Although William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson and seized the throne of England in 1066, the surviving Anglo-Saxon royals and their loyalists continued resisting Norman rule for years to come. The late King Harold’s sons launched several ineffective attacks against Norman-controlled England from a base in Ireland, while another Anglo-Saxon claimant to the throne, Edgar the Ætheling, inspired more threatening (but ultimately unsuccessful) rebellions in the Northumbrian region, even going so far as to enlist the help of the Scots and the Danes in his doomed uprisings. For many a ruler, such attacks, uprisings and foreign interventions might have been fatal. William the Conqueror, however, was one of the most competent rulers of the Middle Ages, and with his Norman war machine and castle-building prowess, William’s occupation of England was too firm for the Anglo-Saxon resistance to overcome.
By 1071, the hopes and morale of the resistance in Northumbria had plummeted. Even Earls Edwin and Morcar, two of the most prominent leaders of the resistance, decided to abandon England and flee to Scotland, where Edgar the Ætheling had already found asylum. The earls decided to split up for their journey, Edwin leading some followers on a route by land, while Morcar took to the sea with other high-profile resistance leaders. Unfortunately, neither party would have any luck on their journey in 1071.
Earl Edwin’s attempt to escape came to a quick end. As it happened, there were traitors in the party of rebels that fled by land. Consequently, Earl Edwin’s life ended in a grisly ambush on the road. Earl Morcar and the resistance members who decided to flee by sea made better progress. They successfully boarded a ship and started working their way up the network of English rivers, eventually reaching the Isle of Ely, a haven for dissidents. Yet, Morcar’s party, too, did not escape the attention of King William’s spies and informants. When the rebels landed in Ely, King William was quickly informed of their location. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle concisely described the king’s swift and overwhelming siege of the rebels’ position: “when king William was informed of that, he ordered out a naval force and a land-force, and beset the land all about, and wrought a bridge and went in, and [simultaneously attacked with] the naval force on the water-side. And then the outlaws went and surrendered to the king” (A.n. M.LXXI).
Of all the resistance leaders at Ely, only the semi-legendary figure, Hereward the Wake, was able to escape. The less-fortunate warriors who were captured during the siege faced more gruesome fates, including mutilation, imprisonment or execution. Earl Morcar was reportedly imprisoned for the rest of William the Conqueror’s reign and died, still in jail, sometime during the reign of William II Rufus (r. 1087-1100).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the life of William the Conqueror by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892), [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.