Getting a grip on the guerrilla lands

St Cuthbert`s Church in Bedlington.
St Cuthbert`s Church in Bedlington.

ALTHOUGH the Norman Conquest happened in 1066, the conquest of Northumbria began over 100 years earlier.

In 934, King Athelstan of Wessex stopped at Chester-le-Street on his way to Scotland and ingratiated himself by splendid gifts at the shrine of St Cuthbert.

Twenty years later, his half-brother Edmund incorporated the defunct kingdom of Northumbria into England.

But neither Edmund nor any subsequent Anglo-Saxon king was able to govern York, Durham or Northumberland through sheriffs. They relied instead upon earls, who were pretty much a law unto themselves.

There were two rules for governing this part of England: Appoint a native earl and tax lightly.

Finding an earl was not easy. Northumberland and Durham retained their Anglian aristocracy, but York was ruled by Danes and Vikings. Some of the earls were Scandinavians. Others belonged to the old royal house of Bernicia. But regardless of who was earl, the people above the Tees continued to look to Bamburgh for their leaders.

The most detested of the pre-Conquest earls was Tostig, a West Saxon. He governed by extortion and murder for 10 years.

He spent little time in the North, leaving the day-to-day work to a Yorkshire thegn called Copsig. In 1065 the men of the whole region rose together and drove both men out.

Following his victory in 1066, William the Conqueror appointed Copsig as Earl of Northumbria. That winter he raised a geld, or tax, to pay off his troops. Geld, originally Danegeld, was levied nationally, but for historical reasons the North had always been very lightly taxed. Lancashire, Yorkshire and Durham paid at one-sixth of the rate levied in the rest of England, while Northumberland was not even hidated (assessed for tax) and so may not have paid anything. See William Kapelle’s The Norman Conquest of the North.

William ignored this and Copsig had no qualms about extorting money. He lasted five weeks.

While feasting at Newburn he was surprised by Oswulf, a member of the house of Bamburgh. He fled into the church, but Oswulf set fire to it and when he came out, cut his head off and became de facto Earl of Northumbria. William might have recognised Oswulf’s claim, but he was killed soon after by an outlaw.

William now sold the earldom to Cospatric, a descendant of the royal houses of Bernicia and Scotland.

So the king got a lump sum out of these obstinate people, and they got a more-or-less native earl.

At the beginning of 1068, however, William again levied geld. Cospatric rebelled rather than collect it. William captured York and Cospatric and the other northern thegns fled to Scotland.

William now made one of his own men, Robert Comyn, Earl of Northumbria, but Comyn’s brutality so enraged the men of Durham that in 1069 they laid a trap for him.

The people abandoned the city, which Comyn’s soldiers duly ransacked, then came back at night, slaughtered them wholesale and set fire to the house where Comyn was staying. He was either burned alive or killed when he came out.

Rebellion ensued. Cospatric and the others returned from Scotland. The Danes invaded York.

William had the same problem as faced the British in the Boer War and the Americans in Vietnam.

The Northumbrians were guerrilla fighters, catching their enemies with ambushes and traps. If you sent an army, they melted away into the countryside.

His solution was the infamous Harrying of the North. In the winter of 1069-70 he destroyed the rebels’ support structure in Yorkshire by killing the peasants. Those not killed outright starved to death because his men burnt their villages, crops and storehouses and killed their cattle.

In Durham, the people fled their homes. The community of St Cuthbert took up his coffin and carried it from Durham to Lindisfarne.

They arrived on their estate of Bedlington on December 12, 1069, and the saint’s undecayed body lay that night in Bedlington church.

Half of William’s forces went up the coast. The rest followed the Roman road through Chester-le-Street. They burnt Jarrow and went as far as Hexham before turning south. His soldiers destroyed the villages they passed through.

With no food, seed or tools, the returning peasants had to bind themselves and their descendants to do week-work for their new Norman masters for two or three days of every week. The alternative was starvation.

Boldon Book, written 113 years later, records vills where the peasants were burdened with very heavy labour services. They correlate closely with William’s line of march. (Kapelle)

William now appointed Walcher, a Norman, as Bishop of Durham, and built an immensely strong castle for him. He reinstated Cospatric, but soon replaced him with Waltheof, who also had Bamburgh connections.

The earl and bishop were on good terms, but Waltheof rebelled in 1075, was arrested and later beheaded. Walcher bought the earldom from the king, making him both bishop and earl.

Walcher understood the need for good relations with the local aristocracy. His underlings didn’t. In 1080 they murdered a friend of Walcher’s, a thegn called Ligulf.

Instead of staying safe in his castle, Walcher agreed to attend a parley at Gateshead. It was a trap. The church was set on fire and he and his entourage were murdered.

This was 14 years after the Conquest and the Normans had scarcely crossed the Tyne, let alone occupied Northumberland. Indeed, the Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, plundered Northumbria in Walcher’s time, taking away many people as slaves, and the bishop-cum-earl did nothing about it.

William’s objects now were to punish the Northumbrians, deal with Malcolm and incorporate Northumberland into his kingdom. He sent his half-brother Odo to ravage Northumberland and Durham.

We do not know what suffering Odo inflicted, but it was not like the wasting of Yorkshire.

‘It is undoubtedly a fact that a native family was more likely to have survived in the old earldom of Northumbria than elsewhere, as several of the thegns there remained on their small estates and founded families whose later use of Norman Christian names has often obscured their origin.’ (W. Percy Hedley, Northumberland Families)

William had secured his earlier conquests with castles at York and Durham. Each castle marked the beginning of the next advance.

His son, Robert Curthose, took an army into Scotland, and on his return built a castle on the north bank of the Tyne, opposite Gateshead. It gave a clear sign of William’s future intentions.

The castle was, of course, not at Gateshead but at Monkchester, a vill belonging to a monastery and cluttered with Roman remains. Its head place and mother church were St Nicholas’s at Gosforth. Newcastle upon Tyne did not yet exist.

Walcher’s honours were given to a new Norman earl, Robert de Mowbray, and a new Norman bishop, William de St Calais.

The Northumbrian aristocracy understood what these things meant. They never again rebelled or ambushed the king’s appointees. The Norman occupation of Northumberland had begun. With it came the emergence of Morpeth.