Normans in the North

Following on from my last, here’s a pretty horrific account of the Normans in England, this time from Madeleine Buntings wonderful book, The Plot:

“The most devastating war of all was William the Conqueror’s suppression of the north.It was the winter of 1069, 3 years after the Norman invasion, and William’s earlier attempts to impose his authority in the north had failed; he returned, determined to deal out such harsh punishment that the region could pose no further threat to him. the rebells broke up into small groups, and, adopting classic guerrilla tactics, scattered into some of the area’s most remote and inhospitable places. Some sought refuge in the then isolated Lower Tees valley, which lies to the north of the Yorkshire moors, now the industrial urban sprawl of Teeside. The Conqueror divided his army up into small units and pursued the rebels into the marshes and hills, ravaging the countryside as he went. Villages went up in flames,peasants were slaughtered indiscriminately, crops and tools were burned and cattle captured. His intention was that the land should not be able to support either rebels or invading Danes for years to come. It’s an atrocity that has lingered in the memories and language of those living on he Yorkshire moors for nearly a thousand years. He used the Hambleton Drovers’  Road on his way south, and the history was so infamous that even the road that bore him would from then onwards be named i his memory as the Regalis Via, King’s Highway. On his way south from Teeside to York, King William was caught in a snowstorm on one of the bleakest parts of the North Yorkshire moors, the Cleveland Hills, as he headed towards the Hambleton Drovers’ Road. He and his army were lost and stumbled around, unsure of  their bearings, and his cursing wsa such tat the saying passed into local custom in Bilsdale that ‘he cusses like Billy Norman.’

Such was the ferocity of William’s attack on the north that its impact lasted for decades. Half the villages of the North Riding and over a third of those in the East and West Ridings were wholly or partially destroyed; the ensuing famine is estimated to have killed 100,000. The country was left a wilderness. ‘For at least 9 years, no attempt was made at tilling the ground’, writes Simeon of Durham, ‘between York and Durham every town stood uninhabited: their streets became lurking places for robbers and wild beasts.’ The monastic chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote that ‘even a generation later the passing traveller beheld with sorrow the ruins of famous towns, with their lofty towers rising above forsaken dwellings, the fields lying untilled and tenantless, the rivers flowing idly through the wilderness’. There were reports of survivors being reduced to cannibalism, cracking open the skulls of the dead so that the brains could be sucked out. Famine was followed by plague. A survey in the area 70 years later found little record of pasture, fisheries, livestock or salt pans. It was  not until the 1130s and the Cistercians’  arrival in the region that the work of reconstruction began. Some historians claim that the devastation was the cause f economic inequality between north and south until the late Middle Ages.

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