves in their wills could, at times, have been done it with an eye toward not imposing the liability an older, unproductive slave on their heirs. She doesn’t offer any hard evidence for that, just raises the possibility. Either way, freeing a slave seems to have been considered a pious act. 

Not that Christianity pitted itself against slavery. Toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, ecclesiastical landowners had more slaves than lay people did. 

What did slaves do? They were plowmen, stockmen, beekeepers, dairymaids, swineherds, seamstresses, weavers, domestic servants, concubines, cooks, millers, and priests. 

I’m not sure what to make of priests being on that list, but it’s very much a part of the picture.  

Crawford writes about Anglo-Saxon slave owners having reciprocal obligations to their slaves–primarily to keep them fed and clothed, but also, possibly, to train some of them for skilled jobs. They also had the power to beat their slaves–not, she says, because slaves were considered a lower form of human but because Anglo-Saxon law punished transgressions with fines, and they couldn’t fine someone who couldn’t pay, so they fell back on physical punishment. 

Is she right about the reciprocal nature of Anglo-Saxon slavery? I’d have to hear it from the slaves before I’d be convinced, but they left no record. 

HIstory Today paints a less forgiving picture. “As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female.” 

According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, no line clearly divided slaves from the “other members of the labouring classes.” They wouldn’t have lived separately, and “almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves.”

As the years ticked away and we come closer to the Norman invasion, Crawford says, slavery became less widespread. Free labor was available to do the same work and slaves had become an economic liability. The Domesday Book, which counted every chicken feather in England so that the new Norman king would know just how many chicken feathers he’d amassed in his conquest, counted slaves as 12% of the population. 

History Today isn’t convinced that slavery was on the wane and estimates that slaves made up 20% to 30% of the population. 

I’m staying out of this. Can we say that slaves made up a significant portion of the population and stop squabbling, please? 

Non-slavery

Just above the slaves on the social ladder were people who owed service to their lords. Most of them were serfs. 

Cottars were one step up from slaves and many of them might have been freed slaves. (You notice how hazy that got? “Many”; “might have been.” We can’t know, so let’s not pretend we do.) They worked on the lords’ estates in exchange for some land they could work for themselves. It was often marginal land. 

Above them came bordars, or geburs, who are in italics because the word’s Old English (it means tenant farmer) and Old English is foreign enough to a modern English speaker’s ear that we treat it like a foreign language and use funny-looking letters. Bordars don’t come in italics because the word crept into Norman usage, although most of us won’t recognize it. 

Look, don’t ask me to explain it. I’m following Crawford’s system of italics and inventing explanations as I go. You shouldn’t trust me too far on this. 

Have we gone off topic? Of course we’ve gone off topic. It’s what we do here.

The  bordars/geburs weren’t as poor as cottars but still owed work to the lord. Some were brewers or bakers. 

Above them came the coerls–small freeholders. They paid taxes, sat on juries, and owed public service, all of which marked them as free, but they also owed service to a lord. They may or may not have been armed and may or may not have fought with their lord when called on. It’s not clear. 

The word coerl comes into modern English as churl–a peasant; someone who’s rude or mean spirited, probably because from the Norman point of view, all Anglo-Saxons working the land looked alike and sounded alike. And were inherently rude and mean spirited, not to mention muddy, and so they could all be treated like dirt.

Coerl didn’t bring any italics with it. I’m only using them here to talk about it as a word, the same way I italicized churl.

And that, my friends, has nothing to do with our topic. Don’t you just love the way I keep us focused?

Under Alfred the Great’s version of Anglo-Saxon law, you couldn’t treat a free person like a slave–couldn’t whip him or her, say, or put him or her in the stocks. If you did, you’d be fined. You also couldn’t cut his hair–and here we’re only talking only about his hair, not hers–“in such a way as to spoil his looks” or to leave him looking like a priest. You also couldn’t cut off his beard, which is one of the things that convinces me that his really does mean his here. 

Anglo-Saxon pronouns were gender neutral. Without the beard, you can’t tell a his from a hers.

The point of the law, apparently, was to keep a lord from forcing a free person into the ranks of slaves, because the hair and beard were marks of a free man. 

Free boys, when they turned twelve, had to swear an oath to the king–at least from the time of Athelstan onward–and the king’s shire reeve visited every community once a year to hear them swear.

What they swore wasn’t just loyalty, but to favor what the lord favored, to discountenance what he discountenanced–and to turn in anyone who didn’t. “No one shall conceal the breach of it on the part of a brother or family relation, any more than a stranger.”

So that’s what freedom looked like.

The Norman conquest

Crawford’s reading of the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman society was that the lives of serfs and slaves might not have changed much. Rural life still focused on the manor and the lord, even though the manor would have been owned by a new lord, who’d have spoken Norman French. I can’t help imagining that those new lords, given a huge amount of power and surrounded by a language and a culture that frustrated them and made no sense to them, would have been ruder than the old ones–more churlish, if you like irony. They were conquerors, and conquerors do tend to act that way.

I said earlier that people who’d once been free became serfs after the conquest, and that seems to be the general belief, but I can’t document it. Lots of things from that time can’t be documented. Be cautious about how much belief you pour into that particular juice glass. If I had to guess–and I don’t but I will anyway–I’d guess that it was the coerls who dropped down the scale into serfdom. If that’s true, it would have been a loss of both freedom and status.

As for the Anglo-Saxon elite, they lost their lands and their status, and many fled abroad. Some lost their lives in various rebellions. I haven’t seen anything that says they became either serfs or slaves. Aristocrats recognized other aristocrats, even those who were their enemies.

The lives of both the poor and the rich were massively disrupted–or ended–by the harrying of the north, the Norman response to a rebellion. The Domesday Book lists land in northern village after northern village as waste–valueless and unoccupied. But we’re not talking about whether the transition to Norman rule was brutal–it was–only about whether life, once things settled down, became less free than it had been before they came. 

To weigh against any losses of freedom, it was under the Normans that slavery gradually died out. 

If people ceased to be slaves and became serfs, did their lives improve? Possibly. Probably. But again, they left us no documents. We can’t know.

So although my heart’s with the Levellers, I’d have to say that the picture of Anglo-Saxon freedom and Norman oppression was photo-shopped.

The Anglo-Saxons and the Normans: how hunting turned to poaching

If you read enough English history, you’ll start to wonder how life in England changed once the Normans conquered the place.

Or you will if you’re me, anyway. Which admittedly, you’re probably not.

Be grateful. It’s strange in here.

Let’s look at one change: hunting and access to the woods. I’m working in part from The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, an Englishman’s World, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. It’s a book–one of those odd things involving paper and ink. I just love them, but then I’m several hundred years old. To me, they’re still an exciting new technology.

Irrelevant photo: Camellia blossoms. They weren’t here when the Anglo-Saxons and Normans were running around–they were a much later import.

One important change involved hunting. Before the Normans invaded and seized the place, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy hunted with expensive dogs and birds and horses but any free-born Anglo-Saxon had the right to hunt.

Notice the restriction there. Anglo-Saxon England  had slavery, and wars were fought in part to capture slaves. What percent of the population was enslaved? Dunno. But however many people were involved, you can take that group of people and set them outside the freedoms the rest of the inhabitants had.

Don’t forget they’re there. It’ll keep you from romanticizing things.

The forest was as important and productive a part of free people’s world as their fields were. They didn’t just use them for hunting, they gathered wood and turned their animals out to forage in them. How did that coexist with private ownership of woodlands? I’m not sure. My best guess–and I haven’t been able to verify this–is that we’re talking about local people’s access to local woodland. In other words, to woods owned by a lord they had some sort of relationship with.

As a whole, the population ate well. Lacey and Danziger argue that the people of that time were as tall as people living today. Where recent generations have grown taller than their ancestors, it’s because during the intervening generations their ancestors were overcrowded and underfed.

The Normans–somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 of them–barged into this well-fed country, and William made himself the owner of the whole shebang. Under him were 180 chief tenants, who owed him military service. And under them? More tenants, who owed military service through the people above them. The top lords were all or almost all Normans, and they replaced the entire upper crust of Anglo-Saxon society.

And to make sure he’d have a matching set, William did the same with administrators and church officials: He replaced them with Norman versions.

William kept a fair bit of Anglo-Saxon administrative organization–it was efficient and, for its time, centralized–but (among many other things) dramatically changed people’s rights to use the forest. The right to hunt was now reserved for the top one percent of the one percent. Maybe I should add another “of the one percent” there, but forget the numbers: It was reserved for the aristocracy–the landowners, that thin (and Norman) top layer of the population. Anyone else was poaching–stealing the lord’s game.

This was codified into the forest law, which protected the animals so the king could hunt them and also protected everything the animals fed on. Common people not just lost their right to hunt, but to fish, to gather fruit and wood, to dig peat and clay, to pasture their animals. It was a disaster for a people whose living had depended in part on the forest.

What happened if they broke the law? The punishments ranged from fines to death, and in the early years after the conquest the law was enforced with a heavy hand. Hunting had gone from being something any free man might do to something reserved for the aristocracy.

But what was this about pasturing their animals in a forest?

Under Norman law, forest didn’t mean forest as in a place with lots of trees. It could mean woods, but it could also mean pastures and even villages. It meant a place the king might want to hunt and it meant anything that fell within that place he might want to hunt. If he designated it a forest, it was a forest, and you wouldn’t want to stand there arguing about its lack of trees. If you happened to live inside what he said was a forest, you not only couldn’t hunt or cut wood or do any of those other things, you couldn’t use a fence or a hedge to protect your crops because it might get in the way of the hunt.

At the time of the Domesday Book–William’s massive, nitpicking survey of the land he’d conquered–there were 25 royal forests, but forest law applied not just to royal forests but also to forests owned by major lords of various flavors.

Norman forest law led to a lot of confusion over land ownership. Since all land belonged to the king and was granted downward from there–and since it could, if the king got mad at you, be un-granted–ownership had some murky edges. The law was muddled enough that it was possible to own part of a forest but not have the right to hunt in it or cut trees.

All of this is what made the 1217 Charter of the Forest so important: It gave free men certain rights in royal forests–and by then there were 143 royal forests. Commoners could gather wood, honey, and fruit; dig clay; fish; cut peat; and pasture animals. The charter laid the groundwork for rights that held (and were fought over) throughout the medieval period and for the rights of commoners today on some 500 surviving commons.

On the other hand, only about 10 percent of the population was free. Serfs weren’t slaves but they weren’t in any realistic or legal way free. So although the charter was important, both in practical terms and in terms of the precedent it set, but it was also limited.

Alfred the Great: his world and his legend

King Alfred–who you might know as Alfred the Great–could reasonably have expected not to become a king. He was the fourth, or possibly the fifth, son–it’s all a little hazy when you’re looking back that far–of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. But King Alfred he became, although we could also call him Aelfred, or if you want to go completely Dark Ages about it, Aelfraed.

Anglo-Saxon spellings make my teeth ache.

In addition to all those sons, there was a daughter in there somewhere, but she was married off to another Anglo-Saxon king in a political marriage and history doesn’t pay much attention to her. Did you ever wonder why so many women develop a sharp edge? It’s not because of her particularly, but she’s not a bad example of what happens.

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, stolen from something I posted last year. This year’s are out, though.

Back to our point, though: Aelfred was the king of Wessex from 871 to 899 and nobody at the time called him the Great. King was plenty, thanks.

What kind of place did he grow up in and rule? To start with, Anglo-Saxon England was split into an assortment of kingdomlets. Don’t try to count them because the numbers keep changing, especially once the Vikings invaded. They swallowed one, then another. 

Pretty much anything you read about the period talks not just about the Anglo-Saxon kings but also about sub-kings. The sub-kings don’t actually come into our tale, but they’re worth a mention because it’s interesting to know that power was divided up in ways we’re not used to. A king had to move carefully, balancing out the sub-kings’ strength, interests, loyalties, tempers, competence, and possibly incompetence.

Now let’s set them aside and talk about Aelf’s family background, and you should feel free to make fun of the names here because (a) I will and (b) nobody speaks Anglo-Saxon English anymore, so you won’t be stomping on any sensitive toes. 

Aethelwulf (that’s Aelfred’s dad, in case you’ve lost track of him already) fought the Vikings and had a bunch of kids. Then his wife died and he married a twelve-year-old, Judith. Unlike the sub-kings, she’ll come back into the story.

AethelW went on pilgrimage, taking youngest son Aelfred, who’d have been four or five, with him and leaving older son Aethelbald in charge of the kingdom. When he came back a year later, AethelB said, “Sorry, Dad, but I’ve kind of gotten to like being king. Now butt out.”

Instead of starting a civil war, AethelW divided the kingdom with AethelB. Then he died, as people will. Son Aethelberht, not to be confused with Aethelbald–let’s call him AethelB2–took AethelW’s throne. Then AethelB1 married AethelW’s widow, who in our times still wouldn’t have been old enough to buy herself a beer. 

Yes, it was all very weird back then. 

Before anyone had time to say, “It seems perfectly sensible to us,” AethelB1 died and AethelB2 glued the two kingdoms back together. Then he died and brother Aethelred followed him onto the throne. 

This sounds like the fairy tale about the billy goats gruff and the troll under the bridge, doesn’t it? Except instead of the youngest brother coming first, the oldest ones did.

I’m happy to report that neither AethelR or AethelB2 married poor ol’ Judith. She went home and later married someone unrelated to either her first husband or this tale. I hope she was old enough to order a beer by then, but I wouldn’t put any money on it.

And we still haven’t gotten to Aelfred.

You may have noticed that Aelfred is missing a syllable that all his brothers got: He’s plain old Ael-Something while they’re Aethel-Somethings. It’s like that when you’re the youngest kid. By the time you get yourself born, your parents are tired. They don’t have the energy to hand out extra syllables. And in a lot of families, money’s tight. In this one, they didn’t seem to be, but they were running short on thrones. If Aethelred hadn’t died, Aelfred would’ve had to sit on a stool or a bench, just like everyone else.

By the time Aelfred got himself a throne, with a wooden back and arms and everything else that signaled his importance, the Vikings had taken over most of England. The Anglo-Saxons called the Vikings the Great Heathen Army, because (a) they weren’t Christian and (b) it’s a lot scarier to be slaughtered by someone of a different religion than by someone of your own religion.

Aelf’s first task was to fight the Vikings, and we’ll skip the list of battles. We don’t have space for enough detail to make them interesting, and without detail you wouldn’t remember them anyway, would you? 

Okay, maybe you would. I wouldn’t.

What matters is that Aelf lost, and by 878 he’d been pushed back to a corner of the Somerset Levels, where he and a small band of fighters hid in the marshes, working to gather reinforcements. Eventually he had enough warriors to go on the offensive, defeat the Vikings, and as part of the peace settlement demand that Guthrum, the Viking king, become a Christian. Religion doesn’t seem to have been about deeply held beliefs but about–well, it strikes me as being more like joining a football team and agreeing to follow its rules. 

The Vikings eventually all converted to Christianity. Did that bring peace between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings? Hell no. It just meant Christians were fighting Christians instead of non-Christians. It meant everyone who died was killed by a co-religionist. You can see how that was a great improvement.

The peace between Aelf (for Wessex) and Guthrum (for the Danelaw, which is what they called Viking England) held for a while, but it wasn’t a stable peace, and Aelf built up his military, fortifying towns, building up a navy to face up to Danish ships, and generally preparing for the time they’d be at war again.

Danish, by the way, was another way to say “Viking.” 

Aelf’s theory was that the Viking invasion of England was a result of Anglo-Saxon England’s moral failings, so he set out to remedy them, in part by focusing heavily on education. One step was to demand that anyone in government had to be literate. Another was to set up a court school for–okay, the article I’m working from here  says “noble-born children.” I haven’t found anything that says the wording only meant boys, but I haven’t found anything that says it didn’t. Women were freer under the Anglo-Saxons than they would be later, under the Normans, but that’s a relative freedom, not an absolute one. 

The school also welcomed “intellectually promising boys of lesser birth.” 

It was under Aelf’s rule that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun. This was a year-by-year account of events, and it continued to be written for some time after the Norman invasion in 1066. It’s one of our few sources of knowledge about the period and a remarkable piece of work.

Aelf also wrote an ambitious law code, which was a mix of new and pre-existing law, threaded through with bits out of the Bible. In it, he wrote, “Doom [meaning judge; it’s pronounced dome] very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!”

We can learn from this that he was even-handed and just and placed a high value on exclamation marks. Assuming, of course, that they weren’t added by the translator, because however antiquated that sounds, it’s not Anglo-Saxon English.

Aelf was either wise or canny enough to appoint a biographer, which is one reason he’s come down to us as perfect in all ways. Aelf’s biographer wasn’t independent; he worked for Aelf. That can’t help but color a writer’s work. So Aelf was pious, brave, learned, truthful, a man who ate not five but six helpings of fruits and vegetables every day. Even kale, which wasn’t in the supermarkets yet. Supermarkets weren’t even in the supermarkets yet.

And I say that without diminishing his stature. He seems to have been a far-sighted guy, but let’s not get suckered into the propaganda.

In spite of all his wonderfulness, Aelf was never made a saint, and this meant he disappeared from sight for a while. When the Normans took over England, they played up their connections to the Anglo-Saxon kings, but they leaned toward the ones the Church had made saints of, ignoring the ones who were merely saintly. That meant they ignored Aelf.

Much later, when England broke away from the Catholic Church, finding a saintly-but-unsainted king who just happened to have had a good biographer came as a gift to a country struggling to redefine itself. And there Aelfred was, unsullied by Catholic approval. They dug him out, turned him from Aelf (or Alf, by then) into Alfred the Great, and used his writings and translations to prove that the Anglo-Saxon church had been pure before the Normans came along and made it Roman Catholic. As Barbara Yorke puts it, “With a bit of selective editing, [the Anglo-Saxon church] came to bear an uncanny resemblance to Elizabethan Anglicanism.” 

The Tudors weren’t the only folks to do some selective editing. In later centuries, Aelf was rewritten in an assortment of ways no one would have predicted. The Victorians held him up as an example to kids–the perfect, and probably deadly dull, person they should all model themselves on. (Go hole up in a swamp and eat kale, children, until you’re strong enough to defeat the Vikings.) He was also dragged into racist arguments to demonstrate how great the Anglo-Saxons were and how inferior everyone else was. 

How did Alfred feel about all this? He was past caring–or at least past letting us know his feelings and opinions. I mention it to remind us all that historians aren’t impartial reporters of history. Some start with the story they want to tell then choose their facts to fit it. Others play fair, but even they shape the story. 

And I do the same thing. If you don’t shape the story, you don’t have one, you have a scrambled mess of facts.

Besides, I’m not a historian, I just play one on the internet.

*

My thanks to the Tiny Potager’s oldest kids for suggesting both this topic and next week’s.

Hereward the Wake fights the big bad Normans

We’ll get to Hereward toward in the end. We need some background first, so let’s start at a key point in English history: 1066, host year for the Battle of Hastings. It cost less than London’s 2012 Olympics and had a more significant impact, even once you allow for the Olympics’ legacy of gentrification.

What happened? The Normans–descendants of the Vikings who’d settled in Normandy, which shared a name with them, however reluctantly–invaded and defeated the English king, and along with him all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. 

Anglo-Saxon England (which for our purposes, however illogically, includes the heavily Scandinavian parts of England; I want us to remember that they’re there) now had a new proto-king (he hadn’t been crowned yet), William, who hung around Hastings for a while, picking bits of eggshell off the beach where King Humpty had shattered while waiting for the English nobility to come bow before him.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: A red hot poker. Not an actual one, you understand. A flower called that.

So far, so familiar to anyone who read a history textbook as a kid–or at least one that covered British history. The ones in my school never got around to 1066. It all happened so long ago and on the other side of a big damn ocean. They figured they could skip it and devote more space to–.

Um.

I’ve forgotten what they gave the space to. Something memorable. But never mind. What I want to talk about is what happened next, which wasn’t the Domesday (pronounced Doomsday) Book–that inch by inch and cow by sheep record of everything William was now the king of–but a series of rebellions. Which you’re  not likely to hear about unless you get interested enough to do some reading on your own.

I’m working here largely from David Horspool’s The English Rebel, which opens with English resistance to the Norman conquest, and also from a small but unwieldy stack of other books on English and British history. That means we’ll go linkless today. It’s the blogger equivalent of dreaming you’re on the bus naked: No harm’s done but it is disturbing.

What Horspool argues is that the rebellions shaped the conquest. It’s an interesting way to think about it. The rebels didn’t manage to get rid of William, but that doesn’t mean they had no impact. Even if it wasn’t the impact they wanted.

The first rebellion came together before William got to the capital. Its plan was to put Edgar the Aetheling on the throne, edging William out. Planting yourself on the throne and going through the ceremonies of being crowned were nothing more than symbolism, but that didn’t make they any less powerful. People believed in them.

Edgar the Aeth was the nephew of Edward the Confessor (that’s the king whose death set this mess in motion). He hadn’t been considered as a successor because of his age. He was born in 1051 or thereabouts, making him fifteenish in 1066. Or in John O’Farrell’s version (An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge), he was thirteen. You noticed the “thereabouts” when I gave the year he was born, right?

Either way, he was young. On the other hand, it was strongly in his favor that he was still alive. And not a Norman.

The rebels gathered in London and waited for William. They included the archbishops and York and Canterbury; a couple of earls named Morcar and Edwin, and if that sounds like a BBC sitcom, it isn’t; “the citizens of London”; and a crowd of warriors so large that London couldn’t accommodate them.

Or so said a contemporary source, the Gesta Guillelmi. Detail and fussbudgetty stuff like accurate numbers weren’t the strong points of of medieval writers. Take it for what it’s worth. 

William encircled London and sat there till the rebels gave up and swore their loyalty to him. End of the first rebellion.

Two months after the Battle of Hastings, William was in firm enough control to have himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and he just happened to surround it with his men. In a break with tradition, the crowd inside was asked, in English and French, if they acknowledged his right to be king. Everyone shouted their approval (it wouldn’t have been wise not to), and the shouting convinced the men outside that a rebellion had broken out. They did the only reasonable thing they could think of and set fire to the surrounding buildings. 

Who wouldn’t?

The fire spread and pretty much everyone fled the ceremony except for the terrified handful of people who had to finish consecrating and crowning. William stayed–no ceremony, no kingship–but was said to be shaking badly. A contemporary chronicle cites the event as the reason the English never again trusted the Normans.

Let’s assume from this that William and his men had reason to be on edge. As they spread their rule across their new country, they built castles, which worked as pegs to hold down the tarp they’d spread over the land. When Will went back to Normandy in 1067, he took the primary former rebels with him to make sure they didn’t get up to anything while he was gone. 

Will’s initial strategy was to rule the north of England–which he hadn’t conquered yet–through English appointees, but they tried raising taxes for him and that set off rebellions. In Northumbria alone, two of Will’s English proxies were killed and one changed sides. 

End of strategy. 

In his first five years, rebellions broke out in Dover, Essex, Hereford, Nottingham, York, Peterborough, and Essex, and most of them had the Aetheling (it means prince) as their focus, although a few focused on Danish royals or Eustace of Boulogne. 

No, I never heard of him either. 

Interestingly enough, Will didn’t have the Aetheling killed. He seems to have been far more forgiving of rebels from the nobility than from the everybody-else class. Take the Edwin of Edwin and Morcar. After his first rebellion, he was given “authority over his brother and almost a third of England.” But he was also promised a marriage to Will’s daughter and it didn’t materialize, which led him and Morcar to rebel again.

Horspool argues that a lot of the rebellions were a result of private discontents rather than what he calls patriotic ones, by which (I think, and I could easily be wrong here) he means more widespread discontents that might have united the rebels. He figures that the lack of unity cost the rebels their fight. O’Farrell, on the other hand, argues that England was still a fragmented place, with divided loyalties, which would have made a united resistance impossible.

That leads me to say that I have no idea what Morcar’s motives might have been and that I don’t know if his involvement in the next rebellion was a case of a couple of earls rallying people to rise up or a couple of earls riding on an uprising they did nothing to create. When Ed and Morcar gave up, though, Will accepted back into the fold again.

Having given up on sending English proxies into the north, he sent a Norman into Northumbria. On his first night in Durham, he and his retinue (somewhere between 500 and 900 men, according to contemporary sources, but I’d treat the numbers with caution) were killed. Then the rebels besieged the castle at York and killed Norman who’d been put in charge of it, along with many of his men. 

This was the turning point. 

“Swift was the king’s coming; he fell on the besiegers and spared no man,” according to the English monk Orderic Vitalis. 

At this point, the Danish king sent his sons, with a fleet made up of Danes, English, Poles, Frisians, Saxons (the kind from Saxony, not the English kind), and Lithuanians. They worked their way up the eastern coastline, eventually joining forces with some of the rebel groups, but after some initial success they retreated when William showed up in person. 

Horspool attributes that to a fear of facing down an annointed king. Annointing was the ceremony in which the church gave its oil-based blessing to a king, and people took it seriously. A king wasn’t just a pawn who’d gotten to the far side of the board and said, “King me.” He was church-approved and -tested. That’s where he got his divine right.

On the other hand, kings had been overthrown before and had slaughtered each other cheerily. Why that should have been an issue now I don’t know.

I can’t help wondering if the rebels were simply refusing to meet William on his ground, but that’s speculation. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s not like I have some hidden stash of information about this. 

Whatever the reason, they retreated, and when Will couldn’t find any Danes to fight in York, he lost it and “utterly laid waste and ravaged the shire,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He burned crops, killed livestock, destroyed villages and farms, and broke farm implements. Basically, he destroyed everything people needed to farm the land. Some sources reported that starvation drove people to cannibalism or to sell themselves into slavery just so they could eat. There was death on a massive scale. It was ten years before the north even began to recover.

It’s known as the harrying of the north.

And William again pardoned some of the leading rebels. You know–the ones with titles. 

That brings us to 1071, when Edwin and Morcar, the earls who never got a BBC sitcom named after them, joined a minor Anglo-Saxon noble (or gentleman in some versions), Hereward, in one of the last rebellions against Will. 

At roughly this same time, Will was reading through a printout of senior clergymen, crossing out the Anglo-Saxon names and penciling in Norman ones. It didn’t matter that printouts hadn’t been invented yet, or pencils: Will couldn’t read. You could hand him a piece of blank vellum and he’d get just as much out of it.

The point is that he sent a Norman to replace the Anglo-Saxon abbot of Peterborough, and we can safely guess that the new abbot came expecting trouble, because he brought 160 of his closest friends with him, and all of them were armed. Presumably he brought a prayer or two, but maybe I’m falling for a stereotype there.

Before he got there, though, Hereward joined forces with the Danes to sack Peterborough Abbey (probably–contemporary sources are hazy, remember). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says the rebels claimed they were doing out of loyalty to the minster, to deny it to the Normans.

Hereward used the fens–boggy, nearly impenetrable marshland–as his base and fought a guerrilla war. Then William paid off the Danes and they dropped out of the story, leaving Hereward on his own. He fought for over a year. 

Will eventually bribed some monks to betray (according to O’Farrell’s version of the tale) the route through the fens to Hereward’s stronghold, leaving us with one defeat and conflicting versions of what happened to Edwin and Morcar, although all the versions end with one betrayed and killed by his men and the other imprisoned for the rest of this life. 

Hereward disappeared, as any good legend should. Get slaughtered and you can become a saint. Disappear and you get a shot at legendhood.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says next to nothing about Hereward’s rebellion and doesn’t mention him by name at all. We could argue about how significant the rebellion was or wasn’t, but let’s not. We weren’t there. We can agree (see how neatly I slip you the opinion you’re supposed to take?) that it took on importance as legend–the bold Anglo-Saxon holdouts, using the land itself as a weapon against the invaders.

Hereward became known as the Wake only later, in one version because a family of that name wanted to claim him as an ancestor and in another version because it means the watchful

Hereward wasn’t, in Horspool’s telling, William’s most powerful opponent, but his legend is the one that took hold, and it cycles through English literature from the twelfth century on. He wrestles bears. He sacks abbeys. (Okay, one abbey, and hey, we all have our faults.) He disappears instead of dying. He doesn’t have a happy ending, but he has a habit of embodying whatever qualities the country wants to believe in at the moment.

Horspool’s interpretation of all those rebellions is that they broke any trust Will might have put put in the existing English aristocracy, leaving him no choice but to replace them with Normans. He doesn’t explain–or ask, if the information that’s available doesn’t allow for an answer–what drove this cycle of rebellion, so I’ll raise the question. When you get a pattern like this, selfish motives and bad temper don’t cut it as an explanation. Something was going on that didn’t allow everyone to settle down, plow the land, gather the rents, and do whatever it was people had been doing  before William landed. Because most people, given the chance to stay home and do what they’re used to, will do that.

Horspool considers it a legend that pre-Norman England was a land of freedom, but that belief fueled many a rebellion in the coming centuries. The shorthand for it is “the Norman yoke,” and if he’s not impressed with it as fact, he does pay tribute to its power as legend. 

The other historians in my small stack of books are more convinced. Women were freer, they say. Local courts were made up of small landowners, creating a grass-roots kind of justice. You didn’t end up bringing a dispute with the local lord to that same local lord, hoping for justice, as people would have had to under the Normans if they’d been silly enough to try.

On the Horspool side of the scales, however, the Anglo-Saxons did have slavery, and tenant farmers don’t sound, at least as I read it, like they were entirely free. Compared to the feudalism the Normans imposed, though, it might have looked like heaven, and not just to those who were higher up the social ladder. 

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My thanks to John Russell for suggesting Hereward as a topic. Sorry I went on so long. I couldn’t find a place to split it in two.