Although William “the Conqueror” of Normandy defeated King Harold Godwinson and seized the throne of England in 1066, pockets of resistance continued to fight back against the new Norman regime. Two branches of Anglo-Saxon royals continued to inspire resistance against William. Until around 1068 or 1069, the surviving sons of the late Harold Godwinson launched unsuccessful raids from Ireland against William’s lands and vassals. Alternatively, Northumbrian lords looked with hope to Edgar the Ætheling (grandson of King Edmund Ironside, r. 1016). Edgar, a teen when the conquest occurred, was quickly declared king of England upon Harold Godwinson’s death, but William the Conqueror consolidated power quickly enough to stop Edgar from being officially crowned. Nevertheless, the Northumbrians continued to fight on Edgar’s behalf.
Friction between the Normans and the Northumbrians began to increase in 1067 and 1068, when William the Conqueror imposed taxes on his conquered land and started a great construction spree to build castles that would cement his power in England. Heightened tax, civil unrest, and increasing Norman military presence in Northumbria forced Edgar the Ætheling to flee to Scotland in 1068. A breaking point occurred in early 1069, when Northumbrian rebels ambushed and killed the Norman earl, Robert de Comines, who had been given an administrative role in the north. After slaying the Norman earl, the Northumbrian rebels converged at York and Edgar the Ætheling reportedly returned from Scotland to meet with them. Yet, William the Conqueror quickly mobilized an army and confronted the rebels near York before they could grow into a bigger threat. King William won the battle, but the rebellion leaders, including Edgar the Ætheling, were able to escape. After dispersing the rebels, William the Conqueror reportedly let his troops pillage York and increased the local garrison, additionally building new forts in the city.
Although pushed back by the Normans, the Northumbrian rebels would soon find outside help. The Anglo-Saxon nobles and royalty apparently reached out to their friends in Denmark, and successfully arranged for a Danish fleet to arrive in England by September, 1069. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, the Danes sent to England 240 ships, led by Jarl Asbjörn, the brother of King Sweyn II of Denmark. Edgar the Ætheling and his followers were said to have joined this Danish fleet, and together they moved against the Normans at York. By this time, William the Conqueror and the bulk of his army had withdrawn from the city, leaving behind only a garrison. This barracks of Normans in the city, however, soon learned of the approaching coalition, and, knowing that they did not have the strength to resist an attack, the Normans in York reportedly adopted drastic measures to spite the Danes and rebels. According to the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, “The Normans, who garrisoned the forts, set fire to the adjacent houses, fearing that they might be of service to the Danes in filling up the trenches; and the flames spreading, destroyed the whole city, together with the monastery of St. Peter” (AD 1069).
Despite the Normans setting York alight in hopes of making their forts impregnable, the Danes and rebel Northumbrians still found a way to scale the fortifications and defeat the garrison. The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester went on to report, “the Danish fleet arrived before the city was entirely consumed, and the forts being stormed the same day, and more than three thousand of the Normans killed…the ships drew off laden with plunder” (AD 1069). Unfortunately for Edgar the Ætheling and the Northumbrian rebels, the reliability of Jarl Asbjörn and the Danish fleet was wanting. When William the Conqueror marched once again toward York to restore order, he was reportedly able to strike up a deal with Asbjörn, allowing the Danish troops to forage and pillage Northumbria without hindrance as long as they left after winter was over. With such a deal in place, William the Conqueror was able to force Edgar the Ætheling and the rebels back into hiding, and York was once again occupied by the Normans.
By this point, all in 1069, the city of York had been twice seized by rebel forces and twice retaken by William the Conqueror’s Normans. In the second round of hostilities, York had the further misfortune of being burned by the Norman garrison and looted by the opportunist Danes, before being exposed to more punitive actions once William the Conqueror’s forces regained the city. While these direct consequences of war hit the city hard, war’s more indirect effects also caused havoc. As armies of Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and Scandinavians had been frequently trampling through Northumbria since 1066, with each group demanding food and resources from the region’s people and land, the English north was beginning to experience extreme famine. As the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester colorfully stated, “throughout nearly the whole of England, so severe a famine prevailed in most parts of the kingdom, but chiefly in Northumbria and the adjacent provinces, that men were driven to feed on the flesh of horses, dogs, cats, and even human beings” (AD 1069).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Bayeux tapestry elucidated (1856), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.