Rebellion and Revenge
To make room for one of his castles, William the Conqueror laid waste to one of the seven ‘shires’ of York. This only added to the anger and resentment in the city.
In 1069 local forces attacked the two castles without success. But then a more serious challenge emerged: King Swein of Denmark arrived with a large fleet of ships in August of that year. Together with powerful Anglo-Saxon nobles and the people of York, the force took the city, burning the castles to the ground and massacring the Norman occupiers.
Part of the Norman army’s defence was to set fire to buildings that might offer shelter to the attackers: the blaze spread and a large part of the city was lost, including the Minster.
There is little evidence that the victors had planned a strategy for what to do when they re-took the city and victory was short lived.
On hearing the news of his forces’ defeat at York, William swore a furious oath ‘by the splendour of God’ to avenge himself on the north. He bribed the Danes to leave the city and advanced to York without opposition.
He repaired the two castles and then, using the city as a base, remorselessly and relentlessly carried out what was became known as ‘the Harrying of the North’.
The exact scale of the Harrying is unknown. But it was certainly devastating, with many thousands of deaths, from violence and famine.
Symeon of Durham recorded that 'It was horrible to observe, in houses, streets and roads, human corpses rotting...For no-one survived to cover them with earth, all having perished by the sword and starvation, or left the land of their fathers because of hunger.'
It may be that William later came to regret the scale of the destruction. Chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote that the king confessed on his deathbed to having treated ‘the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire’.
Nevertheless the operation achieved his aim. The rebellion was defeated and the population subdued.