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18 September 2014
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William the Conqueror: A Thorough Revolutionary

By Michael Wood
Famine and the sword

Image of seal
Seal of William the Conqueror  ©
The siege of Ely was one of many local acts of resistance against the Normans. The most bitter and sustained warfare was in the north. When the Northumbrians rose against William in 1069 he punished them by deliberately devastating the entire province. He marched through Northumberland burning crops, destroying villages and driving the people off. That is what Orderic Vitalis meant when he speaks of William's murderous campaign with 'famine and the sword'.

'King William was a hard man ... sunk in greed.'

In fact we can see just how William laid waste to Northumbria by looking in the pages of Domesday Book, the survey of England made for the Conqueror in 1086. In its pages you can follow the track of William's army beyond the Humber and up the Great North Road through Yorkshire, a track visible in the devastated villages whose value had plummeted between 1066 and 1086 - and had not recovered.

Even 17 years after the devastation of the north, many of these places were worth nothing. Northumbria would take a long time to recover. And the loss was across the board. We lack, for instance, the ecclesiastical archives for Northumbria going back to the seventh century, most of which were lost in 1069. Looking back one can only sympathise with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler, who remarks, grimly, 'King William was a hard man ... sunk in greed'. A man ruling an alien land, determined to impose his will by force.

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