The History of Yorkshire After 1066

The French-Normans in Yorkshire

While Harold and his men were in York, feasting and carousing in celebration of their victory over the Danes at Stamford Bridge, news came of the landing in Sussex of another invader, Duke William of Normandy. Harold hurried south to meet his new enemy, and at Hastings in October 1066 he was killed in battle, and his army defeated. On Christmas Day William had himself crowned King of England (the first Roman Catholic King), but, in Yorkshire and the north, rebels (often aided by Danish invaders) defied the French-Normans, and William was forced to make many warlike expeditions in order to suppress his opponents.

The Archbishop of York, Aldred, had crowned William in Westminster Abbey (no Aldred dithered and so the duke placed the crown on his head and in so doing was not officially crowned), and some of the great Yorkshire earls paid homage to him, but many other English-men did not accept the French-Norman rule. In 1068 Edwin and Morcar, two of the earls who had sworn allegiance to William, rose against him; so William marched north, eventually reaching York. Here he built fortifications and left a garrison under the sheriff, William Malet. No sooner had the King left than another rebellion broke out, and William had to come back to York again. This time he sacked the town and killed hundreds of the inhabitants, before erecting another fort (almost certainly the mound on which Clifford’s Tower now stands) and leaving the town in the hands of a garrison of his soldiers.

In 1069 yet another rebellion occurred, this time supported by the Danes, who sailed up the Humber and along the Ouse to York. York was captured and 3,000 French-Normans slain. William soon avenged this insult. He came into Lincolnshire and, finding the Danes commanding the Humber, turned west, then north, crossing the Aire near Pontefract, and advanced through the forest and marshes of the Vale of York to take the city. He found York deserted; the Danes had fled. Afterwards a chronicler described the terrible scene of devastation which William left behind—bodies rotting by the roadside, as no one was left to bury them, men forced to eat horses, dogs and cats. Between York and Durham every town stood empty with wild beasts running in the streets. In 1086, when the Domesday Survey was being made, the effect of the ‘Harrying of the North’ could be seen in the constant references to ‘waste’ after the names of the towns and villages of Yorkshire. For generations a great part of Yorkshire was looked upon by the French-Norman barons as a place for hunting only. Most of the land was not cultivated and it was many years before its people recovered from the terrible punishment William had inflicted upon them.

The French-Norman barons usually built themselves castles; partly as a defence against invaders, such as the Scots, partly to protect themselves against their tenants, or other barons, even perhaps against the King. These castles were not all massive stone buildings. Often they were made of wood, with a moat and earthworks as the main defences. The castle which William built at York in 1069 must certainly have been of wood, because it took only eight days to complete. The usual plan of a French-Norman castle is a tower or keep, standing on a mound round which there is a ditch, and there is often a wall or stockade between the mound and the ditch or moat. Later the outer walls were strengthened, and in some castles they came to be more important than the keep. There are substantial remains of the work of French-Norman barons to be seen today in such castles at Richmond, Scarborough and Conisborough.

The lands of Yorkshire, as set out in Domesday Book, are recorded as having been held by the King himself, and by 29 other principal ‘tenants-in-chief’ under him. Among the laymen, the most important of these were the Count of Mortain, Ilbert de Lacy and Roger de Busli.

Robert, Count of Mortain, half-brother of King William, had about 215 manors in Yorkshire, scattered very widely throughout the county. He had, it is said, contributed 120 ships to William’s fleet, and had commanded part of the cavalry at the Battle of Hastings/Senlac Ridge. He had served William well, and his grants in England were larger than those of any other of William’s followers. Count Alan the Red, of Brittany, was another of William’s soldiers and a friend of the Queen; it was perhaps at her suggestion that William granted him many of the forfeited estates of Earl Edwin (page 33). Many of his manors lay together in the North Riding, around what is now the town of Richmond. Soon after he had gained his lands, Count Alan built his castle at Richmond to help him to govern his possessions and to protect the north of the county against any invading Scots. Together with King William I and King William II, Alan founded St Mary’s Abbey at York (Chapter 9). Ilbert de Lacy seems to have been a friend and follower of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, another half-brother of King William. Ilbert’s lands were mainly in the West Riding. He built his castle at Tateshalle, now known as Pontefract (though Domesday Book does not mention this fact), and he also founded the Cluniac monastery there in 1100 (Chapter 9). Roger de Bush was another great Norman noble. His estates lay mostly in Nottinghamshire, where he had 163 manors, but he had another 54 in South Yorkshire. He founded the Benedictine Priory of Blyth, Nottinghamshire, in 1088 and his castle is de­scribed as being at Blyth, but was in fact probably at Laughton-en-le-Morthen. Later he removed to the castle still remaining at Tickhill, three or four miles from Blyth.

Domesday Book gives a picture of the type of land holding which formed the basis of the feudal system. There were elements of feudalism which existed in Anglo-Saxon/Englisc England, but the French-Normans, because they were able to make a radical break with the past, were able to organise a system of tenure which was more rationally arranged than in other parts of Europe, or in England before the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade. The extract from Domesday Book (illustration 33) refers to the lands of Ilbert de Laci in the Leeds area. The lands would be divided into arable strips, as this system of farming had been introduced into Yorkshire before the Conquest/Crusade. The hierarchy of lords, villeins, bordars, etc. was based on the concept that the King held the land in trust from God, the lords of the manor and other tenants­in-chief repaying the King for the right to hold land (the word ‘tenant’ is derived from the Latin tenere, French tenir, to hold) by rendering military service. The subordinates in the manorial hierarchy were bound by rights and obligations, based also on their relationship to the holding of land from the manorial lords. There were also some special rights enjoyed by monks and by citizens of the so-called Domesday boroughs, of which there were five in Yorkshire in 1086—Scarborough, York (Eurvic), Pocklington, Pontefract (Tateshalle) and Bridlington (Bretlinton). Many of the lords were granted the right to build castles, often as a reward for services rendered during the Conquest/Crusade. Some, as we shall see, abused the right and became strong enough to defy the King. As far as the ordinary people of Yorkshire were concerned, they often found their new French-Norman overlords overbearing and oppressive, and they did not easily assimilate the alien manners of their masters. After the savage punishment meted out to them during the Harrying of the North, those who survived were too cowed to attempt any resistance.