Written by Vladimir Moss



     After his victory at Hastings  in 1066, William the Conqueror became the instrument of God’s wrath on the formerly Orthodox Christian people of Anglo-Saxon England. He made slow, S-shaped progress through Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and across the Thames at Wallingford to Berkhamstead north of London. As he was approaching London, near St. Alban's, the shrine of the protomartyr of Britain, he found the road blocked, according to Matthew of Paris, "by masses of great trees that had been felled and drawn across the road. The Abbot of St. Albans was sent for to explain these demonstrations, who, in answer to the king's questions, frankly and fearlessly said, 'I have done the duty appertaining to my birth [he was of royal blood] and calling; and if others of my rank and profession had performed the like, as they well could and ought, it had not been in thy power to penetrate into the land so far.' Not long after, that same Frederic was at the head of a confederacy, determined, if possible, to compel William to reign like a Saxon prince, that is, according to the ancient laws and customs, or to place... Edgar Atheling in his room. William submitted for a time, and, in a great council at Berkhamstead, swore, upon all the relics of the church of St. Albans, that he would keep the laws in question, the oath being administered by Abbot Frederic. In the end, however, the Conqueror grew too strong to be coerced by any measures, however nationally excellent or desirable, and he does not seem to have cared much about oath breaking, unless it was he who had enacted the oath, - the unhappy Harold, for instance, found that no light matter - and so William became more oppressive than ever. St. Albans, as might have been anticipated, suffered especially from his vengeance, he seized all its lands that lay between Barnet and Londonstone, and was with difficulty prevented from utterly ruining the monastery. As it was, the blow was enough for Frederic, who died of grief in the monastery of Ely, whither he had been compelled to flee."[1]

     In November the Conqueror stayed in Canterbury, from which Archbishop Stigand had fled in order to join the national resistance in London. One night, St. Dunstan was seen leaving the church by some of the brethren. When they tried to detain him he said: "I cannot remain here on account of the filth of your evil ways and crimes in the church."[2]

     On December 6, 1067, it was burned to the ground...

     William continued his march, systematically devastating the land as he passed through it. Early in December he was in Southwark, burnt it, and drove off Prince Edgar's troops at London Bridge. 


     Important defections from the English side began to take place. The first was Edith, King Edward's widow and King Harold's sister, who gave him the key city of Winchester. Then Archbishop Stigand submitted to him at Wallingford. And at Berkhamstead, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "he was met by Bishop Aldred [of York], Prince Edgar, Earl Edwin, Earl Morcar, and all the best men from London, who submitted out of necessity." 

     Finally, on Christmas Day - how fateful has that day been, both for good and ill, in English history! - he was crowned king by Archbishop Aldred. "And William gave a pledge on the Gospels, and swore an oath besides, before Aldred would place the crown on his head, that he would govern this nation according to the best practice of his predecessors if they would be loyal to him."[3]

     The Londoners also suffered from their new master. During William's coronation service, Archbishop Aldred first asked the English in English if it was their will that William be made king. They assented. Then Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances, addressed the Normans in French with the same question. When they, too, assented, those who were standing guard outside the Abbey became alarmed because of the shouting, and started to set fire to the city. 

     Professor Allen Brown writes: "Orderic Vitalis, in a vivid passage, describes how panic spread within the church as men and women of all degrees pressed to the doors in flight, and only a few were left to complete the coronation of King William, who, he says, was 'violently trembling'. For William this must indeed have been the one terrifying moment of his life... He believed implicitly in his right to England, and God had seemed to favour that right and to deliver His judgement on the field of Hastings. And now, at the supreme moment of anointing and sanctification at his coronation, when the Grace of God should come upon him and make him king and priest, there came a great noise, and the windows of the abbey church lit up with fire, and people fled all about him. It must have seemed to him then that in spite of all previous signs and portents he was wrong, unworthy, that his God had turned against him and rejected both him and his cause, and it is no wonder that he trembled until the awful moment had passed and the world came right again."[4]

     After the festivities, and after giving instructions for the building of wooden castles all over the land, William returned to Normandy taking all the chief men of England with him as hostages.

     “’When the castles were built, they filled them with devils and wicked men… they levied taxes on the villages… they robbed and burned.’  Thousands of colonists followed in their wake. There was a prolonged free-for-all at the local level as the victors advanced up to the still fluid and disputed northern and western march-lands.”[5 

     “At first,” writes François Neveux, “the new king hoped that he could win round his former adversaries. He considered that he had been quite within his rights to conquer the country, since he had been promised the throne by the previous king, Edward. ‘God’s judgement’ having favoured him, he assumed that the English would all rally to him without any problem… At first, William presented himself as the successor of the Anglo-Saxon kings, not only Edward, but Harold also. He drafted a number of documents in Old English, and made an effort to learn the language of his new people. This attitude may be glimpsed in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is one of the first testimonies we possess of these events. In it, Harold is referred to as ‘king’, just as he is in a number of charters. He is even singled out and praised for his bravery. The Latin commentary is very neutral, and may be read in both a pro-English and a pro-Norman light. This early line only lasted a few years, until it came up against the harsh reality of Anglo-Saxon rebellions…”[6]

     In December, 1067, William returned to England, and quickly put down rebellions in Kent and Hertfordshire. Then a more serious rebellion broke out in Exeter, led by King Harold’s mother Countess Gytha and her older grandsons. Thither William marched with a combined army of Normans and Englishmen, and after a siege of eighteen days the city surrendered; which was followed by the submission of the Celts of Cornwall, and the cities of Gloucester and Bristol.

     Meanwhile, in the North resistance was gathering around Earl Morcar, who had been allowed to return from Normandy with Earl Waltheof of Bamburgh; and there was a threat of interventions by King Malcolm of Scotland, who was sheltering Prince Edgar and had married his sister Margaret, and by King Swein of Denmark. After spending Pascha, 1068 at Winchester, William marched swiftly north and built castles in Warwick and York, where he received the submission of the local magnates and secured a truce with the Scottish king. Then he turned southward to secure the submission of Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge.

     But on January 28, 1069, the Norman, Robert Cumin, whom William had appointed earl of Northumbria north of the Tees was attacked in the streets of Durham and burnt to death in the house of Bishop Aethelwine. This was followed by an uprising in York, and Prince Edgar prepared to move from Scotland. 

     However, as Marc Morris writes, William “wasted no time in returning to England to crush this revolt, raising the siege and dispersing the rebels. On this occasion there were no submissions. In expectation of further trouble, he ordered a second castle to be constructed on the opposite bank of the Ouse, and left William FitzOsbern in command of the city.”[7] Gospatric was appointed as earl. Then, in the early summer of 1069, he returned to Normandy.

     Almost immediately, however, a Danish fleet of about 240 ships sailed into the Humber. It seems that the English were now prepared to accept the Danish king Swein as their own king; for the Danes were joined by Edgar, Gospatric and Earl Waltheof.

     First they destroyed the Norman garrison at York, Waltheof “cutting of their heads one by one” as they tried to escape.[8] Then they encamped on the southern shore of the Humber, fortifying the Isle of Axholme. This was the signal for other uprisings in Dorset, in the fens under Hereward the Wake, and in the Welsh Borders under Edric the Wild. “The Danes were welcomed by the local people, and helped Hereward recapture Peterborough in 1070 – but they then departed with the abbey treasures”.[9]

     The rebels were defeated and the Danes were paid to return home. The consequences of this last major uprising against William’s rule were described by the great French historian Thierry: "The conquering army, whose divisions covered a space of a hundred miles, traversed this territory… in all directions, and the traces of their passage through it were deeply imprinted. The old historians relate that, from the Humber to the Tyne, not a piece of cultivated land, not a single inhabited village remained. The monasteries which had escaped the ravages of the Danish pagans, that of St. Peter near Wear, and that of Whitby inhabited by women, were profaned and burned. To the south of the Humber, according to the early narrators, the ravage was no less dreadful. They say, in their passionate language, that between York and the eastern sea, every living creature was put to death, from man to beast, excepting only those who took refuge in the church of St. John the archbishop [of York, +721], at Beverley. This John was a saint of the English race; and, on the approach of the conquerors, a great number of men and women flocked, with all that they had most valuable, round the church dedicated to their blessed countryman, in order that, remembering in heaven that he was a Saxon, he might protect them and their property from the fury of the foreigner. The Norman camp was then seven miles from Beverley. It was rumoured that the church of St. John was the refuge of the rich and depository of the riches of the country. Some adventurous scouts, who by the contemporary history are denominated knights, set out under the command of one Toustain, in order to be the first to seize the prize. They entered Beverley without resistance; marched to the church-yard, where the terrified crowd were assembled; and passed its barriers, giving themselves not more concern about the Saxon saint than about the Saxons who invoked him. Toustain, the chief of the band, casting his eye over the groups of English, observed an old man richly clad, with gold bracelets in the fashion of his nation. He galloped towards him with his sword drawn, and the terrified old man fled to the church: Toustain pursued him; but he had scarcely passed the gates, when, his horse's feet slipping on the pavement, he was thrown off and stunned by the fall. At the sight of their captain half dead, the rest of the Normans turned round; and their imaginations being excited, hastened full of dread to relate this terrible example of the power of John of Beverley. When the army passed through, no one dared again to tempt the vengeance of the blessed saint; and… the territory of his church alone remained covered with habitations and produce, in the midst of the devastated country...

     "... Famine, like a faithful companion of the conquest, followed their footsteps. From the year 1067, it had been desolating some provinces, which alone had then been conquered; but in 1069 it extended itself through the whole of England and appeared in all its horror in the newly conquered territories. The inhabitants of the province of York and the country to the north, after feeding on the horses which the Norman army abandoned on the roads, devoured human flesh. More than a hundred thousand people, of all ages, died of want in these countries."[10]

     According to the Norman writer Ordericus Vitalis, “’So terrible a famine fell upon the people, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger... Nowhere else had William shown such cruelty. Shamefully he succumbed to this vice, for he made no effort to restrain his fury and punished the innocent with the guilty… My narrative has frequently had occasion to praise William, but for this act which condemned the innocent and guilty alike to die by slow starvation, I cannot commend him…”’[11]

     Marc Morris adds: “Another 12th-century writer, John of Worcester, reported that people were reduced to eating horses, dogs, cats and even human flesh. Simeon of Durham, adding to John’s account, asserted that the land between York and Durham lay uncultivated for the next nine years, its deserted villages haunted only by wild beasts and robbers.[12]

     “It is sometimes objected that these 12th-century chroniclers are tool late to be credible, and that more closely contemporary accounts are not as sensational or as judgmental. But there is enough earlier evidence to corroborate the claims of earlier writers. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a telegraphically terse account for this period, reports that William went to Yorkshire in 1069 and ‘ruined it completely’. William of Jumièges, who was possibly writing his Deeds of the Norman Dukes at the behest of the Conqueror himself, described how the king ‘massacred almost the whole population, from the very young to the old and grey’.

     “Marianus Scotus, writing in Germany in the 1070s, reported that famine in England had caused people to resort to cannibalism, substantiating the account of John of Worcester. Most compelling of all, the late 11th-century chronicler at Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire penned a haunting picture of starving refugees turning up in great numbers at the abbey gates, only to die from exhaustion, or ‘through eating food too ravenously’ – a line that recalls the tragic fate of some of those liberated from Nazi concentration camps. ‘Every day,’ the Evesham chronicler lamented, ‘five or six people, sometimes more, perished miserably, and were buried by the prior of this place.’…

     “In the chronicles that cover the northern shires – and, most especially, Yorkshire – the word that occurs time and again in ‘waste’ (Latin: vasta). And the counties with the most waste were those of northern England and the Welsh Marches, harried by William in 1069-70, and also Sussex, which had been ravaged during the Hastings campaign. But the overwhelming majority of waste was concentrated in Yorkshire, which accounted for more than 80 percent of the total for all of England. Other shires had recovered their values  by the time of the survey, but in Yorkshire almost two-thirds of all holdings were still described as waste in 1086. Since 1066 the shire had lost more than 80,000 oxen and 150,000 people..” from a total population in the whole of England of about two million.[13]

     Professor Douglas writes: "An eleventh-century campaign was inevitably brutal, but the methods here displayed were widely regarded as exceptional and beyond excuse, even by those who were otherwise fervent admirers of the Norman king... 'I am more disposed to pity the sorrows and sufferings of the wretched people than to undertake the hopeless task of screening one who was guilty of such wholesale massacre by lying flatteries. I assert moreover that such barbarous homicide should not pass unpunished.' Such was the view of a monk in Normandy. A writer from northern England supplies more precise details of the horrible incidents of the destruction, and recalls the rotting and putrefying corpses which littered the highways of the afflicted province. Pestilence inevitably ensued, and an annalist of Evesham tells how refugees in the last state of destitution poured into the little town. Nor is it possible to dismiss these accounts as rhetorical exaggeration, for twenty years later Domesday Book shows the persisting effects of the terrible visitation, and there is evidence that these endured until the reign of Stephen..."[14]

     So terrible was the slaughter, and the destruction of holy churches and relics, that the Norman bishops who took part in the campaign were required to do penance when they returned home. But the Pope who had blessed this unholy slaughter did no penance. Rather, he sent his legates to England, who, at the false council of Winchester in 1070, deposed Archbishop Stigand and most of the English bishops, thereby integrating the “rebellious” land into his religious empire. For the Norman Conquest was, in effect, the first crusade of the “reformed” Papacy against Orthodox Christendom. As Professor Douglas writes: “It is beyond doubt that the latter half of the eleventh century witnessed a turning-point in the history of Western Christendom, and beyond doubt Normandy and the Normans played a dominant part in the transformation which then occurred… They assisted the papacy to rise to a new political domination, and they became closely associated with the reforming movement in the Church which the papacy came to direct. They contributed also to a radical modification of the relations between Eastern and Western Europe with results that still survive. The Norman Conquest of England may thus in one sense be regarded as but part of a far-flung endeavour…”[15]

     Before leaving events in the north, we should not forget to mention the influence of the greatest saint of the north, St. Cuthbert (+687). After the violent death of William's appointee, Robert Comin, in Durham, another expedition was sent by William to restore order. But St. Cuthbert's power, which had terrified unholy kings in the past, had not abandoned his people. For the expedition, writes C.J. Stranks, "was turned back by a thick mist, sent for the protection of his people by St. Cuthbert, when the army reached Northallerton. Then the king himself came. The frightened monks [led by Bishop Aethelwine of Durham] decided to take refuge at Lindisfarne and, of course, to take the body of their saint with them. When they reached the shore opposite to the island night had fallen and there was a storm raging. It looked as if their way was blocked, for the sea covered the causeway. They were tired and frightened and at their wits' end, when miraculously, as it seemed to them, the sea withdrew and the path to the island lay open...

     "Their stay was not long, for they were back in Durham by the beginning of Lent, 1070. Two years later William the Conqueror himself felt the saint's power. He was staying in Durham for a little while on his way home from Scotland in order to begin building the castle there. Perhaps he had heard of the flight to Lindisfarne, for he thought it necessary to take an oath of the monks that St. Cuthbert's body was really at Durham. But he was still not convinced, and ordered that the tomb should be opened on All Saints' Day, threatening that if the body was not there he would execute all the officers of the monastery. The day arrived. Mass was begun, when suddenly the king was seized by a violent fever. It was obvious that the saint was angry at his temerity. William left the church, mounted his horse and never looked back until he had crossed the Tees and was safely out of the Patrimony of St. Cuthbert..."[16]


     "Judgement begins at the House of God" (I Peter 4.17), and God's judgement was indeed very heavy on the formerly pious English land, especially on the North, which had refused to help Harold and which was devastated with extraordinary cruelty by William… But then God takes His vengeance even on the instruments of His wrath (Isaiah 10.15). Thus when William was dying, as the Norman monk Ordericus Vitalis recounts, his conscience tormented for his deeds: "I appoint no one my heir to the crown of England, but leave it to the disposal of the eternal Creator, Whose I am, and Who ordereth all things. For I did not obtain that high honour by hereditary right, but wrested it from the perjured King in a desperate battle, with much effusion of human blood; and it was by the slaughter and banishment of his adherents that I subjugated England to my rule. I have persecuted its native inhabitants beyond all reason. Whether gentle or simple, I have cruelly oppressed them; many I unjustly disinherited; innumerable multitudes, especially in the county of York, perished through me by famine or the sword. Thus it happened: the men of Deira and other people beyond the Humber called in the troops of Sweyn, king of Denmark, as their allies against me, and put to the sword Robert Comyn and a thousand soldiers within the walls of Durham, as well as others, my barons and most esteemed knights, in various places. These events inflamed me to the highest pitch of resentment, and I fell on the English of the northern shires like a ravening lion. I commanded their houses and corn, with all their implements and chattels, to be burnt without distinction, and large herds of cattle and beasts of burden to be butchered wherever they were found. It was thus that I took revenge on the multitudes of both sexes by subjecting them to the calamity of a cruel famine; and by so doing - alas! - became the barbarous murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of that fine race of people. Having, therefore, made my way to the throne of that kingdom by many crimes, I dare not leave it to anyone but God alone, lest after my death worse should happen by my means..."[17]

     But this confession evidently was not enough to expiate his guilt in the eyes of God. For, as Thierry writes, following Ordericus Vitalis, the horrific events surrounding his burial showed that the wrath of God on this “eleventh-century Bolshevik” and servant of papism was on him still. "His medical and other attendants, who had passed the night with him, seeing that he was dead, hastily mounted their horses, and rode off to take care of their property. The serving-men and vassals of inferior rank, when their superiors had fled, carried off the arms, vessels, clothes, linen, and other movables, and fled likewise, leaving the corpse naked on the floor. The king's body was left in this situation for several hours... At length some of the clergy, clerks and monks, having recovered the use of their faculties, and collected their strength, arrayed a procession. Clad in the habits of their order, with crosses, tapers, and censers, they approached the corpse, and prayed for the soul of the deceased. The Archbishop of Rouen, named Guillaume, ordered the king's body to be conveyed to Caen, and buried in the basilica of St. Stephen, the first martyr, which he had built in his lifetime. But his sons, his brothers - all his relatives - were afar off: not one of his officers was present - not one offered to take charge of his obsequies; and an obscure countryman named Herluin, through pure good nature, and for the love of God (say the historians), took upon himself the trouble and expense. He hired a cart and attendants, had the body conveyed to the port on the Seine, from thence on a barge down the river, and by sea to Caen. Gilbert, Abbot of St. Stephen's, with all his monks, came to meet the coffin; and was joined by many clerks and laymen; but a fire suddenly appearing, broke up the procession... The inhumation of the great chief - the famous baron - as the historians of the time call him - was interrupted by fresh occurrences. On that day were assembled all the bishops and abbots of Normandy. They had the grave dug in the church, between the altar and the choir; the mass was finished, and the body was about to be lowered, when a man rose up amid the crowd, and said, with a loud voice - 'Clerks, and bishops, this ground is mine - upon it stood the house of my father. The man for whom you pray wrested it from me to build on it his church. I have neither sold my land, nor pledged it, nor forfeited it, nor given it. It is my right. I claim it. In the name of God, I forbid you to put the body of the spoiler there, or to cover it with my earth.' He who thus lifted up his voice was Asselin son of Arthur; and all present confirmed the truth of his words. The bishops told him to approach; and, making a bargain with him, delivered to him sixty sols as the price of the place of sepulture only, and engaged to indemnify him equitably for the rest of the ground. On this condition it was the corpse of the vanquisher of the English was received into the ground dug for its reception. At the moment of letting it down, it was discovered that the stone coffin was too narrow; the assistants attempted to force the body, and it burst. Incense and perfumes were burned in abundance, but without avail: the people dispersed in disgust; and the priests themselves, hurrying through the ceremony, soon deserted the church..."[18]

October 12/25, 2019.

St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York.


[1]Translated in Old England: A Pictorial Museum of Regal, Ecclesiastical, Baronial, Municipal and Other Popular Antiquities, 1845, reprinted by Arno Press, New York, 1978, p. 195.

[2]Osbern of Canterbury, Vita Dunstani; in Stubbs, Memorials of St. Dunstan, Rolls series, 1874, p. 142.

[3]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D, 1066.

[4] R. Allen Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985, p. 158.

[5] Tombs, The English and their History, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, p. 45.

[6] Neveux, The Normans, Philadelphia: Running Press, 2008, p. 139.

[7] Morris, “The Anglo-Saxons’ Last Stand”, BBC History Magazine, January, 2017, p. 37.

[8] Ann Williams, The English and the Norman Conquest, Woodridge: Boydell, 1995, p. 57.

[9] Tombs, op. cit., pp. 45-46.

[10]Thierry, History of the Conquest of England by the Normans, London: Dent, 1840, vol. I, pp. 214-217.

[11] Ordericus, Ecclesiastical History.

[12]“So great a famine prevailed that men, compelled by hunger, devoured human flesh, that of horses, dogs and cats, and whatever custom abhors… It was horrific to behold human corpses decaying in the houses, the streets and the roads.” (in Jim Bradbury, The Battle of Hastings, Stroud: The History Press, 2010, pp. 168, 176). (V.M.)

[13] Morris, “’The Conqueror Massacred Almost the Whole Population, from the Very Young to the Old and Grey’”, BBC History Magazine, November, 2019, pp. 26-27; ““What the Normans did for Us”, BBC History Magazine, November, 2016, p. 34.

[14]Douglas, William the Conqueror, p. 221.

[15] Douglas, William the Conqueror, pp. 6-7.

[16]Stranks, The Life and Death of St. Cuthbert, London: SPCK, 1964, pp. 34-35.

[17]Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History; translated in Douglas & Greenway, op. cit., pp. 286-287.

[18]Thierry, op. cit., pp. 320-322.

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